Almost every year since the Soviet archives opened in 1991, a new history in English of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War has been published. Russian archives now release only a trickle, yet hitherto unknown memoirs, diaries and photographs still surface, and historians do not stop arguing about the causes, the determining factors and even the outcome of the unprecedentedly cruel and violent implosion of the Russian Empire. Antony Beevor brings to his book some forty-seven years’ experience of writing about wars and catastrophes. Perhaps for the first time, Russia’s history between 1917 and 1921 is examined by a military historian capable of explaining why so many heroic campaigns ended in a rout and why a rabble army achieved victory. It is a story of appalling incompetence and the stupid wastage of men, goodwill and materiel, with just an occasional flash of genius, such as when Trotsky journeys by luxury train across western Russia and inspires to enthusiastic self-sacrifice men who were only months earlier demoralised deserters.
Particularly refreshing is Beevor’s unsparing criticism of the so-called ‘Allied’ intervention, in which British, French, Italian, Japanese, American and Finnish (and later Polish, Czechoslovak, Hungarian and even German) forces each pursued uncoordinated, sometimes conflicting aims and generally made the situation worse. Winston Churchill, in particular, emerges as a deluded optimist, ignoring Lloyd George’s cautions, believing that mad, self-glorifying White generals, given sufficient munitions, could win the Civil War. If Beevor’s book had appeared in the 1930s, Churchill would never have been allowed to lead Britain’s war effort.
Beevor is a better narrator than most of his competitors: he is witty and detached, with an eye for telling details and anecdotes. The first half of this chronologically organised book, taking the reader up to the end of 1918, has, like the events themselves, a logic that