At the end of 1918, as a result of its Great War victory, Britain had control of a vast area stretching eastward from Istanbul into Anatolia, the Caucasus and Transcaspia. Behind this area a great belt of land running east from Palestine, through Mesopotamia and into Persia lay in England’s hands, to do what it wished with. In front of this Britain was supplying and supporting various military forces that were disintegrating the Russian State through Civil War. The Great War of 1914 had not only succeeded in destroying Germany, and the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires but it had also seemingly won Britain the Great Game of a century of geopolitical rivalry with Russia.
But in less than two years Russia was back in the Caucasus and Transcaspia and was pressing down on British Persia. And Russia was no longer Tsarist but Bolshevik Russia.
This extraordinary turn of events does not figure in the history books of the Anglosphere. So it deserves some attention and explanation.
Russia in the Caucasus
Transcaucasia (modern day Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) or the Caucasus (including also the Mountain state of Dagestan) had been part of the Russian Empire for only a century before the Great War of 1914. Prior to that catastrophic event the region south of the Caucasus mountains, between the Black and Caspian Seas, had been under Ottoman and Persian influence for centuries and had been the preserve of a number of local rulers.
However, by the time of the Great War the Southern Caucasus and Transcaspia were firmly in Russian hands. The Tsarist State had expanded across the Caucasus mountains in the early 19th Century, driving back Turkish and Persian influence and absorbing the territories of local Khans. By a Proclamation in 1783, Catherine the Great had placed much of Georgia under Russian suzerainty. After losing the war of 1826-1828 with Russia, Persia surrendered all territories to the north of Aras river. In 1813 the rest of Georgia, along with about half of Azerbaijan, was taken by the Tsar in the Treaties of Gulistan and Turkmanchay (leaving most Azerbaijanis to this day in modern Iran). Although it took until 1864 to pacify the area, in less than half a century Russia had become master of Transcaucasia.
The Russian State moved across the Khirghiz steppe in the 1840s and had conquered the Khanates of Bokhara, Kokand and Khiva by the 1870s. This made the entire Caucasus and Transcaspian regions a Russian domain by the 1880s with Tsarist forces appearing in Merv, within reach of Afghanistan, to the north east of the British Indian Empire.
However, Russian attempts at colonisation of the Caucasus largely failed and settlers returned to Russia. Russia had to settle for using the Christian Armenians as a colonial element. Over a million Armenians were settled in the Southern Caucasus during the 19th Century. However, the Armenians only really had their religion and the fear of being engulfed by the Moslem majority to bind them to the Russians. The Russian attitude to the Armenians was to direct any nationalism they developed westward toward Ottoman Armenia and use them as instruments in any expansionary policy of the Tsarist state in that direction.
Economic development and integration into the Russian Empire, which began after the Tsarist conquest had a considerable impact on the development of the Southern Caucasus. The construction of Russian railroads from Poti via Tiflis to Baku was particularly significant and the area was connected to the main Russian railway system when the line from Rostov to Baku was opened in 1900. These developments brought Northern Persia into the Russian sphere by the latter part of the 19th Century, something that concerned Britain greatly.
The first oil wells were drilled at Baku in 1869. The city became the richest single oilfield in the world and was invaluable to the Russian economy. At the time of the Great War 8 million tons of oil were produced in Baku, with most consumed in Russia itself. Only a small amount was pumped through a pipeline to Batum and exported.
In 1923 Clare Price wrote this informative description of the Southern Caucasus. It sets the scene for the geopolitical struggle that took place between Britain and Russia between 1918 and 1920 over influence in Transcaucasia.
“East of the Black Sea… the British writ did not run. Here between the Black Sea and the Caspian is the ancient barrier of the Caucasus Range, below which the Trans-Caucasian plateau forms a bridge both to the back of the Ottoman Empire and to Persia. Below the blue peaks of the Caucasus Range lay Tiflis, the capital of the Georgian Kingdom midway between the Black Sea and the Caspian, with the Turkish village of Batum on the Black Sea shores and the Tartar village of Baku on the Caspian. Turks and Tartars were both Moslem, but the old Georgian Kingdom was Orthodox and, extending in a broad belt down through the Ottoman provinces in eastern Asia Minor were most of the Armenians.
Expanding Russia was not long in bursting the barrier of the Caucasus Range. More than a century ago, it swallowed the Georgian Kingdom, snuffed out the eight little Tartar chieftains around Baku and found itself in contact with the Armenian Catholicos and the eastern fringes of the Ermeni community in the Ottoman Empire. In further accord with its policy of undermining that Empire, it availed itself of the presence of the Armenians in the usual imperialist manner and, in its war of 1876 against the Sultan, it drove its way deeply into his eastern provinces, transferring the Armenians from Ottoman to Russian sovereignty as it went.
Its objective was the great bay of Alexandretta on the Mediterranean which was to free it of its Black Sea jail, a scheme which Great Britain recognized by secretly taking over the “administration” of Cyprus from the Sultan. The treaty of San Stefano stopped the Russian advance hundreds of miles short of Alexandretta and in front of the new Ottoman frontier, Russia developed Kars into a great fortress as a base for its further advance toward Alexandretta when opportunity offered.
Having seized Batum from the Sultan, Russia continued the consolidation of Trans-Caucasia under its own provincial governors and stamped the entire region with the unmistakable imprint of a Russian economic regime. It pierced the barrier of the Caucasus Range with a military highroad to Tiflis, which it prolonged as a railroad to Kars and the Armenian center of Erivan. It drove its railways past the east end of the Caucasus Range to make a Russian railhead and a Russian Caspian port of Baku, around which lay one of the greatest oil fields in the world. It developed the village of Batum into a fortified Russian port on the Black Sea and with its Trans-Caucasian railroads from Batum via Tiflis to Baku, it made Batum the gate to the Caspian for all the Western world. Long before, it had driven the Persians from the Caspian, making a Russian lake of that inland sea, and Russian steamship lines from Baku to Enzeli, the port of Teheran, now made Batum the world’s gate to the Persian capital.
From the Trans-Caucasian bridge, the Russian march toward the sea forked into two directions. The direction in which the Russian Armies of 1876 turned, was toward Alexandretta on the Mediterranean. The other direction was indicated later when a railroad was carried from Kars to the Persian frontier, whence it was to be continued when requisite to Tabriz and Teheran. This might have exposed the Persian Gulf to Russia, but the Government of India had already made the Gulf more British than the Mediterranean. The Gulf had become a land-locked British lake whose narrow door-way into the Indian Ocean was dominated by the potential British naval base of Bunder Abbas. If Russia had succeeded in reaching the Gulf through Persia, a Russian port on its shores would have been imprisoned by Bunder Abbas, as the Russian Black Sea ports were already imprisoned by Constantinople and the Russian Baltic ports by the Sound. For the time being, the Russian Trans-Caucasian railhead on the north-west frontier of Persia awaited events.” (The Rebirth of Turkey, pp.40-2)
The Great Game
The Southern Caucasus region was too far inland to be part of the Great Game between Russia and Britain – the great geopolitical struggle of the 19th Century. This was because Transcaucasia was beyond the reach of Britain’s primary weapon of war, the Royal Navy, and therefore beyond contest with the Tsar’s armies. For more than a century the Russians had sought a warm water port for access to the oceans and Britain had checked her everywhere.
Britain had acted as an ally of the Ottoman Empire for most of the century before the Great War in order to block the Tsar from the Mediterranean. During this period Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman State as a giant buffer zone between its Empire and the expanding Russian Empire. It was part of what was known as the Great Game in England that “the Russians should not have Constantinople” and the warm water port that this would have given them. It was for this reason that England fought the Crimean War. Later on in the century the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli rolled back the Treaty of San Stefano that the Tsar had imposed on the Sultan and saw to it that renegotiations produced the much less advantageous Treaty of Berlin. This helped preserve the Ottoman Empire against another attempted Russian expansionism in the region.
Russia’s increasing influence in Northern Persia prompted Britain to put an obstacle in front of the Tsar by establishing a presence in South East Persia, protecting the Persian Gulf from Russian encroachment. It was a vital concern of Britain’s Indian Empire that the Tsar was blocked from getting port facilities there. Persia was part of what Lord Curzon, when Viceroy of India, referred to as “the glacis of India” in the course of an important speech to the Legislative Council in Calcutta made on 30 March 1904:
“India is like a fortress, with the vast moat of the sea on two of her faces, and with mountains for her walls on the remainder; but beyond those walls, which are sometimes of by no means insuperable height, and admit of being easily penetrated, extends a glacis of varying breadth and dimension. We do not want to occupy it, but we also cannot afford to see it occupied by our foes. We are quite content to let it remain in the hands of our allies and friends; but if rival and unfriendly influences creep up to it and lodge themselves right under our walls, we are compelled to intervene, because a danger would thereby grow up that might one day menace our security. This is the secret of the whole position in Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet, and as far eastwards as Siam. He would be a short-sighted commander who merely manned his ramparts in India and did not look out beyond; and the whole of our policy during the past five years has been directed towards maintaining our influence, and to preventing the expansion of hostile agencies on this area which I have described.” (Earl of Ronaldshay, on the Outskirts of Empire in Asia)
A glacis is the killing ground on the approaches to a Medieval fortress.
During the 19th century Britain’s traditional enemy in Europe had been France and her traditional rival in Asia had been Russia. However, in the early years of the 20th century England gradually came to the conclusion that Germany was the coming power to be opposed. Therefore, in the interests of the Balance of Power policy which Britain had practiced for centuries to keep Europe at bay it was decided to overturn the Foreign policy of a century and to establish alliances with traditional enemies, France and Russia, so that Germany could be encircled and then destroyed as a commercial rival. The alliance that Britain entered into with Russia in 1907, therefore, was the single most important event that made a British war on the Ottoman Empire inevitable as a consequence of the War on Germany.
Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been opposed to military conscription. Therefore, it would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself, particularly since its major weapon, the Naval Blockade, required a siege to be constructed and a cutting off of resources to the east of Germany.
In 1907 England made an agreement with Russia over Persia, partitioning the country into 3 zones of influence, with the Tsar taking the Northern part, the British controlling the South East and an intermediate “neutral” zone in between. This was part of the Anglo-Russian Convention which settled affairs with the Tsar, suspended the Great Game of Imperial rivalry, and set the two Powers on course for War on Germany and by implication, the Ottoman Empire.
George Curzon, who had been Viceroy of the Indian Empire, felt that Sir Edward Grey had been too generous in this concession to the Russians. He felt that the neutral zone might permit the Russians from reaching the Gulf in South West Persia. However, the Liberal Imperialists, who were re-orientating British Foreign Policy in preparation for a Great War on Germany – and by implication on the Ottomans because of the Tsar’s ultimate objective of Constantinople – felt the concession was necessary to gain the Tsar’s “Russian Steamroller” – the vital military force that could bear down on Berlin from the East and encircle the Germans, making a British Sea Blockade effective.
Russia’s Fateful Decision
Tsarist Russia was ready for war in 1914. It was a long-standing expansionary state with further ambitions of expansion – particularly down to the Dardanelles. It immediately went on the offensive on all fronts – Austro-German and then Ottoman. The Russian Steamroller steamed ahead until it was stopped and then it began roll back, with devastating consequences to those behind it.
After Britain had made the European war of July 1914 into a World War by joining it and expanded its conflict zone to global proportions it supported the Tsarist War effort with nearly 600 million pounds in loans. As in previous wars fought on the European continent, in pursuit of the Balance of Power, British finance was an important element in sustaining conflict to the required attritional level that the enemy could be ground down.
The Armenians were the only people of the Caucasus who engaged in quasi-independent military action during the Great War – simultaneously supporting the Tsarist War effort and also engaging in insurrection against the Ottomans for their own purposes. The Georgians served in the Tsarist armies on the same basis as other Russian subjects. The Azerbaijanis were largely excluded from military service by the Tsar and remained the most unmilitarised element in the region. They were not disloyal to the Tsar as the Ottoman Armenians were to the Sultan but they remained largely apathetic to the war, getting on with their lives as best they could.
The Great War did not intrude into the Caucasus until the collapse of the Russian lines brought it there in early 1918.
However, in the course of Britain’s Great War on Germany its ally Tsarist Russia, and not Germany or the Ottoman Empire, began to collapse in the attritional War. Germany and Turkey proved much more resilient than anticipated and Russia was not industrialised enough for the production of war materials that a long war of attrition entailed.
The enormous British loans were paid back by the Tsarist regime with a enormous shedding of blood by the Russian masses until the amount of this blood, particularly expended in the offensives of 1916, resulted in a collapse of Russian morale.
It was the Tsar’s decision to ally with Britain and continue fighting the Great War to a conclusion, under pressure from Britain, that put paid to Imperial Russia.
Tsarist Russia was not the declining decrepit state that it is often portrayed as, after 1917. It was seen as the advance guard of Western Civilisation in Asia and its “civilising mission” was admired as much as the consequences were feared in England. In the decades prior to the decision to go to War, the Russian economy was in very good shape and the fastest growing in the world. New railways were being laid at a tremendous rate. Between 1900 and the War, iron and coal production more than doubled and Russian grain fed much of the European continent. It had a vigorous intellectual life which produced Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. There was a great flowering of cultural life in the last decades of the Romanovs.
But the great gamble of acting as England’s cannon fodder to secure Constantinople in the Great War ended in disaster for Russia.
By early 1917 it was clear to Britain that the Tsarist State had begun to exhaust itself as an instrument of War on Germany. The Tsar propelled the Russian nation to War from the time he made an alliance with Britain in 1907. The Russian Army lost confidence in the Tsar’s direction of the War and turned to the Duma to construct a new social order from which the War could be continued. Prince Lyvov became Prime Minister, but soon handed over the reins of power to Kerensky.
The February Revolution was welcomed in Britain as a means by which Russia might continue the Great War. And there was indeed a brief surge in the Russian War effort as a result of the Revolution.
But it proved to be a dead cat bounce when Kerensky failed to exert authority over the state. He failed to make the bourgeois democratic revolution. This let in the Bolsheviks, who had the will to power to construct a new social order and govern the Russian State.
The Provisional Government owed its existence to the Russian military elite, which was committed to the War, and was being funded by Britain to continue it. The War should have been called off at that point but how could the Provisional Government go against the Army to which it was beholden?
The continuation of the War and the failure of the Provisional Government to stabilise the state resulted in anarchy. Out of the anarchy came the Bolsheviks, a purposeful party which enacted a coup d’erat in order to curb the anarchy and save the state..
The important factor in the Caucasus was the half million strong Tsarist army occupying territory deep within the Ottoman state. The Tsarists, Armenians, Social Revolutionaries and Menshevik socialists wanted to preserve this army and wage the War to the bitter end. The Bolsheviks succeeded in disorganising this army through the formation of illegal party cells. Only after October and the Bolshevik takeover did the Caucasian front begin to crumble.
After Kerensky had failed to rejuvenate the Russian War effort the Allied governments hoped that the Bolsheviks could be “persuaded” to remain in the War, either through pressure or as a result of getting poor terms from Germany in the peace negotiations. The British feared that the Germans could nullify the Royal Navy Blockade and turn the War in their favour by exploiting the resources of the Ukraine and Caucasus.
If the Bolsheviks had been prepared to continue the War there is little doubt that Britain would have supported a Soviet Government with everything and more that it had provided to the Tsar. Bruce Lockhart’s mission was a serious British attempt to come to terms with the Bolsheviks to achieve this objective.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed by the Bolsheviks was seen as a Russian betrayal of the War against Germany. Britain asserted that Russia had no right to secede from the War, no matter what popular support such a decision was based on. If Russia was not going to continue to wage War Britain was going to invade and occupy its territory with military forces and continue to wage that War for it.
The British maintained relations with the Bolshevik regime, while beginning to support forces opposing the Bolsheviks in the hope that a new Russian ally would emerge from the Revolution to resume the War on Germany.
A couple of months after the Bolshevik coup Britain began to intervene in Southern Russia. This intervention was to last until the summer of 1920 when Lloyd George finally decided to give up the ghost and abandon the forces Britain was supporting to their fate. By that time Germany and the Ottoman Turks had been defeated for over a year and a half.
In December 1917, the British War Cabinet voted to support the anti-Bolshevik Don Cossack General, A.M. Kaledin and others in Southern Russia. Robert Cecil, Undersecretary to Balfour at the Foreign Office sent a telegram to the British Ambassador in Petrograd on 3 December stating that “no regard should be had to expense and you should furnish to Cossacks and Ukrainians any funds necessary by any means you think desirable”. Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, issued a similar order to his attaches in the region. The War Cabinet stated on December 14 that “Any sum of money required for the purposes of maintaining alive in South East Russia the resistance to the Central Power… should be furnished… so long as the recipients continue the struggle” (Richard H. Ullman, Intervention and the War, Anglo-Soviet Relations 1917-1921, Vol. I, p.46, p.52)
These arrangements were kept secret from the Bolshevik government, with which the British Government was still dealing, and the Russians were assured that England was “not interested in internal Russian affairs” or “counter-revolution” (ibid, p.53).
The British adopted a policy of encouraging separatist movements and the establishment of an alternative “Russia” independent of Petrograd, consisting of the Cossack regions, the Ukraine and Caucasus – which contained much of the oil, coal and corn needed by the state to function. Extraordinarily, Britain’s diplomatic service in Russia was employed to attempt to subvert the government which provided it with protection.
It is important, therefore, to understand that the British intervention in Russia in 1918 was neither an anti-Bolshevik operation or another round in the Great Game against Russia. It was primarily designed to force Russia to continue the Great War it had enlisted in to fight, no matter what its political character.
It took the massacre of the Romanovs in July 1918 to make the point that the Bolsheviks meant business and there was no going back for anyone.
The July 1918 British landings at Archangel and other Allied interventions in Siberia proved too small to either encourage the Russian masses to stay in the War or overthrow the Bolsheviks and replace them with a government that was willing to continue Britain’s Great War. Britain and France were under pressure from the German armies that Lenin – in order to gain a breathing space for Socialism to bed down – helped the Germans release from the East. They could not spare the 2 or more Divisions it was felt were necessary to abort the Bolshevik development at birth.
The Caucasus Vacuum
The situation in the Caucasus in 1918 was different to that in the rest of the Russian Empire.
Lenin had issued a Decree on Land that resulted in the melting away of the Tsarist armies on Germany’s Eastern front. In the Caucasus, however, Lenin was prepared to continue the Russian War to ensure the continued possession of the Baku oilfields, which would be essential for Soviet industrialisation, and the success of the Communist project. Industrialisation – a process usually performed by capitalism – was taken as being vital to the survival of the Communist State in a world of Capitalist industrialisation which was then becoming global. The Bolsheviks required a reconstituting of the front in the Caucasus to protect Baku, a Bolshevik hold-out in an area of seperatists, Mensheviks and Whites, from the Ottomans.
There was, as a consequence, a temporary confluence of interest between British Imperialism and Bolshevik Russia in early 1918.
Britain’s policy with regard to the Caucasus, after the Russian Revolution, was also aimed at reconstructing a Caucasian front against the Ottomans and Germans, in order to stop a drive to the East by the enemy, through the vacuum left by the initial melting away of Tsarist forces during late 1917.
Long before the Great War the German “Drang nach Osten” had been the nightmare of British observers of the East. The Great War had been fought partially to stop the German Berlin-Baghdad Railway reaching a port in the Persian Gulf and now the Great War itself had opened up the possibility of eastward expansion by leading to the collapse of one of the Allies that England had lured into fighting it!
The Pan-Turanian nightmare of Britain also became seen as a possibility in London because of the melt-down of Britain’s Tsarist ally, with the chance that the Turks would link up with the Azerbaijanis and the Moslem world beyond, in Transcaspia. Transcaspia along with Persia, to the South of the Caucasus, was part of Lord Curzon’s “Glacis of India”. Britain was also always fearful of a general Moslem rising in its great “Mussulman Empire” sparked off by any successful development of independent Moslem states.
The Brest-Litovsk Treaty seemed to preclude an Ottoman advance into the Caucasus but an Ottoman surge was facilitated when the mainly-Menshevik government of the Transcaucasian Commissariat refused to accept the Brest-Litovsk Treaty the Bolsheviks had concluded with the Germans. The Ottomans were thereby released from the German/Ottoman acceptance of territorial agreements in the Treaty and enabled to advance eastwards toward the Caspian (Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaucasia, pp.86-117).
Britain supported the Menshevik-dominated Transcaucasian Commissariat – composed of an uneasy alliance of Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis – which had seized the arms of the Bolshevik garrison at Tiflis. The Transcaucasian Commissariat became the de facto authority in most of the Southern Caucasus, refusing to recognise the Bolshevik government of Russia in Petrograd. Britain also encouraged everyone and anyone to man the front in the Caucasus to prevent such a development. This included both the Bolsheviks and the Armenian Dashnaks as well as an assortment of socialists and anti-Bolshevik Russians.
The Bolsheviks, after collapsing the Tsarist lines in late 1917, now sought to reconstitute the Russian line to defend the Baku Soviet and the oil that was needed for the Russian State. Over 80 per cent. of Russia’s oil came from the Baku oil fields and since the survival of the Bolshevik state depended on industrialisation it was indispensable to Lenin (Huseyn Tosun, Developments in Azerbaijan after the Bolshevik Revolution, IRS Spring 2018, p.102).
In the Brest-Litovsk Treaty Lenin had conceded to Germany and taken Russia out of the ranks of the Entente. But in the Caucasus the anti-nationalist Bolsheviks collaborated with the ultra-nationalist Armenian Dashnaks in order to hold onto Baku, resulting in a massacre of 12,000 Moslems in the city in a few days in March 1918. This was despite the fact that the Bolsheviks had agreed, in the 1st Article of Brest-Litovsk Supplementary agreement with the Ottomans to demobilise and disband Armenian forces (Rahman Mustafayev, From Imperial Province to Parliamentary Republic, IRS No. 1, 2010, p.7)
In the Caucasus Britain put aside its ideologically hatred of Bolshevism for the same end. British agents financed, armed and trained an Armenian army with Russian weapons and they worked with Trotsky to form a common front against the Ottoman advance into the Caucasus. Armenian bands with Tsarist weapons, financed by Britain, roamed the countryside destroying Moslem settlements and massacring their inhabitants in pursuit of expanding the territory of a future Armenian state. Britain turned a blind eye to these activities, suppressing news of such events in the outside world, in the interests of the “Great War for Civilisation”.
At the same time, however, the British worked to overthrow the Bolshevik leadership in the Baku Soviet and release it with more reliable allies. If the Bolsheviks had consented to the British Imperialist intervention at Baku the British Government, no doubt, would have worked with them against the Ottoman forces in defending the city. However, Stefan Shaumyan, the Bolshevik leader of the Baku Commune, after contacting Lenin and Stalin, decided that letting General Dunsterville’s expeditionary force defend Baku was too dangerous to agree to, since it opened the possibility of an alliance between the British and Armenian Dashnaks in Baku, fatal to the Bolshevik presence.
An alliance of non-Bolsheviks, including Mensheviks, Left SRs and Dashnaks managed to oust the Bolshevik leadership of the Baku Soviet after secret contact was established by the Armenians with Dunsterville’s forces en route to the city. Shaumyan and the Bolshevik Commissars left on ships and were all murdered on the shores of the Caspian by anti-Bolsheviks with embedded British agents.
Both in Baku and in Archangel, in North Russia, the British military interventions were preceded by coup d’etats, encouraged and supported by the British, who were then invited to intervene by these new friendly regimes. The Bolsheviks learnt well from the British Imperialists.
The British policy culminated in the lost battle of Baku, where a conglomeration of non-Bolshevik Soviet Communists, Socialists, White Russians, Armenian Dashnaks and British Imperialists stood unsuccessfully against an Ottoman and Azerbaijani army, who took the city in September 1918 and established the Azerbaijani capital there. Dunsterville’s forces deserted the city just before its fall, blaming the Armenians for their poor fighting ability in failing to hold a defensive position against only a slightly larger attacking force.
At no time did General Dunsterville fight Bolshevik forces, unlike Major-General Malleson who, to the east of the Caspian, with his British Indian army in alliance with local forces made war on the Bolsheviks.
However, in only two months, the Ottoman presence in the Caucasus was ended by Britain’s victory in the Great War. For the first time, the British were masters of Transcaucasia.