Staunton, May 5 – 2018 marks the centenary of the beginning of the Russian Civil War, a conflict that lasted far longer than the revolutionary year of 1917, defined the nature of statehood in the USSR and Russia, and continues to raise far more ideologically divisive questions about the past, present and future of Russia.
The Kremlin dodged many of the problems that 1917 presents because few Russians appeared that interested in re-litigating the events of that year or acceptant of the Kremlin’s insistence that the revolution represented a continuation rather than a break in the history of the country.
But the Civil War which had far more sides – political, ethnic, and international, among others – and which featured far more horrors – including starvation, genocide and cannibalism, to name just three – no longer fits nicely into a single Moscow-impose Procrustean bed as it did in Soviet times appears likely to spark more comment and more divisions.
Tatyana Voltskaya of Radio Svoboda interviewed Boris Kolonitsky of the St. Petersburg Institute of History and Mariya Matskevich of the Moscow Institute of Sociology about what is called the Russian civil war and its continuing impact on Russians and others (svoboda.org/a/29203079.html).
Kolonitsky says that “in certain respects, we live in a continuation of the civil war. It sits inside each of us. It is connected with many unpleasant histories about which we do not want to speak. And while it is difficult to imagine something more traumatizing than the blockade, this history is worse.”
“There are many skeletons in the closet,” he continues.” People don’t want to speak about them, preferring instead simple and beautiful stories that aren’t true but that do satisfy. Moreover, “there is one additional important aspect: the state which was established then” to fight the civil war continues to exist.
That state was “ideally suited for victory in a civil war,” Kolonitsky continues. Its mobilizational economy, its ways of controlling the population, and its mass terror are “all results of the civil war.” Also a result of the civil war years, he says, is “the federal system of Russia today.
Thus, to talk about the civil war is to talk about current events and challenges even more than to talk about 1917, the historian suggests.
Matskevich says that many expected there would be hot public discussions about 1917 in its centenary year; but that didn’t happen. And it may very well be that “broad discussions about the civil war are still less likely, despite or in part because of the obvious importance of this subject.”
The government would prefer not to talk about many aspects of the Russian Civil War. They are too painful, too divisive and too close to current events. Instead, the regime is likely to be pleased if few discuss it or continue to accept the highly simplified schemata that the Soviets offered. But that is increasingly hard for many to do given what they now know.
Nonetheless, it is possible to say that in contrast to Finland and Spain, Russia does not yet contain a critical mass of people who recognize the tragic nature of its civil war. Without such a recognition even if discussions are not widespread, Matskevich says, it will be difficult to move forward.
Nonetheless, there will be some discussion among interested groups not only because of a recognition that their fate now was determined less by 1917 than by the way the civil war proceeded and by the appearance, albeit in small print runs, of books like Leonid Yuzefovich’s Winter Road about the conflict in Sakha.
A major problem, Kolonitsky points out, is that the simplified image that the civil war was one between reds and whites is wrong: That was “an important dimension but far from the only one. Many now say that the civil war began in Central Asia and Kazakhstan with the 1916 revolt, while others say it began in February rather than November 1917.
“One of the important dimensions [of this conflict] were reds against reds.” Some who supported the October Revolution then broke with it while many who backed the whites concluded that the reds have been transformed because they were creating an empire. The smenovekhovtsy are the most notable of these but hardly the only ones.
A major reason all this is a problem for Russia now, Matskevich argues, is that “we do not have an image of het future” and thus are obsessed with finding unity and greatness in the past even where it does not exist as was very much the case during the horrific years of the civil war.
Kolonitsky agrees: “Now, people often cite Orwell’s observation that “’who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.’ I think Orwell is wrong … in the USSR people were ready to distort the past in support of their vision of a bright future.”
“Today,” he says, “there are no pictures of the future, but on the other hand, there are no great optimistic projects, no utopias, not even any rational projects.” But that makes the study of the past more not less important and potentially more dangerous and explosive as well.