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By Paul Avrich
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1970 Princeton University Press
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The Crisis of War Communism
In the autumn of 1920 Soviet Russia began an uneasy period of transition from war to peace. For more than six years the country had known continuous upheaval, but now, after world war, revolution, and civil war, the smoke was finally lifting. On October 12 the Soviet government concluded an armistice with Poland. Three weeks later the last of the White generals, Baron Peter Wrangel, was driven into the sea, and the Civil War, though it left the country tom and bleeding, was won. In the south, Nestor Makhno, the anarchist partisan, remained at large, but in November 1920 his once formidable army was dispersed and presented no further threat to the Moscow government. Siberia, the Ukraine, and Turkestan had been regained, along with the Donets coal basin and the Baku oilfields; and in February 1921 a Bolshevik army would complete the reconquest of the Caucasus by capturing Tillis and putting the Menshevik government of Georgia to flight. Thus, after three years of precarious existence, its fate hanging by a thread from day to day, the Soviet regime could boast effective control over the bulk of Russia's vast and far-flung territory.
The end of the Civil War signaled a new era in Soviet relations with other countries. The Bolsheviks, shelving their hopes of an imminent world upheaval, sought to obtain the "breathing spell" which had been denied them in 1918 by the outbreak of civil conflict. Among the Western powers, by the same token, expectations of the impending collapse of Lenin's government had faded. Both sides desired more normal relations, and by the end of 1920 there was no reason why this desire should not be realized; the Allied blockade having been lifted and armed intervention in European Russia brought to a halt, the most serious obstacles to diplomatic recognition and a resumption of trade had been removed. During the course of the year, moreover, formal peace treaties had been concluded with Russia's Baltic neighbors, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and in February 1921 peace and friendship pacts were signed with Persia and Afghanistan, while a similar agreement with the Turks was in the offing. Meanwhile, Soviet emissaries, notably Krasin in London and Vorovsky in Rome, were negotiating trade agreements with a number of European nations, and the prospects were bright for a successful outcome.
And yet, for all these favorable developments, the winter of 1920-1921 was an extremely critical period in Soviet history. Lenin acknowledged this when he told the Eighth Congress of Soviets, in December 1920, that a smooth transition to peaceful 'economic and social reconstruction would not be easy to accomplish. Although the military struggle had been won and the external situation was rapidly improving, the Bolsheviks faced grave internal difficulties. Russia was exhausted and bankrupt. The scars of battle were visible in every corner of the land. During the last two years the death rate had mounted sharply, famine and pestilence claiming millions of victims beyond the millions who had fallen in combat. Not since the Time of Troubles in the seventeenth century had the country seen such suffering and devastation. Agricultural output had fallen off drastically; industry and transportation were in a shambles. Russia, in the words of a contemporary, had emerged from the Civil War in a state of economic collapse "unparalleled in the history of humanity."
The time had come to bind up the nation's wounds, and for this a shift was needed in domestic policy to match the relaxation already taking place in foreign affairs. Above all, this meant the abandonment of "War Communism," a program improvised to meet the emergency of the Civil War. As its name implies, War Communism bore the harsh stamp of regimentation and compulsion. Dictated by economic scarcity and military necessity, it was marked by an extreme centralization of government controls in every area of social life. Its cornerstone was the forcible seizure of grain from the peasantry. Armed detachments were sent into the countryside to requisition surplus produce with which to feed the cities and to provision the Red Army, a force of some five million men. Though instructed to leave the peasants enough for their personal needs, it was common for the requisitioning squads to take at pistol-point grain intended for personal consumption or set aside for the next sowing. "The essence of 'War Communism,'" Lenin himself admitted, "was that we actually took from the peasant all his surpluses and sometimes not only the surpluses but part of the grain the peasant needed for food. We took this in order to meet the requirements of the army and to sustain the workers." In addition to grain and vegetables, the food detachments confiscated horses, fodder, wagons, and other items for military use, often without payment of any kind, so that the villagers had to go without such staples as sugar, salt, and kerosene, not to mention soap, boots, matches, and tobacco, or the nails and scrap metal needed for essential repairs.
There is little doubt that compulsory requisitioning (in Russian prodrazverstka) saved the Bolshevik regime from defeat, for without it neither the army nor the urban population, from which the government drew its main support, could have survived. Yet the inevitable price was the estrangement of the peasantry. Forced at gunpoint to hand over their surpluses and denied the compensation of badly needed consumer goods, the villagers responded in predictable fashion: the food detachments, when not met by open resistance, were stymied by evasive tactics to which every ounce of peasant ingenuity was applied. In 1920, a leading authority estimated, more than a third of the total harvest was successfully hidden from the government's collection teams. The peasants, moreover, began to till only enough land to meet their own direct needs, so that by the end of 1920 the amount of sown acreage in European Russia was only three-fifths of the figure for 1913, the last normal year before the onset of war and revolution. A good part of this shrinkage was, of course, the result of the devastation which the Russian countryside had experienced, but the policy of prodrazverstka certainly contributed to the catastrophic decline of agricultural production during the Civil War period. By 1921 total output had fallen to less than half, and the quantity of live-stock to about two-thirds, of prewar figures. Particularly hard hit were such basic crops as flax and sugar beets, which had dwindled to between a fifth and a tenth of their normal levels.
At the same time, forcible requisitioning rekindled the age-old struggle in Russia between the rural population and the urban-based state authority. Lenin had long ago realized that, given Russia's retarded economic and social condition, a tactical alliance with the peasantry was essential if his party was to win, and afterwards to retain, power. The Bolsheviks, at the very least, had to keep the peasants neutral. It was this motive, primarily, that had led to the formation of a coalition government with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries in December 1917; and the same consideration may also have influenced the choice of M. I. Kalinin — one of the few Bolsheviks of some prominence whose peasant origins were widely known — as president of the Soviet Republic. But the chief means of securing the peasants' support was to fulfill their ancient dream of a chernyi peredel, a general land distribution. The Bolshevik land decrees of October 26, 1917 and February 19, 1918 were in very close harmony with the populist and egalitarian urges of the rural folk. Borrowing the agrarian program of the Socialist Revolutionaries, whose doctrines were tailored to the aspirations of the peasantry, the young Soviet government abolished all private holdings and ordered the land to be apportioned on an equal basis among those who toiled on it with their own hands and without the assistance of hired labor. The two decrees gave new impetus to a process which the villagers had begun on their own several months before, during the summer of 1917, and by 1920 the land had been divided into more than 20 million small holdings worked by individual family units.
Small wonder, then, that the rural population greeted these initial Bolshevik measures with exultation, tempered only by their traditional wariness of official edicts emanating from the state. To the peasants the Bolshevik Revolution meant first and foremost the satisfaction of their land hunger and the elimination of the nobility, and now they wanted only to be left in peace. Entrenching themselves on their new holdings, they guarded suspiciously against any outside intrusions. Nor were these long in coming. As the Civil War deepened and requisition teams descended into the countryside, the peasants began to regard the Bolsheviks as adversaries rather than friends and benefactors. They complained that Lenin and his party had driven away the masters and given the people the land only to take away their produce and their freedom to use the land as they saw fit. The peasants, moreover, resented the state farms which the authorities had established on some of the larger gentry estates during the Civil War period. For the villagers a true chernyi peredel meant the division among the people of all the land. It meant, too, the abolition of "wage slavery," which the state farms perpetuated. As Lenin himself put it, "the peasant thinks: if there are big farms, then I am once more a hired laborer."
As a result of these policies, more than a few peasants came to believe that Bolsheviks and Communists were different people. To the former they attributed the precious gift of the land, while they bitterly accused the latter — particularly Trotsky, Zinoviev, and other Communist leaders whose "alien" origins were well known — of imposing on them a new form of bondage, this time to the state instead of the nobility. "We are Bolsheviks not Communists. We are for the Bolsheviks because they drove out the landlords, but we are not for the Communists because they are against individual holdings." Thus did Lenin describe the attitude of the peasants in 1921. A year later their frame of mind, as a police report from Smolensk province shows, had changed but little: "Among the peasants there are no limits to the grumbling against the Soviet government and the Communists. In the conversation of every middle peasant and poor peasant, not to speak even of the kulak, the following is heard, 'They aren't planning freedom for us, but serfdom. The time of Godunov has already begun, when the peasants were attached to the landowners. Now we [are attached] to the Jewish bourgeoisie like Modkowski, Aronson, etc.'"
Yet the bulk of the peasants, for the duration of the Civil War, continued to tolerate the Soviet regime as a lesser evil than a White restoration. However acute their antipathy for the ruling party, still more did they fear a return of the gentry and the loss of their land. The food collection squads, it is true, often met with resistance in the villages, resistance which claimed more than a few Bolshevik lives, but the peasants shrank from armed opposition on a scale serious enough to threaten the existence of the government. However, with the defeat of Wrangel's army in the fall of 1920, the situation changed rapidly. Now that the White danger had evaporated, peasant resentment against prodrazverstka and the state farms flared up out of control. Waves of peasant risings swept rural Russia. The most serious outbreaks occurred in Tambov province, the middle Volga area, the Ukraine, the northern Caucasus region, and western Siberia, peripheral sectors where government control was comparatively weak and popular violence had a long pedigree.
The rebellions gathered strength rapidly throughout the winter of 1920-1921. During this period, as Lenin noted, "tens and hundreds of thousands of disbanded soldiers" returned to their native villages and swelled the ranks of the guerrilla forces. By early 1921 some 2,500,000 men — nearly half the total strength of the Red Army — had been demobilized in an atmosphere of violence and social unrest which menaced the very fabric of the state. It was a pattern not unfamiliar elsewhere in Europe during the years immediately after the First World War, when large-scale military demobilization aggravated existing economic tensions and sharpened popular discontent. But in Russia the situation was particularly grave. Nearly seven years of war, revolution, and civil disorder had bred a spirit of lawlessness that was difficult to eradicate. An uprooted civilian population had not yet settled down when the demobilization, as Lenin remarked, set loose a horde of restless men whose sole occupation was warfare and who naturally turned their energies to banditry and rebellion. For Lenin the situation was tantamount to a revival of the Civil War, but in a different and more dangerous form — more dangerous, as he saw it, because it was being waged not by bankrupt social elements whose time in history had run out, but by the popular masses themselves. The specter of an enormous jacquerie, a new Pugachev revolt, "blind and pitiless" in Pushkin's celebrated phrase, had appeared to haunt the government — and this at a moment when the towns, the traditional centers of Bolshevik support, were in a depleted and weakened condition and themselves gripped by profound unrest.
Between November 1920 and March 1921, the number of rural outbreaks mounted sharply. In February 1921 alone, on the eve of the Kronstadt rebellion, the Cheka reported 118 separate peasant risings in various parts of the country. In western Siberia the tide of rebellion engulfed nearly the entire Tiumen region and much of the neighboring provinces of Cheliabinsk, Orenburg, and Omsk. Communications along the Trans-Siberian railroad were seriously disrupted, aggravating the already severe food shortages in the large cities of European Russia. Along the middle Volga, where Stenka Razin and Pugachev had won their greatest followings, bands of armed marauders — peasants, army veterans, deserters — roamed the countryside in search of food and plunder. Only a thin line separated brigandage from social revolt. Everywhere desperate men ambushed requisitioning detachments and fought with savage determination against all who dared to interfere with them. The fiercest struggle, perhaps, occurred in the black-earth province of Tambov, a hotbed of peasant revolt since the seventeenth century. Led by A. S. Antonov, a former Socialist Revolutionary whose talents as a partisan warrior and reputation as a Robin Hood rivaled those of Nestor Makhno, the rebellion raged out of control for more than a year until the capable Red Commander, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, fresh from crushing the sailors' revolt in Kronstadt, arrived with a large force to subdue it.
Apart from the high incidence of peasant insurrection during the winter of 1920-1921, one is struck by the large number of men drawn into the rebel ranks. At its height, Antonov's movement counted some 50,000 insurgents, while in a single district of western Siberia the guerrillas, according to sources not likely to exaggerate, numbered as many as 60,000. Simple peasants, armed with axes, cudgels, pitchforks, and a scattering of rifles and pistols, fought pitched battles with regular army formations, their desperate courage inspiring so high a rate of defection among the government troops — many of whom shared their social background and attitudes — that special Cheka units and Communist officer cadets, whose loyalty was beyond doubt, had to be called in. Lacking up-to-date weapons and effective organization, the scattered peasant bands were in the end no match for the seasoned Red forces. The insurgents, moreover, had no coherent program, though everywhere their slogans were the same: "Down with requisitioning," "Away with food detachments," "Don't surrender your surpluses," "Down with the Communists and the Jews." Beyond this, they shared a common hatred of the cities, from which the commissars and food detachments came, and of the government which sent these intruders into their midst. The population of Tambov, noted a Bolshevik military commander in that province, regarded Soviet authority as the begetter of "raiding commissars and officials," a tyrannical force estranged from the lives of the people. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that one of the rebel groups in Tambov should have set as its primary goal "the overthrow of the rule of the Communists-Bolsheviks, who have brought the country to poverty, death, and disgrace."
Excerpted from Kronstadt 1921 by Paul Avrich. Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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