206: The Russian Civil War Pt. 6


When the Communist leaders in Moscow defeated the Whites, they still have a plethora of other problems to work though.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 206. This is our sixth, and last episode on the Russian Civil War, and it will be almost solely focused on the events that occurred after the defeat of the White forces led by General Denikin in late 1919. Throughout 1920 Communist Russia would move towards peace, with peace treaties signed with many countries that it had previously been at war with. On February 2, 1920 the Treaty of Tartu would be signed with Estonia; On July 12th the Treaty of Moscow with Lithuania; on August 11th the Treaty of Riga with Latvia; on October 14th the Treaty of Tartu with Finland. While these peace treaties represented a retreat from the goal of a global revolution it did not represent all of the countries that Soviet Russia was at war with during this period, it did mark an important turning point. It would mark the point where the Communists would, for the first time, begin to enjoy secure borders for much of their territory. This security allowed them to refocus their energies on internal issues and the economic problems that were building up due to the stresses placed upon the country by the Civil War. In The “Russian” Civil War, 1916-1926: Ten Years That Shook the World, Jonathan D. Smele would say of this period that “Lenin’s regime faced persistent internal challenges to its governance—armed and unarmed, martial and ideological, as well as economic—in principle and in practice. However, these challenges remained largely isolated from one another; and, importantly, were never so extensive as to replicate the no-go, partisan infested regions that spread like a typhus rash across the White rear in Ukraine, South Russia, and, especially, Siberia.” It will be those internal challenges that will occupy the first half of this episode. The answers that were found for the challenges would then to go to shape not just the immediate post war years, but also the entire course of Soviet Russia.

While many of the conflicts that Russia was involved in would officially end in 1920, by the end of 1919 it was clear that the White threat was receding and the Communists would be victorious in the Civil War. However, the military successes, with Denikin and Kolchak defeated, would not solve some of the economic problems that Russia had been experiencing since before the First World War. The crisis of the Civil War had caused War Communism to be expanded and for civilian industries and labor to be militarized. This had been a useful expedient to get through the period of greatest threat, but was not a long term solution. Even those workers who supported the measures, at least initially, began to reject them during 1920. The problem that would be faced by the party is that they did not necessarily have a better answer, there were two options really. They could either crack down harder on any person who disobeyed their directives or they could give up. Cracking down was not always possible given the limits of Communist control, and if they were not strong enough then further repression would just cause greater problems. The other option was to give up, or to loosen controls and let the country move closer towards the dreaded “C” word, capitalism. This would eventually be the answer, but in 1919 the Communists were not yet willing to consider it.

It seems only appropriate that here, in the last episode of our series about the Russian Civil War, and the 12th covering the Revolutions and the Civil War combined, we have to talk about food. Food had been the cause of the revolutions of 1917, and it would still be a problem for the Communists well into 1920. Undernourishment was rampant in Russia in 1919 and 1920 and this caused disease to spread throughout the population which also reduced their ability to work. It also, just in general, reduced overall happiness. The winter of 1919-1920 was the worst, and in the cities the public food kitchens and bread lines failed to provide any food at times. There was only one group in Russia that did have enough food, at least according to many workers and peasants, and that was members of the Communist Party. I am not entirely certain that this was actually the case, there are several first hand accounts of communist party members getting better food rations, but often they are from critics of the party which makes it hard to know if the accounts are being embellished. But, as was so often the case, the precise truth was not as important to those living at the time, and the discontent of the peasants and factory workers would grow due to their belief that they were living not in a classless society, but one where there were clear delineations between the upper and lower classes, and they were on the lower end.

The problems with the peasants in the countryside had started almost as soon as the Communist had gained control after the revolution and began to spread their influence outside the cities. The problems would then continue throughout the entire course of White resistance and then afterwards as well. The peasants had supported the February revolution, and they had even supported the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. This support was due to the belief by the peasants that both revolutions would result in more equitable land redistribution. During the period between the revolutions they gained some autonomy, with many areas seeing peasants revolt against the local land owners and then redistribute the land among themselves. The hope was that the Bolsheviks would continue this trend, perhaps even taking it further. However, during 1918 it became clear that something very different was going to happen under War Communism. Instead of taking large land owners and redistributing their land to a bunch of former peasants the Communists would force the peasants to work the land, and then they were expected to hand over any surplus items to the state. These requisition policies caused peasant resistance to ebb and flow throughout 1918 and 1919, with the severity depending at least somewhat on the ability of the Communist party to actually enforce their requisition demands in specific areas. One delegate at a party conference near the end of 1919 would say that “Peasants identify Communists as people with rifles who come to take away a cow and a horse, who come to confiscate their property…From here stems the hatred” and I think this is a pretty accurate assessment of the views of many peasants. They believed that they had gained their freedom after the February revolution, and then the Communists came and took that freedom away from them. This freedom was taken from them through requisitions, which were poorly managed and administered which just made the entire system worse. The lack of organization made the requisitions feel arbitrary and random, with some areas being requisitioned multiple times and others very rarely.

All of the problems that the Communists had were just amplified in the areas where the Whites had been in control for a lengthy period. In these areas, like the Ukraine, Don, and Kuban regions the Communist control apparatus was relatively weak. They were forced to start from scratch in many of these areas and they reverted back to their older strategies. This meant dividing the peasants by class as much as possible and then working with the poorer peasants against the richer ones. The lack of power in the region meant that they often had to resort to using the Red Army as the stick, instead of the carrot, with the Army being called into use violence to make resistant peasant groups cooperate. Just so I am clear here, when I say that there was violence, it was not just a small bit here or there. While the numbers are all over the place, some estimates put the total number of peasants killed in places like the Ukraine, Kuban, and Don in the millions. This was due to both just direct violence by the Communist groups and due to the harshness of the requisitions that were executed on them which caused famine and other hardships. Throughout 1918 and 1919 this caused the constant simmering of tensions which flared up from time to time in fighting, but in 1920 this fighting would reach new levels as tensions boiled over.

Even in the areas where the violence against peasants was at its height, it was often not applied evenly, it was also more often than not applied in a hamfisted or incompetent way. This inability of the Communist leaders to properly handle small scale peasant revolts would hurt both the Communists and the peasants. It inflamed many situations which may have been containable. When the Communist response did not work as expected more peasants would get involved and the small revolts would turn into full scale rebellions. Once these rebellions grew to a certain point the Red Army, for all of its strength against more traditional opponents could only resort to mass violence. The peasant groups had an advantage, they were often fighting in areas around their own villages where they could count on the support of the people. This is why the revolts by the peasants were called the Green movement. Even though the Red Army was the strongest military force in Russia, trying to project its power over the entire countryside, a hostile countryside, was still an incredible challenge. When waging a guerilla war it did not matter that the Greens were spread out, poorly supplied, and disorganized. There were large numbers of them and they were all fighting for roughly the same thing. One of their slogans was “Soviet Power without the Communists” which signified their belief that Russia should return to that period of Soviet and socialist power that it had enjoyed during the Provisional Government. Unfortunately, some of the movements strengths, its decentralization first among them, were also weaknesses. they could not overthrow the Communists, they were not organized or strong enough, all they could do was actively resist Communist policies, and through this resistance attempt to force the Communists to enact changes. This resistance was very costly, the Red Army moved into the areas of strong Green presence and answered that presence with more and ever escalating violence.

The disorder in the countryside would be just one piece of the unrest that would occur throughout the entire country, disorder that would eventually lead to drastic changes in Communist policies. It would take a few more instance of protest and violence before those changes would take place and those changes would only come after the leaders realized that, even though they had won the Civil War, they could not make the economy work the way that they wanted. The catalyst for those changes would be rioting in the cities, which would begin in the spring of 1921. Throughout the early months of that year overall unhappiness in the larger cities of Northern Russia grew, these were areas where Communist strength should have been the strongest. Cities like Moscow and Petrograd where the October revolution had started. However, it was also these areas that had a history of revolutionary movements and they would soon try to once against revolt, only this time against the Communists. In February thousands of workers went on strike in Moscow, and a few days later a march was organized which would see 10,000 workers move through the city center. They were protesting against the rations that they were being provided with by the government. A month later the bread ration had been cut to just 1,000 calories for workers in the factories, barely enough to live on. They called for an end to the privileged rations for members of the Party but also, critically, the removal of all restrictions on free trade and movement within Russia.

The revolt of the workers was not limited to Moscow, and in early March in Petrograd the sailors at Kronstadt revolted. These sailors had been at the very heart of the earlier revolutions, and their revolt was far more impactful than any other strike or march that would take place in other parts of the country. Similar to the workers in Moscow the sailors demanded less power for the Communists and the removal of all bans on opposition meetings. They wanted the old parties like the Left SRs and the Anarchists, to be able to once again openly form and meet. In essence, they were rejecting the dictatorship of the Communist Party. They believed that this dictatorship had perverted the ideals of the original revolution, pointing to the party’s privileges as a key example of this perversion. These protests would prompt Lenin to support a ban on any party groupings outside the Central Committee, a new policy that he would announce at the Tenth Party Congress on March 8th. At the time this was seen as a necessary step to curb the protests around Russia, it would also have drastic ramifications when Stalin used it as justification for, well, a lot of the horrible things that Stalin did. For the sailors in 1920 it meant that the Red Army would soon be moving into crush their resistance. Fighting would begin on March 7th with an artillery dual between the sailors and the soldiers. Over the next week the Red Army made several assaults on the sailor’s positions inside fortifications in Petrograd, assaults that were unsuccessful. Eventually the sailors ran low on supplies and munitions and on the 18th they were defeated. While the sailor revolt was unsuccessful, it did prove to be just another sign that War Communism, and Communist economic and political policy as it existed in early 1921 was not popular, and may not have been workable.

The solution, as proposed by Lenin and some of the other Communist leaders was the New Economic Policy, or NEP. The NEP represented, at its core, a bit of a reversion away from the Communist ideal and toward a more traditional economic model. This was all prompted by the toxic relationship that had developed between the Party and the peasants and workers. Lenin believed that the crisis caused by the toxicity required large changes, even if those changes represented a step away from the ideal Communist future. The NEP included an almost complete abandonment of the forced requisitioning of all surplus food in the countryside, the abolition of compulsory labor, and the reintroduction of private trade. Not only would this new trade be legal and encouraged, money would also be reintroduced into the economy to facilitate it. All of these activities would then be taxed by the state. This represented a move toward capitalism, the State would retain control of some of the larger industries but many pieces of the economy would be functioning under something that looks a lot like Western capitalism. There was still some lip service paid toward instituting full economic communism at some ambiguous point in the future. But there was not concrete information on how this would happen.

The introduction of the NEP was an important turning point for the revolution. It represented the end of the idealistic period of revolutionary zeal, and the resignation by the Communist leaders that a worldwide revolution, for which they were but the vanguard, might not happen. It would also separate the party into two groups, those who supported the NEP and saw it as necessary and those who would always believed that the better course would have been to force the peasants, workers, and anybody else who resisted into line by whatever means necessary. This split would play a critical role in the fracturing of the party after Lenin’s death, with Trotsky and Stalin both taking very different views on the NEP and that being a key point in their disagreements which would eventually lead to Trotsky’s exile and Stalin’s rise to power.

While the NEP represented an important sea change within Communist Russia from an economic perspective it would also be introduced at a point where the relations between the Communists and other countries around the world began to quickly change. During the revolutionary period, and the early Civil War years the concept of a worldwide revolution had been a key talking point of the Communist leaders. To this end a new International was held in Moscow on March 1919 with the goal of taking the Communist principles and applying them to at the very least the rest of Europe. This represented the political side of the attempts to cause this worldwide revolution, and during the Polish-Soviet War the military side of these attempts would take center stage. Both the political and military efforts to cause a world revolution would fail, and during 1920 the overall revolutionary zeal of the socialist groups around Europe greatly diminished to the point of impotence while at the same time the Red Army was defeated in Poland, and peace would be signed by the two countries in 1921. These defeats, both politically and militarily, caused Lenin and the other leaders to reset their goals for the revolution. No longer were they positioning themselves as the active vanguard of world revolution but instead they would just be a Communist island in the world sea of capitalism. On November 21, 1920 Lenin would state “We are in the position of not having gained an international victory, which for us is the only sure victory, but of having won conditions enabling us to co-exist with capitalist powers who are now compelled into commercial relations with us. In the course of the struggle we have won the right to an independent existence.” This represented a change, just as important as the NEP did in the economic arena. In future years, even when the opportunity presented itself, like it did in Germany in 1923, the Russian Communists would be divided about possibly supporting any revolutions outside of their country.

One of the many failed efforts by the Communists to spread the revolution went in a direction that was far from Europe. It would be in the form of the first Congress of Peoples of the East which would be held in Baku Azerbaijan in early September 1920. Here the Russian communists would attempt to work with the Socialist groups from many other countries, with almost 2,000 delegates attending representing 29 nationalities from all over Asia. Many of these representatives were from European colonies or protectorates at the time and so much of the conversations revolved around throwing off the imperial yoke. Lenin would say that the main purpose of the Congress was to “work out or to outline a practical starting point so that the work which hitherto has been conducted among hundreds of millions of people [in the East] in a disorganized manner, should be conducted in an organized manner, unitedly, systematically.” The Congress is interesting to discuss because it put in stark relief many of the problems that would have to be solved by the Russian Communists if they truly did want to lead a world revolution. There were practical problems like language, with so many delegates from so many different peoples the speeches had to be translated multiple times, which took time. Eventually only three official translations were allowed, Russian, Turkish, and Persian just so that enough speeches could be made. The other challenges were far less concrete. Even though all of the groups present agreed on an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist agenda, beyond that there was little that they could agree on. They all had different goals and different objectives that they wanted to achieve after the imperialists and capitalists were destroyed. This made it almost impossible to work together in any meaningful way. Because of all of these problems the First Congress would also prove to be the last.

Part of the changes in the Communist outlook in 1920 and beyond was based around the relations between Communist Russia and other countries. The early 1920s would be a time of reconciliation between Russian and many of its former allies and enemies. Germany would be one of the areas where this reconciliation would happen in the immediate post war period. Within Germany there were two basic mindsets for the duration of the Paris Peace Conference, one that hoped to reconcile with the West and build better relations with the countries in Western Europe. The other groups believed that Germany should instead focus its efforts on building up relations with Soviet Russia in the East. This latter group would prove to be the correct path forward due to the contents of the Treaty of Versailles. The most important reason that the relations with Russia would be prioritized was around the economy. The German and Russian economies were wrecked by the war, but they hoped that by reopening trade between the two countries they could rebuild their economies as well. On the Soviet side they were also looking to use a relationship with Germany to improve their situation and to also continue to influence Germany toward a proletarian revolution which the Communists hoped to be in a position to foster and support. For their part the Red Army would strictly adhere to a policy of respect for the German borders during the war with Poland, so as not to jeopardize relations between the two countries. After the war momentum for a formal trade agreement actually declined and due to the belief in Germany that there was less threat of an improvement of relations between France and Russia. This lack of urgency would push the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo back to April 1922. This treaty would create an understanding between the two countries that would allow German trade and investment to be used to rebuild and improve the Russian economy. This would prove to be a beneficial agreement for both sides, although it would never be as lucrative as the Germans hoped. Before the war Russia had imported half of all of its foreign important from Germany, in the early 1920s it would never bring in more than a quarter of its goods from Germany. Russia would also import far less in total, due to the state of its economy after the Civil War. Due to these two changes less than 5% of Germany’s total exports would go to Russia, far below what had been hoped for after the war.

While discussions were still occurring between Russia and Germany beginning in May 1920 there would also be trade talks between the Russians and the British. The British were in a delicate position, due to their relations with other countries like France who were far less supportive of improved relations with Russia, and the continued support by the British for the White movement. Due to these complications the British were very clear with Communist negotiators, they wanted a trade agreement but it would not include full diplomatic recognition of the Communist Russian government. This seems like a relatively meaningless distinction, but it was very important to the British during early 1920. One of the problems when trying to come to an agreement between Russia and the British was the role of Tsarist Debt. Before and during the war the Tsars had wracked up a very large number of loans from the British government and Banks, and the British wanted the Communists to honor those debts, which the Communists did not want to do. The head of the Russian delegation, Leonid Krasin, would say “The Soviet government regarded itself as absolved from all Tsarist debts, etc. due to the Allies’ warlike acts of intervention and blockade.” Or as M.V. Glenny puts it in “The Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement, March 1921” “Russia, devastated by war and intervention, refused to regard the reimbursement of foreign capitalists as a first charge on her shattered economy; on the contrary, she felt entitled to present the Allies with a massive bill of indemnity for the vast losses in life and property sustained as a result of Allied intervention in the Civil War.” The matter of debts would stall negotiations for several months. eventually the only option was to push the topic to a later date, with a small piece of the debt to be repaid up front, but then any further conversations about it pushed to future negotiations. This version of the treaty would never been officially signed, due to the outbreak of the Polish-Soviet War. Once the conflict started the British backed away from the table for some time due to concerns about views of other countries. It would only be after the fighting ended, and news of the improving relations between Germany and Russia reached London, that the British once again started pushing for the negotiations. Concern about Germany gaining the status of preferred trade partner was acute enough that the British even took the step of removing all discussions about the debts in an effort to get the treaty signed as quickly as possible.

The normalization of relations with the West, represented by various trade agreements, would be an important step to bringing Russia out of the period of the Civil War. When combined with the defeat of the White forces on the battlefield, and the suppression of the Green forces in the countryside, it would signify the end of the period of uncertainty which began in Russia during the revolutions and then ran throughout the entire period of the Civil War. But, what precisely was the date on which the Russian Civil War ended, well as with more really good questions, the answer depends. The number one question you have to answer before being able to say precisely when the Civil War ended is what constitutes a Civil War. Was it the presence of formal White opposition? If so the Civil War could have ended as early as November 1920 with the defeat of Wrangel. Was it the signing of peace treaties with Russia’s external enemies? If so it could have ended on March 1921 after the signing of the peace treaty with Poland. Was it based not on military but economic factors? That might also point to March 1921 due to War Communism being replaced by the New Economic Plan. Does a Civil War only end when there is actual peace? In that case the time frame greatly expanded. There was active resistance by peasants and partisans throughout the early 1920s, with it not ending in Eastern Siberia until June 1923, or in some of the outer territories like Georgia and Central Asia until well into the mid 1920s. As you can see there are many answers to the question of when the Russian Civil War ended. I think you could even make a convincing argument that the end date should be based on military actions, economic regulations, or internal disturbances. Maybe instead it should be based on internal events, in which case you might need to look to the official declaration of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922 or maybe Lenin’s death in January 1924. I do not really think there is one perfect answer here, and I will not provide you with one, all of the dates above could be considered, and an argument could be made for either one.

Regardless of specifically when or why the Civil War ended the suffering of the Russian people during the Civil War period was on a scale that is simply staggering. Estimates vary greatly on the exact number of deaths caused by the Civil War, I have seen numbers as high as ten million, with other estimates being around 7 million. One of the greatest killers was not military actions or violence but instead famine, with the famines of 1921 or 1923 being crippling. During those years there were some periods of bad weather which caused several crops around Russia to fail. When this was combined with both requisitions and the general disorder of the Civil War period the results were catastrophic. It is hard to know precisely how many deaths the famines around Russia caused, but it was probably over half the total number of deaths from the period of the Civil War.

The one question that remains to be answered is why did the Bolsheviks, later the Communists, win the Civil War. Given the fate of the February Revolution and the Provisional Government the eventual victory of the Communists was never assured, and early on was really not even likely. Over time they were able to assert their control. Entire books could be written to try and answer that question, and entire books have been written about it, but I will give just three reasons that I think are among the most important. The first is that from the very beginning the Bolsheviks were very clear that they wanted to bring Russians out of the World War, this provided them with a base of support from the large number of Russians who had not found a group to represent them on the topic. The second reason is that the Bolsheviks found their support in just the right places. Unlike the SRs or Mensheviks who had led the Provisional Government and had found their greatest support in the countryside. The Bolshevik support was concentrated in the cities, and this made it easier to control, direct, and organize. It also provided them with much more potent geographical positioning once the Civil Wars got moving in earnest. The third reason is that while the Bolshevik leaders were idealists, especially when it came to Communism as an ideal, they were not afraid to move away from those ideals when the situation demanded it. This adaptation is a theme that has been running throughout the entirety of these episodes. From the introduction of War Communism to its eventual removal due to implementation problems to the ban on factions and the brutal, violent, suppression of any individuals who spoke out against the actions of the party. it also meant smaller things that we have barely touched on, like corruption and favoritism within the party, which caused a few problems but also meant that the Communist leaders had a base of support within the party. This third reason set the Communists apart from the Provisional Government, or other revolutionaries. The Socialists in the Provisional Government had been far too idealistic, too concerned with failing, to take some of the drastic steps that were required to stay in power, a concern that the Bolsheviks had been able to take advantage of. When they were in power Lenin and the other leaders would not let hesitancy or idealism get in the way of staying in power. It should be said though, that while this drive and ability to adapt allowed the Communists to win the Civil War, it also irrevocably altered the make up and trajectory of Communism in Russia. By the end of the Civil War, whenever you think that was, Communism in Russia bore little resemblance to the ideals of 1917. Instead they had been altered and mutilated so that the Communists could assure victory in the Civil War. It would be those alterations that would not just allow but in many ways facilitate the rise of one of the most brutal and violent dictatorships in history under the leadership of Joseph Stalin.

Thank you for listening and I hope you will join me next episode as we begin a series on an event I have referenced several times in the last few episodes, the Polish-Soviet war.