The Russian Empire in War and Revolution: A Review Essay

By Nick Campbell

On February 21, 1913 in his capital of St. Petersburg, Tsar Nicholas II celebrated 300 years of Romanov rule. The Russian Empire that he ruled over included lands that stretched from Poland and Finland in the west to parts of Mongolia and China in the east. It controlled 8% of the global population, and 1/6th of land on earth. In a mere four years after celebrating the tercentenary, this massive Empire would collapse because of total war and revolution.

The passing of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017 produced a number of academic works on the subject. Two of the most significant to appear were Laura Englestein’s “Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914-1921”  and Jonathan Smele’s The “Russian” Civil War: 1916-1926: Ten Years That Shook the World, both published by Oxford University Press. Englestein’s book provides fresh answers to the dominant questions about the revolutions that swept across the Russian Empire. Russia in Flames makes clear three points: The first world war played a vital role in the collapse of the Russian monarchy, the February Revolution was truly democratic at its core, and Lenin’s use of violence was the key factor in the Bolshevik’s success in this time of turmoil. 

Englestein dates her book from 1914 to 1921, thus including the First World War into the story of revolution and civil war, highlighting the fact that without the experience of total war the revolutions and civil wars would not have followed. The war at first brought a brief outpouring of support for the beleaguered Tsar and his empire, but after years of fighting and millions of casualties the peoples of the empire were exhausted by the war and their failing leadership. The First World War made public the disarray of the upper echelons of imperial life and thus the disarray of the imperial government.

The end of the Romanov rule over Russia is often popularly perceived as a violent overthrow of one autocrat for a new dictatorship but Englestein does not want to forget that the February revolution that ended three hundred years of Romanov rule was, at its core, democratic. The February revolutions were marked by the struggle between the Duma (the parliament) and the monarchy. There was also hope of the constitutional assembly, which was the ultimate goal of the Duma after the February revolution. This revolution, unlike the October Revolution that would begin the civil war, was a popular uprising. Englestein states when writing about the February revolution “Yet, as in 1905, the revolutionaries did not start the revolution.” (104). While the October Revolution is still debated by historians as whether it was truly a revolution or a coup, Engelstein makes clear that the February was the only true democratic revolution that happened in Russia.

Appropriately, Englestein’s book rarely mentions the Bolsheviks or even Lenin until the February Revolution has long since passed, but when Lenin is introduced to the reader it is clear as to why he is one figure that dominates the history of the Russian Revolution. We all know the outcome of Engelstein’s book, but when reading it, it isn’t until the end of the civil war in 1920 that it is clearly shown as a Bolshevik victory. Throughout Russia in Flames, Engelstein picks up on one key characteristic that set the Bolsheviks apart from their counterparts: Lenin’s commitment to political violence in order to achieve his goal. As she writes, “Lenin achieved his goal, because his goal was different and was tied up with his method. This method was characterized by the use of violence as a political tool.” (182). If we look at the Russian Civil War, it is clearly demonstrated how effective Lenin’s use of violence was, while Admiral Kolchak and General Denikin were busy trying to secure a homefront and a frontline against the Bolsheviks Lenin was utilizing the Cheka, his secret police, to remove any dissent from his homefront. In the end, as Engelstein demonstrates, the Russian Civil War demonstrates perfectly the differences between all the factions and why the Bolsheviks became victorious.

Jonathan Smele’s book The “Russian” Civil War: 1916-1926 established why the Bolsheviks won the civil war but also two additional points. Here again the chronological focus is key: Smele argues that the Russian Civil War started from 1916 with a revolt in Central Asia and ended in 1926 with these Central Asian rebels being finally dealt with. The second point is that the Russian civil war should be understood as more of an umbrella term. The Russian civil war included a multitude of conflicts, including other civil wars, thus making the civil war more than just Russians fighting Russians.   

Smele’s book is an important new step in the historiography of the conflict that raged across the former Empire. He chooses to date the Russian civil war from 1916 as Central Asian subjects of the tsar, motivated by the lack of bread and the toll the war was taking on the local region, started to rebel against Tsarist authority. This act of rebellion, for Smele, would be the beginning of the civil war. The defeat of this rebellion, which would later turn into an insurgency against the Soviets and would only end in 1926, would mark the end of the civil war for Smele.

Smele does not see the civil war as a single conflict but a multitude of battles sometimes not even fought by Russians: “…while some of the most fierce campaigns were waged between the non-Russian minorities of the ex-empire: the Armenian-Azerbaijan War, the Georgian-Armenian, the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, the Landeswehr War, the Polish-Lithuanian War, and the Ukrainian-Polish War are chief examples…” (36). Smele even goes as far as to mention that the civil war was a miniature world war, as German and Austro-Hungarian troops fought nationalist and Red army forces away from their client states in eastern Europe, the American, British, French, Japanese, and the Czechloslovak legion were aiding the White forces of Admiral Kolchak in Siberia and of General Denikins forces in the Don. Smele’s point here is that the term “Russian” disguises more than it reveals. Instead, the flames of total war, revolutions, and civil wars fanned across the former Romanov empire, engulfing all of its diverse peoples.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.