Russia: an unending drama.
I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Sir Antony Beevor this week to discuss his new book on the two Russian revolutions of 1917 and the civil war that followed. Do check out the interview on the latest magazine (Edition 10) here.
The podcast on which this is based will be up soon here.
Beevor writes big books and this is no exception. Its big in terms of size (500 pages of text) but also of subject matter. For this reader, the book could not have been much shorter – there is so much to squeeze in – so size is definitely a good thing. With his characteristic panache Beevor throws himself into the story headfirst, starting with a description of what he colourfully describes as the ‘Suicide of Europe’. He ends in 1921 with the triumph of the Bolshevists who in the intervening years had ridden the tiger to triumph as the bloody lords of misrule, standing on the rubbish heap of Tsarism and the utter subjugation and ruin of the country. Starting in 1912 is helpful in that it allows us to see that the disintegration of Old Russia took not just four years – the entire length of the Great War – but at least double that. Indeed, as he points out, the revolution in 1905 prefigured everything that was to happen over a decade later, and so arguably the revolution had been going on for much longer. Revolution had been simmering for years, the drift towards which was obvious, he observes, to all but the wilfully blind. Certainly, the Romanovs and their most intimate supporters were so, heedless of the trauma that was to overwhelm them over these years and which continues to reverberate around the world to this day.
Like a sturdy Cossack with his sword, lance and carbine, Beevor marches us steadily through the turmoil of revolution and civil war. It isn’t always easy to follow, but this is the fault of events themselves, not his narrative, which is excellent. (As an aside to the publisher, the book would benefit by having a Dramatis Personae at the start). The entire story covers the remarkable sweep of history from the nationalistic fervour for war in 1912, through the Great War, the disintegration of Tsarist Russia and its eventual transition after four years of civil war, into the USSR following the triumph of a cabal of cunning Marxist revolutionaries who from the very beginning used the chaos to seize power. There are in particular some very strong resonances with what is happening today in Russia. In fact, I couldn’t but help read the book in the context of modern Russian nationalism beating it’s crazy drum over Ukraine. The Russian civil war quite evidently continues.
Beevor’s ability to weave a story combining both peasants and princes is perfectly demonstrated in the book. We move easily from what is happening in the corridors of power to the battlefield, from incompetence by decision-makers to rape, looting and pillage committed on industrial scales wherever fighting took place. Indeed, a striking absence of restraint was one of the characteristics of this war as the country tore itself apart. Some of it is truly shocking, and helps to put the stories Beevor tells us in his book on Berlin, and what we have learned from recent events in Ukraine, into some sort of horrific cultural context. Restraint in war and personal probity when fighting, especially in relation to the civilian population, is something that western soldiers have tried over the last century or so to develop as a code of military honour, as well as to develop laws of armed conflict. It doesn’t always work and there are sometimes lamentable lapses. But something about the internecine struggle in Russia after 1917 meant that the gloves were off, for most of the time. The violence Beevor describes is frequently horrifying. Sometimes it was simple battlefield brutality by soldiers inured to death, sometimes pure fury and hatred at class or ethnic enemies. Sometimes, it was for pleasure, as demonstrated by the despicable psychopath Feliks Dzerzhinsky, and his trenchcoated sadists in the Cheka. For them the entire period appears as some perverted pleasure ride.
Indeed, the whole story Beevor elegantly explains is like a dance macabre, a weird stage play with a crazy cast of characters, all of whom seem larger than life with the poor benighted peasantry suffering at the bottom of the pile.
One important feature of the book for me is the utter ruthless of the Bolsheviks – led by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin – in their relentless search for power. Here, the gloves certainly were off. They used lies, propaganda and terror to achieve power. No other of the many parties in this civil war had the focus, determination or brutality of the Bolsheviks. None seemed too concerned by the violence that had been unleashed, so long as they came out on top. Indeed, Lenin believed that the country had to drown in blood before it could rise to a new communist rebirth, where the state (‘party’) owned everything and decided all.
This is a compelling story. With events in Eastern Europe as they are the importance of understanding where it all began has never been more urgent.