Reds vs Whites

Jeremy Gordin writes on Antony Beevor's book "Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921"

Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor, 2022. Orion. Kindle edition. 562pp.

With (former?) UK prime minister and ex-Etonian Boris Johnson “acting up” or maybe the correct phrase is “acting out,” some readers – or, at any rate, sceptical and class-conscious ones like me – might find themselves wondering whether the much-lauded historian Antony Beevor comes from too entitled an environment to deal with a subject such as the Russian revolution and the ensuing civil war.

After all, the Bolshevik ascent to power was one of the key events of the 20th century; and we in the 21st century are still entrapped in so many ways, even in South Africa, in its tsunami-size ripples.

So those favouring an ad hominem approach to literature and history might recall that Beevor attended Winchester College, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, has been appointed a Knight Bachelor, and has the surname of Beevor (derived, of course, from the name of one of the chaps who popped over for the day in 1066, Beauvoir) – all of which factors might bring to mind the image of a retired and mustachioed colonel babbling in his London club about stuff he doesn’t really know.

In other words, what kind of ideology or world view might a person such as Beevor harbour in his heart of hearts? (Even historians have hearts, surely?)

Could or would such a person be able to appreciate the motivations of those who fervently believed in the aims of the Bolsheviks, or, for that matter, the “thinking” of those from the other side who passionately wanted to eradicate the Bolshies and put back in place some sort of imperial Russian regime? The Russian revolution and ensuing civil war are about more than mere military history, are they not? ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Okay, be chilled; I’m just revving you and my leftie friend(s) up a little [i].

Fact is there are no indications anywhere or in anything he’s written [ii] that Beevor is or feels in any way entitled. Au contraire [iii].

What makes him so popular [iv], as remarked by Keith Lowe, is (inter alia) that he “combines academic rigour with a storyteller’s sensibility. While he [has] always kept a grip on the view of the battle from above, his true skill [is] in describing the way it looked from below, from the point of view of the ordinary soldiers” – and of ordinary people too, as we shall appreciate when I get on with this review.

Most important is that Beevor is acclaimed as a masterful and meticulous researcher; a balanced modern historian of war; and no one has yet, as far as I know, managed to fault his research [v].

Still, as noted, this book is not “just” about battles or a war – it’s not merely military history; it’s about events that still deeply affect us today. So what then is Beevor’s ideology – or his stance on the various ideologies which are, in this book, in brutal conflict?

Ah, answering this question bring us to both one of Beevor’s major strengths but also possibly a weakness. I shall return to the “weakness” part at the end of this review. For now, let me turn to one of his Beevor’s major strengths.

Beevor does not ever editorialize. He only tells the story, as they say. What his views are on Marxism-Leninism, British imperialism, or anything else, he keeps private. He might (one imagines) expostulate over a whiskey or two to his wife of an evening – but his feelings and views stay out of his books.

But c’mon, Jeremy, you might respond, an author’s biases and “beliefs” can be found in what s/he chooses to emphasize and highlight (or not), in his or her covert maneuverings.

Yes, to be sure. But in writing this book I’d hazard that the phrase that must have reverberated in Beevor’s mind above all others was Mercutio’s curse from Romeo and Juliet (III.i): “A plague on both your houses!”

Even more than a hundred years’ later, the “true” events of the Russian revolution and the ensuing civil war remain so mired in lies and ideological blarney, in mythos and mythopoeia, that there are those who would today seriously argue that Vladimir Lenin or Leon Trotsky were wise and open-minded leaders and that if only Stalin hadn’t messed things up, the revolution, etc. would have resulted in a wonderful new dawn for the people of the USSR and the world.

Beevor balances this by, for example, quoting socialist writer Maxim Gorky, writing in 1917 (some 15 years before Gorky cut his own deals with Stalin et al): ... “the working class should know that miracles do not occur in real life, that they are to expect hunger, complete disorder in industry, disruption of transport, and protracted bloody anarchy… This is where the proletariat is being led by its present leader [Lenin]… [who] is not an omnipotent magician but a cold-blooded trickster”.

This is about the kindest thing to emerge from this book about Lenin – or about anyone else for that matter. But, leaving aside lies, myths, and propaganda, there are other reasons why this period continues to be so historically “obscure” or “impenetrable”.

For one thing, the events of the 1930s and 40s, especially the horrors of the holocaust, have (I believe) served to eclipse to some extent what took place in the Russian hinterland and surrounds from 1917 to 1921. For another, it is difficult to grasp until one reads this book (and even then, the mind boggles), the level of bewildering chaos that ensued after the collapse of the tsarist regime of Nicholas II in early 1917.

On stage was a massive and changing cast of belligerents – from, on the one hand, the Bolsheviks (and all those they suborned, including Chinese troops, who proved to be among the most effective of the Red forces) – to the “White movement,” a motley collection of nationalists, liberals, revolutionary socialists still dreaming of a constituent assembly, tsarist officers, Cossacks, Poles, Finns, and stranded Czech troops.

And the Whites were aided and abetted by “the Allies” – nibbling at the edges of the action to achieve whatever they wanted to achieve, including, allegedly, reversing the spread of Bolshevism. (We often encounter Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, whose then visceral hatred for Bolshevism is quite astonishing.) Additionally, so-called military actions, whichever “side” implemented then, quite often had more to do with “foraging and plunder” than military issues.

Another “confusing factor” is the vast terrain across which “the civil war” was fought – stretching from Warsaw to Vladivostok, the Arctic Circle to the borders of the Ottoman empire, and from Siberia to Ukraine, where the names of cities such as Mariupol, Kharkiv, Odesa and Kyiv might ring a bell for today’s readers.

Be all that as it may, no one from any side acquitted him- or herself with anything approaching “honour”. And, with the jettisoning mythopoeia, this study gets worse, much worse, than might be expected.

I remarked above that I imagined Beevor possibly expostulating about his views over a whiskey or two to his wife of an evening. It’s a truly fatuous comment – given that in the 2014 article referenced in endnote (iii) below, Beevor said he’d had “a nervous breakdown” after completing his book about the fall of Berlin.

“It was partly from the strain of the deadline,” said Beevor, “partly from [my] horror at the material [my emphasis]”.

Well, if that’s what Beevor felt then, I can only wonder what he endured writing this book. As the Guardian reviewer, Andrew Anthony, has put it: “At its most bloody points the book requires a strong stomach to continue reading. 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”.

This too gets even worse. Not only POWs were tortured and executed, but both sides did the same to civilians. As Daniel Beer summarizes some of the material in the book: “Warlords allied to the Whites proved especially inventive in the gruesome punishments they inflicted on both suspected Reds and hapless Jewish communities. The Bolsheviks were more systematic in their cruelty, crushing dissent with spectacular demonstrations of brutality intended to intimidate and subjugate.”

Indeed. “When a workers’ protest began in the Bolshevik stronghold of Astrakhan in March 1919, the local Cheka detachment opened fire with rifles and then machine guns before throwing grenades into the crowd. The prisoners were then, Trotsky instructed, to be dealt with ‘mercilessly’. First, they were shot, then the Chekists started drowning them. Their hands and feet were bound, and stones attached to their necks, and they were then thrown from barges into the icy waters of the Volga ...”

In Azerbaijan, Beevor records from a contemporaneous letter, women smeared themselves with excrement to avoid being raped by the Cossacks fighting for the Whites – but “the soldiers simply wiped it off with rags and raped them anyway” (p.127).

Should I continue with the litany of unimaginable cruelty and brutality? I think not.

Clearly, the Russian civil war was “one of the most colossally damaging conflicts of the 20th century,” as historian Noel Malcolm has written. But its events have never really been faithfully and dispassionately “set out” until now because, as I suggested, it’s been somewhat eclipsed by equally, if not more, horrific subsequent events; and also, of course, because it has suited Russian governments and Marxist-Leninist ideologues to suppress the events and behaviour of the Bolshevik leaders (and rank-and-file).

Beevor has sought to tell as much of the truth about the period as he can – and has done so, remarkably effectively. I do, however, find myself tending to agree with the forementioned historian Daniel Beer, writing in the New Statesman that one of Beevor’s major strengths [vi] is arguably a shortcoming.

The core of Beer’s argument is this. Whatever else the civil war was, it was not just a series of military engagements; it was, like all wars, “to borrow from Carl von Clausewitz, ‘an extension of politics by other means’.”

Beevor, argues Beer, “pauses to consider where all the ‘conspicuous cruelty’ came from”, but fails to answer his own questions, such as what gave rise to such “extremes of sadism…. the hacking with sabres, the cutting with knives, the boiling and burning, the scalping alive, the nailing of epaulettes to shoulders, the gouging of eyes, the soaking of victims in winter to freeze them to death, castration, evisceration, amputation”.

Beevor fails to realise, says Beer, that the violent world-views of the Reds and the Whites fuelled the brutality of the civil war – that Lenin was effective in his bid to weaponize longstanding lower-class hostility towards the haves of the old order, i.e., that his dehumanisation of the bourgeoisie, etc. as “lice,” “fleas,” “vermin” and “parasites” was indeed “tantamount to a call for class genocide” and deeply influenced the savagery of Red Army soldiers and Chekists.

Similarly, argues Beer, “the horrendous violence meted out by the White forces and their allies remains enigmatic, unless an attempt is made to recover their apocalyptic visions of the Bolsheviks as agents of the Antichrist, devils incarnate without human qualities. Ferociously anti-communist and anti-Semitic, the Whites’ ideology might have been more diffuse and less coherent than the canonical writings brandished by Lenin and co., but it was still a powerful driver, encouraging brutality in the service of salvation”.

In short, argues Beer, “both the Reds and the Whites fought with a savagery born of conviction [my emphasis] – the barbarism of the civil war was not just accumulated acts of cruelty and vengefulness; it expressed the world-views of the perpetrators”.

“Now, as then, brutality is powered by ideas.” In short, by eschewing an investigation of “ideologies” (for want of a better term), Beevor has, in Beer’s view, omitted a major key to our understanding of what happened.

Beer continues: “A century after the Whites fled from Crimea aboard a flotilla of ships to escape the advancing Reds, the same now holds true of the Kremlin’s murderous attempt to dismember Ukraine and bludgeon swathes of its population into a union with Russia. The atrocities committed by Russian forces since February – the rapes, the torture, the executions of civilians – are not just the escalatory violence of war.

“They are also the culmination of the Kremlin’s vicious campaigns of propaganda. State media channels have for years conjured up phantasmagorical neo-Nazis in Ukraine, hell-bent on the genocide of people Russia claims to be its own. The results are evident in Bucha, Mariupol and Sievierodonetsk: horrors perpetrated by Russian troops in the belief that their own crimes are as nothing compared to the monstrous evil they are fighting.”

I suspect that – especially in regard to the present Ukraine invasion – Beer might be over-egging the pudding; but I’m not certain.

At any rate, read Beevor’s book, all 562 pages – if you can manage it. I think you’ll not be quite the same person afterwards.


[i] I’ve always known anyway that Beevor, having consistently used his considerable clout and eminence to advance the reputation of (largely forgotten but remarkable) journalist Vasily Grossman, had to be a more than a half-decent oke.

[ii] I’ve read Stalingrad (1998); large swatches of D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (2009) and The Second World War (2012); and now this book.

[iii] Here by the way is an excerpt from a newspaper article published in 2014: “’Thankfully, [the novel I wrote while still in the army] was never published, but in my arrogance and naivety it made me think I could be a writer, even though I had failed my English and history A-levels.’

“Our leading military historian failed history A-level? ‘I deserved to because I was bolshie [sic]. Didn’t do any work. Terrible waste. My father, who had a double First ... was absolutely furious’.

“[So,] does he ever feel like an imposter when he is with other historians, because he went to Sandhurst instead of university? ‘No, I don’t feel vulnerable in that sense. But I would sometimes go to a conference, and they would ask, “Do we address you as doctor or professor?” and I would say, “Actually I’m neither, I’m Two A-levels Failed Beevor”. They were embarrassed’”.

[iv] In 2014, eight years ago, Beevor’s books – history books, mind you, not bodice rippers – had been translated into 30 languages and six million copies had already been sold.

[v] The only folk who’ve taken issue with Beevor’s “history” are the Russian city Yekaterinburg (!) and the previous Ukrainian regime. In August 2015, “Yekaterinburg region” accused Beevor of Nazi sympathies, citing his lack of Russian sources when writing about Russia, and claiming he had promoted false stereotypes introduced by Nazi Germany during World War II. This was because he covered in detail how conquering Russian soldiers had behaved towards “foreign” civilians but towards their own womenfolk as well. (“It was far worse than I had imagined. My translator had a typically dismissive Russian reaction at first, but then, when we came across documents that revealed that the Red Army had even raped their own women, the ones who had been sent to Germany for forced labour, she was shaken.”)

In January 2018, Beevor's book about the battle of Stalingrad was banned in Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities somehow managed to find material that was “anti-Ukrainian”. It has also been suggested that Beevor is not top of the pops in Vladimir Putin’s circles. Not surprising at all – given his penchant for unearthing documentation that certain people don’t like; one of his specialties.

[vi] I consider it a “strength”; Beer does not.