From the Tsars to the Bolsheviks, Putin is just the latest incarnation of Russia’s lust to dominate its borderlands with bloodshed: War historian ANTONY BEEVOR on why the horror in Ukraine was all too predictable
No country is as much a prisoner of its past as Russia. And no leader has become as much a victim of his own obsessive lies as Vladimir Putin. But where did this tragedy for the Russian people as well as Ukraine begin? And why did we not see this coming after the unspeakable brutality of Putin’s conduct of war in Chechnya and Syria, deliberately using barrel bombs and nerve gas against civilian populations?
I certainly cannot claim to be one of the very few who had foreseen Putin’s reckless gamble of invading Ukraine. I also underestimated the lingering resentment against the West among the majority of largely older Russians who get all their news from Kremlin-controlled media.
Putin is famous for his pronouncement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th Century. This was backed by a widespread conviction in Russia that the Cold War had been lost through a dirty trick after the US under Ronald Reagan deliberately outspent them on armaments.
The consequence of that collapse was war veterans and widows begging in the Metro, after their pensions became worth less than £4 a week.
Mikhail Gorbachev was blamed bitterly, partly because of the rapturous welcome he had received in the West, but also for his wife Raisa’s conspicuous spending on their trips. In the Russian Ministry of Defence archives at Podolsk, my researcher and I overheard a conversation between cleaning women viciously welcoming the news that Mrs Gorbachev she had cancer. ‘I hope she dies in agony’, said one. ‘It would serve them right’.
No country is as much a prisoner of its past as Russia. And no leader has become as much a victim of his own obsessive lies as Vladimir Putin. But where did this tragedy for the Russian people as well as Ukraine begin?
Having been researching my new book, Russia – Revolution And Civil War over the last few years, I should have recognised that the torrent of shameless falsehoods issuing from the Kremlin since well before the invasion of Ukraine in February was hardly new. In fact, the pattern has little changed for more than a century.
The Bolsheviks achieved power in the autumn of 1917, giving birth to the Soviet Union, through calculated deceit – with Vladimir Ilich Lenin encouraging industrial workers to believe that they would run their own factories when he had no intention of allowing them to do so.
The peasants – ‘the infantry of the revolution’ – were promised the estates of the nobility and the Orthodox church, when, in reality ,all land would belong to the Communist state.
And the soldiers suffering in the trenches of the eastern front were promised peace, when, in truth, Lenin’s plan was to turn the ‘imperialist war’ – as he described the 1914-18 conflict with Germany and its allies – into a civil war, which he described as ‘the sharpest form of class struggle’. Lenin believed it was the only way to achieve absolute power yet he avoided any hint of the annihilation to come in his public utterances.
Having been researching my new book, Russia – Revolution And Civil War over the last few years, I should have recognised that the torrent of shameless falsehoods issuing from the Kremlin since well before the invasion of Ukraine in February was hardly new. In fact, the pattern has little changed for more than a century. The Bolsheviks achieved power in the autumn of 1917, giving birth to the Soviet Union, through calculated deceit – with Vladimir Ilich Lenin (above) encouraging industrial workers to believe that they would run their own factories when he had no intention of allowing them to do so
His speeches focused instead on hate-figures – those he could label parasites, such as bankers, factory bosses, war-mongers and landowners. For the time being he avoided attacks on the other categories of people whom the Bolsheviks would later persecute. Lies, lawlessness and chaos in 1917 suited his purposes during the preparation for his seizure of power. He wanted the past to be utterly destroyed to the point that it could never be resurrected.
To the horror of other socialist parties, the Bolshevik ‘revolution’ revealed itself as an anti-democratic coup d’état, handing power to a new political elite. Leon Trotsky openly scorned liberals with their ‘intellectual, pseudo-aristocratic, squeamish attitude toward the people’, because they revealed their distrust ‘in those dark masses’.
Yet Bolshevik leaders, once they had seized power, had not the slightest intention of placing trust in anyone but themselves, least of all in the ‘dark masses’, who had blindly bulldozed the opening they needed. On November 7, 1917, following the Bolshevik coup, the great writer and erstwhile friend of Lenin, Maksim Gorky predicted: ‘The working class should know that miracles do not occur in real life, that they are to expect hunger, complete disorder in industry, disruption of transport, and protracted bloody anarchy followed by a no less bloody and dire reaction.
‘This is where the proletariat is being led by its present leader, and it must be understood that Lenin is not an omnipotent magician but a cold-blooded trickster.’
Leaders in the Kremlin developed a total contempt for the opinions or interests of others. They were creating a brave new world which demanded the ultimate sacrifice and were as pitiless towards their own people as they were towards their opponents.
Red Terror was their weapon of choice against ‘enemies of the people’ to ensure control wherever they lacked support, but also to drive forward their reckless transformation of society without any regard for humanity.
The Bolsheviks brought in execution for a whole range of offences. So-called counter-revolutionary agitators and any bourgeois who avoided compulsory labour could be shot. Flyposting, the non-payment of taxes, breaking the curfew and resisting arrest also attracted death sentences.
The Bolshevik tactic was to claim that proletarian anger was so intense that they could not resist the demands for ‘popular justice’. Their secret police, the Cheka, received the right to torture and kill, unhampered by any judicial process.
Lenin’s own declaration of civil war could hardly have been clearer: ‘War to the death against the rich and their hangers-on, the bourgeois intellectuals.’ His dehumanisation of them as lice, fleas, vermin and parasites was tantamount to a call for class genocide. This is the legacy that colours so much of Putin’s thinking now.
The great white hall in the Kremlin with the famous long table contains just four statues, all are Tsars. Soviet leaders are strikingly absent. And Putin’s billion-dollar palace on the Black Sea coast is decorated throughout with the double-headed eagles of the Romanovs. (Above, the last Tsar, Nicholas II)
The Russian civil war – conducted largely between Lenin’s Red Army and anti-revolutionary forces – extended right across the Eurasian landmass. From Finland, the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine in the west, it spread all the way to Siberia and Vladivostok in the Far East and down through the Caucasus in the south.
In 1919, after the defeat of Germany, it became an international proxy war, when British, French, American and Japanese forces, backed by detachments from other armies, landed to arm the Whites – the anti-revolutionary side – in the forlorn hope of preventing a Red victory.
The fighting polarised not just the countries of the former Tsarist empire. Its senseless cruelty and destruction, with more than ten million dead, politicised the rest of the world.
The vicious circle of hatred and fear led directly to the Communist-Fascist struggle in many countries, most notably the Spanish Civil War which broke out in 1936. That, too, became a proxy war, with Hitler and Mussolini supporting General Franco’s Nationalists while Stalin’s Soviet Union armed the Republic’s Communist-dominated forces.
Britain, France and the United States, remained on the sidelines ,afraid that Europe would stumble into another war.
We in the West have our own history of political failures – errors which we see repeated today. The French and the British governments persuaded themselves that when it came down to it, nobody in their right mind would want to repeat the horrors of the First World War.
They failed – as we failed two to three generations later with Putin – to understand that Adolf Hitler really wanted a war.
He was furious when Neville Chamberlain gave in at Munich and deprived him of a victorious invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Hitler, just like Putin 83 years later, was not only planning to bring ethnic fellow-speakers back into the Reich. He wanted to crush and enslave those he regarded as their tormentors.
Stalin also famously misread Hitler’s intentions, and was completely unprepared when the Wehrmacht invaded Russia in June 1941, tearing up the non aggression pact (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) between the two totalitarian states signed in August 1939.
Stalin’s disastrous miscalculation had a profoundly traumatic effect on him, which the West in turn under-estimated. It led directly to the Cold War.
Determined to ensure that the Soviet Union should never again be taken by surprise, Stalin used the Red Army’s occupation of Central Europe and the Balkans to turn the region into a cordon sanitaire of satellite states as an outer defence ring.
Putin, suffering from a similar atavistic paranoia which goes all the way back to the 13th Century Mongol invasions of Russia, is even more fixated with the idea of a conspiracy to encircle Russia.
The greatest difference between the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia today is the scale of corruption which engulfed the country following the collapse of Communism. The reckless pressure from the US under President Bill Clinton forcing Russia to sell off state-owned enterprises turbo-charged gangster capitalism. This accelerated even more when Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin in 2000 and redistributed corporations and banks among the oligarchs in exchange for massive kickbacks of up to 30 per cent making him the richest man in the world.
Ukraine had also been badly tainted by Soviet corruption under Brezhnev and the scramble for easy pickings from 1991, when it declared its independence from Russia. This was a moment Putin could not forgive.
Putin is not planning to rebuild the Soviet Union as much as he longs to recreate the Tsarist empire. Russia’s hunger to dominate its borderlands, with bloodshed if necessary, was already long-established by the time of the revolution.
The greatest difference between the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia today is the scale of corruption which engulfed the country following the collapse of Communism
Ukraine had been badly tainted by Soviet corruption under Brezhnev and the scramble for easy pickings from 1991, when it declared its independence from Russia. This was a moment Putin could not forgive. (Above, damaged buildings in Mariupol on May 13)
The great white hall in the Kremlin with the famous long table contains just four statues, all are Tsars. Soviet leaders are strikingly absent. And Putin’s billion-dollar palace on the Black Sea coast is decorated throughout with the double-headed eagles of the Romanovs.
Putin became president largely due to Yeltsin’s collapse from alcoholism. The chaotic performance in 2008 of the Russian Army in its invasion of Georgia prompted him into doubling the military budget.
Entrenched corruption in arms procurement led to huge waste in this modernisation programme. And little improved in training. Up to 5,000 conscripts committed suicide each year from the old practice of truly vicious hazing. General Aleksandr Lebed used to joke that in Siberia they had to put the new arrivals to work digging enough graves in the late spring ready for the next winter’s casualties before the ground froze hard again.
The Russian tendency to confuse brutality with decisiveness clearly encouraged Putin’s determination in subsequent conflicts. In the Syrian civil war which followed the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive regime, Putin’s military intervention turned the beautiful and ancient city centre of Aleppo into another killing zone like Grozny, the Chechen capital annihilated by Russian bombing.
And yet almost everyone in the West failed to believe that he would ever repeat such violence on European territory. Once again it was case of applying our logic – that nobody in their right mind would want to return to the destruction and cruelty of the Second World War. Once again, we were wrong.
Angela Merkel had little difficulty in persuading pacifist Germans that surely the safest course was to bind Russia closely to the European economic system. They never realised that the advantages of Russia’s cheap, non-nuclear energy in fact made them hostages to fortune.
In an astonishing process of distorted thinking, Putin, the self-appointed scourge of ‘Ukrainian nazism’, has followed Hitler’s playbook even more than that of Stalin. Yet Putin, having said that he was launching his ‘special military operation’ to rescue Russian speakers from Ukrainian tyranny, has ended up killing thousands of them in the Donbas and especially Mariupol on the Black Sea coast.
This has turned the majority of Russian-speakers into strong supporters of Volodymir Zelensky’s government. Putin now casts them, too, as traitors. Meanwhile, the Russian army on Ukrainian territory has reverted to the primitive practices of rape and looting carried out by the Red Army in 1945. Some two million German women, to say nothing of Hungarian, Polish and even Russian and Ukrainian forced labourers, suffered sexual assault and gang rape at the hands of Soviet soldiers at the end of the Second World War.
Putin, having said that he was launching his ‘special military operation’ to rescue Russian speakers from Ukrainian tyranny, has ended up killing thousands of them in the Donbas and especially Mariupol on the Black Sea coast. This has turned the majority of Russian-speakers into strong supporters of Volodymir Zelensky’s government
Both then and now, Russian propaganda denied the crimes, yet implied at the same time that their mission of ‘liberation’ gave them a moral superiority which permitted such behaviour.
Putin’s fixation with the Great Patriotic War, as they call the Second World War, and Soviet victory in 1945 has proved his undoing in Ukraine.
His dash to take Kyiv at the beginning of the war imitated Marshal Zhukov’s assault into Berlin using tanks unsupported by infantry in April 1945, which also led to heavy casualties. Yet it is the utterly deluded definition of Ukrainians as ‘nazis’ which has taken over the Kremlin mindset, along with the idea that it is NATO which is at war with Russia.
This reflects Putin’s own conviction that Russia fought the Wehrmacht single-handed, while secretly the western allies wanted to stab the Soviet Union in the back. Ultimately, he has trapped himself in a past that he fails to understand.
Today’s equivalent, in his eyes, is the advance of NATO to Russia’s borders, now with Finland and Sweden about to join the alliance.
He refuses to acknowledge that it is his own aggressive actions which have achieved that. So, combined with his bitter resentment that the West never showed proper ‘respect’ – that gangster euphemism for ‘fear’ – Putin wants to terrify us. And he does, because his own disastrous mistakes have backed him into a corner. He is prepared to use nuclear weapons if Russia faces an existential threat, and by Russia, he means his own regime if it is defeated in Ukraine.
This has created far greater dangers for the world than at any moment since 1945.
© Antony Beevor
Russia: Revolution And Civil War 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on May 26, priced £30. To order a copy for £27, with free UK delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before May 29.