A Mighty Russian Mess

The veteran British military historian Sir Anthony Beevor has published a detailed account of the years during which the Soviet Union took shape. Having attempted this task thirty years ago, but given up, he was probably prompted to resume by the Russian aggression against Ukraine. When one reads the book, one can guess why he gave up his first attempt. The subject matter is utterly confusing. At the time, it frequently confused even the actors on the ground. Despite clarifying maps and many rare, informative photographs, I sometimes found it difficult to follow the storyline, given unfamiliar geographic details, place-name changes by the revolutionaries, the shift from the old Julian to the new Gregorian calendar (instituted by the communists) and frequent, duplicitous changes in alliances.

Of course, the broad outline of events is familiar: How Lenin and associates were transferred by Wilhelmine Germany from their Swiss exile to Petrograd and how the tottering post-Tsarist Kerensky regime was toppled in 1917 by a small band of minority Bolsheviks who occupied the Winter Palace. But did we know the inglorious detail that the Bolsheviks simply walked into the palace through an unguarded side door, as the would-be defenders were drunk? And did we know that most leading Bolsheviks and their Cheka enforcers (the secret police, the mother of the KGB and the grandmother of Putin’s FSB) were not ethnically Russian?

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We probably remember that Lenin’s fascination with German central planning of the war economy led to Soviet economic management. We also will remember that Lenin repaid German assistance with making peace at Brest-Litovsk. But do we realise how demeaning this deal was for the new Soviet regime? And how it allowed the Germans and Austrians to advance eastward, dreaming of a new colony in Ukraine? To Lenin’s dismay, a quickly convened Ukrainian Rada (parliament) made the nationalist Symon Petliura the president of independent Ukraine. German troops were welcomed in Kiev as saviours from Bolshevism with public “Urrrraaas” (the originally Mongol word that entered as hooray into Western European languages). Most Ukrainians openly preferred becoming a German-occupied protectorate over being ruled by the Bolsheviks. Only the workers in the Donbas industries sided with the Moscow Soviets. The Bolsheviks of course realised that losing Ukraine (which had been tied to “Great Russia” by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great) would be a disaster for them. The Armistice signed at Compiègne obliged the central powers to withdraw to their pre-war borders, which allowed Red troops to recapture Kiev and Odessa and terminate Ukraine’s short-lived independence in 1921.

We probably also learnt at school that a motley “White alliance” of moderate socialists and Tsarist reactionaries formed in 1917 in order to fight the Bolshevik “Reds” and resume the war against the central powers. The British and French supported the Whites, not only by sending heavy weaponry and munitions, but also by direct participation in battles. I did not, for example, know that this support included Royal Navy boats in the Caspian Sea fighting Soviet river boats which came down the Volga, that Royal Air Force planes supported White Cossack units, and that a Royal Navy fleet bombarded Soviet positions in the eastern Baltic to support the Finns’ and Estonians’ fight for national independence. In March 1918, the exposure of Petrograd forced the Soviet government to decamp to Moscow. Lenin disliked orthodox Moscow and the Kremlin, where he cowered for fear of assassination. On a rare outing in August 1918, he was indeed shot, but survived to become a mystic semi-martyr.

We might know that some 40,000 Czech conscripts in the Austro-Hungarian army defected to Russia and formed a Czech Legion. It occupied the Siberian railway, siding more or less with the Whites and the Western Allies. But did we know how frequently their Czech commander Radola Gajda (born Rudolf Geidl) clashed with the Supreme White Ruler, Admiral Alexander Kolchak (below)? And how intensely unpopular the Czechs were with Russian officials and the local population for behaving like victorious conquerors? And did we know how many foreign units other than the British and French fought on Russian soil: Swedes, Poles, Canadians, Greeks, Turks, Afghans, Uighurs, Italians, apart from aid missions such as US medical units? On the Red side, large numbers of Chinese and many of the two million German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war, who were released and press-ganged into fighting for the revolution, acquitted themselves impressively. The civil war has been correctly described as “a world war condensed”.

In 1918 and early 1919, it looked as if the Red government might collapse. Reflecting the tenuous hold on power, sixty Soviet roubles were needed to buy one Tsarist rouble at the time. The Allied War Council meeting in Paris appointed French general Pierre Janin the supreme commander of the diverse Western military forces in Russia. But his influence on the ground was limited. The supreme White Russian government under Admiral Kolchak found it impossible to span the wide range of aspirations from rigid ancien régime reactionaries to more-or-less moderate but uncompromising Socialists of the Kerensky type, let alone enforce discipline and the will to fight the Reds. Pleasure-loving former Tsarist officers, erratic Cossacks—those independent-minded country folk, known for their bravery, cruelty and anti-Semitism—and simple-minded, superstitious, hungry, marauding peasants could not be welded into a fighting force. The egos of White leaders often clashed. Many pursued the good life while the people around them were starving and freezing to death. White commanders used comfortable staff trains as mobile command posts, many of which were described by unimpressed Western observers as “bordels ambulants”.

The vast land of Russia and the autumnal and springtime mud––the famous rasputitsa that had bogged down Napoleon and was to become a feared enemy of the Nazi war machine––often confined land warfare to railway lines and rivers. Increasingly, the Reds learnt to sabotage railway lines deep in Siberia. Cossack units often raided towns for plunder and then returned to their home villages to deposit their booty or protect their homes from Red attacks. On the Red side, front soldiers were “encouraged” to do battle by commissars manning machine-guns placed behind their backs ready to shoot any fleeing deserters.

Both sides were utterly ruthless and cruel. Both raided civilian food supplies, the Reds with more torture and executions. Atrocities multiplied when the military were drunk. Spontaneous executions became common, in particular on the Red side. Even the Cheka chief Feliks Dzerzhinsky, a bloodthirsty sadist of iron self-control, once begged Lenin and his associate to shoot him, because he could no longer put up with spilling so much blood. He soon recovered his mojo. Beevor despairingly asks:

Where did the extremes of sadism come from—the hacking with sabres, the cutting with knives, the boiling and burning, the scalping alive, the nailing of epaulettes to shoulders, the gouging of eyes, the soaking of victims in winter to freeze them to death, castration, evisceration, amputation?

The Soviets defended their behaviour with the argument that their opponents’ cruelties forced them to do the same, but in reality they were explicitly encouraged to the most inhumane acts by Lenin and his war supremo Leon Trotsky.

Every chapter tells of anti-Semitic confiscations and genocidal killings by both sides. Apparently, sadistic anti-Semitism was deeply engrained in Russian society and in particular among the Cossacks. Many Jews were starved or left to die from typhus, dysentery, cholera and syphilis. Some 1300 anti-Semitic pogroms were recorded in Ukraine alone, with some 50,000 to 60,000 Jews massacred by both sides. 

Of the nominally 200,000 White troops in 1919, half were never at the front. Mercenaries and foreign conscripts shirked military action, even when the Tsarist practice of flogging and slapping the faces of soldiers was re-introduced. Punitive executions notwithstanding, conscripts self-inflicted wounds to avoid further fighting. And most Russian officers were deemed incompetent by foreign observers. Drunkenness and drug-taking were ubiquitous. Whites increasingly deserted, leaving weapons and munitions behind for the enemy to collect. On occasions, Cossack units even sold their weapons to the other side. Heavy weapons donated by the British were soon out of action, as the Russians had no concept of servicing their equipment. Instead, they demanded that the British supply replacements.

The White government in Siberia withdrew further eastward. In November 1919, it left its capital of Omsk, beginning a trek of 6400 kilometres to Vladivostok. A scramble of Czech, Polish and Russian eastbound trains followed, but conflicts among various White units, woeful railway management, spiteful conflicts and a lack of coal stopped the locomotives, whose engines were then often destroyed by Siberian frost.

Over time, the Soviets benefited increasingly from the territorial cohesion of their zone, as well as the railway and communications system that centred on Moscow, whereas the Whites had to manoeuvre around the outer perimeter of the Soviet centre. Their various armies were often out of touch. After the Arctic summer of 1919, Allied troops evacuated their northern strongholds around Murmansk against the express will of Winston Churchill, who was more and more alone with his illusions that the Soviets could still be defeated.

Inflation became rampant on both sides. Shortages of munitions, food and transport supplies complicated military operations. Nevertheless, in European Russia the overwhelming Red forces managed to push south in late 1919. White holdouts—such as Odessa in the west and Novorossiysk in the east—were soon evacuated with British assistance, before the government of Lloyd George withdrew British support to the Whites. The residual anti-communist forces were now bottled up in the Crimea, from where they managed some successful offensives northward in the summer of 1920, because the Red forces were diverted by a brief Polish occupation of Kiev and Minsk. The ensuing Polish-Soviet war was arguably the last major conflict in which sabre-wielding cavalries played a major role and the first in which aircraft bombing became decisive. In the end, Polish patriotism marshalled by Józef Pilsudski won the short war with the Soviets.

In late 1920, the Red armies invaded the last White redoubt, the Crimea. Some 145,000 White soldiers and civilians were evacuated to Constantinople by US, British and French ships. Waves of executions by the Red victors and deportations to the frozen north and Siberia followed: “Victory meant vengeance …”

Overall, the fratricidal war led to 12 million deaths—some 7 to 10 per cent of the entire population. Soviet rule now began in earnest. As a disillusioned revolutionary shouted: “All of Soviet Russia has been turned into an all-Russia penal colony.”

Beevor’s account is based on detailed information collected over many years and draws heavily on verbatim quotes of participants on both sides of the conflict. The often stomach-churning book cured me of many half-remembered episodes glorifying the Russian Revolution and the four-year civil war. The story that the wider public in the West is aware of has been tinged by leftist propaganda by the likes of H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell and films such as those by Sergei Eisenstein. Communist embellishments have seeped into Western history books and novels. At a time of renewed Russian aggression and cyber disinformation, this book serves as a powerful purgative of the lies and distortions that have for so long emanated from Moscow.

Reading Beevor’s account also made me think that the current, woeful fighting performance of Putin’s troops in Ukraine has deep historic roots. The book also sheds light on the ingrained Ukrainian patriotism and repeated Ukrainian attempts to escape Russian dominance. Beevor supplements the rightly celebrated lecture series about Ukraine’s history by Yale professor Timothy Snyder, broadcast on YouTube in late 2022. In the light of what the book and these lectures tell us, Putin’s war to turn Ukraine again into a Moscow colony looks as much of a lost cause as were the Dutch efforts to regain their East Indies colony and the French attempts to recover Vietnam and Algeria. Yet again, it pays to study history so as not to repeat it.

Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917–1921
by Anthony Beevor

Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2022, 562 pages, $33.75

Wolfgang Kasper’s paternal grandfather survived the years covered in this book as a Habsburg prisoner of war in the bazaar of Tashkent. When local Muslims refused to give up their religion and Trotsky’s militias massacred them, he departed on a perilous journey home.


5 thoughts on “A Mighty Russian Mess

  • ianl says:

    One of Moscow’s underground metro railway stations (one has to admire the statues, paintings, chandeliers and architectural design of these stations even as one recoils at the endless brutal history) has a mural painted along the tunnel rib running adjacent to the rail line – and I’m sorry but I cannot remember which station now, nor could I spell/pronounce it if I could.

    The mural is an obvious depiction of Lenin standing on a wooden dais in full oratorical cry addressing an assembled group. It is of some clear propaganda significance, so I asked my Russki minder what it was about. Her answer: “Lenin trying to convince the Ukraine Council to join with the Soviets”.

  • brandee says:

    Current opinion seems to discount any claim of Russia over Crimea and there is a failure to acknowledge that Tsarist Russia took Crimea from the Ottoman Empire.
    Also it is undeniable that Russia since Napoleonic times has been invaded only from the west, therefore they have good reason to want security on their western border and it seems that for this reason they have occupied by force the Russian speaking regions of Ukraine.
    National security is similarly an important concern for Australia and when the powerful nation to our north moves its sphere of influence over islands close by we take urgent measures to guard our security, as does Russia.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    March 22, 2023
    Funny, I don’t recall guarding against a certain northern neighbour by invading anybody. I guess I didn’t watch the news that day.

  • brandee says:

    A fair point Rebekah but when German territory was to our north, in New Guinea, in 1914, there was no TV to watch. However Australian forces invaded during Sept-Nov and annexed the German administered territory in perpetuity.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    March 23, 2023
    Yes, AFTER Germany had started the war by invading Belgium. The British Empire entered the war to support a small nation against the aggression of a large one–an example that we might do well to follow, today.

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