Intervening in Russia

A Nasty Little War published by John Murray

Duncan Bowie on military and political failure

A Nasty Little War – Anna Reid published by John Murray

There are numerous academic studies of the Russian civil war and the intervention by Britain, France, the USA, Japan and Poland (among others). Several allied generals published their memoirs- Edmund Ironside the British general on the northern front; Lionel Dunsterville, the British general on the Transcaspian front, Maurice Janin the French general in Siberia and William Graves, the American general on the Siberian front. There are detailed studies of the various White leaders. Both Denikin and Wrangel survived the civil war to write their memoirs.

So, Reid has a lot of published sources. What is novel about Reid’s book, which is both comprehensive and readable, is that she uses a wide range of unpublished sources – letters and diaries of the junior ranks – primarily British and American. Reid has previously written histories of Ukraine (Borderland), Siberia ( The Shaman’s Coat) and  Leningrad during the Second World War. A journalist as well as historian – she was the Economist correspondent in Kyiv, her books are well researched but have a sustained narrative which encompass political, social and military elements of the various campaigns.

There is much on the realities of war and the fluid relationships with the varying anti-Bolshevik groups. While it is dangerous to try to draw parallels with contemporary events, there is nevertheless a warning about British and US military involvement in complex civil wars in countries and with peoples we do not really know much about.  Even the best generals were clearly out of their depth. Bolsheviks and anti-Bolsheviks clearly did not abide by any ‘rules of war’ and many British soldiers do not appear to have behaved in any way that could be caused civilized.  The war may have been little in comparison with the First World War but it was certainly nasty.

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