Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921

Over a career as one of Britain’s most prolific military historians, Sir Antony Beevor has produced some of the most compelling narratives of 20th-century conflict. Perhaps most famous for Stalingrad, Beevor has subsequently published a series of well-received studies of specific offensives within the Second World War, including D-Day, the Ardennes, and Arnhem.

Beevor’s established style as a historian is to depict conflict from a series of overlapping perspectives, selecting judiciously from a range of sources and eye-witness accounts to create a sense of what it was like to experience conflict as a commander, soldier, or civilian.

Beevor’s latest book, Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921, explores the course of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War. Informed by current scholarship, archival research, and a firm grip on the interlinkages between a broad catalogue of characters, it is truly military history at scale, in terms of political complexity, geographic scope, and human cost.

Between 1917 and 1921, the collapse of the Tsarist Empire unleashed a cycle of unimagined violence and retribution across Russia through civil war and politically motivated internecine conflict. The roots of the political upheaval can be traced to a series of factors over the preceding decades, including failed land reforms, declining rural economies, mass migration to urban centres, and the impact of the First World War. Political dissent exploded into revolution, which ultimately ushered in a Communist dictatorship led by Lenin and protected by the Red Army.

Opposing Lenin’s Communist forces was an uneasy coalition of loyal monarchists and moderate socialists, the so-called ‘Whites’. The conflict between these factions, and underpinning a multitude of political mindsets, consumed much of the Russian land mass and cost countless lives. Around 1.5 million combatants were killed in the conflict, alongside up to 12 million civilians as a result of starvation and disease. Economic carnage was wreaked by an international blockade and unprecedented destruction of national infrastructure.

As is clear in Beevor’s treatment, no one was able fully to foresee the implications of toppling the Tsar, but those who were successful in navigating the dangerous terrain of the Civil War were able to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances.

A number of historians have demonstrated that this conflict cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather as a precursor and foreshadowing of the Second World War.Indeed, the conflict itself was not purely a Russian affair, with military involvement from a number of nations, including the United Kingdom, Poland, France, and the US. Churchill himself, in his capacity as Secretary of State for War, was directly involved in overseeing the activities of the British Military Mission.

The Japanese Army retained around 85,000 troops and 14,550 horses in Siberia, where they fought alongside American troops in defending mining assets under attack from the Red Army. The commander of American forces, decorated by the Japanese for this action, would eventually lead the Eighth Army in defeating Japanese forces in the Philippines in 1945.

The level of violence unleashed by the Russian Civil War, as catalogued by Beevor, was beyond imagination in its savagery, with atrocities perpetrated on military and civilian communities alike by both sides. The scale and horror of atrocities rapidly escalated as each side sought retribution for acts committed by their opponents. As Beevor notes, the mechanics of mass slaughter devised during this period surely influenced the activities of Nazi Einsatzgruppen in similar geographic locations only two decades later.

Beevor has provided an illuminating account of one of the darkest, and most misunderstood, periods of 20th-century history. It should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in the origins of Soviet Russia.

Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921, Antony Beevor, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hbk (£30), ISBN 978-1474610148.