The face of civil war

Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921

Author: Antony Beevor

Publisher: Hachette

Pages: 576

Price: Rs 1,399

The popular view of the Russian revolution is that Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power on the back of widespread popular urban support, fought off resistance from reactionary Tsarist generals thanks to Trotsky’s brilliant generalship and established the world’s first proletariat-ruled nation. Post-war scholarship has done much to blur this storied communist legend that John Reed’s 1919 bestseller Ten Days that Shook the World did much to create.

In his monumental 1990 book historian Richard Pipes, for instance, argued persuasively (if controversially) that the Bolshevik’s rise to power was not a class uprising but a coup d’etat by a minority supported and financed by Germany — underwritten by Deutsche Bank no less — to draw Russia out of the World War I and free up military resources for the Western front. In fact, the Bolsheviks had a narrow support base of deeply exploited sailors and factory workers in St Petersburg and used a campaign of unrelenting terror to subdue the rest. This is the conclusion that can be drawn also from Antony Beevor’s minutely researched masterpiece Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921.

The author of classics such as Stalingrad, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, and Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble, Professor Beevor does not seek to add a significantly revisionist interpretation. Instead, he brings readers to the coalface of the revolution and war, setting the broad historical developments against the experiences of those who lived through it — soldiers, workers, peasants, Cossacks, generals, diplomats, politicians and, especially, women.

His trademark technique of exploring the subaltern and the elite view within the bigger historical trends adds an invaluable dimension to military history. It also makes this book at once an absorbing and disturbing read. It underlines the point that Professor Beevor has made here and elsewhere, that “no country is a prisoner of its past as Russia”.

Russia’s tragedy was that the Provisional Government, a wide coalition between socialists of all hues and liberals, formed after the Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication, fatally misread the public mood. By persisting with doomed campaigns against Germany, appointing as chief of the high command a tone-deaf Tsarist general who sought to impose martial law, failing to streamline food supplies and delaying the creation of a Constituent Assembly, the Provisional Government weakened its hand. By September 1917, Lenin, in hiding in Finland after a botched insurrection by the Bolsheviks in July, concluded that “all the objective conditions exist for a successful insurrection.”

Professor Beevor traces the Bolshevik’s takeover of power, with its focus on inflammatory rhetoric and energetic mobilisation of radicalised soldier and worker militias — which formed the nucleus of the “Red Guards” and later Red Army. Lenin’s authoritarianism and the savage repression by the Cheka, the KGB forerunner that was given a carte blanche to destroy all opponents to the regime, masked the Bolshevik’s shaky hold on popular support as subsequent elections revealed.

The civil war unleashed on the Russian people a brutality that exceeded the worst Tsarist-era atrocities. Both Reds and Whites — armies led by former Tsarist generals in Siberia, the Crimea and the north west — were deeply implicated in looting, raping, torturing — the book has too many gruesome examples — and killing civilians (including children) and prisoners of war. Both sides were genocidal — the Bolsheviks on the Cossacks, and everyone on the Jews. Much of this, Professor Beevor points out, was emulated by the Germans two decades later.

The immiseration of the peasants, not just the kulak “class enemies”, and the resulting man-made famine was a particular feature of the war. Professor Beevor quotes a peasant woman overrun by both armies as saying, “Sometimes the Reds raid us, sometimes the Whites. And all they can say is ‘davai! davai!’ and what can we give if we have nothing to live on ourselves?” Eventually, even the sailors of the famed Kronstadt naval base, the foundation of the Bolsheviks’ initial power, mutinied and had to be subdued by the Red Army.

Professor Beevor brings the conflict to life in all its harrowing detail, leaving the reader with lasting images of cruel and rapacious White generals, hapless Allies, marauding Cossacks, former aristocrats pawning their jewels to buy bread, burning fields and huts and wrecked cities.

If the Whites lost, it was mainly because of their inflexibility — in delaying land reforms or granting the multi-ethnic empire greater autonomy. Lenin’s decision to take Russia out of the war helped his cause, despite the huge concessions in land and food the Germans extracted in the infamous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. But, ultimately, it was a competition in ruthlessness that the Reds won hands down. As Professor Beevor observes in his conclusion, “All too often the Whites represented the worst examples of humanity. For ruthless humanity, however, the Bolsheviks were unbeatable.”

The less known element of the civil war was that it was a multinational war, with Chinese soldiers fighting for the Bolsheviks, Japan on the allied side (with an eye on promising oilfields in Sakhalin), and Czechs, Finns, Latvians, Poles, Rumanians and Ukrainians flocking to various flags of convenience. It may be an exaggeration to describe the civil war as a world war, as some historians have done, but in its tenor it foreshadowed the horror that would visit the Russian people in the 1930s as one megalomaniac sought to consolidate his power, and again in the 1940s when another sought living space for his countrymen.

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