Reviewed by Alistair S. Wright in Slavonica, Vol. 14 No. 2, November 2008
Nick Baron’s recent short monograph discusses, in part, the British intervention in North Russia during the Russian Civil War and commendably adds to the small body of works in English which provide an insight into the Karelian territory during this confl ict.
The book is both a history and a memoir of the Protestant Ulsterman and would be Lieutenant-Colonel of the British forces in Karelia, Phillip Woods. Part 1 is a widely researched and well-written account of his life and times, while Part 2 is Woods’ lively and engaging ‘Karelian Diary’.
Woods’ military career dominates the first part of the book with the main focus of the work describing his experiences in Karelia, a territory which is introduced by the author through an informative historical, cultural, and geographical summary. The scene is therefore set to explore Woods’ arrival in Karelia and appointment as the commanding officer of a local Karelian regiment which was part of Major-General Maynard’s ‘Syren’ force. One of the most interesting and complex issues brought to the fore by the author is the nationalist questions in the region and in particular those surrounding the Karelians. It appears that their aspirations were restricted from the start: ‘Even as the Allies were arming the Karelians, they were denying them any possibility to assert separate territorial identity or to pursue political self-determination’ (p. 64) Tensions came to a head when the Allies began to prepare for their own evacuation, set for autumn 1919. As Russian officers began to be introduced into the command structure of the British forces the general White Russian principle of an undivided Russia and their unwillingness to compromise on nationalist issues set in motion a profound struggle with the Karelian regiment. The relationship was irreconcilable; the White officers cried conspiracy and questioned the Karelian’s reliability while the Karelians sought the right to self-determination, refused to serve under a White Russian command and began to desert.
The second part of the book, Woods’ ‘Karelian Diary’, is a significant contribution to contemporary accounts of the Russian Civil War. Found by the author in the department of documents in London’s Imperial War Museum, its narrative is both informative and entertaining. For example, the various intrigues of 1919 against Woods and his Karelians are effectively portrayed as is his commitment to his men. Moreover, the Karelian landscape is captured by Woods through accounts of his troops being transported inland on boats, manned by hardy female rowers, through the region’s many river passageways to face the White Finns. The harsh brutalities that have come to personify the Civil War are also never far from the surface. During the Ukhta campaign of August 1918 Woods notes that the fighting at Lousalma: ‘did not exhibit the slightest trace of any recognition of humane principles in warfare [. . .]’ (p. 176) and on an ad hoc Karelian system of interrogation Woods was informed by a Karelian officer that an axe was all that was needed: ‘He smiled, indicating the idea by placing the corner of the edge under his thumb nail’ (p. 183).
In short, Karelia’s Civil War is a complex story, part of which is clearly retold here. Baron has happened across a valuable find in Woods’ ‘Karelian Diary’ and his own account is equally noteworthy, commanding an appeal for both scholars of the Allied intervention and Civil War as well as the well-informed general reader.