The Russian Revolutions and Civil War can be argued to have defined the contours of modern European geopolitics, and set the eventual stage for the Cold War. The Russian Empire collapsed due to the stress of the First World War, and out of the chaos, multiple revolutions, and Civil War emerged the Soviet Union, the world’s first Communist state. The same events also gave birth in their modern form to most Eastern European states, Finland, Poland, Lithuania, and a whole myriad of others.
Because of the way that these conflicts shaped the 20th century, the Russian Revolution and Civil War have been endlessly discussed in largely ideological terms. Historians have often been more interested in the political aspects of the conflict and ignored its military dimension. There is in other words, a gap in the market for a mass market history of the Revolution, and particularly the Civil War. A book that could explain to the lay reader not only the rise of the Soviet Union but also the triumphs and tragedies of Eastern Europe.
This is a niche that Antony Beevor’s new history of the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Civil War seems aimed at filling. Following a style that Beevor has been honing since his seminal history of Stalingrad, the book mixes dynamic accounts of military conflict with tales of the individuals people caught up in, and driving, the conflict. The result is a book which renders a conflict often viewed through an ideological lens into an intensely human story.
Even when examining the most ideological figures in the conflict, Beevor often takes pains to draw out their more human sides. For example, when considering Lenin, the book is less interested in his political concerns, and more in his fanaticism, ruthlessness, and most amusingly, tendency to melodrama. The whole narrative is populated by fascinating character sketches, which illuminate both the major and minor players.
This emphasis on psychology elevates the experience of the ordinary people, and explains the continent wide sweep of events in human terms. The explanations and illustrations of the stubbornly impractical, and often delusional White commanders such as Admiral Kolchak help to explain the chaotic politics of that side.
This also has interesting effects on the history, which means that figures tend to be portrayed in ways often distinct from their usual historical depiction. Aleksander Kerensky for example, the initial head of the provisional government, has a relatively minimal impact on the narrative. Similarly Trotsky emerges as an important, ruthless and arrogant character who dominates the scene, and Marshal Tuvachevsky is cast as the ruthless commander he was, rather than the victim of Stalinism he became.
The focus on ordinary people also means their suffering is brought to the fore. Indeed, Beevor is unsparing in showing the chaotic violence of the conflict, and unrelenting in showing the sheer violence of both sides. They are both revealed as more than comfortable burning villages, shooting traitors, suspected or real, and massacring prisoners. There is also interesting, if occasionally thin, discussion of the bursts of racist violence from the White side, and the antisemitic pogroms they perpetuated. Beevor has a strong sense of the horror of war, and this helps the sense of despair that characterises the book. Instead of a bloodless history of the ideological disputes, Beevor sketches a world populated by vibrant personalities and real people suffering from their actions.
The narrative also works hard to capture the scope of the conflict, and its multi-part nature. Beevor discusses at length the various nationalist movements that arose, successfully and unsuccessfully, in all parts of the former Russian Empire. Indeed, he is quite skillful in his handling of the ethnic dimensions of the conflict. The aftermath of the First World War and the collapse of the Russian Empire saw Polish, German, Czech and myriad other nationalities fighting for disparate sides, and Beevor skilfully frames the bizarre impact of this on the nationalist aspects of the conflict.
Beevor also captures, perhaps unsurprisingly given his background, the military dimension of the conflict well. The text is particularly adept at communicating the complexity and chaos of military movements to the general reader. The culmination of this style bursts to the fore in Beevor’s ability to illuminate battles and key actions. His account of the Battle of Warsaw expertly lays out the personalities on each side, the military manoeuvres, and the chaos of the battle. Beevor has a particular ability to use anecdotes to illustrate this often technical material, such as the descriptions of armies managing to pass each other by mistake in the vast Russian tundra in his description of how confused supply lines became. Similarly in his description of Polish disruption of Soviet radio he expertly builds an analysis of the technical and strategic considerations that went into this process with an anecdote of Polish soldiers transmitting the entire Bible to jam communications.
If anything the book is rather too focused on entertaining anecdotes and fast paced, vaulting narratives. The text emphasises readability rather than detail, and Beevor is always happy to condense down background events when they would impact the telling. In many ways this certainly helps the story, and means that the reader is able to get the flow of events without the dense historical background. Equally though this can often make events feel rushed, and the pace in places can be excessive. Notably the opening of the book tries to condense down most of the nineteenth century history of Russia into a single chapter. While the speed is commendable, the sheer blur of events may be overwhelming to a more casual reader.
This tendency to compression happens across the whole book, and whole battles can sometimes happen in a single page. Particularly with the rapid changes of command on the White side, there is on occasion a difficulty in keeping up with the pace of change.
Furthermore, Beevor’s tendency to ignore politics and lean on psychological portraits can also lead to a somewhat shallow understanding of factional motivations. While we get a picture of the Bolshevik’s as ruthless and capable, the book never gives a comprehensive account of why they were so ruthless. This is even worse with the depiction of the White side of the Civil War, as Beevor often chooses to avoid even trying to offer an explanation of the confused and fractured coalition, and instead relies on portraits of the absurd individuals involved.
The result is a deeply mixed book that succeeds in being highly readable but at a cost. While Beevor has a masterful style, and knows the value of a well-crafted anecdote and explanation, his approach is in places quite thin. The reader is hurried through a series of finely crafted chapters, each of which approaches a different part of the conflict, before hurriedly wrapping up and moving on.
The narrative technique is commendable, and Beevor has produced a well-researched and very readable history of the war. However it is also a history that is most interesting in the story, and sometimes allows history to come second to narrative. While an eminently educational book, it can sometimes leave the reader wishing for a little more.