Against the grain

Making War, Forging Revolution
December 5, 2003

Recent research has produced several works that seek to look at Russia's revolutionary years from new angles, perhaps by studying just one location or by treating 1917 as an important staging post in a longer process. Peter Holquist's book combines both these approaches. Its focus is the Don territory, whose grain production became crucial after 1914 and where the population was divided between the privileged Cossacks and the non-Cossack peasantry. It was in this territory that the White Army gathered strength and achieved some early successes.

Substantially archive based, the book presents a dense narrative, concentrating mainly on the political events and their significance. This means that a good deal of detail, such as the changing opinions and fortunes of key local figures and the ever-changing picture of parties and soviets, is provided, which may not interest the casual reader and slows the pace. At times, moreover, it seems that every sentence is trying to be a concluding sentence, and the effort of the author to say precisely and unmistakably what he means sometimes results in sentences that need to be read more than once. The nadir is perhaps reached when the author talks of demands being "imbricated within political imagineries".

The author repeatedly emphasises that the savage repression of the Bolshevik regime was often a deepening of processes that had been begun rather earlier. For example, the state-supported armed seizure of peasants' grain developed from the grain requisitioning policy of the previous government. Again, the use of censorship and informer networks not only to frustrate conspiracies but also to provide regular reports of the population's state of mind, came in the first world war under the tsarist regime and was extended under the Soviet government. Because Russia's revolution occurred while the war was being fought, it was carried forward for decades in a continuing atmosphere of total war.

As they emerged as winners, the Bolsheviks first alienated, then repressed the Don public. Unable to decide whether the theoretical class enemy was the Cossacks or the well-off, the Bolsheviks ended by antagonising the non-Cossacks and the poor as well. Forced grain requisitioning, with its accompaniment of peasant executions, was usually against the advice of local Bolsheviks but insisted upon by Moscow. Even to half-fulfil the targets, seed grain had to be shipped out of the region, resulting in a famine that killed millions.

Serving to elaborate, and sometimes correct, existing histories of Russia's revolutionary years, this book deserves attention.

John Westwood is honorary research fellow, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham.

Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia's Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921

Author - Peter Holquist
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 359
Price - £30.95
ISBN - 0 674 00907 X

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