Lieutenant Antony Beevor remembers August 21, 1968, with his trademark precision. Stationed at Hohne garrison, a British Army base in north central Germany, he awoke to the news that Russian tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia to bring to an end the country’s liberal experiment known as the Prague Spring. Nobody outside the intelligence world had really expected this. Fear swept across Europe that the Cold War was turning hot.
Beevor, 75, recounts how members of the British 7th Armored Division in Hohne started tracking Russian communications. The parallels with Ukraine are striking because the Russian troops failed to establish a secure communications network. “We were all listening in,” Beevor says. The operation was riddled with “an enormous number of cock-ups. The Russian tank commanders in many cases had no maps.”
At first his description sounds like an East European version of Dad’s Army. But it almost resulted in something much more dangerous — an exchange of fire between Nato and Warsaw Pact tanks. Clueless as to their position, “one lot [of Russians] were about to cross the border into West Germany”.
On the other side were British Saladin tanks manned by West German border guards, “the 76mm shells ready up the spout”, as Beevor recalls, using the army slang for a loaded gun. Just as events threatened to spiral out of control, a lone Czech border guard rushed in front of the Russian column “waving his arms at these tanks coming towards him and shouting, ‘That’s West Germany!’ ” Phew!
How Do You Say “Déjà Vu” in Russian?
The anecdote is instructive. Whatever topic Beevor and I touch on, we can’t shake off the black pall that Russia’s war on Ukraine has cast not only over Europe but also over most of the rest of the world. Beevor’s trusted researcher in Kyiv, Oleksii Ivashyn, has exchanged his library pass for a gun and is now defending Kharkiv from the Russian onslaught.
“In August 1968 the Warsaw Pact forces entering Czechoslovakia were told by their political officers that they would be welcomed as liberators,” he wrote in The Atlantic at the start of the Ukraine war. “They found themselves cursed, out of fuel, and hungry. Morale was shattered.”
After the Russians launched their assault on Ukraine on February 24, Beevor spotted that Putin was committing the same error as the Soviet leadership had 54 years earlier in Czechoslovakia. “Putin’s control of domestic media,” he said, “can hide the truth from most of the Russian population, but his conscripts, forced now to sign new contracts to turn them into volunteers, are all too aware of the reality.”
Beevor’s personal experiences in the military, combined with decades of meticulous archival research, means he has an ability to draw on multiple historical precedents that few can match. Best known for his two huge best-sellers, Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall 1945, he has now produced Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921, a gripping narrative history of one of the most complex episodes in modern Russian history.
“Putin’s control of domestic media can hide the truth from most of the Russian population, but his conscripts, forced now to sign new contracts to turn them into volunteers, are all too aware of the reality.”
I have come to discuss his new book and his career at the historian’s cozy but elegant apartment on a Georgian garden square in Pimlico, London. Beevor has invited me to lunch but warns that he won’t take a glass of red wine as he is finishing a course of chemotherapy. When I ask Beevor about the disease — he has multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer — he brushes it off, seemingly unconcerned. What does worry him is that the treatment might get in the way of an autumn book tour that will take in Australia as well as several European countries.
Illness played an important part in Beevor’s childhood. From the ages of four to seven he suffered from Perthes disease, a condition that results in the softening of the hip bone in children. During those years he used crutches all the time with one of his legs tied back in a sling. This made him a target of bullying at his prep school. “That’s when I decided to go into the army,” he says. Years later he realized that his reason for joining up had actually been “to get over this physical chip on the shoulder”.
Beevor’s A-level results may also have prompted him to choose a military career. He cheerfully confesses that he failed both his history and English A-levels at Winchester. His output is lasting proof that one does not need academic training to write magisterial works of history.
Instead he went into the army to prove he was no weakling. His time at Sandhurst, which he did not enjoy, and his subsequent career as an officer in the 11th Hussars did teach him invaluable lessons about warfare and those critical moments that determine future decades.
Beevor, who suffered from Perthes disease as a child, went into the army to prove he was no weakling.
He had the benefit of studying at Sandhurst under the great military historian John Keegan. But perhaps more important, he says, “I understood why armies worked in the way that they did. That they weren’t completely mechanistic. That there was a tremendous amount of emotion.” Unsurprisingly this remark triggers another digression into the Ukraine war as we consider how the contrast in morale between the Russian and Ukrainian troops might affect the outcome of the conflict.
By the time the army decided to merge the 11th Hussars with its sister regiment the 10th Hussars, Beevor had already started work on his first novel. “Fortunately it was never published,” he says with a characteristically self-deprecating chuckle. But the writing bug had clearly bitten. In retrospect it almost appears inevitable that he would end up an author.
His first book, a modest-selling political thriller, was published by John Murray. This made him the sixth generation of his family, including his mother, to be published by the house — a surely unbeatable record. After his first two novels, one of Beevor’s editors felt that with his army background he should be writing about military matters rather than fiction. That was when he began his history of the Spanish Civil War.
As we discuss Spain, Beevor points out that Lisbon in neighboring Portugal was a center of espionage and intrigue during the Second World War. I chip in that this was one of the places where Ian Fleming plied his spy craft at that time. “Funnily enough, Fleming wanted to parachute my mother into Italy in 1940 because she spoke the local dialect for La Spezia,” he says.
His mother, Kinta Beevor, spent much of her childhood with her parents and grandparents in a house on the Ligurian coast, rubbing shoulders with DH Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. “Fortunately she was pregnant with my oldest brother and so Fleming had to drop that idea!”
“I understood why armies worked in the way that they did. That they weren’t completely mechanistic. That there was a tremendous amount of emotion.”
I think the key to Beevor’s work lies in his use of German and particularly Russian archives. By 1995 most of the Soviet Union’s voluminous archives were open to foreign researchers and remained accessible until Putin came to power in 2000. If you were lucky enough to have had access in this brief period you could turn up some astonishing finds.
When researching Stalingrad, Beevor had observed that the best documentation in the German archives was written by doctors and priests who were not constrained by military hierarchy. The Communist Red Army, of course, had no priests, but Beevor stumbled across something much better. “Stalin … didn’t trust his own generals,” he says. “He didn’t know whether they were losing Stalingrad and so a report was flown back every night to Moscow for Stalin. There was no propaganda bullshit at all.” Beevor and his researcher read it all.
Beevor is effusive in his praise for his long-standing researcher, Lyuba Vinogradova. They first worked together in Volgograd (Stalingrad) in 1994, when she was writing her doctorate on plant biology — not a conventional route into historical research. “I started to realize she had an absolute nose instinct for the right question.” Beevor explained he wasn’t interested in the mechanics of war. He and Vinogradova both wanted to know “what it was like for the people there at the time”.
And she had a secret weapon in dealing with the grumpy officers acting as gatekeepers to the key material. “Lyuba had a stammer. Her eyelids would start flickering as she tried to get the word out — so when we got into the crusty colonels in the military archives they would immediately melt. ‘Oh, of course, Lyubushka, whatever you need, Lyubushka!’”
Back Before the U.S.S.R.
Vinogradova started to research Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 five years ago. The revolutionary events in Russia are relatively well established and well documented. Yet because the two revolutions of 1917 in February and October took place against a ferociously chaotic background, new material often surfaces.
An impressive aspect of Beevor’s latest book lies in the variety of its sources, from accounts of ill-tempered debates inside Lenin’s Bolshevik Party to cocaine-snorting officers in the White resistance army. He says that richness is down to Vinogradova. ‘That’s why it’s dedicated to her. Without her it just simply wouldn’t have existed.’
What makes the new book so readable is its structure. The story of the revolution may have been told many times, but historians have had few greater challenges than explaining the civil war that followed.
Each phase of this conflict contains several peculiar subplots and dramas that stretch across a vast landmass and 11 time zones. The phrase “civil war” conceals as much as it reveals. The Whites enjoyed boots-on-the-ground support of 11 outside powers from the US to Japan, with the UK playing a key role on several fronts.
Beevor’s short chapters break up the action to ensure they are digestible while also pointing a clear path through the dark fog of this brutal war. Within the first 100 pages one thing becomes clear. The area that extends westward from southern Russia into the Donbas then to Odesa and Kyiv is probably the key strategic territory that Trotsky’s embryonic Red Army needed to control to ensure the survival of Bolshevism and the revolution.
This combination of clarity with vividness is Beevor’s defining strength as a historian. But he also never shies from the most difficult subject — violence. All his books have included persistently harrowing accounts of the bestial behavior that has characterized much of 20th-century warfare.
After he completed his book on Berlin’s downfall, both he and Vinogradova suffered a form of post-traumatic stress disorder after uncovering the extent of the Red Army’s crimes, particularly against women. “It was even worse for Lyuba, having been brought up with admiration for the Red Army soldier,” only to come across an entire library of documentary evidence that the army “was raping all the Russian and Ukrainian women and girls” as well as the Germans, Poles, Hungarians and Serbs. “They were allowed to do it. It was grotesque.”
In the civil war there was no ethnic or ideological distinction. Whites, Reds, Russians, Ukrainians, Cossacks, Chinese, Czechs, Koreans, Hungarians — all participants were both perpetrators and victims of the most unspeakable violence in the campaigns.
And so we return to Ukraine. Beevor firmly rejects the idea that you can predict the course of war by examining what has gone before. But you can start to map indicative patterns. At the moment neither he nor I can yet see a way of squaring the circle in this conflict that might lead to a negotiated settlement. Both sides believe they can win. Putin needs to win to survive. So, although Beevor thinks that Putin is rattled, we are likely to be in for a very long haul.
Misha Glenny is the rector of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the former Central Europe correspondent for the BBC. He’s the author of several books, including The Fall of Yugoslavia and Other Russia