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Thursday, 16 January 2014

A necessary sacrice. Discuss

What goes on in the minds of men and how does chance change destiny? The picture below is one of banal contentment. It’s pleasant but ordinary. Surely nothing extraordinary could ever have impinged on this man’s life. The other picture exudes interest and romance. How did their two worlds collide?

 Major Ranald MacDonell (retired)

 Stepan Shaumian and family
Stepan Shaumian was the Bolshevik Commissar for Baku at a crucial moment in World War 1. Bolshevik Russia was out or the war after the German imposed Brest Litovsk Treaty, but this left the great Baku oil-fields in a precarious position. Germany was desperate for oil, and its ally, the Ottoman Empire wanted both territory and oil. What was Britain to do? The issue became serious when a large Turkish army edged closer to Baku.

 Major Ranald MacDonell was our agent and consul in Baku. He sought to persuade Stepan Shaumian to accept British forces to organise and reinforce Baku’s defence against the Turks. A majority in the Baku Soviet were in favour of this, but greater forces were in play, forces that neither Shaumian or MacDonell controlled.

Britain’s Prime Minister, Lloyd George saw things in the long term. He would rather the Turks held Baku instead of the Bolsheviks. He saw Turkey as a power in decline and thus less of a long term threat than a regenerated Russia – our traditional enemy in ‘The Great Game.’

Moscow held a similar view. It, too, would prefer the Turks to hold Baku rather than the British for exactly the same reasons. As a result the Baku Bolsheviks were urged to oppose categorically the idea of inviting British troops for the defence of the city.
Peter Hopkirk in his book On Secret Service East of Constantinople describes their first meeting using MacDonell’s memoirs:

“I visited Shaumian late one night in his own flat…the door was opened by his small son aged ten. I explained who I was. The small boy made a grimace…then retired a few paces.” He began shouting: “You bourgeois…you damned parasite of the possessing classes.” The shouting brought out Mrs Shaumian. “After some laughter I was ushered in to the presence of the great man.” He found the revolutionary sunk in a deep chair poring over a thick file which he laid aside as MacDonell entered. “The room radiated middle class contentment. At one end of the big table was laid Shaumian’s supper. At the other end were school books lately studied by the small boy."

Shaumian greeted his visitor warmly and opened a bottle of wine. On a personal level the two men hit it off, both enjoying long, heated arguments deep into the night. Despite the ideological gulf, Shaumian appreciated MacDonell’s dry wit, and MacDonell admired Shaumian’s honesty, the way he dealt with food shortages and how his first recourse was to persuade rather than terrorise.

MacDonell sought hard to persuade him. General Dunsterville’s forces were in marching distance, and most of Baku soviet saw the advantage in British aid against the Turks, now dangerously close. But Shaumian held firm to Moscow’s line: British help must be rejected.

Shaumian at least knew where he was coming from. MacDonell however didn’t appreciate, until it was too late, that the British Government had no intention of aiding the Bolsheviks. He was now close to the family, the small boy who had earlier harangued him as a class enemy now a firm friend:

“Often  while his father read through a pile of documents we would play with his toy railway. I was usually the deposed Grand Duke, who had become a shunter. I was always sworn at and sometimes hit of the head for making mistakes, or for being late with the food train. Once I was executed. I often marvelled how Shaumian could work through all the din…but he said he would not have the children out of the room for anything. They were to him a greater inspiration than all his ideals.”

Despite the friendship MacDonell at last realised British interests would be best served by Shaumian’s overthrow. He was aware, too, that others in the Soviet shared similar views and that plots were already afoot. Shaumian sensed this new ambivalence and relations between the two men cooled, more so after MacDonell, on direct orders from London became actively involved in the coup. The coup failed. Shaumian almost certainly knew of MacDonell’s involvement but for old times sake allowed him to escape.

Shaumian was less fortunate. He was ousted a few weeks later and was forced to flee. He and his twenty five companions were captured in the anti Bolshevik town of Krasnovodsk. The town’s Commandent, a tough Cossack called Kuhn was at a loss what to do with them. To cut a complex story short, Britain washed its hands of him and Shaumian, with his companions were shot.

The two pictures below sum up a sad, contrasting story 

The execution of Stepan Shaumian and fellow Bolsheviks

The alternative


Maria Zannini said...

It couldn't have been a very good friendship if MacDonnell didn't even have the decency to warn Shaumian. Even if Shaumian knew something was afoot, a little nudging by MacDonnell should've been in order.

It's hard to pass judgment without knowing all the facts, but it appears Shaumian got the royal shaft from both sides.

Mike Keyton said...

I agree, Maria, though just like my Grand-dad got a medal for dying in the Boer War, Shaumian became a hero of the soviet union with schools and statues named after him. That's the good news. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union all those statues have been pulled down. Worldly things eh.

LD Masterson said...

Mike, I find your history posts fascinating. Thank you.

Mike Keyton said...

Thanks, Linda. It's fun looking at history you don't have to teach :)