In today's blog post, Phoebus Athanassiou, author of MAA 540: Armies in Southern Russia 1918-19 explains how this title came about, why this conflict is more important than meets the eye and how the reader might benefit from learning more about it.
I grew up listening to stories of the Ukraine, where my late grandmother was born around the time of the Russian Civil War, to a Greek merchant family. What I found striking about those stories was the degree of anarchy, banditry and unrest that seemed to plague that part of the world, and the contrast between them and its great natural wealth, which should have guaranteed its peace and prosperity: I recall my grandmother speaking of houses with lifts and central heating, of electrical trams rolling down busy boulevards, and of gas-operated street lights, none of which were in common use in other parts of Europe at that time. What I also found fascinating in her stories was the Ukraine’s colourful ethnic mix: Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Greeks and Germans would crop up in her accounts of life in her native Yekaterinoslava (present-day Dniepropetrovsk). By the time my grandmother was old enough to remember the world around her, the events surrounding the Allied military intervention in the Ukraine, to which this title is dedicated, were something of a distant memory for most in Western Europe, both because the intervention was a rather short-lived military fiasco – one that its organizers and participants had every reason to swiftly want to forget about – and also because it had lasted for no more than three or four months, barely a blip in historical memory.
What I came to realise, as I was digging into the details of the Allied intervention in Southern Russia and exploring its historical legacy, is that what to us, Western Europeans, may be a rather obscure (if not downright unknown) military conflict, was (and continues to be) perceived rather differently by Russians (and, no doubt, also some Ukrainians). The Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War, both in the Ukraine (the focus of this title) and in Northern Russia and Siberia (a topic that I hope to be able to explore in a future Osprey title) was exploited by the fledgling Soviet Union for propaganda purposes, as a palpable sign of the hostility of reactionary forces around the world to the Bolshevik miracle. Propaganda considerations aside, the trauma of the Allied military intervention accounted, to no small extent, for much of the traditional Soviet phobia of the West, and contributed to creating the conviction in the minds of the Soviet élites that an Eastern Bloc was necessary as a buffer against renewed Western military interference in Soviet affairs. To that extent, even though militarily unsuccessful, the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War underwrote the climate of distrust between the Soviet Union and the West, which was to culminate, post-1945, in the protracted Cold War.
It also seems more likely than not that the Allied Intervention in what is present-day Ukraine only deepened the ethnic and cultural divisions between Russians and Ukrainians (its two most populous communities), whose divergent political ambitions and geostrategic aspirations made of the Ukraine a fertile ground for foreign meddling, then and now. If the complicated relations between Ukrainians and Russians help to explain France’s choice of the port of Odessa as the staging ground for its military intervention in Southern Russia, it must surely also help to explain present day events in the same region, which, once again, see Russians and Ukrainians pitted against one another. History repeats itself, it seems, and how very sad that we seem to learn so little from past mistakes however high their cost in suffering and pain. How valuable is the role of the historian in reminding those who seem to want to ignore the lessons of history in cautioning them against repeating the same costly mistakes.
That Greece – a small and destitute country with very few resources to spare in 1918 and with no history of imperialism – should have become involved in this conflict is one of those paradoxes that human history is strangely rich in. Greece’s involvement in the failed Allied Intervention may help explain the Soviet Union’s decision, in March 1922, to provide Mustafa Kemal’s army with military assistance during the closing stages of the Greco–Turkish War of 1919–1922, precipitating the Greek Army’s catastrophic defeat and the exodus of millions of ethnic Greeks from their native Asia Minor, and signalling the creation of modern Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Greece’s military adventure on the Black Sea may also help to explain Stalin’s decision to go back on his commitments to his Western Allies in Yalta by claiming Greece as part of the Soviet Union’s ‘sphere of influence’ in the immediate aftermath of WWII. This decision, motivated by the Soviet Union’s wish to avenge Greece’s unprovoked meddling in its affairs, would result in the Greek people, exhausted after four years of a brutal German, Italian and Bulgarian occupation between April 1941 and late 1944, being plunged into a Soviet-backed bloody Civil War of its own, which would only end in 1949, leaving a legacy of pain and division that still haunts present-day Greece.
The naval mutiny of Sevastopol that marked (and, some argue, may have brought forward) the end of the Allied Intervention in Southern Russia is also credited by some with the awaking of the dormant proletarian conscience of some in the French camp, thereby helping to sow the seeds of revolutionary Communism in Western Europe’s largest republic.
For all of these reasons, the short-lived Southern Russia campaign is amongst the most neglected but, paradoxically, one of the most significant chapters of 20th Century European history, and its lessons bear careful study, especially by those interested in the geo-politics of South-eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. The great variety of military forces involved in this conflict (French – both Metropolitan and Colonial – Greek, German, Polish, Romanian, Bolshevik and White Russian) make this campaign a ‘colourful’ one, from the perspective of the uniforms worn and the weapons carried by the men-at-arms involved. Peter Dennis, the title’s illustrator, has made a fantastic job of the colour plates, bringing to life the multi-national land, sea and air forces that participated in it, down to their ethnographic features and the harsh conditions in which they operated. I am confident that the MAA Series’ readership will enjoy this title, and that it will pave the way for a sequel to cover the Allied Intervention in Northern Russia and Siberia, between 1918 and 1920.
Armies in Southern Russia 1918-19 is out today. Order your copy now.