author harold shukman 88.
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War or Revolution: Russian Jews and Conscription in Britain 1917
By Harold Shukman
157 pages, $25
Do not let the dry title of this book put you off: This is an unusual, sparkling blend of family and academic history that illuminates the personal and the political with an easy authority and winning style.
Its subject is rooted in the bizarre and dangerous World War I experiences of the author's Russian-born father and uncle. They, and about 3,000 other Jews living in England, were shipped back to Russia in 1917 to fight in an army that had all but ceased to exist by the time they arrived.
How did this happen? Prof. Shukman, an Emeritus Fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and an authority on modern Russian history, notes that by the outbreak of war in 1914, many Jews had fled czarist rule for Britain and were living as aliens, mostly working in the clothing industry. Their presence was tolerated until the increasingly desperate manpower shortage made conscription unavoidable.
But the Jews were not anxious to serve, "In order that the Slavs may maintain their position against the Teutons and an effete and barbarous autocracy be sustained on a tottering throne," as the Jewish Chronicle put it.
Memories of their days in Russia hardened their view that conscription in any army was something to be avoided at all costs. And czarist officials were too busy stirring up anti-Semitic sentiment against the Jews who remained in their clutches to want more Jews back.
But 1917 changed this. The czar was deposed, and Kerensky took charge. Despite this, Russia was on the verge of military collapse. As a desperate measure, Britain and Russia agreed to compel alien Jews with Russian citizenship living in Britain to serve either in the British or the Russian army.
Most Jews covered by the agreement preferred to lie low. About 4,000 enlisted in the British army. But those who opted for a return to Russia were convinced that conditions there would improve with the change of regime.
They were wrong. They arrived in the grimy port of Archangel in October 1917 to discover chaos. The army had almost ceased to exist as a fighting force and the country was beginning its painful and bloody transformation into the Soviet Union.
The group splintered. A few disappeared, or preferred to stay in the promised workers' paradise. Most tried to get back, but it took them years to find a way out as civil war raged around them. A few returned via service with the French Foreign Legion in North Africa. Others made it by going eastward to Shanghai, then working their passage home. The author's father went south to Constantinople, arriving in London in 1920.
Shukman's account has been 25 years in the making, but his early start enabled him to interview a number of survivors of the ill-fated expedition. His elegantly expressed mastery of the period, and his natural empathy for those groping their way through the perilous paths of a dangerous time, make for moving reading.
One returnee ruefully told the author that going back to Russia "Was the worst thing I ever did in my life." He might have added that the same was true of the officials who dreamed up the harebrained scheme in the first place.