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July 2023

Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921

By Anthony Beevor


The latest book from the military historian, Anthony Beevor, focuses on the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war. The book begins with the participation of Russia in the First World War. The book details the Russian war effort and the difficulties and setbacks on the front which led to a breakdown in morale and unrest in the ranks, which, in turn, prepared the ground for the coming revolution. The Tsar's naivety and inaction is presented in a period of great difficulties for the Russian Empire. The book essentially begins with political history as the the harsh conditions for soldiers and workers are set out and the conditions that led to the revolution are described. The revolution breaks out in October 1917 with broad support in Petrograd (what is today St. Petersburg) and there are a variety of political factions, mainly supporters of the revolution (Socialist revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks) and the more conservative Kadet party. A provisional government is set up and the Tsar abdicates. The provisional government under Kerensky is supposed to hold power until a constituent assembly can be elected and it continues the war effort on the side of allies with little success. In the meanwhile, the leader of the radical Bolshevik Party, Vladimir Lenin, returns to Russia and begins to agitate to overthrow the provisional government, a feat that was achieved in February 1917. The Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd leads them to set up a government which they move to Moscow for greater security. While the old Russian empire crumbles, with Lenin ceding a great deal of territory to Germany to stop the war, civil war is inevitable. At this point, the book moves on to focus on military history. The Red Army set up by Lenin's right hand man, Leon Trotsky, fights mainly on three fronts. In Siberia, Admiral Kolchak declares himself Supreme Leader of Russia and fights the Reds, in the north, close to Leningrad, there is General Yudenich, and, in the south, General Denikin. Moreover, the Red Army faced forces from the newly independent states of the Russian Empire; Poland, Finland and the Baltic states, as well as nationalist movements in the Ukraine. Moreover, there were Czech and Polish formations in Russia which, while reluctant allies of the whites, were keen to leave Russian territory. Despite some initial success of the White armies, the Reds prevailed in the end defeating all the major White formations, although they did lose control over Poland, Finland and the Baltic states, who fought successful campaigns for their independence. In retrospect, the Whites were in a difficult position. Their forces were not able to join up, morale was low and they were disputes between factions. They also lacked materiel (despite allied support) and they lost the sympathy of many peasants with their brutal behaviour. More crucially, they clung on to the idea of the Russian Empire and this fact was a major setback in potential alliances with former Russian territories which were fighting the Reds as independent states. Apart from the two main factions, the book also touches on others, such as, the Cossacks, the anarchists, and Ukrainian nationalists  or the so called "Greens", who fought against both of the main factions. The book has many interesting recurrent themes, such as, the brutality and disorganisation of both sides of the civil war and the intense anti-Semitic feeling in Russian society, particularly, on the side of the Whites. Another factor is the plethora of interests involved in the civil war, with ethnic and ideological tensions being equally important to the outcome of the conflict. One factor which feels slightly overlooked is the involvement of Japan and America in the Far East of Russia as their eventual departure from Vladivostok is not covered in the book. This is an interesting book which narrates the beginning of the Soviet Union, helping in the understanding of the subsequent state apparatus and the main players (Stalin and Lenin feature prominently, as well as many of the Red Army's commanders in the Second World War). The book is also worth reading in the context of contemporary history and the war in Ukraine, a country which was, after all, a significant civil war battlefield a little over one hundred years ago.

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