1918 Occupation Force : Forgotten War: Yanks in Russia
There are no longer many people with personal recollections of when American soldiers landed in Russia.
But Fyodor Kobuishev remembers. He is in his 80s now, with white hair, and he recalls vividly the day that the doughboys rolled through in their wagons.
The Bolshevik state was very young, and Kobuishev was not much older, when the United States, along with other foreign powers, sent in troops to support the anti-Communist Russians, known as the Whites, who had risen against the Reds in the waning months of World War I.
It was the summer of 1918. The government of the czars had been replaced, first by the Kerensky government and then by the Bolsheviks in 1917. After a period of relative calm, civil war had erupted in May.
Stayed Until 1920
In support of the Whites, British, French and U.S. troops were landed at Murmansk, on the Barents Sea and at Archangel in the north. American troops were also put ashore in Vladivostok and remained there until 1920. A much larger force of Japanese troops also came to this port city and did not leave until 1922.
This bit of history has been given considerable attention recently in the Soviet press in an effort to counter the impact of the ABC Television network’s mini-series, “Amerika,” which was shown in the United States last month.
Soviet officials are emphasizing that the television series dealt with a fictional takeover of the United States by Soviet troops but that the American troops that came ashore here were real, and, they argue, were trying to topple the Bolshevik government.
Even Maj. Gen. William S. Graves, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force of between 7,500 and 10,000 soldiers, harbored doubts about the purpose of his mission.
“I must admit,” he wrote in his memoirs, “I do not know what the United States was trying to accomplish by military intervention.”
Graves had been given ambiguous orders by President Woodrow Wilson that directed him to assist anti-Bolshevik groups but also barred interference in Russia’s internal affairs. So while he assigned American troops to guard the Trans-Siberian railway that delivered supplies to anti-Bolshevik forces in the interior, he refused to join in punitive expeditions against Bolshevik units.
At times, U.S. soldiers had confrontations with Cossack units and Japanese troops who were supposedly allies. At other times, the Americans suffered casualties from attacks by pro-Bolshevik partisans. In general, they did not engage in large battles but were harassed by the guerrillas. Sometimes they found home-made grenades built with American tobacco tins that had been good-will gifts.
The worst American losses came in the “Romanovka Massacre” on June 25, 1919. American historian Robert J. Maddox, author of “The Unknown War Against Russia,” recounts how 24 Americans were killed and an equal number wounded during a pre-dawn attack by partisans on their camp at Romanovka.
The newspaper Red Star, the official publication of the Soviet armed forces, recently accused American soldiers of committing large-scale atrocities in Siberia.
“In the Amur district alone, Americans destroyed 25 villages,” it said. “In March, 1919 . . . they attacked the totally peaceful village of Ivanovka, burned it down and killed 1,300 of its inhabitants.”
According to the official news agency Tass, a Moscow television company is making a documentary film about the intervention. It said the film will show that the United States was “the mastermind of an imperialist military invasion.”
Andrei I. Krushanov, a Soviet historian, said American firms delivered 800,000 rifles and other weapons, along with a million uniforms, to the anti-Bolshevik troops, which were commanded by Adm. Aleksandr V. Kolchak.
The white-haired Kobuishev, who was a revolutionary partisan at the time, talked with a visiting reporter the other day, and recalled that he and other Russians were startled by the sight of the Americans.
“We didn’t even know who they were,” he said. “Their hats were absolutely out of place for a soldier . . . and the animals we never saw before.”
The “out-of-place” hats were the campaign hats worn by the American soldiers of World War I--Marine Corps drill instructors still wear them, as does Smokey the Bear--and the strange animals were mules, which were commonplace on the Western Front and on farms throughout the United States.
Kobuishev said he does not recall any armed conflict between partisans and Americans in his district of Spassk, not far from this port city. And he added that unlike other soldiers that civilians had encountered, the Americans did not treat the people at all badly.
Still, he faults the Americans on one count.
“American soldiers were fond of vodka,” he said, “and often drank (to the extent that they became) unconscious. They even appeared drunk in churches, during Mass, and people were outraged.”
Another old partisan, V. T. Pachetsky, who recalls that “whole companies and platoons” of Americans disembarked from the troopships and marched down Vladivostok’s main street, has memories that contrast with Kobuishev’s. He said the U.S. military police sometimes attacked civilians with their night sticks.
“Their first tendency,” he said, “was to get drunk, and in that state they did terrible things.”
Historian Maddox writes that the American troops accomplished nothing except to prolong the civil war. But on the whole, he says, the Americans did not engage in the “ruthless tactics” used by the Japanese and by Kolchak’s men.
Two American regiments, the 27th Infantry and the 31st Infantry, arrived in Vladivostok in August, 1918. Their assignment, besides guarding the Trans-Siberian Railway, was to protect the coal mines at Suchan, about 75 miles from Vladivostok, according to Maddox. Two battalions went far inland, to a point just east of Lake Baikal, to guard a vital section of the railroad.
Gen. Graves tried to remain neutral, Maddox says, but the American military presence helped nonetheless to preserve a vital supply pipeline for Kolchak’s forces.
The buildings that the U.S. Army and Navy used as their headquarters from 1918 to 1920 are still standing in downtown Vladivostok, but there are no plaques or markers.
When the Americans arrived in 1918, Vladivostok already was teeming with foreign troops. Tons of unopened supplies, including crated cars and trucks, bales of cotton and machinery, were piled on the docks and nearby hillsides, according to their contemporary accounts.
By the time they left in 1920, an Army chaplain had performed about 80 marriages involving doughboys and Russian women.
Today, in the city’s military museum, photographs of American soldiers and the cruiser Brooklyn are prominently displayed in a section devoted to the civil war and the Allies’ intervention.
In any case, some citizens of this port city, where former leaders Gerald R. Ford and Leonid I. Brezhnev met in 1976 to sign the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, would just as soon forget the time when American soldiers marched on Russian soil.
“Let this stay in history: we’re weary of fighting,” Larisa K. Fedotova, an official of the Soviet Peace Fund, told a visiting American.
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