Canada’s Siberian dead: How we’ve failed to bury the past

This past spring, while on an academic research trip to Vladivostok, I stumbled across a museum of naval history. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything about Canadian history during my visit to the Russian Far East. But then I met Yuri.

One of the guides at the museum, Yuri was a former Soviet and Russian naval officer and a warm, soft-spoken older man, having served in the armed forces for a quarter-century. He approached me to ask where I was from, and when I told him I was born in Canada, he immediately rushed to the museum archives.

He emerged with a series of photographs taken a century ago. They depicted Canadian soldiers in the streets of Vladivostok.

I was astonished. Of course, I was familiar with the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War against the Bolsheviks. But it had never specifically occurred to me that Canada had sent troops – and to northeast Asia no less.

Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and Juno Beach are all seared into the Canadian collective consciousness. But this was a forgotten battlefield.

Yuri also handed me a book, From Victoria to Vladivostok, chronicling the history of the deployment – Canada’s Siberian Expeditionary Force. Turning through its pages, I discovered images of a military graveyard on the outskirts of Vladivostok where Canadian troops had been buried. Yuri instructed me how to get there and I made the trip out the next day.

The cemetery, containing an entire section of Allied graves from several countries, sits on a hill overlooking the Sea of Japan. The design of the Canadian tombstones was unmistakable. Every feature – their shape, the maple leaf emblazoned upon them, the font of the text bearing the names of the dead – was identical to the graves that I had set eyes on in Flanders Fields one year before, while en route to a ceremony commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The site went largely unmaintained during the Soviet period. It was not until 1996 that Canadian and Russian naval officers, under the supervision of then-Canadian ambassador to Russia Jeremy Kinsman, jointly conducted restoration work on the graves and headstones.

The Allied intervention in Russia’s civil war was a decisive failure, providing the Bolsheviks with ammunition to persuade ordinary Russians that the Western powers were indeed imperialist. After the Reds emerged victorious, a period of deep East-West mistrust set in, reducing the flexibility of the European system of states, constraining the ability of the continent’s major powers to contain the rise of Nazi Germany and contributing directly to the outbreak of the Second World War.

History appears to be repeating itself. Today, mistrust and hostility between Russia and the West are on the rise once again. The United States and others failed to find a place for a wounded and defeated Russia in Europe’s principal economic, political and security institutions after the Cold War, allowing Moscow to harbour grievances as its great-power image suffered blow after humiliating blow, from the Western military intervention in Yugoslavia to the rapid expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders.

The hard-line, uncompromising approach taken by Western capitals toward Moscow since the onset of the Ukraine crisis has helped to entrench that country’s civil war and strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule at home, further allowing him to co-opt conservative, nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric while tightening the Kremlin’s control over sanctioned (and thus increasingly state-dependent) oligarchs.

Tragically, as we approach this weekend’s 100-year anniversary of the armistice to the “war to end all wars,” military conflict has returned to Europe. The continent’s security order has effectively collapsed and the risk of outright confrontation remains dangerously high.

Much has changed over the past 100 years. Vladivostok, once a closed military city, is now a growing and increasingly cosmopolitan urban centre, boasting more than 600,000 inhabitants and a tourism industry that attracts visitors from nearby China, Japan and South Korea.

But some trends live on through the centuries. The young Canadian men buried in Russia’s Far East are a timeless reminder of the continued need to strengthen the global foundations of peace, security and mutual understanding. This Remembrance Day, may we recommit ourselves to this mission. Lest we forget.

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