Revolution and Civil War 1917 -1921
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2022
Hardback 592pp RRP $60.50
Reviewer: Roger Buxton, October 2022
Russian participation in the First World War proved to be ill-judged: the Russian ‘steamroller’ failed against the German Army in 1915 and by 1917 the mass, conscript army – poorly trained and equipped and disastrously led - was close to mutiny. The civil fabric of Russia was no better with food shortages, and dreadful living and working conditions for the masses. The intellectuals despised the army, and the forces of repression – the police and the Cossacks - were feared and hated. Tsar Nicholas II stubbornly refused to allow constitutional reform and once he had left Petrograd for Army Headquarters power rested with Tsarina Aleksandra Feodorovna under the malign influence of Rasputin. The aristocracy despaired of convincing the Tsar to appease the growing crisis by long-overdue reform.
Bread shortages, combined with a demonstration in support of International Women’s Day on 27 February 1917, led to rioting that the Cossacks declined to control. Part of the Petrograd garrison mutinied but most simply refused to restore order, and in the ensuing chaos the Tsar was compelled to abdicate. Power now passed to the self-appointed ‘Provisional Committee of the Duma Members for the Restoration of Order’ and the rival ‘Petrograd Soviet’s Executive Committee’. Aleksandr Kerensky, a member of both the Duma Committee and the Soviet’s Executive Committee, attempted to maintain stability until a Constituent Assembly could be elected.
The June ‘Brusilov’ offensive failed and led to widespread desertion and the ‘July Days’ disturbances during which Vladimir Lenin went into hiding and Kerensky became leader of the Provisional Government. General Kornilov led a right-wing attempt to restore order, but the attempt failed, and he was arrested. Kerensky, who had played both sides against each other was now fatally weakened, and Lenin wrote ‘All the objective conditions exist for a successful insurrection.’ Events now moved quickly with the capture of the Government headquarters in the Winter Palace on 25 October, the arrest of the ministers and the Bolshevik coup d’état by sabotaging the opening of the Constituent Assembly on 5 January 1918.
With the Revolution accomplished, the remaining three quarters of this almost overwhelming book concerns the Civil War that convulsed Russia for the next four years. Having failed to unite against the Bolsheviks, those officers and loyal forces (The Whites) who were able, escaped the Red Terror by leaving for southern Russia. The scale of the fighting was immense, covering most of Russia. There was war against independence movements in Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States, and liberated prisoners of war attempted to force their way along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Allied forces in North Russia, the Caucasus and the Far East also became involved with Red forces. More importantly, the civil war between the Reds and the Whites continued until the final defeat, and subsequent either escape or murder, of the remaining White forces in the Crimea. Both sides conducted themselves with extreme brutality, seldom giving quarter and murdering prisoners and ‘class enemies’ on a scale unsurpassed by the German Einsatzgruppen of World War II.
As expected, this book is extensively footnoted, has a list of abbreviations and an extensive bibliography. This is an outstanding and comprehensive treatment of the revolution and civil war that could only be improved by a dramatis personae.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.