First of two posts on the Russian Civil War of 1918-21
Antony Beevor is probably the world’s best-known contemporary writer on twentieth-century military history. His books have sold in excess of eight million copies, in thirty-four languages.
Beevor made his name with his book Stalingrad, published in 1998, followed by books on the fall of Berlin, the liberation of Paris, the Spanish Civil War, and an overview of the Second World War, among others. Stalingrad is an excellent account of the most spectacular military reversal in world history, where in 1942-43 the German imperialist colossus was stopped in its tracks, and then shattered, by the tenacious resistance of the Soviet working class.1
Beevor graduated from the elite Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, in 1967, and this military training gave him many useful insights into the titanic battle of Stalingrad. Given the profound political disorientation of the Soviet working class on the eve of the German invasion of 1941, the outcome of the battle of Stalingrad was determined in large measure by military and industrial factors. Beevor was in his element in analysing and describing these.
The same is most certainly not true of the subject of his latest book, the Russian revolution of 1917 and subsequent civil war (Russia – revolution and civil war, 1917-1921) . Along with the two World Wars, it was the Russian civil war, more than any other war, that shaped the course of twentieth century history. This book looks at the first revolutionary working-class government in history to take power, and hold it against the military onslaught of the domestic counter-revolution, combined with invasions by fourteen foreign armies.2 This was a remarkable episode in military history, and one which deserves more attention than it gets.
However, while military questions were extremely important in the years 1917 to 1921, ultimately the outcome of the Russian civil war was determined by political struggle. For that very reason, this war is particularly resistant to analysis by a military specialist. The military battles on the plains and rivers of Russia, Ukraine, Siberia and the Caucasus were an extension of the political battle for the survival of the revolutionary Bolshevik government. In fact, this war is a pre-eminent example of the close inter-relationship between politics and war, and proof of the primacy of politics.
It stands, a century later, as a brilliant demonstration of the fact that even an army that is outnumbered, out-gunned, out-funded and out-skilled can still ultimately triumph over a much more militarily powerful adversary – given competent and far-sighted revolutionary leadership.
All of this is lost on Antony Beevor, who demonstrates very little understanding of the political dynamics of the Russian revolutions of 1917, still less of the civil war period. He is consequently at a loss to explain the course and outcome of the war. His analysis of the course of the war boils down to something like this: it was all going so swimmingly well, from the point of view of British imperialism, but then the White Army of the counter-revolution overextended its supply lines in its push towards Moscow, and suddenly things started going very badly.
As for the outcome, which he calls “the death of hope,” Beevor’s explanation is that the Bolsheviks won, firstly, because of the geographical advantage they enjoyed in fighting from a single contiguous territory, from where they could swiftly re-deploy their forces from one front to another, secondly, because of the inability of the counter-revolutionary armies to unite their forces, but mainly, because the Red terror exceeded the White terror in the depth and sweep of its brutality. There is some truth in the first and second statements, very little in the third. In any case, none of these points comes anywhere near to explaining the triumph of the Red Army.
The cover blurb states, “An incompatible White alliance of moderate socialists and reactionary monarchists stood little chance against Trotsky’s Red Army and Lenin’s single-minded Communist dictatorship.” Wisdom of hindsight, and a lot more hindsight than wisdom! In fact, at the outset of the civil war the military relationship of forces was entirely to the advantage of the reactionary forces. There was no Red Army in Russia when the civil war began in 1918, only the pitiful remnants of the defeated tsarist army, in an advanced state of disintegration and war-weariness, as individual soldiers deserted and fled back to the village as quickly as they could, along with a handful of untrained and ill-equipped Red Guards. The Bolsheviks were confronted with the fact of dire military weakness as soon as they came to power, when they were obliged to agree to extremely unfavourable terms of peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk. This critical fact, so crucial to the origin and development of the Russian Civil War, is hardly touched on in this book.
In dealing with this war, Beevor’s Sandhurst training, the class outlook and allegiances developed at that institution, prove to be an obstacle to reaching an understanding of history. In the absence of any real insight into the politics of the revolution and civil war, Beevor is left to rely on the tired old clichés drawn from the literature of the counter-revolutionary memoirists.
They’re all there – all the old lies and slanders of the White counter-revolution are disinterred from their graves, polished up, and presented as if they had never died: the Bolshevik ‘coup’, the myth of the German gold, the Bolshevik ‘genocide’ against non-Russian nationalities, the myths surrounding the Kronstadt rebellion – of course, Kronstadt! – the besmirching of the revolutionary Latvian Rifles as a ‘praetorian guard’3 and of the Chinese detachments as cold-blooded assassins, the claim that Bolshevik power rested solely on police terror, and on and on it goes.
The contradictions between the various slanders do not seem to bother Beevor. He is of course not alone among historians in denigrating the October revolution as a ‘Bolshevik coup’ – that is to say, a power grab by a small clique lacking popular support. But if it is true that the October 1917 seizure of power was a coup rather than a mass insurrection of the working class, then by what magic did this unpopular clique conjure up a Red Army so powerful that the combined forces of the ‘moderate socialists’ and all the king’s men “stood little chance” against it? These twin stupidities defy all political sense.
The false and disgusting claim that the Bolsheviks had received German gold – that is, that they were paid agents of the imperialist power with which Russia was at war – was the most monstrous slander and frame-up hurled against the Bolsheviks in the lead-up to the attempted counter-revolution of August 1917. Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky devotes a whole chapter to examining the evolution of this myth throughout 1917 in his History of the Russian Revolution.
Beevor, writing more than a hundred years after the events, knows full well that no evidence for this foul accusation has ever been produced. But the slander is simply too tempting, as it was for every reactionary a century earlier, and he just can’t let it lie. Accordingly, he hides behind an evasive turn of phrase: “Lenin was never a German agent, as the papers claimed, on the other hand, he would have had no scruples about accepting [my emphasis – JR] large sums of German money to develop the increasingly powerful Bolshevik press empire.” [p72] This is backed up with a footnote: “The Provisional Government’s accusations do not amount to hard proof that the Bolsheviks accepted ‘German gold’, and yet it is hard to see how the Bolsheviks could have afforded all their newspapers without outside help [my emphasis].”
The footnote gave me a chuckle, thanks to an experience of my own. Back in the 1970s I was part of an organisation that produced and distributed a small Trotskyist newspaper in Wellington. A sensational press story in NZ Truth newspaper once alleged that we received money from the Russian embassy. The proof? The author of this slander had done his sums – he had worked out how many hours of labour and dollars it would require to write, edit, print and distribute our little newspaper, and how much less than that we would have received from sales revenue – and thereby proved beyond doubt that our paper simply couldn’t have carried the loss, week after week and year after year, without a large contribution of ‘Russian gold’! He evidently hadn’t taken into account the many hours of unpaid labour and constant fundraising that sustained our paper.
I find it really astonishing that a century after the Russian revolution, a reputable historian could disinter the hoary old myth of the German gold, and attempt to breathe some life back into it. What next, I wonder? Would Beevor be willing to quote the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – that other famous forgery emanating from the tsarist police department – together with a polite disclaimer, of course, of course, that it “doesn’t amount to hard proof” that an international Jewish conspiracy was behind the revolution – and then add “and yet it is hard to see” any other explanation? I should hope not. Why, then, does he give credence to the equally discredited myth of the ‘German gold’? Because it so neatly fits his narrative of the devilish Bolsheviks as the incarnation of evil.
Not content with resurrecting the old slanders, Beevor spices up the story with a few new ones. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, we read, was in a perpetual state of rage. “Both colleagues and opponents suffered his frequent rages, which sometimes exploded in vile obscenities. The closer Lenin came to power, the greater his contempt for any notion of morality or for the rights of others, and the greater his obsessive belief that he alone was capable of achieving the total revolution he sought.” [p62-63]. “Lenin flew into a rage whenever he was opposed, seeing it as treason or sabotage.” [p118]. What the source is for this information on Lenin’s rages, we are not told.
Lenin was indeed the author of many a sharp polemic. He laid bare the weaknesses and hypocrisy of his opponents in merciless denunciations. Yet there are many memoirs and anecdotal reminiscences of Lenin by his contemporaries, including by political opponents and others who had suffered the lash of his tongue, and who had no reason to pretty up his image. I am not aware of a single one that reports seeing him flying into a rage, let alone frequently, to say nothing of explosions of vile obscenities. On the contrary, these accounts portray Lenin as calm and disciplined even under extreme pressure.
If Beevor has found evidence that it was otherwise, he needs to give the source, and explain why his source is more credible than all the existing accounts. Without that, there will always be a suspicion that he has just made stuff up to suit his narrative.
This is not just a small matter of posthumously defending Lenin’s reputation. The Russian revolution and civil war was one of those exceptional moments in history when a single political personality could and did affect the outcome of great historic events; even Marxists, who strongly dispute the ‘great man’ theory of history, agree that without Lenin there would have been no October revolution. Deliberately misinforming readers about Lenin’s character, for the sake of a good story, would be inexcusable.
I do not begrudge Beevor his particular sympathies and antipathies, allegiances and biases. I have my own sympathies and biases, albeit different from his. In general, I tend to favour writers of history who nail their political colours to the mast frankly, as Beevor does here, in preference to those who feign neutrality. But the starting point of any history worth reading must always be historical fact, not accusations and rumours. Let me state the obvious: rumours do not get any closer to fact simply by being often repeated.
In this case, the writer’s extreme antipathy to Bolshevism also causes him to overlook some of the most important factual sources.
Leon Trotsky was the central organiser of the Red Army throughout this period. He spent most of the two years and a half years from August 1918 shuttling from one front of the war to another in a specially-equipped armoured train, occasionally himself mounting a horse and taking part in the battles. Shortly after the end of hostilities the Bolshevik leadership assembled and published a collection of documents of the struggle from Trotsky’s pen – speeches to the Red Army soldiers and at Soviet congresses, orders and proclamations, evaluations of the enemy forces, reports from the front to Lenin and the rest of the leadership in Moscow. This is an invaluable resource for anyone wishing to understand the dynamics of that war. It is partisan, to be sure – is there ever any non-partisan source in the midst of civil war? But since it was placed on the public record at the time, it is far more reliable than the self-serving memoirs on which Beevor relies so heavily. It has been translated into English under the title How the Revolution Armed (5 volumes), and is readily accessible. Beevor appears not to have consulted it at all. It is not quoted in the text, and not listed in the bibliography.
Beevor’s book is not entirely without merit. If it is deficient in failing to make use of Trotsky’s writings, it compensates in small degree by making good use of the records of the British government’s intervention. The picture that emerges is of a war in which Britain was involved up to its neck, led by the pugnacious Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war, at times in direct defiance of the more cautious Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
The Caucasus and Caspian Sea region was the main front in which British forces were active, deploying 40,000 troops from their base in Persia, and this book gives a more complete account of that operation than most. Britain also landed 14,000 troops in Arkhangelsk in the far north, with support from the United States and colonial troops, (including 150 Australian troops and a handful of New Zealanders), and attempted to drive southeast to link up with the Siberian forces of the White Admiral Alexander Kolchak; the British navy blockaded the Baltic Sea and fought alongside the White General Yudenich in his 1919 assault on Petrograd. and together with 15,000 French troops, Britain actively supported the White Volunteer Army of Anton Denikin, through its military mission based in Taganrog on the Sea of Azov. Beevor writes that when in November 1919 Britain decided to halt deliveries of weapons and withdraw the mission, everyone knew this meant that “the White cause was doomed.” [p394]
Beevor also gives greater recognition to the role of Chinese troops in the Red Army than most accounts, though this fact emerges strictly by accident: In page after page of descriptions of the brutalities of the Red Terror, the Chinese fighters are depicted as the most savage and ruthless in wreaking vengeance on their defeated enemies. Beevor explains that this trait emerged in response to especially brutal treatment of Chinese prisoners by the Whites, and describes several instances of the White bestiality: Red Army soldiers of Chinese descent who fell into the hands of the enemy could expect to be tortured, executed, then have their eyes gouged and genitals and tongues cut out, and their bodies hung from the lamp posts.
However, the claims of Chinese savagery themselves ought to be treated with great circumspection.4
The claim that the Bolshevik power rested on small elite units of non-Russians, especially the Latvians and Chinese, was one of the enduring themes of White propaganda. It was echoed by the Anarchists5 and ‘moderate socialists,’6 usually accompanied by the ‘explanation’ that the Chinese troops were unable to speak Russian, and therefore had no idea what was going on, and were acting out of blind obedience. This particular myth was part conscious deception and part self-deception: stunned by the catastrophe that had befallen them and unable to comprehend it, the overthrown landlords and capitalists saw the revolution as a the work of Jews, Chinese, Germans, Latvians, and other outsiders, anyone but Russians. This slander is cut from the same cloth as the myth of the German gold.
Chinese workers were by no means outsiders to the Russian revolution. In fact, the Pacific coast of Russia from Vladivostok as far north as the mouth of the Amur River and the Sea of Okhotsk, had been part of the Chinese empire until it was annexed by Russia in 1860 through the Unequal Treaties imposed on defeated China after the Opium Wars. Like the Mexicans in the southwestern United States, the Chinese inhabitants of these regions didn’t cross the border; the border crossed them.
The construction of the trans-Siberian railroad in the 1890s opened to Chinese workers a path of migration deeper into Russia, at a time of the economic collapse of the Chinese empire and mass emigration from China. Thousands found work in the Russian far east, in forestry and mining industries, and building the railway itself. In Siberia they mixed with the Tsar’s Siberian political exiles (as well as in the Chinese city of Harbin, to which some of these exiles escaped.) Languages and revolutionary ideas were exchanged – and it was not a one-way traffic: China itself was in the throes of revolution after 1911.7
During the First World War, they were joined by another 200,000 Chinese workers sent by the Chinese government to support the allied war effort. These workers filled the gaps in industry left by the mobilisation of Russian workers to the front, and built fortifications and railways, including the vital Murmansk line. Throughout the war the Chinese workers resisted the extremely oppressive conditions under which they worked and died. 17,000 Chinese miners in the Urals refused to go down the mines in December 1915 and destroyed the mine office. A few months later a team of 2,600 timber workers employed by the same boss struck. When police opened fire and killed one, they took up axes and stones and drove the police out.
As one of the most insecure and highly exploited sections of the working class in Russia, many of the Chinese workers readily identified with the October revolution. Railway worker Liu Fu wrote: “After we heard of the October revolution, I and my Russian colleagues were all extremely happy. I helped them put up the red flags with hammer and sickle over the railway station. We shouted our support for the new government and the overthrow of the Kerensky regime. We began to understand a truth that we did not know – that poor people can take power in their country, instead of having to search everywhere for a reasonable life and happiness.”8
It is a small achievement that Beevor describes so many instances in which Chinese workers in uniform took part in the battles of the Russian civil war, out of all proportion to their numbers in Russia. But their story largely remains to be extracted from under the enormous pile of filth heaped upon them by the White propaganda.
Ultimately, the secret to the Bolshevik victory lay in the Bolshevik approach to the national question and the Cossack question (which was in essence the peasant question). From Finland to the Baltic lands, to Belarus and Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the fight for self-determination for the nationalities oppressed under the tsarist empire intertwined with the imperialist intervention and the fight for the rule of the workers and peasants in those countries in varied and complex ways. The stirrings of national self-determination were generally combined with the peasants’ fight for land; in the Cossack lands, this process was retarded by their privileged status and their historic role as gendarmes of the autocracy. Despite his making an honest attempt to grapple with them, these questions remain a closed book to Antony Beevor, as I will show in the second part of this post.
- Stalingrad was banned by the authorities in Ukraine in 2018, and also in the Sverdlovsk region of Russia in 2015, for reasons which have never been explained; still less, justified.
- The following countries deployed troops to support the counter-revolution against Bolshevik rule: Britain, France, Germany, United States, Japan, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Canada, Australia, Romania, Greece, Poland, China (against, among others, the many thousands of Chinese workers who had joined the Red Army) and Sweden. This list does not include those countries which had been part of the Russian empire, and whose separation from it was militarily intertwined with the civil war and foreign intervention, such that their territories were used as staging points for the imperialist attacks – such as Finland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Georgia. The Soviet government made direct appeals for solidarity to the workers of the belligerent countries.
- The Praetorian Guard was the elite unit of the ancient Roman legions from which were formed the bodyguard and spy network of the emperors. It was famous for its corruption, political intrigues, and treachery. Privilege and corruption were the very opposite of what constituted the Latvian Rifles. This unit fought courageously and suffered many casualties in defence of Kazan, at one of the darkest moments of the civil war, and having demonstrated its discipline and courage under fire, was often called upon in moments of danger on other fronts. The sole basis for the lightminded ‘praetorian guard’ sneer seems to be that it took part in suppressing anti-Soviet rebellions.
- The same attitude of extreme caution should be taken towards the many claims of savage vengeance wreaked by Red Army soldiers in general, which Beevor draws mostly from memoirs of individuals supporting the counter-revolution and presents as his evidence. The Red terror was real; its methods were harsh. This was without doubt an exceptionally intense and brutal war, and there were occasions where Red soldiers and agents of the Cheka committed atrocities. But there was also a great deal of myth-making and self-justification in these accounts from the White literature. This linked article, In the hands of the Bolshevists, written by a British soldier who was captured by the Red Army, paints a very different picture.
- For an Anarchist version, see Peter Arshinov’s History of the Makhnovist Movement. Search the article for “Chinese” to find the relevant section
- For a ‘moderate socialist’ version, see this 1918 article from the New York Times, entitled Bolshevist power rapidly waning, where a leader of the Social Revolutionary Party deftly combines these myths with the story of German gold.
- There is still today a significant Russian population in Harbin today, and many Chinese people who speak Russian. When I walked out of the Harbin railway station in 2016, a Chinese taxi driver offered me a taxi – in Russian.
- The largely unknown story of these Chinese workers in Russia has been sketched in a great little 50-page book by Hong Kong-based author Mark O’Neill, From the Tsar’s Railway to the Red Army.