The International Military Police and the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War

By Christopher T. McMaster
2014, Vol. 6 No. 04 | pg. 1/2 |

In 1914 Russia was a powerful empire. It constituted a fundamental part of the European balance of power. However, years of bloody and costly war changed the nation by bringing to boil all the inequities and discontent built up under the Tsarist order. By 1917 up to two million men lay dead, with nearly three million more wounded and sick.1 In February of that year the Romanov dynasty was overthrown and a provisional government formed. Unwisely deciding to continue the fight against Germany, that government was likewise overthrown. On November 7, 1917 the Bolsheviks entered the Winter Palace and proclaimed the world's first socialist state.

The Bolshevik Revolution sent shock waves throughout the West. Britain and France, fearing the prospect of fresh German and Austro-Hungarian troops from the east, searched for ways to reconstitute the eastern front. The Bolsheviks were viewed with disdain and distrust. With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 Russia formerly ended its war against Germany. The overall concern of the Allies was to achieve victory on the Western Front. Even as early as December 1917 the two powers were discussing what was to be done and offered to support any Russians willing to fight the Bolsheviks.2 Meanwhile on the Pacific, the Japanese were greedily eyeing the collapse of Russian power in the far east as a one-time chance to expand their control in mainland Asia. The Japanese Army General Staff drew up plans for sending troops into eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria only weeks after the revolution.3

International Military Police in Vladivostok, November 1919

(Click image for full size.) A portrait of a group of International Military Police in Vladivostok, November 1919. Image is a combination of two archived images from Duke University.

The seeds were sown for what would be called the Allied Intervention. However, all parties planning to intervene preferred American participation, which depended on the decision of President Woodrow Wilson. Britain and France, tied down to the fighting on the Western Front, could ill afford to divert troops or supplies. Though possessing a large and experienced army the Japanese lacked the capital and clout to initiate intervention, and American participation would add a veneer of legitimacy. Throughout the first half of 1918 the allies stepped up their pressure on the American leader. Their demands were to be the leading problem of foreign affairs during that period.4 Wilson was reluctant. The Army war college, focusing on the conflict in Europe, discounted any "line of action through Russia" in the fight against Germany.5 For the president, it was a dilemma between his principle of self-determination and his opposition to Bolshevism. He complained frequently of "sweating blood" over Russia, and that the situation went to pieces "like quicksilver under my touch...".6

The 'Czech Legion' ultimately gave Wilson the solution he sought. During the first months of the First World War the tsar sanctioned the formation of a Czechoslovakian Army to fight alongside his troops. Numbering almost seventy thousand troops and made up largely of former prisoners of war, the treaty of Brest-Litovsk left them an army without a war. The Bolsheviks uncomfortably viewed them as a foreign army on their soil and agreements were reached to allow them 'quick' exit via the Trans-Siberian railway and Vladivostok. The agreements, however, broke down, resulting in open warfare between the Bolsheviks and Czech units that were strewn along the length of the five thousand mile long railway. After receiving news of events in Siberia, President Wilson informed his allies that he was rethinking the situation. His decision to intervene came shortly after, on July 6, 1918. Wilson could claim to himself and the world that he was not violating Russian territorial integrity but aiding a beleaguered ally yearning for self-determination, the Czechs.


On that day Vladivostok ceased to be a Russian city. In "a spirit of sympathetic friendship for the Russian people," or so their proclamation read, the commanders of the Allied and Associated Powers in the Russian Far East established a protectorate over the city.7 The action typified Siberia's rapid descent into the chaos of civil war. On the Pacific coast, foreign powers were taking over a major city and landing troops. Further inland governments representing all shades of the political spectrum were springing up and demanding their right to rule all of Russia. Local War Lords and adventurers were building up private armies to pillage and plunder. Russia was no longer fighting Germany. She was fighting herself, as well as the Tsar's former allies.

During the following months troops from over eleven nations would disembark and march into the Siberian hinterland, including over eight thousand US Doughboys and Seventy Thousand Japanese soldiers. Calling themselves 'allies' each seemed to arrive in the Far East with their own agenda. General Otani, commanding the Japanese contingent, immediately rushed his force north up the Trans-Siberian to Habvorosk and then proceeded west towards Lake Baikal. The British General Alfred Knox and his French counterpart, General Pierre Janin, offered their support to anti-Bolshevik 'White' Russian elements. Major General William S. Graves' refusal to allow his US troops to be drawn into the sinkhole of the civil war made him few friends.8 He summed up his position clearly in a cable to his superiors in Washington:

My refusal to permit the use of United States troops in the trouble between Russian factions has enabled the Reactionary Party to claim that Americans are Bolsheviks and enabled other parties to claim that we are favorable to reactionary party, because by our presence Reactionary Party is enabled to commit excesses on the people which they could not do if Allied forces were not present.9

Despite their different aims, all the allies in Siberia could at least see the need for a degree of order in Vladivostok. Nowhere was this more necessary. The city was to be the springboard for their intervention into the Russian Civil War. It was the only port to supply willing forces to fight the Bolsheviks. For a successful intervention (however 'success' was defined by the intervening powers) Vladivostok had to be made 'stable' and 'safe.'

Unfortunately, Vladivostok followed the rest of Siberia in its descent into chaos. Following their proclamation making the city their own, sailors and marines from the Allied nations were landed. Together with the Czechs already there (they had taken the city on June 28) the men were organized into squads consisting of the various nationalities and local police to patrol the port and streets.

They soon realized that this early effort would not be sufficient. The task was too big. A city of one hundred and fifty thousand at the outbreak of war in Europe, Vladivostok swelled to over twice that amount during the upheavals that followed the downfall of the Tsar. Vladivostok was the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. It was Russia's primary port on the Pacific. It was a magnet for refugees of all sorts.

The World War caused an economic boom in the city. As Allied supplies streamed into the city jobs were plentiful. Port and rail facilities needed upgrading. Railways purchased in America needed assembling. The vast quantity of war materials needed shipping inland. However, the rail system proved unable to handle a large amount of the supplies, which built up on the wharfs and spilled over into any vacant area around town. With the ending of the war (against Germany, at least) the economy quickly collapsed. Basic necessities became increasingly scarce due to the emphasis on material for war rather than supplies the people of Siberia needed to survive. Upheavals, governmental changes and the swelling population made matters worse. What was a pleasant and prosperous city soon degenerated into one where unemployment was rampant, buildings and roads fell into disrepair, and people were living wherever they could find shelter.10

To make matters worse, following the revolution jails and prison camps were thrown open, including the penal colony at Sakhalin Island, notorious for its criminals said to be the " Europe and among the worst in Russia".11 In Vladivostok they enjoyed complete freedom. As in most cases, the prisoners' first act upon release was to destroy all prison records. The local police, an already overburdened and under (if at all) paid force could do little to check the city's downward slide. With increasing numbers of refugees from European Russia bringing what money and belongings they could carry Vladivostok must have seemed a promised land for bandits, robbers, pick-pockets, confidence men, and outlaws of all sorts. The desperate plight of many of the city's inhabitants inevitably pushed some into criminal acts in an attempt to survive, but these relatively minor offences were out of necessity ignored. Due to the state of the police force only serious and violent crimes could be investigated.

The perpetrators of these sorts of crime were large and small robber bands. Taking advantage of their strength in numbers they terrorized the city, its environs and surrounding towns. In most cases well organized and led, their bold operations and evil reputation intimidated the population to the extent that few dared give information or testify against them. Examples of those that did could be found almost daily in gutters and alleyways, often mutilated beyond recognition. While desperately trying to cope with the robber bands, the police were helpless before the political bands. These bands mostly comprised anarchists with years of experience in outwitting the Tsarist secret police, the Okrana. In Vladivostok life became very cheap. "At night to venture out in some parts of the city," a veteran of the American Expeditionary Force wrote, "was as safe as going to sleep in the mouth of a canon and taking a gambler's chance that when it went off, it would miss you".12

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