Book Review:

Canadian imperialism’s intervention in the Russian Civil War

By Vic Neufeld
30 June 2012

Benjamin Isitt, From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1917-19, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Between 1918 and 1920, the fledgling workers’ state in Soviet Russia was engaged in a life and death struggle against a series of counter-revolutionary “White” armies backed by expeditionary forces marshalled by fourteen states that had fought as part of the British-French-US-led “Allies” in the First World War and which landed forces in Baku, Murmansk, Archangel and Vladivostok. Among the belligerents was Canada.

BookHistorian Benjamin Isitt’s From Victoria to Vladivostok documents the history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Siberia (CEFS), its deployment to Vladivostok as part of the attempted Allied overthrow of the revolutionary Bolshevik government under Lenin and Trotsky, its eventual defeat, and demobilization. The book also describes the working class internationalism that was prevalent during this period, and how worker solidarity ultimately derailed the expedition.

The book’s centrepiece, the 1918 Victoria, British Columbia mutiny, embodied many of these social processes. The CEFS’ enlisted ranks, mostly workers, were concentrated on Canada’s west coast in preparation for their trans-Pacific deployment. There they gravitated towards British Columbia’s fledgling labour parties and socialist organizations, whose message of international worker solidarity and aggressive anti-war agitation found fertile ground. This nascent, and from the standpoint of the ruling class dangerous, worker-soldier solidarity, resulted in the mutiny. While the officer corps quickly restored discipline, the mutiny eroded morale and heralded the expedition’s ultimate defeat. In short, the book documents a forgotten but important historical episode, when masses of workers armed with a socialist and internationalist perspective consciously struggled against capitalism.

Part of what makes the book successful is the author’s dedication to his topic. In 2008, Isitt travelled ten thousand kilometres on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and met with dozens of local scholars and historians along the way. For example, during his meeting with professor Boris I. Kolonitskii of St Petersburg’s Institute of History, he asked about the Russian revolutions: “How [could ] Leon Trotsky, who had languished in a Nova Scotia jail in April 1917 and not set foot in Russia since 1906, lead a military uprising and seize control of the Russian state?”

Kolonitskii replied: “It's not a kind of conventional war, revolution. You don't have to be a military officer to have a military uprising. These men were professional revolutionaries. They had prepared for revolution their whole life long. They studied the French revolution. They studied Marx’s writings on revolutions. They were much better trained for this particular situation than any army officers were.... The Bolsheviks had broad public support.”

Isitt’s work challenges the Canadian government’s and elite’s longstanding attempt to conceal and suppress knowledge of its complicity in the Allies’ criminal intervention against the Russian Revolution. His determination to make this history known is evidenced by his campaign for the federal government to publicly pardon the mutineers, who as conscripts were sent to Siberia in contravention of the era’s Military Service Act.

The book begins by providing important historical background, and introducing the two main actors and themes that remain intertwined for the remainder of the book: The Canadian bourgeoisie and its enthusiastic identification of its interests with those of British imperialism; and the Canadian working class, and its increased militancy against capitalism, the Great War and other imperial adventures. Both were affected by the revolutionary events sweeping across Europe that found their fullest expression in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

meeting French-Canadian conscripts of the 259th Battalion at a “Hands Off Russia” mass meeting, Columbia Theatre, Victoria, 13 December 1918. Source: Canada`s Siberian Expedition Digital Archive

On the part of Canada and the Allies, the Siberian Intervention arose from and was a continuation of the imperialist First World War. Within days of the Bolshevik revolution, Leon Trotsky, the newly-appointed Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, proposed an immediate ceasefire to all belligerent states fighting in Europe. Germany was the only country to respond, because the Allies were aghast at the overthrow of Russia’s pro-war bourgeois Provisional government and expected and hoped that the new workers’ government would quickly collapse. The result was the punitive Brest-Litovsk Treaty, in which Germany was able to impose massive territorial concessions on revolutionary Russia, in exchange for ceasing hostilities, and to redeploy its forces from the Eastern to the Western Front.

While this was a cruel and exacting peace, it enabled the revolutionary workers’ regime to begin implementing its program, while awaiting support from and preparing to assist a revolutionary movement of the workers of central and Eastern Europe.

The Bolsheviks carried out an agrarian revolution, redistributing land to the impoverished peasants, nationalized Russia’s banks, and repudiated 13 billion rubles in Allied war loans to the Czar. The new Soviet government also had the audacity to publish the terms of the secret treaties, signed by the former Czar that divided the anticipated spoils of the German and Ottoman empires between Russia, Britain, France, Italy, Serbia, Romania and Japan.

The Allied press was livid, describing the Bolsheviks as “the enthronement of anarchy at Petrograd.” Allied governments, meanwhile, denounced the revolutionary regime as a “mad dog” running wild on the international stage—a mad dog that had to be put down by force.

In subverting Soviet Russia, Canada’s government immediately put itself at the British Imperial War Cabinet’s disposal. The Canadian bourgeoisie eyed Siberia’s abundant resources and markets, particularly those vacated by the German-owned Kunst & Albers Company, an organization akin to the Hudson’s Bay Co., and hoped to get in on the kill. “This is a wonderful chance for Canada,” Canadian intelligence officer James Mackintosh Bell informed the prime minister.

Meeting during the summer of 1918, the War Cabinet discussed the merits of an Allied intervention, and approved it in principle. By fall, the Canadian government formed the CEFS, and mustered 5,000 soldiers from across Canada to converge on Victoria, B.C. for transport to Vladivostok. It also formed the Canadian Siberian Economic Commission, made up of officials from prominent corporations such as the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the Royal Bank and the Bank of Montreal. As the expedition’s business wing, the commission was tasked with assisting the Allies in re-establishing control over industrial and commercial activities, “with a view to the development of Canadian trade.” The Royal Bank of Canada, sniffing the wind, even shipped an entire 57-ton prefabricated building to Vladivostok to open a branch in 1918.

These moves towards intervention occurred as the Canadian working class was becoming increasingly restive. Isitt notes that, “War polarized relations between the classes... Death on the battlefields in Europe, the erosion of living standards at home, and the growing conscription crisis widened the breach between workers, the Dominion government, and conciliatory labour leaders.” Indeed, the war would take a great and inordinate toll: Out of a 2.5 million workforce, a half-million would be sent to Europe’s battlefields; more than 50,000 never to return.

The Canadian bourgeoisie was determined to use the war to enrich itself and strengthen its strategic position. As acute troop shortages loomed, Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden introduced a national-service registration system at the end of 1916, requiring all adult men to register with the state. Passage of the Military Service Act in 1917 precipitated a serious social crisis, particularly in Quebec. Quebec City experienced serious rioting in March and April 1918, with the registrar’s office destroyed and five protesters killed, and the Borden government—now a “Union” coalition of Liberals and Conservatives—deploying one thousand troops to reinforce the local garrison and summoning an additional three thousand troops from the west.

The government of the day, which actively promoted Anglo-chauvinism, and many subsequent Canadian historians have misrepresented the opposition to conscription as purely a French-Canadian phenomenon. Isitt’s book convincingly refutes this view by demonstrating how conscription was widely understood at the time as a class issue. For example, in the summer of 1917 the British Columbia Federation of Labour called a special convention ratifying the Federation’s “down tools” policy and empowering its executive to call a general strike against conscription. Federation Vice-President Albert Goodwin described the war and conscription in class terms, declaring that “conscription meant life or death to the workers.” Goodwin pledged to “do all in his power to prove to workers that the war was none of their business. He believed that, “there was a great force of opinion against conscription, and [that] the idea of striking and otherwise opposing it was not confined to Quebec by a long shot.” (Goodwin was to be murdered in July 1918 by a special police constable who was pursuing him on the grounds that he had refused to be drafted.)

Labour unrest further mounted as war-weariness was coupled with shortages of food and other necessities of life, and increased prices. Hoarding and corporate profiteering were rampant. Workers fought back with strikes, which at times, to the government’s dismay, directly threatened the war effort. For instance, in 1917 Canadian Explosives Ltd. workers walked off the job, compromising an economic linchpin that provided one-twelfth of Britain’s TNT during the war.

Talk turned from strikes, to general strikes, to revolution and a workers’ government. Western Canadian workers met in 1919 to form the militant One Big Union. At a subsequent Western Labor Conference, delegates approved “the principle of ‘Proletarian Dictatorship’”, called for the “abolition of the present system of production for profit”, and sent fraternal greetings to Russia’s Soviet government and Liebknecht and Luxemburgs’ German Spartacists. By the summer of 1919, Canadian Interior Minister Arthur Meighen had deployed the army and federal police to violently crush the famous general strike in Winnipeg.

It was amidst this growing social tension that Canadian troops joined soldiers from thirteen other countries in a multi-front strategy of encirclement designed to isolate and defeat the Bolshevik regime in Moscow—a “cordon sanitaire”, in the words of Winston Churchill. The strategy had a fundamental flaw, however. It relied on workers manning the fight against a workers’ government, in support of White Russian governments that promised to restore the substance of the deposed czarist monarchy –dictatorship by the elites characterized by mass poverty, capitalist exploitation and the bloody suppression of a war-weary pro-Bolshevik population. The seriousness of this strategic flaw is illustrated in the book’s centrepiece: the Victoria Mutiny.

The Mutiny originated in the soldier-worker fraternization that occurred in the city of Victoria while soldiers were on leave from their camps. After receiving leaflets on downtown street corners, seven hundred members of the Siberian Expedition attended the inaugural meeting of the Victoria branch of the Federated Labor Party held on December 8, 1918. Here Party organizer W.R. Trotter discussed the war, censorship, and intervention in Russia, describing White Admiral Kolchak’s coup at Omsk, and the violent overthrow of the Vladivostok Soviet the previous June.

Jim Hawthornwaite, a Labor Party representative in the provincial legislature, also discussed postwar reconstruction and the Soviet form of government, where wealth was produced, distributed and owned communally by workers. “They should be left free to produce as they like, and when we are rid of tyranny and plunder here in Canada we will then be in a better position to judge others.” When Hawthornwaite noted that Canada’s government claimed to be deploying soldiers to Vladivostok to “civilize” Russia, shouts of “We aren’t there yet!” arose throughout the theater. The BC Federationist reported that, “The way those soldiers applauded the Labour speakers showed in no uncertain manner where their sympathies lay.”

As Isitt notes, “The prospect of soldier-labour unity created much apprehension in senior ranks” of the military. And while the officer corps later broke up subsequent worker-soldier meetings, the ideas discussed at earlier meetings had met fertile ground.

On December 21, 1918 the 856 men in the 259th Battalion and 20th Machine Gun Company left the Willows Camp on a six kilometer march to the troopship taking them to Siberia. According to one Federated Labor Party organizer, “When the boys were given notice they were to leave for Siberia there was a plan among them that they would refuse to go. There was one man chosen to lead them, but when he struck down one of the officers the rest didn’t give him support. However, it took 23 hours to get those men aboard the ship.”

A soldier’s letter home described what happened: “They had some trouble at the camp and two companies (who are French Canadians) refused to get ready to march down, so they got another battalion and chased them out of their tents with bayonets.”

Later soldiers defied orders they resume marching toward the embarkment point. An officer told the subsequent court martial: “I ordered them to go on and one man standing directly in front of me said, ‘no, no’.” A group leader kept shouting, “On y va pas a Siberia” (We’re not going to Siberia).” The officers responded with force, using revolvers, canvas belt beatings and bayonets to force the mutineers onto the wharves and herd them on board the awaiting troopship.

Ten young “mutineers”, all soldiers from Quebec, were later arraigned before a court martial in Vladivostok. All held the rank of riflemen, all were conscripts, and all save one were convicted as charged. The harsh sentences imposed on these working class Quebecois youth were designed to deter. In April 1919, however, as the Canadians prepared to evacuate Vladivostok and questions arose in Parliament over the legality of deploying conscripts, the judge advocate received an application to release, on suspended sentence, the “men convicted of mutiny at Victoria, BC”—a request that CEFS Major General Elmsley quickly authorized, for fear of further unrest.

By this time, the Allied intervention was unraveling. While inter-capitalist rivalries and the popular support for the Revolution undermined the Allied intervention in support of the Whites, opposition to the intervention in the working class in the Allied countries played a major role, including in Canada.

Canadian workers sympathized with the Russian Revolution, and rallied around a “Hands Off Russia” campaign. Understanding that the Bolshevik seizure of state power was supported by whole swathes of the population, workers endorsed slogans like, “All power to the Workingmen’s and Soldiers’ Councils.” Indeed, labour activist William Pritchard told a 1918 public meeting in Victoria: “This is where Democracy is in the making, and when you see the same thing in this country you will know that democracy is in the making here.”

strike Crowd prevents tramway from operating during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike

When workers later adopted the general strike tactic, with strikes erupting in cities across Canada in 1919 from Victoria to Amherst, one main aim was to force Canadian troops from Siberia.

In short, labour was in revolt. And the foreign capitalist armies sent to Russia to crush the democratic “mad dog” running loose amount nations and “terrorizing Europe”, were ultimately redeployed home, in part so as to suppress the aspirations of their own domestic populations. Strikes needed to be crushed and the seditious talk of “Workingmen’s and Soldiers’ Councils” silenced.

police On June 21, 1919 Northwest Mounted Police (the predecessor of the RCMP) savagely attacked a crowd of 25,000 supporters of the Winnipeg General Strike, injuring dozens and killing one striker. At the end of “Bloody Saturday,” Winnipeg was occupied by federal troops.

Part of this silencing included expunging the history and erasing from the collective memory any political understanding of the opposition to the Allied intervention within the Canadian working class.

This is one reason for the book’s importance: It describes an era when many workers were animated by socialist aims and internationalist in perspective and recognized that a workers’ and soldiers’ council was infinitely more just and democratic than the rule of a hereditary monarch and the stock exchange. In contrast to the labour aristocracy’s betrayals that pitted worker against worker in a World War, a war-weary rank-and-file said “no more!,” reached out in support to their Russian comrades, and helped end the Allied intervention.

The Allied intervention in Russia also bred a dynamic repeated in subsequent occupations, such as that carried out by the Canadian Armed Forces in contemporary Afghanistan.

In Vladivostok, Canadian officers conceded that local inhabitants, “[were] about ninety percent Bolshevik”. Yet, Canadian troops were in Russia to restore the czar or some other related form of autocratic rule. This meant supporting atrocity after atrocity committed by Canada’s allies such as Admiral Kolchak.

Not surprisingly, this put the Canadians at complete odds with the local population. One Canadian officer noted that, “The people of Siberia resent the presence of the Allied troops ... They regard us as intruders.” Resentment turned to rebellion. An appeal from the rebels conveyed the political mood: “We rose because with all our heart we want to help our Soviet country to get rid of the executioner Kolchak, to reinstall Soviet power in Siberia and the Far East, and to get rid of the interventionists.”

As a result, Canadian soldiers lived in fear of the local population. Insurgents were perceived to be anywhere and everywhere. Sporadic shooting erupted after dusk, and according to one Canadian officer, “We never go out at night without arms.” On January 31, 1919, five White Russian officers were killed during a “small mutiny” in Omsk, when an armed band of soldiers stormed the barracks of the 1st Cadet Regiment. Even the 132 soldiers and 3 officers from the czar’s former army attached to the Canadian contingent as interpreters were considered to have pro-Bolshevik sentiments.

The fate of the Russian revolution and of the Communist Party of Canada, which was formed in 1921 by the most class-conscious and far-sighted workers and socialist-minded intellectuals, is beyond the purview of Isitt’s book and this review. Suffice it to say that, principally due to the betrayals of social-democracy, the Bolshevik Revolution remained isolated in what was a war-ravaged, predominantly peasant country and that this created conditions for the subsequent usurpation of power by a privileged bureaucracy that suppressed workers’ democracy and became the policeman of inequality. Led by Joseph Stalin, this bureaucracy, under the banner of “socialism in one country,” repudiated socialist-internationalism and transformed the various Communist Parties into auxiliaries of its counter-revolutionary foreign policy.

The events described in From Victoria to Vladivostok provide a vivid vindication of the revolutionary heritage defended and developed by the Fourth International in the struggle against Stalinism and demonstrate how Canadian workers, when animated by a socialist-internationalist perspective, can constitute a mighty social force, a force that already almost a century ago could derail a capitalist military intervention and cause the ruling class to tremble.