Russia's Civil War: why the 1917 uprisings descended into disaster
With the world’s attention fixed firmly on the invasion of Ukraine, Antony Beevor’s new history of Russia’s 1917 revolutions and subsequent civil war is especially timely. He explains to Rob Attar how the fall of the last tsar launched a chain of events leading to millions of deaths and one of history’s most brutal dictatorships
Revolution and civil war: in context
The Russian Revolution was actually two revolutions. The first began when the last tsar, Nicholas II, was toppled in March 1917, brought down by a combination of food shortages, Russia’s disastrous performance in the First World War and his personal failings. With his fall, Russia seemed set for a democratic future but, until elections could be held, the country was ruled by a Provisional Government dominated by liberals from the tsarist-era Duma (parliament).
The Provisional Government, its effectiveness hampered by a lack of legitimacy, faced a powerful rival in the shape of the socialist-led Petrograd Soviet that ruled the country’s then-capital city (now called St Petersburg). The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, sought to undermine the Provisional Government, which itself made a series of missteps – notably continued failures in the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Capitalising on these weaknesses, the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Leon Trotsky launched a coup d’état, the so-called October Revolution, seizing power with relative ease. Consolidating that power proved far more difficult, as a combination of opponents – ranging from former tsarist generals to other leftwing political groups who distrusted the Bolsheviks – took up arms against them.
The stage was set for a civil war between the Bolshevik Red Army and their “White” enemies that devastated the country and led to millions of deaths. Several international powers also contributed troops and supplies to the conflict, predominantly to the Bolsheviks’ opponents. In 1919, White armies led by Generals Kolchak and Denikin launched offensives that seemed set to destroy the fledgling communist regime, but the Red Army managed to repel them. Following those triumphs the Bolsheviks were eventually able to achieve ultimate victory, though fighting continued for many more months.
Rob Attar: Most of your previous books have focused on the Second World War. What made you decide to head back 20 years earlier for this one?
Antony Beevor: The most important thing for me was to understand the chain of disasters of the 20th century – the impacts of which actually are still with us today, as we see in Ukraine. Around 12 million people died in the Russian Civil War. This wanton destruction created a terrible fear among the middle classes, but also galvanised the left – the Bolsheviks and other communists – and marked the start of a vicious circle of rhetoric that developed, above all, in the 1930s. This is really what dominates the whole of the 20th century, yet I think that the Russian Civil War is not understood well enough.
This book was always going to be a tremendous challenge, and was made possible almost entirely by the wonderful research done by my great Russian colleague, Lyuba Vinogradova, over the past five years.
What new insights have emerged from the work that you and Lyuba have done over these past few years?
What has stood out is the sheer horror of the civil war. There’s a savagery and a sadism that is very hard to comprehend; I’m still mulling it over and trying to understand it. It was not just the build-up of hatred over centuries but a vengeance that seemed to be required. It went beyond the killing; there was also the sheer, horrible inventiveness of the tortures inflicted on people. We need to look at the origins of the civil war: who started it, and was it avoidable? But one also needs to see the different patterns seen in the “Red Terror” [the campaign of political repression and violence carried out by the Bolsheviks] and the “White Terror” [the violence perpetrated by that side in the war] – and consider the question: why are civil wars so much crueller, so much more savage than state-on-state wars?
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How much was the Red Terror being centrally directed by the Bolsheviks, and to what extent did it emerge from the chaos of war? Well, a lot of it obviously did emerge from the chaos of war. Even the Cheka [Soviet secret police], under the command of Felix Dzerzhinsky, never really controlled many of its local agents who committed some of the worst atrocities. But also – as with, say, Franco and the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War – a smaller party trying to control areas where they’re in a tiny minority will often resort to terror, simply to make up for the lack of numbers. This was very much the case with Lenin, who was determined to crush opposition to the “Great Revolution” – actually a coup d’état. From Lenin’s point of view, therefore, the Red Terror was something that was essential right from the beginning.
For a few months following the overthrow of the tsar in early 1917, Russia was ruled by a liberal Provisional Government, with the potential for democracy. Why was this so short-lived?
There was a fundamental political problem. The Russian writer Alexander Herzen talked about the “pregnant widow” – the idea that when one regime has fallen, there’s a very dangerous interregnum before a new regime emerges. The Russian Provisional Government was in an impossible position. It was essentially liberal, but merged with socialists from the Petrograd Soviet in an attempt to hold together a country that was obviously split.
The whole administration, both in the countryside and in the towns, had disappeared. Members of the police, the most hated of all of the tsarist institutions, had to flee for their lives. In the countryside, particularly, peasants and soldiers returning from the front would loot every alcohol store and every distillery they could find. They would then would start burning and smashing up the estates and the landowners’ manor houses.
This was exactly what Lenin and the Bolsheviks needed. The upsurge of chaotic violence was actually bulldozing a way through for the Bolsheviks to seize power, because the liberals were incapable of doing anything about it. The levers of power were attached to no forces of power. All the government could do was to say: “Well, we can’t take any decisions until the new, democratic constituent assembly has come together.” There was frustration with the lack of decision-making – which, of course, increased the power of the Bolsheviks, simply because they were seen to be the only ones who were in a position to really force through change. Of course, nobody knew what those changes were going to be, because Lenin had kept his plans very quiet.
Even then, Lenin was really the only one within the Bolshevik party who actually believed that a coup was possible. Even Trotsky was nervous. What Lenin perceived – and he was absolutely right – was that the success of a coup depends on the apathy of the majority, not on how many real supporters you have. Trotsky estimated that, within the huge garrison in and around Petrograd, there were probably only a couple of thousand who were active Bolshevik supporters, and about 140,000 who were uncertain. But those people weren’t prepared to do anything to save the Provisional Government – so, with a tiny minority, the Bolsheviks were able to seize power.
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Once the Bolsheviks had taken power in November 1917, how revolutionary was the government that they installed?
Even many Bolsheviks were shocked by Lenin’s extremism. His new government abolished the police and the army, replacing them with Red Guards from the factories, and absolutely everything was nationalised. This course of action wasn’t apparent beforehand, and – not surprisingly – many of the civil servants didn’t want to work with the new government.
That was when the paranoia started, and Lenin decided to bring in the Cheka. He even accused the bourgeoisie of somehow sabotaging food supplies. Actually, though, the bourgeoisie had virtually no control over food supplies at all. In fact, a lot of the food supply issues had been caused by problems with the railways and the lack of rolling stock. In the earlier part of the year, Russia had perfectly good food reserves, but many of those had been wrecked during that chaotic summer, when there was a lack of planting and other work undertaken on the farms. That marked the start of a downward cycle, and every measure that the Bolsheviks instituted to try to grab food from the peasants to give to the cities only made the situation worse.
Was civil war inevitable after the Bolshevik revolution?
Lenin actually wanted the civil war. He said: “Civil war is the sharpest form of the class struggle.” In his view, it was the only way for the Bolsheviks to take power. The other socialist parties – the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks – were horrified by his plans because they knew that after he had smashed the liberal and conservative parties, he would turn on them – and he certainly did. Lenin despised anybody who disagreed with him, even – especially – within his own party. The less-extreme members who warned against this complete seizure of power, this total dictatorship that Lenin was planning, were either more or less rejected from the party or kept in a kind of subservient position.
The Bolsheviks didn’t have the support of the majority of people around the country at the time of the revolution. Didn’t that put them at a serious disadvantage once the civil war began?
It put them at a serious disadvantage in certain areas, and there were uprisings against the communists immediately after the coup d’état of November 1917 [called the October Revolution, based on the use of the old Julian calendar in Russia]. However, what’s interesting is how few of the White officers in Petrograd, Moscow and many other places actually joined the revolt against the communists at that stage. I think they were all so dispirited and demoralised by everything that had happened that most of them had sunk into apathy. But yes, there were certain areas where there were very strong reactions against the Bolsheviks. And that early part of the civil war, in the winter of 1917–18, showed that the outcome largely depended on what happened in local areas. It was a geographically fragmented civil war that was taking place across the whole of the landmass.
How important to the outcome of the war was the fragmentation and disunity of the Whites compared with the centralisation and unity of the Bolsheviks?
This is absolutely central to an understanding of the war. When one talks of the Whites, one automatically thinks of the forces led by former generals and commanders from the tsarist army. But there were also Socialist Revolutionaries who were appalled by the dictatorship that had been created in Petrograd, and they made uneasy alliances with groups of White officers.
There was always going to be tension right from the start, because most of these White officers were anti-Semitic – and there were many Jews in the Socialist Revolutionaries and other socialist parties. White officers also wanted to bring back the punishments used by the tsarist army, which meant that they would be allowed to punch soldiers in the face on a summary charge, whip them using rifle-cleaning rods, things like that. Of course, this created a terrible tension the whole time.
These problems created by the Whites also applied to their relationships with possible allies such as the Finns, the Baltic States and the Poles later on. If those powers had combined, they could well have defeated the communists. Along the whole of that western frontier, from Finland all the way down through to Ukraine and the Donbas, they had a tremendous advantage, with trained troops that were extremely effective. However, the White generals were arrogant, basically telling the Finns, the Estonians and so on that they were still part of the Russian empire – insulting all of their nationalist aspirations.
This was almost as unpopular as the Whites’ appalling social policies towards the peasants. The tsarists wanted to get all their land back from the peasants, which of course was going to create a tremendous hatred and fear; as a result, there was almost continual war. The Whites had no proper administration; all they were interested in was taking what they could from these local areas, including food – which in many cases they did not pay for.
Many international powers lined up on the side of the White army. Why were they not able to affect the outcome of the conflict?
Their commitment was unclear, and this was always the problem: they couldn’t make up their own minds. In the early part of 1919, US president Woodrow Wilson thought that some form of peace could be achieved in Russia, and suggested a conference to be held in the Princes’ Islands lying in the Sea of Marmara close to Constantinople [now Istanbul]. However, the Whites were so furious at the Reds and what had happened up till then – the murders of the aristocracy, the destruction and so on – that they refused to sit down with the Reds. And Lenin and the Bolsheviks – who at that stage thought that they were going to win the war – had no intention of taking part themselves.
Earlier on, Russia’s First World War Allies agreed to provide a certain amount of help to the White cause in the form of weaponry. Now, you can provide weapons and you can provide supplies, but you’ve got to be able to get them to their destination – and, until the First World War came to an end in November 1918, the Allies didn’t have access through the Dardanelles and therefore couldn’t supply the Cossacks and Denikin’s White armies in the south of Russia.
Some supplies were brought in through the far north – through Murmansk, where the British already had a base, and Archangel, with some marines who’d landed in 1918 to protect the supplies delivered there. Then, in the far east, the Japanese started to land huge numbers of troops. At one stage Japan had almost 70,000 troops in Siberia. The Americans also sent in the equivalent of a small division of troops as part of an expeditionary force.
The British eventually landed only a couple of battalions – of the Middlesex Regiment and the Hampshire Regiment. But there were also Italians, there were Serbs, there were Greeks and then the French, who came into Odessa and into the Black Sea region. But this actually proved to be a disaster, because so many of their troops were politicised and were much more sympathetic towards the Bolsheviks than they were towards their own officers.
How was the Red Army eventually able to triumph over their White opponents?
The Reds had a huge advantage with internal lines. They were based in one of the most populous areas of central-western Russia, between the Volga and roughly the Polish frontier. They had some of the largest cities and many of the factories, particularly the arms factories.
That matter of internal lines proved incredibly important, especially when it came to the crucial moments. There were times when the Bolsheviks themselves thought that they’d lost the civil war, and were almost preparing to abandon Moscow.
In early 1919, for example, there was a sudden advance by the White General Kolchak’s troops all the way to the Volga. The trouble was that the great advance of General Denikin from the south did not coincide with that – and by the time Denikin’s march on Moscow started, Kolchak’s advance was in full retreat.
Denikin’s advance initially went well, and there were moments when Trotsky and others in the Red camp really thought that they were facing defeat. But, because the Red Army no longer had to worry about Kolchak’s troops to the east, they were able to reinforce their troops facing Denikin. October 1919 saw a complete turnaround – the final turning point, if you like, in the war.
Churchill [then British secretary of state for war] couldn’t believe what had happened. He was sending signals to General Holman, commander of the British military mission, saying: “I can’t believe this. The Reds were in full retreat, and now suddenly they seem to be beating the Whites on every front. What’s happened?” He’d failed to understand that it was purely because the Bolsheviks had reinforced that eastern front at a crucial moment, then – with the advantage of their internal lines – been able to bring troops back very rapidly to transform the whole situation.
Some of the places that were fought over during the civil war have recently been battlegrounds in the current conflict in Ukraine. How far, if at all, did the Russian civil war prefigure the events of today?
The Russian Civil War was really the moment when Ukraine started to develop a more modern nationalism. There was already a Ukrainian culture in the countryside, in its poetry and in a lot of its literature. But at this time they really did want to take Ukraine forward, to create a completely different state – and they’d been given the opportunity.
This is what Putin has been raging about: it was Lenin who almost gave up Ukraine at that stage. The Bolsheviks thought that allowing a certain amount of autonomy or independence to these former nation states of the Russian empire would cause no problems, because the forthcoming world revolution would bring those states back under communist control – and that’s where they made their great mistake.
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Antony Beevor is a world renowned historian and author who has written numerous bestselling books, primarily on the Second World War. His latest book is Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917–1921 (Orion, May 2022)
Rob Attar is editor of BBC History Magazine and also works across the HistoryExtra podcast and website, as well as hosting several BBC History Magazine events.
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