Out of Russia: Selective memories of futile intervention

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MURMANSK - A British flag dominates the fuzzy monochrome photograph, taken deep in the long Arctic winter of 1917-18 and preserved for posterity by the curators of the Murmansk Museum of Regional Studies. Everything else in the picture belongs unmistakably to Russia: a cluster of log cabins deep in snow, a blur of shuffling figures in long coats, a gaunt horse pulling a sled. In fluorescent light, the scene seems quaintly antique and eccentric. Yet, 75 years after the tumult of the Bolshevik Revolution, the out-of-place Union flag speaks to the most urgent question of our own day, too: can outside military force change the course of somebody's else's civil war?

Whether this is what Britain really wanted to do when it dispatched HMS Glory and HMS Vindictive to the Kola Inlet, halfway between Moscow and the North Pole, is the subject of many an academic treatise and seminar. Still hazier are the motives behind subsequent decisions to send a small contingent of troops in March 1918 and, three months later, to reinforce them with a joint expeditionary force some 20,000-strong drawn from France and, after much dithering and debate, a reluctant United States too. 'I have been sweating blood over the question of what is right and feasible to do in Russia,' confessed President Woodrow Wilson. 'It goes to pieces like quicksilver under my touch.' Would his successor in the White House or any other Western leader claim a more secure grasp of what is 'right and feasible' in Yugoslavia?

A visit to Murmansk Museum would not stiffen their resolve. A room is dedicated to the celebration of Britain's failure. The display is introduced by a sign on the wall: 'The Struggle of the Workers of Murmansk against the Interventionists and White Guardists'. Beneath a photograph of HMS Glory are testimonials of patriotic fury by Bolshevik partisans. A glass case contains a model of Barracks No 10 which, at least in the Soviet version of events still on display, was a concentration camp for captured patriots. Another exhibit features a yellowing pamphlet addressed to the 'workers and peasants of England, France and America'. Its author, the Military Commission of the Sixth Army, has this to say: 'We will struggle until the last bit of blood. We will not allow capitalist yoke to be put around our neck. If you want to be the toy in the hands of the butcher bankers the curse of future generations will fall upon you. You will not sleep. Turn your guns against the capitalists . . . '

It was at this point that my guide apologised. She explained that the 'intervention', the coy name for this murky series of events, was not her area of expertise. The real specialist, she said, was away on holiday. 'All I can do is tell you what we used to say.' This version goes like this: British bankers, landlords and industrialists, united in their zeal to smother the Bolshevik Revolution in its cradle, sent troops, fomented counter-revolution and formed a treacherous alliance with one Aleksei Yuryev, a former shiphand, unhinged chairman of the Murmansk council and, according to the unforgiving verdict delivered by Lenin and Trotsky in Izvestia, 'enemy of the people'.

'I know it is more complicated than this,' volunteered the guide, 'but you will have to come back in September to get the details.' She asked if we might not prefer to look at an exhibit of fabrics instead. It is not censorship or laziness that keeps the old Soviet history in place but lack of money. There is simply too much work to be done. It is not merely the odd fact that needs to be corrected, the occasional non-person retrieved or infelicitous phrase removed. A few changes have been made. There is a new glass case to honour the less ambiguous role of Britain during the Second World War, when sea convoys to Murmansk and Archangel provided a supply lifeline.

But it is not only Russia that has a selective memory. The day before visiting the museum, I travelled a few miles up the coast to Severomorsk, home port of Russia's colossal Northern Fleet and of Sean Connery's submarine in The Hunt for Red October. It is normally off-limits to foreigners, but an exception had been made to accommodate what the British embassy in Moscow had advertised as a 'new chapter in the annals of naval military history'. The occasion proved somewhat less momentous: the docking of an ageing British submarine only a month away from the scrap heap and smeared about the stern with seagull droppings. Its name: HMS Opossum - a far cry from the swaggering confidence of HMS Glory and HMS Vindictive.

There were many speeches. Not once was there any mention of what had brought British ships to these waters in the first place. It is a shame. It is worth remembering, especially at this time of belated decision, the fate of the 1918 'intervention'. George Kennan, veteran US diplomat and scholar of the period, has described it thus: 'One of the most futile and luckless of military operations.'

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