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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 37 September 3, 2022

Uncovering Brutalities of Russian Revolution | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 3 September 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy

BOOK REVIEW

Russia :

Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921

by Antony Beevor

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Pages: 576;

Price: Rs 1,399

There is no doubt that life under Tsar was a torture to most people in Russia. Conditions in factories were appalling and dangerous. Strikes were outlawed. If you got sacked, large numbers of impoverished peasants were ready to take your place. In any dispute with factory owners, the police always backed them. Workers slept in barracks and tenements amid squalor and disease. Venereal diseases and epidemics were common. Even as food and fuel prices zoomed, the filthy rich indulged themselves as if the world outside did not exist.

The Russian intelligentsia viewed their rulers as bureaucratic oppressors. They mistrusted the police and despised the army, particularly after the humiliating disaster of the 1904-5 Russia-Japanese war and the massacre of peaceful protesters in early 1905. It was under these circumstances that Russia first slowly and then dramatically swung to the Left, creating international ripples.

How the Bolsheviks led by Lenin seized power in 1917 is a known story. It is also widely accepted that the revolution was accompanied by widespread violence that killed millions. Red terror, it has been said, only followed White terror; what choice did the revolutionaries have? However, what celebrated author and historian Antony Beevor uncovers in this work of monumental research is that the violence the Reds inflicted on fellow Russians and other nationalities while consolidating power in the early years was often brutal and unpardonable by any standards of human civilization. True, the Whites and the assorted others opposed to the Bolsheviks were no better in their conduct during the civil war but it was not they but Lenin who promised a new and better dawn. The revolution was meant to bolster human values, not destroy them.

Of course, this is a complex piece of world history. A savage civil war raged in Russia from 1917 to 1921 after the Tsarist regime collapsed. A bizarre White alliance of moderate socialists and reactionary monarchists took on Trotsky’s Red Army and Lenin’s single-minded leadership. What followed was terror versus terror. The fighting turned into a world war by proxy as Churchill deployed troops from the British empire while armed forces from the US, France, Italy, Japan, Poland and Czechoslovakia played their part until the forces of history drove them away.

The first sign of what revolutionary violence was capable of was evident in Petrograd where it all began. As the first sparks of violence, aided by a military and the feared Cossacks who refused to act against street protesters, began tearing apart the monarchy, the hated “class enemies” were set upon with a cruelty unseen before. People who went into hiding disguised to escape popular wrath were hunted down and simply torn to pieces; many were roped by their legs to the back of commandeered vehicles and dragged through the streets; a police inspector was tied to a couch, doused in petrol and set on fire; others were simply shot dead or dropped through a hole in the ice, drowned like rats. Officers who had until then treated soldiers and sailors with contempt were done to death in city after city.

It was amid such chaos that Vladimir Lenin gave up his exile in Zurich and departed post haste to Petrograd. Trotsky made it home from North America. Josef Stalin also reached the cradle of the revolution. It would have seemed a fantasy then, Beevor says, that Lenin could soon become the absolute ruler of Russia. Lenin had no sympathy for idealists. “He could not trust anyone else to have the vision or the ruthless determination to destroy the old order for ever.” Lenin knew his mind. He wanted the police, the army and the bureaucracy of the old order abolished and all land and banks nationalized. He rejected any compromise with the Mensheviks. He would repeatedly thunder against enemies he dubbed parasites.

As civil war raged, some warlords unleashed unbelievable cruelty. The counter terror was equally appalling. Red Guards in Rostov had 50 prisoners who had surrendered on the condition that they will be spared; they were bound by their arms and legs and thrown, one by one, into a blast furnace. General Nikolai Dukhonin, the last commander-in-chief of the old army, was lifted by Bolshevik soldiers on their bayonets after he surrendered and then mutilated. To crush all opposition, the Bolsheviks took to extreme measures: ground for execution included flyposting, non-payment of taxes, breaking curfew and resisting arrest. The Cheka, the secret police which was formed amid the orgy of violence, unleashed all kinds of torture, so much so that the savagery turned many who had supported the revolution against it.

Indiscriminate class revenge was the order of the day. An old colonel was roasted alive in the furnace of a locomotive. Ukraine saw mass killings, estimated by one count at 5,000. “Mass executions were being conducted in a most brutal manner,” said a senior member of the Russian Geographical Society. “Victims, who had to undress before the execution, were shot in the back of the head or bayonetted, to say nothing of torture beforehand.”

The civil war and foreign intervention combined with the Bolshevik aggression ended up creating food shortages and a general anarchy that worsened the situation for everyone. The extreme violence on both sides – in Odessa, for instance, the Bolsheviks buried captured rival officers alive while white officers burnt captured Bolsheviks alive – ensured that neither side was willing to even contemplate surrender, knowing that this would only lead to painful deaths.

According to Beevor, Europe had not seen such conspicuous cruelty used as a weapon of terror since the wars of religion. Every attempted assassination of any Bolshevik leader led to mass reprisals (Lenin miraculously survived a gun attack), invariably leading to terrible killings. It was sadism at its worst – hacking with sabres, cutting prisoners with knives, boiling and burning victims, scalping alive, nailing of epaulettes to shoulders, gouging of eyes, soaking victims in winter so that they froze to death, castration, amputation and more. Rape was used as a weapon by both sides.

The Whites lost the civil war, Beevor says, largely because of their inflexibility including their refusal to contemplate land reforms until it was far too late. Then there was the single-minded Communist devotion. In the process, extremes fed on each other. The author asserts that the vicious cycle of rhetoric and violence was a major factor that led to the rise of Hitler and the Second World War.

The Russian civil war led to the deaths of up to 12 million people, the utter impoverishment of the whole country and suffering on an unimaginable scale. Fratricidal wars are bound to be cruel because of their lack of defined frontlines and because of their instant extension into civilian life. The Cossaks, who often fought the Bolsheviks, conducted themselves with unspeakable cruelty, causing a moral collapse of forces against Lenin’s order. “All too often, Whites represented the worst examples of humanity. For ruthless inhumanity, however, the Bolsheviks were unbeatable.”

This meticulously researched book cannot be ignored even if its findings are too cold for comfort. It is doubtful if any revolution accompanied by such savagery would today earn the kind of universal sympathy the Russian upheaval did. Umpteen eyewitness accounts put together by Beevor numb you. Could humans have really done all this to fellow humans? Did the revolution lay the foundation for a mindset that accepted terror as a legitimate weapon? Is this why Russia is today so casually raining death on Ukraine?

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