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Reviews | The ‘Russian’ Civil Wars, 1916–1926: Ten Years That Shook the World

By Anthony Paletta
Summer 2016 • MHQ Magazine

The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916–1926: Ten Years That Shook the World
By Jonathan D. Smele. 464 pages.
Oxford University Press, 2016. $74.
Reviewed by Anthony Paletta

 

AT FIRST GLANCE, the ironical “Russian,” the plural “Wars,” and the decade span in the title might seem like three almost Bolshevik steps into academic punctiliousness——and yet the author soon amply justifies such careful distinctions. There have been other histories of these conflicts, but none have determined so directly to avoid treating them as a simple binary. The Bolsheviks won the most important of these wars, but they didn’t win all of them, and they weren’t even involved in many of the briefer struggles that unfolded along the former empire’s western periphery.

The conflict was, in Smele’s terms, “a world war condensed,” initially involving U.S., British, French, and Japanese forces from that other World War and subsequently many of their leftover arms. It featured the only instance of German units remaining in combat after the armistice of 1919. (They remained in conflict by Allied instruction but then, going renegade, toppled the nascent Latvian government and attempted to overthrow the Estonian one.) The United States and France sold surplus arms on credit or at a discount to Poland to aid its war with Russia. Enver Pasha, former Ottoman minister of war, died fighting with the Central Asian resistance to the Soviets.

Russia’s anticommunist Whites had the initial benefit of inheriting most of the officers of the tsarist army and theoretical control of much of Russia, and yet the conflict’s outcome pivoted on the tremendous benefits the Bolsheviks’ derived from their occupation (and increasingly strenuous exploitation) of the Russian heartland. As Smele notes, “The Red zone, which covered almost a million square miles and had a population of some 60 million souls (more than any other country in Europe at the time), was far more urban, industrialized, and ethnically homogeneous than the peripheral lands in which its White opponents were based.”

White forces, which did enjoy some early successes, were also hobbled by a persistent inability to coordinate their effectively autonomous fronts or to act in any remote concert with the independence movements rising along the empire’s western border. Fractious mixtures of tsarists, socialists, and ethnic nationalists were given to mutual distrust or even outright internal war. The “wars” of the title are the unsung conflicts between Poland and Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine, Whites and Ukrainians, German freikorps and Estonians, and more.

A repeated emphasis in Smele’s account is the larger portrait of state formation. Viewed in historical context, the eagerness of Poland, Finland, and the Baltic States to make peace with the Soviets as soon as their borders were secured looks like a dramatic failure of collective action, but their wars were several in which the Soviets did not prevail and which did secure a cordon that stopped the possible fluid expansion of Bolshevism into the war-torn Central Powers. As tragic as the eventual fortune of most of central Europe was in 1945, it could have been far worse in 1920. MHQ

 

ANTHONY PALETTA writes the Spaces column for the Wall Street Journal and contributes to Metropolis, The Awl, and The Daily Beast.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 4) of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Reviews: Unsung Conflicts.

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