Review: Russia in Flames

This is a familiar story, but one that is meticulously researched and told with the coherence and clarity, writes Mark Glanville


Russia in Flames by Laura Engelstein (Oxford University Press, £14.99)

Laura Engelstein’s account of the Russian Revolution and its immediate consequences is founded on post-Soviet scholarship fuelled by the opening of previously inaccessible archives. The meticulously researched and fluently written story she relates is, of course, familiar, but is rarely told with the coherence and clarity achieved by Engelstein, who has come up with an unexpected page-turner.

Her central concern is how Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks managed to impose their brutal form of Socialism on a country the size of the Soviet Union. She shows that the country was ripe for social revolution but believes that the Bolsheviks’ readiness to employ extreme violence was one of the major keys to the triumph of their brand over that of the more moderate Mensheviks and Socialist revolutionaries. 

To the argument that the Bolsheviks resorted to terror in order to survive the onslaught of armed enemy forces in the First  World War, Engelstein replies: “This does an injustice to Lenin, who, when asked: ‘Why do we bother with a Commissariat of Justice,’ supposedly replied: ‘Let’s call it frankly the Commissariat for Social Extermination and be done with it?’”

The Jew, “the archetypical intimate alien,” was caught in the middle, targeted by both sides. “Both the bourgeois bloodsucker and the blood-soaked Communist could easily be seen as Jews.” Engelstein describes the savage pogroms of this period in terms of a war. It is believed that up to 150,000 Jews were murdered during this period, paving the way for the Holocaust 20 years later, when the Germans were able to draw on a recent Jew-slaughtering precedent often involving the very people who had perpetrated the earlier massacres. As in the Second  World War, much of the killing was carried out in the Ukraine, which was also the epicentre of the Russian civil war. The White Army, many of whom were Cossacks, savaged Jewish communities they assumed to be in league with the hated Red Army. 

That Trotsky, with his consistently bloodthirsty rhetoric, was himself a Jew, like 18 per cent of Bolshevik deputies, didn’t help. “You wax indignant at the naked terror that we are applying against our class enemies,” he raved, “but let me assure you that, in one month’s time at the most, it will assume more frightful forms… not the fortress but the guillotine awaits our enemies” 

The Red Army’s failed invasion of Poland delayed the spread of Communism through other areas of Eastern Europe, but only temporarily. In Russia, meanwhile, the new order was often perceived as no better than the one it had replaced, with “rations pegged to status, privileges enjoyed by officials of the new regime.”

“One hundred years later”, Engelstein warns, “the future of democracy is once again in doubt.” In 1917, Lenin wrote: “‘And now, once more, we are fulfilling the will of the people, which has declared: ‘All power to the Soviets! And we shall crush the saboteurs.’” Sound familiar?

Mark Glanville is a freelance writer

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