The 'Russian' Civil Wars 1916-1926

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It has become fashionable in academia recently to see the Russian Revolution as only one part of a “continuum of crises” that engulfed the Tsarist Empire and the early years of the Soviet Union. This new history follows suit, rejecting the dominant view that the Civil War lasted from the summer of 1918 to 1921 in favour of ten years from 1916 to 1926.

Why 1916? Because that year saw a revolt in Turkestan against conscription to the Tsarist war machine fighting in the First World War.

Thus, it quickly becomes clear that Smele’s definition of “civil war” appears to be any and all of the military conflicts which took place on the territory of the old Tsarist Empire over the next ten years. What follows from this definition is much confusion, though Smele is good enough to make this explicit. So, of civil wars he warns us that, “within that title, the reader should understand are encompassed national wars, international wars, inter-ethnic wars and conflicts, wars of national liberation, and local adjuncts of the ongoing world struggle.”

There is similar confusion on the question of when to identify the start and end dates of the “civil wars”. Having argued for an end date of 1926, he then throws in 1931, 1934 or maybe 1938. Some pages later he tells us, “the question of when they terminated is as interesting, loaded, and ultimately, unanswerable a line of inquiry as the question of when they began.”

All in all, it seems that the “continuum of crises” approach is really a variant of historian Arnold J Toynbee’s famous view that “history is just one damned thing after another” — in which historians can do no more than debate the chronology of the incomprehensible. What gets lost in all of this is the specific dynamic of revolution versus counter-revolution that spurred the Civil War of the Bolshevik workers’ state versus the Whites and 14 invading Allied armies.

That said, much of the book does examine the ferocious battle between the Reds and the Whites, but annoyingly Smele repeatedly indulges in a kind of fake iconoclasm. We are told, for example, that the White generals Kolchak and Denikin “elaborated political programmes in 1919 that might…broadly be described as ‘liberal’”, only then for Smele to correctly take us through their records of military dictatorship and bloody repression, not least of thousands of Jews who were murdered in the name of “restoring order”.

Next year sees the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Revolutionary socialists who rightly want to defend Bolshevism will need to be well informed about the Civil War. Smele’s book is not the place to look. Far better to read Bruce Lincoln’s Red Victory or better still, Revolution Besieged, volume three of Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin.