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Subject: Looking for opinion on RCW book suggestion rss

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Sam H
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So I'm on a RCW reading kick.

In this excellent post on suggested reading on the russian civil war a reply suggests Orlando Figes book, "A people's tragedy". The "amazon review scandal" and other comments read here and there are making me hesitate in getting this book.

Any opinions and comments on Figes' work?

I understand that bias is omnipresent, and probably even more so when dealing with events like the Russian revolution and ensuing civil war, but I like to at least know what biases I'm walking (or reading) into...
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I wouldn't take the review scandal into account. Figes's A People's Tragedy (which, of course, deals with not just the civil war, but also the period from 1890-1923) is in many ways an astounding achievement and highly readable.

However, there are good reasons to criticise it. His image of the peasant as a dark, irrational force is being questioned by regional studies by, for example, Aaron Retish and Sarah Badcock. Similarly, Christopher Read wrote a very interesting article comparing his book to that of Figes, which for example contrast his own view of revolutionary violence as discriminate to Figes's picture of a drunken orgy of violence.

Figes has also come in for criticism for his picture of Lenin, which has been described of a negative inversion of the Soviet hagiography, a point made by this H-Net review, which persuasively argues that the characterisation of Lenin is one of the weakest parts of the book. So, Figes's book is so anti-Bolshevik that, as the review says, he lacks any empathy (which is not the same as sympathy) with them and therefore he cannot fully understand them. Read it by all means, but read it critically.

A horde of people are now going to suggest W. Bruce Lincoln's Red Victory. I've just finished it. While it tells a very dramatic story and brings the actors in the civil war to life, his bombastic writing style has a tendency of leading him to apparent error as he sometimes seems to choose his words more for the effect they create than their historical accuracy.

He also completely misunderstand both the Ukrainians and the Poles, portraying both as ardent nationalists, constantly striving for independence (but the former as xenophobic and antisemitic, the latter noble, representatives of the West). He thereby overlooks both the importance of loyalism to the former empires among both and the impact of socialism.

According to both Jonathan Smele(author of the definitive work on Kolchak and an astounding bibliography on the Russian Revolution and Civil War) and Geoffrey Swain (expert on the SRs and Latvia and author of numerous books on the Russian Civil War), the best book on the civil war itself is that by Evan Mawdsley (The Russian Civil War).

It's been a long time since I read it, so my memory is a little hazy, but it is certainly more analytical than Lincoln's book. It also has the advantage that the recent 2008 reprint has a useful preface giving an overview of the trends in historiography published after his book came out.

Both the books by Mawdsley and Lincoln came out in the late 80s, and thus before the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up the archives to western researchers. This means that there have been numerous important works to come out since they were written, especially in the mid-90s (of which Figes's book is, of course, an example).

To get an overview of some of that research, I would suggest Swain's Russia's Civil War, which continues the trend that emerged after Mawdsley and Lincoln not to see the civil war as a simple clash between Red and White, instead stressing the importance of popular discontent (the "Greens" etc.) as having a decisive impact of the outcome of the war. I'm reading it at the moment, and while I have some reservations about it, it gives some very interesting, different approaches to that of Mawdsley and Lincoln,
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Alfred Wallace
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I red Figes years ago as an undergrad when it came out, to applause of the professor, at least. I enjoyed reading it, and while I'm glad it's not the last book I read on the subject, it made a fine first one.
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Sam H
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Salo sila wrote:
Similarly, Christopher Read wrote a very interesting article comparing his book to that of Figes, which for example contrast his own view of revolutionary violence as discriminate to Figes's picture of a drunken orgy of violence.


Thanks for the link. Interesting article.

Salo sila wrote:
To get an overview of some of that research, I would suggest Swain's Russia's Civil War, which continues the trend that emerged after Mawdsley and Lincoln not to see the civil war as a simple clash between Red and White, instead stressing the importance of popular discontent (the "Greens" etc.) as having a decisive impact of the outcome of the war.


The book by Jean-Jacques Marie that I just finished (La guerre civile russe, armées paysannes rouges, blanches et vertes), does a pretty good job of detailing the activity and impact of the various "Green" armies. There is a section on the Tambov insurrections. He also shows how the peasants were stuck between two factions: not wanting to side with the whites who were associated with the ousted land owners and refusing the harsh requisitions by the red army. This leading to uprisings with slogans like "Power to the soviets, without the communists" (if i'm translating correctly)

 
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sxmpxr wrote:
The book by Jean-Jacques Marie that I just finished (La guerre civile russe, armées paysannes rouges, blanches et vertes), does a pretty good job of detailing the activity and impact of the various "Green" armies. There is a section on the Tambov insurrections.

Yes, looking at the contents page, I'm wishing I could read French... Does he have much on Grigoriev/Hryhoriev in the Ukraine? (It might be spelled either way).

sxmpxr wrote:
He also shows how the peasants were stuck between two factions: not wanting to side with the whites who were associated with the ousted land owners and refusing the harsh requisitions by the red army. This leading to uprisings with slogans like "Power to the soviets, without the communists" (if i'm translating correctly)

Yes, today soviets and communists seem inseparable, but the soviets were actually a form of government based on local councils created by peasants, workers and soldiers which the Bolsheviks managed to dominate in the course of 1917-1918 and make them their own.

usrlocal wrote:
Not having read other books on the subject yet, I ask those who have: is Lincoln sensationalizing this aspect, or were things really that bad? If so, the Whites never had a hope of winning.

I don't think he is sensationalising it. However, in many ways the Reds faced a similar problem in their territory as they were also in the process of creating a bloated, corrupt system of bureaucracy. That said, to me White corruption seems to have had a kind of "end of the world" character to it, with those doing it trying to lap up the last luxuries before everything collapsed.
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Sam H
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Salo sila wrote:
Does he have much on Grigoriev/Hryhoriev in the Ukraine? (It might be spelled either way).


Yes, Grigoriev is mentionned. Most references are pretty brief, as it is more of an overview of the civil war. He does spend a little more time on Antonov and Makhno.
 
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Sam H
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usrlocal wrote:
If so, the Whites never had a hope of winning.

They probably didn't. The problem is they despised the peasants and were never able to win over popular support.

To link this to wargames, the designer notes to Reds! suggests the same and the victory conditions reflect this. The White player isn't expected to win a military victory, just not loose as bad as his historical counterparts.
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sxmpxr wrote:
usrlocal wrote:
If so, the Whites never had a hope of winning.

They probably didn't. The problem is they despised the peasants and were never able to win over popular support.

To link this to wargames, the designer notes to Reds! suggests the same and the victory conditions reflect this. The White player isn't expected to win a military victory, just not loose as bad as his historical counterparts.


This is actually my major problem with Reds!, which I do think has some great mechanics. I agree that the Whites' loss was essentially political--that they were too much associated with the old regime and were incapable of introducing land reform, and that without a different political programme a military victory was highly unlikely.

However, I still sometimes find it astonishing that the Bolsheviks could win against everything they had to overcome. Therefore, the fact that Reds! makes a Red victory a foregone conclusion feels wrong to me. Raicer does this mainly because he misses out so much: he more or less leaves out the Greens, and the non-Russian forces are far too weak. To relate it back to the history, his analysis is stuck in the 80s, and ignores all the research from the 90s.
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Pete Pariseau
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I second the recommendation of Swain's book. It adds considerably to the picture presented in Lincoln. Mawdsley is pretty good as well, very straightforward.
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