Vienna, January 28 – The first popular history of the Russian Civil War argues that Russia survived the clash between the Reds and the Whites because of a third force, the Orthodox Church, an interpretation likely to attract many followers given the current Russian regime’s call for overcoming the divisions of a century ago.
In a review of “The Civil War in Russia: An Encyclopedia of a Catastrophe”(in Russian, Moscow, 2010) posted online today, commentator Dmitry Volodikhin says that this work, the first such volume published since 1991, offers a new and very different interpretation of that conflict (www.chaskor.ru/article/dushegubstvo i tma14629).
In both Soviet and post-Soviet historiography, the primary sides in the Russian civil war of 1917-1922 were the Reds who took power and the Whites who were defeated and in many cases forced to emigrate, with only the evaluation changing after 1991 when in many cases the Reds became the enemy and the Whites the positive alternative.
But in the last decade, especially thanks to the efforts of Vladimir Putin and the leaders of the Orthodox Church, Russians have been encouraged to “end the Civil War” by seeing both sides as reflecting part of Russian national history and thus worthy of respect. But the new encyclopedia which might have been expected to echo those calls goes in another direction.
It suggests, Volodikhin says, that there were not so much two sides in that conflict as three, with the Russian Orthodox Church, albeit not in a combat role, playing the role of the preserver of the best traditions of the Russian nation and the Russian state in the face of attacks from the two other sides.
Two things make the appearance of this encyclopedia especially important. On the one hand, the collective of writers involved includes some of the best Russian historians on that conflict, suggesting that this interpretation represents a sea change in how Moscow officials view the war – or at least want the Russian people to see it.
And on the other, such encyclopedias, while not especially significant in many countries, are among the most widely read books in the Russian Federation, exceeded in most cases only by school textbooks. Consequently, this definition of the Civil War is likely to spread, even though it is certain to be criticized by many.
One review, to which the Chaskor.ru article provides a link, is extraordinarily positive. Entitled “The Church beyond White and Red” and written by nationalist commentator Pavel Svyatenkov, it underscores just how much a departure from the standard view the new encyclopedia gives (www.russ.ru/layout/set/print/pole/Cerkov-po-tu-storonu-belogo-i-krasnogo).
The “official historiography” of the conflict in Soviet times, Svyatenkov points out, “always considered the Civil War through the prison of the fight of the Reds and the Whites” and presented the Reds as traditional “ingathers of the Russian lands” against “numerous ‘separatists’” including all the White Generals.
As a result, and especially during Stalin’s time, he says, “the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War was presented [by Soviet writers] as the rebirth of the Russian national state,” in much the same way that “the conquest by the Manchu’s of China may be treated as a success of Chinese national state construction.”
The conception underlying the new encyclopedia, Svyatenkov writes, contradicts all of this because its authors “consider the Civil War not from two but from three points of view.” That is, “they write not only the history of the Reds and the Whites, telling about their leaders and the basic events of the war but convert the Orthodox Church into a separate historical force.”
According to this encyclopedia, “the Church remained the only force which in the situation of total political and national division was able to preserve a sense of the historical nature of the Russian people and its mission” and thus protect the country in some respects from the threats both the Reds and the Whites posed.
The Reds, Svyatenkov points out, subordinated Russia and the Russians “to the world communist revolution,” while the Whites, had they won, would have tied “Russia to the global West as a colony or a semi-colony.” Thus had either won without the presence of the Church, it would have represented for Russia “the end of history.”
Under the conditions of the Civil War, the Church too was split, with its priests and hierarchs to be found on both sides. But that is not what is important, the new encyclopedia suggests. Instead, what matters is this: the church “was dangerous by the very fact of its existence,” because it served as a reminder that “the history of the Russian people continues.”
And that reality, Svyatenkov says, helps explain both Stalin’s behavior during World War II and the way in which Russians, after the fall of communism, have turned to the Church in order to promote the recovery of their national identity and the historical extension of Russia into the future.
Both Stalin’s decision to allow the reconstitution of the Patriarchate and the post-Soviet recovery of Orthodoxy reflect “a recognition of the right of the Russian people to an historical existence,” one limited in Soviet times but now, as this encyclopedia suggests, open to almost infinite expansion. For Russians, that is something “extraordinarily important.”