Whisenhunt on Poole, 'An American Diplomat in Bolshevik Russia'

DeWitt C. Poole
William B. Whisenhunt

DeWitt C. Poole. An American Diplomat in Bolshevik Russia. Edited by Lorraine M. Lees and William S. Rodner. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015. 332 pp. $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-299-30224-5.

Reviewed by William B. Whisenhunt (College of DuPage) Published on H-Russia (July, 2017) Commissioned by Eva M. Stolberg

American Official Recalls Experience of Bolshevik Revolution

With the arrival of the centennial of the Russian Revolution, there is a renewed interest in all aspects of the revolutionary era (1914-21). One area that has received renewed attention is the role of Americans in Russia during the revolution. There were many Americans in Russia during the Russian Revolution who published books soon after their return to the United States. The most notable of these were by sympathetic journalists like John Reed (Ten Days That Shook the World, 1919), Louise Bryant (Six Red Months in Russia, 1918), Bessie Beatty, (The Red Heart of Russia, 1918), and Albert Rhys Williams, (Through the Russian Revolution, 1921).[1] These works were immediate and generally positive reactions to the revolution and its aftermath, while other works from that era were more critical and even condemning of the Bolsheviks' coming to power. Nearly all of the American accounts, though, were published before the end of the 1920s. 

DeWitt Clinton Poole (1885-1952) was one of these witnesses to the Russian Revolution, but he did not write his account at that time. In the 1950s, not long before his death, Poole gave an oral account of his memories of the revolution called “The Reminiscences of DeWitt Clinton Poole,” for the Columbia University Oral History Project. Lorraine M. Lees and William S. Rodner have edited this more than 500-page transcript of that interview into An American Diplomat in Bolshevik Russia. Without question, this account was influenced by the passage of more than thirty years since the revolution and the events and politics of the mid-twentieth century world. Poole was a career diplomat who arrived in Russia in September 1917, just as events were heating up, and this is where his account begins.

Poole’s account takes the reader through the events of the Russian Revolution from his arrival in Vladivostok in the summer of 1917 to his return to the United States two years later. Poole generally held negative attitudes about the Bolshevik takeover, but he shows in the early part of the memoir that his primary concern was whether the Russians would stay in the war and help defeat Germany. Poole was in Russia to help negotiate a commercial treaty, but by 1918, he found himself in Moscow consulting with American officials about how to work with the new Bolshevik government. He chronicles the assassination of German ambassador to Russia Wilhelm von Mirbach, Czech legions, and Allied intervention in the Russian civil war.

His travels also took him far north to Archangel and back across Siberia during the tumultuous times of the Russian civil war. Poole’s interactions were quite varied. His account includes much on the Cheka and the Red Terror (as he called it), and his interactions with the Red Cross and YMCA officials who were trying to assess the importance of the Bolshevik takeover and the resulting chaos that ensued. It also covers the activities of British agent Robert Bruce Lockhart and American businessman and agent Zenophon Kalamantiano.

Lees and Rodner have provided an expertly edited and annotated volume that is rich in detail. This volume brings into print for the first time this valuable oral history record that illuminates the American role and reaction to the Russian Revolution and subsequent events. While it is clear that Poole’s view of these events was influenced by the thirty years that followed, it is an important addition to the increasing historical literature on Americans in the Russian Revolution.


[1]. These, and fifteen other American accounts, are being republished in a new series, Americans in Revolutionary Russia, with expert introductions and annotations, by Slavica Publishers from 2016 to 2018.

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Citation: William B. Whisenhunt. Review of Poole, DeWitt C., An American Diplomat in Bolshevik Russia. H-Russia, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48815

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