Book Review: Russia in Flames

Russia in Flames:War Revolution, Civil War 1914-1921by Laura EngelsteinOxford University Press, 2017Even in a publishing season crowded with impressive books on Russian history – a glut inspired by the centenary of the Russian Revolution but, much like the Revolution, spilling out in all directions and tangents – this big volume by Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War 1914-1921 stands out not only for its steely comprehensiveness but also for its sobering glut of disillusionment, which starts right away and keeps hammering on throughout this very long and very detailed book, a drumbeat entirely intended to drown out any hint of The Good Old Days:

In fact, there were no halcyon days of the Bolshevik Revolution. There was no primal moment of democratic purity that was later betrayed, though the hopes pinned on October were certainly disappointed. The Bolsheviks were ruthless and uncompromising from Day One. Leading Bolsheviks disagreed and argued with each other over tactics. Key decisions met with resistance – notably, the timing of the October coup and the acceptance of Brest-Litovsk – but discipline held. Lenin remained the center of authority, even when challenged. The Srs split, the Mensheviks split, the Bolsheviks, though sometimes divided, did not split. They created organizations, they operated simultaneously on many levels, to mobilize and direct, to punish and penalize.

This is the book's persistent refrain: that from its earliest buddings under the Romanovs to its world-striding heyday half a century later, through endless speeches and marches and blood-baths, the Bolshevik idea, the dream of it, was always a fraud, mere ideological window-dressing on what was all along in reality just the most successful group of brutal thugs out of a wide variety of brutal thugs. Throughout the book, readers see the Bolsheviks always reaching first and fastest for the guns, always working harder than any rival group in the direction of terror and repression. The contemporary quotes Engelstein deploys always strike the same note of angry disbelief:

In January 1918, protests emerged as well among railroad workers in the south, also on the subject of wages. The SR-led railroad union, which had spearheaded the first organized protest against the Bolshevik takeover immediately after the event under the direction of its leadership (Vikzhel), now declared a strike. Its statements denounced the Bolsheviks for “shooting not just bourgeois, not capitalists, but us, workers and peasants … This is not class war. This is mass murder.”

The end result of the October revolutions and the following country-wide fighting was what Engelstein refers to as the creation of “a new form of state power.” Russia in Flames tells in scrupulous detail the story of a militaristic junta that was only ever enriching to its rulers, predatory to its millions of subjects, and, inevitably it now seems, a short-lived failure as a social experiment.