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26 September 2018


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Book Review

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Dances in Deep Shadows

by Michael Occleshaw

“Intervention” is a rather sanitary word. We talk of family interventions to help steer addicts and alcoholics back to health. And we tout interventions (pre-emptive or otherwise) on the international stage as humanitarian efforts or actions in self-defense against perceived threats.

But tack on an “ism” and the word takes on a decidedly negative connotation: “interference by one country in the political affairs of another” (Merriam-Webster). By becoming an “ism” – signifying a tendency or repetitiveness – it smacks of meddling and sticking one’s guns in where one does not belong.

Down through history, a country doing the intervening tends to see their actions as an intervention, while the one being intervened upon sees it as interventionism: Colonial America, Vietnam, Guatemala, Iraq, the Philippines, Chechnya, Lebanon... the examples seem endless. Indeed, in the four decades after World War II, the U.S. and USSR turned interventionism into a regular tool of Cold War diplomacy, interfering militarily in the political affairs of Third World states over 200 times – be it floating a battleship in a harbor to influence an election or lending troops and arms to train/support local forces in a civil war.

It is also the case that intervenedupon countries tend to give the interventions more significance in their ongoing history than do the interveners. Often this is because they pay a much higher price.

In this light, it is worth noting that few historians (George Kennan being a notable exception) have attributed proper significance to western interventionism in Russia’s civil war. And, prior to Michael Occleshaw’s comprehensive new book on the subject, historians might have been justified in this by a lack of data. Clearly it seemed that the intervention was relatively minor, aimed simply at protecting allied warehouses, supporting the Whites and encouraging a re-opening of the Eastern front.

But history has a tendency to come uncovered, and Occleshaw has unearthed huge pockets of historical information that points to western, particularly British, intelligence services in the instigation, prolongation and deepening of Russia’s brutal civil war. He also shows convincingly that western intervention in Russia’s civil war spurred the growth and power of the western states’ intelligence services and set the stage for a century of East-West conflict.

Occleshaw further tears down the myth that western powers were primarily interested in bringing Russia back into the war, or that they were merely protecting their property. These were simply pretexts for the real goal, Occleshaw argues, which was turning Russia into a power hugely dependent – financially and otherwise – upon the West, which would provide a bulwark for Britain’s empire in the East.

Some readers will find this argument more convincing than others. Yet no matter the overarching theories, Occleshaw’s account sheds light on a fascinating world of espionage and clandestine warfare. Populated with an amazing cast of characters (appropriately listed under “Dramatis Personae” across four pages in the foreword), this real-life tale is infinitely more entertaining than fiction.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2007