In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Russian Revolutions and Civil War, 1917–1921

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Eyewitness Accounts
  • Collections of Articles and Essays
  • The February Revolution and the Provisional Government
  • The October Revolution and the Establishment of the Bolshevik Regime

International Relations Russian Revolutions and Civil War, 1917–1921
Michael Kort
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0088


The Russian Revolution has not permitted Western historians the comfort of neutrality. It led to the establishment of a regime, the Soviet Union, that on the basis of Marxist ideology claimed to be building the world’s first nonexploitative and egalitarian society. As such, the Soviet regime further claimed to represent humanity’s future and therefore the right to spread its communist revolution worldwide. These pretentions, however dubiously realized in practice, won the Soviet Union millions of loyalists over the world. At the same time, because these pretentions also threatened any society organized according to different principles, including those of liberal democracy and free enterprise, they made the Soviet regime the object of intense fear and opposition. This reaction was reinforced as the Soviet Union quickly became a brutal dictatorship and, after World War II, emerged as one of the world’s two nuclear superpowers. For these reasons Western scholarship on the Russian Revolution has had an element of contentiousness not often seen in other fields. That, in turn, is why any serious student of the Russian Revolution must be familiar with its historiography, and why this article not only contains a major section on historiography but also includes historiographic commentary in many of the individual entries. The term Russian Revolution itself refers to two upheavals that took place in 1917: the February Revolution and the October, or Bolshevik, Revolution. The former was a spontaneous uprising that began in Russia’s capital in late February 1917 and led to the collapse of the tsarist monarchy and the establishment of the Provisional Government, a regime based on the premise that Russia should have a parliamentary government and free-enterprise economic system. The latter took place in late October and was the seizure of power by a militant Marxist political party determined to rule alone, turn Russia into a communist society, and spark a worldwide revolution. (These dates are according to the outdated Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time, which trailed the Gregorian calendar used in the West by thirteen days. According to the Gregorian calendar, the two revolutions took place in March and November, respectively.) Because the Bolsheviks did not consolidate their power until their victory in a three-year civil war, many histories ostensibly about the “Russian Revolution” include not only the events of 1917 but also their immediate aftermath in early 1918, and then the civil war, which began in mid-1918 and lasted until 1921. That framework has been adopted for this article as well. Matters of evidence and documentation have additionally complicated this subject. In this case the key date is 1991, as that is when the collapse of the Soviet Union finally made many important Russian archives available to scholars for the first time. This significant development is covered in the Published Documentary Collections section of this article.

General Overviews

Although all of the volumes listed in this section can be called general overviews, they vary considerably in their structure and approach. Carr 1950–1953 provides a multivolume and extraordinarily detailed institutional narrative of the establishment and consolidation of the Bolshevik regime, which the author essentially endorses. Chamberlin 1965 is a traditional, sweeping narrative that is critical of the Bolshevik regime, as is Figes 1998, which begins the story in 1891 and carries it to 1924. Pipes 1996 provides a broad narrative in the condensation of two large volumes on this subject, and provides a view that is highly critical of the Bolshevik regime. Schapiro 1984, likewise, is an interpretive essay, albeit from a liberal perspective critical of the Bolsheviks. Read 1996 is a revisionist narrative that, while scholarly, comes close to being a textbook. (See the introduction to the Historiography section for the definition of revisionist and related terms in the context of Soviet history.) Shukman 1998 is a short survey with a conclusion critical of the Bolshevik regime. Engelstein 2017 covers the period 1914 to 1921 with an emphasis on how the Bolsheviks betrayed the prevailing democratic sentiments in Russia in 1917 and successfully mobilized power to crush their opponents between 1917 and 1921. McMeekin 2017 begins in 1905 and covers through 1922, stressing how blunders first by Nicholas II and then by the Provisional Government under Kerensky’s inept leadership opened the gates for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to come to power. Smith 2017 covers the period 1890 to 1928, focusing on economic and social factors that caused the revolutions of 1917 and affected the Bolshevik regime into the late 1920s.

  • Carr, Edward Hallett. A History of Soviet Russia: The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917–1923. 3 vols. London: Macmillan, 1950–1953.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-63648-8

    The first three volumes of a series that, first under Carr and then R. W. Davies, eventually totaled fourteen volumes and thousands of pages upon reaching its terminus in 1929. Some scholars argue these volumes constitute a classic work; others, largely because Carr writes as if the Bolshevik regime was the inevitable outcome of the revolution that ended the tsarist regime, dismiss them as an apologia for Bolshevism and therefore largely useless.

  • Chamberlin, William Henry. The Russian Revolution, 1917–1921. 2 vols. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1965.

    Originally published in 1935, this work remains an extremely valuable source. The author, who covered Russia for the Christian Science Monitor from 1922 to 1933, was a skilled writer, objective observer, and careful researcher. Many specialists believe it has still not been surpassed as an overall history of the period. Volume 1, 1917–1918: From the Overthrow of the Czar to the Assumption of Power by the Bolsheviks. Volume 2, 1918–1921: From the Civil War to the Consolidation of Power.

  • Engelstein, Laura. Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914–1921. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    This broad narrative faults the tsarist regime for fomenting internal tensions as it fought World War I, most notably but not exclusively by targeting Jews, which weakened its authority during a time of crisis. Engelstein views the February Revolution as broadly democratic. It unfortunately was undermined by the Provisional Government’s inability to deal with the urgent problems caused by World War I and with disorder at home. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were fundamentally undemocratic and exploited the disorder in Russia to seize power in a coup d’état, after which they succeeded in applying brutal force, especially through the Cheka and Red Army, to crush their political opponents and social and ethnic groups resisting their rule during and immediately after the Civil War.

  • Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924. New York: Penguin, 1998.

    A panoramic narrative that draws on recently opened archives and numerous anecdotes with great effect. Figes argues, on the one hand, that Russia’s long history of serfdom and its autocratic traditions doomed the 1917 effort to establish a democratic regime and, on the other, that it was Bolshevism and Lenin’s policies after the seizure of power that put in place the basic elements of the Stalinist regime.

  • McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Revolution: A New History. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

    McMeekin argues that Lenin’s improbable path to power was paved by errors on the part of Tsar Nicholas II, liberals who supported Russia’s entry into World War I and then proved to be inept as leaders of the Provisional Government, massive amounts of German money funneled to the Bolsheviks during 1917 in the hope that Lenin and his comrades would undermine Russia’s government and war effort, and Lenin’s fierce will to power and political skill. The ultimate Bolshevik victory was far from inevitable; it took a combination of blunders by others, Lenin’s skill and ruthlessness, and, not infrequently, pure luck for the Bolsheviks to be able to seize power in 1917 and then hold it in the battles and turmoil that followed through 1922.

  • Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1996.

    The author calls this volume a “précis” of his two massive, pathbreaking earlier volumes, The Russian Revolution (Pipes 1990, cited under the October Revolution and the Establishment of the Bolshevik Regime) and Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (Pipes 1994, cited under the Civil War and Its Immediate Aftermath). Pipes argues that with the coup of October 1917 fanatical intellectuals seized control of the upheaval of 1917 intent on establishing a socialist utopia, but, in the end, they reconstituted Russia’s authoritarian tradition in a new regime that laid the basis for totalitarianism. Excellent for advanced undergraduates, this volume covers the period from 1900 to 1924.

  • Read, Christopher. From Tsar to Soviets: The Russian People and Their Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    A comprehensive but reasonably concise (three hundred pages) overview written from a revisionist social history perspective. As the subtitle suggests, Read stresses the activities and efforts of workers and peasants to defend their interests. While sympathetic to Lenin, Read also is critical of the Bolsheviks for suppressing popular movements after seizing power. Includes an extensive bibliography, which increases its value to undergraduates and graduate students.

  • Schapiro, Leonard Bertram. The Russian Revolutions of 1917: The Origins of Modern Communism. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

    Schapiro argues that the Bolsheviks ruthlessly sabotaged the Provisional Government’s effort to lay the basis for democracy in Russia and, having seized power in a coup d’état, laid the basis for a totalitarian regime. A concise account that sums up the lifetime work of a distinguished historian of Soviet Russia. Excellent for undergraduates.

  • Shukman, Harold. The Russian Revolution. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1998.

    A short but up-to-date survey by the editor of The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Russian Revolution (Shukman 1988, cited under Bibliographies and Reference Works). This work concludes that Lenin prepared the way for Stalin. Suitable for undergraduates.

  • Smith, Stephen A. Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    Smith argues that neither the collapse of tsarism nor the fall of the Provisional Government were preordained. The basic reason tsarism collapsed was that it was a barrier to modernizing forces in Russian society, but the severe additional social and economic strains imposed on Russia by World War I played a vital role in that collapse. The Provisional Government might have saved itself had it withdrawn from the war. The Bolshevik Revolution was driven by egalitarian and democratic ideals but was a failure since it produced a repressive and cruel society. The degeneration of the Bolshevik regime during the civil war was caused by the authoritarianism embedded in Leninist ideology and the desperate struggle the regime faced in its effort to survive. While Smith assigns considerable responsibility to Lenin for Stalin’s coming to power, he rejects the view that Stalinism was the inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution.

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