The British Response to the Russian Revolution

The centennial of the Russian Revolution marks the anniversary of one (or rather, two) of the most iconic political upheavals in modern history. These two revolutions, which occurred 100 years ago this year, have captured the interests of the hypothetical scholars (What if the the coup had failed to topple the provisional government?), Marxist historians (In what ways do power struggles contribute to the development of history), and modern political theorists (How will Vladimir Putin approach the memorializing of these events?).

Of greater interest to some historians are the effects of the revolution on the ensuing civil war. The military involvement of Britain, along with those of the US, France and Japan, has been vital to an understanding of the manner in which major political struggles occur. What were the motives for British intervention in Russia? After the first revolution, political power between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks shifted decisively to the latter. Embodied in the subsequent Russian Civil War (1918-1922), the feud between the two factions resulted in uprisings, mutinies, revolts, and an alleged death toll of some three million individuals over the course of four years. The Mensheviks, a disunited group comprised of individuals with varying ideologies, garnered much support from their European counterparts. But the Mensheviks were still inferior in number and in influence to their Bolshevik counterparts. And, in the power vacuum left by a weak provisional government, Vladimir Lenin emerged as the harbinger of change.

The factors that made the Menshevik ideology appealing to the British centered on its capitalist tendencies. Then-War Minister Winston Churchill, a strong critic of socialism, stated that he had hoped to “strangle Bolshevism at birth.” Churchill ardently supported British intervention as a means to suppress Bolshevism, stating that [the Russians’] worst misfortune was [Lenin’s] birth.” It seemed as if the British supported Menshevism mostly out of dislike of Bolshevism. By 1918, British armies set foot on Russian soil in an effort to counter the growing force of Bolshevism. Certain tenants of Menshevik ideals saw the need to see out the full development of capitalism prior to an evolution of the working class. According to the Workers Hammer, a periodical run by the Spartacist League of Britain, the growing desires to buttress a “capitalist counterrevolution” sprung from the need to suppress the threat of communism before it became a stronger movement at home.

Perhaps, along with ideological differences, the British government wanted to interfere because of the early Russian withdrawal from World War I. After signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia ceded territory to Germany and paid six billion German marks in reparations. Most pressing to their Allied wartime fears was the belief that closing the Eastern Front would have put even greater strain on their own soldiers in the West. An Allied military campaign to invade northern Russia was perhaps retribution, in their minds, for having closed the Eastern front. While Britain, France, Canada, and the US supported the White Army through military aid and supplies, the anti-Bolshevik forces ultimately failed to seize control of the government.

Support for Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks was strong among those who drove British foreign policy. W. Somerset Maugham, an agent of the Secret Intelligence Service, believed that the government would be more effective in supporting the Menshevik revolution. But ultimately Allied troops were forced to withdraw from Russia by 1920.

Specific reasons for British support is difficult to identify because of factionalism among the Mensheviks. As an army of diverse interests—from those who sought to restore the monarchy to others who desired lesser forms of socialism—the White Army held no coherent political agenda. Yet it seemed that Britain was in favor of funding the Mensheviks, not because of any alliance of interests, but rather because of hostility toward opposing Bolshevik forces. The Allied intervention in Russia was one of animosity for one party, and not of admiration of another. This theory becomes altogether more evident due to the factionalized in-fighting among the White Army, which represented the disparate goals of the party, and the British stance on radical communism. Furthermore, they may have also wanted to see the fracturing of a Russia which had threatened its imperial holdings in India. Although intervention in the Russian Civil War was an attempt to fuel anti-Bolshevik ideologies, the British presence in the country symbolized the desires to influence the political outcomes of an unstable government regime.

Image Credit: Museum of Political History of Russia (St. Petersburg)

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