Toward the end of 1918, infantry from the U.S. Army’s 85th Division occupied Arkhangelsk, a city in North Russia on the shore of the White Sea. They had come with other Allied troops to rescue the stranded Czechoslovakian Legion, forty thousand soldiers abandoned after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Although Josef Stalin—at that time the Commissar of Foreign Nationalities for the newly formed Soviet Russian Republic—had agreed to the evacuation, he also had demands about how it should be done, including the legionnaires’ unconditional disarmament.
Instead, the Czechs decided to stockpile weapons as they withdrew. Before long, for a variety of reasons, the ceasefire collapsed, and the Czech legionnaires began a violent, almost hallucinogenic campaign to smash through Soviet defenses on their way to the Pacific Ocean. They demolished trainyards and captured cities. They destroyed bridges, commandeered armored locomotives, and inflicted devastating losses on the Red Guard.
Every military action carried them farther from Arkhangelsk. When the Americans—nicknamed the Polar Bears—finally arrived, they discovered no one to rescue and no real mission beyond skirmishing with Bolshevik sympathizers. In Europe, the Great War was ending; in North Russia, though, a strange, confused campaign had just begun. Read More