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Anna Reid: A Nasty Little War - The West's Fight to Reverse the Russian Revolution review - home truths | reviews, news & interviews

Anna Reid: A Nasty Little War - The West's Fight to Reverse the Russian Revolution review - home truths

Anna Reid: A Nasty Little War - The West's Fight to Reverse the Russian Revolution review - home truths

Reid brings to light a war the West has tried its best to forget

Author Anna Reid illuminates a disasterCourtesy of John Murray Press

During the Cold War, US presidents often claimed that the West and the Soviet Union had never fought one another directly. This observation made sense geopolitically – the likelihood of mutually assured destruction made a nuclear conflict seem unthinkable – but it wasn’t strictly true.

It was untrue because it overlooked the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War of 1918-20, which the British even more than the Americans had plenty of reasons to forget. “It was an uncomfortable business really,” recalled Christopher Bilney, who served as a seaplane pilot in the Caucasus. “A really nasty, dirty little war...Waste of time, money and everything else.”

Ignominious failure and betrayal were the main reasons why this particular military episode was all but erased from history. History is usually written by the winners, after all. Yet, in a sense, the West’s involvement in the conflict was always doomed to fail because it lacked a clear objective. It also lacked resources and troop numbers, both of which were laughably inadequate for the task of invading a country as vast and inhospitable as Russia.

The intervention began more or less accidentally as a result of the overthrow of the House of Romanov. Tsarist Russia had been fighting on the Allied side in World War One until the October Revolution of 1917. But once the Bolsheviks signed the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March the following year, the Germans were able to occupy what is now Ukraine and Baltic republics, cutting off Allied forces that were now trapped inside Russia.

A Nasty Little WarIn order to prevent key ports and matériel falling into the Kaiser’s hands, the Allied powers occupied Murmansk in the west and Vladivostok in the east, as well as Crimea in the south. It was only later in the year, following the November armistice and a long-expected anti-Bolshevik uprising by former officers in the Tsarist army, that the Western battleplan changed to backing these counter-revolutionary forces, known as the “Whites”.

It was a little war in the sense that it was inevitably short-lived – and nasty on account of widespread anti-semitic atrocities perpetrated across Ukraine by Whites, Poles and Ukrainian nationalists, to which Allied commanders mostly turned a blind eye.

Yet, as Anna Reid points out in A Nasty Little War, racism of one kind or another was a ubiquitous feature of the conflict. Not only was anti-semitism a staple of White propaganda, with Bolshevik leaders like Trotsky routinely denoted by their Jewish birth-names (Bronstein-Trotsky) and caricatured as devils with Stars of David around their necks. A British information sheet handed out to newly arrived American troops included a section on the “Russian Character”, with tips on dealing with the locals: “Generally speaking, the Russian is exactly like a child – inquisitive, easily gulled, easily offended.”

Even Winston Churchill, the war’s loudest cheerleader, informed the British cabinet in December 1918 that Russia was “a very large country, a very old country, a very disagreeable country, inhabited by immense numbers of ignorant people”. The Soviet enemy, in particular, was almost subhuman, or so he told the voters in his Dundee constituency at the same month’s general election: “Russia is being rapidly reduced by the Bolsheviks to an animal form of barbarism. […] Civilisation is being completely extinguished over gigantic areas, while the Bolsheviks hop and caper like troops of ferocious baboons amid the ruins of cities and the corpses of their victims.”

Reid, author of Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine (1997) as well as two books on Russia, describes the encounter with anti-Jewish pogroms of the civil war as “one of the most jolting aspects of researching this book”. Her use of diaries, letters and memoirs, mainly British, highlights the shameful fact that Ukrainian and Polish nationalist acts of violence – and Reid estimates the death toll from pogroms at “between 100,000 and 200,000” – were tacitly condoned (or at least downplayed) by Allied commanders.

She tries to draw an historical lesson from the disastrous failure of the Allied intervention in the Russian civil war: “With Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, history is in some ways repeating itself. Again, the West is sending weapons and money; again, it has imposed economic sanctions; again middle-class Russians are fleeing into exile. Most of all, Russia is again in the grip of a millennial ideology, its leaders denying that Ukraine exists.”

Yet, on a more optimistic note, she suggests that the lesson of the intervention is that "Putin will ultimately fail for the same reason the Whites did: because his regime is brutal and corrupt, because he has no political programme beyond nostalgia for past glories, and most of all because he cannot accept that the non-Russian nationalities do not want to return to Moscow’s rule."

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