THE OFFICIAL 100TH anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which birthed the world's first Communist state, came and went two years ago. But the revolution actually played out over five horrific years known as the Russian Civil War. A century ago this summer, the anti-Bolshevik White forces were running a fully functional government in northern Russia. Their "Supreme Ruler," Admiral Alexander Kolchak, was internationally recognized as the head of state, and their army was crushing the Bolsheviks in the South. By November 1919, the tide had turned. By the time the war was over, between 7 and 12 million were dead, and the Communists were victorious.
The Soviets' civil war mythology presented the conflict as a heroic story about workers and peasants defeating the combined forces of upper-class Russian reactionaries and Western interventionists. The Russian emigre mythology treated it as a heroic story of idealistic patriots crushed by the forces of darkness. But the real Russian Civil War was far more complicated than either of those narratives.
Besides the Reds and the Whites, there was the roughly 100,000-strong Black Army led by anarchist and Ukrainian independence fighter Nestor Makhno, who started out in the Bolshevik camp before going his own way. There were also the nationalist forces of the Ukrainian People's Republic and the little-known Green Armies--peasant and Cossack militias and guerrilla units that may have been more than 70,000 strong at their peak. The Greens, thought to have gotten the name either from living in the woods or from having green banners, despised all the other factions, and their machine-gun carts sported the motto "Beat the Whites till they turn red, beat the Reds till they turn white."
AS BEFITS A Hobbesian war of all against all, this one was marked by exceptional brutality. The Bolsheviks visited horrific reprisals on villages in rebellious regions: "The shooting of dozens, even hundreds, of peasants for every dead communist was often threatened and sometimes practiced," wrote Italian historian Andrea Graziosi in his 1996 book The Great Soviet Peasant War. They also requisitioned grain and other supplies under a policy of pillage known as "War Communism," using torture to extract hoarded food. Peasants were forcibly recruited into the Red Army; so were former Tsarist military officers, their families often held hostage to ensure compliance. This cohort made up as much as 75 percent of the Reds' officer corps...