It is easier to write a history of the Russian Revolution than of the Civil War. If by revolution one means the fall of the monarchy in March 1917 and the Bolshevik seizure of power in November, then one can mostly confine oneself to events in Petrograd and to the actions of political and military leaders. The story is not that complicated. The overthrow of the monarchy unleashed acute domestic conflict in the midst of the enormous suffering and dislocation caused by the First World War. Anyone in power would have been hard pressed to ride the tiger. Of the main political groupings, only the Bolsheviks remained outside government and therefore able to avoid responsibility for economic collapse, military defeat and growing class war. A desperate and gullible people often believed their millenarian calls, not to mention their lies about an easy and painless exit from the First World War.
The Civil War is a much more complex story. For a start, there were many civil wars, not just one. The main conflict was between the “Reds” (mostly Bolsheviks, but also some other revolutionary socialists) and the “Whites” (tsarist officers, the old social elites, Russian nationalists, but also many liberals). Only these two groups had any chance of creating a regime that could control and govern enormous Russia. The majority of the population were peasants who usually disliked both Reds and Whites, and dreamt of a world in which elites and the government would end the age-old exploitation of the peasantry and leave the villagers in peace.
The Revolution allowed the villages temporarily to escape government control. This meant that well after the Whites were defeated, the Bolsheviks were still waging a vicious war to impose their writ in the countryside. Class and ideological conflict overlapped with local wars between and among ethnic groups. Even in relatively tiny Latvia, there was armed conflict between Russian Reds and Whites, Latvian nationalists and the Baltic German elites, the Royal Navy against the German army, and other factions. On top of this came foreign intervention. Initially this pitted the Germans and Austrians against their wartime enemies, above all the French and British, but also the Japanese and Americans. Once the First World War was over, divisions emerged between the allies. Woodrow Wilson sent American troops to Vladivostok as much to check the Japanese as to fight the Reds.
For the Bolsheviks, then, it was far easier to seize power in 1917 than to retain it over the next four years. In his new book, Antony Beevor singles out Bolshevik unity by comparison to the divisions among their enemies – everyone from tsarist generals to Ukrainian nationalists and peasant anarchists – as the key cause of Red victory. He may well be right, but other factors were also crucial. Had the monarchy fallen during the 1905 Revolution – as nearly happened – Germany would have led the cause of international counter-revolutionary intervention, which would probably have been victorious.
In peace-time the European great powers would never have stood aside while revolution in Russia firmlyd the continental balance of power, turned Russia into the headquarters of international socialist revolution, and led to the expropriation of billions of pounds in foreign investment. Germany had an additional cause for intervention – to protect the lives and property of the large German community in the Russian Empire. In the context of the First World War, however, the Germans did everything possible to support the Revolution. Their support and the overall context of the war gave the Bolsheviks a crucial year’s protection before the Civil War really began, during which they established their institutions of government and their hold on the Russian empire’s geopolitical core – namely the population centres, railway hubs and military stores in Moscow, Petrograd and central Russia. In a country of Russia’s vast size, interior lines gave the Bolsheviks great advantages. Beevor describes well the hesitancy, divisions and weaknesses of foreign intervention between 1919 and 1921 in support of counter-revolution. The peacetime German army in 1905-06 would have been a far more formidable enemy.
Beevor weaves his way through the enormous complexities of these years with intelligence, wit and a talent for describing individuals and events. As one might expect, he is in his element when describing battles, campaigns and the down-to-earth realities of war. He conveys well the appalling savagery, casual violence and suffering brought on by the Civil War. In one of the book’s many excellent vignettes, a witness recalls that when the Red Army entered a town in the Caucasus, “two women from the dregs of society point a cavalryman to a man in civilian clothes. ‘That’s an officer’ they whisper. Immediately the man’s skull is split with one blow of a saber. He turns out to be a book-keeper from the post office.” In the same town, amid screams of terror and agony, roughly 6,000 Kalmyk women, children and old men were targeted with a brutality “that has no obvious reason and massacred to the last child”.
As regards his portraits of individuals, Beevor’s description of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the terrifying head of the secret police, is the pick of a fine bunch: “Dzerzhinsky, a tall, emaciated Pole from a background of impoverished nobility, had a pale, ascetic, El Greco face, a wispy wizard’s beard and hooded eyes. He was a true fanatic, devoted to a belief for which he would sacrifice everything, even his own health and sanity … Utterly incorruptible, he mortified the flesh with the purity of his stance against any form of privilege. He would not touch any food beyond the most basic ration, and his office, where he slept on the floor wrapped in a greatcoat, was unheated at his insistence.”
Beevor’s overall sympathies and judgment are summed up in the book’s last two sentences: “All too often Whites represented the worst examples of humanity.” For ruthless inhumanity, however, the Bolsheviks were unbeatable”. He is harsh on Nicholas II and too inclined to accept the legends and self-justifications spread by liberal and liberal-conservative politicians in their memoirs. For example, Rasputin was far less important as regards policy or ministerial appointments than is generally imagined, or than the monarchy’s critics claimed both at the time and later. The monarchy’s disastrous last minister of internal affairs, Alexander Protopov, described by Beevor as a client of Rasputin, was also the deputy president of the Duma, recommended to the tsar for a ministerial post by the Duma’s president, Mikhail Rodzianko. Even before 1914 the tsar had to tread a narrow course between more liberals who told him that constitutional reform was the only way to hold the loyalty of educated society, and more conservative ones who told him that only the authoritarian police state could hold social and national revolution at bay. The trouble was that both sets of advisers were probably correct. The massive strains faced by backward and isolated Russia in the First World War put enormous additional pressure on an already creaking and often despised government and a deeply divided society.
In Beevor’s opinion, the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and refusal of all compromise with political opponents were the key cause of civil war. That is hard to dispute. On the other hand, one can make a case for Vladimir Lenin. Would a largely peasant-based democracy have stood much chance of surviving in the long run in enormous, divided and impoverished Russia, even if the Constituent Assembly had not been dissolved and some version of a moderate socialist and democratic regime had been established? International comparisons suggest not. In 1914 Russia was towards the bottom end of Europe’s periphery – what I have called elsewhere the Second World – in terms of political stability and per capita wealth. It was also a great empire, less than half of whose population were Russians. All the great empires that dominated the world collapsed amid great violence. Almost no Second World country on Europe’s western, southern or eastern periphery remained a democracy in the inter-war years. That included countries such as Italy and Spain, where democracy’s roots in 1914 were much stronger than in Russia. In the longer term, the alternative to Bolshevism was always likeliest to be some version of military counter-revolution.
This leads me to my only serious criticism of this well-informed and well-written book. Beevor has previously written a good study of the Spanish Civil War. Why the left won in Russia and the right in Spain is a fascinating question that tells one much not just about Spain and Russia, but also about twentieth-century European history as a whole. Was the main difference the international context and foreign intervention? Are the very different traditions of the Russian and Spanish armies more relevant? Should one instead look to the much more effective role played in politics by the Catholic church in Spain than by the Russian Orthodox church? Or were the different agrarian structures and peasantries of Spain and Russia the key to defeat and victory in the two civil wars? Beevor devotes only a paragraph to the topic in his conclusion. I long for pages. This may be a case of blaming an author for writing the book he wanted to write, rather than the one the reviewer himself fancied. Even so, I would be intrigued to know what Antony Beevor makes of the comparison between the two civil wars.
Dominic Lieven is an Honorary Fellow and an Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a Fellow of the British Academy. his book, In the Shadow of the Gods: The emperor in world historywas published in May
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