I Wanna Be Literated #243

I Wanna Be Literated #243

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War
by W. Bruce Lincoln

Soviet Russia history is my jam. Particularly the early Bolshevik stuff. The tactics, the politics, drama, it all comes together into an interesting soup that’s as exciting as it is disheartening. But, what I’m not as well-versed on is the Russian Civil war. I’m aware it happened, and was aware of some of the policies involved, but my hopes for this Bruce Lincoln book was that it would put the policies of the Bolsheviks and the outcome into perspective. I certainly got that.

To give a brief background (of a topic where entire books have been written on just 10 days) the Bolshevik party, led by Lenin and Trotsky overthrew the provisional government in Russia in 1917 with the purpose of establishing a socialist government. Almost immediately, an infighting began, and the outcasts began to rally against the Bolsheviks. According to Lincoln, the main drive of each side (Red and White) was total annihilation of the opponent: kill or be killed. When the stakes are so high, it puts the sacrifices and misery involved into perspective. The brutality inflicted was mutual on each side, it had to be.

Spoiler alert, the Reds won and throughout this book, it becomes clear that the main reason was because the fragmented Whites couldn’t unite behind their cause: they had the support of other countries, and the money, but there were disagreements on what kind of government should replace the Bolsheviks, who would be in charge, and what the main drive should be. The Bolsheviks’ vision was a new Russia, the Whites’ vision was “we don’t know what, but not the Bolsheviks.” The Bolsheviks also inspired the masses at every battle no matter how small, while the Whites couldn’t generate excitement no matter now close they got to victory. And they got VERY close. Worse, even though people were unhappy with the Bolsheviks, the Whites didn’t provide a better alternative with their widespread corruption and exploitation. Fueled by their vision of a socialist Russia, the Bolsheviks would stop at nothing to achieve that end, even if it meant the starvation of its citizens and widespread misery. They knew they are being attacked on all sides and diverted their entire attention, efforts, and scant resources to the fronts. The picture Lincoln paints here is squalid and grim: mass starvation and brutal oppression of the citizens in an effort to purge it of “counterrevolutionaries” (which was defined so loosely that it basically meant anyone who had food). The ends justified the means no matter what suffering was involved.

As the walls started closing in on them the Bolsheviks found the only way to survive to be proclaiming themselves the sole protectors of the revolution and banishing any and all opposition or criticism. Anyone against the policies of the Bolsheviks would be labeled a counter-revolutionary and be subject to terror inflicted by the state police. Behind the scenes, the drama between Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin played out and the outcome of Stalin’s victory becomes a little easier to understand. Lenin had incredible foresight and perspective on what the problems were they were facing but would only address them through an orthodox Marxist approach. The Bolsheviks, in their infinite wisdom, couldn’t see that stifling all opposition and creating a homogenous party would bring a mob mentality with it. At least, not until it was too late and Lenin was dying and Trotsky had no friends left in the party.

Red Victory is an important book that puts the events of the Civil War into grim perspective. There was nothing romantic about the struggle of the Bolsheviks to victory. It was oppressive, brutal, bloody and completely terrorizing. Part of it was due to the circumstances they were in, but part of it was also by their own design. The Bolsheviks’ mission was to liberate the masses from the oppression of capitalists, but weren’t the masses better off with them?

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