RUSSIAN CIVIL WAR: RED TERROR, WHITE TERROR, 1917-1922
By Michael Foley
Pen and Sword, $22.95, 128 pages
Russia is a long-standing authoritarian state despite its regularly held “democratic” elections in which opposition parties contest for representation in the country’s legislative body and for the presidency.
Unlike the period 100 years ago, Russian society today is not marked by violent conflict and mass slaughter between contending political forces seeking control of the country’s government. Michael Foley’s “Russian Civil War” reminds readers how the grip of authoritarianism took root and what it meant — and means — for Russia’s current place in the world.
The book revisits the formative, violent period in the Russian Revolution, in which the autocratic Czarist monarchy did everything in its power to crush the opposition movements that attempted to overthrow it. It is authoritative and it is dramatic.
The account begins with the reign of Czar Nicholas II (from 1894 to 1917). The author writes that Czar Nicholas II exercised “more power than any other person in the world at that time, with over 130 million subjects under his control. He was blind to any other political system except his own feudal autocracy.
“The power of the czar was exercised through an enormous nepotistic bureaucracy of ministers and governors, many of whom were members of the czar’s own family. The powers these men held were enforced by a plethora of police forces across the empire: political police, city police, rural, railway and factory police as well as the regular police force. The fact that so many police forces were seen to be needed would seem an obvious sign that there was a problem in the way the country was run.”
It was against this background of political repression and industrial backwardness in which more than 100 million Russians relied on agriculture for their meager living, that street protests and worker strikes erupted all over the country. On Jan. 22, 1905, Father Georgy Gapon, a charismatic speaker and protest organizer, led a march toward the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to petition Czar Nicholas II for better conditions for workers.
In what became known as Bloody Sunday, however, soldiers of the Imperial Guard fired on the marchers, killing 130 and wounding another 300, according to the author. This massacre caused grave consequences for the czarist autocracy, with massive strikes spreading to other centers of the Russian Empire, igniting the Revolution of 1905.
With Father Gapon leaving Russia for Switzerland, where many Russian emigre revolutionaries, such as Lenin, also lived, many of them eventually returned to Russia toward the end of World War I when Russia’s military ineffectualness made it possible for them to operate in the country. They became the vanguard that spearheaded the Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew the Tsarist monarchy and the ineffectual Kerensky-led provisional government that succeeded it that aimed to promote democracy in Russia, which the author describes as “unviable and short-lived.”
With the Lenin-led Bolsheviks taking over what had become a “non-functioning state” in October 1917, they expected the Russian revolution to trigger further revolutions throughout Europe. Instead, not only did Communism fail to take root in Europe, but many in Russia still harbored “leanings toward the old system and the Tsar.”
In 1918, a new civil war erupted in Russia “instigated by nationalist army officers, right-wing politicians and the Church.” Known as the “Whites,” their counter-revolutionary attacks involved mass-scale killings, such as their killings in early 1918 of more than 45,000 people in the Don Province until the Red Army returned victorious.
There were also isolated attacks by others, such as the attempted assassination of Lenin in August 1918 by Fanny Kaplan, a Socialist Revolutionary, which seriously injured him (she regarded him as a ‘traitor to the Revolution’). The head of the Petrograd secret police was also assassinated at the same time.
In response, the Bolshevik government embarked on what became known as the “Red Terror,” whose aim “was to exterminate the bourgeoisie,” including the clergy. With Lenin’s secret police, known as Cheka (which eventually became a large government agency employing around 200,000 people), seeking out “enemy agents, counter-revolutionaries and any enemy of the people, real or imagined,” many of them were executed, with others sent to forced labor camps (also known as gulags). Such coercive responses were necessary, Lenin believed, because he “saw human life as expendable in the cause of revolution.”
While the Bolsheviks’ brutal police measures eventually succeeded in restoring order to Russia, Joseph Stalin became the absolute leader of what became the Soviet Union in April 1922. Lenin eventually died of his wounds in January 1924. Stalin ruled with an “iron fist” for three decades, while carrying out his own reign of terror from 1936 to 1938. Placing this in perspective, the author concludes that “The Red and White terrors of the civil war years were to pale into insignificance when compared to The Great Terror of the Stalinist regime where between nine and 50 million perished.”
It’s a history worth revisiting for insights into the shape and trajectory of the Russian body politic.
• Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH), in Alexandria, Va.