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Book Review


Jonathan D. Smele, The "Russian" Civil Wars, 1916-1926: Ten Years that Shook the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) Pp. xxxiv + 253. Bibliography and Index. $74.00 (cloth).


     The human cost of the First World War was enormous for all of the powers involved. In Russia's case, over two million soldiers died from fighting or disease between 1914 and 1918, and several million more were left injured or sick (14). However, Russia sustained far more casualties in the years after withdrawing from the war than it had during the war. By 1921, at least ten-and-a-half million people died fighting in and around Russia, and millions more were wounded. Another five million died in the war-induced famine that broke out in 1921-22 (3). Two revolutions in 1917, one in February that toppled the Romanov dynasty, and another in October that put the Bolshevik Party in power, further destabilized the war-torn country. Russia's 1917 revolutions in turn unleashed an unprecedented level of carnage across Russia. In Peter Holquist's apt phrase, the period spanning World War, revolution, and civil war was indeed "Russia's continuum of crisis."1

Jonathan D. Smele's book, The "Russian" Civil Wars, 1916-1926: Ten Years that Shook the World, focuses on roughly this period. In his study, Smele makes two overarching arguments. First, he argues that the enormous scale and historical significance of the violence in Russia during this period are due to the tangle of overlapping conflicts taking place across the Russian Empire and around its borders, not merely the revolutionary events in Petrograd (1). This argument accounts for the two distinctive parts of the books title: the quotation marks around the word "Russian" and use of the plural "Civil Wars." By using quotation marks around the word "Russian" throughout the book, Smele wants to underscore the fact that the conflicts involved numerous nationalities all across Eurasia, from Finns in the west to Yakuts in the east, not just ethnic Russians. In his detail-rich account, Smele brings us from Central Asia to Ukraine to Eastern Siberia and back to Petrograd, all the while incorporating the complex involvement in the Russian conflicts of Germany, Japan, Persia, and the U.S., among other foreign powers. The civil wars in Russia comprised, according to Smele, "a World War condensed" (1). The point that the Russian and Soviet Empires were multinational Eurasian regimes is an important one, although it has been the subject, and in some cases the point of departure, of a growing body of literature for a number of years. By referring to the civil wars, plural, Smele emphasizes that the conflicts were multiple, complex, and sometimes overlapping. He assures the reader that the book "will establish beyond disputation that what wracked Russia from 1916 to 1926 were, in the plural, civil wars" (36).

Smele's second argument is that the traditional chronological demarcations of the Russian civil wars are too narrow. Typically, there are a few events scholars have pointed to as the start of the civil war, all of which are in 1917 (e.g., the Kornilov affair or the October coup) or 1918 (e.g., dissolution of the Constituent Assembly or the Czech revolt). The end of the civil war is usually seen to have come either in November 1920, when Red Army forces defeated General Wrangel in Ukraine, or in March 1921, when War Communism officially ended and the New Economic Policy began. Thus the Russian Civil War is usually dated 1918-1921. In contrast to this, Smele argues that the civil wars broke out in the summer of 1916 with the revolt in Turkestan against a Russian order to mobilize nearly 400,000 Central Asian men previously exempted from military service. As a result of the uprising, the region was declared to be under martial law, a status that ended only in 1926. Thus, according to Smele, the Russian Civil Wars began and ended in Central Asia; this point underscores the expanded chronological framework as well as the point that the "Russian" civil wars were not just Russian.

The book is organized into eight parts: an introduction, six chronologically arranged chapters, and a conclusion. The chapters, which provide a wealth of material drawn entirely from published secondary and primary sources, start with a discussion of the "beginnings" of the wars in 1916-18, trace the formidable anti-Bolshevik and "White thrusts" against the Bolshevik regime from 1918 to 1920, and cover the turning of the tides in favor of the Red Army from 1920 to 1921, and the "ends" of the wars which Smele dates from 1921 to 1926. In addition to being organized chronologically, the book is organized geographically, moving from region to region exploring the nature and course of the conflict in each place. The fifth of six chapters, "1917-21: On the Internal Fronts," is distinct from the rest in that it retraces years covered in other chapters in order to highlight conflicts between workers, sailors, peasants, religious adherents and anarchists, on the one hand, and the Bolshevik regime, on the other. These conflicts are distinguished from those taking place outside of the European part of Russia, or what Smele calls "the Soviet zone" of the Bolshevik stronghold. It is clear that Bolsheviks continued to face resistance even within this zone. It is less clear what it means to distinguish between "internal" and "external" fronts within a civil war, a type of conflict that is usually understood to be an internal one, by definition.

In fact, one of the interesting aspects of the book is Smele's reconceptualization of the notion of civil war itself. His argument that civil wars raged from 1916 to 1926, which is based upon an impressive number of published primary and secondary sources rather than newly discovered archival materials, depends on an expansive definition of the term. He writes that within the term "civil wars" "are encompassed national wars, international wars, inter-ethnic wars and conflicts, wars of national liberation, and local adjuncts of the ongoing world struggle" (36). Given this capacious definition, the challenge is less to demonstrate that there was more than one civil war than that there was any conflict whatsoever in Eurasia during the period that was not a "civil war." It may be that the definition of civil wars is too broad, even for Smele's purposes. In order to distinguish among different periods under consideration, he reverts to the more traditional distinction between the most intensive fighting between 1918 and 1921, which he calls the "civil wars proper" (26, 34), and the less acute conflicts that came before and after. He refers to various conflicts that come prior to full-blown fighting in 1918 as "a dress rehearsal" or "overture" or "prelude" to the civil wars "proper" (22, 26). With regard to the period after 1921, Smele concedes that the conflict was of a "different, less general character," particularly after the demobilization of 3.7 million Red Army soldiers in 1921 (346, note 1). In some cases, the civil wars consisted of "pathetic numbers of White partisans" fighting against Bolshevik power, as in the case of Iakutia in 1923 (226). The question, then, is what analytical insights we gain by defining virtually all of the conflicts during this decade as "civil wars," rather than looking at the "civil wars proper" in a broader chronological framework of persistent violence of various sorts.

The fact that the book leaves its complex conceptual questions unanswered, along with its hefty price tag, might limit its usefulness as an undergraduate text. As far as the important points that the Civil War should be seen as part of a continuum of violence stretching from the Great War through the early 1920s and that the Russian Empire and its Soviet successor were multi-national countries, these have become staples of much of the recent writing on the period. At the same time, the book is valuable for its wide-ranging account of the diversity and intensity of the conflicts that wracked Russia during this period. Smele puts the eventual Bolshevik victory in the context of a disintegrating multinational empire whose international entanglements could not help but affect the course of fighting. This was a messy, chaotic, and exhaustingly complicated decade. Smele contributes to our understanding of its scope.

David Rainbow is Assistant Professor in the Honors College at the University of Houston, where he teaches courses on modern Russian and Eurasian history. He can be reached at



1 Peter Holquist, Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia's Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).



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