Reviewed by Grant T Weller in Europe-Asian Studies Volume 61, Isssue 4
The historical profession divides and subdivides itself, forming smaller and smaller specialisations. Nick Baron, author of a previous work on Soviet Karelia, has done us all a service by breaking through the artificial boxes to produce a work valuable to a variety of historians, and that transcends specialisation by reminding us of the ultimate unity of history. In his research, Baron came across the holy grail of history—an unpublished, largely unknown memoir by a literate, insightful person in an interesting place and time. Colonel Philip Woods served as part of the abortive British intervention in the Russian Civil War, commanding a unit of Karelian volunteers.
Baron begins with a short biography of Woods. Woods’ Karelian adventures filled only a short part of his eventful life, so Baron has much to describe. Woods, born in Belfast, ventured to South Africa during the Boer War, prepared to resist Irish Home Rule by force of arms, if necessary, served on the Western Front in the First World War, earned a decoration for bravery at the Somme, volunteered for the Karelian intervention, returned home, entered politics, and finally moved to England and founded a school for political secretaries.
Most of the work in question consists of Woods’ memoir, which he wrote in the late 1930s but failed to publish. The memoir appears in its entirety, with only occasional editorial clarifications, correcting Woods’ transliterations, or adding names Woods excised to protect his old comrades from Soviet retribution. Actual military operations fill only a small part of Woods’ experiences, with one major clash against the Finns and one against the Bolsheviks. The rest of the military operations consisted of patrols, outposts and bluffs.
Woods provides useful insights into the culture of the Karelians, though tinted by his national and class prejudices. He also details the snake pit of White Russian military politics in the Russian north, where assassination, arson and innuendo (in that order) were the chosen methods. Woods became involved in efforts by Karelian nationalists to secure independence or autonomy from domination by either Red or White Finns or Red or White Russians, but the British government rejected a request by local leaders to extend a protectorate, and appeals to the Allies for national self-determination fell on deaf ears. Woods concludes with a quick summary of the fall of Karelia to the Bolsheviks after the Allied evacuation. Baron follows Woods’ memoir with a useful timeline and four primary documents—two letters and two addresses—which add interest and useful information.
Baron’s biography of Woods is interesting, but contains a regrettable number of ‘probablys’, ‘likelys’ and ‘presumablys’. Most readers will want more ‘life’ and less ‘times’, especially in the final section where Baron speculates about Woods’ possible connections to extreme right-wing British politics. (Woods briefly employed William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw Haw’, as a tutor at his school.) Baron, however, cannot be held responsible for the gaps in the record of the life of a relatively minor figure in British or Russian history, and we must be content to be frustrated by the silences together. Specialists in each of the areas Baron touches on in his study of Woods’ life outside of his Karelian adventure will probably find important sources missing from Baron’s footnotes (there is no bibliography), but he has done an admirable job of digesting the key points about widely varied events, and of doing substantial original research of his own. That brings us to the chief contribution of Baron’s efforts. While the very limited number of specialists on the Russian north or the Civil War will want The King of Karelia on their shelves for Woods’ memoir, the real value of Baron’s biography is to remind us that historical figures can transcend historians’ sub-disciplinary boundaries. It is to Baron’s great credit that he has stepped outside his comfort zone to bring Woods’ story to life.