Red Army Poster, 1919

The Russian Civil War (1917-1922) broke out after the Bolshevik seizure of power between the Bolshevik Red Army and anti-Bolshevik White armies. Victory in the Civil War saw the true consolidation of the revolution, which allowed the Bolshevik state to create history. However, millions died during the Civil War, from starvation, disease, the war itself and the Red Terror. Russia’s population, which stood at 170.9 million in 1913, had fallen to 130.9 million by 1921 as the country had been fraught with constant warfare and devastation. The threat it experienced during this period had dark consequences in defining the political organisation of the Soviet Union.

The threat the new regime encountered in the Civil War encouraged a radical overhaul of economic planning, reflected in the policy of War Communism (1918-1921). Lenin enacted a strict nationalisation of industry, with a complete ban on private trade. Labour discipline was established for workers, strikes were forbidden, and harsh sanctions were established for slackness, lateness and absenteeism. Perhaps the most salient feature of War Communism was grain requisitioning, whereby soldiers or secret police would seize grain and other supplies from peasants, leaving them with scarcely enough to live on. Kulaks (richer peasants) were denounced and sometimes had their entire stocks seized. Significant conflicts broke out between state authorities and peasants. The revolutionary, Viktor Serge, described how “Savage peasants would slit open a Commissar’s belly, pack it with grain, and leave him by the roadside as a lesson for all,” which is how one of his comrades perished. The conditions became so dire that there was a year-long revolt in the Tambov region, during which 70,000 peasants clashed with 100,000 Red Army troops who brutally quashed the revolt.

Fundamental to War Communism was the Red Terror, an intense campaign of arrests, imprisonments, and executions. Terror was partially aimed at political enemies, though victims included all areas of society, including workers and peasants of all ages. The Bolsheviks established a complex system of labour camps, albeit not as orderly as the Stalinist Gulag system, but certainly a precursor to them. Half a million are estimated to have been executed. Therefore, the Civil War demonstrated that Terror was fundamentally baked into the Soviet system. In his 1956 ‘secret speech’ denouncing the Stalinist cult of personality, Nikita Khrushchev argued that “Lenin taught that the application of revolutionary violence is necessitated by the resistance of the exploiting classes,” thus presenting the Red Terror as justified by the conditions of the time. Whether one agrees with Khrushchev or not, it is certainly true that Lenin established the willingness of the regime to use Terror as a tool in ensuring its own survival.

In terms of the cultural and intellectual impact of the war, El Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) is an engaging depiction of the Civil War’s impact on Soviet Constructivist art. The piece depicts a red triangle (wedge) penetrating a white circle, its smooth walls being pierced by the sharp points of red triangles. The use of colours and shapes here symbolises the work’s title. The piece was important in the development of Lissitzky’s work, as an earlier attempt at propagandistic art. The work demonstrates the importance of the Civil War on Socialist Constructivism and artistic propaganda, though Soviet art would refocus around Socialist Realism under Stalin.

Perhaps the most popular canonisation of the Civil War comes in Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago (1957). The novel frames an intense romance narrative across a backdrop of revolution and war. Pasternak articulated that “The war was an artificial break in life,” and its disruptiveness is reflected in the novel’s plot, as Zhivago is interrupted in his campaign to confess his love for Lara Antipova, when he is captured and forced to work as a medic in the White Army. Pasternak described “two revolutions,” a “personal revolution as well as the general one.” This reflects the intense personal experiences of this turbulent period. However, the novel was rejected by the journal Novy Mir because of its implicit rejection of socialist realism. Ultimately, Pasternak showed more interest in individuals than societal welfare and had subtly criticised the Soviet state. The book was banned in Russia, only to be read as samizdat until 1988, when it was finally serialised in Novy Mir.

In April 2020, a new monument was unveiled in Sevastopol commemorating the “fallen heroes” of the Civil War. The piece depicts a female figure, the image of Russia, as a mother calling for the reconciliation of her sons, representing the Red and White army. This monument reflects the contested nature of Soviet history in the post-Soviet era. The Civil War is complicated because it has the potential to conflict with Putin’s portrayal of a singular Russian unity and strength. This monument is intended for people to learn from the ‘tragic events’ of Russian history. Alternatively, the Great Patriotic War (World War II) occupies a much larger space in post-Soviet discourse, as it can be co-opted by the Putin regime to present the importance of strength and centralisation for Russian leaders. The Great Patriotic War reflects Russian unity and strength against foreign oppression and thus has much greater political capital in the post-Soviet period.

As we move further from the Soviet period, the Russian Civil War is at risk of being eclipsed by the Great Patriotic War, as it reflects a more complicated period of disunity in Russian history and cannot be separated from the Soviet regime. Nevertheless, its immense impact on the history of the Soviet Union, as well as Russian art and literature, is both undeniable and poignant.