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When the Russians killed Mother Russia

The decade of internecine carnage that followed the 1917 October revolution was one of the bitterest and — until Jonathan D. Smele’s latest book — most neglected periods of Russian history

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

The ‘Russian’ Civil Wars 1916–1926: Ten Years that Shook the World Jonathan D. Smele

Hurst & Co, pp.480, £35

On the 24–25 October 1917 (according to the Julian Calendar, or 7–8 November according to the Gregorian) the political disputes which had shaken the Russian empire reached a peak. The provisional government, or All-Russian Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (which had been formed in the wake of the February revolution and abdication of Tsar Nicholas II) was stormed by the Bolsheviks. These men and women — whom Churchill later described as ‘swarms of typhus-bearing vermin, vampires, troops of ferocious baboons’ — quickly consolidated power in Petrograd, now St Petersburg. Their leader, Vladimir Lenin, believed that Europe’s workers would soon rise in violent struggle against their bourgeois oppressors; and ‘Red’ October is rightly considered one of the seminal moments of modern times.

But there’s much more to Russian history than one evening of sabre-waggling pomp and rambunctious gaiety at the Winter Palace. As Jonathan Smele makes clear, the October revolution fell within a decade of internecine carnage, trans-continental torture and picaresque chaos —broadly defined as the Russian civil wars.

The conflict which raged in Russia and central Asia was effectively a ‘world war condensed’, he writes:

Few would dispute that the ‘scope’ of what has been traditionally termed the ‘Russian civil war’ was stupendously extensive: after all, it was waged across (and beyond) the borders of a collapsing and then reconfiguring empire that enveloped fully one-sixth of the land surface of the globe; and it involved not only the 160 million or so inhabitants of that multitudinous and multinational imperium, as well as millions of inhabitants of neighbouring states into which the conflicts leached.

Between 1917 and 1921, 10.5 million people died and millions more were maimed, orphaned or widowed. An additional two million former subjects of the Tsar were forced into exile. Upheaval wrought by war led a further five million perishing in famines across the Volga, Urals, North Caucasus and Ukraine between 1921 and 1922.


Professor Smele dates the beginning of Russia’s civil war to one year before the October revolution when, in 1916, the Tsar’s Muslim subjects in Turkestan protested against enforced enlistment in the Russian army’s labour battalions. The then governor of Vernyi, General P.P. Ivanov, dealt with the revolt with spectacular cruelty, inflaming anti-colonialist feeling in central Asia and beginning an insurrection against the Russian empire which began to resemble a ‘holy war’ against infidels and invaders.

The revolution of October 1917 led Lenin to promise ‘peace, bread and land’ to Russia’s people — a popular prospect in the midst of the Great War — but his ‘Decree for Peace’ ultimately led Russia to cede the (now) Baltic countries, alongside Finland, Poland and Ukraine, to the Central Powers at the humiliating 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Here began what might be called Russia’s civil war proper — as Lenin’s Bolsheviks came under attack from a diverse group of domestic opponents whose membership included disenfranchised peasants and Bolshevik deserters, as well as elements of the old ruling classes. Operating from isolated outposts in the Urals and Siberia, the ‘Whites’ launched particularly effective attacks in 1919. The moustachioed anti-Semite General Anton I. Denikin pushed to within 250 miles of Moscow, while the pre-revolutionary colonialist General Nikolai N. Iudenich, based in modern Estonia, twice reached Petrograd’s outskirts.

Ultimately, though, the Whites lacked the industrial complexes which the Reds held in western Russia. They were also torpid, cruel and greedy, and never successfully mastered the soft-power play of propaganda. Admiral Kolchak, their supreme ruler, was in 2008 the subject of the most expensive motion picture Russia has ever made; but during a PR visit to Omsk in 1919, his administrative secretary could not find a single individual who recognised his photograph — though some peasants did offer the view that he was ‘probably an Englishman’. Meanwhile, Lenin and family were canvassing: Lenin’s wife travelled Russia’s river system on a floating propaganda ship called the Red Star, ‘which toured the Volga in 1919 and 1920, towing a barge that contained an 800-seat cinema’.

As the Red army grew, the Whites were steadily pushed to the edges of the empire. Despite millions in aid from the Allies, their troops were gradually eliminated. Denikin was routed at Orel in 1919, while Iudenich beat a retreat to modern Estonia, and was nabbed as he tried to flee for western Europe with a sack of foreign currency —including £227,000 in sterling.

When exactly Russia’s civil wars ended is difficult to determine — and a recurrent point of discussion throughout the book — but Smele concludes that it was probably with the Red army’s closure of its last active front in Turkestan in June 1926.

Analytical, colourful and not only clearly researched but beautifully written, Smele’s work is vivid and important, expounding as it does the acute significance of the Russian civil war for the history of the world today.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £35 Tel: 08430 600033


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