By Michael Foley

Pen & Sword Books. 125 pages. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-526728-61-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The Bolshevik take-over in Russia is well-documented, and most people will have at least an awareness of events in 1917. But I wonder how much is known about the immediate aftermath of Lenin and his fellow-revolutionaries coming to power? I suspect that, for many, there is a leap from 1917 to the eventual dictatorship of Joseph Stalin in the early-1930s. What happened between late-1917 and 1922 may be a less clearly-documented area for discussion.

The general circumstances in Russia in 1917 were confused, and had been for some time. The war with Germany was going badly, there were rumblings of discontent in the cities as food and fuel shortages affected the lives of workers, and socialist and anarchist agitators were busy calling for an end to the fighting and even the overthrow of the Czar. Soldiers, many of them peasants from villages and farms, were deserting from their regiments and returning home.

When the Czar did abdicate and Kerensky headed a Provisional Government he made promises to the Allied Powers, such as Britain, France, and the United States, that he would keep Russia in the war. It wasn’t a commitment he could effectively enforce. The Bolsheviks, with their slogans demanding an end to the fighting, and with guarantees that factories would be turned over to the workers and land to the peasant, would eventually force the issue of who was to rule into an outright revolutionary situation.

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Lenin and his followers would succeed. Kerensky had some troops who were loyal to him, but the reliability of others was always in doubt. When there were demonstrations and strikes, and soldiers were called out to deal with them, they often refused to fire on the crowds, and sometimes even turned their guns on the police. Eventually, Kerensky realised his position was hopeless and he left Russia.

Taking control, if that’s the right word, was never going to be easy for the Bolsheviks. In some ways, they really only had power primarily in St Petersburg and Moscow, and even in those places their rule was often tenuous at best. Civil servants and bank employees attempted to subvert Bolshevik aims, often by refusing to co-operate, and had to be forced at gunpoint to carry on working in a normal manner. And they had uneasy relationships with other left-wing groups, such as the anarchists and Socialist Revolutionaries.

The situation outside St Petersburg and Moscow was chaotic. Countries such as the Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were seizing the opportunity to declare their independence from Russia. In the countryside the peasants were taking over land. Groups like the Cossacks were persuaded to throw in their lot with the armies that were being formed to defeat the Bolsheviks. And soon some Western nations were planning to send in troops, ostensibly to prevent supplies of ammunition and other goods that had been delivered to Russia to aid its war effort from falling into the hands of either the Bolsheviks or their opponents. The real reason probably lay in a plan to forestall the plans of Lenin, Trotsky, and the rest of the revolutionary pack, for a communist state

The  anti-Bolshevik forces, or Whites, as they were called, were led, at various times, by Generals Kornilov, Denikin, Vrangel, and Admiral Kolchak, though it would seem that little real co-ordination was ever achieved between them, a factor which helped lead to their eventual defeat. At the same time there were local uprisings by peasants and workers that had to be supressed by the Bolsheviks. They’re only briefly referred to by Michael Foley, but the Kronstadt sailors, once known as the heroes of the Revolution, battled the Red Army, led by Leon Trotsky, in an effort to bring about a change to a less-onerous situation. In the Ukraine, the anarchist Nestor Makhno, not mentioned by Foley, fought both for and against the Bolsheviks. They were happy to use him and his army to help them create opposition to the Whites, but were keen to dispose of him once the job was done. Communists and anarchists were never going to get along together for very long. 

It isn’t necessary to be a communist sympathiser to realise that the Bolsheviks, faced with White armies, Allied interventionist forces, recalcitrant peasants, striking workers, food shortages, diseases such as cholera and typhus, a collapsed railway system and much more, were in a desperate position. And their response was to take extreme measures to try to enforce their control of the country. Terror became a method of eliminating opposition and ensuring that both workers and peasants would fall into line. Factory workers were subjected to a form of militarisation of the workplace, with all that implied regarding disciplinary procedures. Peasants, who refused to provide the requisite amount of grain demanded by the Red Guard units scouring the countryside for supplies, were summarily eliminated.

Felix Dezerzhinsky, head of the much-feared secret police, the Cheka, was quite specific about the use of terror: “We stand for organised terror – this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet government and of the new order of life”. The “enemies” that he referred to could include anyone who didn’t toe the Bolshevik line in either a practical or ideological way.

Thus, as the Bolsheviks fought against the Whites, and occupied town and villages, they systematically sorted out those residents who may have shown signs of sympathising with the enemy, and executed them. There appears to be evidence that they also arrested anyone they considered “bourgeois” and either imprisoned or shot them. Foley says that in Petrograd “some 500 of the old guard – writers, businessmen, civic leaders, clergy, intelligentsia – were rounded up and routinely executed”.  White army soldiers were similarly dealt with. When Vrangel was beaten in 1920, “the Reds offered an amnesty to the defeated White army. Thousands of those who surrendered were then executed”. There are a number of graphic photos in Russian Civil War which show the grim results of the rule of terror.

It wasn’t only the Reds that used terror to deal with their opponents. White army units occupying territory executed Bolshevik supporters or anyone with even the loosest of links to communism, socialism, and any other form of unacceptable social or political theory. There were probably incidents of a settling of old scores on both sides, as informants identified suspects. And people took advantage to seize property belonging to the accused. Executioners stripped their victims and shared out the clothes between themselves. The Whites also carried out pogroms against Jews. They were often suspected of being in favour of the destruction of the old order.

The manner in which people were killed wasn’t just with a pistol shot to the back of the head. Foley lists some of the methods, ranging from being buried alive to drowning, and bound to planks and “fed into furnaces or boiling water”. It may be that some atrocities were exaggerated for propaganda purposes, but there is little doubt that many did take place. There is a bizarre photograph of a Polish officer being tortured by Red Army troops that is hardly likely to have been faked. The Poles had invaded Ukraine in order to seize territory they claimed rightfully belonged to them.

At the same time that terror was being practised by virtually all the participants in the Civil War, there was famine in wide areas of the country. Failed harvests, drought, and the seizure of grain by both Red and White armies, meant that thousands of non-combatants were left to starve to the extent that cases of cannibalism became common. Again, photographic evidence is provided in the shape of victims of famine, and what purports to be a picture of body parts displayed for sale on a market stall. It’s a truly shocking photograph.

Intervention in Russia had never been popular in the West, and French sailors mutinied when ordered to take action against the Bolsheviks. There was agitation in Britain against being involved, though some politicians, such as Winston Churchill, still wanted to use military means to help defeat the Red Army. Foley says that Churchill advocated the supply and use of chemical weapons, and that British aircraft dropped “the gas in late August 1919, south of Archangel” in support of attacks by Whites. When the Allied intervention forces eventually withdrew, it was only a matter of time before anti-Bolshevik activity largely collapsed. There were pockets of resistance, but nothing that presented a major challenge to Bolshevik rule.

Russian Civil War offers a brisk survey of the subject. The fact that it is published in a series entitled “The History of Terror” does mean that the emphasis is on that aspect of the Civil War. Those looking for wider military details, such as how the Bolsheviks managed to create an army efficient enough to defeat the Whites, will need to search elsewhere for information. Trotsky’s role is of key importance. Some of the successes of the Bolsheviks were probably due to the organisational weaknesses of the Whites, and not because the Red Army was totally efficient. It certainly wasn’t good enough to defeat the Poles when it attempted to punch its way through Poland as part of a plan to spread the revolution beyond Russia.

There are a number of typographical and other errors in the book which perhaps point to haste in its writing, or a lack of close proof reading. For example, Felix Dzerzhinsky is correctly referred to on page 96, but on page 90 he is named as Dezerzhinsky, and on page 91 as Dezerhinsky. On page 91 the sentence “The list of those at danger also included” occurs, but no additions to categories already mentioned follow. On page 104 a sentence reads “When the fell to the Whites….”, which doesn’t quite make sense, though what is missing can be worked out from the wider context.