Monday, January 23, 2023

Thoughts on the Russian Civil War

I've just finished listening to a pretty good book, Antony Beevor's Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921 (2022). It set me thinking on three big questions, starting with how the Bolsheviks managed to win despite only commanding the loyalty of maybe 20 percent of the people. Beevor's telling emphasizes one of the common explanations, that the Reds were the only faction who knew exactly what they wanted, and the only ones willing to give up everything else to achieve their goal.

The story goes like this: In February, 1917, with the war going badly and the country fed up, a mostly peaceful revolution forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. Due to series of strange family events, the Tsar ended up naming no successor. Hence, Russia became a republic by default. The existing Parliament felt they had no mandate to rule alone, so they declared themselves the Provisional Government and hatched a plan to hold elections for a Constitutent Assembly that would decide what sort of government Russia would have going forward. The Provisional Government punted all important questions to the non-existent assembly, which meant that no major decisions could be taken, for example, about continuing or ending the war. Into this vacuum stepped the Bolsheviks. Their leadership assembled in St. Petersburg – Lenin and several others from exile, Stalin from remotest Siberia, others from hiding – and began plotting their own course. 

In October the Bolsheviks staged a coup and took over St. Petersburg, overthrowing the provisional government with the assistance of a few regiments of soldiers and the sailors of the Baltic Fleet. Most of the Russian empire did not recognize the Red regime, so at that moment most of Russia had no government at all. Russia had a very large army, but they were mostly at the front facing the Germans and Austrians. Many of them were sick of the war and wanted it to end, so the main promise the Bolsheviks made straight off was to end the war and bring all the soldiers home. Beevor has some great material on what happened when the soliders decided to enact their own revolutions. Many regiments voted on whether to stay at the front or go home; others jailed their officers and took over running themselves; some tried to send their own peace envoys. Lenin stuck to his promise to end the fighting, even though it meant signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which even Trotsky thought was too humiliating to consider.

Meanwhile, the Constituent Assembly was elected and even met once, in early 1918, before the Baltic Fleet sailors shut the assembly down and chased its members out of St. Petersburg. All the non-Bolshevik parties who had put their faith in the assembly then had to choose whether to join with the Bolsheviks or join the war against them. Most chose war. So how did they lose?

First, they were far from unified. The biggest factions were Socialists and Tsarists, who hated each other only slightly less than they hated the Reds. The number one plank in the platform of the Socialists was to distribute all land to the peasants, while the number one plank of the Tsarists was to maintain the landlord class. Many factions were actually fighting for national independence: Poles, Finns, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Georgians, Armenians, some Cossacks, some Siberians. Both the Socialists and the Tsarists badly wanted to hold the whole Russian empire together, so the Whites, as they came to be called, were never able to work effectively with the nationalist groups even though they all hated the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks on the other hand did cooperate with some of the national groups, especially in the Baltic states. They made a serious attempt to conquer Poland but when that failed they signed an armistice with the Poles and got on with fighting their other enemies. After all, if they won the civil war they could always deal with the problem of rebel nationalities later.

The Whites were in fact only able to hold on as long as they did because of foreign support. France and Britain had been providing Russia with arms since 1916, to keep the eastern front alive; by the end  of 1917 this aid was massive. (Incidentally this was all theoretically a loan to the Russian government, and the allies insisted that any faction they supported promise to repay all of it, which of course gave the Bolsheviks a propaganda card they played at every opportunity.) The aid continued through the revolutionary period and on into the Civil War, directed toward anti-Bolshevik groups. The British, French, Americans, and Japanese also sent substantial military forces of their own, the British, through Persia and Iraq into the Caucasus and Central Asia, the British and French through the Black Sea to Sevastopol and Odessa, and all the parties through Vladivostok into Siberia.

One of the Bolshevik's advantages was that they controlled the center of the country, around St. Petersburg and Moscow, while their enemies were all out of the periphery. The Reds were thus able to move forces from one front to another, which was almost impossible for the Whites. The Bolsheviks also had allies in every part of the country in the form of radicalized miners and factory workers, and they used their prowess at conspiracy to deploy this force. For example it happened several times that when a battle was shaping up over a White-held city, the workers in the city would rebel at just the right moment to weaken and distract the White forces. The Reds were able to arrange strikes by coal miners at key moments to deprive their enemies of fuel for the railroads; this was especially important in their conquest of Siberia, where everything depended on movement along the rails. 

The Reds were also led by a generation of hard-bitten men shaped by years of suffering, secrecy and exile: Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and others. White leaders kept flinching at key moments, failing to drive attacks home or withdrawing from positions that could have been defended. The Bolshevik leadership rarely failed from want of toughness or nerve. One key moment came in October, 1919, when a White army was advancing from Estonia toward St. Petersburg – renamed Petrograd, by then, so this is called the Battle of Petrograd – which looked on the verge of falling. Trotsky got in his personal armored train and steamed into the city, along the way having his printing press – of course Trotsky's train was equipped with a printing press – print up thousands of leaflets calling on the workers to resist the oppressive army of the bourgeois powers. He rallied the dispirited Red troops, even personally leading one detachment into a skirmish, proclaimed that the city would be defended to the last ounce of blood, and, once the Red forces had recovered and been reinforced by troops arriving from Moscow, led them in a dramatic counter-attack that broke the White army and sent them reeling back. When the Whites needed leadership like that, they rarely got it. Instead they got epic corruption, to a degree that shocked the British and French officers sent to aid the cause; a British officer reported on one occasion that a White retreat was slowed by fifty railcars full of loot the White officers were trying to abscond with. 

I suspect ideological clarity was also important. If you were a White soldier, what were you fighting for? Freedom? Land reform? The return of the Tsar? The glory of Mother Russia? But the Bolsheviks always had an answer at the ready: for the worldwide revolution of the working people, the elimination of class, the achievement of real equality and democracy. Of course the Bolshevik-ruled areas looked nothing like that, but they had already mastered the trick of putting utopia off into the future. The civil war obviously had to be won before the fruits of communism could be realized. The intervention of foreign forces helped them to make this argument; if the capitalist powers were not terrified of the workers, why would they be fighting in Russia?

So the secret of Red victory would be, in this telling: unity, clarity, and ruthless action.

The second interesting point about the Russian Revolution and Civil War is that despite three years of horror, following on the heels of three years of war, to which we need to add the global flu pandemic and a terrible typhus epidemic in Russia, life somehow went on. A typical section of Beevor's book says that a region is conquered by some army or another. They proceed to loot the whole place, seizing "all the grain, even the seed grain," torturing the peasants until they reveal where they have hidden all their food and valuables, raping all the women, burning various villages and towns, and so on. If the conquerors are Whites, they immediately carry out a bloody pogrom against the local Jews, on the theory that all Jews are Bolshevisks. Sometimes Bolshevik soldiers carry out pogroms of their own, on the theory that if things are bad, Jews must be somehow responsible. Secret police follow close behind the army and set up shop in newly occupied towns, torturing hundreds of people, murdering many of them. Corpses pile up everywhere: in basements, in churches, along the sides of roads and railroads, in crude mass graves. Hordes of refugees take to the roads, carrying all their valuables, quickly becoming infected with typhus-carrying lice. Every account of a retreat is full of people lying down along the sides of roads to die, or freezing in unheated rail cars, or being caught in the open by Cossacks and masscred. All the women seem to end up selling their bodies for food. Starvation is everywhere, from Moscow to Central Asia. Some of this is just rhetoric; I mean, if women were selling their bodies for food, that implies somebody had food, right? But the real toll was bad enough; Beevor leans toward the high end of recent estimates of casualties, around 12 million dead.

And yet: the railroads ran, coal was mined, steel was made, fleets of boats sailed the rivers, governments were organized, with committees that met and made decisions. The Whites did not run out of ammunition until the end, and the Reds never did. Diplomats made and arranged treaties, which governments approved. People got married, had children, went to church, plowed, planted, worked. A civilization, it seems, is a hard thing to destroy.

The third question that comes to my mind concerns the "Russian people." The civil war was an undending tale of murder, torture, rape, and general brutality. Even many Russians at the time said that this was just what the Russian people were like; Beevor quotes several White leaders as saying that Russia needs a Tsar or a dictator to keep these impulses under control, that Russian democracy was a sham because it would only lead to violent anarchy. And this is of course what many Ukrainians say now, that Russians are just bloody-minded rapists by nature. Against this theory one might argue that during the Civil War, Ukrainians were every bit as brutal as Russians; the worst anti-Jewish pogrom of the war was carried out by Ukrainian nationalists in Kyiv, and that was just one of many massacres they perpetrated.

And where, you might ask, were the moderates in all this, liberals or conservatives, the people who believed in peace and coexistence? So far as I can tell, they existed but were totally irrelevent. In this war, only the bloody-minded fanatics mattered; in the end it was a fight between Bolsheviks and militant nationalists who were starting to sound a lot like fascists. It's a sobering tale for any moderate person to read.

1 comment:

David said...

A fascinating, first-rate review. I too have often contemplated this period in Russia, and the capacity to endure suffering that it reveals, with sheer astonishment and wonder. One thing that is notable is that the soldiers' resistance to fighting the Central Powers after 1916 does not seem at all to have constituted a rejection of war and fighting as such.

Apropos of the Bolsheviks, a friend of mine, who's made a specialty of teaching the whole 1900 to 1945 European Thing, presents as one of the main lessons of the period that "history is made by highly motivated minorities."