Book Review: Intervention in Russia: 1918-1920, A Cautionary Tale

Intervention in Russia: 1918-1920, A Cautionary Tale, is a very well written account of a little known part of the First World War.   Mr. Hudson writes in the style that I find to be the most readable and enjoyable.   Perhaps it is because he is British.   I have always found that British historians have a more lyrical and artistic writing style as compared to American historians.   Most of my favorite historians are British, whereas Americans tend to make history books dry and boring; the British, and Australians for that matter, can make the most boring subject interesting simply by the style with which they write.

The best part of the book for me was the way in which Mr. Hudson used the personal reminiscences of his father in establishing a connection between his interest in the intervention and the intervention itself.   My least favorite portion was the short shrift he gave to the Japanese involvement in the Far East and the affairs in the Baltic.   I thought that for the most part the book was fair but it is noticeable that the author spent much more time researching British involvement and he consequently spends more time explaining British activities during the intervention at the expense of the other participating nations.

The author makes a very good case that military forces should not be used unless there is a clear idea of what it is hoped will be accomplished by their use.   The Intervention in Russia is a perfect example of what happens when decisions are made without a true assessment of objectives, resources, and likelihood of success.   The Allied intervention was a good example of what would now be called mission-creep.   The mission evolved during its execution without any clear idea of the desired end-state.

While reading the book I was disappointed that more time was not devoted to the actions or lack thereof, of the other participating nations.   Other than the British, most nations’ forces are given scant mention except where their activities affected the British.   An example is the French participation in the evacuation of Sevastopol; he only briefly mentions that the French Black Sea Fleet mutinied in the spring of 1919 without providing much in the way of background.[1]  He gives similar short treatment to the Japanese conquest of Russian territory in the Far East and the American involvement at Vladivostok.   Mr. Hudson does an outstanding job of describing British involvement; I simply wish he had paid as much attention to the other nations.   His inclusion of diary quotes and other primary sources provides a welcome sense of immediacy to the narrative that is missing in many other history books, in a sense, it makes the events come alive in a way that a simple narrative would not.

While I was aware of the general events surrounding the Allied intervention, I was not aware of the extent to which outside powers had intervened.   I had always thought that the Russian Revolution was mainly an internal affair.   Mr. Hudson makes it abundantly clear that the Russian Revolution was anything but an internal Russian matter.   All the interventionist powers went out of their way to become involved and to make matters worse, they had no good reasons for their involvement as is made clear in the text.

The only possible improvement to the book that I can conceive is a fuller discussion of the actions of all the intervening military forces.   He mentions the American, French, and Japanese involvement without going into any detailed discussion of what these forces actually did.   Interestingly, Mr. Hudson also glosses over the activities of the large contingent of Czech prisoners of war that virtually seized control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1918.   This is one of the most dramatic episodes of the entire Russian Revolution and I was surprised that it was treated so sparingly.   This is especially so given the fact that at least part of the reason for the Allied intervention was to ensure that these soldiers were repatriated to their homeland where it was hoped they would act as a check to Bolshevism in Central Europe.

The account and interpretation of events Mr. Hudson presents in Intervention in Russia: 1918-1920, A Cautionary Tale, is generally in line with the interpretation I have read in other works.   It is generally accepted as a historical truth that the intervention was ill-conceived and was carried out in a haphazard manner.   If anything, the facts and primary sources this book present makes the case for the correctness of the orthodox interpretation even stronger.

This book presents an extremely well written account of historical events that have been largely forgotten in the countries that intervened and the repercussions of which echoed throughout the period of the Cold War.   The intervention in Russia is indeed a cautionary tale especially given the nature of contemporary international diplomacy.   It was perhaps the west’s first attempt at nation building and a spectacular failure.   Given that nation building seems to be the current international fashion, perhaps western diplomats should be required to read this book lest they begin to think that nation building is either easy or desirable.   The Russian Intervention is a good example of what can happen when well-meaning diplomats commit their nations to a course of action without adequately resourcing it or considering the likely outcome of failure.

[1] Hudson, Miles. Intervention in Russia, 1918-1920: A Cautionary Tale, (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books, 2004) pp. 141-142