Chapter 13: Revolution and Civil War


…the disaster years of the First World War, the Revolution, the Civil War: an acknowledged era when the Four Horsemen stomped recumbent Russia.
(Spufford, p.350; 2010)

'Wrangel is Coming! Proletarians, Take Up Arms!'
Even the propaganda posters of the Civil War
were gruesome

No war divides people more than a civil war. Whilst a war against an external aggressor often means that disagreements and petty rows between neighbours are put aside in the face of a common enemy, a civil war has the opposite effect. Small differences are blown out of proportion, revenge is in the air, and not only is neighbour set against neighbour, but brother against brother and father against son. As Leon Trotsky wrote in 1938, in his treatise, Their Morals and Ours: “Civil war is the most severe of all forms of war. It is unthinkable not only without violence against tertiary figures but, under contemporary technique, without murdering old men, old women and children...” Societies need more time to recover from a civil war; such is the atmosphere of mistrust it engenders.

And as this anti-Bolshevik poster shows, each side used
shocking images to try to turn people against the enemy

The Civil War which followed the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 in Russia, and in which Trotsky was a central figure, certainly illustrated this, as many of these quotations show. Francis Spufford’s description (above) of the First World War, the Revolution and the Civil War being the time when “the Four Horsemen stomped recumbent Russia”, is a brilliant description of the horrors of the period from 1914 to 1922. Yet some had seen this coming. Writing in 1904, after living in Russia for nine years, Carl Joubert concluded his book, Russia As It Really Is, with his Open Letter to the Tsar, in which he accurately and frighteningly prophesied what awaited Russia:

…on the wall is something written which has possibly escaped your Majesty’s notice in the darkness of the house. I am no Daniel, but I can read the writing on the wall, for it is only one word – “Revolution”… The Reign of Terror in France will sink into insignificance and oblivion when the day of the Russian Revolution dawns… The seeds of revolution are already sown in your Majesty’s dominions. There are mothers bringing up sons who will be the judges of vengeance, and who are now learning to lisp the word. There are in foreign universities young Russians who are studying science with set jaws, and thinking; but they will not always be thinking. In the breast of every humble moujik there is a consuming fire. He is ignorant and cannot diagnose the malady, and he is patient in his suffering. But when the young men return from the foreign universities and tell him the real nature of his disease, and fan the smouldering fire within him, the bestial flame of savagery will leap out, destroying in wanton fury all whom he is incited to destroy.
(Joubert, pp.293-294, in An Open Letter to the Tsar; 1904)

A year after the publication of Joubert’s book, the first Russian revolution of the twentieth century occurred. This did not burst forth as severely as Joubert had predicted; but 12 years later it certainly did.

Joubert’s prediction sits neatly with these words from Laura Claridge, showing just how divided Russian society was at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[In 1915] The aristocratic edge of the haute bourgeoisie…remained…dangerously indifferent to the war. Its repercussions – the shortages of food, the huge loss of human life – hardly affected their daily routine in Petrograd. As to revolution within Russia itself, the prosperous social elite reminded themselves fondly that their countrymen inevitably thought first one way, then another – radicals over a vodka glass, not over a rifle.
(Claridge, p.52; 2010)

'A Rich Merchant and His Wife'
(from Dobson, Grove, Stewart, 1913)

It is reminiscent of France on the eve of the Revolution in 1789. Whether or not Marie Antoinette did actually say that if they had no bread the French peasants should “eat cake”, the picture which Claridge paints of the atmosphere in Russian high society on the eve of the Revolutions of 1917 suggests something very similar.

There is more uncanny prophesy in Ronald Hingley’s words from the late 1970’s which suggest that history does indeed repeat itself.

Between March and September 1917 Russia – though still at war – enjoyed the longest period of emancipation from authority in her modern history. But this proved to be the reign of lawlessness, not of freedom under the law. Lack of experience in operating representative institutions, an ineradicable craving for regimentation or anarchy or both, a spirit hostile to the spirit of compromise, sheer bad luck – for whatever combination of reasons the provisional government of 1917 was permitted neither to govern nor to complete arrangements for electing a permanent successor under a new constitution. When it disappeared in October it did not collapse, as rule by the Romanov dynasty had collapsed earlier in the year, but was violently ousted. The instrument was a coup d’etat plotted by the leaders of the small, highly disciplined Bolshevik movement, which combined libertarian professions with an increasing vocation for imposing rigid controls.
(Hingley, p.199; 1978)

One could start this passage, “Between 1992 and 1999 Russia enjoyed the longest period of emancipation from authority in her modern history.” What follows would also fit there, up to the point about the election of a successor under a new constitution. It is not even stretching the point too far to describe Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy to the presidency as a coup d’etat of sorts. Boris Yeltsin was seeking a successor who would guarantee him and his circle immunity from prosecution for life. Putin was prepared to offer this in return for the KGB/FSB seizing power. Another interesting point about this quotation is that, in describing the Bolshevik Revolution on 1917 as a coup d’etat, Hingley was well ahead of most historians, Western and – of course – Soviet or Russian. It was only after the collapse of the USSR that the term became widely acceptable to describe what Lenin and his followers had done in 1917.

Laurens van der Post argues that the Bolshevik Revolution and its consequences were not inevitable.

Perhaps one of the most terrifying aspects of the Bolshevik aspect of the Revolution is its utter lack of inevitability. History would not be so tragic if it had the objective inevitability that the Soviet ideologist claims… The real inevitability of history is the need to choose, not what is chosen…the real warning of the revolution in Russia, full of fateful implications for us all, is that a small dedicated minority ruthlessly determined and professionally equipped was able to inflict their choice on millions of their fellow men.
(van der Post, p.281; 1965)

This by no means negates what Joubert had predicted. It also underlines Hingley’s point about the Bolshevik Revolution being little more than a coup d’etat; other than in the fanatical minds of the Bolsheviks, there was nothing inevitable about the cruelty and bloodshed which followed. The first Revolution in 1917 did not provoke anything like the level of violence which the Bolsheviks let loose after November.

Quoting archive material from the time, Mark Harrison shows that it was not just Russian high society which was caught unawares by the Bolshevik Revolution:




On the eve of revolution in Russia in 1917, a British diplomat wrote to London: “Some disorders occurred to-day, but nothing serious.”
(Harrison, p.37; 2016)






And Claridge points out that the effects of the First World War had not prepared the privileged classes for what was to follow.

…almost until the moment the Bolsheviks secured control of the government in October 1917, Petrograd seemed to be much the same as it had ever been, with its Alexandrian culture of salons filled with patrons of the arts, cultural gathering places of both decadent and avant-garde talents. Shortages of food, the devaluing of the ruble, the shootings that occurred more and more often in Nevsky Prospect; the wealthy classes felt these were aberrations, merely the overflow of tensions from the war against Germany.
(Claridge, p.55; 2010)

'The Imperial Opera House After a Gala Performance'
(from Dobson, Grove, Stewart, 1913)

Indeed, Alexander Kaletski in his novel, Metro, from 1986 suggests (perhaps somewhat flippantly) that even Lenin may not have been entirely ready for the success of the Revolution.

…I pondered the silly question Lenin posed the morning after the Revolution. “Now what?”
(Kaletski, p.75; 1986)

In his deeply researched book, Stalin and the Scientists, Simon Ings illustrates that there were certainly many practical issues which had to be solved, and the Bolsheviks’ largely destructive ideology did not provide the answers.



The Bolsheviks had control of government, but were hardly in a position to run the country. It wasn’t the tiny party of Bolsheviks who had seized the nation’s farms and factories. It was the people: without resources, or education, or training, or indeed much self-discipline. Throwing a foreman in the river is easy. How do you run a factory?
(Ings, p.43; 2016)




As an extension of this, and using the term “October” to signify the Revolution, Vasily Grossman explains that the Bolsheviks had no qualms about making their ideas fit the situation which pertained after they had seized power.

October selected those of Vladimir Ilyich’s traits that it needed. It cast away those that it did not need.
(Grossman, Everything Flows, p.181; c.1960)

Writing some 30 years later than Hingley (above), Spufford’s description of the Revolution as a coup is no longer a surprise.

The Bolsheviks had no chance of influencing events, and certainly no chance at getting anywhere near political power, until the First World War turned Russian society upside down. In the chaos and economic collapse following the overthrow of the Tsar by disorganised liberals, they were able to use the discipline of the cult’s membership to mount a coup d’état – and then to finesse themselves into the leadership of all those in Russia who were resisting the armed return of the old regime.
(Spufford, p.83; 2010)

Mikhail Bulgakov describes brilliantly the sense of foreboding creeping up on Russian society as Spufford’s “Four Horsemen” began to trample Russia underfoot.

…they themselves could sense a dull, subterranean rumbling, the groaning of an anguished land in travail. As 1918 drew to an end the threat of danger drew rapidly nearer.
  The time was coming when the walls would fall away, the terrified falcon fly away from the Tsar’s white sleeve, the light in the bronze lamp would go out and The Captain’s Daughter would be burned in the stove. And though the mother said to her children “Go on living”, their lot would be to suffer and die.
(Bulgakov, The White Guard, p.9; 1926)

And this quotation from Grossman’s Everything Flows, has strong echoes of the “consuming fire” inside “every humble moujik” about which Joubert wrote in 1904:

The wild violence – the arson and rioting that gripped the entire country – brought to the surface of the Russian cauldron all the grievances that had accumulated over the centuries of serfdom.
(Grossman, Everything Flows, p.203; c.1960)

In what is otherwise a humorous novel (A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian), Marina Lewycka strikes a chillingly sombre note with her words about the horrors unleashed by the Civil War.

The Civil War was waged through a succession of bloody massacres and reprisals so gruesome that it seemed as though the human soul itself had died. No town, not even the smallest village, no household was left untouched. The history books tell of ingenious new ways of inflicting painful, lingering death. The gift of imagination, perverted by blood-lust, invented tortures undreamt of before, and former neighbours became enemies for whom mere shooting was too merciful.
(Lewycka, pp.51-52)

Mikhail Bulgakov


Bulgakov again paints a picture of the impending doom facing citizens, from his novel, The White Guard, which is set in the Civil War years (although written in 1926 with the benefit of hindsight).

…out there, on the roads leading into the City, lay the cunning enemy, poised to crush the beautiful snowbound City and grind the shattered remnants of peace and quiet into fragments beneath the heel of his boot.
(Bulgakov, The White Guard, p.15; 1926)



And Hingley stunningly poses the question facing the Bolsheviks as the Civil War was drawing to its conclusion: how to create heaven in hell?

With the virtual end of the Civil War in 1921, Lenin and his government had found themselves committed to establishing a heaven on earth in a territory which, by no means exclusively through their own operations, had become a fairly near approximation to hell.
(Hingley, p.201; 1978)

Richard Stites argues that the Bolsheviks’ way of dealing with this was to revert to bureaucratic type – something they did for the next 70 years and from which Russia still suffers.

Whenever a revolution has been preceded by a long-established underground movement, the structure of that movement – just as much as its leadership and ideology – superimposes itself on the political life of the new society. This is why Bolshevik Russia became a land of committees, commissions, congresses and cells. Before 1917, the Bolshevik Party had been a congeries of local committees directed from the centre by a small group that communicated with its branches by means of a newspaper (for general ideas) and peripatetic agents (for specific instructions); feedback to the centre came through correspondence and rare congresses and conferences.
(Stites, p.329; 1978)

The sense of impending doom, though, is heightened in Boris Pasternak’s classic novel, Dr Zhivago.

Imperturbable as an oracle, he prophesied disastrous upheavals which would take place in Russia in the near future. Yury privately agreed that this was not unlikely, but he was maddened by the unpleasant schoolboy arrogance of his pronouncements.
  “Just a moment,” he said tentatively. “This may all be true, what you say may happen. But it seems to me that with all that’s going on – the chaos, the disintegration, the pressure from the enemy – this is not the moment to start dangerous experiments. The country has to get over one upheaval before plunging into another. There has to be something like peace and order first.”
  “That’s a very naïve statement,” said Pogorevshikh. “What you call disorder is just as normal a state of things as the order you are so keen on. All this destruction – it’s the right and proper preliminary stage of a wide, constructive plan. Society has not yet disintegrated sufficiently. It must fall to pieces completely, then a genuinely revolutionary government will put the pieces together on a completely new basis.
(Pasternak, p.151; 1956)

Although Pasternak was writing in 1956 – so with the benefit of even greater hindsight than Bulgakov – the action here described takes place shortly after the Revolution. The phrase about “dangerous experiments” now evokes memories of demonstrations which took place in Russia over 30 years after these words were written, as the Soviet Union was beginning to fall apart. A slogan often seen and heard at these demonstrations in 1989 and 1990 was, “70 years of experiments”.

Twenty years after the Revolution, the horror which some had foreseen was being unleashed in full on the country – notably, as Grossman says on those who had helped bring about the Revolution.

And then came 1937 – and the prisons were filled with hundreds of thousands of people from the generation of the Revolution and the Civil War. It was they who had defended the Soviet State – they were both the fathers of this state and its children. And now it was they who were being taken into the prisons they had built for the enemies of the new Russia. They themselves had created the new order and endowed it with terrible power – and now this terrible chastising might, the might of dictatorship, was being unleashed against them. They themselves had forged the sword of the Revolution – and now this sword was falling on their heads. To many of them it seemed as if they had entered a time of chaos and insanity.
(Grossman, Everything Flows, pp.165-166; c.1960)

Those who had helped “forge its sword” were feeling it “falling on their heads”. It is an appropriate symbol to use: beginning with the first Soviet secret police, the Cheka, and continuing through to the KGB, the service saw itself as “the sword and shield of the Revolution”, choosing these emblems for its badge.


And a little further on in Everything Flows, Grossman compares those who helped make the revolution yet perished in 1937, with the next generation, who were the children “of the new State”.

The new people [after 1937] did not believe in the Revolution. They were the children, not of the Revolution, but of the new State that the Revolution had created…The State, previously seen as a means, had now proved to be an end in itself.
(Grossman, Everything Flows, p.175-176; c.1960)

Grossman uses the image of the sword of the revolution again, but this time in his novel, Life and Fate.

Krymov had never doubted the sacred right of the Revolution to destroy its enemies. The Party had the right to wield the sword of dictatorship. He had never been one to sympathise with the Opposition. He had never believed that Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev and Kamenev were true followers of Lenin. And Trotsky, for all his brilliance and revolutionary fervour, had never outlived his Menshevik past; he had never attained the stature of Lenin. Stalin, though, was a man of true strength. It wasn’t for nothing he was known as “the boss”. His hand had never trembled – he had none of Bukharin’s flabby intellectuality. Crushing its enemies underfoot, the party of Lenin now followed Stalin. … There was no point in listening to one’s enemies, no point in arguing with them…
(Grossman, Life and Fate, p.496; 1960)

He gives his character, Krymov, the characteristic of never doubting “the right of the Revolution to destroy its enemies”; but this was no mere creation of fiction. Such characters, blindly following the leader and intolerant of any dissenting view, existed throughout Soviet times; and their successors have taken advantage of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime to express such views boldly once again. Allied to Putin’s sense of grievance that the Soviet Union was allowed to disintegrate is just such a fanatical belief that his ideas about Russia’s greatness are right and that there is no point in listening to one’s enemies; on the contrary, they must be crushed underfoot.

It is Grossman who provides the next quotation, too, this time from his short story, In Kislovodsk.

“But he’s a superman, he has the strength of superman! And believe me – I’m not saying this because he survived the Oryol prison, or the Warsaw citadel, or years in the underground with hardly anything to eat, or exile in Yakutsk, or life as an émigré with only the clothes on his back. No, I’m saying this because he had the strength to denounce Bukharin in the name of the Revolution. Yes, he had the strength to demand that a man he knew to be innocent should be sentenced to death; he had the strength to expel talented young scientists from a research institute merely because their names were on certain blacklists. Do you think it’s easy for a friend of Lenin to do such things? Do you think it’s easy to destroy the lives of children, women and old men, to feel pity for them in the depths of your soul as you carry out acts of terrible cruelty in the name of the Revolution? I know only too well what it’s like – believe me! Yes, there’s no truer test of strength or weakness of soul.”
(Grossman, In Kislovodsk, pp.275-276)

Again, the words are spoken by a fictitious character; but they sum up perfectly the fanaticism which an idea such as “the Revolution” can engender. The awful illogicality that having, “the strength to demand that a man he knew to be innocent should be sentenced to death”, led to literally millions of innocent people being brutally tortured and losing their lives in Stalin’s Soviet Union – and all for the sake of a flawed ideology which was to be rejected half a century later.

Concluding this section is a very astute comment from van der Post.

The Revolution, for all its claims to the contrary, has not abolished the past: at the most it has suspended it. The more I came to know Russia the more I was aware of the magnetic attraction of what was memorable in the past functioning as a growing influence below the manifest surface.
(van der Post, p.288; 1965)

The truth of this shrewd observation that the Revolution merely suspended much of Russia’s past indicates why so many of the quotations in this collection illustrate that today a variety of ideas and influences from Russia’s past – some of them decidedly dangerous – have once again come to the surface.

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