Acclaimed historian Antony Beevor is out with a new book. “Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921” is a comprehensive look at this earthshaking event that would have political and social implications on the world for the rest of the 20th century. The award-winning author has written several bestselling books about World War II, including “D-Day: The Battle for Normandy,” “Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble” and “The Second World War,” among others.
Beevor, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017, spoke with HistoryNet about his new book and how this century-old event is still having an impact on the world today.
Why Russia? Why now? Given what’s happening in the Ukraine, the timing is perfect.
Well, it was hardly planned this way. The research started six years ago, when I was halfway through my last book, “Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944.” Knowing this was the one I was going to do next, my researcher, who I’ve worked with for the last 28 years, including on “Stalingrad” in 1998, started scouring the Russian archives. Her efforts were crucial because I can’t go back to Russia without serving five years in prison. I have been threatened with that because I wrote about mass rape by the Red Army in my 2002 book “Berlin: The Downfall, 1945,” even though that material came straight from the Russian archives.
Historians have rightly identified the First World War as the original catastrophe of the 20th century. That triggered the Russian Civil War, which, of course, still has echoes today in the Ukraine War. It created the great red versus white, left versus right, fascist versus communist split that we continue to deal with.
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One of the key elements emerging from this event was the vicious circle of hatred, fear and destruction which really affected the whole of Europe. All of this rhetoric comes from the Russian Civil War. I’ve had arguments with historians who say rhetoric doesn’t kill. Well, it damn well does. And that became absolutely clear during that particular period. In Ukraine, we are seeing a degree of this. For the Russians, conspicuous terror, destruction, rape and killing of civilians is a natural weapon of war.
The Russian Civil War was very much the start of this sequence, which leads to basically all of the wars of the 20th century, including Vietnam and Korea, as well as the Second World War. In many ways, what is happening in Ukraine is a continuation of all that. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has redecorated the Kremlin with czarist themes. His place on the Black Sea is decorated with double eagles as if it is the modern palace of Czar Vladimir. He wants to rebuild the old empire.
For Putin, the Ukraine is one of the key, if not the key, missing parts of the czarist jigsaw. He also wants back Belarus, which he is propping up, as well as Kazakhstan because of the large number of Russians living there. But he’s starting to lose his influence in Central Asia. They’re becoming much more skeptical.
Basically, Putin is creating the opposite of everything he’s setting out to do. He might even be unintentionally pushing toward the breakup of Russia. That’s an extreme scenario, but it’s not to entirely ruled out if things carry out in the direction they are.
You begin your book with a quote by czar Nicholas II about Russia being 200 years behind the rest of Europe in terms of democratic progress. Why?
That was his justification for autocracy. I mean, there was no way Czar Nicholas II was going to encourage democratic education amongst the peasantry. Then he would lose his power over them. But the real justification in many ways, which is still the whole issue today — and Putin’s argument as well — is that a country the size of Russia needs a centralized authoritarian state. Putin believes Western notions of democracy are totally irrelevant. As far as he is concerned, they bring the modern diseases of liberty. Something so vast as Russia has to be firmly held together.
After the breakup of Czarist Russia, there are many factions fighting for power. How do the Communists seize control?
It starts with the February Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the czar. Like many revolutions, it succeeded largely because of the apathy of the ruling power. Very few army officers were actually prepared to fight to save the czarist system. The February Revolution took place without the Bolsheviks having any idea it was going on. None of the leaders were around. [Future Soviet leader Vladimir] Lenin was in exile, and [Russian-Ukrainian revolutionary Leon] Trotsky was in the United States.
The trouble begins with a totally inexperienced attempt by liberals, including Prince Lvov, and moderate socialists trying to play at being a government. They appointed ministers who had no power. All of the administration of the czarist system, especially the police, had collapsed or disappeared completely.
Lenin saw straight away that this was their opportunity because of the impatience of the peasants to take over the land, impatience of the industrial workers to take over the factories and impatience of the soldiers to leave the front. That’s when he came up with the three lies. Lenin promised the peasants land and liberty. He promised factory workers total control. And he promised peace for the soldiers. Of course, he had had no intention of doing any of these things. Lenin intended to turn the imperialist war into a civil war. He made the right promises, even though they were total lies.
Lenin also knew the chaos between all the political parties would slow up any agreement to create democratic constituent assemblies. He realized that would increase the impatience of the working classes even more. This is when the Communists get a huge rise in membership.
One must not underestimate Lenin’s political genius of knowing when to concede and when to assert authority. He could see that with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, which got Russia out of World War I. There were great concessions there, but he knew this was the only way to win — and he was proved right. Without Lenin, I don’t think the Bolsheviks would have come to power.
Was the failure of the White Army in the Russian Civil War the result of incompetency?
It was a whole mix of things. One was imperial arrogance. The last thing they would accept was any form of the diminution of the Russian empire. This was one of the reasons for problems with the Cossacks, who wanted some form of independence. Because the White Russians refused to consider any form of regional autonomy, they lost a vast amount of goodwill. The other problem was that they wanted to seize back the land they lost to the peasants in the revolution.
The key moment was in 1919, when hundreds of thousands of peasants who’d been forced into the Red Army, most of whom had deserted, came flooding back when they were granted amnesty. There they were, advancing towards Moscow, because the Red Army had suddenly swelled in size.
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Lastly, it was the appalling corruption of the system and incompetence of civil administration. I mean, you can’t even describe it as civil administration. It was just one retired general after another as local commanders were trying to create a nest egg for their own exile. They knew, in their heart of hearts, they were probably going to lose the civil war, so they were just trying to feather their nests. The Whites did themselves absolutely no favors at all. Most of them were just slackers, trying to profit from opportunities.
How did the United States get involved in the Russian Civil War?
Let’s look at the American situation. In November 1918, the Supreme Allied Council in Paris finds itself having to reorder the world. The chaos in Europe with the collapse of four empires forced them to redraw maps, often splitting ethnic groups across frontiers, which was bound to cause problems in the future. President Woodrow Wilson tried to end the Russian Civil War by calling on both sides to meet. Both refused to have anything to do with it. Winston Churchill, who was viscerally anti-Bolshevik, knew what disasters that could bring. An extended civil war in regions that were the bread basket for Europe and the world would be disastrous. So the French, British and Americans all send troops. The United States is primarily in Murmansk and Vladivostok. There were large amounts of supplies in Northern Russia sent by the Americans to the czarist armies during the war, which they didn’t want seized by the Germans or Bolsheviks.
In the Far East, Vladivostok became important because the Japanese landed troops there. At one point, they had 80,000 troops in Siberia to take it over. Not surprisingly, the United States was extremely alarmed. We start to see this tremendous American-Japanese rivalry between so-called allies at the time. In my book, I include a quote from an American captain, who is absolutely rendered speechless when told by his Japanese counterpart that all the world would be learning Japanese because Japan was going to rule the world.
Are you surprised by what has happened in the Ukraine War?
We certainly have overestimated Russian power, dating back as far as the Cold War. In the 1960s, I was in the British army in Germany. Our whole mission was to fall back to give time for a nuclear decision. That was the NATO strategy at the time. The more one looks at it, the more one sees the whole spectrum of Russian incompetence. One wonders if the Russians, even though they had a huge numerical advantage, would have had any chance if they had come charging through the gap in those days. Putin’s army is far worse than the Russian army of that particular period because of phenomenal corruption, which also undermines the ability and intention to fight.
You’ve written many books on military history. How does this one fit in with the others?
I’m not a military historian. I’m a historian of war. As the great professor Sir Michael Howard rightly emphasized, the military historian deals with actions on the battlefield, the movement of troops and all the rest of it. The history of war really has to include the suffering of all civilians, including children that are caught up in it. That’s why I would never describe either this book or myself in terms of military history.
In many ways, this was the book I wanted to do well before my Second World War books. But my publishers said, no, we have other projects for you. Anyway, thank God they insisted on that, because I wasn’t ready as a historian, so I wouldn’t have been able to do a proper job on it.
What can we learn from the Russia Revolution and Civil War?
This story is far more important and, as I say, horrific in a way. We need to inform a younger generation of what warfare, especially warfare in a totalitarian era, can be like. Above all, we need to reemphasize how sociopolitical change in Russia created a circle of fear, which is what actually determines the history for the rest of the century. That is the vital issue today.
Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921
by Antony Beevor, Sept. 20, 2022
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