The Russian Civil War killed 12 million people – but is often overlooked. This grimly magnificent study will leave you shocked.
ByNoel Malcolm14 May 2022
On November 7 1917, less than two weeks after the coup that had brought the Bolsheviks to power, the journalist Maxim Gorky published an acerbic newspaper article. “The working class should know that they are to expect hunger, complete disorder, and protracted bloody anarchy followed by a no less bloody and dire reaction,” he wrote. “It must be understood that Lenin is not an omnipotent magician but a cold-blooded trickster who spares neither the honour nor the life of the proletariat.”
There are two rather amazing things about this. The first is that he got away with it; but these were early days, and Gorky was a popular ultra-Leftist figure. And the second is how accurate he was. Not only about Lenin, but about the reaction against the Bolsheviks – the key point being that it was not so much the revolution itself, but the “protracted bloody anarchy” which followed that caused a fightback.
The idea that a radical change of system was needed had quite broad support. The tsar had already abdicated; land reform was on the cards; elections for a constituent assembly were about to happen. Most people wanted a more effective government, not least because Russia was doing so badly in the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. But what they got was rule by diktat from above – the constituent assembly was abolished by the Bolsheviks on its first day – and anarchy from below, with self-styled revolutionary committees springing up throughout Russia and acting as they pleased.
Add to that the rapid creation of the Communist secret police, which recruited criminals and psychopaths, the open season on anyone called “bourgeois” – who could be robbed at will in the street, and their home plundered – and the disastrous decision to send “food detachments” into the countryside to seize grain and other provisions from peasants, and the result was a breakdown in law, order, the economy, and almost everything else.
The Russian Civil War that followed lasted more than three years, extended over thousands of miles of the Eurasian land mass, and cost up to 12 million lives. Most of the dead were civilians, killed by rampaging soldiers, famine and disease. Yet although this was one of the most colossally damaging conflicts of the 20th century, there are few general accounts of it. When you read Antony Beevor’s grimly magnificent new book, you begin to see why.
The war was complex to the point of near-chaos. There were so many campaigns by different “White” (anti-Communist) armies, from north-west Russia to Siberia to the Caucasus. Some resembled normal military formations, but few could maintain discipline. The most cohesive were the old-fashioned Cossack hordes, whose preferred tactic was the cavalry charge with sabres – devastating when it worked, yet of limited value against machine guns. Military action merged seamlessly with foraging and plunder; and while the troops robbed the population, their quartermasters stole the supplies.
Then there were the commanders. The best-known were tsarist generals or admirals – Kolchak, Denikin, Wrangel – who were certainly capable of strategic thinking; but they were rivalrous and status-obsessed, so their actions were seldom coordinated. Below them was a bizarre galère of local commanders, such as Semenov, with his “huge moustache and suspicious eyes”, who travelled with an apparently limitless supply of champagne and a private orchestra, and the sadistic Shkuro, who “loved to watch a good flogging and revelled in drunken orgies with prostitutes”.
The soldiers were of all kinds: former officers, volunteers, Cossacks defending their territories, peasants ruined by Bolshevik raids, and, increasingly, captured “Red” troops who would serve in order to be clothed and fed. Thanks to the massive transfers of prisoners from the Austro-Hungarian front in previous years, there were also huge numbers of Czechs and Poles. And there were many other nationalities, including Chinese railway workers, who fought on both sides. The Allied powers (Britain, France, the US, Japan) were also involved.
They had shipped thousands of tons of war material to Russia before the Bolshevik government pulled out of the war against Germany, and they did not want it to fall into Communist hands. Japan was keen to extend its influence from Vladivostok into the East Asian mainland; at one point it had more than 85,000 soldiers in Siberia. One British force advanced more than 500 miles inland from the Arctic port of Archangel; a smaller force flew the White Ensign on the Caspian Sea. (Winston Churchill was gung-ho for more military support for the anti-Communists, but Lloyd George’s scepticism prevailed.)
To add to all this, there was also a crescent of bordering states to the west, whose people had lived under Russian imperial rule and were prepared to fight to avoid coming under it again: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. (To some extent, Ukraine could also be added to this list, though its political history in this period is one of the messiest parts of the whole story.) At different times, these countries were in conflict with Communist Russia; but there was never any real co-ordination with White commanders much further to the east.
The biggest problems were not strategic, however, but political. For too long, too many of the senior White officers were still fighting for the restoration of the old Russian empire, which was the one thing those other countries could never accept. Some also aimed to restore absolute monarchy, which alienated plenty of potential supporters. And many hoped that victory would bring back the old society, with its landed estates. This made the peasantry distrust them, and by the time it discovered the reality of life under collectivisation, it would be too late.
This is a hugely complex story, and Beevor tells it supremely well. The book is groundbreaking in its use of original evidence from many archives; it adds new facts, tests old claims and demolishes myths on both sides. It is impressively objective: although the primary role of Communist terror in setting off the cycle of appalling violence is made clear, there is no downplaying of the atrocities committed by White forces – including repeated pogroms against Jews.
Readers will recoil at the violence and cruelty they encounter. Even Beevor, who has been steeped in this evidence, is moved to ask: “Where did the extremes of sadism, come from – the hacking with sabres, the boiling and burning, the scalping alive, the gouging of eyes, the soaking of victims in winter to freeze them to death?” Was this something atavistic, as Russian writers sometimes argued, or had it been “intensified to another level by the rhetoric of political hatred?”
Reading this book, I would sometimes put it down and switch on the news for mental relief, only to hear the latest reports of atrocities in Ukraine. I don’t believe in atavism, though I accept that some cultural traditions may be surprisingly long-lived beneath the surface. But, clearly, the rhetoric of political hatred remains as powerful as ever. Indeed, it must be even more powerful when it works on a Russian population that has emerged only for a short time from the mental world of Communism and is now being dragged back into that darkness.