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Arkhangelsk and Murmansk: Revolutionary Russian and British Imperial Periphery

Steven Balbirnie


Russia’s outlying regions during the revolutionary period can be considered peripheries in more ways than one. My research explores Northern Russia in 1918 and 1919 not only as a peripheral region of Russia, but also as a British imperial periphery.


Map of anti-bolshevik forces, March 1919.

Northern Russia offers the most ready example of the colonial diMmensions of British intervention in the Russian Civil War. It is worth keeping in mind that until the outbreak of the First World War, the British Army had typically been involved in small-scale military conflicts on the African and Asian peripheries of the British Empire. As such, it should not be surprising that there were many structural similarities between the conditions of warfare in the colonies and those experienced in Northern Russia. My research has involved an exploration of the common factors between the British intervention in Northern Russia and its colonial warfare. Such features included the tradition of the “man on the spot” and the utilisation of local middlemen and native auxiliaries. All of these demonstrate that the British command treated this peripheral Russian region as though it were a frontier of its own empire.


It has been argued by several historians of the British Empire that, rather than conforming to any kind of master plan dictated by London, the extension of the British Empire occurred primarily through the actions of “men on the spot”.[i] The structure of how the Intervention developed beyond its original intentions bore many similarities to John Darwin’s theory of “bridgeheads”, whereby the expansion of the British Empire was driven by localised sub-imperialism, and power relations between the periphery and the metropolitan centre were dictated by the success of the “men on the spot”.[ii] This independence of action arose from a combination of geographical distance, which hampered prompt communications between the centre and the periphery, and the claims of superior local knowledge possessed by a “man on the spot” compared to an official in Whitehall. Through their independence of action, the “men on the spot” on the periphery became as much drivers of policy as the authorities in London, and military expeditions could thus take on a character different from what had been envisaged in London. Actions on the periphery could become driven by the concerns of “men on the spot” in relation to their understandings of international prestige or competition for resources, which were not necessarily shared by the policymakers at the centre even though these were key initiators of the expansion of both formal and informal empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[iii]


For the British imperial system of indirect rule to work, local collaborators were required, both in the case of local officials who acted as middlemen through which the British could rule indirectly,[iv] and in the case of military units made up of local manpower.[v] There was much continuity between this pre-existing imperial practice and the manner in which the North Russian intervention was conducted. Based on this administrative model, the officers of the White Russian administration based at Arkhangelsk essentially functioned as cultural intermediaries on behalf of the British commanders, who were the actual source of power and authority in the region. One element present in Northern Russia that was particularly characteristic of British policy in its imperial peripheries was the recruitment of locals into units trained and commanded by British officers. The locally recruited Slavo-British Legion, Finn Legion and Karelian Regiment followed the model of indigenous units officered by the British, such as the Indian Army. In particular, the choice of recruiting ethnic minority frontiersmen, such as the Finns and Karelians, mirrored similar policies among units in India’s North-West Frontier Province, such as the Khyber Rifles and Chitral Scouts.


The Slavo-British Legion near Murmansk. ©IWM (Q 73451)

In addition to the structural and operational similarities between British colonial campaigns and its intervention in Northern Russia, there was also a common thread of attitudes and outlook. Under the rising influence of Social Darwinism and eugenics, racial stereotyping and “othering” were core components of British colonial rule in this period, a feature held in common with the overseas empires of Britain’s European contemporaries.[vi] The racial terminology evident in the accounts of British figures present in Northern Russia during the intervention conforms to the stereotypical language and descriptions traditionally used to describe Asians rather than Europeans during this period, illustrating what can be described as a “colonial attitude” present in the minds of interventionists. Evidence of these colonial attitudes can be seen in the communications between the commanding officers and the British War Office, as well as in the personal accounts of ordinary soldiers held in the Imperial War Museum and as part of the Liddle Collection at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. In these documents, the local Russians are frequently referred to as “Asiatics” or “Orientals”.


In an article published in Revolutionary Russia in December 2016, I used the British response to mutiny among locally recruited forces in Northern Russia as a case study to illustrate how the British command acted as though it was stationed on a British imperial periphery, rather than on the territory of an ostensible ally in the First World War.


Examples of three mutinies among local bodies of troops were used to illustrate this. The specific incidents under consideration were the 1918 mutiny of the 1st Arkhangelsk Regiment, the mutiny of the British-recruited Dyer’s Battalion, and the 1919 mutiny of White Russian forces stationed at Onega. Particular attention was given to the Dyer’s Battalion mutiny, since this unit was specifically composed of convicts and former Bolsheviks serving under British officers. This incident serves to illustrate the particular devastation to morale caused by the outbreak of mutiny in a unit specifically recruited for propaganda purposes, as the reform of these undesirables had been touted as evidence of a British “civilising mission” in Northern Russia. The study explored the response of the British command to these incidents and the impact mutinous outbreaks had on overall British morale and strategy. 


General Edmund Ironside, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Force, North Russia, presenting medals to the troops at Archangel, 1919. Ironside oversaw the response to the mutinies and ordered the executions. © IWM (Q 16090)

The British command’s response was to act on its own initiative and apply punishments more forcefully and severely than it otherwise would have, had these events taken place on the First World War’s Western Front. It is also worth noting that while Russian mutineers were summarily executed, mutinous soldiers among the Royal Marines and the Yorkshire Regiment – who were stationed in the same territory and subject to the same command – had their sentences commuted. This response to mutiny in Northern Russia provides a prime example of how the region was treated as a British imperial periphery, as the British command took it upon itself to apply differing levels of disciplinary procedures to its own soldiers on the one hand, and to local recruits on the other. It also illustrates that to properly understand external intervention in the Russian Civil War, these campaigns need to be examined within the broader context of the military history of the participant nations.


Steven Balbirnie was recently awarded a PhD by University College Dublin. His doctoral dissertation was entitled "British Colonial Attitudes in the Arctic: The British Occupation of Archangel and Murmansk 1918-1919". Previous publications include a chapter, "Small War on a Violent Frontier: Colonial Warfare and British Intervention in Northern Russia, 1918-1919" in Small Nations and Colonial Peripheries in World War One, published in February 2016 as Volume 109 of Brill’s History of Warfare series; and an article, "'A Bad Business': British Responses to Mutinies among Local Forces in Northern Russia", published in December 2016 in issue 2, volume 29 of Revolutionary Russia. This piece is an introductory overview of the article in Revolutionary Russia, which can be accessed at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09546545.2016.1243613.

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[i] Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A Study of Empire and Expansion (Basingstoke 1993). See also: Peter Duignan, and L.H. Gann, The Rulers of British Africa 1870-1914 (London 1978). See also: John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge, 2009). [ii] John Darwin, “Imperialism and the Victorians: The Dynamics of Territorial Expansion”, The English Historical Review, vol. 112, no. 447 (June 1997) pp. 614-642. [iii] Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa 1876-1912 (London 1991). See also: Robert Bickers, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (London 2011). [iv] David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British saw their Empire (London 2001). See also: John Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (London 2012). See also: Darwin, Empire Project. [v] James Lunt, Imperial Sunset: Frontier Soldiering in the 20th Century (London 1981). See also: F.A.S. Clarke, and A. Haywood, The History of the Royal West African Frontier Force (Aldershot 1964) See also: H. Moyse-Bartlett, The King’s African Rifles: A Study in the Military History of East and Central Africa, 1890-1945 (Aldershot 1956). See also: Malcolm Page, A History of the King’s African Rifles and East African Forces (London 1998). [vi] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London 1978). See also: Karuna Mantena, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton 2010).

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