Leo Steveni was a British officer based in St Petersburg at the time of the Russian Revolution. He became an active eyewitness to the chaos of the Civil War that followed.
The Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died in St Petersburg on 24 October 1893. The following day (7 November, according to the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1918) Leo Steveni was born in the same city. His father, William Oscar Steveni, of Swedish descent, was born in the English port of Hull, while his mother, Elizaveta Leonovna, was half Russian and half German. Her grandfather, Count Leo Perovsky, was descended from the noble Razumovsky family and had been a successful general and a minister in the government of Tsar Nicholas I.
Of Crimean Cossack origin, the family rose to nobility on the back of two brothers: Alexi Razumovsky, a lover of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, and Kyril, a courtier to Catherine the Great. Count Alexis Tolstoy, writer, poet and cousin to Leo, came from another branch of the family tree, though one with more bitter fruit: Sophia Perovskaya was hanged on 3 April 1881 for her part in the murder of Alexander II. Leo’s mother was the product of two generations of illegitimacy and one of incest. It is little wonder that Leo Steveni was to become the firebrand he did.
Leo’s father had left Hull for Russia at the age of 18. His timber export business, founded in 1883, had grown by exporting timber from tsarist estates to Britain. In 1902, in gratitude, William was awarded a diamond and ruby ring by the Russian government.
According to his memoirs, Leo’s childhood was idyllic. He and his two younger sisters spent their summers in the family dacha on the Gulf of Finland, opposite the naval fortress island of Kronstadt. In October 1902, aged nine, Leo was sent to prep school in Bournemouth. Two and a half years later his mother died and he returned to the Finnish dacha for the summer and spent Christmas and Easter in London with an aunt and uncle. He was sent to Rugby school where he was ‘scholastically far from brilliant’, though it provided him with ‘a splendid background …discipline, responsibility and also, I hope, [a knowledge of] how to “play the game”.’
It was a privileged upbringing and one of the most memorable moments of Leo’s gilded youth was a visit to St Petersburg by the British battle cruiser squadron under Admiral Sir David Beatty in June 1914. The three battle cruisers anchored at Kronstadt, while the light cruisers came up the River Neva to anchor just below the Nicholas Bridge. Beatty was received by the tsar and the squadron was entertained by the city municipality and the British colony. In return, the squadron gave a ball at Kronstadt – HMS New Zealand provided the dance floors and HMS Queen Mary the banqueting areas – and Leo returned home after a ‘wonderful night’ at nine o’clock in the morning, still dressed in his ‘tails’. Meanwhile, German newspapers criticised the ostentatious event and the Royal Navy’s provocation in sailing through the ‘German’ Baltic.
Reporting from the Front
Following the outbreak of war in August 1914 Leo was attached to the Russian general staff as a member of the British Military Mission. His work consisted of obtaining from the Russian general staff information about the German and Austrian army units fighting on the Eastern Front. He repaid the Russians with similar information about the German army from British and French sources in the West. It was difficult but rewarding work; the Russian admiralty warned British naval intelligence that the German High Seas Fleet had left Kiel. The news allowed Beatty time to successfully engage it off Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915.
Steveni worked with leading military figures at the Mission: Lieutenant Colonel Sir Samuel Hoare (later Viscount Templewood), Major General Sir Alfred Knox and, fleetingly, Major Archibald (later Field Marshal) Wavell. By early summer 1917, he was under the command of General Knox, now the military attaché, and was sent as a liaison officer to the Russian front in Poland, where he reported to General Denikin, later to lead the White Russians in the south during the Russian Civil War. While at the front, he was awarded the Russian Order of St Anne and promoted temporarily to captain.
The tsar abdicated in March. Troop morale was poor, mainly because the liberal Provisional Government, which replaced that of the Romanovs, had agreed, under pressure from the Petrograd Soviet, to introduce commissars and soldiers’ committees. This ‘Order No. 1’, issued on 15 March 1917, abolished the death penalty and the salute throughout the armed forces. It destroyed discipline and led to insubordination in the ranks, mass desertions, fraternisation, even the murder of officers. Despite this, the Provisional Government tried to restore order and prepare for the election of a democratic body, the Constituent Assembly. Yet it continued0 to prosecute the war, while the simple Bolshevik message of ‘bread, peace and land’ became increasingly attractive to an exhausted population. Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government kept Russia in the war until 7 November, when the Bolsheviks staged a coup in St Petersburg.
Steveni believed the revolution had been caused by inefficiency in supplying the troops, corruption and the mobilisation of millions of unwanted and unemployable reservists, who were never destined to see the front. He watched as Lenin installed himself in the palace of the tsar’s mistress, Madame Kshesinskaya, attacked the Provisional Government’s feeble attempts at democracy and appealed to the workers to overthrow it.
Steveni returned from the front to what was now Petrograd and rejoined the Military Mission, which, along with British embassy staff, evacuated the city in February 1918 and travelled back to England via Finland, Sweden and Norway. Steveni’s father and two sisters had already left for Sweden. The Bolsheviks provided a train for the evacuation of the British community in February 1918 but its departure was delayed until three prominent Bolsheviks had been allowed to leave England for Russia, with Georgy Chicherin, shortly to become the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, among them.
The original plan had been for the party to proceed to Helsinki and then travel by sledge across the frozen sea to Stockholm via the Åland Islands. Not only were these now occupied by the German army but the Finns were engaged in a bitter civil war. Helsinki was occupied by ‘Red’ forces but the embassy staff and officers of the Military Mission were allowed to proceed north towards Tampere, which was occupied by the ‘Whites’.
There was a gap of 17 kilometres between the two forces and Steveni was one of two British officers chosen to make contact with the Whites, riding on ‘dreadful’ Finnish ponies along the railway line, carrying a Union flag and a white flag and accompanied by two Finnish guides. As the rifle fire increased on both sides of the line, the guides abandoned them. Despite this, they made contact with White patrols, who were travelling on skis. Many of these White Finns were officers in the German Jäger unit on the Russian front and there were more uniformed German officers at the White headquarters. It was an embarrassing experience for the two uniformed British officers, given that the two countries were still at war.
Nevertheless, 20 sledges were placed at their disposal to collect their baggage from the ‘Red’ lines, while the Whites provided a train to take the party to Stockholm via Haparanda, the Swedish border town, accessed through Tornio in north-west Finland. The warring parties seemed co-operative, but in his memoirs Steveni states that negotiations were ‘nerve-racking’. Stockholm, Oslo and Bergen followed and they finally departed for Lerwick on the SS Vultur, a former cattle transporter, which arrived in Aberdeen just as the German offensive of 21 March 1918 opened on the Western Front.
Steveni did not stay in London for long. On General Knox’s recommendation, he was ordered to travel to Siberia to contact White Russian forces. He was to report on their movement and potential fighting power in the event of Allied intervention in the Far East, not that this possibility was to be disclosed. He travelled westwards, via New York, Chicago and San Francisco, reaching Harbin in Manchuria in early June 1918. There he was introduced to Admiral Kolchak, later the Supreme Ruler of the Provisional All-Russia government: ‘I was given quite a friendly welcome by the Admiral who was dressed in a British style military uniform with Russian full Admiral’s shoulder straps.’
Kolchak had been commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which had retained its discipline despite Order No. 1. Kolchak gave Steveni an account of local conditions, how the two Cossack atamans, Grigori Semenov and Ivan Kalmykov, both of whom operated like brigands in the Chinese Eastern Railway Zone, were attempting to raise a force to fight the Bolsheviks in Transbaikalia – a mountainous region east of Lake Baikal – and in the Maritime Province centred on Vladivostok. Yet Kolchak called Harbin ‘a gutter’ and despaired of ever uniting the Russian factions into a single resistance force, though he would have been unlikely to mention this to Steveni. The ‘Supreme Ruler’ gave Steveni a railway carriage, No. 2013, for his private use, over which he raised the Union flag and in which he travelled along the Trans-Siberian Railway for the next 18 months.
In Harbin, Steveni met the leaders of the various factions: General Horvat, the administrator of the Chinese Eastern Railway, whom he described as extreme ‘right’, as well as various socialists. Horvat favoured intervention by the Japanese alone, but the socialists preferred that all the allies should be involved, worried that the Japanese were only interested in annexing territory and would restore a reactionary regime.
To prevent the Bolsheviks moving these stores westwards, the British sent the cruiser HMS Suffolk to Vladivostok. The Americans followed two months later with their cruiser, USS Brooklyn. More assistance came from an unexpected quarter. The Czech Legion had been fighting with the Russians against the Germans and was now travelling eastwards back along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok in order to sail from the port and join the allies in the West. The Bolsheviks intended to use the captured stores to fight the Czechs in transit, but those from the Legion who had already arrived in Vladivostok – approximately 12,000 under General Dieterichs, a veteran tsarist staff officer – rebelled on 29 June 1918 and ordered the town to surrender to them, which it did, offering little resistance.
With no Bolsheviks remaining, the time was ripe for intervention. The Japanese landed three divisions, the US two regiments from Manila, the British two battalions – the 25th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, from Hong Kong, joined later by the 9th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment from Quetta. A French colonial battalion from Indochina also arrived. The aim was to help the Czech Legion leave Russia as fighting had broken out along the railway between the Bolsheviks and the Czechs, who had captured an entire section of track between the Ural mountains and Irkutsk. Trotsky was furious that the Czechs had decided to fight their way out of Russia.
War against the Reds
Steveni writes of two ‘so-called governments, pledged to wage war against the Reds’: Horvat’s ‘Provisional All-Russian Government’, supported by Colonel Orlov alongside Kalmykov’s Ussuri Cossacks; and the ‘Provisional Government of Autonomous Siberia’ under Peter Derber, a Jewish Social Revolutionary from Odessa. Neither force was allowed to enter Vladivostok by either the Czechs or the allied representatives. Horvat’s offer to place his force under the command of General Dieterichs was declined, although Kalmykov’s mounted Cossack detachment was accepted by the Czechs, who had no cavalry of their own. The Czechs proceeded to clear Bolsheviks out of the territory north of Vladivostok. Dieterichs then moved his forces westwards through Manchuria in order to break through the Bolshevik forces occupying Transbaikalia and join up with the young Czech leader, Colonel Gaida, believed to be somewhere east of Irkutsk.
At this stage, Steveni received orders from the War Office to report to the ‘Czecho Slovak Corps HQ and to become liaison officer to General Diet[e]richs’. He left Vladivostok in railway carriage No. 2013, hitched to Dieterichs’ staff train, and travelled with him to Manchuli in Manchuria, Semenov’s HQ.
After inspecting the 8th Czechoslovak Regiment at Manchouli, Dieterichs succeeded in finding Radola Gajda, the Czech/Serbian military commander, in early September. Rendezvous was made at Olovianaya near the Manchurian border. The Vladivostok Czechs had joined up with the western Czechs and the entire Trans-Siberian Railway from the Volga to the Pacific was in their hands.
Among the characters on Dieterichs’ staff whom Steveni met was Doctor Girsa, later to be a minister in the government of Tomas Masaryk, first president of Czechoslovakia. He also gave a ‘lift’ in his railway carriage to Bernard Falk, a Daily Mail correspondent, and to George Carvel, a major in the Canadian 22nd Light Infantry, who was then in Harbin, acting as a Reuter’s correspondent but who, Steveni thought, had ‘other fish to fry’. Falk interviewed Gajda at Olovianaya and thought him ‘Hannibal-like’.
Steveni, meanwhile, heard of the clearance of the Bolsheviks from Siberia, not just from the railway but also from the region’s main towns right up to the Urals in the north and Samara in the south. He also learned of the murder by the Bolsheviks of Nicholas II and his family in Ekaterinburg in July, three days before the Czechs captured the town. More specifically, he was advised of the arrival in Vladivostok of the British Military Mission under Knox. He returned to Vladivostok to meet Dieterichs, who was visiting Knox and various allied military and diplomatic representatives. Kolchak, on the other hand, left Harbin for Tokyo.
In early October, Steveni and Dieterichs left Vladivostok for Ufa, west of the Urals, in order to investigate the political and military situation there. An anti-Bolshevik government, styling itself the ‘Directoria’, had established itself in Ufa under the leadership of two Social Revolutionaries, Avksentiev and Zenzinov, supported by General Boldyrev, a professional soldier who had commanded one of the Russian armies in Poland. The Directoria wished to move east of the Urals to Omsk, where its members would feel more secure, as there was a military headquarters there, together with groups of Cossacks whose support they might secure. The right-wing Siberian Provisional Government also operated out of Omsk and this was the administration favoured by Knox. When he visited Omsk on 21 October, he conspicuously paid no official call on Avksentiev, the chairman of the Directoria, and told General Boldyrev in jest that, if the Directoria did not come to terms with the Siberian government, he would organise its overthrow. The two competing governments amalgamated on 5 November, however, with the Council of Ministers of the Siberian government becoming the new All-Russian Provisional Government, leaving the Directoria as little more than a figurehead. In addition, they were accommodated ignominiously in railway carriages in an Omsk siding and had little or no executive power.
On 16 November Kolchak returned to Omsk from Tokyo and, the day after, was approached by several officers from the Stavka, the Russian general staff, who asked him to head a new united administration, which would replace the ineffective Directoria. Kolchak refused but, that evening, four members of the Directoria were kidnapped by a squad of Cossacks, led by Ataman Krasilnikov, a firebrand of the Semenov type, and taken to his headquarters. As a result, the other members of the Directoria resigned and the Council of Ministers proposed a military dictatorship, with Kolchak at its head.
Meanwhile, in October Steveni travelled north to Chelyabinsk and on to Ekaterinburg, where he met Knox to discuss the success of the White forces. They returned to Omsk, where a battalion of the Middlesex Regiment were providing welcome stability. Knox left for Vladivostok on 7 November, leaving Neilson, a cavalry officer, and Steveni as liaison officers attached to the Stavka. They lived in Steveni’s railway carriage, which was stationed on a branch line opposite the Stavka HQ, where Steveni received confirmation of the coup early on 18 November.
The command of the military forces and of the civil administration was to be offered to Kolchak. In Omsk he was proclaimed Supreme Ruler and Commander in Chief of all military forces opposing the Bolsheviks on Russian territory. The arrested members of the Directoria were handed over to a platoon of the Middlesex Regiment and taken to the Manchurian border, having undertaken not to indulge in any hostile acts against the new government in Omsk.
The French and, later, the Russians suspected that the British may have engineered the coup and that Neilson and Steveni were involved. Neilson spoke Russian and had, from the start of the war, served on Knox’s staff in Petrograd. Steveni was described by the historian R.H. Ullman as ‘a thorough-going reactionary who desired a complete restoration of the tsarist regime’. General Janin, the French Commander-in-Chief of all Allied and Russian forces, claimed in his memoirs of 1923 that Steveni had taken part in the detailed planning of the coup and it was unfortunate that Kolchak should have been accompanied by Neilson in uniform when he visited the French high commissioner.
Colonel Ward, as soon as he received news of the coup, put his armed battalion on to the streets of Omsk and was the next officer to be visited by Kolchak, further increasing suspicions of British involvement. The War Office described Neilson as ‘hot-headed and irresponsible’ and rebuked him for his ‘recent activities in political matters’, regarded by the Foreign Office as ‘highly indiscreet and as tending to compromise’. Peter Fleming, in his work on Kolchak, however, clears Neilson and Steveni of any participation in the coup but believes that the British government was involved, while Steveni himself leaves it to Fleming to set the record straight: ‘This masterly and accurate account of what occurred makes it unnecessary for me to dwell any further on this event.’
Kolchak’s elevation was, nevertheless, an unexpected development. The British government had been discussing de facto recognition of the Omsk government when news of the coup arrived, which undermines Fleming’s theory about its involvement. Were Neilson and Steveni, aided by Ward, the instigators of the coup? Might the new Siberian government have prosecuted the civil war more successfully than Kolchak, a man whom Knox described as being ‘deficient in real strength of character’ and of whose associates Ward wrote: ‘There is not one that I would trust to manage a whelk stall.’
At the end of November 1918, Steveni set off for Chita in Transbaikalia to negotiate with Semenov, who had not only refused to recognise Kolchak as supreme ruler but was disrupting his supply lines by interfering with the movement of munition trains to western Siberia. When asked to send his Cossacks to aid Kolchak against the Bolsheviks in the Urals, Semenov was evasive but he did agree to cease his disruption of train traffic. Steveni remained in Chita for six weeks, living in his railway carriage, and was there when an assassination attempt was made on Semenov’s life.
Semenov survived virtually unscathed. When Steveni visited him to congratulate him on his escape, he was welcomed into the Ataman’s bedroom where Semenov ‘was receiving the amorous attention of his Gypsy mistress “Masha”, formerly a singer in a Harbin cabaret’.
Semenov never moved from Chita and, when the Whites were defeated in 1920, he sought the protection of his Japanese masters and remained with them until Japan surrendered in August 1945, whereupon the Soviet government demanded his extradition and executed him. Steveni liked him: ‘He was a fine figure of a man with a good war record against the Germans.’ He could have helped Kolchak, however, but was always opposed to him, despite sending a small force to rescue him when he had been captured by the Bolsheviks in Irkutsk in January 1920. The long-standing animosity with the Czechs finally proved fatal to Kolchak, who was betrayed to the Bolsheviks. On 7 February 1920 he was shot on a frozen river in Irkutsk and his body pushed through a hole in the ice.
This is to anticipate events. In 1919, Steveni was based in Omsk at the White armies’ headquarters, acting as Knox’s liaison officer and forwarding him reports from the front. Initially, the Whites secured many successes, particularly in the northern sector, where General Pepeliaev’s First Army moved rapidly from Ekaterinburg to Perm and on to Viatka, where it was hoped they would rendezvous with the North Russia Relief Force moving down the river Dvina from its base in Archangel. In the Volga region, the Whites, under General Kappel, were not so successful and many men deserted. It was a fierce blow to the British Military Mission, which had just re-equipped the whole of Kappel’s men in British uniforms. Steveni visited the front three times during 1919, once in April to accompany Knox, when he visited Perm and Viatka. The White advance was halted, however, by Trotsky’s exhortations to the Red Army and the brilliance of a young Russian regular, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who had been released as a prisoner of war by the Germans. The great Soviet commander would be one of the most prominent victims of Stalin’s purges; he was executed in 1937.
The British Military Mission opened training schools for White Army personnel in Ekaterinburg, Tomsk, Irkutsk and Vladivostok under British instructors, but Kolchak’s armies collapsed and at least two of these instructors, Brian Horrocks and Eric Hayes, were captured by the Bolsheviks: both were to serve as generals in the Second World War. Despite Dieterich’s successful counter-offensive west of the river Tobol, the Bolsheviks continued to advance and Omsk itself was threatened. On 30 October, Knox gave a small, depressed dinner party in his train at Omsk and, shortly afterwards, Dieterichs recommended that Kolchak move his whole army east of the river Irtysh in western Siberia to regroup. Though Kolchak refused to leave, Knox left in his train for Vladivostok on 7 November and the other allied missions left two days later. Steveni, Horrocks and Hayes finally departed on 13 November. The Bolsheviks moved in the following morning, sealing Kolchak’s fate.
Captain Leo Steveni spent a subsequent week in Vladivostok, a few weeks with his sister and her husband in Shanghai and finally arrived in Tilbury in the middle of June 1920, where he was met by his father. Early in July of that year, George V decorated him with the OBE and Military Cross, bringing an end to the Russian career of a brave, resourceful and unusual man operating at a momentous moment in history.
Catherine Boylan has a PhD in military history from King’s College London.
Peter Fleming The Fate of Admiral Kolchak (Birlinn, 2001)
David Reynolds The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon and Schuster, 2013)
Clifford Kinvig Churchill’s Crusade (Hambledon Continuum, 2006)