Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War: Political Parties and Social Movements in Russia, 1918-1922

Article excerpt

Vladimir N. Brovkin. Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War: Political Parties and Social Movements in Russia, 1918-1922. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. xiii, 455 pp. Bibliography. Index. $55.00, cloth.

Vladimir Brovkin has written a compelling and provocative account of the civil war that raged across the lands of the collapsed Tsarist empire from 1918 to 1922. Brovkin conceptualizes this protracted and horrific struggle as the simultaneous unfolding of a number of different, competing and overlapping conflicts, rooted in the national, regional, local, and class identities of the participants. At the same time, it was the clash of "a heterogeneous and premodern society... with the power of a new dynamic state, guided by the goal of destroying all old identities and creating a new identity for all-that was the essence of the Russian civil war" (p. 403).

The newest and most compelling aspects of Brovkin's account concern not the conflict between Red and White forces, but those innumerable, small, violent, and spontaneous uprisings of peasants Behind the Front Lines. Brovkin argues that this other civil war was far more widespread and decisive than the war on the external front: "Thousands of small engagements, ambushes, mopping up operations, raids across the countryside, artillery shellings of villages, roundups in the forests-these were the scenes of war, the war that is associated with the term `civil war' in the national memory. There were no Whites in central Russia, but there was a civil war" (p. 162). In 1920, simultaneous with the retreat of Denikin's forces, arose a massive "Green tide" of peasant resistance so widespread that "every province in European Russia was affected by peasant insurgency. Civil war was raging in every uezd and every volost' of Russia, and that was after the Whites had been crushed" (p. 325). Indeed, Brovkin concludes that the Bolsheviks' retreat into NEP was none other than the clearest indication that it was actually the peasants who (temporarily) won the civil war (p. 421).

Brovkin's research is prodigious, his thesis provocative and on the whole wellargued, and his description graphic and detailed. By focusing on identities as the defining feature of the civil war, Brovkin has overcome the rather simplistic assumptions historians have made about the allegiances of "the masses," about "sides," "fronts" and "the enemy" during the civil war. "Identity defined allegiance, and allegiance determined participation in the civil war" (p. 8). Some peasants supported and fought in the Red Army, then switched to the Whites, then the Reds again, and/or supported more locallybased "Green" movements, and some supported the national movements in the borderlands, especially in Ukraine. But all they truly desired was to be left alone. Workers, who at first supported the Bolshevik regime, soon became disaffected with the regime's inability to provide basic necessities. Many then tried to flee to the countryside, but the Bolsheviks forced them to stay and work in the cities, further antagonizing them. By September 1920, "a rank and file Socialist Revolutionary" reported that in Petrograd "profound hatred among the workers is rising against Soviet power. Sooner or later this hatred is going to lead to an open insurrection" (p. 283). …