The Russian Revolution; A New History by Sean McMeekin. Basic Books, 2017.


            The Russian Revolution became entangled with both a civil war in Russia and the last months of the Great War on the Eastern Front. It had many turns and Sean McMeekin has given greater order to this momentous event. It involved the “Reds” – an alliance of Bolsheviks, Poles, Russian army officers and their Cossack regiments – and the urban “bourgeois” calling themselves the “Whites.” Neither side of this civil war had any enthusiasm for continuing the Great War.

Sorting out the first years of the Russian revolution is, however, complicated. It was shaped by the active involvement of revolutionaries, Alexander Kerensky and Vladimir Lenin. Kerensky was the Minister of War and then Premier in the last days of Czar Nicholas II’s reign. he led the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The more ambitious of the two parties, the Bolsheviks hoped to export their revolution around the world. The SRs were ultimately overwhelmed by the Lenin-led Bolsheviks.

            After his abdication the Czar and his family were held under house arrest; the Bolsheviks feared that Britain or perhaps even the United States would try to liberate Nicholas and restore him to the Russian thrown. Fearing this outcome, he was executed by the Bolsheviks along with his four daughters and his son and heir.

McMeekin relates the interesting story of the relationship between the Russian and German Empires over the course of war and revolution. When the Great War began, the two empires were on opposite sides of an Eastern Front. The Germans realized that the war-weary Russian state could be further weakened by introducing the Bolshevik revolutionaries into the political mixture. Thus Lenin was allowed to travel across Germany and the Eastern front and reach St. Petersburg (Petrograd) safely.

The Bolsheviks were advocating a popular decision to leave the war, coinciding with Woodrow Wilson’s talk of a “war without victory.” Kerensky had, upon acquiring power, launched a disastrous offensive that had failed, making it clear that, despite Russia’s wealth in agricultural land, it was not going to win a prolonged war with the Germans. The Bolsheviks initiated a negotiation for an armistice along the lines of Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

The Russian army still had some fight left in its officers and men. However large numbers of Russian troops surrendered to the Germans and there were instances of German and Russian troops fraternizing. Agreement between Germany and Russia was hurriedly negotiated at the German military headquarters at Brest-Litovsk on 14 March 1918.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk reflected the growing weakness of the Russian Empire.  The Germans insisted that the Baltics and Ukraine be cleared of Russian troops leaving the region as a zone of occupation. And there were huge territorial concessions in Eastern Europe. Germany was acknowledged as a protector of the large German population in these Borderlands and in Russia. Russian civilians and soldiers felt that they had been betrayed by the Bolsheviks.

 As the civilian and military regimes in Russia collapsed and the Bolsheviks appeared to be winning the civil war, Russia’s wartime Allies decided that they had no option but to intervene in the civil war. British and American troops landed in Murmansk and Archangel with the intention of supporting the “Whites” fighting the “Reds.” Equally unwise was the Allied support for the Czechoslovak Legion, one of several armies serving in Russia, which complicated any settlement. The Legion seized large portions of the Trans-Siberian Railroad eventually all the way to Vladivostok.  In 1920 after the Revolution, they were evacuated from Vladivostok by the British and US.

Herbert Hoover was known for his relief efforts after the War, the American Relief Agency. Russian agriculture and their rail system were not able to feed the population. Hoover placed conditions on the Bolshevik government in return for US grain and other scarce commodities. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to make food relief to Russia and Poland part of a diplomatic give and take. Having to take handouts from a capitalist-bourgeoisie land was a bitter pill for the Bolsheviks to swallow.

Perhaps most offensive in Western eyes was that the Soviets confiscated the gold held by private individuals and then went after the churches. They were systematically stripped of their gold and their icons.  This gold was used to pay for food shipments.

What an informative book. Sean McMeekin has corrected the work of earlier historians of the Russian Revolution. And he has probably created his share of new stories that will then be reshaped as historians dig deeper into the archives of the Russian state.

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