To calculate where a cannonball will land, it is necessary to know its initial angle of trajectory and the amount of force that propels it. It is the persuasive thesis of W. Bruce Lincoln that the Russian Civil War was the historic explosion that ever since has determined the direction and velocity of the Soviet system. As the formative experience in the creation of the Soviet state, the civil war is now especially useful in understanding the dynamics involved in the current dissolution of the Soviet Empire. While traditional Soviet historians and other scholars have emphasized the October Revolution of 1917 as the key to Soviet history, Lincoln—whose latest book successfully completes the masterly trilogy which began with In War’s Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War and was followed by Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War & Revolution 1914-1918—makes a compelling case for his revisionist view.

While the October Revolution constituted the “Ten Days That Shook the World,” it was the Provisional Government of Kerensky that replaced, in March 1917, the three-hundred-year-old Romanov Dynasty: this event, which occurred during the devastation of World War I, changed the basis of Russian sovereignty for the first time since the 12th century. In contrast, the Leninist putsch eight months later simply brought down the Kerensky government in a conflict that involved less than 10,000 combatants and resulted in little loss of life. An estimated ten million people died in the Russian Civil War, including those dead from combat, starvation, and disease. (This figure does not include the four to five million people who died from disease and starvation following the last major battle of the civil war, the heroic and bloody Kronstadt revolt of the Petrograd sailors in March 1921.)

While body counts may be an accurate indicator of the level of importance, it cannot capture the essence of civil war, whether Spanish, American, or Russian. Civil wars are struggles over the fundamental nature and structure of a nation. They are blood feuds writ large that pit father against son and brother against brother. Or as Felix Dzerzhinskii, founder of what became the KGB, put it during the war, “We don’t want justice. We want to settle accounts.” General Lavr Kornilov, former commander in chief of the Russian Army in 1917 and commander of the Civil War White Army in South Russia, said it this way: “We must save Russia even if we have to set fire to half of it and shed the blood of threefourths of all the Russians!” Only in that frame of mind could combatants cut off the arms and legs of the enemy, slit his abdomen, and then bury him alive.

In scale, the Russian Civil War has no historical parallel. It spread over one-sixth of the earth’s land mass, through 11 time zones, and involved one hundred non-Russian national groups within what was formerly the Russian Empire. By August 1918, there were 30 different governments within the Empire’s boundaries, 29 of them opposed to the Bolsheviks. The Communists controlled about the same territory as did the Muscovite state in 1550—perhaps one-tenth of the Empire of 1914. The Provisional Government of Autonomous Siberia and the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly were but two examples of temporary governments that controlled millions of square miles of territory. Over 200,000 soldiers from 14 different countries were also on Russian soil at one time or another, including 73,000 Japanese, 60,000 French, and, oddly enough, 60,000 Czechs. The Red Army numbered five million at the end of the war, while the six major White armies that roamed Siberia, the Baltics, the Crimean Peninsula, the Ukraine, and northern Russia were never greater than 500,000 men at any one time.

The traditional Soviet line on the civil war has been to emphasize the Communist effort to thwart the counterrevolution of czarist and bourgeois remnants led by capitalist intervention from abroad. In fact, by the time a small contingent of British marines landed in northern Russia (in Murmansk) in early March 1918, the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army had been active in southern Russia for three months. When the British did land in the north, they did so with the blessing of Trotsky, then Commissar of Foreign Affairs. The reason was simple enough. The Germans were pushing eastward while they were negotiating with the Russian government about the amount of land they would get in return for peace.

Even after the German-Soviet Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, there remained the matter of the 160,000 tons of unpaid-for war materiel that the British had delivered the previous October to Archangel to help Kerensky in the fight against the Germans. The Allies, still at war with Germany, had an interest in protecting this war cache from the Germans and the Finns, who were engaged in their own civil war. In addition, the Allies had an interest in keeping open the Eastern front and were deeply fearful of what the Russian departure from the war would do to their efforts on the Western front. To be sure, the Allies helped the Whites even after the Armistice with Germany was signed in November 1918. Still, the Soviet protestation of foreign intervention rings a bit hollow, considering that it was the Germans who provided Lenin safe escort back to Russia in order to weaken Russian morale, if not to take her out of the war.

One institution crucial to the old order was the Russian Orthodox Church. In the course of the war Lenin did all that he could to destroy it without unnecessarily arousing the resentment of the people. But according to Lincoln, “Russia’s peasant millions had grown suspicious of Orthodoxy” and “many more churchmen seem to have died at the hands of hostile crowds or as punishment for leading local anti-Soviet uprisings than as a result of capricious executions.” These representations, however, are not well supported, and widely regarded church historians like Dimitry Pospielovsky and others have reached different conclusions. Twenty-eight bishops were executed between 1918—20 and church baptisms and attendance were surprisingly strong in the 1920’s, despite vicious persecution. Furthermore, Lincoln does not mention that Lenin shut down 37,000 church schools, 291 hospitals, and 1,113 homes for the aged. Who was suspicious of these, other than the Bolsheviks? The church was tightly woven into the fabric of Russian society and it is a miracle that today there are, despite the persecution of more than seventy years, about fifty to sixty million Russian Orthodox believers in the Soviet Union.

In his chapter “The Ukraine in Ferment” Lincoln writes of “the bitterly anti-Semitic people of the Ukraine” and states that “All across the Ukraine, anti-Semitism poisoned the minds of men . . . ” Even the greatest Ukrainian nationalist would, if he were honest, have to admit that anti-Semitism has played a significant role in Ukrainian history. Nonetheless, it should also be mentioned for the record that the Ukrainian Central Rada (Council), which was formed in June 1917 and which became the Ukrainian National Republic in 1918, had three specific cabinet positions for Russians, Poles, and Jews, and that the currency issued was written in Ukrainian on one side and in Russian, Polish, and Yiddish on the other.

Furthermore, while Lincoln is surely correct to discuss Ukrainian leaders like monarchist hetman Skoropadsky and General Petliura, surely deserving of some mention were Mikhailo Hrushevsky, the founding president of the Ukrainian Republic and distinguished historian, and other Ukrainians who were attempting to establish a democratic country where anti-Semitism had no place. It is a uniquely Ukrainian tragedy that they did not succeed, since Stalin starved and killed an estimated seven million Ukrainians in the early 1930’s, a decade after the civil war. Still, Lincoln was not writing a history of modern Ukrainian nationalism, and maintaining perspective on the epic civil war must have been no small challenge for him. As he points out, the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, was occupied 16 times by various forces. Selecting from the record what is truly important is the responsibility of the historian, but in this regard the Russian Civil War provides a myriad of difficult problems.

On balance, then, Red Victory is an astounding achievement of primary-source research and good writing. It provides an excellent background for understanding the enormous problems Mikhail Gorbachev faces today as he struggles to keep the Empire together.


[Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, by W. Bruce Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster) 637 pp., $24.95]