202: The Russian Civil War Pt. 2


 Before jumping into the first battles of the Civil War in Episode 203, we have to take some time to discuss the actions of the Bolsheviks, later Communists, on the political front.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 202. This is our second episode discussing the events of the Russian Civil War. This episode we are going to dive pretty deep into the political developments in the Bolshevik party and their leadership as the Civil War first began. This includes their own view on how to run the country as well as they interactions with the peaceful opposition, or the other political parties that functioned within the Bolshevik state. We will discuss the concept of War Communism, what it was, when it was put into place and whether it was a reaction to the war or was just Bolshevik policy. Finally, we will close out this episode by having our first discussions about the White movement that would become the greatest threat to the Bolshevik government and discuss some of the challenges that the movement would have. Before any of that though, we need to talk, we need to talk about the Bolsheviks. In 1918 they would rename themselves into the Russian Communist Party, better known today as just the Communists. Some of the events that occur in this and later episodes occur before this name change took place, some take place after, to try and avoid further confusion from here on out I will be referring to the Bolshevik party and its members as the Communists when the events relate to the time after they took control in the October Revolution of 1917, with events before that revolution I will still use the term Bolshevik. This is not entirely accurate to history, but I think it will reduce confusion since these episodes are not strictly chronologically ordered. Upon further reflection I should have made this change right from the start, but I didn’t, so I will be doing it now.

As we dig into the events in the political arena in Communist controlled territory during the civil war the role and organization of the Communist party is critical to understanding the relationship between the political leaders and the rest of the citizens. Over the course of 1918 and 1919 there was a serious shift in the make up of the party and its role in society. The revolution had been launched and sustained thanks to large numbers of workers, either factory workers or those of the lower classes. However, during the first two years that the party was in power this would rapidly change. By the end of 1919 only about a fifth of all of the members of the Communist Party were part of the working class, and there would be a growing divide between those within the party and those outside the party. If you were a party member you would get paid more, you got better food, you were provided with better housing, you were given access to better things than those outside of the party. To sustain this system a huge amount of resources were funneled into the party. In A People’s Tragedy The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 Orlando Figes claims that the housing and living budgets of the Communist quarters in the Kremlin, which housed 5,000 party members, was greater than the amount spent on social programs for the entirety of Moscow outside the Kremlin walls. This system bred both resentment from those outside the party and it also bred corruption within it. Bribes, black market trading, and the sale of public property at a huge markup were all common occurrences. There were several attempts to get this corruption under control, with several high ranking officials, right up to Lenin himself speaking out against it and attempting to taking actions to try and address it. Nobody could really fix it though, and it was too ingrained into the political situation at the time. The growing divide that all of this corruption, special treatment, and resentment caused between the Party and those outside the party would be an important driver of events as the Communists tried to get control of their country.

This resentment was most important as it related to the workers. The workers had been important in the February revolution, and then to the Bolsheviks in October. The relations between the Communists and the workers would then be very challenging for the duration of the Civil War. There is some evidence that there were wide swaths of these workers that did not support the Communists, but the workers groups officially did. This was due, in no small part, to the actions of the Communists who were very good at making sure the appropriate views were expressed in worker meetings. Possible leaders in any kind of agitation were also removed from the unions over time. Any resistance to the Communists should not overstated though. The workers were critical vectors of support for the Communists and if there were some large changes to the viewpoints of those in the working class they never fully abandoned the Communists. One of the reasons for the shift in support, at least early in the conflict, was that many of the most ardent supporters of the new Communists government had been active in or had joined the army. This had the effect of removing some of the most outspoken voices within the workers groups. There was also a demographic shift in the cities and in the average factory worker. During the war the average worker would get older, and would be more likely to have a family, as younger workers were absorbed into the army or into the party.

One of the policies that the Communists were forced to continue, even though it was not popular among the people and had played a role in causing the revolution, and that was the policy of food rationing. Food rationing had been a key feature for many countries during the war, including Russia, and the practice would not end with the Russian exit from the war, but instead it would increase. Rationing would peak in 1920, with many types of food being rationed, with different amounts being given to different types of citizens. Workers were split up based on their perceived value of their work to the state, and they were given rations appropriate to that valuation. This meant that, for example, transportation workers might receive a larger ration than other types of workers. Workers were still getting paid, for at least the early part of the civil war period, but they were often not receiving enough money to really supplement that ration very much, especially as inflation continued and got worse. In the cities this resulted in community kitchens being well trafficked, and a move away from currency being the primary method of exchange, a change that was actually intended for reasons we will discuss later in this episode.

With the rationing, and a lack of support for the Communists in some areas, there were still strikes. There were not as many as might be expected though, given the economic hardships that would be experienced. This was for two major reasons, one was the militarization of the workers and the very powerful crackdowns done by the Communists. For the duration of the civil war, in the Communist controlled cities, workers were considered as part of the war effort and on equal footing to the Red Army, and that meant that resistance from workers, like striking, was treated like desertion and treason. This gave the communist leaders the justification for the measures that they took to crackdown on the strikes. Leaders and the strikers themselves were at times deported to prisoners, and other workers brought in to replace them. It was also very common for any striker or organizer to be labelled as White agents, who were doing what they could to bring down the Communist government from the inside. This is perhaps the most classic excuse for a government that is in power, but is facing internal opposition while also fighting an external foe, it made it easier to remove anybody who the leaders did not agree with. Even if the strikers had nothing to do with the Whites, labelling them as White supporters was very helpful, and made them not just an example but also a propaganda piece.

While the workers represented an, at times, disorganized opposition to the Communists, there were also well organized and official opposition as well. These groups would play an early role in organizing and leading protests and strikes, and they would always have a somewhat tenuous relationship with the Communists. The two largest groups were the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries, or SRs, both of which were socialist parties, but they just disagreed with the specific flavor of socialism espoused by the Bolsheviks. When they came to power the Bolsheviks were not thrilled to share power with these other groups, Lenin really just wanted the Bolsheviks to be the soul group in power, and due to this view many steps would be taken to try and prevent the Mensheviks and SRs from having any power. The earliest of these moves was the dismissal of the Assembly after the Bolsheviks did not receive a majority. This decision, plus other Communist actions made it clear that they were actively antagonistic toward the opposition. It would also represent the first step in what would be a slow and steady degradation of relations which would, in later years, result in the removal of all official opposition to the Communists. In the early years though, especially in 1918, the Mensheviks and SRs were generally not actively trying to overthrow the Communist government, like the White movement would seek to do. Instead the were acting as more of a loyal opposition, at least in their eyes, although they were an energetic and at times frustrating opposition in the eyes of the Communists.

The two opposition groups would be at their greatest point of strength, with the Communists not yet fully established and the civil war not at the levels of violence that it would reach in later years. This was an important period, and would turn out to be the critical period for the opposition even if they did not know it at the time. During this period they would organized several strikes and protests, and even though these actions were often uncoordinated, they did still result in a response. This response would be from the Communist leaders as they began to put pressure on the Soviets, which were still very powerful and which had previously been purely democratic groups, this made them very inviting of the Mensheviks and SRs and a vector through which they could use their power. Party orders began to come down, and some Soviets began to make it clear that Menshevik and SR members were not welcome. At the same time the overall power within the Soviets began a process of concentration which generally favored the more organized and united Communists. This would have the effect of silencing many voices that maybe did not agree with what the leaders of the Soviets were saying. 1918 would be the best possible time for these other Socialist groups to organize an opposition or have influence over the government. By the time that 1918 was over the Bolsheviks had solidified their power and, just as importantly, the White threat was becoming very real.

Throughout late 1918 and early 1919 Menshevik and SR led agitation would continue. IN these efforts, even if they were being slowly moved out of the leadership positions, they were able to utilize their still strong base of support among the working classes. They also had a new weapon at their disposal, and one given to them by the Bolsheviks. As I mentioned earlier there was resentment among many workers about the privileges given to party members and the Mensheviks and SRs would tap this resentment in their calls for action. When these strikes happened the Communists developed an effective set of procedures that they put in place to handle them. A good example of this playbook was a strike that occurred at the Aleksandrovskii railway workshops. In February 1919 the workers at this workshop went on strike in protest of the fact that they were not actually being paid their full salary and, in their opinion, they were not receiving enough food. When these demands were brought by some leaders to the authorities, they were actually accommodating and the workers went back to work. Everything seemed to be going very well for the workers, but then at night the Cheka arrived and arrested the leaders of the strike. When the workers went on strike the next day in an effort to have them released things quickly became violent. The workers were evicted by force and the workshops were temporarily shut down. More leaders were removed, with all of them labelled with the most scarlet of letters, counter-revolutionary. Over the next month workers were let go until eventually all of those that had participated in the strike were gone, with new workers brought in to take their place. I think it is important to point out that one of the reasons that examples like these were so effective is that the Communists controlled food distribution, and the ration a person was given was dictated by the work they did. So if somebody was fired due to going on strike, even if they found a job they might not find one that was on the same level of valuation, which could result in less food being available for the worker and their family.

With the Communists becoming very skilled and experienced in dealing with strikes what the socialist parties really needed was a united front. The Mensheviks, the SRs, even the smaller groups like the Left SRs and the Social Democrats needed to join together if they wanted any chance of forming an actual opposition. But of course they did not do that. They agreed on many things, especially on a general dislike of the Communist Party, which many believed had created a new privileged class, just the things they were fighting against. But unfortunately for their future prospects this is mostly where the agreements ended. This inability to join together made it easy for the Communists to degrade their power one by one, to minimize their influence separately. Even with their inability to do this though, they still stumbled into some successes, although successes that were not within Russia. One of the last successful and meaningful acts of the socialist opposition in Communist Russia would be to make sure that international socialist groups, who the Communists saw as critical to their coming international revolution, knew that things were not very good in Russia. This was at the same time that the Communists were trying to portray Russia as an awesome, almost utopian, country for socialists.

Movements by the Communists against the Mensheviks and SRs would escalate as the scale and scope of the Civil War expanded and as the White forces reached their strongest point. The socialist groups found themselves trapped in a middle ground that was continually shrinking as both the Whites and Reds withdrew further and further into extremism. They tried to ride the middle ground as long as they could, but it would prove to be untenable. They were forced to either go against the Communist and be labelled as Whites, counter-revolutionaries, and traitors. Their only other option was to join with the Whites, where they were often not accepted due to concerns that they were too close to the Communists. Some Menshevik and SR leaders would eventually move fully into the White camp, a choice that they felt they had to make given their treatment by the Communists. By late 1919 there were not many SR and Menshevik leaders that were still considered to be opponents of the Communists, but as legal opposition. A few of these were still allowed to participate in the Communist controlled Soviets so that the Communists could claim, on the international stage and to other socialists, that they were still allowing the more moderate socialists to participate.

After 1919 the position of the opposition parties further deteriorated. If their repression had increased as the Whites grew stronger as the White threat receded in 1920 it got even worse. This went against the hopes of the remaining members of the Mensheviks and SRs who had hoped that the removal of the White threat would mean a return to some form of normalcy, allowing them to once again enter the political arena. Instead the Communists moved to completely remove them. On August 20th, when the All-Russian Menshevik Conference began in Moscow all of its members were arrested. Then over the next two months the leaders of all of the local Menshevik groups would also be arrested. A similar arrest cycle was put in place for the SRs. In November the Communist government published a statement that said that all of the arrested members were hostages, and their fate would be dictated by the future actions of the members. With all of the leadership in prison, and their lives being used to guide the actions of their members, the opposition essentially ended.

One final topic we should discuss about the Communists, before we move over to spending some time on the Whites both for the rest of this episode and then next week, is War Communism. War Communism is a catch all term that attempts to describe the entirety of the Communist economic policy for the Civil War years, or from 1918 until 1921. There are a few problems with the name though, which we need to talk about before we dive into what it actually is. First, it was not actually called War Communism during the Civil War, the time in which it was actually implemented and used. That term would not first be used until 1921, at which point Lenin would use it in a speech, and this was not long before it was replaced by the New Economic Plan. Second, it was not necessarily just created and put in place as a reaction to the war. In later years, once it was replaced, there were some Communist groups that looked back on the period of War Communism as an era when things were actually being done correctly. It would even be called as one Communist author as the “heroic age of Communism.” This was because, in many ways war communism was in line with the official policies advocated for by the Bolsheviks before they took power. But, as we will discuss shortly, the overall economic plan would not work out very well, and this would cause many Communist leaders to try and distance themselves and the party from the policies of War Communism, and in fact they would use the term War Communism to make the policies seem like a stop gap measure forced upon the Communist leaders by the Civil War and the hardships it created.

Another reason that these economic policies were not referred to as War Communism as a group is because they were not all put in place at the same time. The Communists had a few problems when trying to put their new economic policies into place, their ability to force change and the state of the Russian economy. Before 1920 there were large swaths of the country, even those areas that were nominally under Communist control, where the Communist government in Moscow had little actual power. This made it difficult to, say, put in place economic policies around food and other rural products. These challenges meant that War Communism had to be build up over time, as the opportunity to do so presented itself. This meant that for the majority of the civil war time period most of Russia, either controlled by the Communists or the Whites would move forward with a mix between Communist ideas and the capitalism that had existed before the Revolution, and which was so anathema to Communist beliefs. Throughout 1919 and 1920 War Communism principles would grow in application though, to varying degrees of success.

So, what were these principles? Well there would be 6 of them. First, the state would control all of the means of production, or at least the maximum possible amount. Second, the state would be in control of the distribution of whatever that production created. These first two principles included the production and distribution of food, which meant forced requisition of food from the rural peasants, and the rationing of food for those in the cities. Third, the labor of every citizens, in its type and duration, was controlled by the state. This resulted in very strict rules being put in place for workers of all types, and a high degree of control for those rules and their application. Fourth, the economy was to be extremely centralized, or as centralized as possible. The goal was to have the entire state economy controlled by a few central committees that controlled production and distribution. These committees would also be in control of foreign and domestic trade, with unauthorized trade of goods eventually being made illegal. Fifth, there was a general goal for the state to produce everything that it needed from internal sources, instead of relying on foreign imports. Sixth, and finally, there would be no currency. Instead of currency any exchange of goods would either take place with the state, which would be the majority, or through in kind exchanges. These six principles were far reaching, and they would take time and patience, and not small amount of skill to put in place.

As I mentioned earlier there were many problems in trying to make these theories into a reality. Some of the problems were rooted in things outside of Communist control, or at least realities that it is very hard to see how they could have worked around. The state was at war, and therefore a huge amount of the country’s output and resources were going to the war effort and sustaining the Red Army. Most importantly, a large percentage of the food that was grown was going to the war, and the problems with food would intensify as the war continued. The peasants were not producing as much food, due to the realities of the war and they also resisted the requisition of what they created by the Communist government, since they did not feel that they were receiving enough, or sometimes anything, in return. This put the state in a bit of a bind, because in assuming responsibility for production and distribution, if that production and distribution was not successful there was only one group to blame. Well, actually that group could then blame it on counter-revolutionaries, which the Communists would have some success in doing. The Sixth principle mentioned that the Communists wanted to remove money as a method of exchange. This was a difficult problem, since there was so much money already in circulation and there was, of course, a good amount of attachment to that money by the people who possessed it. The Communists had a plan for this though, instead of trying to remove the money from circulation and from savings they instead decided to pump massive amounts of new money into the economy. When this act was combined with the already high levels of wartime inflation, the value of money plummeted. The goal was, instead of removing money, to make it completely worthless. By destroying the real value of money, both as wages and savings, one Bolshevik economist, E.A. Preobrazhenskii, hoped to turn the state controlled printing presses into “the machine-gun of the Commissariat of Finance, which directs its fire into the rear of the bourgeoisie.” This effort would be successful, and Russian paper money soon became worthless. Unfortunately that did not mean the efforts to remove money and then replace it by a system of in-kind exchange that was regulated by the party was totally successful. Both production in the cities and agricultural production would fall drastically in the years of the Civil War, partially due to the effects of the war, but also due to the effects of Communist actions to alter the economy. Perhaps the greatest indication of War Communism’s failure as an economic policy was that it would be rapidly replaced when the war was over. This would have been completely normal, for a war time policy to be revoked after the war. But in the case of War Communism’s replacement, instead of moving closer to the pre-Revolutionary Bolshevik ideal, the New Economic Policy would move further away, and further towards capitalism, but that is a story for later.

We will spend the rest of this episode introducing the Whites, and specifically some of the problems and trends within the White movement that we will be following over the next few episodes. Th White movement, as a whole, is difficult to precisely define and is best outlined as simply “not the Communists.” This is because the White leaders, and the groups that they led, often had little unified policy, they were a Big Tent Political group to use a modern term. Because of this fact they were a group with a diverse set of goals and opinions which made the easiest course of action a simple rejection of Communist ideas. This caused its own problems, during the Civil War they would often find it a challenge to rally support to their cause of simply not Communist, people were looking for something to fight for. It also caused the leaders of the White movement to actively avoid precise political stances or commitments. It was often difficult for the movement as a whole to answer questions like were they supporting a return of the monarchy? Were they supporting the Provisional Government from mid-1917? Were they continuing to support the rural land reform put in place by the Provisional Government? Were they going to support the independence of states like Finland, Latvia, Ukraine, and other areas which were formerly part of the Russian Empire but were seeking independence? These are just some examples of the questions that the White leaders did not have good answers to. Providing answers was critical though, because support from various groups within Russia were contingent upon the answers that the Whites gave to them. By trying to avoid taking definitive stances the Whites also gave the Communists a lot of latitude when it came to prescribing beliefs and policies to them, which let the Communists set the narrative of the conflict. One of the only true political stances that the Whites would arrive at fairly early was that they did not want the Tsar to return, or any other monarch. This was due to a total lack of support for such a move.

Eventually they would be forced to make decisions, and by early 1919 the strongest White leader at the time, General Denikin, would make some, well kind of. By that point he was in control of thousands of square kilometers of Southern Russia, and he ruled an area consisting of 40 million people. This was largely an area made up of rural populations which meant the question of land reform was incredibly important. The answer that would eventually be provided to that question was, to many, deeply disappointing. Denikin felt that he had to try and pull through on a middle ground, trying to pick and choose between Socialist and Bolshevik land reform policies while also making sure that the old land owners, who were a critical base of support for the Whites, would still accept the measures. Just as important as these decisions around land reform, the Whites would also, eventually, have to take a definitive stance on the non-Russian nationalities, and specifically the independence of those nationalities. This decision would be forced upon them by the resistance provided by those nationalities to Communist encroachment, and due to their strong push for independence. They would dodge having to answer as long as possible, and far longer than they should have. By being evasive with their policy the White leaders would push away many groups, like the Finns, or Estonians, or Ukrainians, who could have been the strongest supporters of the White cause. The problem was that the reason the Whites often refused to answer is because they knew that nobody would like their answer. The official White policy, support by their strongest leaders, was that they supported local autonomy but not independence. This put them at odds with several groups, especially those that had already succeeded in gaining their independence. Over time the White leaders would show time and again that they would take a hard line stance with these new countries, when a Finnish delegation was sent to meet with Admiral Kolchak, the White leader in Siberia, he would not allow his government to recognize Finnish independence in any way, he would not even meet with the Finns. This hardline stance, the idea that Russia must be the old Russia, and it was entitled to all of the territory of the Empire, would come back to bite the Whites many times throughout the conflict.

Now, for the last few minutes I have been simplifying things quite a bit, speaking of the Whites as a kind of unified group, but they were far from unified. There were White armies in northern Russia, in the Baltics, in the South, and in Siberia. All of them were led by different leaders with different opinions and different policies. There was no Lenin figure among the Whites, to their great detriment. It did not help that the groups were also geographically separated, and that many of the shortest routes that could have connected their territory were controlled by the Communists. For example, Denikin and Kolchak were the White leaders who controlled southern Russia and Siberia. The easiest way for them to communicate would have been the overland route, but this was simply not possible, instead all communication had to be routed around the entire world, through London or Paris. There would be efforts by the Western countries to bring to the White leaders together, especially Denikin and Kolchak, but it would just never really happen. We will discuss those efforts by the Western powers next episode.