Wednesday, 2 December 2009

An Ulsterman's adventures in the Russian far north

Lying to the north of St Petersburg, between the chilly waters of Lake Ladoga and the White Sea, the Republic of Karelia is an autonomous region of the Russian Federation. Forest stretches over more than half its territory, and of the remainder, fully a quarter is comprised of water.

Historically, the region known as Karelia included parts of eastern Finland and for a time, during the Russian Civil War, hopes were raised that an independent state might be forged by the majority Finno-Ugric population. Fuelling Karelian aspirations was an Ulsterman who would later become an independent unionist MP at Stormont!

Colonel Phillip James Woods was an unlikely talisman for nationalism at the edge of the Arctic Circle. A champion of the British Empire, he had served in the Second Boer War under Baden Powell, taking part in the Relief of Mafeking. He became involved in the nascent Ulster Volunteer Force, and with other members of that organisation, helped form the 36th Ulster Division, which took heavy casualties at the Battle of the Somme.

With war raging throughout Europe, Russia experienced the October Revolution in 1917, and the Bolsheviks came to power. The new government in St Petersburg would undergo a turbulent period before it established an empire which would appear impregnable for seventy years. Russia was thrown into a bloody civil war, which would last well into the 1920s, when the Bolsheviks gradually began to assert dominance.

After the Soviets signed the Brest Litovsk treaty, which effectively closed the eastern front in World War 1, and ceded swathes of territory to the Germans, the case for an allied intervention in Russia began to build. Significantly, the new Bolshevik regime also threatened to default on enormous debts owed by the Russian Empire to western powers.

In June 1918 an expeditionary force was dispatched to the Arctic Circle which included British and French troops. Its aim was to secure the region against intervention by German and Finnish forces, before aiding the anti-Soviet whites and, in Churchill’s words, strangling ‘at birth the Bolshevik state’

Arriving in Murmansk with the Allied Intervention, Woods was based at Kem, on the White Sea. He established the Karelian Regiment, which became known as the ’Irish Karelians’. The regimental badge consisted of a shamrock inset on an orange background. Woods helped push the Germans and their Finnish allies out of East Karelia and, in so doing, inspired dreams of independence which were, ultimately, unrealistic.

In the aftermath of the Great War there was little public appetite in Britain for yet more casualties suffered in a distant conflict. In 1919 British forces were withdrawn, Woods included.

Four years later he was sitting in the Northern Ireland Parliament, as a member for Belfast West, contributing to the history of unionism. A fascinating figure, I’m sure you’d agree and one which I’m looking forward to researching more closely.


Keith Ruffles said...

A fascinating story.

By the way is that a Prokudin-Gorsky photograph illustrating the post? His photographs of the Russian Empire on the eve of revolution are absolutely fascinating and well worth checking out.

Chekov said...

I'm afraid it's just a modern photo I think Keith. Although I have seen the exhibition website and it is astonishing.