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  Top » Catalog » Pages » Reviews
The King of Karelia. Col. P.J. Woods and the British Intervention in North Russia 1918–1919. By Nick Baron.

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Reviewed by Liudmila G. Novikova in Revolutionary Russia, Vol 22, No. 1, June 2009

The man who was known among the British expeditionary force in the Russian Civil War as ‘the King of Karelia’ could not boast of royal ancestry. Neither was he a Karelian. British Colonel Philip Woods in his ‘Karelian Diary’, published for the first time and introduced by Nick Baron, tells a captivating story of how he earned his mock title and how in the midst of the Russian Civil War and Allied intervention in North Russia he became not only a commander of a Karelian national regiment but also a sympathizer of the Karelian national cause.

Woods’s ‘Karelian Diary’, written in the late 1930s and recently discovered by Baron in the Department of Documents of the Imperial War Museum in London, certainly deserves publication. Although, like many military memoirs, it is vague about dates and exact political details and devotes much attention to the witty exploits of the author’s military companions, it has evident scholarly significance. In contrast to the well-known memoirs of Generals Edmund Ironside and Charles Maynard, commanders of the British expeditionary force in North Russia, Woods tells his story not from the perspective of the headquarters but as a local commander who had close contact with the local population. As a result, his ‘Karelian Diary’, while not significantly challenging the existing interpretations of the civil war and the British intervention, brings into sharper focus some lesser-known yet important facets of the conflict.

Woods documents particularly well the constant frictions – and even outright hostility – between Russians and the Allies, Karelians and Russians, British and Karelians and even between the British headquarters and their field commanders. Mutual suspicion and power struggles (wherein, as Woods suggests, all means including assassination were good) weakened the anti-Bolshevik coalition. They also greatly influenced the mood of the British rank and file in North Russia, who soon ‘lost any degree of sympathy … for the Russian cause’ (p. 246). These tendencies, no doubt, amounted to an important and hitherto largely ignored cause of the Allied intervention’s failure.

Woods also provides a valuable account of Karelian attempts to use the confusion of the civil war and British intervention to gain political independence – an episode that has so far escaped detailed scholarly attention. Furthermore, his diary, while revealing tensions and deep cultural misunderstanding between Karelians and the British command in North Russia, gives a clue as to why the Karelian regiment ultimately failed to become a driving force in the Karelian national movement. Woods’s memoir betrays his obvious sense of cultural superiority towards his subordinates, as well as awareness of his own ‘civilizing mission’. He emphasized that he ordered Karelian soldiers to shave off their beards and – much less successfully – not to kill to a man their prisoners of war. But ultimately, recognizing his failure, Woods came to the rather unhappy conclusion that it was simply impossible ‘to judge by the enlightened standards of Europe a people so far behind in social development’ (pp. 176–77). Such a condescending attitude might have partly caused the Karelians’ disillusionment with the British command and could also explain the diminishing role of Woods’s regiment in Karelian national politics.

Woods’s memoir is prefaced with Baron’s long Introduction. It attempts to provide the general historical context to the memoir and an outline of the Colonel’s life, and – more broadly – to tell the ‘story of a generation of men’ whose ‘late nineteenth century notions of idealism, heroism and honour, faced the test of total war, imperial decline, social upheaval and political crisis’ (pp. 6, 142). The most useful and detailed part of the Introduction discusses the British intervention, the Russian Civil War and the Karelian national movement, where Baron demonstrates his expert knowledge of Karelian history. The author not only clarifies dates and details that are omitted or only vaguely referred to in the memoir, but also makes several important points about Woods’s activities in North Russia. For example, he suggests that Woods’s attitudes and actions towards Russian and Karelian population were to a large extent shaped by his earlier colonial military experience in South Africa, where he also had to combine military actions with a ‘civilizing mission’ (p. 32). Baron also assesses Woods’s controversial role in the rise and fall of the Karelian national movement. Baron believes that as a commander of Karelian national regiment Woods was not just a passive bystander but played an active and constructive role in the development of the Karelians’ nationalist aims (p. 83).

Unfortunately, the Introduction does not always clarify inconsistencies or obvious contradictions in Woods’s memoir. One example is the fate of General V. S. Skobeltsin, the Russian commander of Murmansk front. While asserting on one page that he met a terrible end being found ‘crucified on a door’ in North Russia after the Allied evacuation (p. 209), on another, contradicting himself, Woods correctly claims that Skobeltsin survived the civil war and lived in emigration in Paris (p. 296). Such episodes deserve clarification by the editor.

In comparison with Baron’s detailed discussion of the Russian Civil War and the Karelian national movement, his account of Woods’s ‘generation of men’ and analysis of Woods’s life and career are much less coherent and convincing. Baron’s characterization of Woods’s generation relies upon rather heterogenous official and personal sources that ultimately fail to combine into a persuasive story. Neither do the fragments of biographic information about Woods form a coherent whole. Having to cope with an almost total lack of first-hand sources concerning Woods’s life, Baron is too often left speculating about events and developments where Woods was likely to have been involved. Baron also amasses facts that, as he rightly admits, ‘might or might not be relevant to this story’ (p. 47). While general readers will find this Introduction entertaining, even in the absence of a coherent narrative or definite knowledge, scholars might not agree with Baron’s attempts to fill factual gaps with ‘experiments in empathy and historical intuition’ (p. 142).

Taken together, Woods’s diary and Baron’s Introduction will make for a good coffeetable book for those interested in British and Russian history, exotic warfare and colonial adventures. Scholars of the Russian Civil War and national movements in the Russian Empire, however, while appreciating the publication of Woods’s diary, might wish to have it supplemented with more detailed comments and a more coherent introduction.

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