- Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War 1914-1921 by Laura Engelstein
After a bit of a lull in the study of the Russian revolution since the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the centenary of the revolutions of 1917 has, not surprisingly, led to a flurry of new books on the subject. In her panoramic new account of the revolutionary period, Laura Engelstein focuses on politics and the problem of power: it was one thing for the Bolsheviks to seize power in October 1917, but they then had to reconstitute authority in the territories of the former Russian Empire—to reconstruct power in order to win the ensuing civil war. This the Bolsheviks did by mobilizing violence not just as a destructive force but as an instrument for building state institutions.
Engelstein's lively narrative draws on a vast array of primary sources, the rich historiography produced from the late 1960s through the late 1980s, as well as a deep reading of newer post-Soviet studies, especially Russian ones, in order to anchor those revolutions firmly within the broader context of seven years of war, state collapse, and imperial disintegration. Her periodization and conceptualization reflect transformations of the field in the past quarter century. [End Page 229] The first of these changes is the blossoming of the study of the First World War, a period that was neglected until recently by historians, who tended to treat it as a mere denouement of the imperial period or prelude to the 1917 revolutions. Engelstein draws on this new work's emphasis on the activation of civil society, on the transformation of the relationship between state and society, on patterns of violence and the suspension of moral restraint, and especially on state-directed stigmatization of designated social and especially ethnic groups during the war in order to advance an understanding of the revolution and civil war as the product of volatile forces released by the Great War, and as an effort to tame and redirect them. The second major change that Engelstein embraces is the "provincial turn" in Russian history: in the Soviet period, it was very hard for historians to get visas to work in "the provinces" outside Moscow and Leningrad, but ever since, scholars have flocked to these regions of Russia and to the various post-Soviet states that were once the Soviet provinces too. Their research has transformed an historiography that was traditionally told very much from the two capitals. It has brought pre-revolutionary and Soviet Russia's previously understudied and undertheorized multinational and imperial nature into high relief and has altered our understanding of how the power of the centre actually worked across this far-flung territory. Engelstein's revolution takes place across the whole space of the Russian Empire, pulling the central, regional, and imperial struggles into one story, drawing out common patterns and explaining diverging outcomes.
In Engelstein's reading, the revolution of February 1917 was both the product and the generator of mobilization, at all levels of society and across the Empire, around the idea of democratic political participation. This civic movement, as well as traditional forms of social cohesion, would remain remarkably resilient from 1917 to 1921, giving the Bolsheviks a run for their money. The Bolsheviks were ultimately more successful than their competitors in first rallying that movement and then conquering it—in region after region, Engelstein shows their "signature tactic": "penetrate, mobilize, dominate, liquidate" (p. 227). Most importantly, though, they focused on state building—the forging of the Red Army as a model of the future society united in its political mission, the nationalization of the economy and the destruction of private trade replaced with a top-down system of grain requisitioning and the militarization of labour, and the elimination of political alternatives. The regime was not shy about using violence, including the violence of starvation, to impose its vision of the future communist society. In so doing, the Bolsheviks betrayed the spirit of the 1917 revolution, substituting forced mobilization for the aspiration...