Book Review: The Russian Civil War

The Russian Civil War, by Evan Mawdsley

In many ways, reading this book is sort of like the opposite experience of reading about the experience of the American or Spanish or Finnish Civil Wars, for example. In those latter two examples, the good guys won, and there may have been a bit of messiness about the result and the experience of the winners, but all the same however frustrating the narrative starts out, everything turns out alright in the end. The Russian Civil War, like the Chinese Civil War, is a case where that, alas, did not happen, and it is in large part for that reason that I have read far fewer books on the subject. The general unhappiness of the ending in a Russia that was imprisoned for decades within a corrupt and violent Soviet state aside, though, there are certainly lessons that can be learned from any civil war, no matter how unpleasant the ending or how deadly the war itself, and that is certainly the case for the Russian Civil War, which is discussed quite thoughtfully in this volume by someone who has thought about why things happened the way that they did and how it was that the Soviets were at length able to exploit their logistical strengths to overcome various weaknesses and the fierceness of their enemies.

Like many books on civil wars, this one is divided into chronological fashion, by year. So it is that after a short section with a glossary and abbreviations, the author begins with 1918 as the year of decision (I), where the Bolsheviks took over in Central Russia (1), the railways spread the revolution (2), Russia was forced to make a brutal peace with the Central Powers (3), the allies intervened against the Germans (4), and various campaigns were fought in the Volga (5), Soviet Zone (6), Ukraine (7) and other Cossack areas, and Siberia and the Urals (8). The author then discusses the year of the Whites in 1919 (II) with chapters on the relationship between Soviet Russia and the world (9), Kolchak’s offensive (10), Siberia and North Russia (11), South Russia (12), Central Russia (13), and the turning point of Soviet strength (14). After that the author discusses 1920 as the Year of Soviet Victory (III), with chapters on the end of Denilkin (15), the fighting in Siberia and Central Asia (16), the consolidation of Soviet power in Central Russia (17), the Polish Campaign (18), and the mop-up campaign in Crimea (19), after which the author finishes with a conclusion, maps, notes, bibliographies, and index.

In the Russian Civil War, it is of vital importance to remember that the Soviets began with a lot of advantages in having taken over the state apparatus and been able to start early on in building a state and its institutions, all of which their opponents had to take longer to do and did not do nearly as well. That is not even taking into account the sad popularity of their approach by workers and soldiers, at least initially, which gave them their head start in state building and coalition building and training their military and building a political infrastructure, all of which they had a large head start on when compared to their opponents. And that is not even considering the logistical advantages and numerical advantages that they had against their enemies, and their central location relative to various fronts where their opponents sought to advance or hold, all of which presented the Soviets with enough advantages to win even with their various weaknesses (including the weakness of being radical socialists, and thus miserably poor at providing for the well-being of their people). Sometimes one does not have to be perfect to win, only good enough, and that was the case for the Soviets of Russia in the Russian Civil War.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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