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Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor review – butchery of the Bolsheviks | History books

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The Russian Revolution is an event that, even over a century later, remains buried under layers of myths, lies and ideological romance. In a crude sense the fiction still persists in progressive circles that Lenin was an enlightened leader whose premature death led to Stalin’s betrayal of the revolution’s great promise.

One problem historians have encountered when attempting to disinter the truth is the sheer level of chaos that reigned after the collapse of the tsarist regime of Nicholas II in early 1917. Every colour of reactionary and revolutionary emerged to lay claim to the future, of which the Bolsheviks were far from the largest grouping.

How they managed to place themselves in the driving seat and then hold on to power as the Russian empire folded into civil war is perhaps the most complex political and military story of the 20th century. Not only is there a huge and shifting cast of belligerents but the action takes place across a vast terrain that stretches from Warsaw to Vladivostok, the Arctic Circle to the borders of the Ottoman empire.

The military historian Antony Beevor is best known for his books Stalingrad and Berlin, which, as their titles suggest, focused on a single location and two clearly defined sets of combatants. The dimensions of his undertaking with Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 are on a far larger and more daunting scale.

He is, however, a wonderfully lucid writer who marshals the extensive material with great verve and understanding. The book arrives against the background of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and there are obvious echoes, not least with venues fresh from the news, such as Kharkiv, forming scenes of earlier destruction.

What is instantly striking is that the kind of violence we’ve witnessed on television of late has a long and depressing history in the region. For a start, Russia sustained a far higher rate of losses in the first world war than France, Germany or the United Kingdom. Disillusionment with the reckless manner in which the war was waged by the tsar’s regime was one of the reasons that Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. Lenin wanted to extract Russia from the war at any cost, which meant the occupation of Ukraine by Germany, but not before Red Guards had committed massed executions in Kyiv, terrorising the “whole population” of the city.

“Tragically for both countries,” Beevor writes of Germany’s incursion, “it gave German nationalists the idea that European Russia and Ukraine should become their colonial possessions in the next war.” The idea, of course, that Ukraine was a colonial possession of Russia was already established and, as we know, has not gone away.

‘Ruthless with his own people’: Lenin addressing Red Army soldiers in Moscow, 1920
‘Ruthless with his own people’: Lenin addressing Red Army soldiers in Moscow, 1920. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

If Lenin was politically flexible with foreign powers, he was ruthless with his own people, including rival parties on the left. He grabbed power when the hapless provisional government lost its way in setting up a constituent assembly that was intended to be a democratic representation of all Russians. Lenin initially paid lip service to the assembly, while calling for power to go the “soviets” – people’s councils. In reality he had no intention of allowing any diminishment or oversight of his control of the Bolshevik party and, through its Council of People’s Commissars, the battered Russian state.

But no sooner had the Bolsheviks cemented their rule than they were fighting a civil war on multiple fronts against a mind-boggling array of enemies, stretching from revolutionary socialists who still dreamed of a constituent assembly to unreconstructed “White Russian” tsarists, nostalgic for a corrupt and flagrantly unjust regime – not to mention a range of foreign powers, including the UK, nibbling at its extremities.

The diffusion of opponents played into the Bolsheviks’ hands, as their differences were so extreme that a unified opposition fighting force was never a viable option. But if the battle lines were often blurred, the hatred felt by the combatants for each other was nightmarishly vivid.

The violence committed by all sides was unconfined, with torture and executions widespread, and it was not uncommon for people to be thrown alive into blast furnaces. As Lenin saw any opposition as tantamount to treason, he demanded that all signs of resistance be met with brutal force. Trotsky, charming intellectual though he could be, was no less willing to issue orders that opponents should be shot on sight.

At its most bloody points the book requires a strong stomach to continue reading, and I was sometimes left with the slightly dazed feeling I remember experiencing after watching Elem Klimov’s harrowing Come and See. But its saving grace is the personal testimonies that Beevor assembles, having been unearthed by his much-valued researcher Luba Vinogradova, to whom the book is dedicated.

There were so many occasions on which the Bolshevik revolution might have been finished off before it really got started. But through a mixture of luck, the incompetence and regressiveness of the White Russians, and the butchery the Bolsheviks institutionalised, it survived in the most repressive form, and in turn inspired even more cruel regimes in China, Cambodia and elsewhere.

Some of the most vicious shock troops the Bolsheviks initially relied upon were the Kronstadt sailors. When they themselves called for reforms in 1921, Trotsky, who had previously lauded them as heroes, announced that unless they abandoned their mutiny they would be “shot like partridges”. Their family members were also taken hostage.

Rather as the Ukrainians today are denounced as Nazis, so the Bolsheviks claimed that the sailors were led by tsarist officers. It was a lie. Many of the rebels were summarily executed. Before they were shot, writes Beevor, they shouted out: “Long live the world revolution!” It was on precisely that kind of imperishable belief that the Soviet communists traded with remarkable durability for more than 70 years. Beevor has captured the beginnings of the tragedy in mesmerising detail.

Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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