When the tsarist empire collapsed during the First World War, it was in good company. The conflict destroyed all the great empires of Europe – Russian, Habsburg, Ottoman. What set the fate of the Russian empire apart was that, unlike its Great Power rivals, it did not disintegrate. A few national movements, from Finland to Poland, succeeded in wresting themselves free of imperial control, but most of the former tsarist lands emerged from the convulsions of war and revolution within a new Soviet empire, one that still ruled millions of square miles and a multitude of peoples. How that came to pass is the subject of Antony Beevor’s curiously mistitled Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921. Mistitled, because “Russia” here makes no sense either politically or geographically; this is an imperial history, not a national one.
Beevor takes up his story in 1917. He is clear that from the outset there was no moment of revolutionary purity subsequently corrupted by the depredations of war and economic collapse. The February Revolution was bloodless only by comparison with what followed, as street fighting in the capital alone claimed the lives of almost 1,500 and wounded another 6,000. “The people’s hatred has been brewing for too long,” a young grand duke and cousin of the tsar admitted in his diary. In the weeks that followed, soldiers and sailors exacted bloody retribution on officers who had long brutalised them in the ranks of the imperial forces; peasants attacked the gentry estates and assailed the feudal order that had for centuries dominated and exploited them; crime in the towns and cities spiralled out of control as workers and soldiers demonstrated that their own understanding of revolution involved the messy upending of established hierarchies of power and privilege. The army doctor Vasily Kravkov observed from the Eastern front that “the scores of robberies and murders of civilians are growing the whole time in the areas held by our army… The uncontrolled frenzied masses have their own ways to celebrate freedom.”
Political leaders of every stripe were making it up as they went along in 1917, struggling to stay afloat amid the surging popular fury and despair. No one manoeuvred more recklessly and more deftly than Lenin. On 3 April he clattered into wartime Petrograd onboard the “sealed train” despatched by the German high command to deliver his incendiary demands for the immediate overthrow of the provisional government and the transfer of all power to the soviets. Indifferent to the ideological constraints of Marxist dogma, Lenin was ready to leap over the stages according to which history was supposed to unfold, pushing for a socialist takeover at what most of his more orthodox comrades on the left believed to be the hour of the bourgeoisie. Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, who feared that such radicalism would only provoke civil war, missed, as far as Lenin was concerned, the key point: civil war was not a regrettable consequence of revolution; it was its engine room.
In 1917, a decade and a half before he cut his own deals with the Bolsheviks, the socialist writer Maxim Gorky was their clear-eyed critic. In the wake of the October coup he wrote, “the working class should know that miracles do not occur in real life, that they are to expect hunger, complete disorder in industry, disruption of transport, and protracted bloody anarchy… This is where the proletariat is being led by its present leader… [who] is not an omnipotent magician but a cold-blooded trickster.”
The Bolsheviks’ seizure of power and their dissolution of the Constituent Assembly – the empire’s first democratically elected parliament – in January 1918 were a declaration of war. Lenin knew that the defenders of the February Revolution – those who believed in the promise of a liberal constitution – would not surrender power quietly, let alone the monarchist die-hards – but the Bolsheviks did everything they could to incite conflict. For therein, Lenin calculated, lay the Bolsheviks’ political salvation. As civil war spread across the empire, the Bolsheviks held the central regions. Their enemies, the White movement – a collection of nationalists and liberals, tsarist officers, Cossacks, Poles, Finns, stranded Czechs troops – assisted by the Allies struggling to keep Russia in the war and reverse the spread of Bolshevism, were arrayed against them around a periphery that stretched from the Baltic to the Caucasus and from Siberia to Ukraine (where the names of cities such as Mariupol, Kharkiv, Odesa and Kyiv have a newly acquired resonance). Within this constellation of forces, the Bolsheviks succeeded in claiming for themselves the mantle of the revolution with all its hazy promises of equality, freedom and prosperity; to support the Whites was to seek to restore a reviled status quo ante.
The White armies found themselves divided not only geographically and logistically but also ideologically and politically. They could not agree on a political vision for the empire’s future: whether it should be a liberal democratic state or a more authoritarian regime. Should the empire be replaced by a new unitary state, dominated by Russia, or should it be a federation of states? Was the principle of private property to be upheld, or would the Whites promise the peasantry the opportunity to keep the land they had seized in the great carve-up of gentry, crown and church estates that began in the summer of 1917? The answers to these questions changed as the Whites’ fortunes waxed and waned. The Bolsheviks by contrast had a unified command and a unified message: loot the looters, seize the land, wipe clean the slate.
Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 is first and foremost a military history. Beevor describes the conflict that ranged across the territories of the Russian empire, from Vilnius in the west to Vladivostok in the east, and from Murmansk in the north to Odesa in the south. Yet the Russian civil war was not just a series of military engagements; it was, like all wars, to borrow from Carl von Clausewitz, “an extension of politics by other means”. And amid the collapse of one empire and the birth of another, it was doubly so. What was at stake in the conflict was not just the control of territory and resources but colliding visions of the future of the tsarist empire, visions Beevor neglects as he describes the troop movements and the battles, the victories and the defeats.
He acknowledges that “the Whites lost the civil war largely because of their inflexibility, including their refusal to contemplate land reform until it was far too late or to allow any autonomy to the nationalities of the tsarist empire”, but he does little to explain why these failures proved so catastrophic for the White cause. Neither does he examine why the Reds – who maraud across his pages as ruthless fanatics – were more successful in building a new world not just with bayonets and armoured trains but also with new symbols, new words, new songs, new flags and a new (political) religion. Beevor has little to say about the wartime propaganda that saturated the press, posters and newsreels on both sides of the conflict, presenting the war as a Manichaean struggle of good versus evil, light versus darkness.
As the shifting front lines of the conflict ranged back and forth across Siberia, the Baltic and southern Russia, they harvested almost unimaginable horror. Prisoners of war were tortured and executed, but so too, often randomly, were civilians. Warlords allied to the Whites proved especially inventive in the gruesome punishments they inflicted on both suspected Reds and hapless Jewish communities. The Bolsheviks were more systematic in their cruelty, crushing dissent with spectacular demonstrations of brutality intended to intimidate and subjugate. When a workers’ protest began in the Bolshevik stronghold of Astrakhan in March 1919, the local Cheka detachment opened fire with rifles and then machine guns before throwing grenades into the crowd. The prisoners were then, Trotsky instructed, to be dealt with “mercilessly”. First they were shot, then the Chekists started drowning them. Their hands and feet were bound, and stones attached to their necks and they were then thrown from barges into the icy waters of the Volga; 180 were reportedly thrown overboard the steamship Gogol in a single night.
Beevor pauses to consider where this “conspicuous cruelty” came from. Even before a Socialist Revolutionary tried to assassinate Lenin in August 1918 and the Cheka massacred thousands pour encourager les autres, the Chekist boss Martin Latsis had published an article in Izvestia dismissing the “established customs of war” as irrelevant. “Massacring all the wounded who fought against you – that is the law of civil war.” But, as Beevor points out, such ruthlessness still does not explain “the extremes of sadism…. the hacking with sabres, the cutting with knives, the boiling and burning, the scalping alive, the nailing of epaulettes to shoulders, the gouging of eyes, the soaking of victims in winter to freeze them to death, castration, evisceration, amputation”. He asks: “Had the frenzy of vengeance been intensified to another level by the rhetoric of political hatred?”
Beevor leaves his own question unanswered: how did the violent world-views of the Reds and the Whites fuel the brutality of the civil war? Lenin was effective in his bid to weaponise longstanding lower-class hostility towards the haves of the old order. The writer Teffi observed how, in his speeches, “Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corners of peoples’ souls.” In Lenin‘s declaration of war he promised a “war to the death against the rich and their hangers-on, the bourgeois intellectuals”. His dehumanisation of them as “lice”, “fleas”, “vermin” and “parasites” was, Beevor writes, “tantamount to a call for class genocide”. Quite so, but how did such invective influence the beliefs and the behaviours of Red Army soldiers and Chekists in their savage conquest of the empire? And the horrendous violence meted out by the White forces and their allies remains enigmatic, unless an attempt is made to recover their apocalyptic visions of the Bolsheviks as agents of the Antichrist, devils incarnate without human qualities. Ferociously anti-communist and anti-Semitic, the Whites’ ideology might have been more diffuse and less coherent than the canonical writings brandished by Lenin and co, but it was still a powerful driver, encouraging brutality in the service of salvation. Both the Reds and the Whites fought with a savagery born of conviction.
The barbarism of the civil war was not just accumulated acts of cruelty and vengefulness; it expressed the world-views of the perpetrators. A century after the Whites fled from Crimea aboard a flotilla of ships to escape the advancing Reds, the same now holds true of the Kremlin’s murderous attempt to dismember Ukraine and bludgeon swathes of its population into a union with Russia. The atrocities committed by Russian forces since February – the rapes, the torture, the executions of civilians – are not just the escalatory violence of war. They are also the culmination of the Kremlin’s vicious campaigns of propaganda. State media channels have for years conjured up phantasmagorical neo-Nazis in Ukraine, hell-bent on the genocide of people Russia claims to be its own. The results are evident in Bucha, Mariupol and Sievierodonetsk: horrors perpetrated by Russian troops in the belief that their own crimes are as nothing compared to the monstrous evil they are fighting. Now, as then, the brutality is powered by ideas.
Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921
Orion Publishing, 576pp, £30
Daniel Beer is reader in modern European history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of “The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars” (Penguin)
[ See also: In Ukraine, Russian is now “the language of the enemy” ]
This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down