Excerpted from the book Poverty, Wealth Dictatorship, Democracy: Resource Scarcity and the Origins of Dictatorship
Around 4 in the morning on January 6, 1918, the acting commander of the guard came up to Victor Chernov, the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly, who was making a speech, and asked him to tell everyone to leave. The guard was tired, he said. Some minutes later Chernov adjourned the meeting. The one and only session of the Constituent Assembly thus came to an end after meeting for only twelve hours. Lenin and his Bolshevik followers made sure it never met again. On January 8th the Third Congress of Soviets opened. It declared the Sovnarkom to be Russia's legitimated government. The Sovnarkom, or Council of People's Commissars, had been a "government" body created by the Second Congress of Soviets at its October 1917 meeting. The Third Congress also gave the Russian government a new name, the "Russian Soviet Socialist Republic," changed in 1923 to the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." The Bolsheviks would not be able to consolidate power for several years. However, they found surprisingly little resistance in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly.
The new Soviet government in January 1918, as in November 1917, found itself short of operating cash. An immediate step taken to deal with this problem was a decree on January 21st, defaulting on all government debt, both foreign and domestic. Naturally, this move was not received well by foreign governments. The new government's efforts to extricate itself from the war also worried the Allied governments. On March 3rd, the Russians signed the German version of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. The terms required the surrender of large areas under Russian control - all of Poland and Finland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were ceded. The treaty was ratified on March 14th by the Fourth Congress of Soviets. Following the collapse of Germany, the Soviet government would renounce the treaty (November 1918).
The ratification of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, even with its disadvantageous territorial concessions, at least served to reduce a major political and economic drain on Russian resources. Having seemingly solved problems associated with the war, the Bolsheviks now had to face renewed economic turmoil at home. The populations of cities such as Petrograd had had to endure a harsh winter which disrupted food deliveries and fuel supplies. Unemployment was high - in Petrograd, in May 1918, it reached around 87 percent. Residents of Petrograd were fortunate if they received four to six ounces of bread on any given day. Tensions finally erupted on May 8th at Kolpino, a town south of Petrograd. Unemployment there was even higher than in Petrograd - out of a work force of 10,000, only 300 had jobs. In the middle of a demonstration, troops were ordered to open fire. One person was killed. In May and June elections for the Fifth Congress of Soviets, the Bolsheviks lost badly to SR and Menshevik candidates.
The Mensheviks, though aware of the discontent, chose not to exploit it. The Bolsheviks, by the inaction of the Mensheviks, received something of a reprieve. They showed little gratitude, however. Instead, they arrested those they thought were leaders of the opposition on June 13th. They took the additional step of ordering new elections to the Fifth Congress of Soviets on June 16th, while expelling Mensheviks and SRs from the soviets.
Despite these actions, the Bolsheviks lost badly, with the SR and Menshevik candidates garnering most of the actual votes. The Bolsheviks tampered with the results to obtain a majority. Bolshevik pressure tactics and the wavering of the Mensheviks and SRs allowed the rigged results to stand. While there were attempts to organize strikes and demonstrations, the workers were confused by the arguments of the Menshevik and SR leadership. They were convinced by the Bolsheviks that resistance was hopeless. When the call was made to strike on July 2nd, only a few of the plants joined.
On July 4, 1918, the Fifth Congress of Soviets approved the new Soviet Constitution. It was perhaps the only routine matter the Congress had to deal with. On the night of July 5th-6th, an anti-Bolshevik named Boris Savinkov, coordinated uprisings against the Bolsheviks in three cities, Iaroslavl, Murom, and Rybinsk. The Bolsheviks quickly put down the Murom and Rybinsk revolts, but Iaroslavl held out for over half a month, despite artillery and air attack. On the afternoon of July 6th, two SR members assassinated the German ambassador, but staged the assassination to look like the Cheka's work. This was followed, in the evening, by a coup attempt by the Left SR. The Bolsheviks were unprepared, and virtually lost control of Moscow, save for the Kremlin. The Left SRs, instead of arresting the Bolsheviks, issued vague appeals to the Russian people, while relying on the possibility of German intervention. There was no coordinated uprising and a force, primarily Latvian infantry, overcame the rebels the next day. Surprisingly, the Bolsheviks dealt leniently with the coup leaders, executing some participants, but only imprisoning others.
The lenient treatment accorded to the Left SR in Moscow stands in contrast to events elsewhere. The murder of Czar Nicholas is believed to have taken place on the night of July 16th-17th at Ekaterinburg, in the Urals. Using revolvers, a squad of ten men shot Nicholas, his wife, and six other members of the royal family, together with their physician, cook and valet. Those who were not killed immediately were bayoneted. Some miles away, at Alapaevsk, on July 17th, other relatives of the royal family were killed. Most suffocated after being thrown into a mine shaft which was then sealed shut. On July 21st, at Iaroslavl, the starting point of the July 5th-6th rebellion, the Bolshevik counterattack finally succeeded. Following the surrender, around 350 prisoners were taken outside the town and shot. It was preliminary to the events of September, when what became known as the "Red Terror" would be instituted.
Two events which occurred on August 30, 1918 triggered the Red Terror. The first was the assassination of M. S. Uritskii, the chief of the Petrograd Cheka. The second was the attempted assassination of Lenin himself. The attempt on Lenin's life was carried out by a reincarnated faction of the SR, the SR Combat Organization. The Combat Organization had been responsible for giving the SR its reputation as a revolutionary group with the political assassinations it had carried out between 1900 and 1908. A woman named Fannie Kaplan had been chosen to carry out the killing. An earlier planned attack had failed when the would-be assassin changed his mind. Kaplan fired three shots from a Browning pistol, just as Lenin was about to get into his car following a speech he had made. Two of the bullets struck Lenin and both are said to have been poisoned with curare. Lenin would recover from the attack, although one wound was nearly fatal.
The Bolsheviks implied that the SR had been involved in the assassination plot, although when they made that charge they had not yet completed their own investigation. Kaplan had been captured close to where the attempt was made. While there probably would have been ample grounds to execute her following a trial, they chose instead to cover up her execution. On September 3rd she was taken outside the Kremlin prison, to a small courtyard. Trucks parked nearby were started to muffle any sounds. She was told to walk toward a car parked in the courtyard and then shot in the back by the commandant of the Kremlin, on the orders of the Cheka.
On September 4th the Commissar of the Interior signed an "Order Concerning Hostages." The decree, calling for the arrest of Right SRs, authorized the taking of hostages, in anticipation of future attacks on Bolsheviks, and urged mass executions and mass terror. A second decree, adopted on September 5th called for placing enemies of the new government in concentration camps, as well as summary execution of those linked to conspiracies against the government. While these two decrees are generally considered the formal start of the Red Terror, the country began to get a glimpse of what was coming even before its official September start. As many as 882 executions may have taken place between January and June of 1918. It is believed the Cheka may have executed 1,115 in July alone. At Nizhnii Novgorod on August 31st the Cheka arrested and executed forty-one people. Another 512 hostages were executed in Petrograd that day, while in Moscow, former officials of the Czarist regime, already in prison, were shot.
By the time the Red Terror came to an end in 1920, thousands had been killed. Because the Cheka archives were destroyed, the actual figure is unlikely to be known. Estimates range from a low of 12,733 to 50,000, and even as high as 140,000. The number of executions is only one aspect of the repressive nature of the Bolshevik regime. The number of concentration camps is another quantifiable measure. The use of concentration camps was advocated in the decree of September 5th, although implementation of that suggestion did not begin until after 1918. Camps were more formally provided for in a "Decision" by the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets (CEC) issued on April 11, 1919. Over the next year, this official commitment resulted in a series of camps being established. Some 50,000 prisoners are said to have been held at the end of 1920 in eighty-four camps. By October 1923, there were 70,000 inmates held in 315 camps.
On November 14, 1920, the army of the White forces evacuated the fortress of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. Over the next two days the White forces would evacuate their people from nearby positions, some 145,693 people in all, loaded on 126 ships headed toward Constantinople. It represented the final triumph of the Red forces over the White forces and the end of the Russian Civil War.
The odds of a Bolshevik victory looked particularly long in the early months of 1918, when their opponents joined armies vowing to defeat them. Yet, despite the fact that the Bolsheviks represented a minority, and an unpopular one at that, they somehow mustered the resources needed to win. What distinguishes the military aspect of the conflict from that aspect carried out in the voting booth? - How could a party which was unable to carry a popular election without resorting to fraud, manipulation, or physical intimidation possibly have won on the battlefield? Perhaps the simplest answer is that the Bolsheviks had a central core of committed supporters, surrounded by a sufficiently large body of people who were neutral or not sufficiently hostile to them politically to actively oppose them. They perhaps had one other advantage - there were no clear choices or good alternatives to Bolshevik rule. From a late Twentieth Century Western perspective, magnified by the events of the Cold War, the Bolsheviks are seen as the clearly evil choice, where the alternatives are seen in black and white terms.
In 1918 Russia people had many alternatives to choose from, yet none presented a clear improvement over Bolshevik rule. While the Provisional Government, from a Western perspective, is viewed as the good "democratic" choice, the experience Russia had had with that government was one of indecision and ineptitude. The other major alternative was the Czarist administration. It was not that popular either. One of the anomalies of the early days of Bolshevik rule is that many conservative "monarchists" actually supported the harsh measures of the Bolsheviks. It was felt a tough stand against opponents would end a chaos which the they saw as an even greater evil than Bolshevism itself. In the final analysis, the Bolsheviks won, not so much because they tricked people, but because they were able to control, and manage, the resources of force. Victory in any war requires both physical resources and a motivated army. While the Bolsheviks may have represented a minority in terms of popular opinion they were able to field an army of 3 million in 1919 as against White army numbers of only 250,000.
It was the Bolsheviks who labeled their opponents as "Whites." The color white had been the color associated with the French monarchy and the Bolsheviks, no doubt, wanted to emphasize any connection the anti-Bolshevik forces might have with the deposed Czar. While the forces and armies which came to oppose the Bolsheviks were given the general label of Whites, they were not a single force. While all opposed the Bolsheviks, they were not all interested in restoring the monarchy. Many were fighting for the Provisional Government. The major White army was the Volunteer Army. The Cossacks were another part of the White armies although they sometimes fought with the Whites, sometimes did not. If central planning, the organizational solution of communism to economic problems, has been condemned for dragging down the Russian economy, decentralization and total independence, the option "chosen" by the White armies, did not operate to save them. Separated geographically by wide distances, they were often forced to fight independently of each other. It was difficult to learn what was happening, let alone to mount any kind of coordinated action.
The area of the Don, the land to the south of Moscow close to the Black Sea, was where opposition forces gathered, almost as soon as Petrograd had fallen in November 1917. What drew the generals and political leaders to the Don was perhaps the legends which came out of the Don. The Don was home to the Cossacks. They enjoyed a unique status - both the Whites and the Reds considered them as potential allies. Their horsemen had served the Czar as cavalry troops, yet they were also considered independent defenders of Russian liberty who would stand against oppression. Initially, the Whites had better reason to expect Cossack support. In the voting for the Constituent Assembly, Cossack voters had overwhelmingly opposed the Bolsheviks, giving around 98 % of their votes to non-Bolshevik candidates. One reason for Cossack opposition to the Bolsheviks was the Land Decree, which had been issued on October 26, 1917. The Land Decree provided for the expropriation of privately held lands and redistribution to peasant communes. While the land held by Cossack peasants was intended to be exempt from seizure, there were, in the land of the Don Cossacks, some 1.8 million non-Cossack peasants, of whom it was estimated that 500,000 were without land. If the Cossacks saw their lands as their own, they feared that the non-Cossack peasants viewed the land as available.
The presence of such a large group of non-Cossacks in the Don lands may have pushed Cossack leadership toward support of the White cause. At the same time, it presented a problem for the Cossacks, since it provided a reserve of potential recruits, only too ready to throw their support to the Bolsheviks. The conservative Cossack fear of unrest became a reality soon after the Bolsheviks had seized power in Petrograd. Toward the end of November 1917, at about the time the future recruits of the Whites were beginning to assemble in the Don area, a group of workers in Rostov took control of the city and proclaimed a Soviet Republic of the Don.
The Cossack leader Kaledin, who was confronted with a minor mutiny among his own followers, felt compelled to ask the newly-forming White army for help. Although the army numbered only 600, they were successful, on December 2, 1917, in taking back Rostov. This small victory provided some hope for the White cause when it formally became the Volunteer Army in mid-December 1917. It had, by that time, grown to just under 4,000 men.
While the young Volunteer Army may have been small, the Bolsheviks felt the need to move swiftly to deal with it. Any armed force would be seen as a threat, however the Volunteer Army was particularly irksome because of the geographical area it had chosen as its base. The Don was next to the Ukraine, Russia's grain-growing region. The Germans wanted control of that area and the Bolsheviks felt compelled to control any military threat there. An army of some 6,000 to 7,000 men under the Bolshevik general Vladimir Antonov was sent south in December. The Red Army picked up support as it moved south, so that by the time it reached the land of the Don, its numbers had increased to 20,000. In contrast to the disorganization which the Bolshevik forces had displayed at the Winter Palace on October 25th, the Red forces had heavy armament, with over 100 machine guns, field guns, airplanes, and an armored train.
When the Red Army, which had been split, threatened to completely encircle the White forces, they began a retreat on February 22, 1918, south into the Kuban steppe lands which lay to the East of the Black Sea. The Volunteer Army had hopes of using the city of Ekaterinodar as a base. The workers of the city had other ideas. What happened at Ekaterinodar perhaps best illustrates the difficulties the Whites faced in trying to topple the Bolshevik government. Workers, on March 14, 1918, took control of the city. The Whites withdrew and returned again in April, at which time the Bolsheviks had a force of 18,000 ready to defend the city. On April 13th, as the Whites were attacking the city, an artillery shell exploded inside the house used by the attackers. General Kornilov, the commander-in-chief, was killed. The Volunteer Army retreated. In June, what was left of the Volunteer Army would move once again into the Kuban steppes, while the Cossacks would move against the Bolsheviks in the fortress they had created at Tsaritsyn. The Volunteer Army, in spite of its retreat, was not through with Ekaterinodar. It returned to the city and captured it on August 16, 1918.
Perhaps the only thing that had saved the Volunteer Army from destruction was an advancing German army, which captured Rostov in May. The Germans had been quick to move east to take charge of the territories granted them under the terms of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. In May the White forces also discovered the differences which lay between their goals and those of the Cossacks. The Whites thought of a war against the Bolshevik government as an idealistic struggle to create a Russian nation, whereas the Cossacks thought more in terms of a war of liberation of Cossack lands. These divergent views created a problem for both parties. The Whites, to a certain extent, viewed the Cossacks as some mythical force which could exist independently of the land. In reality, they were tied economically and socially to the land. While often willing to sacrifice their own lives in battle, it was another matter to subject their families to such risks. Unfortunately the fighting of the Russian Civil War was not limited to the battlefield. Both sides were often willing to torture and kill enemy soldiers and they were just as willing to subject noncombatants to the same rules. The leaders of the Volunteer Army, because they were less tied to the Don economically, to a certain extent, had the luxury of waging an ideological war. At the same time, they were economically dependent on the Don to sustain their war effort.
The Volunteer Army in the Don region was not the only White army to challenge the Bolsheviks. It was in Siberia where the Whites managed to achieve some early but decisive victories. A rival to the Bolsheviks, known as the Komuch government, was created in the spring of 1918. There may have been an inclination to oppose the government, but it did not show itself until the Czech Legion managed to score some victories against the Bolsheviks on its way home. The Czech Legion had confused and somewhat unusual origins. When the First World War began, the Austro-Hungarian army had within its ranks Czech and Slovak soldiers who disliked their allies, the Germans. These soldiers were among those captured by the Russians when they launched their first offensives of the war. A Czech, Thomas Masaryk, head of the Czechoslovak National Council, suggested that these prisoners might be persuaded to fight against the Germans and units were formed which fought with the Russians in 1917.
Following the signing of Brest-Litovsk, the Allies expressed an interest in the units. Initially, the Bolsheviks agreed to release the prisoners and to send them, as military units, to fight with the Allies. Because of fears of German U-boats, a decision was made to send the Czechs east across Siberia to Vladivostok. It was after German requests to stop the transfer that problems began. At Cheliabinsk, in Siberia, the local soviet arrested some Czechs involved in a fight with Hungarian POWs on May 14th. The members of the Czech unit then seized the local arsenal and forced the release of the Czechs being held. Leon Trotsky, Commissar of War, arrested some Czech politicians in Moscow and ordered the Siberian soviets to disarm the Czechs. The Czechs, who had 20,500 men at various places along the Trans-Siberian railroad, retaliated by taking over the various towns located along the railway.
On June 8, 1918 the Czech Legion, as it was known, took over the town of Samara. The Komuch government was formed shortly after. More formally known as the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly, it was formed by liberal and SR supporters. Samara had become something of an underground source of opposition to the Bolsheviks, since around 70 SR ex-deputies of the Constituent Assembly had moved to Samara following the dissolution of the Assembly. Like the Volunteer Army, the army organized by the Komuch government managed to score some early successes. In July, Ufa and Simbirsk were taken, followed by Kazan on August 7th. The Czarist government had accumulated over 650 million rubles worth of gold reserves there, but the Bolsheviks left so quickly that the entire gold stock fell into the hands of the Komuch government.
With aid from Western nations, the White forces in Siberia began to constitute a serious military threat. In small battles they emerged victorious. In fact the Bolshevik army began to retreat. What saved the Bolsheviks was Trotsky, who arrived at the small town of Sviiazhsk with a special train, from which he could dispense food and weapons. By Bolshevik standards, the train was luxurious, containing not only a library, but also a garage with automobiles, and a radio station. Trotsky worked to restore order and morale on two fronts. In terms of the materials needed to fight, he made sure that the Red Army had whatever weapons and supplies were needed. He could even order ammunition directly from Moscow by direct wire from his train. At the same time, he worked to instill fear where inspiration would not work. He had the commissar and commander of one regiment executed when the regiment abandoned a position, along with randomly selected members of the regiment. Trotsky's logistics and morale-boosting efforts paid off. The Red Army, equipped with gunboats, bombers, and artillery retook Kazan on September 10, 1918. (For all the effort expended by Trotsky in Siberia, the actual forces involved were relatively small in the battles for Kazan. There were roughly 3,000 soldiers fighting for each side, both in the August battle as well as in the September recapture.)
In the south, fighting shifted to the city of Tsaritsyn, somewhat north of, but roughly halfway between, the Black and Caspian Seas. The Bolsheviks, in June 1918, had retreated to Tsaritsyn before the German forces attacking Rostov. They spent most of the summer adding to the fortifications of the city. As early as June the Cossacks had started preparations for an attack. However, it was not until October that the first major attack would come. The Cossacks were unable to finish off the Red Army in Tsaritsyn, even though they besieged the city in late 1918. In January 1919, the Red Army would break out of the city to drive the Cossacks back.
The Red forces which faced the Volunteer Army following the rout of the Cossacks in January 1919 were numerically superior, three times those of the Volunteer Army. The Volunteer Army turned to General Mai-Maevskii, just as the Bolsheviks had turned to Trotsky in the north. One advantage the Whites had in the spring of 1919 was the weather. Rainy weather made it difficult, not only for the Red Army to move, but also to communicate. The Volunteer Army, relying on the advantage of rail transport, moved more freely against their Red opponents. When dryer weather came in May, the Red armies found that White victories were not related to the weather. The Volunteer Army advanced along a broad front.
At the end of June the Volunteer Army stormed Tsaritsyn. While the success of the attack could be attributed in part to the aggressive leadership of General Petr Wrangel, the use of British tanks and armored cars no doubt were a major factor as well. The string of victories however, may have proved to be the undoing of the Volunteer Army. On July 3rd, General Denikin, the commanding general, announced that the Volunteer Army's next goal was Moscow. Although the Volunteer Army numbered over 100,000, it extended over an 800-mile front.
The Volunteer Army initially did well. Wrangel, in September, defeated a 50,000 man Red force sent against Tsarytsin. In mid-September, Denikin's main force besieged the city of Orël, only 220 miles south of Moscow, finally capturing it on October 14th. While the main armies fought, a Cossack cavalry force rode through Bolshevik territory on a 500-mile rampage. From the north, another White army was moving against Petrograd. Despite this forward movement, the "unstoppable" White advance was beginning to run into trouble. It came, not from the Red Army attacking from Moscow, but from peasants in the Ukraine. Fearful that the Whites were about to re-impose Czarist rule, they revolted and Denikin was forced to send troops to put down the revolt.
Denikin had to weaken his front line at a time when the Red Army was being strengthened. Not only did Moscow put an additional 100,000 troops into the forces which lay between the advancing Volunteer Army and Moscow, they also supplied them with some 4,400 machine guns and 1,000 pieces of artillery. A newly formed Red cavalry force also managed to defeat a Cossack cavalry force at Voronezh on October 24th. The formation of a Red cavalry unit, an innovative military tactic for the Bolsheviks, proved to be one of the more important military decisions for the Bolsheviks. Providing the Red Army with greater mobility, the cavalry tipped the balance in the overall battle between the White and Red forces. Denikin, facing a much stronger Red Army, was forced to retreat almost as soon as Orël had been captured.
The Volunteer Army was not the only White force to experience problems with people in the lands it controlled. The White forces in Siberia also had difficulties with workers and peasants sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause. The loss of Kazan as a result of military action, in September 1918, was followed by the loss of the Czech Legion as a result of the end of the First World War - the Czechs decided it was time to leave. The various groups opposed to Bolshevik rule on November 4, 1918, had turned to Aleksandr Kolchak, a naval officer and Polar explorer. Through Kolchak's leadership, the White forces in Siberia were resurrected, capturing the city of Perm in December 1918, and advancing west and south, capturing Ufa in March 1919. Yet, even with these victories, Kolchak faced internal revolt. In December, a Bolshevik-led revolt of workers occurred in Omsk. The city prison was seized and prisoners freed.
White victories in the Siberian arena proved as ephemeral as those of the south. The Bolsheviks reorganized once more, this time under Mikhail Frunze, a former mill worker. In April 1919 the Red Army launched an offensive which culminated in the recapture of Ufa in June. The Red Army continued to advance, inflicting serious losses on the retreating Whites who, by August had been reduced to a force of only 15,000. In retreat, they not only had to battle the regulars of the Red Army, but also local peasants and workers. Unable to obtain regular arms, many peasant groups used pitchforks or axes when attacking White supply trains or units. With White resistance collapsing, in January 1920 Kolchak would be handed over to the Bolsheviks, who would execute him in February.
The pattern of early White victories followed by relentless Bolshevik counterattacks was repeated in the northwest. The Northwestern White Army, under General Nikolai Iudenich, moved against Petrograd on September 28, 1919. In a series of battles they continued to push the Red Army back and, by October 20th, had nearly reached the city. However one of the White commanders failed to cut rail communications with the city when given the opportunity and the Bolsheviks again sent Trotsky to organize their defenses. On October 21st the Red Army mounted a counterattack which drove the White forces from their most advanced positions and continued to advance. The White army was driven back to the border of Estonia, conceding all the territory gained since September.
The capture of the city of Orël, which came on October 14, 1919 was the closest the Volunteer Army would come to Moscow. On October 24th their cavalry forces would be defeated at Voronezh. The Bolsheviks began to concentrate their forces as they moved south. They moved to split the Volunteer Army, one force moving south to Rostov, while their main army maintained pressure on the Whites at Orël. Realizing they simply could not hold the city, they had retreated. By February 1920, the Red Army had pushed them back to the Kuban river. The Volunteer Army was only able to halt the Red advance temporarily. As March came to an end the Reds had pushed the White forces into the port city of Novorossiisk. On March 26, 1920, the Volunteer Army had taken to ships, abandoning the city to the Bolsheviks, leaving behind some 20,000 soldiers unable to escape. Sailing to the Crimean Peninsula, their only real hope was to survive a little longer.
General Wrangel, in trying to hold the peninsula, began to fortify the Perekop Isthmus, the narrow strip of land separating the Crimea from the Ukrainian mainland. Despite the relative insignificance of the land area into which they had been forced to retreat, the Whites were not content to simply wait for the Red Army. On June 6th they made an amphibious assault at Kirilovka with 6,000 men which managed to push its way inland and capture the city of Melitopol. Wrangel's main force attacked the Red Army confronting the Perekop fortifications on June 7th. Wherever the White forces attacked, the Red Army retreated. Even an attempted Red counterattack in the final days of June was beaten back. Yet the Volunteer Army was fighting long odds. The Bolshevik army by summer's end would number some five million men. Despite these numbers, the Red Army was concentrating most of its efforts on fighting a war with Poland in June and July. So successful were the military efforts of the Volunteer Army that, as the summer months turned into fall, it was still advancing. Its last success would come on October 8th, when Wrangel got a force across the Dnieper river. While it held there for five days, Red Army counterattacks drove it back on October 13th.
Having eliminated nearly all other serious threats, the Bolsheviks now set about to annihilate what remained of the Volunteer Army in the Crimea. The struggle was clearly an unequal one. An armistice with the Poles was signed on October 12th, freeing the troops fighting on that front. Wrangel's front-line forces had been reduced to just above 34,000, of which 23,070 were infantry. Yet, the Red Army, despite its overwhelming numbers, found resistance to be strong, and it advanced only slowly. Wrangel pinned his last hopes on what was known as the Turkish Wall, an old Turkish defensive position. The Wall had been reinforced and what remained of the Volunteer Army's heavy weapons and machine guns were incorporated into the defenses. As impressive and strong as the Turkish Wall had been made, it was a doomed line. As it readied for the final assault, the Red Army numbered 188,771 men as against 26,000 soldiers on the White side, supported by only 16,000 reservists. The Bolsheviks also had some 3,000 machine guns and 600 artillery pieces as against 200 field guns for the Whites.
At 3:30 a.m. on November 9, 1920, infantry from the Fifty-first Division of the Red Army made what was the final assault against the Turkish Wall. Three earlier attacks had been beaten back by the defenders, but this attack succeeded. The collapse of the White defense at the Turkish Wall represented the final defeat for the Volunteer Army. In a way, it had not been the overwhelming numbers of the Red Army which determined the outcome. It was instead determined by the weather. The Volunteer Army had relied on the water of the Sivash salt marshes for their defense at one part of the Turkish Wall. Dry weather had exposed the marshes and cold weather had frozen the exposed mud sufficiently to allow the Red Army to send the Fifty-first Division across the flats. The division was fortunate that it made it across the marshes without being detected, perhaps more fortunate that its attacks ultimately were successful. Water had moved back in after the division had crossed, cutting off any possibility of retreat - or of reinforcements. In the end, it would not have mattered. The Volunteer Army had neither the economic resources nor the manpower to hold off the Red Army. Wrangel managed one final, albeit small, victory against the Reds. He was able to evacuate 145,693 people to Constantinople by November 16, 1920, thus avoiding a final humiliating surrender of the Volunteer Army.
The story of the White armies, as told here, has focused more on the military and, to a lesser extent, the political side of the period between 1918 and 1921. Armed conflict is almost a purely political struggle, at least at the battlefield level. Soldiers motivated enough to risk their lives in a cause, or even to kill, represent the ultimate commitment to an ideology - the true believers in the political world of ideas. A focus on the military fortunes of the various White armies, as a result, may seem somewhat out of place in an economic analysis of the Soviet Union. It has been included in this discussion for two reasons. First, it is intended to contest the notion that the Bolshevik takeover in the October Revolution was totally without support - that the Bolsheviks somehow tricked people and were able to establish control with only a small group of fanatical supporters. The Bolsheviks, in reality, did not rely on a small group of fanatics. Instead they gained control through a much larger group of people who, while not fanatical followers of Bolshevism, were sufficiently committed to fight against the re-imposition of the Czarist regime or, conversely, not sufficiently committed to the White cause to concern themselves with its survival. Second, there is an economic element involved even in the military fortunes of the White and Red armies.
Economic forces made themselves felt in two ways in the Civil War. First, the Bolsheviks won, as a practical matter, because they controlled the most important industrial facilities, crucial to supplying their armies with weapons and ammunition. When both sides could find people equally willing to fight, victory would be determined by the side which could supply its troops with whatever was necessary. Economic strength, in the end, would determine the outcome on the battlefield, particularly when it was a protracted struggle, as the Russian Civil War became. Second, economic forces were, to a large extent, responsible for providing the Bolsheviks with volunteers for their armies. Life for both peasants and ordinary workers was difficult in Russia. Resource scarcity and economic conditions forced peasants off the land, made life hard for a factory labor force which had difficulty making ends meet, and created a large pool of people who resented those who were able to succeed where they could not. The focus of their resentment became the rich and their allies, the officials in the Czarist government who enforced what they considered to be unfair laws.
The White cause was, in the end, measured by its successes or defeats on the battlefield. Final defeat was not, however, simply a failure of soldiers or generals in combat. The Whites failed in other important areas. They offered no vision or solution to the problem of how to govern Russia. If their cause has been portrayed as an idealistic crusade defeated by a ruthless and evil enemy, they failed to live up to that image at the time. In fact, the Whites often proved to be corrupt and inept administrators in areas where they managed to establish control. While they thought of themselves as freedom fighters trying to save Russian democracy, the people they came into contact with often found them to be opportunists who were out for themselves.
The White armies and military strategy represent a significant part of the political story of the Russian Civil War period. Lenin's secret police, the Cheka, represent another aspect, the internal development of the government. The history of the Cheka as an institution provides some insight into the workings of the Bolshevik governmental structure. The full name of the Cheka was Vserossiiskaya Chrezvychainaya Komissiya po Borbe s Kontrrevolyutsiei i Sabotazhem or the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage.
The Cheka, ironically, had its origins in banking. It may be recalled that Lenin had authorized the establishment of the Cheka in 1917 to deal with the State Bank and smaller banks which refused to cooperate with the new Bolshevik regime. The irony is that the Cheka, with its origins related to such a quiet field as banking, could be involved in some of the most horrendous acts associated with Bolshevik rule. The number of victims of the Cheka during the period of the Civil War has never been determined. The lowest figure is 12,733, while the highest is 1.7 million. Lincoln believes the most accurate figure to be around 100,000. The numbers alone do not tell the entire story of the Cheka's operations. While there seemed to be the same obsession with secrecy, as in the killing of Fannie Kaplan, Lenin's would-be assassin, there also seemed to be a fascination with torture and pain and the use of unusual methods. In a return to Biblical methods of capital punishment, crucifixion was used in Ekaterinoslav and Kiev, while stoning was employed in other areas. Victims in Odessa, mostly White officers, were killed by being pushed into furnaces or into boiling water. Some victims were killed by physically twisting their heads off while, in other places, they were skinned alive. In Kiev, Cheka executioners used crowbars to kill victims - continually striking their skulls as the victim's heads were resting on a wooden block.
During the French Revolution, Revolutionary officials sought to devise the most cruel and bizarre methods of execution. It was at Nantes that Loyalist captives were placed in boats, which were towed out into the middle of the Loire river, and sunk. In France political and societal pressure combined with force to bring the worst excesses to an end. Similar pressures, primarily from members of the Bolshevik party itself, in Russia also eventually brought most of the excesses of the Cheka to an end. However, it took longer to reverse the operations of the Cheka and the number of victims far exceeded the numbers of the French Revolution. Why the discrepancy in numbers and such a slow administrative response? In part, the answer lies in the fact that Russia is a vast land. Many places were simply out-of-the- way places, from which little news was heard. Bolshevik officials were not even aware of what was going on. In addition, in a civil war where the Whites were themselves committing atrocities, any actions taken against the other side, however cruel or bizarre, would often be seen as acts justified by revenge or the need to survive.
Not only did Russia's geographical size create a different political situation than that of France, population figures were different. Russia had a larger population than that of France - and an ethnically more diverse population as well. France's cultural makeup was much more uniform. The length and vicious nature of the Russian Civil War itself may provide a partial answer as well. The Bolsheviks, in view of the existence of a number of White armies, felt themselves insecure. In France the forces of the monarchy were seen to have been defeated in a shorter period of time. Once that danger had passed, common social and cultural forces began to reassert themselves to put an end to the worst excesses of the most radical groups in French society. In Revolutionary Russia, the worst excesses of the Cheka, as in France, occurred when the Bolsheviks felt most threatened. The advance of the White armies on Moscow in 1919 resulted in an expansion of the Cheka's authority. White retreat tended to bring a relaxation of Cheka activities, although it did not bring total retreat.
December 7, 1917 was the date Lenin established the Cheka, although he did not rely on it for political control in the first few months of his regime. Opposition often took the form of large public demonstrations, and the Cheka was not suitable for large-scale military operations. To suppress demonstrations Lenin instead relied on regular troops. As with any governmental agency, it took time to develop an organizational structure and operational apparatus. In March 1918 it officially employed only 120 people. Many of its first recruits were, in fact, not Russians, but Latvians, Armenians, and Jews. Created to deal with the revolt of the banks, the Cheka was actually slow to expand outside the financial area, nor did it show much aptitude in the general field of intelligence. Its first attempts at intelligence gathering and analysis proved disastrous. The Left SR revolt of July 6-7, 1918 was not only undiscovered by the Cheka, it was actually organized at the Cheka headquarters in Moscow. Just as embarrassing for Dzerzhinskii, the Cheka's head, was the fact that it had almost entirely ignored warnings about SR activities - SR leaders had openly called for an armed uprising only days before the attempted coup. It also had had no intelligence on Boris Savinkov's uprising in Iaroslavl, which occurred at about the same time.
The rebellion of the bankers provided a starting point for the first assignments given the Cheka, namely investigating economic crimes. The black market was one of the first targets, as were the "bagmen," so-named for the peasants who carried and sold individual sacks of grain in an attempt to profit from the agricultural segment of the black market trade. On February 22, 1918, the Cheka's power was theoretically expanded with Dzerzhinskii's decree authorizing summary executions. In April the Cheka enlarged its organization with the addition of military units which included machine gunners and armored cars.
In spite of the increased authority granted by Dzerzhinskii's February decree, the Cheka, at first, did not follow any uniform policy in its treatment of political opponents. Outside of Moscow and Petrograd, Cheka staff were quick to seize the initiative. In Vitebsk, two workers were executed merely for distributing posters in the spring of 1918. In Moscow and Petrograd, the Bolsheviks had made an agreement with the left SRs that political opponents were to be spared such treatment. Surprisingly, it was one of the few instances where the Bolshevik government honored an agreement. The protection provided by the agreement came to an end with the July 6th SR uprising, following which the Left SRs were removed from their positions within the Cheka. Even with the restraint exercised in Moscow and Petrograd, the local Chekas carried out 882 executions in the period from January to June of 1918. In July the number increased to 1,115.
The Left SR revolt of July did not, in itself, bring about an immediate crackdown. The Bolsheviks, in fact, carried out few reprisal executions against those involved. While they publicly announced that 200 Left SRs had been shot, the report was false and most of the 650 arrested in Moscow were released. The removal of the left SRs from the Cheka however, eliminated what few controls remained. There are indications that Lenin wished to implement a broader governmental terror campaign before Fannie Kaplan's attempt on his life. Yet it may have been the successful assassination of the Petrograd Cheka chief M. S. Uritskii on the morning of the 30th coupled with his own near-fatal shooting the same day which gave a strong impetus to Lenin's desire for more ruthless measures.
On September 4th, the Commissar of the Interior, Grigorii Petrovskii, issued a decree authorizing the taking of hostages from among the bourgeoisie and (former) military class of officers. Coupled with this authorization was an order calling for mass executions. On September 5th, the Sovnarkom issued a similar decree which provided for summary execution and the establishment of concentration camps.
The Cheka had not waited for these official decrees to go into effect to begin the Terror. In Nizhnii Novgorod, 41 victims were shot on August 30. Another 512 hostages were executed in Petrograd on the orders of Zinoviev. This was followed by the execution of several former officials of the Czarist regime. Although the Cheka may have had justification to punish those who actively worked against the government, the victims often were not killed for anti-Bolshevik activities. Many fell victim because they happened to be rich or had been members of the Czarist government.
What served to curb the Cheka's actions in January and February of 1919 was the realization, by Bolshevik Party members that the arbitrary methods used by the Cheka could easily be turned against them. In January 1919, the Moscow Committee of the Party defeated a motion to abolish the Cheka, but another motion would be passed limiting the Cheka's power. The Central Committee ordered a report which resulted in the transfer of some of the Cheka's power to Revolutionary Tribunals. The vote would not impress the members of the Cheka itself, which would largely ignore it. It did impress Lenin and other Party leaders to the extent that they at least backed off some of their pressure to expand the Terror - until the White armies again threatened Moscow in 1919.
While the internal opposition from Party members may have tempered the most extreme excesses of the Cheka, it was not enough to persuade Party leadership to totally curb the Cheka's power. In fact, the decision was to expand the powers of the Cheka, rather than to curtail them. That signal was given by the appointment of Dzerzhinskii, head of the Cheka, as Commissar of the Interior in March 1919, while he remained head of the Cheka. In addition, during 1919, the Cheka was given the authority to arrest preventively any citizen. The Cheka's powers of investigation were also expanded to cover all institutions; the Cheka's investigative powers were no longer limited to suspected economic crimes. Along with the formal authority and expanded power came an increase in the size of the Cheka. The Cheka's members were now organized into military units, more formally known as the Armies of the Internal Security of the Republic, with a strength of between 120,000 and 125,000 men in 1919. The numbers would increase to some 250,000 in 1920.
The end of the Red Terror finally came in 1920 with the defeat of the White armies. It did not mean the end of repression. Political enemies were still summarily shot, but the Bolsheviks no longer needed the mass executions to eliminate their enemies - the most conspicuous and dangerous had already been eliminated by the Terror. The Cheka now had a sufficiently large military force to contend with what scattered resistance remained or would develop. Concentration camps, while inhuman, were not as liable to provoke the instinctive revulsion and political opposition that the large numbers of executions brought on. The killings or deaths which did occur in the camps were insignificant when compared to the numbers occurring at the height of the Terror. Party members, no longer alarmed at the prospect that they would themselves become victims, were content to leave the Cheka alone.
The discussion in this chapter has focused primarily on two aspects of the political history of the Civil War. The victories and defeats of the White armies in the military struggle are one aspect of that political story. The development of the powers of the Cheka is the other. The final section of this chapter looks at the White side of the Civil War, specifically at the actual governmental rule of the Whites, and at some additional reasons for the Bolshevik victory.
In the final analysis the Bolsheviks did not win because they were willing to use force to overthrow the Provisional Government, while their democratic opponents were not. The soldiers of the White armies were highly motivated and fought ferociously, inflicting heavy casualties on the Red Army units they faced. The treatment of political prisoners and the mass executions carried out by the Cheka give the impression that atrocities were only practiced by the Red armies. In fact, the White soldiers were capable of practicing warfare at the same level. White soldiers once filled three box cars with the corpses of Red Guards killed in the fighting and sent them toward the Red lines together with the message - "fresh meat, destination Petrograd." Petr Wrangel, the Volunteer Army's general, once had 400 Red prisoners shot in October 1918, before offering the remaining captives the option of serving in the White army to escape the same fate.
One estimate of the number of deserters from the Red Army for the period from June 1919 to June 1920 is 2.6 million. Pipes points out that, from July through December of 1919, more soldiers deserted from the Red Army each month than the Whites had in the Volunteer Army. The figures clearly show that service in the Red Army was not a popular option with recruits. What should be noted however, is that, as unpopular as Bolshevik military service was, the Red Army desertions did not benefit the Volunteer Army or any of the other White forces. Committed supporters of the Bolshevik government may have been relatively small, but they appear to have been larger than those willing to commit to the White cause.
There were a number of factors at work in the Red victory, in addition to those discussed earlier. First, from a geographical standpoint, the Bolsheviks controlled the Russian land area in the geographical center of the fighting. They had shorter distances to transport troops and could move their forces more easily to deal with the movements of their opponents. Second, the Bolshevik armies were, for the most part, composed of ethnic Russians, whereas the White forces were a mix of ethnic groups - they lacked the ethnic cohesion helpful in providing an underlying motivation. A related advantage was that the areas the Bolsheviks controlled contained a larger population base. Where the strength and size of armies depended, not so much on the motivation of the individual, but on the size of the service-age population in the areas "under control," the Bolsheviks benefited from the larger population found within the areas they held. In fact, the population of Great Russia, the Bolshevik-controlled region, numbered around 70 million, which contrasted to the 8 to 9 million inhabitants residing in the White-controlled areas.
In terms of weapons and armament, the Bolsheviks had two advantages. First, the majority of industries which produced weapons or ammunition were located in areas they controlled. Second, there had been large quantities of ammunition stored for use by the Czar's military forces. These too were located within the areas controlled by the Red forces.
While the population and weapons advantages held by the Bolsheviks were, to a certain extent, a matter of happenstance, the Red victory was not solely the result of one or two lucky breaks. The Whites, by their own actions, contributed to their own downfall. Had the Whites presented the Russian people with a clear choice between democracy and dictatorship, they might have provided a cause around which the Russian people would have rallied. Instead what they offered was a choice between a return to the rule of the Czar or, just as bad, an administrative operation which was itself as undemocratic as that of the Bolsheviks. In addition to such problems the Whites proved to be inefficient and corrupt administrators.
Corruption not only cost the Whites the support of the population they supposedly were fighting for, it worked against them on the battlefield. Supplies and armaments intended by the Allies for front line use disappeared into the hands of speculators. When Denikin was moving against Moscow in October 1919, tanks supplied by the British were not sent to the front because there were no freight cars to ship them. Yet there were freight cars available - for a price. Speculators had been in the habit of buying them. Supplies which failed to reach the front were only part of the problem. Military officers or officials of the White regime were often accused of sanctioning illegal arrests, robbery, and murder.
A serious problem for the Whites was the inability to provide any clear political vision of what they intended. Often what they argued for was the concept of an anti-Bolshevik regime. In practice, what they offered was simply a return to Czarism. When Denikin's army pushed toward Moscow in October 1919, the administration he put in power in the regions behind the front did not just model itself after the Czarist regime, it often included the same officials who had worked in the Czarist government. On one occasion, a Czarist supporter is said to have nostalgically recognized the same police officials who had worked in the old government. Royalists and ex-nobles may have been pleased by such events; peasants and those who had found the Czarist officials repressive, were not.
The White armies, apart from their placing officials of the old regime in power, did not conduct themselves in a way which would bring popular support. The peasants called the Volunteer Army the Looting Army and its members as well as the Cossacks were often guilty of terrorizing individuals or ethnic inhabitants of lands they gained control of. The support or opposition of individual ethnic groups was too small, in itself, to be a determining factor in the final outcome of the Civil War. At the same time, where power could depend on a coalition of smaller groups, the loss of support by seemingly inconsequential peoples came to add up.
Jewish inhabitants found White rule to be particularly oppressive. There were pogroms which were carried out against the Jews in Bolshevik territory. Yet the official Bolshevik policy was to work against pogroms and the number which occurred in Bolshevik-controlled territory were fewer. The Bolsheviks enforced stricter disciplinary measures to control potential problems. Those who participated in pogroms were shot and anti-Semitic writings were forbidden. The result was that the Red Army, even in retreat, found entire Jewish settlements seeking protection.
The viciousness of the pogroms which occurred, as well as the number of victims, in some ways rivaled those carried out by the Cheka. In September 1919, a five-day pogrom in Fastov, carried out by White forces, resulted in the murder of 2,000 Jews. Earlier, in August, White forces had raped 350 women at one Jewish settlement. In May 1919 Ukrainian soldiers killed 400 in the district of Uman. In Kiev, the White forces bayoneted Jews, threw them from the upper stories of buildings, or drowned them in the river.
The attacks against the Jewish population by the Whites largely went unpunished and they were able to act with impunity in certain regions. In other regions, it was dangerous to antagonize ethnic groups. Even without taking any overt action however, the antagonism often seemed to spring up from nowhere. The White cause could inspire a peculiar hatred. Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian peasant leader, represented this type of opposition. It was Makhno's forces which caused such disruption in the rear of Denikin's advance in 1919 that troops had to be diverted from the push toward Moscow.
Makhno best illustrates the ethnic problems which faced the Whites, in addition to their general ineptitude. In some ways the Ukraine represented a unique situation. In other ways it was a "unique" situation which was duplicated elsewhere in the Civil War. Makhno provided the leadership for peasants who opposed any governmental authority imposed from outside. Ukrainian peasants did not like Russians nor the leadership provided by the Czar. Makhno fought, in turn, the Germans, the Whites, and the Bolsheviks. Makhno reserved his greatest hatred for the Whites, primarily because, from Makhno's perspective, their victory would bring a return to the rule of the Czar. What Makhno wanted, above all else, was an independent Ukraine. Perhaps because he had to concentrate all his energies against one enemy at a time, he tended to view the immediate threat as the greatest danger. The Whites, in 1919, seemed to represent that threat. The Bolsheviks had their hands full with the Whites and were content to leave him alone. That situation would change once the Whites had been defeated. In 1921 they turned their full attention to the Ukraine, defeated Makhno's armies, and forced him to flee to France. During the Civil War however, it was the Bolsheviks who benefited the most from his anti-authority stance.
Makhno's success, in part, could be attributed to the geographical disadvantages the Whites were subject to. While Denikin had concentrated nearly all his forces in the assault on Moscow in October 1919, Makhno's forces captured the port of Berdiansk, on the Sea of Azov. They then moved north to capture Ekaterinoslav. They destroyed, at Azov, some 60,000 artillery shells, stored in reserve for Denikin's forces. At other cities they captured the Whites had reserves of guns and ammunition, which his forces either appropriated or destroyed. The disruption finally forced Denikin to divert troops from the front, a move which came at the time when he needed as many troops as possible in his assault on Moscow.
The Bolsheviks, for their part, showed little gratitude for Makhno's contribution to the defeat of the Volunteer Army. Shortly after Denikin's forces began their retreat, the Red Army attacked the cities of Kharkov and Kiev, then held by Makhno. Following their capture, he was declared an outlaw by the Ukrainian Communist Party. Too late he discovered that, like the Czarist regime and the Whites, the Bolsheviks were not going to tolerate a peasant army which could be turned against them if their policies proved unpopular.
The Bolsheviks emerged as victors in the Russian Civil War, not because they were more unscrupulous or unprincipled than their opponents, nor because they were fanatics who approached the Civil War with a religious fervor. In the end they won simply because they controlled the physical and human resources required in any war. They did not require any superhuman effort on the part of their followers, merely the normal commitment. The Whites lost, in large part, because they could offer no real alternative to Bolshevik rule.
Perhaps the single biggest factor in the defeat of the White forces, was the presence of a large populace of discontented. Poor peasants and workers had borne the brunt of the economic problems which Czarist officials had been unable to solve. Insofar as the Whites came to symbolize a return to Czarist solutions, their cause held no appeal for the mass of Russian workers and peasants. Conversely, what the Bolsheviks offered was freedom from Czarist rule. The Bolsheviks were successful because the heart of their political message confirmed what the workers and peasants believed - their economic problems were the result of a "conspiracy" between the rich and the Czarist government. Without having to provide details of their own solution, the Bolsheviks benefited from the "army of discontented." Their political message largely exploited the discontent. What they did not say was what they would do if their policies proved no more successful than those of the Czar. The Bolsheviks, like their Greek and Roman counterparts, found the discontented to be a useful ally when used against others, but a dangerous and uncontrollable force when turned against them.
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