Descendants of the low

Now that the White General Anton Denikin and the White philosopher Ivan Ilyin have been reinterred in Moscow with proper pomp, it is painfully amusing to recall that two decades ago, Moscow propaganda painted as degenerate murderers the White generals it now hails as patriotic heroes. But the u-turns of the official line should not suggest a moral equivalence between the Red and White sides of the Civil War.

Both committed atrocities; that’s how civil wars go. The difference is while White commanders at least tried to contain, and never hailed as “healthy”, their soldiers’ darkest instincts (those mostly of Cossacks and of conscripted peasants), class-based violence was the Reds’ offical policy. Once we recognize that the Bolshevik government — unlike any of the White governments — systematically executed and imprisoned large numbers of people for no reason whatever but their social background (and was proud of it), we can no longer wave off the Civil War as simply another Time of Troubles, a war of all against all.

A prominent Chekist (member of the Bolshevik secret political police/execution force) called Martin Latsis (or, authentically, Mārtiņs Lācis — he was Latvian like a few other top Bolsheviks; his real name was Jānis Sudrabs) wrote in a periodical for Cheka’s internal use:

We are not at war with individuals; we are destroying the bourgeoisie as a class. During investigation, do not look for evidence pointing at the defendant’s having acted against the Soviet regime through deed or word. The first question you should ask is: what class he belongs to, what is his [social] background, what is his education or profession. The answers to these questions will determine the defendant’s fate. This is the significance and meaning of the Red Terror.

This quote has become famous, and rightly so. Anyone would recognize its monstrosity. Yet many, perhaps most of Russia’s living citizens are descendants of those who, ardently or half-heartedly, supported Bolsheviks during the Civil War. Most of the citizenry (of us) may still feel it was thanks to the Bolshevik revolution that their ancestors leapt up the social ladder, allowing their children to become something out of nothing (as per L’Internationale, “he who was nothing will become everything”). It must be a huge problem, come to think of it.


  1. Errrr…. Seems to me that at least in the particular matter of anti-Semitism, one could say that Red officers tried to ‘contain’ the worst impulses of their rank and file, while their White counterparts often appealed to them.

  2. This mostly applies to various Ukrainian nationalists who weren’t really White or Red. Some of them were at times allied with the White movement but should not be confused with the core of the White movement — the so-called Volunteer armies. The Reds and their numerous Western friends, of course, loved depicting Whites as anti-Semites. But Denikin and Wrangel never encouraged or appealed to anti-Semitism. Whether they could do much is another question; there are times in history when violence is as unstoppable as Katrina. Already by the time the Civil War began, the Bolshevik regime, which to many Russians seemed to have a Jewish face, had committed atrocities that later provoked irrepressible outbursts of anti-Semitic violence, especially in the Ukraine. It’s easy to launch an avalanche of violence (when no party can keep its hands clean) but the launcher must bear the most responsibility.

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