In Review

Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor – a ‘grimly magnificent’ book

This is an ‘unceasingly agonising, yet always irresistible’ work

Antony Beevor’s new book, a history of the Russian Civil War, is “easily the most horrifying war story I’ve ever read”, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. The four-year conflict, a period of “unrelenting terror”, caused as many as ten million deaths.

Beevor begins by “speeding through the familiar ground of the revolution”: the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, the establishment of a provisional government soon afterwards, and its toppling in November, which marked the beginning of Bolshevik rule.

Next came what he calls a “kaleidoscope of chaos”, as the Bolsheviks fought to resist the counter-revolutionary White Russian forces. In a war of wild strategic swings – one railway station in Ukraine changed hands 28 times – both sides showed “boundless cruelty”, with “ordinary Russians” (and women especially) suffering the most. Finally, in 1921, the Bolsheviks prevailed – mainly because “White aspirations were incompatible with 20th century ideals”.

Meticulously researched and superbly written, this is an “unceasingly agonising, yet always irresistible” work. Beevor has always been “keener on gory detail than analysis”, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times – and much of the violence he describes here is “mind-bogglingly horrible”.

In Azerbaijan, women smeared themselves with excrement to avoid being raped by the Cossack soldiers fighting for the Whites – but “the soldiers simply wiped it off with rags and raped them anyway”. No less inhumane were the Bolshevik Cheka (secret police), who carried out the Red Terror – Lenin’s campaign against bourgeois “vermin”. When transporting prisoners by train, Chekists would randomly roast some alive in the locomotive’s furnace. One of their favourite torture techniques was to burn a prisoner’s hand, before slowly peeling off the skin in a perfect “glove”.

Although the Russian Civil war was “one of the most colossally damaging conflicts of the 20th century”, there haven’t been many general accounts of it, said Noel Malcolm in The Daily Telegraph. Beevor’s “grimly magnificent” book makes you see why – for this was a conflict that was “complex to the point of near-chaos”.

Military action was often indistinguishable from “foraging and plunder”, and the war sucked in many foreign powers (including Japan, China, America and Britain) and extended across a mammoth area (not only the whole of Russia, but also the “crescent of bordering states” to its west). It’s a story that’s hard to make sense of – but “Beevor tells it supremely well”.

W&N 576pp £30; The Week Bookshop £23.99 (incl. p&p)

Book cover
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To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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