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

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

By Vladimir N. Brovkin

Princeton University Press, 1994, 455 pp.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks, having successfully executed their coup d' tat in November 1917, did not simply settle into power and begin the recasting of Russian society. They first had to fight a three-year war against a variety of armed opponents. This civil war turned into a further crucible of Bolshevism, shaping the regime's approach to political opposition, the peasantry, national regions, and institutions like the military.

Because it was important in defining the subsequent character of Lenin's revolution, historians on all sides have debated intensely what transpired within Bolshevism and within Russian society during the conflagration. Brovkin, a young historian from Harvard, weighs into the debate with a complex and subtle argument that assigns the Bolsheviks' ultimate victory not to superior resources and lan and not to the support of workers and the other putative beneficiaries of the November revolution but to peculiar weaknesses in the opposition.

Brovkin contends that Lenin, far from mobilizing the downtrodden, began with mixed support and by 1918 was alienating any further potential backing through ideologically driven policies. The various forces that might have prevailed over the fragile Bolshevik regime failed one after another, according to the author. They were undercut by Lenin's willingness to resort to mass terror, or because they were betrayed by Lenin's other enemies or, in the case of the peasantry, the element in society that could have brought Lenin down, because it did not care beyond any given village. The peasantry rebelled against the regime's intrusions, not in order to overthrow the regime.

Brovkin's thesis is far more involved than this brief summary can suggest, and, while the social historians he attacks will have their own view of the work, the book brings depth and new insights into this formative period of the Soviet system. With this more than adequate justification, therefore, one wonders why the author and a distinguished university press feel compelled to give the book contemporary currency (marketability) by somberly suggesting that an "old question" relevant then - "can Russian statehood prevail over local, regional, and national identities?" -- is relevant today. Perhaps it is the same question, but it is in contexts that give it two very different meanings.