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Looking Back At The U.S. Intervention In Russia 100 Years Ago

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Russian interference in American politics became big news of course during the 2016 presidential election. At least one American interference in Russia has received much less coverage. For this story, we have to go back a hundred years. In 1918, the U.S. Army landed expeditionary forces in Russia in the bloody aftermath of the communist revolution. NPR's Lucian Kim went looking for traces of that forgotten intervention on Russia's Pacific coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Every day at noon, the Russian Pacific Fleet fires a single cannon shot in the port of Vladivostok.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNON FIRING)

KIM: That proud tradition dates back to the 19th century. The Russian empire was expanding into Asia with the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. But 100 years ago, Russia was in turmoil as a civil war raged between the new Bolshevik government and their political opponents. In Vladivostok, a contingent of more than 8,000 U.S. soldiers landed in 1918, joining troops from a dozen countries, including Japan, Britain and France.

PAUL BEHRINGER: So this is the exhibit on the foreign intervention in the Russian Civil War.

KIM: In a Vladivostok museum, I meet Paul Behringer, an American graduate student researching that history.

BEHRINGER: So there's the American flag and then behind it, it looks like there might be a union jack or something.

KIM: And in the middle, it looks like a Japanese flag.

BEHRINGER: Yeah.

KIM: The troops were officially deployed to protect their country's interests in the chaos following the Russian Revolution. But inevitably, Americans got caught up in the fighting between the red and the white forces.

We're racing at top speed through the naval cemetery on the fringes of Vladivostok. We're looking for what remains we can find of Americans who participated in the military intervention.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: There are miles and miles of roads. But finally, our Russian guides find the area containing the graves of foreign soldiers.

Here we go - an American grave.

BEHRINGER: YMCA Secretary H.B. Emmez. He's the only American in this cemetery, and he died of typhus. He was sent here to - as part of the mission to entertain the troops, I believe.

KIM: American troops died here, too. But their bodies were repatriated when the U.S. contingent left Vladivostok in 1920. Behringer says the American intervention suffered the same problems as later deployments. Troops lacked a clearly defined objective set by their political leaders in Washington, and their mission was confused with humanitarian concerns and even a desire to bring democracy to Russia.

BEHRINGER: Not a lot came of the intervention. And people felt very disappointed and disenchanted with the fact that the Americans had to leave without any tangible results.

KIM: Local historian Alexei Buyakov says during the Cold War, the Soviet Union used the foreign military intervention for propaganda purposes. But now, he says, the view of the past is much more nuanced.

ALEXEI BUYAKOV: (Through interpreter) Vladivostok served not only as a gateway for the so-called interventionists but later allowed for the delivery of U.S. military assistance that helped the Soviet Union defeat Nazi Germany.

KIM: Buyakov says most Russians have forgotten about the U.S. intervention a century ago. It's the job of historians from both countries, he says, to keep the memory alive. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Vladivostok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.