Russia in Flames

Issue section: 

Engelstein’s contention in this detailed look at war during 1914-1921 in Russia is that “Lenin had replaced Nicolas”, the former Tsar. From the outset Lenin was allegedly opposed to Soviet rule and fundamentally undemocratic. He fomented rebellion from below to create the conditions in which his autocratic and authoritarian regime could come to power.

Engelstein appears not to understand some basic questions: first, democratic institutions reflect the dominant class in society. Thus the dual power situation in Russia after February 1917 with a provisional government on the one hand and the Soviet government on the other, represented a choice between two classes; the capitalist class allied to the old aristocratic forces and the working class allied with the soldiers and peasants elected to the soviets. There was no middle way.

Second, the old aristocratic forces and the capitalist class were going to fight to the end against the Soviet system in defence of their right to keep the land, exploit the working class and make war as they saw fit. They initiated the civil war to retain their power with the physical backing of other capitalist classes internationally.

Third, the problem the revolution faced was that a tiny working class surrounded by a sea of peasantry could take power (as happened in October), but would only be able to move towards building a socialist society if the revolution spread to an advanced capitalist society like Germany. Building socialism is predicated on plenty not scarcity, never mind famine. Hence the emphasis the new government put on organising the Third International as a way of spreading the revolution.

Engelstein dismisses the Bolshevik policy of the right of self-determination of nations as a merely tactical question. Steps taken toward liberating the oppressed do not get a mention. She cannot understand the creativity that the revolution unleashed, or the artists, writers and scientists who rallied to the fledgling workers’ state. Instead she focuses totally on presenting events as continuous war from 1914 through Civil War, leading from Tsar Nicolas to Lenin, highlighting every atrocity and repressive measure by the Red Army along the way.

If that were all there was to her account, there would be little point in reading it. However, despite Engelstein’s aim to present an equivalence between the White and Red armies, the reasons for the Whites’ defeat emerge in descriptions of their lawless behaviour, militarisation of the population and their programme to take back the land from the peasants and reinstitute the old order.

Engelstein documents the unleashing of pogroms by the Tsarist regime after the catastrophic losses in 1915. Her chapter “War against the Jews” about the Civil War is harrowing. Antisemitism was endemic to the White and nationalist cultures, who were fighting the “Bolshevik-Jewish” conspiracy, particularly in Ukraine.

Engelstein equates the extent of the pogroms conducted by the leader of the peasant cavalry in (not the commanders of) the Red Army with the antisemitism of the anti-Bolshevik forces. Her own facts give a true picture of responsibility for the atrocities. She says the Ukrainian nationalist leader, Petliura was responsible for 40 percent of the atrocities against the Jews, free agent partisan bands 25 percent, the White Army under 20 percent, the Red Army under 10 percent, another partisan leader who fought with and against the Red Army, under five percent, and the Polish army, three percent.

Engelstein’s one sided account is about the breakdown caused by the Civil War. Nowhere does she attribute blame to the forces who started it. She wants a middle way but supports those who wanted to continue the First World War and aligned themselves with the anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, White forces, whose victory would have led to a military dictatorship.