Previous page Page 9 of 10 Next page
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |


Pocket History Series
World War I   $3.43    £2.08
World War II   $3.72   £2.29
Maya, Aztecs, Incas   $3.56   £2.13

See others

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

Civil War

Lenin's seizure of power leaves his government with a multiplicity of enemies. They include supporters of the old regime, who now become known as White Russians (by contrast with the red of the Bolsheviks); the socialist majority in the disbanded Constituent Assembly, together with all their numerous supporters; nationalists in many of the regions of the Russian empire, for whom the developing chaos seems to offer a chance of independence; and even Russia's former allies, who have an interest in helping any Russians still opposed to Germany.

In March 1918, when Lenin signs the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the most active opposition is a small White army which has been fighting throughout the winter in the south, around the city of Rostov.

This force is led by Kornilov, the commander-in-chief dismissed in the previous September by Kerensky. Driven from Rostov by a Red army in February 1918, he leads his 4000 soldiers and a large contingent of the bourgeoisie of the city in a straggling procession southwards across the frozen steppe.

Their progress is accompanied by extreme brutality as they torture and kill the peasants whose scarce supplies of food they need (there is also a frenzied element of vengeance in Russia's bitter class war). But their survival, in what becomes known as the Ice March, provides heroic inspiration for the White cause - until now on the verge of dwindling to nothing.

The White cause is helped at the same time by the even greater brutalities being perpetrated by the Bolsheviks. Because of the desperate need to secure sufficient grain for the cities, it becomes official policy to terrorize peasants into handing over even their seed corn.

All the peasants suffer from the armed men now sent against them, though the 'battle for grain' masquerades as an attack only on the richer peasants, the so-called kulaks. In the summer of 1918 Lenin announces the new policy in a hysterical speech, denouncing these peasants as bloodsuckers and leeches and declaring 'ruthless war on the kulaks, death to all of them'. This is to be a civil war in which White Terror is more than matched by Red Terror.

The effect of the Bolshevik treatment of the peasants is an increase in support for the Whites. The Cossacks, in the region of Rostov and the Don, are the first to swell the White numbers appreciably.

By 1919 the Whites also have help in the form of large consignments of munitions and some 30,000 troops from the victorious Allied nations (their purpose now being to suppress Communism rather than damage Germany). The result of this increase in strength is three massive thrusts against the heartland of Russia during 1919. The first is from White armies pressing west from Siberia towards the Volga. The second is from the Crimea up towards Moscow. The third is in the northwest towards Petrograd.

All three ultimately fail for the same reason (their lines of advance are over-extended) but their approach confronts the Bolsheviks with a serious crisis. In October 1919 a White army is only 250 miles from Moscow. Lenin, in the Kremlin, hastily assembles every available Red army unit and orders the conscription of 120,000 workers and peasants to dig trenches across the approach roads to the city.

A week later another White army captures hills overlooking the suburbs of Petrograd. Trotsky catches the train north from Moscow and organizes a brilliant last-minute defence, rapidly raising morale with his gift for oratory. In fierce fighting his men push the Whites south from their hills. Meanwhile, after intense battles, the advance on Moscow is also halted and reversed.

These events are the turning point in the civil war. Western support drains away from what is now evidently a lost cause. By November 1920 there is only one White army on Russian soil, in the Crimea. As the regiments prepare to escape to safety from Sebastopol, the war ends with one final piece of Bolshevik brutality.

Alexei Brusilov, a hero of the war against Germany and now a supporter of the Bolshevik revolution, is persuaded to sponsor an offer of amnesty to the departing officers. Leaflets to this effect are dropped from aeroplanes. Brusilov is told that there was no response. In fact, he discovers later, several hundred officers, seeing his name on the document, decide to stay in Russia. They surrender, as instructed, to the Red army. They are all shot.

Securing power

Lenin is swift in the steps taken to establish the Bolshevik party as the unmistakable (and soon to be unremovable) government of Russia.

In a definitive break with the recent past he moves the seat of government, on 10 March 1918, from Petrograd to Moscow. The centre of power is now back in the historic heart of the country, once again associated with the forbidding walls of the Kremlin. In the same month the Bolsheviks adopt a more national profile, changing their name to the Russian Communist Party. And as a gesture of modernity these days and months are now the same as those used by the rest of the world. From midnight on 31 January 1918 Lenin converts Russia to the Gregorian calendar. The next day is declared to be February 14.

These are symbolic changes. The practical imposition of Communist power throughout Russia is a harder task, but Lenin seems to relish the prospect of using the techniques of a police state to impose control through terror. He believes passionately in the need for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (albeit only as a stage in the progress towards a Communist utopia in which there is no need for government), and he is in no way averse to all the techniques of repression and cruelty invariably associated with dictatorship.

One might expect the imposition of the Communist dictatorship to be delayed or modified by the urgent need to fight a civil war. But if anything the war helps Lenin's cause

Trotsky, a man with a genius for organization, is put in charge of building up the Red Army. He does this with great efficiency. The more intelligent peasants, conscripted from the villages, become a valuable source of political activists. Educated by the army, they find in party membership their escape from the bleak life of rural poverty.

Meanwhile the demands of the civil war give the party an excuse to impose centralized control in what becomes known as War Communism. Food is forcibly collected for government distribution in the battle for grain waged against reluctant peasants by thuggish Food Brigades. Market trading of any kind is suppressed. And the management of factories is placed under Communist control.

This campaign, the world's first imposition of the managed economy which subsequently characterizes all Communist states, provokes profound opposition among peasants and workers alike. From the summer of 1918 there is increasing unrest, both in farms and factories. But it is not until after 1920, when the Whites have been defeated in the civil war, that the full extent of popular unrest is evident. There is widespread demand for the revival of the local soviets, the form of grassroots democracy which was the common cause of the majority in 1917.

The spring of 1921 confronts Lenin with his gravest crisis, as furious peasants and workers resort to violence.

All over the country Communist officials and soldiers are attacked in rural areas, often with incredible savagery, as peasant armies carry out ruthless guerrilla warfare (reprisals are no less brutal). A rash of strikes sweeps through the cities, beginning in Moscow in February 1921. At the end of the same month there is a mutiny by the sailors in the Kronstadt naval base near Petrograd. Their demands include free elections.

With every likelihood of the mutiny spreading to other garrisons, Lenin takes decisive action. On March 16 a massive attack is launched on the naval base, with artillery fire, aerial bombing and an assault across the ice by 50,000 Red Army troops. By the following day 10,000 Red Army troops are dead, but the mutiny is over (some 2500 rebels are subsequently shot without trial).

At this defining moment of Communist ruthlessness, the Tenth Party Congress is taking place in Moscow. Lenin uses the crisis of the mutiny to press home his advantage.

A pressure group within the party, calling itself the Workers' Opposition, is arguing for trades union rights. Lenin moves a motion condemning them and receives a massive majority. He then goes further. He succeeds in passing a resolution which bans the formation of factions within the party. Henceforth decisions of the Central Committee may be criticized, but only by individuals. So, from March 1921, the control of the Central Committee over the Communist party is as secure as the control of the Communist party over the nation.

New Economic Policy

Though inflexible on any topic affecting the power of the Communist party, Lenin is prepared to yield on other issues. Acknowledging that the attempt to requisition the peasants' entire harvest has been a disaster (corn is successfully hidden, fewer fields are planted, resentment is extreme), he persuades the Tenth Party Congress to vote for a U-turn. In what becomes known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), peasants are to be allowed to keep the surplus of their product after a tax in kind has been paid to the state. At the same time the ban on markets is lifted.

A vigorous rural trade revives at astonishing speed (though it also brings with it a rash of profiteers, much resented as Nepmen - from the initials of the New Economic Policy).

While this measure goes a long way towards appeasing the rural districts, those peasants actively involved in revolts are suppressed without mercy by the Red Army during the summer of 1921. Artillery, armoured cars, bombers and even poison gas are used in the campaign. Many of the captured are shot. Others (about 50,000) are herded into the first specially constructed concentration camps of the Soviet Union.

Lenin takes this opportunity to remove any further threat from the rival socialist parties, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, many of whom have supported the peasants. Some 500 Mensheviks are arrested during 1921. In show trials in the following year all members of the SR party are branded 'enemies of the people'.

Union of republics

Immediately after the October revolution the heart of the Russian empire (from Petrograd and Moscow through Siberia to the Pacific coast) is given a new name - the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The hint of federalism is a way of accomodating the nationalist aspirations of the many minorities in this vast swathe of land. It does not imply any intention of relaxing control from the centre, which by 1921 is absolute.

During the course of the civil war various regions outside this central bloc (Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) fall under the control of Communist governments, secured by the local power of the Red Army.

It is a natural next step to bring these regions into a closer relationship with Moscow. Early in 1922 Joseph Stalin, the general secretary of the Communist party, is given the task of drawing up a plan of federation. He brings together the first Congress of Soviets in Moscow in December of the same year. On December 30 the soviet republics of Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine and the Transcaucasian Federation agree to form a closer union. The following summer a constitution is established for a new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR officially comes into being on 6 July 1923.

The constitution gives each republic the right to secede, but this is somewhat notional since each is governed by the same Communist party with its headquarters in Moscow. The political monolith which remains intact for nearly seventy years is now in place.

But at the same time the new state, born of violent revolution, begins to achieve international acceptance. A turning point is a Russian famine in the summer of 1921, the result of crop failure aggravated by Communist policies. Some 20 million people are threatened with starvation, prompting a massive international aid effort spearheaded by the USA.

With this first international contact, a pariah state starts to edge back into the fold. There are the beginnings of foreign trade. In 1922 Germany re-establishes full diplomatic relations and by the end of 1924 most other European countries have recognized the USSR. But by this time the Russian leadership has had to cope with a new crisis.

Rise of Stalin

Since the October revolution in 1917 the leadership of the Communist party, and thus of the nation, has been unmistakably in the hands of one man. While Trotsky has been an extremely able assistant, the ruthless securing of the revolution has been Lenin's achievement. But the unremitting work load takes its toll. In May 1922 he has a stroke. Not till October does he get back into his office. Just two months later a second stroke paralyzes his right side. He survives, an incapacitated invalid, for another year, dying in January 1924.

Trotsky has long been his obvious successor. But in April 1922, just a month before his first stroke, Lenin introduces a dark horse to the race.

Joseph Stalin, a committed Bolshevik from his early twenties and a passionate supporter of Lenin, has been in the inner circle of the party since the revolution. But the real growth of his power begins in April 1922 when Lenin creates a new post for him - General Secretary of the Communist Party.

In this position Stalin has direct control over party appointments. It gives him the perfect chance to prepare for the coming struggle after Lenin falls ill in May. During the remainder of 1922 Stalin appoints some 10,000 of his own supporters as provincial officials. When Lenin gets back to work in September, he finds that Russia is effectively ruled by a triumvirate of Stalin, Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev.

The three are united in their hatred of Trotsky, widely seen as a detached and arrogant intellectual. Both Kamenev and Zinoviev, considering themselves candidates to succeed Lenin, believe that they are using Stalin as a pawn in their personal strategy. But the reverse proves to be the case, as Stalin steadily strengthens his own faction.

Lenin, taking up the reins again, becomes for the first time aware of Stalin's character and ambition. As a result he is busy trying to reinforce Trotsky's position, as a counterweight to Stalin, when he has his second stroke, in December 1922. Stalin moves quickly. He takes charge of Lenin's doctors and persuades the central committee that the leader should be kept, for his own sake, in isolation. Lenin becomes, in effect, Stalin's prisoner.

In secret Lenin dictates a series of brief notes, intended for a forthcoming Party Congress, in which he condemns Stalin's behaviour and recommends his removal from the post of party secretary. He orders these notes (subsequently known as Lenin's Testament) to be sealed and kept for the moment in strict secrecy.

They are destined to remain secret for many years (until 1956), because in March 1923 Lenin suffers a third devasting stroke which robs him of the power of communication. He can only watch helplessly from the sidelines as Stalin continues to strengthen his position. In October Trotsky is censured for factionalism by a massive majority at a plenary session of the Politburo, the Communist executive committee. He narrowly escapes being expelled from the party.

Stalin, instinctively cautious, argues against Trotsky's expulsion. And he moves only slowly against Kamenev and Zinoviev, his partners in the triumvirate. But by 1926, with these two and Trotsky now allied in opposition to him, Stalin is strong enough to remove them from the Politburo. He expels them from the party in the following year and forces Trotsky out of the country in 1928.

Kamenev and Zinoviev are shot in 1936, after being vilified in the show trials through which Stalin finally secures his personal reign of terror. Trotsky dies in a suburb of Mexico City in 1940, victim of an assassin sent to his home by his old adversary. Meanwhile Stalin, using methods as ruthless as his treatment of political rivals, has totally transformed the world's first Communist nation.

Industrialization, collectivization

There is much debate among the leadership of the Soviet Union during the 1920s as to whether the NEP, enabling the economy at least to tick over in a traditional way, should be replaced by a strong centralized drive to improve Russia's industrial and agricultural output. While he is unsure of his own power, Stalin trims on the issue - supporting the views of those who are most useful to him. But by 1929 he feels strong enough to force through a drastic plan of reform.

The first Five Year Plan, adopted by the party in 1929, predicts an increase during the period of 200% in industrial output and of 50% in agricultural produce. Such ambitions depend inevitably on harsh coercion of the work force.

The Five Year Plan is in a sense a return to the War Communism of the civil war years, and once again the supposedly rich peasants, the kulaks, bear the brunt of the policy. Not only is their land seized by the state to form collective farms, but they and their families are transported to Siberia and put to work in agricultural labour camps.

It is calculated that one in five of them, mainly the women and children, die on the journey - in the cattle trucks or on forced marches. When they arrive and are put to work, the barbarous conditions soon account for more. Six million of these uprooted peasants are believed to have died, in a tragedy barely perceived outside Russia until years later.

By 1935, two years after the end of the first Five Year Plan, more than 90% of Russia's agricultural land is farmed collectively. But the result is a massive drop in production rather than the predicted increase. When forced to merge their own smallholdings in a collective farm, the peasants tend to slaughter their animals thus reducing the common stock. And no amount of coercion is sufficient to make them plough and sow for the future with anything like their previous commitment.

During the early 1930s there are renewed famines and millions of deaths. But this time, unlike in 1921, there is no foreign aid to lessen the suffering - largely because Stalin does his best to suppress news of the disaster.

While collectivization is a failure, it turns out to be more feasible to impose industrialization. Determined to give Russia her own heavy industry, Stalin diverts production away from consumer goods - a change requiring the public to accept unprecedented scarcities.

He secures efficiency in his new factories by incentive schemes for managers and skilled workers (conveniently disregarding Communist notions of equality), while using what is in effect slave labour to keep down the state's bill for wages. Some 25 million peasants are moved from the land to the factories, where they are forced to work at subsistence levels under harsh industrial discipline. But the policy succeeds. By the end of the second Five Year Plan, in 1937, rural Russia has become a major industrial nation.

Both the method and the cost of these achievements can be seen in a prestige project dear to Stalin's heart - the construction of a canal to link the Baltic and the White Sea. The fulfilment of this difficult task, in the near-Arctic north, is entrusted to the political police (at this stage the OGPU, later to be known as the KGB). They are to provide the workers from the prisons and camps under their control. Of the 300,000 transported north to dig and labour, 200,000 die before the canal opens in 1933.

The human cost of industrialization and the evident failures of collectivization provoke pockets of dissent even within the tightly controlled Communist party. But by the mid-1930s Stalin feels strong enough to settle once and for all his political scores.

Purge and Terror

The period subsequently known as the Great Terror lasts in Russia from 1936 to 1938, but there is a turning point in this direction in 1934. Stalin has not until now used assassination of his comrades as a political weapon. But there is evidence (admittedly inconclusive) to suggest that his hand is behind the death in this year of his one-time protégé, Sergei Kirov.

In 1926 Stalin appointed Kirov, in place of Zinoviev, as head of the party in Leningrad (the new name given to Petrograd after Lenin's death in 1924). But now, in the early 1930s, Kirov is showing marked signs of independence, even perhaps to the point of seeming a potential rival to Stalin. In 1934 Kirov is assassinated in his office by a young party member.

Stalin acts swiftly, ordering the immediate death of the assassin and thirteen supposed accomplices. He follows this with the execution of hundreds of Leningrad comrades and the deportation of thousands of others for supposed involvement in the plot.

This is the first of Stalin's major purges, which become known to the world primarily through three great show trials held in Moscow in successive years from 1936. The first relates again to the Leningrad assassination. Stalin's one-time close colleagues and subsequent opponents, Zinoviev and Kamenev, are now charged with conspiring to kill not only Kirov but the entire Communist leadership.

They and their co-defendants are described by the prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky, as 'Mad Fascist police dogs! Despicable rotten dregs of humanity! Scum of the underworld!'. They confess to the trumped up charges and are shot.

The next show trial, in 1937, charges the accused more specifically with being terrorists in league with Trotsky (now living in exile and doing his best to publicize the truth about Stalin). Again all are convicted and nearly all are shot. The third, in 1938, brings together a more motley selection of victims - including some notable opponents of Stalin from the right-wing of the party and even the police chief who had prepared one of the earlier trials.

These high-level victims are what the world sees of Stalin's purges, but they are the tip of an iceberg. During the same period the party hierarchy is purged of almost everyone who had a part in achieving the revolution. The non-Russian Soviet republics suffer particularly severely. In some regions almost no-one above the age of 35 remains in place in the civil service, army or police. Trotskyite sympathies and bourgeois nationalism are the main charges against these 'enemies of the people'.

The figures are unknown, but it is probable that millions of officials and their families are variously executed, imprisoned or exiled. This scale of terror makes Hitler's slightly earlier Night of the Long Knives seem almost a parochial event.

In the years before World War I Mussolini is an active revolutionary socialist, becoming in 1912 the editor of Avanti, the official publication of the Italian Socialist party. But in October 1914 he is expelled from the party when he abandons the policy of neutrality and advocates joining the war on the side of France and Britain.

Within weeks he is publishing a new belligerent paper, Il Popolo d'Italia, around which he attempts to gather the few socialist members of the people of Italy who share his views. Six months later the Italian government adopts his policy, declaring war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915. Mussolini is called up and serves as a private in the infantry until he is wounded in 1917.

Foreign policy

With Hitler in power in Berlin, from 1933, it is evident that Russian foreign policy needs to take account of the likely emergence of an agressive and expansionist Germany. Stalin's first reaction is to enter more fully into the diplomatic networks of the international community. The USSR joins the League of Nations in 1934.

In 1935 the Communist International or Comintern, controlled by Stalin, softens its rhetoric against the bourgeois democracies and declares that its most urgent task is the defeat of Fascism. In the same year Russia makes defensive military alliances with France and Czechoslovakia.

The appeasement of Hitler by France and Britain at Munich, in 1938, casts doubt upon this conventional strategy for the protection of Russia. The worst possible scenario from Moscow's point of view is for Hitler to be safe from retaliation in western Europe, leaving him free to concentrate all his energies on Germany's eastern front - where he has always stated that he intends to find the Lebensraum required for the German people.

In these circumstances an agreement of some kind with Hitler may be preferable, in spite of the supposed implacable hostility between Communism and Fascism. At a party congress in March 1939 Stalin hints that he might consider some such arrangement. Meanwhile the western nations are mainly concerned now with Hitler's demands upon Poland.

Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact: 1939

In August 1939 a Franco-British military mission is in Moscow trying to persuade Stalin to commit to a treaty for the defence of Poland. Little progress is made, ostensibly because the Poles are refusing to allow Soviet troops to cross their territory to attack Germany. But there is another hidden reason which soon becomes apparent.

The Soviet Union and Communism have always been twin forces of demonic evil in Hitler's oratory, but he now proves himself happy to sup with the devil for a very real strategic advantage. It is important to his plans that he shall not be distracted by a major war on his eastern front. In August he opens negotiations with Stalin. Poland is his bait.

Stalin, invited by the western powers to join an alliance which will almost certainly involve him in a costly war against Germany for no very evident benefit, now finds himself offered a more attractive option - inactivity and a sizable increase in his territory.

It takes the Russian dictator little time to choose. The world is astonished on August 21 by the announcement from Berlin that Ribbentrop is flying to Moscow to sign a nonaggression pact with his opposite number, the Russian foreign minister Molotov. This sudden friendship of two implacable enemies would seem less inexplicable if people knew of the secret protocol which accompanies the pact.

The protocol agrees a new set of international boundaries. As modified slightly in a second visit by Ribbentrop to Moscow, in September, it acknowledges Germany's approval of the Russian annexation of the independent nations Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (should any such opportunity occur). And it establishes an agreed division of Poland between Germany and Russia.

With this much achieved, Hitler is ready to take his next step - launched, for propaganda purposes, with a grisly little charade.

A breathing space

Stalin's pact with Hitler affords him a breathing space of slightly less than two years after Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939. The outbreak of war, with Russia safely on the sideline, provides Stalin with the immediate benefits which he has been promised: a slice of Poland, the military annexation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and the opportunity for an undisturbed attack upon Finland.

The Finns, however, resist strongly - involving Russia in a costly Winter War. The Russians eventually prevail (by March 1940) but not before they have revealed to the world, and in particular to Hitler, how ill-prepared the Soviet army is (many of the more experienced generals have been victims of a purge in 1937).

During the second half of the 1930s Russia's production of military equipment has been drastically increased, and Stalin now uses his breathing space to accelerate this programme. But he still believes that Russia's best chance of remaining outside the main conflict lies in alliances with neighbours (such as a neutrality pact signed with Japan in April 1941) and appeasement of Hitler (to whom large shipments of Soviet material continue to be sent).

But Stalin's optimism flies in the face of mounting evidence of Hitler's intentions. During this same period, April 1941, German troops are beginning to mass on the Soviet border.

Previous page Page 9 of 10 Next page