British Intervention in South Russia, 1918-1920

Lauri Kopisto presented his PhD on the British Intervention in South Russia (1918-1920) in 2011. The dissertation was presented to the University of Helsinki, and the whole text can be found here.

I must admit that I was quite suspicious upon picking it from the shelf: what exactly would Kopisto be able to find out on a subject that has been studied so much? Recently the British part of the intervention was the object of Clifford Kinvig’s book Churchill’s Crusade, that used some of the same papers than Kopisto. So what was the point in writing this story again?

But the book brings a bit more to the party than I suspected, on a difficult subject (the maze of Allied interventions in Russia circa 1916-1920) that remains full of possibilities – not only as a study in the difficulties of post-World War I European politics, but also as a prelude to the Cold War. This is not the place for a full review, but there are a few things I wanted to highlight.

While most books on the subject concentrate on the decision-making in London, Kopisto’s book deals mostly with the situation on the ground and the interplay between the British mission and the White Russians, finding its material mostly in the personal files of British officers and soldiers. His detailed description of the volunteers sent to the Caucasus and the South of Russia by Churchill (p. 121-147) is actually what interested me most. Cultural, racial bias and ideology mix with the thrill of combat to bring these veterans of the Western front into volunteering for this mission to Russia. Officers eager to fight a “real war” of movements and daring-do, far from the grind of Northern France’s trench warfare, brushed with young soldiers attracted by the possibility to stay in the Army, or with specialists of Russia, often former businessmen of local origin. The colonial  mindset of officers and soldiers clearly blurred their analysis of the situation: relations with the White Russians, the local population and the Bolsheviks were difficult as British soldiers were stuck between their prejudices and specific interests and the reality of a gruesome campaign in a devastated country. More than anecdotes, what one gets here is a wonderful vintage point on cultural encounters, comparable to what happened in colonial circumstances. This is something that appeared clearly also in relations to the French and British presence in the Baltic Sea region at the same time.

There is still much to be studied in these interventions, and generally on the Allied involvement in the Russian fringes after the Bolshevik revolution. Kopisto’s book, while not particularly original, finds its place in a series of publications on the subject dealing with the British, French or American interventions in post-Bolshevik revolution Russia. There are plenty of angles for historical research.

One last thing. Kopisto does not use French sources or even publications in his book, and France’s participation in the interventions remain completely out of the picture. Fair enough: the French intervention in Russia did not continue actively after 1919, so Kopisto is perfectly entitled to keep to British sources. But I would take it as the sign of a wider phenomenon of international historical research: while Anglo-American researchers often use French sources, researchers from other countries writing in English (especially the Nordic Countries: Kopisto is Finnish) rarely look at French sources, but concentrate on English-language sources. The problem is obviously linguistic: while American or British researchers would most of the time be able to at least read French, a Swedish, Danish, Russian or Japanese researcher would not. For everything related to the First World War, for example, it cannot but distort the vision of European politics by leaving a gaping hole where the French were involved.

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