Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mutiny from Victoria to Vladivostok

Learn about the Victoria mutiny of 21 December 1918, when French-Canadian conscripts mutinied in British Columbia's capital city when they departed from Victoria to Vladivostok, Russia. (from the Canadian Historical Review)

The Siberian Expedition | Legion Magazine

November 22, 2008, by Benjamin Isitt

Private Edwin Stephenson poses with some boys at Vladivostok in 1919. [PHOTO: STEPHENSON FAMILY COLLECTION]

Private Edwin Stephenson poses with some boys at Vladivostok in 1919.

Editor’s note: University of Victoria historian Benjamin Isitt travelled across Russia in spring 2008, uncovering the forgotten history of Canada’s 1918-19 Siberian Expedition. Below is a taste of what he learned from that journey and from other research.

On a wooded hillside outside Vladivostok, Russia, 14 Canadians found their final resting place in 1919. Five others died at sea. They were ordinary folk who had enlisted in the closing days of the First World War for service in an unlikely theatre—Siberia.

The Canadian Siberian Expedition Force (CSEF), which consisted of 4,213 men and one woman from across Canada, mobilized alongside 13 Allied armies to replace Lenin’s Bolsheviks with a more friendly government. The mission failed in the face of divided Allied strategies and heated domestic opposition, consigning the story to the margins of history.

Why Siberia?

Canada sent soldiers to Siberia after social revolution removed Russia from the First World War. Revealing the interaction of military strategy, diplomacy, economics and ideology, Canada’s aims shifted from beginning to end.

Russia had been a steadfast ally of both Canada and Britain, but the overthrow of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty in March 1917 led to troop desertions on the Eastern Front. The Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 cemented the new alignments, culminating in a separate peace between Russia and Germany at Brest-Litovsk.

Canada and the Allies refused to recognize the new Russian government, which the press described as “the enthronement of anarchy at Petrograd.” The Bolsheviks abolished private property, nationalized Russian banks, and repudiated 13 billion rubles in Allied war loans to the Czar.

The Canadian Memorial at Marine Cemetery, Vladivostok, is dedicated in June 1919. [PHOTO: STEPHENSON FAMILY COLLECTION]

The Canadian Memorial at Marine Cemetery, Vladivostok, is dedicated in June 1919.

As pockets of resistance emerged among Cossacks on the Don River and an array of White Russian generals from Northern Russia to Vladivostok—the Allies decided to send arms and men. White Russians was the name given to supporters of the counter-revolutionary armies that fought against the Bolshevik Red Army in the civil war.

In December 1917, the Allied Supreme War Council pledged support to Russian forces that were committed to a continuation of war against Germany.

In Vladivostok, 650,000 tons of Allied war materials were stockpiled on the wharves, stranded by supply problems along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. A Bolshevik administration took power, led by a 24-year-old university student named Konstantin Sukhanov, backed by a majority on the local soviet, a council of workers, soldiers’ and sailors’ deputies. As workers began seizing Vladivostok factories and the military port, Allied diplomats and businessmen grew alarmed. Others eyed Siberia’s abundant resources and markets, vacated by the German-owned Kunst & Albers Company, an organization akin to the Hudson’s Bay Co. “This is a wonderful chance for Canada,” Canadian intelligence officer James Mackintosh Bell informed the prime minister.

The Intervention

Japan was the first foreign power to reach the Russian Far East when the naval cruisers Iwami and Asahi dropped anchor in Vladivostok’s Golden Horn Bay in January 1918. The British cruiser HMS Suffolk reached the port two days later. Japan, which had been spared from the carnage on the Western Front and an ally since 1914, was the only nation with the capacity to mount a large-scale intervention. However, other allies such as the United States and its president Woodrow Wilson were wary of Japanese territorial ambitions.

Vladivostok relied on a vital communications link with European Russia: the Trans-Siberian Railroad and its Manchurian branch, the Chinese Eastern Railway zone that Russia leased from China. At the end of 1917, Chinese troops occupied the railway zone, disarming pro-Bolshevik Russians and backing an ad hoc government formed by railroad manager General Dmitri Horvath. He formed the nucleus of anti-Bolshevik power in the Russian Far East.

Canadian gunners pose with two female Russian transport drivers, February 1919. [PHOTO: ALAN A. OUTRAM, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA037374]

Canadian gunners pose with two female Russian transport drivers, February 1919.

In May 1918, the Trans-Siberian Railroad came under the control of the Czecho-Slovak Legion, a peculiar military force that had been marooned by the revolution. Consisting of 66,000 former prisoners of war, the Czecho-Slovaks clashed with the Red Army and seized a 6,000-kilometre stretch of railroad from the Ural Mountains to Vladivostok. This “army without a country” formed the advance party of Allied intervention, fighting Bolsheviks in a desperate bid for statehood.

On June 28, 1918, the Czecho-Slovaks spearheaded the Allied seizure of Vladivostok. Japanese, British, American and Chinese marines landed from warships in Golden Horn Bay, seizing the railroad station, the powder magazine, and other strategic points. The Czechs toppled the local Soviet, arresting Sukhanov and killing 44 armed longshore workers holed up in the Red Staff building.

A funeral attended by 20,000 Vladivostok citizens took place as the Allies placed the city under their “temporary protection.” By the end of July, all administrative, judicial, and financial functions had been assumed by the White cabinet of General Horvath.

Mobilizing Canada’s Contingent

Vladivostok came under White administration as the Allies ironed out details for the Siberian Expedition. At meetings in London in July 1918, Canadian prime minister Sir Robert Borden and other leaders pledged contingents for Siberia. They also sent troops to Murmansk, Archangelsk, and the Caspian Sea, as part of a campaign to surround the Bolshevik regime on four fronts.

On Aug. 12, 1918, the Privy Council approved the formation of the Canadian Siberian Expedition Force (CSEF), consisting of 4,000 troops in two infantry battalions, a machine-gun company, a mounted squadron from the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP), and supporting units. In a diplomatic coup for Canada, 1,500 British troops in the Middlesex and Hampshire regiments were placed under the command of Canadian Major-General James H. Elmsley.

A loaded transport truck provides a photo op for members of the Canadian Siberian Expedition Force, May 1919. [PHOTO: RAYMOND GIBSON, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C091749]

A loaded transport truck provides a photo op for members of the Canadian Siberian Expedition Force, May 1919.

Victoria, B.C., was selected as the assembly point for the Siberian Expedition, with other camps established at New Westminster and Coquitlam. Conscripts and volunteers mobilized to the West Coast. The 259th Battalion (Canadian Rifles) came from military districts around Quebec City, Montreal, Kingston, Ont., Toronto, and London, Ont.; the 260th Bn. from Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Alberta, and B.C., and the RNWMP’s B Squadron from Regina.

Elmsley returned from Europe, where he had led the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade on the Western Front, as officials arranged for the shipment of 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition from Vancouver to Vladivostok.

The troops converged on Victoria’s Willows Camp, in the tiny municipality of Oak Bay, just as the Spanish flu hit, relayed west on the troop trains of the Siberian force. The 259th Bn. dropped 75 soldiers en route to the West Coast. When influenza was detected among soldiers at the Willows, the force was placed under quarantine and Victoria’s health committee banned all public gatherings.

Such conditions sapped morale within Canada’s Siberian force, which consisted of 1,653 conscripts under the Military Service Act. War diaries record a range of disciplinary infractions, from desertions and insubordination to absence without leave. Morale was also strained by the presence of 135 Russian troops, recalled from France and attached to the CSEF to act as interpreters in Siberia. Before the troops left Victoria, “Bolshevik loyalties” were detected among the Russians and only 35 were deemed suitable for service.

Officers of the 16th Infantry Brigade headquarters at Willows Camp, Victoria, December 1918. [PHOTO: DOROTHY I. PERRIN COLLECTION, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA164371]

Officers of the 16th Infantry Brigade headquarters at Willows Camp, Victoria, December 1918.

Oct. 11, 1918, Canada’s advance party sailed from Vancouver aboard the Empress of Japan, reaching Vladivostok 15 days later. The party consisted of 680 troops led by Elmsley and included civilians, such as Constantin Just, Canada’s former trade commissioner to Petrograd who belonged to the new Canadian Siberian Economic Commission. The Canadians were quartered in former Czarist barracks at the head of Golden Horn Bay and established force headquarters in the Pushkinskaya Theatre, an ornate building that had housed the esteemed Vladivostok Cultural-Education Society (to the anger of local business people).

The Canadians reached Vladivostok as the Allies struggled to stabilize conditions in Siberia. Rival White generals vied for power as battle raged in the Ural Mountains between Reds and White Russian, Czech, French, and Polish units. In November 1918, Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, former commander of the Czar’s Black Sea Fleet, toppled a Menshevik-led provisional government at Omsk, capital city of Siberia, declaring himself “Supreme Ruler of All Russia.”

Departure Day

Kolchak consolidated power in Siberia as the Armistice ended fighting on the Western Front and Canadian labour and farm organizations turned public opinion against the Siberian Expedition. The Canadian government was ill-equipped to adapt to the changing conditions, as the prime minister had left Canada for peace talks in Europe.

His cabinet, led by acting prime minister Sir Thomas White, was more in tune with local conditions, warning Borden that “public opinion here will not sustain us in continuing to send troops, many of whom are draftees under the Military Service Act and Order in Council, now that the war is ended.”

A Canadian gunner (seated) supervises prisoners as they load a barge at Yemetskoe, Northern Russia, in May 1919. [PHOTO: ALAN A. OUTRAM, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA037404]

A Canadian gunner (seated) supervises prisoners as they load a barge at Yemetskoe, Northern Russia, in May 1919.

Unrest mounted among labour unions in Canada’s four largest cities—Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver—and among farm organization such as the United Farmers of Ontario and Mount Hope Grain Growers. All passed resolutions opposing the Siberian Expedition. Newspapers, including the Toronto Globe and Hamilton Spectator questioned the deployment of the force now that the war in Europe was over.

In Victoria, during day-leave from camp, soldiers from the Siberian force attended labour meetings in large numbers where speakers voiced the demand “Hands Off Russia” and sold pro-Bolshevik pamphlets. “We are going to be railroaded to Siberia,” one soldier wrote to his sister from the Willows Camp.

On Dec. 21, 1918, this unrest provoked a mutiny in the streets of Victoria, when two companies of French-Canadian soldiers in the 259th Bn. broke from a march between the camp and the troopship SS Teesta. Officers ordered the obedient men to remove their belts and whip the dissenters into line. The march proceeded at the point of the bayonet and early on the morning of Dec. 22, the Teesta sailed for Vladivostok.

“Doing Nothing” In Vladivostok

The main body of Canada’s Siberian Expedition reached Vladivostok in January 1919 just as the Canadian government decided to bring the troops home from Vladivostok. Owing to divisions among the Allies, and farmer and labour opposition on the home front, Canada refused to allow the troops to move “up country” to the active front against the Red Army. Growing logistical problems further undermined the intervention, as Bolsheviks and partisans waged an irregular guerilla assault on the Allies’ line of communication, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and by blowing up bridges and seizing towns along the track.

An army had been mobilized to Siberia, but it never received authorization to fight.

Only 55 Canadians proceeded to Omsk, capital of Kolchak’s White Russian government, where they served as headquarters staff for British troops under the Canadian command. Another 200 Canadian soldiers joined Japanese, Czecho-Slovak, Italian and Chinese troops in an operation at the village of Shkotovo, just north of Vladivostok, to repel a partisan advance that threatened the coal supply for the railroad and Vladivostok.

Members of the CSEF battle it out in a tug-of-war at Vladivostok in early 1919. [PHOTO: RAYMOND GIBSON, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C091750]

Members of the CSEF battle it out in a tug-of-war at Vladivostok in early 1919.

“We declare a fight to the death,” the partisan commander-in-chief at Shkotovo informed the Allied command in Vladivostok as his troops evaporated into the hills. “Just as the Allied troops left Odessa and Archangel, so also you will be forced to leave Vladivostok.”

The Canadians in Vladivostok, numbering 4,000 men and quartered at barracks outside the city at Second River and Gornostai Bay, performed garrison duty and tried to keep busy. Hockey, soccer and baseball leagues were established, along with two brigade newspapers, the Siberian Bugle and Siberian Sapper, and movie theatres and canteen huts. Soldiers took day-leave in the city centre, visiting the bustling Chinese bazaar, Russian baths, and brothels in the vice-filled port. As tension mounted in spring 1919, the Canadian command forbade contact with the civilian population and instructed soldiers to carry arms at all times.

The evacuation of Vladivostok began in April 1919, as partisans laid siege to the city, killing Allied and White Russian officers and vandalizing vehicles and supplies. The Canadians dedicated a monument to the 19 Canadian war dead on June 1st, at the pretty Marine Cemetery on the hilly Churkin peninsula overlooking the sea. Four days later, on June 5, 1919, Elmsley and the remaining Canadians boarded the SS Monteagle and sailed for Victoria. Vladivostok’s White administration was toppled by Red partisans seven months later. While Japanese forces lingered in Siberia, Soviet power endured for the next 70 years.

* * *

From a military standpoint, Canada’s Siberian Expedition—its first foray as a world power and first operation in the Far East—was a failure. Canada’s military commanders had anticipated this outcome before the main body of the force left Victoria. The chief of defence staff had warned that logistics lacked “co-ordination and control,” that the Trans-Siberian Railroad was “seriously disorganized,” and that there was “no general agreement” among the Allies.

However, Borden persisted with the Siberian Expedition, citing commitments to certain “well disposed persons in Russia.” This decision inflamed farmers and workers and helped provoke general strikes from Victoria to Winnipeg to Amherst, N.S., as the soldiers returned from Vladivostok. In the first postwar election in 1921, the successor to the Borden government—Arthur Meighen’s Tories—was voted out of office, “one of the most unpopular governments in Canadian history.”

Editor’s note: More information on this subject can be found at
Copyright Legion Magazine 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

Reflections on Russia


I have returned home after an epic overland journey from Vladivostok to London. I rode 12 trains and 7 boats and made 69 short and long trips by bus, tram, mini-bus, metro, taxi and car. Six plane flights were needed to bridge the Pacific at the beginning of the trip and the Atlantic at the end. I wore through a new pair of shoes in 24 days overseas, and spent a day on a bicycle. I am now busily drafting a plan to offset the remainder of my carbon consumption!

My final days were spent in Scandinavia and Western Europe, visiting the impressive Labour Movement Archives and Library in Stockholm; exploring the semi-autonomous Christiana district of Copenhagen (which one resident describes as "Denmark's socialist heart"); and walking through London's historic centre to Highgate Cemetery and the grave of Karl Marx. It seemed a fitting end for a research trip devoted to the impulses and reactions to the Russian Revolution.

In Russia, I met the friendliest people aboard platzkart on the 9300-kilometre length of the Trans-Siberian Railway. These economy-class carriages, described by my Lonely Planet guide as "a 54-bed dormitory on wheels," are incubators of community. Copious amounts of food, drink and conversation flow between the passengers. Kind souls far outweigh the occasional hooligani, thieves who lurk aboard the trains and prey on unsuspecting travelers: I spent 16 days in Russia without losing a single kopek (the smallest unit of Russian currency).

I have fond memories of my new Russian friends: Leon, the gruff but kind civil servant from remote Anadir on the Bering Sea, who shared bread, smoked fish and dumplings as we chugged along the Manchurian border; Sergey, the Yakut archery champion who demonstrated his fine athletic form as our train rounded the spectacular frozen shores of Lake Baikal; Maria, an elderly woman who in her youth manufactured anti-Nazi landmines in a Novosibirsk armaments plant during the Great Patriotic War; Yolka and Antyom, the young anti-fascist punks travelling (like me) from Vladivostok to St Petersburg. In platzkart, I found a strong camaraderie that gave me a special insight into the warm Russian spirit.

On this Russian journey, I was humbled by the hospitality of the dozen Russian scholars I met – at local institutes of history, town squares, cafes, and private homes in Vladivostok, Irkutsk, Kemerovo, Omsk, Moscow, and St Petersburg. I had travelled to many foreign countries, but never before in a professional capacity as a historian. These generous colleagues contributed to my trip in essential ways, providing a unique perspective on Russia's turbulent past and its unwritten future.

In Vladivostok, Sergey Ivanov helped me retrace the story of Canadian occupation in 1918-1919 – visiting 14 Canadian war graves at Churkin Russian Naval Cemetery, rambling around the former Canadian barracks above Gornestai Bay, and envisioning Canada's lone engagement at the village of Shkotovo. At Kemerovo, I tasted my finest Russian meal in the home of Sergey Zviagin, specialist in the history of White Siberia, washed down with a healthy dose of vodka and friendship. In Omsk, I was treated to a walking tour by Vladimir Shuldyakov, learning about the anti-Bolshevik government of Admiral Alexandr Kolchak (supported during the Civil War by 55 Canadian and 1000 British troops); at the St Petersburg Institute of History, Boris Kolonitsii explained the mechanics of revolution in 1917.

The former Soviet Union is a land of contrasts. Archetypical Soviet icons dot most Russian cities – imposing statues of Lenin and grand "Karl Marxsa" Boulevards are juxtaposed against huge electronic billboards, which proclaim capitalism's belated arrival in Russia. Lavish onion-dome cathedrals (destroyed by the Bolsheviks) are now restored with government money, while symbols of Bolshevism remain everywhere. Moscow's Leningradsky Station leads to the rebranded city of St Petersburg. Vladmir Putin, Russia's foremost politician, is aligned with private telecommunications oligarchs, but he has strengthened public ownership of Russia's vast oil and gas reserves through state-owned energy giant Gazprom.

There are limits to democracy in post-Soviet Russia. In Plosheet Lenina (Lenin Square), in the centre of Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest city, I escaped a brush with the law after taking photos of a Green Party demonstration against urban sprawl in the forests around the city.

The past and future mingle uneasily in post-Soviet Russia. Ordinary people struggle to house and feed themselves in the shadow of billionaire oligarki, tycoons who grew rich off privatized state companies and now patronize Lamborghini, Ferrari, Rolls Royce and Bentley dealerships in posh Moscow. Housing costs have skyrocketed in many Russian cities, approaching Canadian prices while incomes lag far behind (a Vladivostok school teacher earns a salary of about $200 per month, less than the rent for a one-room flat). Some educated young people are reaping the benefits of the free market, occupying senior management positions in upstart capitalist firms and Russian branches of global companies. But an older generation is jaded and nostalgic for the past. These people, who were raised and educated in the Soviet Union, lambaste the oligarchs and long for the social security of a planned economy.

"Now the system is broken," a Russian man in his 50s tells me aboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad. A 20-something rebel describes the inequality in harsh terms: "My country is shit." But there are also many optimists.

"Russia can now stand on her feet," two Russian language student insist over beer in Vladivostok. They belong to Nashi ("Our's"), the pro-Putin youth movement that helped the United Russia party win a solid majority in December 2007 presidential elections. Appropriately, the Nashi flag is red and white, symbolizing Russia's Soviet past and hopes for a bright future.

The Russia that I experienced was a very beautiful, if conflicted, place – with an extraordinary diversity of culture and geography and the friendliest people in the world. Like the KGB agent who got me drunk on a train in the wilds of Siberia, Russia is an enigma. I hope to return there soon.


PS - Here are some photos that I've uploaded to the web...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

From the Baltic Sea


I write this from a ferry on the Baltic Sea -- the MS Victoria I, more of a cruise ship than a ferry, really, with a cabaret theatre, a casino, four restaurants, hundreds of sleeping cabins, a massage parlour and sauna, and free wireless internet. The transition to efficient Europe is nice after 16 days "roughing it" in Russia.

Since my last update, I spent a couple of glorious days in St Petersburg, Russia's imperial capital where the Neva River meets the Gulf of Finland. I toured the famous Hermitage art museum and also the fascinating Museum of Political History, in the building that served as Bolshevik party headquarters from March to August 1917.

At the St Petersburg Institute of History, I asked professor Boris I. Kolonitskii about the Russian revolutions of March and November 1917. I asked how Leon Trotsky, who had languished in a Nova Scotia jail in April 1917 and not set foot in Russia since 1906 -- could lead a military uprising and seize control of the Russian state:

"It's not a kind of conventional war, revolution. You don't have to be a military officer to have a military uprising. These men were professional revolutionaries. They had prepared for revolution their whole life long. They studied the French revolution. They studied Marx's writings on revolutions. They were much better trained for this particular situation than any army officers were.... The Bolsheviks had broad public support."

My last night in Russia, I partied at a unique art space called the Loft Projekt, sipping sweet red wine with the organizer Egor and a group of Russian artists.

From there, I caught an train to Helsinki, Finland. The sophisticated urban design and efficient tramway system alerted me to my presence in the European Union. It was sunny but cold -- requiring a winter jacket for the first time since Vladivostok. I visited a fortress on a nearby island and walked through the attractive downtown and pretty waterfront parks.

I caught a ferry across the gulf of Finland to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I ventured through the winding cobblestone streets of the 1000-year-old city. At a bar called Woodstock, away from the tourist traps, I ordered a plate of sour cream, herring and potatoes, and struck up a conservation with a photographer named Alo. It was his 23rd birthday, I later learned, and we passed the evening drinking beer and discussing Estonian culture and politics. Tension between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians had escalated a year ago into a riot and the ransacking of large portions of the old town.

Today, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at my guest house then ascended 258 stone steps, to the majestic spire of a cathedral overlooking Tallinn and the Baltic Sea. I explored the old town then met Alo and his friends Gerry and Jaan at a quaint cafe. We passed the afternoon chatting as they fixed a bug in my mini-laptop (Tallin is a high-tech capital of Europe, located on a fibre-optic trunk cable that has produced some of the world's cheapest internet rates, a proliferation of wifi "hotspots" in the town and countryside, and the web giant Skype).

I am now on this ferry to Stockholm. While sitting in a plush lounge, I met an Afghan student named Farzhad, who fled the Taliban two years ago and immigrated to Sweden. We discussed the Canadian occupation of his country. "I have worked with Coalition troops," Farzhad tells me, but expresses the belief that foreign intervention has complicated the situation. He points to the irony of American policy in the region. "The Americans helped the Talliban get into power [in the 1990s against the Mujahadeen]. Before that, they supported the Mujahadeen against the Soviets." "It's monkey business," Farzhad says.

My journey is nearing its end. Quite the trip!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

From Moscow

I've made it 9288 kilometres along the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Vladivostok to Moscow -- an exciting 9 days of train travel through 7 time zones in economy-class platzkart, with stops at Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, Kemerovo, Novosibirsk and Omsk.

It has been quite the journey, combining meetings with friendly Russian scholars on the history of the civil war with countless discussions with ordinary Russians aboard the trains and in the towns. Two nights ago, as the train approached the Ural Mountains -- which divide Europe and Asia and served as the major site of battle between the Red Army and White Russia in 1918-1919 -- I was drawn into a blurry night of vodka and conservation with a computer programmer from Etakerinburg.

Yesterday was more low key, as I napped and snacked on smoked fish, bread and tea with two young Russians and a elderly woman who had manufactured landmines in a Novosibirsk armaments plant during the Great Patriotic War (what we call World War Two).

Moscow is a bustling and attractive city -- with a population of over 10 million and a downtown centre rich in history. A man from the train named Alexander gave me a walking tour this morning, along the Moscow River and the pedestrian-friendly Arbat to the Kremlin, Red Square, and other sites. We took the city's famous metro to several ornate stations adorned with mosaic murals of Russia's revolutionary history and the country's working class. I will soon meet with a professor from the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, to glean information on Canada's invasion of Russia 90 year ago.

I am catching the overnight train to St Petersburg tonight, reaching tidewater after nearly 10,000 kilometres of rail travel and spending a few days in Russia's historic imperial capital -- where Bolshevism took root in 1917.

I will be in touch soon,


Thursday, April 3, 2008

From Siberia

Since my last update, I am have travelled halfway across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, riding platzkart (economy class, with ordinary Russians and many funny stories). Here is a summary of some of the highlights from my logbook. I look forward to sharing the rich detail the next time our paths cross...

Before leaving Vladivostok on March 28th, I was the guest lecturer at an English language school attached to Far Eastern State University, where my Russian friend Andrey is a student. I visited 14 Canadian war graves at Churkin Russian Naval Cementary, which stand alongside the tombs of British, American, Czecho-Slovak and Japanese troops who died in post-revolutionary Russia. I also visited the Canadian barracks at Gornestai Bay and took a boat past the Eggersheldt wharves where the Canadians landed. With my friendly interpreter Sergey Ivanov, I travelled to Shkotova, a town 50 kilometres north of Vladivostok on a key rail line connecting the city with its coal supply on the Suchan River. In April 1919, Bolshevik partisans had seized Shkotova, prompting a joint Canadian-Japanese-Italian manouvre to reclaim the town. Japanese General Kuizo Otani rewarded the Canadians with 101 bottles of whiskey and wine and 3 casks of saki.

From Vladivostok, I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad "up country," through the Ussuri Mountains to Khabarovsk, Victoria's sister city. I explored Karl Marksa Boulevard and the centre of this attractive and clean city, walking the promenade along the wide Amur River and visiting the Regional History Museum with its huge panoramic exhibit of the Red Army victory at Volochaevka. I was impressed by the well-maintained public spaces and rich architecture of this young community -- which, like British Columbia, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

I then embarked on a 2 1/2 day journey on the Trans-Siberian train, hugging the Manchurian and Mongolian borders toward Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. I experienced the essence of platzkart, the least expensive bearths, with open cabins and an eclectic culture of Russians and migrant Chinese workers sharing food and vodka through the vast Siberian taiga (fir forest). I was befriended by a kind civil servant in his 50s, Leon from remote Anadyr on the Bering Sea near Russia's northeasterly tip. "Perestroika was good," Leon told me, referring to Mikhael Gorbachev's reform agenda of the 1980s. "But [the] people said: don't touch old people system (pensions), don't touch medical system, don't touch young people system (education). But then they start charging for school text books. That was [the] biggest f**king mistake. Now the system is broken."

At the city of Irkutsk, I met with historians at the State University and others with expertise in the civil war in Siberia. I visited a monument to Admiral Alexander Kolchak, Supreme Governor of the anti-Bolshevik government at Omsk who took power in a November 1918 coup and enjoyed the support of Canada and its Allies. I also visited the jail where Kolchak was detained in early 1920 after the Red Army occupied Omsk and Irkutsk. I saw the small tributary of the Angara River where Kolchak was executed by firing squad, his body dumped in the frigid waters of the river.

Back on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, I spent another 24 hours in the platzkart, in the company of a young couple from the fishing town of Nahodka, near Vladivostok, who were moving to Pitar (St. Petersburg) in search of a better life. They belonged to the sub-culture that we would call "punk," with piercings, tattoos, and patches on their clothing of the "antifa" movement: the anti-fascist youth who challenge the power of Russia's ascendant Nazis, a distorted outgrowth of people questioning their post-Soviet economic woes.

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived at Marinsk, a town of 80,000 in central Siberia renowned for its vodka and kindred alcoholic spirits. A student of history, Alexsey, met me at the rail station and took me to dinner at his home with his wife Natalya and son Sasha. We had tasty (and simple) Russian fare -- kolbassa saugage, potato salad, rye bread, pickles, and meat dumplings. Alexsey poured me three shots of vodka followed by a sweet coffee. He gave me a bottle of local cognac, then drove me to nearby Kemerovo, capital of the district that bears the same name with an economic base in coal mining and chemical manufacturing.

In Kemerovo, I enjoyed a SECOND Russian feast in the trendy apartment of Sergey Zviagin, a specialist in the history of White Siberia during the civil war. Two young language students, Lena and Alexander, facilitated our wide-ranging discussion of Canadian and Russian politics, history and travel. Four vodka shots also helped, nourished by smoked salmon, pickled mushrooms and other delicacies that settled very well with my Slavic palette! I stayed the night at Sergey's flat, and in the morning joined Sergey and Lena on a walking tour of this surprisingly beautiful city. The vast public spaces are a testament to the best aspects of Soviet planning, a city designed for people (rather than cars in the North American mold). The main square was bounded by regional and municipal government offices, the former KGB building, and the regional trade union headquarters, devoid of traffic with a large statue of Lenin and an expansive and modern wooden playground for Kemerovo's children. My daughter Aviva would love it!

A short bus ride with a friendly graduate student in politics took me to Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest city. Here I have had a truly unique experience. In the main square, Ploshit Lenina (Lenin Square), I stumbled upon a petition table and political canvass against logging in the region, organized by the local branch of the Russian Zilnoyih Partiya (Green Party). I introduced myself to the organizers, shot a short video with my digital camera, and was promptly apprehended by four Russian police officers. They inspected my passport and detained me in a nearby hut. Their mood seemed to mellow after I presented a letter from Canada attesting to my academic credentials, and explaining the purpose of my visit to Russia. After 15 minutes, during which they ran my name and passport number through their headquarters, I was released. Most of the officers were kind enough, but their supervisor told me sternly: "Go home."

Not quite yet. Tonight I catch the Number 001 Russiya train (the flagship of Russia's public rail system) to Omsk, capital of White Siberia, to meet with the director of the local history museum. Fifty-five Canadians had travelled to Omsk in December 1918, to serve as headquarters staff for 1000 British troops in the city. Battle raged between Red and White Russian forces on the nearby front in the Ural Mountains. But most of the 4200 Canadians never left Vladivostok. Political debates back in Canada and divisions among the Allies sapped the resolve of Prime Minister Robert Borden. By June 1919, all the Canadians had returned home, as general strikes paralyzed cities from Victoria to Winnipeg to Amherst, Nova Scotia. But I digress.

My Siberian Expedition continues. Omsk, then Moscow, St Petersburg and home. I look forward to seeing you soon.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Boarding the Trans-Siberian Railroad

Dear friends,

I am on my way to catch the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, Victoria's sister city in Russia. Here is another logbook update. Apologies in advance for any typos -- I am in a bit of a rush as I do not want to miss the train!

All the best,


0806 hrs (Vladivostok GMT+11), Thursday, March 27, 2008
Vladivostok, Russia

Yesterday combined adventure and fun. With Sergey's assistance, we caught a cab to the approaches of the Churkin Russian Naval Cemetary, walking the final stretch due to massive potholes in the dirt road. Dropped into the cemetary maintenance building where Sergey elicited perfect directions to the Canadian plot – a shared plot about 75 metres long, 15 metres wide, with 14 Canadians, 14 British, a plaque for soldiers buried elsewhere in Russia or at sea, several dozen Czecho-slovaks, a few French, one officer of the American YMCA, and a monument for Japanese war dead.

A sombre experience is a beautiful setting, the snow-clad forested slopes of a huge green space stretching south to the bottom of the peninsula and the Sea of Japan. I took photos of every Canadian and British tombstone, along with the various monuments. Took a video and also placed a simple pine bow on the headstone of Lieut. Arthur Thring, who took his own life on the road betweeen Vladivostok and Gornastai on the night of 18 March 1919.

From the Churkin cemetary, we returned to our taxi (commandered for the day for about $35 Canadian) to Gornastai, an area 15 kilometres east of Vladivostok that is the butt of local jokes because it is the site of the region's garbage dump. However, in 1919, Gornastai was the site of the main Canadian barracks in Russia. Sergey and I rambled around a little village called (source), directly on Gornastai Bay in the vicinity of several high-powered Russian coastal-defence military installations. We ventured inland on the village's only road (dirt), armed only with a rough map drawn by a Canadian soldiers in 1919 and copied from an original in the Library and Archives of Canada.

We came across an old women, tending to some greese in his yard, who insisted there were no barracks there, only the remnants of a large Soviet-era pig farm that had long been abandoned. She warned that we would be wise not to proceed further up the road, to the military base on the ridge overlooking the valley and bay. Not to be deterred, I suggested to Sergey that we persist, which we did, rambling around expansive ruins of brick and concrete, in the picturesque valley inland from Gornestai Bay. I took many pictures, believing we had found the Canadian base, but as it turned out, the women was correct. We had spent an hour exploring and photographing the ruins of a pig farm!

We had not yet come to this realization, and returned to the waiting taxi unsure we would had found, or would find, the Canadian barracks. Sergey learned from a few locals that old barracks existed in the next village over the hill, back toward Vladivostok. As our taxi rounded a curve in the hilly, snowy road, I looked down into the next valley and was certain that the locals had a better knowledge of the local geography than I. Sergey instructed the taxi driver to pull over, which he did, and we scrambled down a steep muddy slope to the ruins of old brick buildings.

We had discovered the Canadian barracks – with many of the Czarist era stone buildings still in tact, including a straight row of six large structures that matched the rough map on my laptop. Some of the buildings had been sold by the army after the fall of communism to the city of Vladivostok, are now provided housing to villagers, while another served as the local post office. Further up the valley, the barracks were gated off in an active military base. This included stables used for the horses of the RNWMP.

Cresting a hill, we saw an expansive view of Gornestai Bay – home to the Canadians for 4 months in 1919. Quite the trip!

We returned to Vladivostok around 2pm and parted ways at the top of the furnicular railway. I walked over the hill to downtown Vladivostok, through a high-end condo construction site (the most expensive in Vladivostok Sergey later told me), along a dirt path, and down to the bustling public food market. Bought cashews, kimchi, herring and some pickled greens, then tried in vain to find wifi internet. Walked back toward the hotel, stopping for a beer and shwarma at the Sportivyana waterfront – like a Russian Coney Island with many beer tents frequented by local youth.

Returned to the hotel around 5pm, napped until 6:30pm, then met Andrey to act as the guest lecturer at his language school, affiliated with Far Eastern State University. It was a fun hour, discussing my research on the Siberian Expedition, my trip, and Canada. The teacher was friendly and fluent, and the students had many questions, including the cost of higher learning in Canada. After the class, I went with Andrey and his girlfriend Ira to a bar called Republik, where we drank beer brewed on site and snacked on cheese balls and smoked salmon.

We discussed Russian politics and their work as intelligence officers for the Russian military. They had both volunteered for United Russia, Putin's party, in the recent presidential elections. While Andrey lamented that the price of a train ticket from Vladivostok to Moscow had risen from 100 rubles to 4000 rubles in his memory, "Russia can now stand on her feet," he insisted. Apparently a sizeable layer of Russian youth have been attracted to the populism and energetic electioneering of United Russia.

Left at closing time, 11pm, and shared a cab with Andrey and Ira to Hotel Vladivostok, falling asleep soon after.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

From Vladivostok

Greetings from the Russian Far East! Here is an entry from my trip journal. The historians among you may be particularly interested in the details of my meeting with Russian scholars yesterday. I will send some more photos soon! Ben

0806 hrs (Vladivostok GMT+11), March 26, 2008
Vladivostok, Russia

Yesterday morning I dined on a tradition Russian feast -- a huge breakfast buffet as a blizzard blew outside the Hotel Vladivostok: a plate of pickled beats, lots of broccoli, salami, cheese, rice, eggs, and potatoes, topped with sour cream; two pieces of white toast with salami and cheese; a bowl of muesli and yogurt; a cup of fruit salad; and a plate of pastries and thick rye toast. A few cups of coffee, orange juice, and water. I was full!

Then I walked down to the central train station, where I tried in vain to determine train schedules "up country." Walked through Revolution Square to the waterfront, past the Russian naval installation to visit a beached WWII-era submarine. The short tour was interesting and worth the 50 rubles.Made my way east. Dropped into the Pushkinskay Theatre, headquarters of the Canadians in 1918-1919, and got an impromptu tour from the theatre manager and her son, a candidate in history (equivalent to our entry level PhDs). Checked out the four floors of the ornate building, including a reception room, hall, Pushkin library and museum, atrium, and musical theatre. Very friendly people who provided a real insiders' perspective on the building, which has been recently restored. Interestingly, the operators seemed unaware of the buildings' Canadian occupants 90 years ago. I will sent some records to them. The Pushkinskay is located on Pushkinskay avenue, next to Vladivostok's furnicular railroad (a vertical lift up the hilly city).

From there, I continued east along Pushkinskay, picking up a haircomb and dropping into a grocer for a cheeseburger, water and chewing gum off Svetlanska, Vladivostok's main drag. I arrived at 89 Pushkinskay (the Institute of History) a little before 2 pm for my meeting with Doktor Boris I. Muchanov, author of many books on the history of the Russian Far East in the years of Allied intervention. A 23-year-old interpreter named Sergey Ivonov provided translation, which was very satisfactory (Sergey insists he is more proficient in Chinese than English!). The deputy director of the Institute of History, Sergey Vradis, had arranged the meeting, which included three other historians with expertise in Vladivostok's history in this period.

The meeting lasted three hours and was marked by a stimulating exchange of ideas and information between Dr. Mukachev, the other scholars, and me. A semi-retired professor from the Soviet era, over the age of 70, Dr Mukachev was highly knowledgeable of the organization of partisan and White forces from March 1917 until the Red Army's entry into Vladivostok on 25 October 1922. He brought along many photographs of partisan leaders and mass demonstrations that accompanied the downfall of the Czar. He also gave me several of his books on this topic, while Dr. Vradis gave me a book on the Aboriginal peoples of the Russian Far East. It was a highly professional and productive meeting, where I had the opportunity to share aspects of Vladivostok's history unknown to these Russian scholars, including the Canadian headquarters at Pushkinskay and first-person historical accounts from Canadians of conditions in Vladivostok in 1918-1919. The Russians were very interested in the Victoria mutiny that preceded the Canadians' departure from Victoria. It was an outstanding experience, a definite highlight of my career as a historian to this point.

Segey Ivanov scanned Dr. Mukachev's photographs and then accompanied me past the former Red Staff Buldings, headquarters of the Vladivostok Soviet. We then visited the regional train station to determine connections to the village of Shkotova. We made plans to visit the Churkin Russian Naval Cemetary (where 14 Canadians are buried) and the Canadian barracks at Gornastai Bay.

I dined at Izbushka, a traditional Russian place on Vladivostok's main drag, the Arbat (named after the Moscow street). The food was excellent – a platter of Russian appetizers and stew covered in baked bread called shchi – washed down with a few healthy shots of vodka. I returned to the Hotel Vladivostok for an early sleep, preparing for the next stage of this adventure.

Monday, March 24, 2008

From Victoria to Vladivostok

I'm writing to let you know that I have arrived safely in Vladivostok.

Yesterday was one full day -- a pre-dawn flight from Victoria to Seattle, touring Pike Street market and other haunts in that city, an 11-hour flight to Seoul, and then a fun-filled evening dining on Korean BBQ and exploring Seoul's streets with a Uzbekh doctor named Fuat.

I flew into Vladivostok this morning and met a student, Andrey, on the public bus into the city. He is studying to be an English interpreter, so was very helpful providing local tips and helping acquaint me with this hilly, bustling port city of 800,000 nestled around Golden Horn Bay in the Sea of Japan. I have found a cheap hotel with free breakfast, wireless internet and expansive views of the water from my room. Hotel Vladivostok is a former state-run hotel from Soviet times.

Tomorrow I meet with a group of historians at the Institut Iistoria (Institute of History) to discuss the Canadian and Allied occupation of Vladivostok in 1918-1919. But now, it's time for vodka and some hearty Russian grub.

So my own Siberian Expedition begins -- 90 years after 4200 Canadians sailed from Victoria to this place. It remains Russia's gateway to the Pacific, with all the vice and action of a cosmopolitan port. But it also dislays a surprising charm and beauty. I will keep you posted!

Vladivostok, Russia

Friday, March 21, 2008


I hope you find this website useful in gaining understanding of Canada's Siberian Expedition and other aspects of the country's forgotten past.