ON A RECENT BOOK TOUR in Germany, I gave an interview to a reporter from Neues Deutschland, for over 40 years the official newspaper of the Socialist Unity Party of the former DDR. Not surprisingly, given we are in the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, the reporter, born and raised in East Germany, asked my opinion of Lenin and the significance of the birth of the first communist state.

As I explained how Lenin’s coup, in my estimation, had been an enormous tragedy for Russia, her face soured. My response had clearly caught her by surprise. Surely, she replied, the October Revolution represented one of the greatest moments of the 20th century, a milestone in the liberation of mankind from centuries of tyranny that had inspired subjugated peoples around the world to throw off the shackles of oppression. I gave her all the reasons why Lenin’s actions had in fact led to the death of freedom, along with millions of lives, but I could see my arguments were having no effect. She was a believer, and nothing I might say would change that.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, and the accompanying opening of long-closed archives, the image of Lenin, as well as the state he helped create, has taken a beating. True believers are becoming ever harder to find. And should any of them take the time to read Laura Engelstein’s prodigiously researched and unimpeachably balanced chronicle of Russia through the bloody first decades of the 20th century, their eyes will be forever opened.

The past year has seen a considerable wave of books on revolutionary Russia, few as good as Russia in Flames, which is likely to become a standard work on the subject. Little escapes Engelstein’s consideration. Among the book’s strengths are the attention to the multinational nature of the revolution and careful incorporation of the latest scholarship. If her overall interpretation of the revolution — its causes, course, and the roles played by its key actors — is not especially novel, the sensitivity and sophistication of Engelstein’s reading of this history is exceptional.

The flames that consumed Russia from 1914 to 1921 were those of war. Although the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 had been met with an outburst of patriotic fervor and support for the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty, after two long years of combat, Russia was left reeling. Horrendous loss of life, defeats at the front, and dislocations at home all combined to create a mood of hopelessness. The regime sought to deflect the blame onto its non-Russian subjects, Jews, and purported spies. Many Russians became convinced the country had been stabbed in the back and the only salvation lay in destroying the “dark forces” at work. This was the mentality that allowed an entire nation to see in Empress Alexandra and Grigory Rasputin, the royal couple’s trusted “friend,” agents of the German Kaiser.

The answer to Russia’s problems seemed so obvious. By murdering Rasputin, Prince Felix Yusupov and his fellow conspirators were certain they would, with one blow, both disrupt the spy networks and damage Alexandra’s emotional health such that she would retreat to a convent, thus allowing Tsar Nicholas to reassert his authority, wage war with renewed vigor, and so save his throne.

The notion was, of course, ridiculous. The bullet that killed Rasputin, the poet Alexander Blok correctly observed, “struck the very heart of the reigning dynasty.” In less than three months, the Romanovs would be history. Engelstein is accurate when she writes that Nicholas had lost all support. “[T]o be for the tsar meant to be against Russia,” commented Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, a leader of the liberal Kadet party and father of the novelist.

While acknowledging the violence (much of it alcohol-fueled) that went along with the fall of the Romanovs, Engelstein defends the February Revolution as the one true democratic revolution of 1917. But just as the war lay at the heart of the collapse of the old regime, so would it doom the new Provisional Government, which failed to realize just how unpopular it had become among the common people and men in uniform. Not even the Bolsheviks realized initially how decisive the issue of the war was. It was Lenin who sought to convince the party in April that Russia had to leave the “predatory imperialistic war.” And he did indeed take Russia out of World War I in March 1918, to save his fledgling regime and to redirect his soldiers’ violence. Engelstein is unflinching in her estimation of Lenin and his aims, which had nothing to do with peace. “Civil war,” she writes, “was the path to triumph,” and Lenin did everything humanly possible to bring such a war upon Russia.

Engelstein, a professor of history at Yale University, will have nothing to do with the notion put forward by some revisionist historians that the Civil War, which gripped Russia from 1918 to 1921, was unexpected; according to these historians, the unforeseen negative response to the Bolshevik seizure of power in October forced the party to resort to extreme violence as the only option for survival. Just the opposite. The “coup,” as she correctly labels the actions that brought down the Provisional Government, was intended to unleash civil war as the surest way to divide the country and bring about the party’s dictatorship. “[T]he Bolsheviks thrived on civil war,” Engelstein notes. “The Civil War did not distort the original nature of Bolshevism. As Lenin made perfectly clear, violence was key to October — a preemptive conquest of ‘the Democracy,’ before it had the chance to convene one last time.”

Engelstein stresses that the Revolution, and its eventual outcome, had never been inevitable. At various moments, things might have taken a different course. The last hope for democracy lay with the Constituent Assembly, something of which Lenin was quite well aware. “The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly by the Soviet Government,” she quotes him as saying, “means a complete and frank liquidation of the idea of democracy by the idea of a dictatorship. It will serve as a good lesson.” In January 1918, the Assembly was indeed dissolved, and Russia’s last chance for a truly democratic future died.

Russia in Flames makes it unmistakably clear how Lenin begat Stalin. Engelstein remarks that “there were no halcyon days of the Bolshevik Revolution. There was no primal moment of democratic purity that was later betrayed […] The Bolsheviks were ruthless and uncompromising from Day One.” Nowhere was this clearer than in the treatment of the peasants. In May 1918, the Soviet government launched what the Menshevik Fyodor Dan called a “crusade against the peasantry.” Not content to squeeze every last bit of grain out of the villages, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were just as intent to destroy “the inner fabric of village communities,” to quote Engelstein. When the peasants fought back, they were mercilessly crushed. Hostages were taken and locked up in kontsentratsionnye lageria — “concentration camps” — men were tortured and shot for withholding grain. Such wholesale barbarism, combined with a drought in 1920–’21, produced one of the worst famines in modern European history. According to Soviet statistics, five million people perished. Had it not been for a massive American relief effort headed by then–Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, the numbers would likely have been double that and the Soviet government itself might have collapsed.

“The 1921 famine was an early example of the Soviet regime’s cannibalistic relationship to its own population,” Engelstein comments, “at a cost that would only escalate in the Stalinist years.” Cannibalistic is precisely the word to describe the famine that seized parts of the Soviet Union in 1931–’34. And controversial. The reasons for the famine, which killed at least five million men, women, and children, continue to be debated, and not only on the pages of scholarly journals, but also in the mass media as well. At the heart of the debate is the question of whether Stalin’s regime created the famine and used it to destroy the Ukrainian national idea. Was the Holodomor — from holod, hunger, and extermination, mor — an intentional war on Ukraine or simply the tragic result of unintended consequences?

In Red Famine, Anne Applebaum, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gulag and other outstanding books on Soviet and East European history, offers the definitive history of Stalin’s famine that leaves no doubt about the regime’s role not only in creating the conditions that led to mass starvation, but also in taking advantage of the chaos to crush Ukrainian nationhood. Drawing on a wealth of archival documents and newly published studies, Applebaum, in careful, measured steps, shows just how the famine unfolded and was then used for a range of repressive actions against what a paranoid Stalin believed to be counterrevolutionary nationalists, fifth column traitors, and assorted class enemies and “former people” (i.e., déclassé aristocrats, bourgeois, clergy, et cetera) plotting to subvert the Soviet Union and win Ukrainian independence.

As Applebaum points out, there is no written decree from Stalin ordering the famine. Moreover, as she, and others arguing against the Holodomor, notes, famine hit areas outside Ukraine, notably the northern Caucasus, parts of the Volga region, and Kazakhstan. The famine resulted from a number of factors, including bad weather and poor harvests, the collectivization of agriculture, and the requisitioning of food that provoked violent reactions among the peasantry, who at first tried to resist the harsh measures of the state and then sought to flee in search of food. As early as the spring of 1932, the secret police were receiving news of famine in Ukraine. Word reached Moscow, and some of Stalin’s closest colleagues tried to open his eyes to the danger, but he refused to listen. There would be no retreat, he insisted — the peasants had to give up their grain for export in order to pay for the Soviet Union’s crash industrialization. Stalin’s word carried the day, and the suffering grew in the coming year. As during the famine a decade earlier, numerous acts of cannibalism were recorded. The Soviet state fed off its subjects; its subjects fed off each other.

Stalin’s interpretation of events was shaped by his experiences in the Civil War. He could recall his own work in Tsaritsyn in 1918, when he had used ruthless tactics to procure grain. “[W]e won’t show mercy to anyone,” he had telegrammed Lenin, “but we will bring you bread.” Then it had been a war against the peasantry for Soviet power, and he now saw this new struggle in similar terms, although through the added filter of Ukrainian “treason.”

By the summer of 1932 Stalin became convinced Moscow was losing control over Ukraine. “The chief thing now is Ukraine,” he wrote his close associate Lazar Kaganovich in August. “Things in Ukraine are terrible. It’s terrible in the party […] we could lose Ukraine.” In December, the Politburo issued two decrees aimed at subjugating Ukraine. Both the Ukrainian peasantry and the republic’s political, intellectual, and cultural elites were singled out for extraordinary repressive measures beyond what was considered elsewhere in the USSR. The brutal requisitions continued, along with massive Party purges, arrests, and even executions. “Stalin did not seek to kill all Ukrainians, nor did all Ukrainians resist,” Applebaum writes. “But Stalin did seek to physically eliminate the most active and engaged Ukrainians, in both the countryside and the cities.” And in this he succeeded. The overwhelming majority of those who died of hunger between 1931 and 1934 were Ukrainians.

Crucial to the story of the Bolsheviks’ success in establishing the first communist state, as well as to the story of the Holodomor, is the power of ideology, and both Engelstein and Applebaum acknowledge that without true believers in the ideas of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, none of this history would have been possible. One such believer was Lev Kopelev, a fervent disciple of the Soviet creed and later prominent dissident, who had taken part in the project of collectivization:

With the rest of my generation, I firmly believed that the ends justified the means. Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of the goal everything was permissible — to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work or could hinder it, everyone who stood in the way.

Disasters strike when ideas come to mean more than human lives.

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Douglas Smith’s books include Former People and Rasputin. He is currently writing a book on the story of American famine relief to Soviet Russia in the early 1920s.