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The Russian Civil War of 1917-1920, out of which the Soviet Union was born, was one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. The collapse of the Tsarist regime and the failure of the Kerensky Provisional Government nearly led to the complete disintegration of the Russian state.
This book, however, is not simply the story of that collapse and the rebellion that accompanied it, but of the painful and costly reconstruction of Russian power under a Soviet regime. Evan Mawdsley’s lucid account of this vast and complex subject explains in detail the power struggles and political maneuvers of the war, providing a balanced analysis of why the Communists were victors.
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About the Author
Evan Mawdsley has written numerous books on Russian history, including The Soviet Elite from Lenin to Gorbachev; Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945 and The Stalin Years. He is Professor of Modern History at Glasgow University.
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The Russian Civil War
By Evan Mawdsley
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Evan Mawdsley
All rights reserved.
THE TRIUMPHAL MARCH OF SOVIET POWER: THE BOLSHEVIK TAKEOVER IN CENTRAL RUSSIA, October 1917–January 1918
The counter-revolution has raised its criminal head. The Kornilovites are mobilizing their forces in order to crush the All-Russian Congress of Soviets and to wreck the Constituent Assembly. At the same time the pogrom-makers may attempt to cause trouble and slaughter in the streets of Petrograd.
The Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies takes upon itself the defense of revolutionary order against attempts at counter-revolution and pogroms.
Petrograd MRC Announcement, 24 October 1917
Historians of modern Russia have not come to a clear verdict on when the Civil War started. Many are vague. Others, probably a majority, date the Civil War from the summer of 1918, usually linking it to an uprising by Czechoslovak troops in May. Dating the Civil War from the summer of 1918 has important implications: it suggests a peaceful start to Soviet power, increases the weight of "foreign intervention" (the Czechoslovaks), and links radical Bolshevik policies to the outbreak of fighting.
My own view, shared with a respectable minority of writers (both Western and Soviet), is that the Civil War began with the October Revolution. The events described in the following two chapters will show that the victory of Soviet power in the winter of 1917–1918 went hand in hand with internal fighting of an intensity that can only be called "civil war."
The Russian Civil War, then, began in the autumn of 1917. To be precise, it began on 25 October during the evening. The specter of Russian fighting Russian had lurked in the background since the Tsar was toppled in February, but what set off the final apocalyptic struggle, one that would last three years and cost over seven million lives, was the seizure of power in Petrograd by the Bolshevik Party. Detachments of armed workers, sailors, and soldiers took control of the capital and arrested Kerensky's Provisional Government. They were organized by the Bolsheviks but acted in the name of the Soviets—the workers' and soldiers' councils; the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets met on the night of 25 October. Resistance was weak—the "storming" of the Winter Palace is something of a myth—but real bloodshed came a few days later with an attempted counterrevolt.
The events taking place around Petrograd from 28 October to 1 November were the overture of the Civil War, demonstrating themes that would recur. The same forces, even some of the same leaders, were involved. Young officer-cadets ("junkers" rose within Petrograd; small cossack detachments under General Krasnov (a future Don Cossack leader) tried to break into the city across the scrubland of the southern outskirts. On the Soviet side were armed workers and revolutionary soldiers and sailors, loosely coordinated by two future heroes of 1918, Antonov-Ovseenko and Lieutenant Colonel Muraviev. In the end the junkers were crushed, and the cossacks were stopped at Gatchina. As in the later Civil War the civilian opponents of the Bolsheviks, people of the moderate Left and Right, lacked effective combat forces of their own and played no part.
The October events are sometimes called a coup, but their deeper roots can be seen in what Lenin termed the "Triumphal March of Soviet Power," the rapid takeover of the Russian Empire. In Moscow, the second city of the Empire, a few days of confused and bloody street fighting, complete with artillery bombardment and massacre, ended with rebel victory. In most of the big towns of central and northwestern Russia—the crucial future core of Soviet territory—and also in the Urals, the local Soviets took power within a couple of weeks. Nowhere in these regions was there serious fighting, even on the scale of Petrograd and Moscow. By the new year an even vaster region, the great majority of the Empire's seventy-five province and region (oblast') centers, stretching from the Polish borderlands to the Pacific, was in the hands of the revolutionaries; the main areas outside nominal Soviet control were the Transcaucasus, Finland, four Ukrainian provinces, and the Don, Kuban, and Orenburg Cossack Regions.
The end of the easy (for the Bolsheviks) first phase of the Civil War came on 5 January, with the meeting in Petrograd of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly. National elections held in early November had shown the peasant-based Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party, not the Bolsheviks, to be the most popular group. The Bolsheviks allowed the Assembly to meet for one night, and then armed sailors closed the hall and locked the delegates out. With this ended the last serious political challenge to Bolshevism in central Russia. "Soviet" power was then confirmed by the Bolshevik-dominated Third Congress of Soviets.
Bolsheviks and Soviets
The Bolshevik victory in the winter of 1917–1918 was neither a conspiracy nor an accident. The hopes and fears of the mass of the Russian people were involved in it, and these hopes and fears were to some extent measurable through a unique national test of political attitudes, held at the decisive moment: the November 1917 elections to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly.
The overall voting in the Assembly elections showed, above all, peasant opinion; over two-thirds of the electorate were peasants. What was striking about these overall returns was the strength of the socialist vote. Some 40 percent of the total vote went to the main peasant socialist party (the SRs) and 27 percent to Marxists (nearly all Bolsheviks); popular ethnic-minority parties, often with a socialist element, took another 15 percent. In contrast to other countries, there was no strong non-socialist farmers' party. So about four voters out of five chose parties calling for radical land reform; this in turn reflected a basic fact of Russian politics—the peasant desire for land reform at the expense of the landowning nobility.
Relatively few of the Empire's population lived in towns, perhaps 26 million out of 160 million. The main non-socialist party, the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), polled only 24 percent of the urban vote (in sixty-eight of the largest towns); the socialist vote was 61 percent. Socialism was a deeper red in the towns than in the electorate as a whole. The extreme Left, the Bolsheviks, won 36 percent of the votes,making them the largest party. In Petrograd the Bolsheviks took 45 percent, in Moscow 50 percent. The urban Bolshevik votes accounted for only about 1.4 million of the 40 million civilian votes cast, but because power was based on the towns they represented crucial nuggets of strength. The radical nature of the urban electorate had several causes. The mix in the factories of experienced workers and people fresh from the countryside was an explosive one. Trade unions had had little base in Russia and could not act as a channel for discontent. The war brought special hardships to the towns. The unemployment and food shortages of late 1917 created a mood of desperation and a desire for maximalist solutions. "Workers' control" was demanded, and the workers' militia (Red Guard) gave the physical force to back up demands.
The vast Russian armed forces were the third element of mass upheaval. The army did not drain away to nothing under the Provisional Government. A census of 25 October 1917 put the current strength of the field army at 6,300, 000, with a further 750, 000 men in rear military districts (the navy would add another 750, 000). Soldati—NCOs and ordinary soldiers—made up 85 percent, say six million. As a group they were much larger than the middle class and twice the industrial working class. And this mass was a unique social force, thanks to the collapse of officer control and the growth of soldiers' committees. By the autumn of 1917 the soldiers' main wish was to end the war and go home. The Constituent Assembly elections show the soldiers (five million of them voted) to have overwhelmingly supported Russian socialist parties: 82 percent voted for the SRs or the Bolsheviks. (The centrist Kadets took two percent, the nationalists one percent.) The SRs, with 41 percent of the total army vote, were the strongest party, but the Bolsheviks also took 41 percent in the army (compared to 24 percent in the population as a whole). And the Bolsheviks did even better among troops near the center of political power. In the Northern and Western Army Groups their vote was over 60 percent (and the SR vote under 30 percent), and they did extremely well in the crucial rear garrisons: 80 percent in Petrograd (12 percent for the SRs) and 80 percent in Moscow (six percent SR).
Public opinion, then, was predominantly socialist, but it did not follow that socialism would take Bolshevik form. The Bolshevik Party's success is sometimes explained by its organization and program. The leader of the Bolshevik wing of Russian Marxism was, of course, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who had organized the break of the Bolshevik wing from the Russian Marxist party (the RSDRP). For a decade and a half in exile he had been, if not the total master of the Bolshevik group, at least the single most important influence on doctrine and organization. Lenin called for the creation of a "vanguard party" in his What Is to Be Done? of 1902: "Give us an organization of revolutionaries and we will turn Russia upside down!" The Bolsheviks entered 1917 with a core of dedicated, experienced, and radical activists, hardened by Tsarist repression, committed to a maximalist political and economic program, and completely hostile to any vestige of the old regime. The Bolsheviks were better organized than the other socialists. They had in Lenin a remarkable leader, whose political daring in 1917 exceeded that of his closest lieutenants and matched the radical activists. His insistence on an uprising just before the (October) Second Congress of Soviets allowed him to present the congress with power and to form a "Soviet" cabinet (Sovnarkom, the Council of People's Commissars) made up entirely of Bolsheviks.
But Bolshevik strengths can easily be exaggerated. Lenin's party was no monolith; the myth of the tightly organized Bolshevik party has rightly been called a "cruel mockery." Membership did indeed swell to 300,000 in October 1917, but from a tiny base of no more than 24,000 in February 1917; this meant that eleven out of twelve Bolsheviks had only a few months' stazh (experience). Communications between the party center and its new branch membership were poor. The very seizure of power would deal a near mortal blow to the party "machine," as the attention of the most active members was turned to their new state, the soviet network. And party organizations were concentrated in a few radical regions, such as Petrograd, the Central Industrial Region (including Moscow), and the Urals; even here the party's reach did not extend beyond the boundaries of towns and industrial settlements. Bolshevik "voters" in the Assembly elections were 35 times party membership, some 10,661,000, but a total of 44,433,000 people voted. And the eight provinces where the party got more than 50 percent of the votes were restricted to a Red heartland in central and western Russia; here too were the military formations that gave more than half their votes to the party—two of the five army groups, and the Baltic Fleet.
Neither the Bolshevik program in its pure form nor the Bolshevik leaders' assessments of the situation were a guarantee of victory or even of support across a wide social spectrum. The small working class was ready, it is true, to support the Bolsheviks; the vague Bolshevik solutions to the economic crisis—workers' control and the expropriation of the capitalists, state control of trade, and the replacement of the market with state-controlled barter—were popular enough in the factories. But the great majority of the Russian people were peasants, and the Bolsheviks were a town-based Marxist party. Until well into 1917 Bolshevik agrarian policy had called for turning the landowners' estates into large socialist farms, not simply dividing them up among the peasants. In addition, the Leninist view of a peasantry split between rich and poor would prove unworkable in the years to follow. On the question of war, Lenin's goal was not simple pacifism but the transformation of World War into international civil war. All the Bolsheviks placed their faith in the myth of a European revolution that would save them in Russia. They believed, too, that if attacked by the "imperialists" they could defend themselves by means of "revolutionary war." The Bolsheviks' political tactics were also out of step; at a time when the country's mood still favored socialist cooperation, Lenin's dominant faction among the Bolshevik leaders refused to work with other socialists. And unlike most of the population, the Bolsheviks wrote off the Constituent Assembly as a parliamentary sham much inferior to the Soviets. Finally, the Bolsheviks, with their stress on the class struggle, were opposed in principle to the idea of independence for the national minorities, who made up half the population. Many strands of Bolshevik policy, then, did not meet the hopes of war-weary, rural, multinational Russia—and much of the program was simply not viable.
The organization and the ideology of the Bolsheviks are not enough to explain their success. What counted was the concept of "Soviet Power." The common name, the "Bolshevik Revolution," is in this sense misleading. Power was seized not in the name of the Bolshevik Party but in that of "Soviet Power," of the much broader soviet movement. Workers' and soldiers' councils (sovety) had appeared in most towns at the start of 1917. Their success did not come from some special creativity of the Russian workers and soldiers (not the peasants) who elected them. The power of the Soviets came partly from the lack of any alternative broadly based local government; under the Tsar the towns had been run by appointees and a wealthy elite. But the Soviets, elected directly by factories and military units, did provide a remarkably direct (if administratively ineffective) means of giving political institutions to a wider range of people than ever before. The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which met in late October, was not entirely dominated by the Bolsheviks, but it did show dissatisfaction with the slow pace of change under the Provisional Government. More important, the leaders of the October uprising in Petrograd claimed to be acting in defense of the soviet congress in the face of a counterrevolutionary threat from the Provisional Government. This threat was claimed to be a repetition of the August attempt by General Kornilov, the army Supreme Commander-in-Chief, to overthrow the Petrograd Soviet. At the very top of the Bolshevik Party, where the idea of insurrection was indeed born, the counterrevolutionary bogey was a piece of self-conscious manipulation. But even among middle-ranking party activists the tales of Prime Minister Kerensky's scheming were believed—and it was the "defense" of the congress that got so many supporters of the Soviets out into the streets in October. And this action was organized not directly by the Bolsheviks but by the Petrograd Soviet's Military-Revolutionary Committee (MRC).
Excerpted from The Russian Civil War by Evan Mawdsley. Copyright © 2005 Evan Mawdsley. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Table of Contents
Glossary and Abbreviations v
Part 1 1918: Year of Decision
1 The Triumphal March of Soviet Power: The Bolshevik Takeover in Central Russia, October 1917-January 1918 3
2 The Railway War: Spreading the Revolution, November 1917-March 1918 16
3 The Obscene Peace: Soviet Russia and the Central Powers, October 1917-November 1918 31
4 The Allies in Russia, October 1917-November 1918 45
5 The Volga Campaign, May-November 1918 56
6 Sovdepia: The Soviet Zone, October 1917-November 1918 70
7 The Cossack Vendee, May-November 1918 85
8 Siberia and the Urals, February-November 1918 99
Part 2 1919: Year of the Whites
9 The Revolution on the March: Sovdepia and the Outside World, November 1918-June 1919 115
10 Kolchak's Offensive, November 1918-June 1919 132
11 Omsk and Arkhangelsk: Kolchak, June-November 1919; North Russia, November 1918-March 1920 148
12 The Armed Forces of South Russia, November 1918-September 1919 161
13 The Armed Camp: Sovdepia, November 1918-November 1919 178
14 The Turning Point, September-November 1919 194
Part 3 1920: Year of Victory
15 The End of Denikin, November 1919-March 1920; The Caucasus, 1918-1921 219
16 Storm over Asia: Siberia, November 1919-October 1922; Central Asia, 1918-1920 230
17 Consolidating the State: The Soviet Zone, November 1919-November 1920 242
18 The Polish Campaign, April-October 1920 250
19 The Crimean Ulcer, April-November 1920 262
Supplementary Bibliography 344