Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914–1921
Reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf

Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, 
Civil War, 1914–1921

by Laura Engelstein
Oxford University Press, 2017

An Illustration from Russia in Flames
Boris Kustodiev, "Moscow I: Attack," Zhupel [Bugbear], no. 2 (1905)

One hundred years have passed since mobs took to the Petrograd streets shouting for bread and wound up toppling the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty. During those 100 years historians have viewed the origins, proceedings, and outcomes of the Revolution from every angle conceivable to humankind and the esoterica sphere. Few of those many treatises ever viewed the Revolution, the Bolshevik coup d'état, and the Civil War as a story, a historical drama with events and personalities, rather than ideologies, pushing and shoving people in almost harlequin directions. Dr. Laura Engelstein has given us such a story and tempers it with the opinion that the Revolution was a transitional phase in Russia.

Dr. Engelstein is a renowned historian who specializes in late imperial Russian history. Her books include The Keys to Happiness, Sex and Happiness for Modernity in Fin de Siècle Russia; Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom, A Russian Folktale; Moscow 1905; and Slavophile Empire, Imperial Russia's Illiberal Path. Until recently she occupied the history chair at Yale. This work is a breath of fresh air in the history of the Russian Revolutionary.

At first, the size of Russia in Flames was intimidating—632 pages of text followed by 145 pages of end notes and a bibliographic essay of ten pages. However, the book is easily read and avoids the starchiness of an academic work fond of hearing its own words. At times, the reading was suitable for a fireside chat with good friends. It is not dry with ideological terms and concepts, although many times the proceedings spin out of control trying to balance internal Bolshevik twists, which were far from united. Yet the book remains alive with stories of cause and effect, tempered with personal observations and enhanced by new information garnered from recently opened Russian archives.

The chapters about the Civil War were most interesting. The questions of why counterrevolutionary movements failed are easily answered (lack of unity, the pogroms, and a chauvinistic failure to listen to the people they were supposedly saving) as are the circumstances as to why they nearly succeeded (Stalin's meddling in strategic goals in the Ukraine and on the Vistula). In those pages, Engelstein does not limit herself just to the south Russia White movement of General Anton Denikin or the Siberian onslaught of Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak. For once, characters like Grigorii Semenov with his Far Eastern armies, Nestor Makhno and his anarchists, and Nikolai Iudenich's Northwest Army receive their due.

Russia in Flames is a must-read if you are interested in events taking place during and after World War One. For those intimidated by the heft of another Russian history tome, it is a source of endless information about often-overlooked events that shaped the Soviet Union in the context of the Great War.

Michael P. Kihntopf

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like an intriguing and informative read even if it is pretty lengthy. For those interested in the area, the time would be well worthwhile. Thanks for a fine review, Michael.