A shabby and inglorious venture


Dances in Deep Shadows: Britain's Clandestine War in Russia 1917-20

By Michael Occleshaw

Constable, 2006

360 pages, US

It is well-known — on the serious left at least — that in the years following the revolution of October 1917, Bolshevik Russia was plunged into a Civil War that also saw the fledgling socialist state invaded by foreign armies from Britain, France, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Poland and other hostile states. What is less well-known is that in the period preceding the foreign military intervention proper, the British Intelligence Services mounted an undercover campaign within Russia aimed at undermining and overthrowing the infant Bolshevik regime.

In this study, Dances in Deep Shadows: Britain's Clandestine War in Russia 1917-20, Michael Occleshaw, using papers from various British military and government archives, uncovers the extent of the British state's terrorist campaign against the Bolsheviks and the Russian people.

Occleshaw has little sympathy for the Bolsheviks. The Russian workers and peasants are frequently referred to as "the mob", the October Revolution is referred to as a "coup", the legitimate execution of the Romanovs is described as "murder", and, bizarrely, Lenin is described as "lacking the emotional and spiritual attributes that normally define human beings".

However, Occleshaw has little sympathy for the British either, describing their intervention in post-revolutionary Russia as "a shabby and inglorious venture". He does a good job of exposing the lies used by British diplomacy to cover up its true intentions. For example, he outlines clearly the duplicity involved in Britain's attempt to justify its armed intervention in Russia on the basis of the claim that Allied military stores at Archangel and Vladivostock were in danger of being captured by the Germans. The real reason for British involvement, according to Occleshaw, was that Britain wanted to overthrow the Bolsheviks, mainly because Bolshevik attempts to end Russia's involvement in the war with Germany would, if successful, allow Germany and the Central Powers to transfer their troops and resources from the Eastern to the Western front. (When the Germans were defeated by the Allies in November 1918, the main impetus for British involvement then came from a desire to protect the British Empire's strategic interests in India and the East, as well as from sheer antipathy to socialism.)

Occleshaw describes in some detail how, prior to the actual military intervention, the British Intelligence Services mounted an illegal undercover campaign against the Bolshevik state by subsidising White counter-revolutionaries ("utterly dependent" on the British) and assisting their terrorist activities via bribery, blackmail, the encouragement of treason and a network of spies and agent provocateurs funded from London. In practice, this led to the unnecessary deaths of millions of Russians through war, disease and starvation, and contributed in no small measure to the eventual degeneration of the revolution and the ascendancy of Stalinism in the following decade.

In recent years, much evidence has come to light pointing to collusion between the British security and intelligence services and loyalist paramilitary death squads in Northern Ireland. To readers of Occleshaw's study, this will come as little surprise.