Russia: Revolution and Civil War by Antony Beevor — Monsters of the Past
On December 12, 1923, a group of Russian émigré teachers and scholars launched a project asking students from schools across the diaspora to write down their memories since 1917. The resulting essays were less about the February and April Revolutions. October 1917 than their aftermath: the vicious civil war that erupted after the Bolsheviks and Germans signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, as Russian opponents of Bolshevism and Russia’s former World War I allies united their forces in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet regime. It is believed that between 7 and 12 minutes people died, the majority of them civilians; age was no barrier to horrific experiences, first or second hand.
Blood and body fragments on the walls, ceiling and floor of a room in kyiv where the Cheka interrogated prisoners; the bodies of officers floating in the sea after a mass murder in Odessa; officers of the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army beating taxi drivers and passers-by; refugees crammed into cellars and school buildings; mass epidemics and famine, such was the testimony of the children. Some also remembered fighting in their teens, or even participating in pogroms; the boundary between victim and aggressor was permeable.
by Anthony Beevor Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 makes convincing use of comparable testimonies, including Russian archival material collected by his collaborator and friend Lyubov Vinogradova. As with the students’ memoirs, it is war rather than revolution that is at the center of the book. After a running account of the upheavals of 1917—popular disturbances in Petrograd; the abdication of the Romanovs; Bolshevik coup; suppression of elections – Beevor takes off with the formation of the Volunteer Army and the rise of military opposition to the Bolsheviks. The revolution appears as a mere prelude to the epic confrontation between the Red Army and an array of hostile forces (the term “Whites” greatly simplifies the situation).
Recent stories, for example the authoritative work of Jonathan Smele The “Russian” Civil Wars (2016), underlined the multinational and panoramic character of the military conflict that overwhelmed the Russian Empire in its last years. Its first phase was the rebellion in Central Asia, and Soviet control over the eastern reaches of the former Russian Empire was established several years after the expulsion of anti-Bolshevik forces from European Russia.
In other words: the First World War continued in Eurasia years after November 11, 1918, and long after the Western European states granted diplomatic recognition to the Soviet state (Germany and Finland in 1923 , France, Austria, Italy and the United Kingdom, among others, in 1924). Indeed, old enmities replayed in the Ukrainian and Belarusian battlefields of World War II and have tragically become topical again. While Beevor’s canvas is tighter than Smele’s, the book gives a sense of that enduring resonance.
Beevor focuses on the Volunteer Army (“probably the most unbalanced formation in the history of warfare”, with its 36 generals to only 880 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men) and other military forces led by veterans of the imperial army. . But he also finds room for foreign interventionists, notably the British and the Czechs; for the brutal Ukrainian military leader Symon Petlyura and the equally fierce anarchist Nestor Makhno; for the Cossacks, whose unpredictable shifts in allegiance were a factor of major strategic importance – and, of course, the Red Army.
The author emphasizes the innovative strategies that have made it a successful combat force: the promotion of brilliant non-commissioned officers, such as the future Marshal Georgi Joukov, the recruitment of former Tsarist officers and non-Russian minorities, the creation of a relatively flat hierarchy and the provision of rations and land retention guarantees to the families of soldiers.
In Soviet times, the civil war was, along with the October Revolution, the most important founding myth of the new state. Although some of the planned memorials (for example, in Leningrad’s Haymarket Square) were never built, and although from the late 1940s the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 overshadowed its predecessor, the Civil War remained a canonical subject of Soviet literature and cinema. until 1991. Georgy and Sergei Vasiliev’s Chapayev (1934), about a Civil War hero, was one of the most watched Soviet films ever made.
In retrospect, the Civil War has always been presented as the Manichean struggle of the bright communist future with the monsters of the past. In post-Soviet Russia, the values have been reversed. In the 2000s, the remains of counter-revolutionary generals Anton Denikin and Vladimir Kappel were returned to Russia and buried in the cemetery of the Don Monastery in Moscow.
In 2009 Vladimir Putin commissioned and funded the transformation of the Kappel and Denikin graves (along with those of nationalist ideologue Ivan Ilyin and conservative writer Ivan Shmelyov) into a “White Warriors Memorial”. More recently, other great white commanders, Admiral Alexander Kolchak and (in Crimea in 2016) Baron Peter von Wrangel, have been honored with statues.
Under these circumstances, Beevor’s Civil War narrative, which unflinchingly depicts the “indiscriminate brutality” – gang rapes, pogroms, looting – on the side of the Volunteer Army, will be as incendiary to some as his unvarnished depiction in Berlin: The Fall 1945 (2002) of looting and violence by members of the Soviet occupying forces. Equally detrimental to the pious memory of the “White Warriors”, Russia records case after case of sheer military incompetence. In Siberia, quarrels over access to the railways have taken the place of logistics. Romantic fantasies about recovering the entire Russian Empire hampered sensible calculations about what was immediately achievable.
However extraordinary the courage of the individual commanders and troops, the political and strategic rigidity and arrogance of the white leaders gave them no traction with the mass of the population. They were never able to capitalize on the widespread hostility to Bolshevism, expressed also in the peasant rebellions and, ultimately, the sailors’ mutiny at Kronstadt. As a Ukrainian peasant told mounted artillery officer Sergei Mamontov: “The whites are looting, the reds are looting, the Makhnovites are looting. So who do you think we should support?
Beevor spares no detail in his account of cruelty on the Soviet side as well: “. . . hacking with sabers, slicing with knives, boiling and burning, scalping alive, nailing shoulder pads, eye gouging, soaking victims in water to freeze them to death, castration, evisceration, amputation. He wonders if this extreme violence was “atavistic”, linked to the centuries-old traditions of the Russian revolt or “intensified on another level by the rhetoric of political hatred”.
Yet his own account suggests that one pressing factor was immediate: the catastrophic effects of frontline service in the First World War. “Life in the trenches for Russian soldiers [ . . . ] was an inhuman experience”, he sums up, and “the men were either brutalized or traumatized by what they saw”. Historians such as Joshua Sanborn (not included in Beevor’s quotes) have pointed out that levels of crime and violence against civilians increased during the later stages of World War I. As a tale of fratricidal inhumanity, Russia has a panoramic scan. If Beevor had pushed harder to explain this inhumanity, the book might have been sobering too.
Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 by Anthony Beevor Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30, 592 pages
Catriona Kelly is Senior Research Fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge
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