The West’s war on workers’ power in Russia

3 July 2024
Jess Lenehan
American forces march through the Russian Far East in 1918-1919. PHOTO: Everett Collection

Review of A Nasty Little War: The West’s Fight to Reverse the Russian Revolution by Anna Reid, John Murray Press, 2023.

Within hours of taking power in October 1917, the new revolutionary government in Russia had declared its withdrawal from World War One. “The government considers it the greatest of crimes against humanity to continue this war”, its Decree on Peace stated, calling on “all the belligerent peoples and their governments to start immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace”.

The declaration scandalised and frightened the rulers of the Allied countries Russia had been fighting alongside. What they did in response is recounted in A Nasty Little War, Anna Reid’s very useful new book. In this narrative history, she documents the attempts made, first to corral the Soviet government back into the fighting and, later, when that had failed, to overthrow it.

To say the Bolshevik-led Soviet regime flouted international conventions is an understatement. The previous tsarist government had incurred many debts. The Bolsheviks refused to pay them. Secret treaties were found and published, including the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, carved up the Middle East between Britain, France and Russia. When a Soviet delegation was dispatched to negotiate with Germany for peace, it included a revolutionary by the name of Anastasia Bitsenko, who had assassinated a former Russian minister of war. On arrival, the delegation didn’t bother with the usual diplomatic niceties, but instead took the opportunity to distribute revolutionary literature among German soldiers.

“You might as well legalise sodomy”, British member of parliament Winston Churchill declared, “as recognise the Bolsheviks”. The fact that war-weary populations around the world were becoming increasingly mutinous only intensified the ruling-class panic and hatred of the Soviet regime. They feared events in Russia would spur on rebellion elsewhere. This fear was well grounded; fully four empires would collapse as the revolutionary wave that began in Russia swept the world in the following years.

Initially, the likes of Churchill hoped the Soviet regime would die a natural death. In their eyes, the Bolshevik-led government in Russia was so unstable as to represent more of a power vacuum that would inevitably be filled, sooner or later, by a more “responsible”, capitalist government. In the meantime, though, the Allied powers were desperate to keep the Russians in the war. The role of the mass of Russian workers and peasants in the army was, as they saw it, to tie up large sections of the German army in the east, easing the pressure on their own forces to its west. In other words, to be cannon fodder.

They took matters into their own hands. They sent soldiers and diplomats to Russia to take over port towns, control supply lines and scheme against the new regime.

Gathering soldiers for the intervention wasn’t simple. There wasn’t much public appetite for a new war. But intervention forces, including Australians, were gathered nonetheless. Reid writes of a group of Québécois soldiers who resisted mobilisation—their ship was forced to set sail with thirteen of them handcuffed in the ship’s hold.

The extent to which the question of Russia’s continued involvement in the war dominated over other considerations in the early stages of the intervention is demonstrated by Britain’s first military engagement on Russian soil—which took place in Murmansk in March 1918. There the British forces fought, not against, but alongside the Soviet Red Army—repelling an attack by a group of Finnish reactionaries who had crossed the border and captured a Russian town. A revolution had broken out in Finland, and the counter-revolutionaries were supported by Germany. If victorious, they would align Finland with Germany in the war, something the British were very keen to avoid.

Despite this peculiar alignment of forces, however, the Finnish revolution went down to defeat. The reactionaries cemented their victory with a reign of terror, slaughtering thousands of the rebels.

This experience provided a lesson for the Russian revolutionaries, showing the kind of treatment they could expect were they to lose power themselves. At the time, the so-called White armies were grouping together across Russia, preparing to unleash counter-revolutionary massacres of their own. Meanwhile, the lesson drawn from events in Finland by those leading the Western powers’ intervention in Russia was definitely not that the forces under their control should continue their momentary alignment with the Reds. Quite the contrary—the stronger the White armies became, the more support they gave them.

The attitude of the foreign delegations to the locals was, in the main, appalling. One story recounted by Reid involved an American military engineer running a trench through a cemetery. In the process, many bones were left scattered on the ground, and a group of American soldiers amused themselves by kicking an exposed skull some blocks down the road. Russian women were described as “handy for doing our washing”.

Other examples are more sinister. British Major General Lionel Dunsterville wrote in his diary that on 5 August 1918 he returned to a town where earlier in the year he had negotiated with the local revolutionary committee “all very pleasant and ‘comrade-y’”. This time, though, things were very different. The committee, Reid writes, were “arrested and sent to Baghdad”—an early example of what, in the context of this century’s “war on terror”, became known as extraordinary rendition.

The intervention forces built prison camps with despicable conditions, while they preferred to sleep in luxury hotels. They introduced the Spanish flu to towns with no local resistance, and, according to Reid, deployed the “world’s first air-dropped chemical weapons”.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that the Bolshevik government began increasingly to circumscribe their freedoms. The measures were initially not very harsh. Reid describes the aftermath of an attempt to overthrow the soviet in the town of Archangel. When Bolshevik reinforcements arrived and restored (revolutionary) order, you might expect drastic reprisals to have been inflicted on the coup plotters. Yet, as Reid has it, they were left alone—hanging around the American consulate, playing football and cooking up new schemes. But the Bolshevik situation was becoming untenable as the White armies made gains, and the measures the former enacted became harsher and harsher.

In November 1918 an armistice was signed, and World War One officially ended. This removed continuing Russia’s participation in the war effort from the objectives of the foreign intervention and left only the overthrowing of the Bolshevik regime. Through 1919, the fighting intensified. Tens of thousands of people were killed in battles between the Red and White armies across Russia.

For the White armies with which the intervention forces aligned themselves, toppling the Bolshevik regime was only part of the mission. They intended to brutalise the population to such an extent that even the thought of resistance would become inconceivable.

One of its largest forces was known as the Volunteer Army. It was profoundly antisemitic. “As soon as the Volunteer Army entered a city”, Reid quotes historian Elias Heifetz as saying, “one could find everywhere on the walls ... proclamations against the Jews”. Antisemitism provided a convenient explanation for everything the Whites despised in Russian society, which they combined into the figure of the contemptible and traitorous, but somehow also all-powerful, “Bolshevik Jew”.

The pogrom was one of the Whites’ preferred methods of struggle. Scores of them would take place in areas under White control in these years, with something in the region of 150,000 killed. “The first major pogroms of the period took place in December 1918”, Reid writes, “in and around Lviv, near Ukraine’s present-day border with Poland ... The recorded death toll, probably an undercount, was 132, and doctors reported that sixty twelve-year-old girls were recovering in hospital from soldiers’ ‘hooliganism’”.

Some historians have seen these pogroms as rehearsals for the Holocaust. Certainly some of the members of the German Freikorps who volunteered after World War One to fight against the Bolsheviks later joined the Nazi militias. The future Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss was, in Reid’s account, one of them.

How did the leaders of the interventionist forces respond to the pogroms and other unconscionable acts of the Whites? “The British military representative”, Reid writes, “dismissed pogrom ‘rumours’ as ‘grossly exaggerated’”. Many Western newspapers in fact politically supported them, providing story after scandalising story about the supposed crimes of the “Jewish Bolsheviks”. In a sign of ruling-class attitudes in this period, the major British horse race, the Coronation Stakes (not the Cup, as Reid has it in the book), was won in 1922 by a horse called “Pogrom” owned by former member of parliament Lord Astor.

The Russian revolutionary and leader of the Red Army Leon Trotsky later commented that, if the Whites had won in Russia, “fascism” would be a Russian word. Fortunately however, after years of desperate fighting the revolutionary side came out on top.

In some—for a reader with revolutionary socialist politics—particularly enjoyable pages, Reid describes the end of the interventionists’ time in Russia. By early 1920, their forces were in a terrible state. Soldiers had relied primarily on White army-issued currency for money and were now penniless. “They sold spare clothing and blankets at a street market, and found odd jobs”, Reid writes. “Several gave English lessons.”

One British soldier found himself with a compatriot begging for help from a Bolshevik who, as Reid describes it, “delivered an impassioned lecture on how revolution was about to sweep England too”. “Captain Horrocks and I”, the soldier recounts, “looked at each other with amazement, for we realised that we were dealing with a state of things of which we had no previous conception”.

In short order they fled. “As the Red Army advanced and the White ones collapsed”, Reid writes, “Allied troops destroyed equipment, filed back onto their ships and sailed away. Typically, the last they saw of Russia was smoke rising from burning warehouses”.

The forces of international reaction had thrown 180,000 foreign soldiers at the revolution. They were armed to their teeth with all that capitalist governments could provide, and financed with limitless cash. But the revolution showed its strength, and fended off the challenge.

It’s sometimes said that “socialism was tried and failed in Russia”, as though it were a laboratory experiment carried out in pristine conditions and not a society subject to massive internal and external pressures from capitalist forces bent on its destruction. Reid’s book demonstrates the falsity of that claim and exposes the true sordid history of the Western ruling classes that—not content with the rivers of blood that flowed in the slaughter of World War One—attempted with the most barbaric means to quash the rising that finally put an end to it.

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