The evacuation of western forces from Afghanistan has provoked lots of comment about it marking a great defeat and the end of an era of foreign policy. So we might remember that there was also the great disaster that happened 100 years ago, which the Establishment succeeded in the keeping out of popular memory: the Allied Intervention in post-revolutionary Russia. This set the template for a century of similar failures. There’s no excuse for not knowing what went wrong, it’s very clear in the novels written by someone who was there: William Gerhardie.
Gerhardie was born in St Petersburg, son of an English expatriate but raised to pass for an English gent, and he finished his education at Oxford after the War. He enlisted in the British Army but his background got him assigned as an attache back in Petrograd, on its way to becoming Leningrad. His first novel Futility (1922) covers the revolutionary phase and the fumbling British involvement in the Civil War. “The ‘I’ of this book is not me” he warns at the outset, but much of the story is set in the worlds he knew: wealthy Russian families where everyone chatters about Chekhov and Tolstoy, and hapless British career administrators who don’t understand these foreign johnnies and don’t feel they need to.
Then Uncle Kostia, spectacled, and with the air of a profound philosopher taking stock of his impressions, joined us. ‘I’ve been talking to your Admiral,’ he said.
‘Fine-looking man. Combines the manner of Napoleon I with the mind, I think, of Napoleon III. Wants to get to Moscow. But what he’ll do when he gets there (if he gets there), curiously enough doesn’t seem to have occurred to him! The simplicity of the scheme is touching. All right, let’s assume he gets there and plants a constitutional Russian government and retains an Allied army to support it. Will he keep the Allied troops there indefinitely? And when they last go, what’s to prevent the government from collapsing like a pack of cards at the hands of a population inevitably resentful of foreign interference? Then there’s your country. You think your country will support you. But it will be divided.’
‘I disagree,’ said Nikolai Vasilievich. ‘I’d much rather, for example, the gold-mining area was occupied by English troops, or even by the Japanese, than by the Russians. I know what I am talking about. I am a typical Russian myself. There are honest men in Russia, and there are clever men in Russia; but there are no honest clever men in Russia. And if there are, they’re probably heavy drinkers.’
Organizing a new anti-Bolshevik government falters as there are too many candidates and they are more interested in colluding against each other, and hoping to strike deals with foreigners over those gold-mining areas.
He was now considering another scheme that had been suggested to him by a number of financiers in the Far East, which involved the active co-operation of two influential generals – to organize and dispatch a punitive expedition to the gold-mines in order to compel the miners to restart work.
General Bologoevski then continued about the situation. I gathered that there was a General Horvat who had formed and All-Russia Government, and that there was also a Siberian Government, defying General Horvat on the one hand and the Bolsheviks on the other, and that there were various officer organizations grouped about this or the other government, and some rather inclined to be on their own, all looking forward to a possible intervention by the Allies.
Our hero gets to meet Admiral Kolchak, the great hope of the White cause (at one point close to being recognised by the western Allies as the new legitimate Russian government).
‘… It’s the climax of his career. He has been called upon by four joint deputations representing, I think, four separate All-Russia Governments whose heads conferred on him the title of “Supreme Commander-In-Chief…”‘
In the end Kolchak and Denikin are no good. Our narrator has to head out East again after the war is finally at its end with the demise of the Wrangel regime in the Crimea. His old boss Sir Hugo is spotted in Piccadilly, “gazing at long rows of D.S.O.s and O.B.E.s” in a shop window, and is also heading out to a new role “as professional adviser” – what expertise could he offer? They travel together with another Russian General, spluttering at the recent Allied betrayal of Wrangel and insisting that the civil war must be resumed in a year or two.
‘Well,’ I said quietly, ‘Kolchak has tried it. Denikin has tried it. Yudenich has tried it. I should give it a rest now.’
The ironic twist:
‘Is it not rather an adventure in futility?’ Sir Hugo asked.
…who never thought to ask the question about his own career and missions.
Edith Wharton wrote an admiring introduction for the US edition. Gerhardie went back to Russia to see the Civil War from a slightly different position in his next novel The Polyglots (1925). The narrator is another young British officer, George Diabologh, whose odd surname comes from an unusual family history taking in other European nations. But he’s done his time at Oxford to get certified as an English gent.
‘There are as many fools at a university as elsewhere,’ I said to calm her belated qualms of conscience. ‘But their folly, I admit, has a certain stamp – the stamp of university training, if you like. It is trained folly.’
‘Ah!’ said Mme Vanderphant, with a very conscious attempt at being intellectual, ‘is it not always so: one belittles one’s past opportunities if one hasn’t made full use of them?’
‘It’s not a question of belittling anything,’ I said. ‘It’s the attitude which Oxford breeds in you: that nothing will henceforth astonish you – Oxford included.’
And suddenly I remembered summer term: the Oxford Colleges exuding culture and inertia. And I became rhapsodical. ‘Ah!’ I cried, ‘There’s nothing like it! It’s wonderful. You go down the High, let us say, to your tutor’s, enter his rooms like your own, and there he stands, a grey-haired scholar with a beak that hawks would envy, in his bedroom slippers, terribly learned, jingling the money in his trouser pockets and warming his seat at the fire, smoking at you while he talks to you, like an elder brother, of literature. Or take a bump supper, after the Master has spoken, we all cry: “Horse! Horse! Horse!” and he gets up, smiling, and makes a speech. But there is such a din of voices that not a word can be heard.’
To tell you the truth, when I was at Oxford – I was bored. My impression of Oxford is that I sat in my rooms, bored, and that it ceaselessly rained. But now, warmed by their interest, I told them how I played soccer, rowed in the Eights, sat in the president’s chair at the Union. Rank lies, of course, I cannot help it. I am like that – imaginative. I have a sensitive heart. I cannot get myself to disappoint expectations. Ah! Oxford is best in retrospect. I think life is best in retrospect. When I lie in my grave and remember my life back to the time I was born, as a whole, perhaps I shall forgive my creator the sin of creating me.
It is not clear how much irony is involved in Diabologh’s often rather pompous pronouncements on the cosmos throughout this novel. When he tries to draw out his simple life-lessons, they are awfully flat:
Death is like this: you go along happy-go-lucky and suddenly someone hits you over the head with a poker: whack! That is to mean that you are no more. Why do men die? To make room for others. That is all very well so far as it goes. But what are the other men for. If you think you understand death, I congratulate you.
But if he can’t make anything of the quest for “answers” he does articulate a clear cold rage of the horrors created in the recent War. He argues with a maiden Aunt who is proud of what our young men have done, recalling that he joined up he was jeered at by jingoistic old ladies who
…talked in terms of blood. They demanded the extermination of the whole of the German race; nothing less, they said, would satisfy them. They longed to behead all German babies with their own hands for the genuine pleasure, they said, that this would give them.
Of course Diabologh himself has a few blind spots about his own involvement in this world Empire. There is this curious, brief recollection from his earlier Army days:
‘You – you,’ he said, ‘you’re no more English than… you polyglot.’
I confess I don’t like this. International as are my sympathies – I do not like this. If you had been born in Japan and brought up in Russia and called Diabologh into the bargain, you would want to be English. When in the war I rode my troop in Ireland and an old woman called out, ‘The English swine!’ I felt elated, flattered, exhilarated, secretly proud.
What did he do in Ireland? He doesn’t say. But we do hear more about the state of the world from the view of the disgusted, nihilistic junior officer class who are lucky enough to miss the shooting but still saw the wreckage of lives and towns left after it.
Our ‘Organization’, let me say at once, was something without precedent – one of the really comic sideshows of after-armistice confabulation. It was the poor old military mind, confronted with the task of saving civilisation, forced to draw upon the intellect, and finding that in truth it had no such reserves to draw upon, plunging gallantly into a Russian sea of incoherence. And puzzled – daily more puzzled; coming out of it at last, with its tail between its legs, considerably bedraggled. There was really nothing to it but to enjoy the spectacle. The spectacle consisted of a number of departments whose heads amused themselves by passing buff slips one to another, the point of which lay in the art of relegating the solution of the question specified to the resources of another department. It was a kind of a game of chess in which ability and wit counted for quite a great deal. The department which could not pass on the buff slip to another and in the last resort was forced to take action itself was deemed to have lost the game. From time to time new officers would be called for: specialists in embarkation, secret service, and so forth, and usually six months or more would elapse before their arrival from England, by which time the need for them would have generally passed. Unwilling to go home, they would prowl about the premises, coveting their neighbour’s jobs, and usually end by establishing a new department of their own, with themselves as heads. A fat, flabby Major prowled about our offices, intriguing hard to get my job, and I (myself a master of intrigue) intrigued to keep my place by letting it be known that I would soon vacate it on my own account. Meanwhile the Major was content to work under my orders. I favour, on the whole, a mild atmosphere of Bolshevism in public affairs. Accordingly I occupied myself with writing novels and let the office work be run by the two junior clerks. And very well they ran it, I must say! Some readers at this point may feel inclined to censure me a little for my levity. Believe me, they are (if I may say so) talking through their hats. To regard a Government run by Churchills and Birkenheads seriously is not to know how to be serious. At any rate, we cultivated a certain literary spirit in our office as we pursued our silly military tasks, while our elders (after bungling us into the most ludicrous of wars) were building up that monument of foolish greed – the Treaty of Versailles!
Of the situation in Russia itself, we are standing by the same chaos and collapse as the previous novel, but now we hear more from the desperate Britishers trying and failing to get Russians to fight and die for causes that can’t be explained to them.
The Russian national cause had swayed to and fro with the territory held, the champions of that cause, irrespective of the fortunes of the war, losing increasingly national colour through support by foreign troops, and the champions of the Revolution gaining it by their defence of the centre, the historic citadels of real Russia against foreign ‘invaders’; in addition, they had the revolutionary cause undisputed. And one began to ask: Who are the Russians? The masses outnumbered their ancient leaders. They had their own leaders. The ancient leaders found that they had no one to lead. Their Russian national cause was now a void cause: its Russian nationalism having deserted to the enemy with the ground itself, leaving a labelled carcass. The ancient leaders became crusaders on the coast: their cause was a lost cause, in addition to which it became a personal cause and an international militarist cause. It was, I think one may safely say, a hopeless cause, with the bottom knocked out of it. The tug-of-war was a rout. The revolutionaries had won the national Russian cause in addition to their own revolutionary one.
It is like this that the Russian Revolution presents itself today. But at the time of happening it was a conglomeration of disorderly incidents, of vile crimes and arbitrary acts, of petty vanities and senseless cruelties, of good intentions frequently misplaced and more frequently misunderstood, and people meaning often the same thing mutually intent on murder. It was thus that the Revolution affected Dr. Murgatroyd and many others of his outlook; and for the disorderly clamour of long-suppressed urgencies and the growing chaos in the economic life they refused to recognise this tempestuous movement as at all inevitable, but ascribed it to the follies of this or that politician, to the work of German or Jewish ‘agitators’, or regarded it as a bad joke.
Dr. Murgatroyd had been a busy figure in those days at Omsk. He had conducted, with considerable vehemence, an anti-Bolshevik propaganda, and in his zeal and fervour had overstrained his object. He had painted the Bolsheviks in colours at once so black and lurid, made their atrocities appear so extravagant and flamboyant in their ghastliness, that when the Siberian soldiers, whom it was his task to whip up into a fight against the Soviets, beheld the pamphlets which Dr. Murgatroyd turned out for their consumption, they were seized by a panic. ‘No! if they’re as bad as that,’ said they, ‘we’re off’ – and deserted in battalions. Dr. Murgatroyd had made the Kolchak cause his own. At that most critical time, when the fate of Omsk hung in the balance, he was invited to attend an extraordinary sitting of the Council of Ministers in order to take part in the debate as to the possible evacuation of the city, and Dr. Murgatroyd, not a military gentleman, had made a speech in Russian, drawing attention of the ministers to the lamentable condition of the city gardens, and suggesting that the British representatives might be approached in order that a few experts in garden-planning might be dispatched without delay from England – a country which, as Dr. Murgatroyd explained, excelled in that particular art….
‘I want to give up journalism,’ said Dr. Murgatroyd, ‘and go into politics seriously, on my return to England.’
I said nothing. I thought: in so large, clumsy, inaccurate, uncertain, fumbling, blundering, blustering a body as politics, one fool more or less does not matter.
Even when we get away from Russia, there is plenty of rumbling around the edges of Empire to suggest that we are not settling down to the old certainties. Travelling in Egypt we can sense a new mood, which will be described elsewhere by T.E.Lawrence, another disillusioned liaison officer from the War:
Sun-scorched houses, shuttered windows, elegant victorias, red-fezed coachmen. But, withal, distrust, verging on hostility. And when we set out, on camels and dromedaries, to see the Sphinx and the pyramids, the look upon my driver’s face was a dark leer, foreboding the rebellion of the Moslem world, and Uncle Emmanuel, balancing himself upon the dromedary’s hump, looked small and frightened…
Gerhardie’s 3rd novel, in 1928, was quite different. It had several alternative titles, and is reprinted as Doom, but I rather prefer Jazz And Jasper, even though the shorter version captures the rising apocalyptic nature of the story.
The central character is a rising young novelist called Frank Dickin, taken under the wing of the newspaper tycoon “Lord Ottercove” (transparently based on Lord Beaverbrook). This matches the real-life experience of Gerhardie who was briefly and unsuccessfully promoted as a cause by Beaverbrook in his papers. The first half is mainly taken up with a sly, self-referential retelling of their relationship, and the character of the great man himself, with his unashamed and unprincipled switching in his political allegiances. He decides to get the Liberal Party back into power by promoting the obscure promises of the scientist Lord de Jones who claims he can create new crops all over the world by sealing up all craters. But the world is drifting out of control:
There was enough in [the newspaper] today to disconcert a sensitive reader. There was the ‘Dog Election’ in England; the Fundamentalist-Evolutionist feud in America growing into what looked very like a civil war; and a European imbroglio most likely to develop into a new world war overnight.
The ‘Dog Election’ is so-called because Ottercove decided to make all his newspapers demand that dogs be banned. The Conservative government rushed into adopting this policy, and then the Liberals sweep to power in the backlash, as Ottercove wanted. But meanwhile, it turns out de Jones was really following his secret plan to end the world instead of creating new crops, by splitting the atom and starting a disintegrating process from the deepest crater:
‘I don’t believe you, Chris. You say that you’ve done it?’
‘A week ago. In Greece.’
‘My Athens correspondent is silent about the matter.’
‘Inevitably. He has disintegrated.’
‘There is no sign of panic anywhere.’
‘There is no sign of panic because there is no way to communicate panic. No sound, no sight: a whole area vanishes invisibly, ceases to be there… the world is fast unravelling, like a laddered silk stocking.’
Spoiler: the world does in fact get destroyed, and we go into an eerie surreal zone of planetary fragments. I think it’s not hard to surmise that this book was an influence on the much lighter Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, who acknowledged Gerhardie as a “genius”.
There were other novels, and the wonderfully strange counter-history of the 20th century God’s Fifth Column, which has some more bile about the British establishment and the threadbare reality of those glittering reputations earned at Oxford. Brigid Brophy made this comment at the end of her review of the 1972 edition of Glory by Nabokov:
Nabokov published Glory in Russian in Paris in 1932. ‘Exploit’ he explains, is a more direct translation of its Russian title, discarded, however, lest it be read as a verb instead of a noun. Perhaps in the choice of Glory there is a sense of answering, not necessarily antagonistically, the title of the still too little praised novel on themes historically similar which William Gerhardie published in 1922, that novel which exists wholly in the spaces between people as Glory does in the sensuous essence of objects, Futility.