Witnesses Against War #11: Russian Historian – A Cold Civil War

10 June 2022

Source: Witnesses Against War

Witnesses Against War is an anonymous international group of journalists, writers, historians and translators, who live in Moscow and London. For reasons of security, their project is anonymous. In addition to the above websiste, you can also find them on Instagram / Инстаграм  and Telegram / Телеграм.

Russian Historian. A Cold Civil War.

For quite a long time I was engaged in the study of the history of the Civil War in Russia, at the beginning of the 20th century – the same the Civil War that is now thoroughly studied from all sides, cleared of Stalinism and, more generally, layers of Soviet ideology. At the same time, in Russia today, the history of the Civil War is unpopular – most of the population of modern Russia is unable to imagine and does not know the Civil War of a hundred years ago.

I happen to have studied our Civil War, not so much from memoirs as from immediate, everyday documentary sources and testimonies. Moreover, from four sides – the White Army, the Red Army, the Anglo-Americans in the Russian North, and that which was connected to the Far East, ie Chinese and Japanese participation.

It is this professional knowledge that allows me to perceive what is happening in our country and in Ukraine today, as to some extent, a repetition of what has gone before. I constantly catch myself thinking that all this has already happened, in one form or another. Only 100 years ago it was happening in the former Russian Empire, which was falling apart, and along the perimeter of which local conflicts flared up, along with the main confrontation between the Reds and the Whites.

The Russian Empire 100 years ago was falling apart along territorial, ethno-cultural and ethnic lines. These conflicts broke out immediately after 1917, because all this took place in the context of the enormous First World War. What is happening now in Ukraine differs from what happened on the ruins of the Russian Empire from 1917 to 1924 only in terms of territorial scale.

As a citizen and as a historian, I posit that the same thing is happening now that happened 100 years ago with the Russian Empire. Simply due to the absence of a global world war at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991, all these armed conflicts on its outskirts were more or less postponed – like the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both wars in Chechnya, the conflict in South Ossetia, and other local wars. Therefore, I do not perceive the current war as a conflict between the Russian Federation and Sovereign Ukraine.

I perceive it as a war resulting from the collapse of the Soviet empire – a conflict that was inevitable, and in which the influences of external stakeholders are inevitably involved. When Russian propagandists convince us that the main stakeholder in what is happening in Ukraine, and now in the border regions of Russia, is either the United States or some kind of “collective West,” I don’t believe it, or more precisely, I perceive it through the prism of the inevitable involvement of all world geopolitical forces in the process of the collapse of empires.

Everything that I see, comparing many sources of information, reminds me vividly, to my horror, of pictures of the Civil War that raged on the ruins of the Russian Empire 100 years ago. “To my horror”, because 100 years ago the Civil War lasted a very long time, and it did not immediately escalate into World War II only because the former participants in World War I, that had only just ended, were bled dry and exhausted.

That is why France did not intervene when the Red Army invaded Poland in 1920, and why Great Britain stopped aiding the Whites so quickly and established trade relations with Soviet Russia, and Japan responded relatively modestly, content only with the island of Sakhalin. Now the situation in the world is completely different, and it scares me that the current Civil War on the ruins of the Soviet empire might escalate into World War III. This is the main thing in my emotional perception of what is happening.

In addition to my fellow historians, I have longstanding friendships with people from a broad spectrum of social and professional groups. For many of them, 2012-14 after the well-known rallies on Bolotnaya Square (we mostly talk of 2014, when Euromaidan took place in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas) was the moment of separation, when amongst my acquaintances a distinct divergence in ideas about what is good and what is bad became evident. People were divided by this Rubicon according to their often completely opposite and completely incompatible ideas about what the true interests of the citizens of this country are.

I am deeply convinced that without a clear mental understanding of civil war, the intense phase of such a war cannot begin. We and the Ukrainians are former citizens of the same Russian Empire, call it what you will. And in this disintegrating Russian Empire, the third episode of civil war is now underway. Now the final phase of the collapse of the empire is taking place, which began to disintegrate 100 years ago, at the beginning of the 20th century. I don’t believe that this will last long. If it does continue for a long time, then most likely it will inevitably result in a Third World War.

The split in the minds of Russian society has only deepened. Not so long ago I was visiting friends – there was a large company of people who have known each other for several decades. And in conversations, everything is strained, people tried their hardest to avoid political topics, because they understand that if they start talking about these things, they will part as enemies. It has never been like this before. This is the scariest thing. Can this split the country to such an extent that a civil war will begin in Russia? We’ll see. The overwhelming majority of people always look to success or failure. The layman always resents a government that loses. Therefore everything now depends on Russian military success or failure in Ukraine.

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