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The Polar Bear Expedition of 1918-1919
January 25, 2008 1:19 AM   Subscribe

"The "American Intervention in Northern Russia, 1918-1919," nicknamed the "Polar Bear Expedition," (wikipedia) was a U.S. military intervention in northern Russia at the end of World War I." The ostensible purpose was to open an Eastern Front following the Russian withdrawal from World War I, but in practice the unit stayed to fight Bolshevism. An archive of the expedition, which gives wonderful insight into early Bolshevik Russia as well as war-weary United States, is online.

Notable are the many diaries and photographs by ordinary members of the expedition, as well as some poignant newspaper clippings from the home front, touristy snapshots, brutal snapshots, and a petition drawn up by a former member demanding the return of American troops from Russia (some of whom had seen amputation by pocketknife). After a long struggle, bodies of American troops were returned in 1930. The descendant of a trooper is also keeping an interesting blog, and this site gives a Russian perspective via photos and a mocking song.
posted by Rumple (23 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Vaga River, a tributary of the upper Dvina Daugava, where the front was south of Shenkursk, 40 miles south of Toulgas. - fixed utt.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:17 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


whoops!

The Northern Dvina (Russian: Се́верная Двина́) is a river in Northern Russia flowing through the Vologda Oblast and Arkhangelsk Oblast into the Dvina Bay of the White Sea. The length is 744 kilometres (462 mi). It should not be confused with Western Dvina.

(In Soviet Russia, identically-named rivers confuse you!)
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:20 AM on January 25, 2008


Guy Maddin's movie movie Archangel is loosely inspired by this.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:37 AM on January 25, 2008


War weary? They were only in the damn thing for a year.
posted by mattoxic at 3:51 AM on January 25, 2008


I know so little about the first world war.
posted by Catfry at 5:18 AM on January 25, 2008


War weary? They were only in the damn thing for a year.

By late 1919 American troops had been in WWI for two and a half years. More importantly, these troops weren't bivouacked in western France, hanging out in bistros wooing the local mam'zelles; they were in fucking Archangel and environs, with freezing weather, resentful locals, polluted water, cholera, Spanish flu, typhoid, scurvy, and smallpox. You try a year of that and see how you like it.

W. Bruce Lincoln, in Red Victory, says:
...The interminable darkness of the Arctic winter took its toll upon [the Allied troops] and at the end of February 1919, British and French troops mutinied.... Everywhere the Americans resented being commanded by the British and ordered to hold most of the front-line positions. "The majority of the people here are in simpathy [sic] with the Bolo [i.e. Bolsheviks]," one American sergeant wrote in his diary. "I don't blame them in fact I am 9/10 Bolo myself." Although he minimized the danger in his reports, none sensed the collapse of the Allied soldiers' morale more clearly than [British General] Ironside himself. "We were drawing terribly near to the end of our tether as an efficient fighting force... Boredom amongst those who were not fighting, combined with the numbing effect of the cold and darkness, had brought . . . [our men] to a state of exasperation with which it was very difficult to deal."
Allied withdrawal was considerably delayed by Churchill's stubborn determination not to "abandon the Whites in their struggle against the Bolsheviks," a noble goal in theory but absurd in the context of the hopelessness of the struggle and the vile behavior of the Whites.

(In Soviet Russia, identically-named rivers confuse you!)

Heh. And don't forget the two Bug rivers!

posted by languagehat at 6:18 AM on January 25, 2008


vile behavior of the Whites

No kidding. With "heroes" like Grigory Semyonov, who needs enemies?
posted by aramaic at 6:34 AM on January 25, 2008


Allied withdrawal was considerably delayed by Churchill's stubborn determination not to "abandon the Whites in their struggle against the Bolsheviks," a noble goal in theory but absurd in the context of the hopelessness of the struggle and the vile behavior of the Whites.

uhh... which theory about supporting the Whites was noble? certainly not Churchill's... your comment smells of some anarcho-syndicalist alternative history hobby horse.
posted by geos at 6:36 AM on January 25, 2008


Side-question: at Vladivostok there were apparently 107 "Ammahese" troops under French command.

Um, who are the Ammahese?
posted by aramaic at 6:38 AM on January 25, 2008


I'm assuming here Ammahese is a typo for Annamese, aka Vietnamese.
posted by jtron at 7:12 AM on January 25, 2008


Durr, I mean Ammanese.
posted by jtron at 7:13 AM on January 25, 2008


uhh... which theory about supporting the Whites was noble?

Not the "supporting the Whites" part, the "opposing the Bolsheviks" part. Did you read the rest of my comment? And I have no idea what that "anarcho-syndicalist alternative history hobby horse" stuff is about, but if it means you're a Marxist-Leninist, let me know so I can not bother arguing with you.

Durr, I mean Ammanese.

No, you were right the first time, it's Annamese (from Annam).
posted by languagehat at 7:21 AM on January 25, 2008


Thanks, languagehat. This is what I get for posting without caffeine.
posted by jtron at 8:03 AM on January 25, 2008


"A prolonged and ill-advised foray into northern Russia? There's no way that could go wrong!"

"All precedents indicate unprecedented success!"
posted by Iridic at 8:33 AM on January 25, 2008


Some people feel that this incursion was one of the early events in the Cold War.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:03 AM on January 25, 2008


Metafilter: your comment smells of some anarcho-syndicalist alternative history hobby horse.
posted by Rumple at 10:13 AM on January 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


Not the "supporting the Whites" part, the "opposing the Bolsheviks" part. Did you read the rest of my comment? And I have no idea what that "anarcho-syndicalist alternative history hobby horse" stuff is about, but if it means you're a Marxist-Leninist, let me know so I can not bother arguing with you.



i think the anarchist community and in general the radical left traffic in a lot of "what if things were totally different than they were, then my pet ideological position would have been seen to bear fruit..." i.e. if the americans had stayed in russia on the side of the whites then the worker collectives would have become established enough to effecitvely resist the bolshevist purge and establish etc...

I'm not a marxist-leninist, honest, but opposing the Reds certainly means supporting the reaction and for Churchill it was all about supporting the reactionaries. I just don't get how a person on the left can say anything positive about operation Archangel regardless of whether they are still masturbating to "Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder" at home or not...

so, again noble? what's the noble cause here?
posted by geos at 11:00 AM on January 25, 2008


I just don't get how a person on the left can say anything positive about operation Archangel

OK, I think you're simply misreading me. I wasn't saying anything positive about operation Archangel (I would think the description in my first comment would have clued you in), I was saying something positive about Churchill's goal—which was, despite your assertion, that of defeating Communism. Since Communism was by far the worst thing to hit Russia in a history chock-ful of awfulness, I consider that a noble goal, and if there had been a better alternative and a better way to go about trying to avoid Lenin's triumph it would have been worth trying.

And you should really get over your pet peeve about "what if things were totally different than they were"; it's impossible to have a meaningful discussion about history if you're not allowed to think about how things might have gone differently. Try actually discussing the subject instead of indulging in pointless ad hominem involving the imaginary proclivities of someone to whom you're ascribing an ideological position. I don't give a rat's ass whether someone is a leftist, a rightist, or off the charts as long as they have something interesting to say about (in this case) the Russian Revolution and Civil War, a subject in which I am deeply interested. So far, you don't seem to.
posted by languagehat at 11:17 AM on January 25, 2008


I don't give a rat's ass whether someone is a leftist, a rightist, or off the charts as long as they have something interesting to say about (in this case) the Russian Revolution and Civil War, a subject in which I am deeply interested. So far, you don't seem to.

well, as long as they aren't a marxist-leninist but I understand, those newspapers are annoying.

i don't know, you haven't explained what you think is noble about supporting the dregs of a corrupt aristocracy against mobsters with an ideology. since you undoubtably are much better informed than i am, i'd appreciate hearing you explain yourself. maybe i should be more respectful and then you'd give a lecture...
posted by geos at 1:47 PM on January 25, 2008


No, you were right the first time, it's Annamese (from Annam).

Maybe they were from Amman, in present-day Jordan?
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:01 PM on January 25, 2008


Maybe they were from Amman, in present-day Jordan?

Jordan was at that point part of the Ottoman Empire, and any soldiers that weren't in the Ottoman army would have been caught up in the Arab Revolt.

Other sources confirm that there were four companies of soldiers from Annam sent to Vladivostok to reinforce certain French claims regarding the conflict.
posted by dhartung at 3:10 PM on January 25, 2008


well, as long as they aren't a marxist-leninist but I understand, those newspapers are annoying.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against listening to a Marxist-Leninist in theory, it's just that in practice they tend to have nothing interesting to say. I mean, I've read Lenin and Trotsky on the Great October Revolution, I know what M-L's think about the vanguard role of the proletariat and the necessity for the party to provide direction and the theory of democratic centralism etc. etc. etc., and I don't need to have my ear bent about it for the hundredth time. I recently had a semi-argument about Kronstadt with one of our resident Marxists; I say "semi-argument" because I tried arguing and bringing up facts and he kept calling me a tool of the bourgeois media. It got tiresome.

i don't know, you haven't explained what you think is noble about supporting the dregs of a corrupt aristocracy against mobsters with an ideology. since you undoubtably are much better informed than i am, i'd appreciate hearing you explain yourself.


Well, since once again you're claiming I said something I didn't say despite my prior explanation, I don't really see the point. I will point out for the record that I think Russia would have been better off under the more progressive elements of the aristocracy than under the Bolsheviks, but since you probably don't think there were any progressive elements of the aristocracy, I'm wasting my breath. Anyway, yes, the Bolsheviks were mobsters with an ideology and the Whites were mobsters without an ideology; I'm glad we can agree on something.
posted by languagehat at 6:10 PM on January 25, 2008


From the first link, "When American troops reached their destination in early September, they joined an international force commanded by the British". This was not, as the post seems to say, purely a "U. S. military intervention". There were troops from the UK, Ireland, Japan, France and Canada as well. The largest force came from Japan, and represented a phase in its expansionist policies that continued into World War II. Japan had already gained control of Korea, Inner Manchuria and parts of China. Each Allied power had been asked for 7,000 troops; the Japanese took the opportunity to send 70,000, concentrated in the Vladivostok area. After the other Allies left in 1920, the Japanese stayed on, raising concerns that they intended to hold the territory they occupied (they penetrated as far as Irkutsk, 1400 miles from the Sea of Japan.) After considerable diplomatic pressure from the other Allies they finally withdrew in 1922.
posted by beagle at 7:08 PM on January 25, 2008


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