How did the Russian Civil War betray a popular revolution? MHM Editor Neil Faulkner assesses the historical significance of the conflict.

A Bolshevik recruitment poster exhorting workers to join the Red Army, 1920.

It matched in scale, drama, and significance the American Civil War half a century before. Yet the Russian Civil War, which began a century ago this year, is only dimly remembered. The conflict raged across Eurasia for four years, claimed approximately 15 million lives, and reconfigured the whole of 20th-century history.

The human cost was astronomical. We can compare it with the American Civil War, which killed two-thirds of a million, about 2% of the population, more than in all the other wars in US history combined. Or with the First World War, which claimed the lives of about 3 million Russians, among some 15 million across the world as a whole.

Compare these figures with the Russian Civil War, where an estimated 1.5 million combatants died and up to 12 million civilians succumbed to cold, hunger, and disease. This was almost 10% of the population. It was a national disaster on a similar scale to that of the Second World War: the estimates of numbers lost between 1941 and 1945 are higher, at 20 million, but they represent a somewhat similar proportion of the population at the time.

The Russian Civil War tore society apart and destroyed the mass social movement that had carried out the 1917 revolution. This image captures something of the human misery of the social crisis of Civil War era Russia.

One little-understood consequence of this was that the Russian Revolution was smashed. A mass social movement of workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants had taken power in October 1917. This ‘people power’ had been organised in mass participatory assemblies (‘soviets’). Hundreds of thousands had regularly attended meetings of these organs of democracy from below. The decrees issued at the top had reflected the demands flowing up from the bottom; and their implementation had been contingent on mass action at the base.

By the end of the Civil War, this huge social movement was stone dead. The national infrastructure had been devastated: 7,000 bridges, 1,700km of railway line, and 90,000km of telegraph wire had been destroyed. An international blockade had reduced Russian imports from 967 million pounds (a Russian unit of measurement) in 1913 to 0.5 million in 1919, and Russian exports from 1,472 million to 0.0001 million. Industrial production was down to about 15% of its pre-1914 level.

The factory working-class had shrunk from 2.5 million to barely a million. Wages had been reduced to a third of their pre-war level. The cities, starved of food, fuel, and raw materials, had emptied, as destitute people fled into the countryside. Those who remained at the workbenches were too ragged, cold, hungry, and desperate to have any time for political meetings: the mere struggle for existence consumed them.

German revolutionaries in action during street fighting in Berlin in 1919. The Bolsheviks hoped that the Red Army advancing from the east would be able to link up with revolutionary movements across Europe.

With the Whites defeated, the economy at ground-zero, society ripped apart, the Russian people numbed into passivity, the only effective national force still operating was the increasingly authoritarian party-state bureaucracy.

The men and women who had made the revolution had been sucked into the administration and the army. Others had joined them, desperate for a job, hoping for a career. The Communist Party swelled to three-quarters of a million. Here was the new power: not the masses, not the soviets, not democracy from below; but the party – the Party – and the embryonic state apparatus it controlled.

The American Civil War had saved the union and destroyed slavery. The Russian Civil War suffocated the revolution, destroyed democracy, and cleared the way for Stalinist dictatorship. This was the unintended consequence of the actions of all the belligerents – the Reds, the Whites, and the Great Powers. The consequences of this have ricocheted down the decades to the present day.

This is an extract from an 18-page special feature on the Russian Civil War. Get the full story – including the events, strategy, and tactics of the war – in issue 86 of Military History Monthly.

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