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Red Dawn

Why the Bolshevik Revolution wasn't 'strangled in its cradle.'

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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If all this sounds like the stuff of John Buchan, only more so, that’s because it is. This is a story with room for Latvian riflemen, Czech Legionnaires, and a Polish Women’s Death Battalion; for failed revolutions across Europe, for conspiracies and spies, and for the daredevil aviator Merian Cooper, one of the American volunteers in an air squadron that helped Poland beat off Bolshevik invasion. (“Coop” was shot down but escaped after 10 months of Soviet captivity. A decade-and-a-half later, he coproduced, cowrote, and codirected King Kong.)

For all the tales of derring-do, however, it’s impossible to read this book without sadness and frustration. This was a tragedy that could have been cut short. Winston Churchill, a minister in the British government during this period, argued for more to be done against the Reds. He understood what his cousin Clare Sheridan did not: that this terrible infant revolution needed to be “strangled in its cradle.” Not for the last time in his career, too few listened until it was too late.

To some Western leaders, Bolshevism was a spasm that would pass. Russia’s counterrevolutionary armies—the Whites—would prevail with just a little support from the West; or maybe Bolshevism, an onslaught on human nature itself, would simply collapse, or be overthrown in its own heartlands. Others, not unreasonably, feared that their own, already war-weary peoples would be driven to revolt by the prospect of participating in what many were bound to see as a bosses’ crusade against a bright, brave experiment. So, denied the outside assistance that might have made a difference, the Whites were overwhelmed, beaten by an enemy that, in the end, proved more cohesive and determined than they were. The undersized and ultimately irrelevant Allied detachments—primarily French, Japanese, American, and British—slunk home from their beachheads, but the Western statesmen told themselves not to worry: Trade would blunt Leninist rigor, and a cordon sanitaire of new East-Central European states would keep Bolshevism confined to its birthplace.

Less than a quarter of a century later, the Red Army was in Berlin. As for His Majesty’s irregulars, most resumed lives of quieter distinction, but the (probably) Ukrainian-born Sidney Reilly (né Rosenblum) continued to fight. Lured back to the Soviet Union in an elaborate sting operation, he fell into the hands of the secret police, and, like millions to come, was killed. 

Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.

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