Russian History


Civil War and War Communism

Soon after buying peace with Germany, the Soviet state found itself under attack from other quarters. By the spring of 1918, elements dissatisfied with the radical policies of the communists (as the Bolsheviks started calling themselves) established centers of resistance in southern and Siberian Russia. Beginning in April 1918, anticommunist forces, called the Whites and often led by former officers of the tsarist army, began to clash with the Red Army, which Trotsky, named commissar of war in the Soviet government, organized to defend the new state. A civil war to determine the future of Russia had begun.

The White armies enjoyed varying degrees of support from the Allied Powers. Desiring to defeat Germany in any way possible, Britain, France, and the United States landed troops in Russia and provided logistical support to the Whites, whom the Allies trusted would resume Russia's struggle against Germany after overthrowing the communist regime. (In March 1918, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party officially was renamed the Russian Communist Party [Bolshevik].) After the Allies defeated Germany in November 1918, they opted to continue their intervention in the Russian Civil War against the communists, in the interests of averting what they feared might become a world socialist revolution.

During the Civil War, the Soviet regime also had to deal with struggles for independence in regions that it had given up under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (which the regime immediately repudiated after Germany's defeat by the Allies in November 1918). By force of arms, the communists established Soviet republics in Belorussia (January 1919), Ukraine (March 1919), Azerbaijan (April 1920), Armenia (November 1920), and Georgia (March 1921), but they were unable to take back the Baltic region, where the independent states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been founded shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. In December 1917, the Soviet government recognized the independence of Finland as a gesture of support to the Finnish Reds. However, that strategy failed when Finland became a parliamentary republic in 1918. Poland, reborn after World War I, fought a successful war with Soviet Russia from April 1920 to March 1921 over the location of the frontier between the two states.

During its struggle for survival, the Soviet state relied heavily on the prospect that revolution would spread to other European industrialized countries. To coordinate the socialist movement under Soviet auspices, Lenin founded the Communist International (Comintern) in March 1919. Although no successful socialist revolutions occurred elsewhere immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Comintern provided the communist leadership with the means for later control of foreign communist parties.

By the end of 1920, the communists had clearly triumphed in the Civil War. Although in 1919 Soviet Russia had shrunk to the size of sixteenth-century Muscovy, the Red Army had the advantage of defending the heartland with Moscow at its center (see fig. 4). The White armies, divided geographically and without a clearly defined cause, went down to defeat one by one. Hopes of restoring the monarchy ended effectively when communists executed the imperial family in July 1918. The Allied governments, lacking support for intervention from their nations' war-weary citizenry, withdrew most of their forces by 1920. The last foreign troops departed Siberia in 1922, leaving the Soviet state unchallenged from abroad.

During the Civil War, the communist regime took increasingly repressive measures against its domestic opponents. The constitution of 1918 deprived members of the former "exploiting classes"--nobles, priests, and capitalists--of civil rights. Left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries, formerly partners of the Bolsheviks, became targets for persecution during what came to be known as the Red Terror, which followed an attempt on Lenin's life in August 1918 and lasted into 1920. In those desperate times, both Reds and Whites murdered and executed without trial large numbers of suspected enemies. The party also took measures to ensure greater discipline among its members by tightening its organization and creating specialized administrative organs.

In the economic life of the country, too, the communist regime sought to exert control through a series of drastic measures that came to be known as war communism. To coordinate what remained of Russia's economic resources after years of war, in 1918 the government nationalized industry and subordinated it to central administrations in Moscow. Rejecting workers' control of factories as inefficient, the regime brought in expert managers to run the factories and organized and directed the factory workers as in a military mobilization. To feed the urban population, the Soviet government requisitioned quantities of grain from the peasantry.

The results of war communism were unsatisfactory. Industrial production continued to fall. Workers received wages in kind because inflation had made the ruble practically worthless. In the countryside, peasants rebelled against payments in valueless currency by curtailing or consuming their agricultural production. In late 1920, strikes broke out in the industrial centers, and peasant uprisings sprang up across the land as famine ravaged the countryside. To the Soviet government, however, the most disquieting manifestation of dissatisfaction with war communism was the rebellion in March 1921 of sailors at the naval base at Kronshtadt (near Petrograd), which had earlier won renown as a bastion of the Bolshevik Revolution. Although Trotsky and the Red Army succeeded in putting down the mutiny, it signaled to the party leadership that war communism had to end. The harsh economic policies of the Civil War period, however, would have a profound influence on the future development of the country.