Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914 - 1921. Laura Engelstein. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Whenever one is reviewing a long book about a narrow subject, one must provide the reader with motivation as much as explanation. Laura Engelstein’s Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War 1914-1921 is a detailed but readable history of the collapse of the Russian Empire, the Russian Civil War, and the birth of the Soviet Union. It manages a clean structure, well-organized chronologically into six parts and, within those parts, into chapters laying out the course of events in different regions of the hemisphere-spanning Russian empire and giving voice to the mosaic complexity of the Eastern Front, the revolution, and the civil war. What the book has going for it, compared to projects of similar scope like Orlando Figes’ A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924 or classics by Shiela Fitzpatrick or Richard Pipes (both entitled The Russian Revolution), is a relentless commitment to the geographic diversity within which the revolution occurred and the ever-shifting organizations and coalitions operating in that geography. This commitment to the sheer scale of the revolution gives the book enduring value and insight for those interested in strategy today, particularly in terms of political warfare. This review focuses on three broad lessons this period has to teach us.
First, in the Bolshevik’s victory, we can glimpse what maneuver warfare in the political dimension might look like. Strategies of attrition are easily abstracted to non-physical or non-spatial strategic contexts. Strategies of maneuver, however, are so embedded in time and space (think of the sweep of a cavalry unit across an exposed flank or the rapid sweep of blitzkrieg) that it’s sometimes hard to visualize what they look like in less-spatial domains. But the fundamental maneuver principles of systematically disrupting the enemy’s ability to respond by using localized advantages, speed, and surprise are, of course, widely applicable.
The mosaic complexity of this conflict and its many foreign intervenors––by far the historical norm, if seemingly exaggerated in Russia’s case––is the key to understanding why Russia’s contemporary leaders see little gap between American efforts to promote democracy and the fomenting of revolution, or between support for liberal reforms in neighboring states and attacks on the Russian regime itself.
Reading Engelstein helped me see how theories of maneuver explain the Bolshevik’s otherwise shocking victory. In the context of Revolutionary Russia, the Bolsheviks were a marginal, if highly vocal, party; for an American analog, think of a radical faction of Occupy Wall Street. Even their name (roughly meaning “the majority” in Russian) was aspirational, coming from a party congress in which they were briefly the majority only because some members of the alternative faction (the Mensheviks) had stormed out in protest. At no point from the early days of the revolution until after they were ensconced in power did the Bolsheviks have majority support of any plausible electorate or legislative body.
What they did have (and exploited ruthlessly) was a keen sense of shifting political support, the fault lines of revolutionary Russia, and where crucial bottlenecks lay. What mattered most was where they found their primary bases of support. The Bolsheviks had spent years in organizing Petrograd factory workers, soldiers and sailors garrisoned in Petrograd and on the front, telegraph operators, railroad personnel, and postal workers. As a result, the Bolsheviks and their allies could manipulate and control vital lines of communication, at least enough to spoil reactionary activity and the counter-moves of their rivals in the ostensibly-in-control Provisional Government. Conservative generals leading forces to reinforce Petrograd found their troops diverted by rail; efforts to strengthen the government could be mitigated by strikes and workers riots; the attempts of the Russian General Staff to regain control of their army were foiled by agitation at the front. Even within the socialist left, though, the Bolsheviks were a fringe minority. Their ascendency within the revolutionary left brings us to the second strategic lesson.
In the Russian revolution, we can glimpse one of the most powerful tactics of maneuver warfare in the political dimension: changing the strategic framework to bewilder or sideline the enemy. Geniuses of political warfare such as Lenin and Trotsky succeed by making their enemies’ strengths and strategies irrelevant. This tactic requires, among other things, the willingness to understand when fundamental facts have changed or to risk changing them. In the Bolsheviks’ case, two specific actions transformed the Russian revolution in ways that ultimately led to their victory: the October Revolution and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
Almost every tactic Western analysts have attributed to Russia since the 2014 invasion of Crimea can be found in the book.
In the first instance, the Bolsheviks undertook a coup d’etat ostensibly in favor of the Second Congress of Soviets (whose executive committee, the Sovnarkom, they controlled) and against the bourgeois Provisional Government. When it became clear after November 1917, though, that the newly elected Constituent Assembly would elevate their rivals the Socialist-Revolutionaries and would not endorse the power of the Congress of Soviets, the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly by force, leaving no obstacles or alternatives to their rule. Again, relative rather than absolute position mattered; the Socialist-Revolutionaries had strong rural support, but the Bolsheviks had strong support in the cities and amongst soldiers. Moreover, some of their rivals had had access to tools of power they declined to use. What distinguished the Bolsheviks was a willingness to precipitate a civil war, something the liberal and other socialist parties had consciously attempted to avoid. The October Revolution, by destroying any political middle-ground or organ for compromise between the socialist left and liberal or conservative forces, made civil war inevitable. As Engelstein shows in detail, the Bolsheviks (already believing any compromise with so-called ‘bourgeois proceduralism’ was bound to fail) understood division, war, and fear could be powerful tools in the right hands. The outcome their more moderate rivals were desperate to avoid (to the point of near paralysis), the Bolsheviks saw as an opportunity.
This extended, in the second instance, to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which took Russia out of World War I in early 1918. In retrospect, it is hard to appreciate how radical and decisive an action this was by the new Communist government. Of the major post-revolutionary contenders for power, the Bolsheviks were the only ones committed to ending the war. The war had been unbelievably costly, and the demands and results of prosecuting it, including grain seizures, massive waves of refugees, and obvious martial incompetence, had been precipitating factors in the February Revolution. Abandoning the war, however, would have substantial ramifications, including the loss of any benefits from an eventual settlement. Moreover, Russia would be negotiating from a position of relative weakness on the battlefield; any deal would likely be on bad terms, and entail acknowledging the loss of vast swathes of the Russian Empire. Some were optimistic a newly democratic military, inspired by a popular government, would fight with a new vigor. The Bolsheviks, though, believed a peace necessary to save the revolution, a proposition more agreeable to the masses and to the Bolsheviks’ base than the other parties realized. Just as the other parties had feared, the treaty did provoke the Army High Command into rebellion and civil war, and it did entail the loss of tens of thousands of square miles, including some of Russia’s most productive and industrialized territories. In crossing this Rubicon, however, the Bolsheviks precipitated a conflict they were able to use to their benefit, put their enemies back on their heels, and turned counterrevolution into an all-or-nothing proposition. They bet, correctly, that for many workers and peasants the Bolsheviks were preferable to the various ultra-reactionary White movements.
Engelstein’s book serves as a useful reminder that the hybrid warfare playbook is not new, especially not within the context of Eastern Europe.
This strategy of making moderate positions unsustainable and previous institutional arrangements unworkable was replicated across the dying Russian Empire. Engelstein shows how the post-Revolutionary outcomes for various states, and whether they ended up as part of the USSR or not, depended at least in part on what happened to these shattered institutions. Bolshevik parties almost everywhere tried a similar playbook, and not a few Bolshevik leaders lost their lives after instigating some plot or another only to be thrown out by other local forces. The Bolsheviks proved adept, if not uniquely so, at using whatever local cleavages existed to their advantage. Through superior organization and a keen sense of political divisions, the Bolsheviks managed to force conflicts to the extreme and then end up on the winning side (usually) of the various devils’ bargains they precipitated. In a time and place engulfed by conflict and rapidly shifting alliances, the Bolsheviks did not usually need to do much to elicit violence and mobilization, though, and this brings us to our third point.
Engelstein’s book serves as a useful reminder that the hybrid warfare playbook is not new, especially not within the context of Eastern Europe. Almost every tactic Western analysts have attributed to Russia since the 2014 invasion of Crimea can be found in the book. Invading and calling a snap referendum to validate it is how the Poles took Vilnius from Lithuania. When an election in the Ukrainian Rada resulted in unfavorable political leadership, the Ukrainian Bolsheviks decamped to Eastern Ukraine (Kharkov) to create their own competing institutions, primarily to justify Soviet intervention. Propaganda using the latest technologies of the day, provocations, assassinations (at home and abroad), front-organizations, a nexus between organized crime and state power, and the political use of diasporas were all used extensively by the belligerents of the Russian Civil War. Many of the hot-spots are even the same: Crimea, Donetsk, Kharkov, Abkhazia, Adjara, Transnistria, and others.
The point is not to argue that the Russian security services have a long history of this kind of thing, though they do. Rather, the point is that political warfare is a natural consequence of a certain geography of warfare, where all kinds of lines (domestic/foreign, public/private, national/global) shift and blur. One of the great virtues of Engelstein’s book is that she foregrounds this complexity and forfends conventional wisdoms. While the fighting in France may have stopped in 1918, Eastern Europe and beyond kept fighting, and wars between and within nations blurred together, war and state-building going hand in hand, with as many soldiers and civilians dying after 1918 as before. For example, the Soviet-Polish war, the suppression of the Don Cossacks in Ukraine, and the invasion of European Russia by the White General Wrangel were all essentially interdependent actions. The same organizations and systems that were used to generate military intelligence about the Eastern front or the war with Poland were also used to investigate and monitor internal dissidents and economic production in the Russian heartland. Similarly, in the East, the Czech Legion, a Japanese peace-keeping force, and various anti-Bolshevik warlords are all part of the mix, with control of the Trans-Siberian railroad and the post-war settlement amongst the eight intervening Allied powers in Chinese Manchuria as important to the outcome as the political sentiments of Baikal elites.
The mosaic complexity of this conflict and its many foreign intervenors––by far the historical norm, if seemingly exaggerated in Russia’s case––is the key to understanding why Russia’s contemporary leaders see little gap between American efforts to promote democracy and the fomenting of revolution, or between support for liberal reforms in neighboring states and attacks on the Russian regime itself. A rigid divide between the domestic and foreign is a luxury of those enjoying the stopping power of water (or a similarly decisive barrier). Gray zone warfare is as much the product of gray zone geography as the producer of it.
Russia in Flames, while not a slog, is the kind of long march appropriate to its subject matter. It offers much of interest to the general reader of strategy, and to anyone who hopes to understand the birth of the Soviet Union and the origins of the Second World War. Since the future is likely to look more like the interwar period than the comparatively clear-cut Cold War, an intimate familiarity with the period’s epic complexity is likely to be a useful intellectual tool.
Jon Askonas is a predoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin and a Doctor of Philosophy Candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the relationship between organizational adaptation and post-war ‘forgetting’, using case studies from U.S. Army efforts in Vietnam and Iraq.
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 See, for example, Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict.