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Two officers wearing heavy winter clothes are seated in a horse-drawn wooden sleigh on a snowy path, Russia circa 1918. (WHI Image ID 102739).
Two officers are seated in a horse-drawn sleigh, Russia circa 1918. WHI 102739

Allied Intervention in Northern Russia, 1918-1920

Robert Colton Johnson (1894-1969) was among many young Wisconsin men sent to far northern Russian at the close of World War I. Unlike most, he brought a camera and took hundreds of remarkable photographs.

Allies Deploy in Russia

PA fur-clad Russian woman stands before a wooden bridge under construction, circa 1918.
A fur-clad Russian woman stands before
a wooden bridge under construction
WHI 100217

After the Russian Revolution in October 1917, the Bolsheviks decided to stop fighting in the war. Thirteen of their former allies, including the United States, sent troops into Russia to protect military supplies and keep an eye on the new government. Soldiers from Wisconsin made up a significant portion of the 339th Infantry Regiment that comprised the U.S. contribution. They deployed to Archangel, a city 700 miles north of Moscow on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

After winning the war in Europe in November 1918, the Allied powers threw their troops behind the pro-Czarist, anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia. But they had conflicting motives and no common strategy, and the public was weary of war. As the Bolshevik government grew stronger, the Allies ended their intervention in North Russia in 1920.

Johnson's Photographs

Robert C. Johnson of Madison was among the soldiers sent to Russia. His father was dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin. After graduating from college, he entered the military and served as adjutant and chief photographer with the U.S. Army's North Russian Expeditionary force based in Archangel from 1918 to 1919.

Johnson's collection of glass-plate and nitrate negatives records the efforts of the Allied forces as they defended the area from Bolshevik attacks. As an engineer, he was careful to document numerous types and styles of blockhouse fortifications. As a soldier, he also took photographs of the forces fighting alongside the Americans and the lifestyle of the troops. He also recorded Allied soldiers' interactions with local Russians, capturing images of their heritage and culture as expressed in local markets, religious buildings and ceremonies, and day-to-day life.

This gallery contains more than 240 photographs taken by Johnson in Russia in 1918-1919. In 1957 he donated more than 700 photographs spanning his entire professional career to the Society. Some of the 1918-1919 images appeared in the 1979 article, "Wisconsin in the Midnight War," alongside quotes from letters and other writings of Wisconsin soldiers. Most of these images have never been published before.

Johnson's Later Career

After working as an engineer in Milwaukee and Chicago, Johnson was appointed director of the Wisconsin Civil Works Association during the New Deal era. He re-enlisted in the military at the outbreak of World War II and supervised construction projects in the Pacific, including building an airstrip below Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. He eventually rose to the rank of vice admiral. Following the war, Johnson headed the Siesel Construction Company in Milwaukee, chaired the Milwaukee Expressway Commission, and headed the Milwaukee Performing Arts Commission.

View the Gallery

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