When Britain invaded Soviet Russia

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Invading Allied Troops in Russia

Within months of the victorious October revolution British forces landed in northern Russia, the start of a counter-revolutionary armed intervention. In an article that first appeared in Militant, No.511, 11 July 1980,  reviewed When Britain Invaded Soviet Russia (The Journeyman Press, 1979), by Andrew Rothstein, the previously obscured story of ‘the consul who rebelled’.

In 1917 the workers and peasants of Russia rose against the tsarist dictatorship and established the world’s first workers’ state. With Britain in the lead, the imperialist powers launched a ruthless military intervention in support of the Russian militarists, landowners and capitalists, in an effort to destroy the new-born socialist state and restore the old regime.

Andrew Rothstein’s book relates the history of the imperialist powers’ moves against the Russian revolution, and shows the key role played by the British government – especially Lloyd George and the war-mongering Winston Churchill. But the special focus of this fascinating and original study is the story of Douglas Young, the British Consul at Archangel in 1917/18. Young is the consul who rebelled against his masters’ brutal counter-revolutionary policy and especially against the – to him – shocking duplicity with which the Foreign Office conducted its diplomacy.

Young was far from sympathising with the Bolsheviks; if he supported anybody, it was the Russian ‘liberals’, the Constitutional Democrats. But unlike the “exclusive class bureaucracy”, which ran the Foreign Office, Young saw at first hand the profound social crisis which had destroyed tsarism, and recognised the mass support for the Bolshevik government. After October 1917, Young became increasingly alarmed at the growing discrepancy between the British government’s declared policy and the menacing steps they were actually taking in the Archangel-Murmansk region.

Young repeatedly called to London for “clarification”, expressing his opposition to intervention on principle and particularly criticising the bungling, inept manner in which the “amateur Russian and allied conspirators” were going about things. But British imperialism was out to strangle a revolutionary threat to landlordism and capitalism and was not in the least concerned about the scruples of a minor consular officer.

Young, however, would not just fall into line. After sending a memorandum to the Foreign Office which was ignored, a letter to The Times, which had little effect, he then wrote to the Herald, the Labour paper which had replaced the old Daily Herald. Thus in December 1918, just before the so-called ‘khaki election’, when Lloyd George’s reactionary coalition was fighting to return to power and the ruling class’s anti-Bolshevik crusade was at its height, a dissident Foreign Office official caused a sharp shock to the system by publicly puncturing official propaganda with his devastating denunciation of British policy in Russia.

“This British government played a dirty, double game with the Soviet government in Russia”, wrote Young in the Herald. “First they gave a solemn assurance which was published over my name in the Archangel press, that they had no annexationist intentions and that they would not interfere in the internal affairs of Russia. This was accepted… as meaning that the British government intended no military action against the Soviet government. Then they stabbed that government in the back by forcing a landing of allied troops at Archangel under specious pretext”.

The violence and massive bloodshed which the capitalists’ propagandists to this day still blame on the October revolution – in reality a virtually painless transformation – was primarily the responsibility of the imperialist powers, who fostered and sustained a bloody counter-revolution which forced the Bolsheviks into three years of devastating civil war.

Secret FO memorandum

Rothstein describes the allied powers’ intervention, filling in new details from recently released official archive material. He shows that British capitalism’s decision to back the counter-revolution with money, arms and men was taken as early as December 1917.

The War Office adopted a Foreign Office memorandum which declared (of course) that Britain had no intention of interfering in Russia’s internal politics – but at the same time quite cynically proposing to give financial and military support, all over Russia, to none other than the counter-revolutionaries.

The government tried to cover its crude interventionism with a scanty fig leaf: Britain was merely “preventing war supplies from falling into German hands”. But while claiming that it was necessary to maintain a Russian front against the German armies (regardless of the Bolsheviks’ withdrawal from the war), allied forces were fighting Bolsheviks in regions where the German armies had never set foot.

The British military commanders on the spot were at least less hypocritical. Major General Poole, commander of the British expedition to Archangel, commented, “there [in Archangel] we could easily consolidate the government [ie of pro-imperialist, anti-Bolshevik representatives]… We could reap a rich harvest in timber and railway concessions and control of two northern posts”. In May 1918, the war cabinet despatched the first military expedition to northern Russia, which began Britain’s counter-revolutionary offensive.

The British military commanders, backed up by the capitalist press at home, prepared the way for intervention with deliberately fabricated stories of Bolshevik “atrocities”. At the small town of Kem, for instance, the British, French and Serbian commanders, without any provocation whatsoever, summarily arrested the leaders of the Kem soviet, took them to the beach and shot them. This was a calculated first step in the imperialist armies’ assault on Archangel.

The British tried to claim that there was an “anti-Bolshevik revolution” in Archangel, but Young exposed this as a “purely artificial movement”: “It was just a put-up job between the Moscow White Guards and the allied missions. There were plenty of well-to-do people, anxious for their properties or bank balances, who would have gladly put the Bolsheviks to slow torture – if only the allies would pinion the intended victim during the operation”.

When the imperialist forces seized control of Archangel and pushed their counter-revolutionary allies back (temporarily) into power, their first actions were to abolish workers’ control in the factories, reintroduce courts martial and the death penalty, return nationalised shipping to its previous owners, and cancel all Soviet decrees regarding social insurance.

Young repeatedly warned his Foreign Office masters that their policies would lead to disaster. He was all too well aware that the forces that they were backing were barbarously repressive, completely corrupt, and lacking any real social basis. Poole’s stooge government in Archangel was based on 30,000 allied soldiers.

As Young predicted, the Kaledins, Wrangels, Kolchaks and Semyonovs – all the reactionary militarists the British were backing with gold, arms and dirty undercover operations organised by British Intelligence to put the landlords and capitalists back in power – were by their ruthless policies stiffening the mass support for the Bolsheviks. But it was above all the bold, revolutionary policies of the Bolsheviks, who linked military defence with the defence of the social gains introduced by the new workers’ state, that ensured the revolution’s ultimate victory against twenty or more armies of intervention.

An unlikely rebel

Why did Douglas Young rebel against the policies of British imperialism? He was apparently the typical product of a middle-class professional family. Before Archangel, he had an exemplary and highly praised career in the consular service. In 1914 he had offered 10% of his salary as a contribution to war funds.

The problem was, from the point of view of his superiors, that he took seriously the high ideals proclaimed as the justification for the British empire. Young believed in efficient and fair administration, honest diplomacy, and enlightened, liberal policies. There had been room for this when the British empire was at the apogee of its wealth and power in the decades before 1914.

But in the period after the first world war, with a new period of worldwide conflict and revolution, imperialism’s claim to be based on civilised aims and methods was completely shattered.

When Young began to question Britain’s policies – policies that the government clearly hesitated to spell out in writing to its diplomats abroad – the Foreign Office made strenuous efforts to silence him. When as a last resort Young wrote to the Herald, the Foreign Office bureaucracy moved against him in the most spiteful and vindictive manner, and he was forced to resign.

Even though they subsequently reinstated him after five years of unemployment, the Foreign Office never fully restored his pension rights. Their anger at Young was all the more intense as he was ultimately proved right, as Lord Curzon admitted: “the unfortunate thing is that in substance he has been proved right”.

In the end, Lloyd George accepted what Young had maintained from the start: “That if we do this [ie continue to support the counter-revolutionaries and restorationists] we shall provoke an outbreak of Bolshevism in the United Kingdom, thus realising the aim of the extreme Russian Bolsheviks of spreading their ideas throughout western Europe”.

The enthusiastic, class support of the workers in Britain and the other imperialist countries for the young Soviet state played a vital part in ensuring the survival of the Bolshevik regime. In Britain, the refusal of the dockers to load the Jolly George with arms destined for the White armies was just the best-known incident in a mass movement of opposition to British imperialism’s intervention against the Russian revolution.

Although somewhat bitter and disillusioned, Young continued to uphold his own liberal ideas. In the 1930s he opposed the appeasement of the ruling class of Nazi Germany, and while the British Consul in Basle (1934-39) he quite deliberately issued many more than the authorised number of British visas to refugees, particularly Jews, fleeing from the Nazis.

Andrew Rothstein’s book is thoroughly researched and well written. Rothstein himself is the son of a Russian diplomat, and was in the leadership of the British Communist Party. This book has little to say about the revolution itself, or the subsequent development of the regime under Stalin’s bureaucracy. But it is a devastating exposure of one of the most cynical, reactionary and bloody episodes in the history of British imperialism.