From Siberia to Crimea: The Revenge of History in U.S.-Russian Relations

Russian army troops rehearse before the World War II anniversary in Moscow

One is tempted to conclude that the Washington foreign-policy establishment has learned little over the past century.

Strolling the cavernous and well-appointed halls of Russia’s carefully renovated Central Naval Museum [Центральный Военно-морской Музей] near the Neva River in St. Petersburg, one can find an assortment of interesting artifacts, not least the small skiff in which Peter the Great learned to sail more than three centuries ago now. Among the many captured battle standards from Sweden, Turkey and Germany that are proudly displayed, a few of the expansive oil paintings took me by surprise. There was, for example, a picture depicting the Russian fleet at anchor off of Kodiak in Alaska during the mid-eighteenth century. Another showed the Soviet Navy’s first submarine kill by torpedo on July 31, 1919. On that day, the British destroyer HMS Vittoria was sunk by the Bolshevik submarine Pantera under the command of Alexander Bakhtin. I had known, of course, that Allied forces intervened in the Russian Civil War during 1918–22, but was not aware that the intervention had occasioned such deadly incidents.

I was starkly reminded of this fact again during a December 2017 visit to Vladivostok, when quite by chance I came upon a full page article in the December 5 issue of the local newspaper The Competitor [Конкурент] under the following headline: “Atrocities of the American Invaders in Primorye” [Зверства Американских Захватчиков в Приморье]. A close reading of the reasonably detailed Russian-language article (which seems to have been republished) suggests that the allegations are serious. In keeping with the mission of this Bear Cave series of columns to try to gain insights into the Russian mind-set or weltanschauung, we will take a close look at this article. It not only reveals a plethora of history long forgotten in the United States, but is also suggestive of the new and dangerous Cold War climate that is quickly overtaking U.S.-Russian relations that only a decade ago could be considered friendly or at least pragmatic. However, a careful study of Russian history and U.S.-Russian relations, in particular, could help to defuse this most dangerous rivalry even as the conventional media (in both countries it seems) daily stirs the boiling cauldron of rivalry.

What were more than 7,000 “doughboys” doing in Siberia at the end of the First World War? To make a long and complex story—explored in detail by such luminaries as George Kennan—a bit shorter, the intervention by a large group of allied powers was not simply anti-Bolshevik, but was premised at the outset as a wartime operation to prevent Germany from gaining access to Russia’s resources and especially Allied supplies and material. That explains the focus on large ports, including both Murmansk and Vladivostok. An additional bizarre wrinkle in this tale is the subplot of a large group of Czech soldiers, seemingly trapped in the Russian Civil War, and trying to “escape” to the east in order to rejoin the fight with the Allies. But as an impressively detailed English-language account of the U.S. mission in the Russian Far East records, these operations extended well beyond Vladivostok, reaching Khabarovsk for example, and U.S. forces engaged in quite extensive combat. On the bloodiest day, June 25, 1919, twenty-five American soldiers were killed when “partisan units” attacked their encampment near the village of Romanovka about twenty miles northeast of Vladivostok.

Our interest here, however, is the Russian perception of these events and how they resonate today. Hinting at a rather anti-American disposition, the author asks at the outset: “… where have the Americans not stuck their nose, leaving behind a not so fond memory of themselves”? [куда они свой нос не совали, оставив недобрую память о себе] Then, it is further lamented that “… the majority of our youth today, educated by American action films and nurtured by hamburgers and Coca-cola do not even have a small bit of understanding [of this history].” According to the author, all the evidence is available in local papers and in the archives. Many examples of atrocities are given. Four men, accused of being partisans, are alleged to have been buried alive. The wife of a partisan is said to have been “pierced by bayonets and drowned in a garbage pit” [искололи тело штыками и утопили в помойной яме]. The author (who is unnamed) states that his own elderly father was taken as a hostage by Allied forces from the town of Kharitonovka [Харитоновка]. He was returned home alive but in a bloodied condition. He is said to have died a few days later, after asking “Why did they torture me…”? [За что меня замучили]. The man is said to have left five orphans behind. It further describes young men from Vladivostok that were accused of being partisans, who were “tortured for days, had their teeth knocked out and their tongues cut off.”