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date: 26 March 2019

Bolshevism enforced, 1917–1921

Abstract and Keywords

How could the Bolsheviks exert control over Russia between October 1917 and 1921 when the Provisional Government had failed to do so after the February Revolution? This chapter reassesses those turbulent years through the prism of centre-periphery conflict and state-building, arguing that the process of civil war served to extend Soviet control through the elimination of armed rivals and the suppression of the centrifugal social forces accentuated by revolution in 1917. If the Provisional Government sought to govern at a time when state sovereignty was disintegrating, the civil war was, to a large extent, a struggle for re-integration—a struggle characterized by the projection of armed force and the exercise of violence against civilians. Military domination of the countryside proved a necessary condition for the medium-term socialization of formerly insurgent populations who initially harboured strong grievances against the new Soviet state.

Keywords: revolution, civil war, insurgency, violence, Provisional Government, centre-periphery relations, state-building, Red Army, Whites, Lenin

The overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 was completed on the strength of a mass failure in the confidence of the people—elites and commoners alike—in the capacity of the Tsarist regime to care for its civilian population at the same time as it sustained the war effort. None of the main belligerents in the First World War had anticipated the prolonged nature of the conflict, but the war exposed the fragile foundations of the autocracy in Russia even before the first exchange of artillery in 1914. The Tsarist regime’s successive attempts to cope with the demands of the war effort over the following years of conflict only compromised those foundations further. The committee of Duma assembly members that formed during the week of strikes and demonstrations in late February 1917 hoped to shape a new foundation from which to prosecute the war effort, but they faced nearly all the same practical difficulties that had undermined confidence in the autocracy, as the malleable idea of revolution rapidly infiltrated all levels of society and created insurmountable difficulties for the successful continuation of Russia’s involvement in the war. The revolution accentuated centrifugal forces in Russian society, breaking down the tenuous channels that linked Petrograd with the provinces and territories that constituted the Empire, making it impossible for the Provisional Government to establish the centralized authority that the war effort demanded. Those same centrifugal forces shaped the conduct of the Soviet Government after October 1917.

However, for the Bolsheviks, the struggle for state control in the main occurred amidst conditions of civil war. While the Provisional Government in 1917 sought to govern at a time when state sovereignty was disintegrating, the Bolsheviks faced conditions characterized by a division of sovereignty, confronted by domestic rivals that faced similar challenges involving the effective control over territory and civilian populations. The civil war was, to a large extent, a struggle for integration and state building, one that quickly became characterized by the projection of armed force and the exercise of violence against civilians. The Bolsheviks enjoyed certain advantages in this struggle, and they ultimately proved more effective than their rivals in the task of establishing control over the vast territories of the former Empire. The present essay will explore the contours of the 1917 revolution and the ensuing civil war through this prism of centre-periphery conflict and state building.

‘Dual Power’ and Democratization

The popular demonstrations that began on the streets of Petrograd on 23 February 1917, and which culminated in the Tsar’s abdication on 3 March and the fall of the Romanov dynasty, had been animated by grievances relating to the daily challenges of securing enough food to survive. The urban population in Petrograd had grown significantly over the previous three years, as rural workers were drawn to the burgeoning war industries. The expansion of wartime production had been largely financed by the printing of rubles, as tax receipts declined and domestic and foreign loans were limited. While wages for urban workers had grown over the course of the war, these increases were well behind the pace of inflation.1 Inflation hurt the urban population much more than it did those in the countryside, where rural farmers could grow their own food, but the disruptions caused by the war also severely hampered the supply of grain to the capital. The conversion of many factories and enterprises to wartime production meant a corresponding drop in the production of consumer goods, the market for which constituted the main incentive for peasant production of grain. Without items to buy, such as agricultural tools, peasants scaled back cultivation. In addition, the war placed tremendous strain upon the Russian railway network, with delays and bottlenecks affecting the supply of food to the cities, just as the army at the front suffered shortages of food and supplies owing to the breakdown of the transport system.2

A crisis of confidence in the autocracy, however, underlay the grievances regarding subsistence. The disastrous prosecution of the war effort fuelled rumours of treason in the army and the court, anxieties that were displayed at all levels of society and which were picked up by Duma politicians both worried about the prospects of defeat and eager to capitalize on the public mood. The Constitutional Democrat (Kadet) politician, Pavel Miliukov, famously took to the floor of the State Duma in November 1916 to deliver a speech in which he detailed the decision-making record of the Tsar’s Government, repeatedly posing the rhetorical question regarding each failure: ‘Is this stupidity, or is it treason?’3 The answer of politicians such as Miliukov to the larger question of restoring faith in the Government and reviving the war effort at the front and at home was the formation of a government that included elected Duma politicians—a ‘government of public confidence’. The crisis of late February 1917 presented Miliukov and his liberal Duma colleagues with the opportunity to form just such a government in waiting, although the Tsar’s abdication left the committee of Duma members with the need to declare itself the Provisional Government of Russia. At the same time as the liberal Duma members were organizing, socialist members of the Duma joined the effort to form a second institution, the Petrograd Soviet, which they hoped would maintain the confidence of striking workers and mutinous soldiers in the capital. While the formation of the Petrograd Soviet had initially been seen as a practical step toward the containment of the disorders on the streets of the capital, the Soviet quickly became the focal point of lower-class hopes for the realization of freedoms and improvement in the material conditions of urban life.

The emergence of the two institutions, with the Provisional Government assuming the responsibility for customary governmental affairs and the Petrograd Soviet claiming to speak for, and command the loyalty of, industrial workers and soldiers, was predicated upon a strong measure of distrust that affected the relations between liberal and socialist politicians. While most observers were impressed with the effervescent street demonstrations that celebrated the revolution throughout much of the month of March,4 from the very first days of the revolution what united the politicians of Petrograd more than anything else was fear of the crowds and fear of reaction.5 The arrangement of ‘dual power’, as it quickly became known, was born largely of that fear, although socialists in the Soviet held that the revolution was not a socialist one, but was in fact ‘bourgeois’ in nature, and would thus require leadership by liberal politicians. The role of the Petrograd Soviet, then, was that of a safeguard against possible reaction and a guarantor that the Provisional Government would work for democratic rather than conservative aims. Arising out of fear and a doctrinaire perspective on the revolution, the ‘dual power’ arrangement preserved in institutional form the profound cleavage dividing the elite of Russian society from the lower classes.

The Provisional Government was ‘provisional’ in that, from the very beginning, it vowed to be a transitional authority during the period before a nationally-elected, democratic assembly could be convened in order to settle the fundamental constitutional issues facing post-Tsarist Russia. The fall of the autocracy had not meant the complete collapse of the state bureaucracy, nor had it meant the collapse of the Russian army. As such, the formation of a new governing council, composed of previously marginalized yet established public figures, offered a certain hope that change could be managed, even amid the desperate material and geopolitical conditions.6 The heady talk of the new leadership of ‘democracy’ and a new era of participatory politics and civil liberties was genuine, but it rested upon a certain confidence that the state had been saved from crisis rather than consumed by it. Yet from the very beginning, the Provisional Government was challenged by the force of ‘democratization’, for which it was largely unprepared. Similarly, the Petrograd Soviet, while the subject of countless declarations of loyalty by new local, ‘democratic’ institutions that proliferated in the early weeks of the revolution, became increasingly marginalized as Russia became consumed by centrifugal forces that set the stage for the crises of the autumn of 1917 and the Bolshevik takeover in October.

While the creation of ‘dual power’ had been the first step in this direction, the Soviet nevertheless authorized the early acceleration of this process with its ‘Order No. 1’, a text largely dictated by soldiers of the Petrograd garrison and originally intended for those forces in the Petrograd area, but which informed activities throughout the army following its publication shortly after its original issue on 1 March. The order addressed the soldiers’ grievances regarding the stifling discipline in the army and the treatment of enlisted personnel by the officer corps. But in addition to provisions demanding an end to familiar forms of address typically used by officers for lower ranking personnel, the Petrograd Soviet’s order further embodied the profound distrust of average soldiers for the officer class with its authorization of the formation of soldiers’ committees that would place all weapons and equipment, from personal firearms up to artillery guns, under the purview of the committees, the release of which could only be permitted with the sanction of the Petrograd Soviet. The profound distrust of the officer class resulted, in the case of the Petrograd district, in the early efforts by new soldiers’ committees to elect their own officers, in some cases expressing confidence in existing commanders while in many others resulting in their exclusion from command positions.7 The spread of the committees to the front line units distanced the phenomenon from its epicentre, bringing with it many of the same developments with the consequent breakdown in traditional authority, but also taking on its own peculiar dynamic that illustrated the profoundly different conditions that prevailed among active army units from those stationed in the reserve garrisons.8 While developments in Petrograd remained important for groups of soldiers at the front in 1917, the committees did not simply represent an extension of the Petrograd Soviet’s authority during the period of ‘dual power’.9

Among urban workers in Petrograd, the Soviet did represent a practical and symbolic centre for their own extension of the revolution into the workplace. Once more, the formation of elected institutions provided the basis for many of the most significant developments. Factory committees and soviets based in the workplace proliferated in the first months of the revolution, and official membership in trade unions similarly experienced rapid growth in the major manufacturing centres of Russia. The factory committees assumed an instrumental role in efforts to secure higher wages to cope with rising inflation, as well as for improvements in working conditions on the shop floor. As the economic situation continued to deteriorate over the summer of 1917, the committees became pivotal in the standoff between employers and workers, where the fear of lockouts and factory closure fuelled a developing grassroots campaign for self-management and ‘workers’ control’. While anxieties about job security were well-founded, with factory owners facing rising wage and raw materials costs (and reduced profit margins), worker productivity declined remarkably over the course of 1917, as shorter work days and the regular stream of meetings and demonstrations structured the average urban worker’s week.

Soldiers’ committees, factory committees of workers, and soviets embedded in the armed forces, the workplace and the community all represent extensions of the process of democratization in Russia in 1917, for these institutions not only represented widening participation in politics, but they also constituted a veritable explosion in the public sphere of semi-autonomous political activity. The importance of mainly socialist political parties to this process qualifies its apparent spontaneity, but even with the involvement of full-time activists this process occurred largely outside of the control of Petrograd and the ‘dual power’ arrangement, a constituent element of Russia’s democratization that in practice translated into political fragmentation.10 In the countryside, organization took on different forms as rural communities sought to engage with the nationwide revolution and actualize it within the context of the locality. While most provincial settings did not replicate the ‘dual power’ arrangement in the short term, the process of fragmentation through the proliferation of ad hoc and officially-sanctioned novel institutions was even more pronounced than in the major cities. In most provincial capitals and towns, established officials drawn from the zemstvos and the municipal dumas responded to the news of the revolution with the formation of their own transitional governing committees, variously titled Committee of Public Organizations, Committee of Public Safety, Provisional Executive Committee, and so on. The Provisional Government, in an effort to control these improvised local committees and coordinate their activities, appointed commissars to assume the role previously identified with the provincial governors. Commissars were also appointed to assume control at the county (uezd) level.11 The Provisional Government, however, proved largely powerless to control or direct the creative impulses of rural communities to form their own ad hoc committees and to improvise their own networks of local institutions that linked villages and districts (volosti) and assumed such importance in the discussion and direction of revolutionary politics in the rural milieu.12

The Provisional Government authorized the formation of additional institutions to deal with the intensifying crisis surrounding the supply of grain to the cities and to the army. In declaring a monopoly on all surplus grain, that is, that produced above a set norm for household consumption and seed stocks for the upcoming sowing season, and in setting fixed prices for the procurement of such surpluses, the Provisional Government decreed the organization of provincial and local supply committees under the auspices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs that would facilitate the renewed effort to procure grain following the breakdown of the market for agricultural goods. The fate of the land, however, rather than of the supply of grain, was the overriding issue that defined the revolution for farming communities. The fate of privately-held gentry land, as well as that under church and state ownership, was an issue that the Provisional Government reasonably felt would have to await the decision of a future Constituent Assembly.

But in response to the continued independence of local committees in the countryside, and fearful of the damaging consequences of unchecked deterioration in relations between local farming communities and gentry landowners, the Provisional Government in April authorized the formation of land committees at all levels of administration. Initially described as an extension of the Ministry of Agriculture’s efforts to collect data regarding land tenure in preparation of the Constituent Assembly’s future deliberations on a general law on the land, the land committees assumed increasing importance in the development of political conflict between private landowners and the communal peasantry. At first, the Provisional Government authorized the land committees to assume control over ‘underutilized’ land, that is, land that had been left fallow, a measure justified as serving the public good and the war effort through the maximum utilization of arable land. The committees quickly became a legitimate institutional vehicle for the advance of local farmers’ claims on the land of the local gentry, whose properties, it was contended, were not being placed to full use. An important moment in the disintegration of peasant-gentry relations in the grain producing regions of Russia was the May 1917 All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies, a forum organized by the Socialist Revolutionary Party (PSR) but never operating as a mouthpiece for that organization. While the Congress did not enjoy official sanction by the Provisional Government or even the Petrograd Soviet, its resolution calling for all privately-held lands (ie lands not under communal peasant control) to be placed ‘at the disposition of’ (v vedenie) the land committees provided local committees, whose membership was dominated by the farming peasantry and their supporters, with ammunition to press for land seizures more vigorously. While ad hoc seizures of private lands had occurred in many areas from the very first weeks of the revolution, the Congress’ resolution added greater legitimacy and cover for the piecemeal dispossession of the landed gentry.13

The uneven nature by which the conflict between the land committees and the supply committees developed in the Russian provinces is testament both to the importance of local cleavages and dynamics in influencing the spread of the network of land committees, as well as to the limited influence the two main institutions of ‘dual power’ ultimately had outside of the capital.14 The fragmentation of political authority in Russia in 1917 was a problem for both institutions, informing the successive efforts to form ‘coalition’ governments, involving socialist and non-socialist politicians, between May and October. But these attempts to forge a unified centre in an effort to project political authority proved incapable of overcoming continued fragmentation and only served to reveal, in most cases, the depth of the divisions within the constituent parties participating in the governing coalition of the day. It has become a cliché to describe the Provisional Government as a ‘government of persuasion’, which was a characterization informed by the fact that it possessed no other means of ‘imposing its will’.15 Its creative manipulation of political symbolism and ritual was not only a conscious recreation of democratic political activities in the West, past and present; it was most importantly an indication of fundamental weakness. As leader of the Provisional Government (first as Prime Minister, then briefly as President), Alexander Kerensky increasingly became the focus of the Provisional Government’s efforts to project an image that stood ‘above-class’, claiming to be acting in the national interest both at a time of war but also at a time of growing social polarization.16 The emergence of a symbolism that emphasized martial themes, the presence of internal (and external) threats, and the obligations of service and citizenship occurred as individuals were increasingly identifying with class interests defined by inherent conflict with other social groups in revolutionary Russia. While hardly novel in 1917, political fragmentation and deteriorating material conditions fuelled a trend that eroded any unity that may have been in evidence in the first weeks of the revolution, and appeals for identification with class solidarity, and more broadly following a binary form of ‘us’ and ‘them’, or verkhi (elite) and nizy (non-elite), acquired greater purchase as the weeks passed, and ‘comrade’ began to replace ‘citizen’ as a preferred form of address for most workers and, to a lesser extent, peasants.17

The calls for a strong leader grew as the centrifugal forces of the revolution undermined the prospects for unity. The fear of reaction had been present from the very birth of ‘dual power’ in Petrograd, and it is remarkable that it only appeared in concrete form in late August 1917, when the Supreme Commander of Russian forces, General Lavr Kornilov, led a failed attempt to establish a military dictatorship. The fate of the front and the survival of the Russian Empire were foremost in the minds of Kornilov and his supporters. But more broadly speaking, the appeal of military dictatorship was built upon the unintelligible ‘chaos’ and ‘anarchy’ that dominated most conservative and several liberal perceptions of the situation inside Russia. Much of what was going on in the cities and, especially, in the villages in 1917 remained obscure for most observers, both inside and out of Provisional Government circles.18 Kerensky had already relented in July and August, accepting the reinstatement of the death penalty in the army, and authorizing several measures that sought to curb the factory committees, land committees and other local institutions whose activities so compromised the realization of centralized authority.19 The options for alleviating the supply crisis for the cities began to revolve around the use of armed force, rather than agitation and enlistment, in a manner that replicated the pre-revolutionary Tsarist Government’s own turn in 1916 to coercion in a late effort to extract grain from the villages.20 The turn to a more hard-line approach was both logical and counterproductive, for it was ventured from a position of weakness amid distrust of the Provisional Government (and Petrograd Soviet). The consequence was resistance from the left and reaction from the right, as Kerensky’s Government and the moderate socialists of the Petrograd Soviet were caught in a condition of social polarization and paralysed by political fragmentation.

The fragmentation of state sovereignty after February 1917, contrary to the pronouncements of conservatives at the time, did not leave Russia in a Hobbesian condition of unbridled egoism and chaos. Local institutions retained their vitality and importance for the definition and articulation of collective grievances and aspirations, even if their activities proved detrimental to the reconstitution of central state authority. The estate seizures of September and October 1917 that began the rapid and final disappropriation of the gentry from the Russian countryside provided the most spectacular episodes of collective violence of the first revolutionary year. Local institutions, such as the land committees, proved to be instrumental in the advance of the claims of the communal peasantry, but they were also frequently mechanisms for restraint and order, limiting damage and violence against persons while facilitating the seizure of land and moveable property from local landlords.21

Soviet Power and Civil War

What the Provisional Government decried as mnogovlastie (multi-power) was initially celebrated by the Soviet Government as ‘All Power to the Soviets’—the slogan under which the Bolshevik Party justified their act of deposing the Provisional Government and seizing power in the name of the Petrograd Soviet in October 1917.22 While Lenin may have expressed confidence regarding the prospects of fragmentation transforming into effective governance and socialism, the circumstances that challenged the viability of the Provisional Government were undiminished by the Bolshevik takeover. In fact, the opposite was true; the civil war that many had foreseen in 1917 even in the absence of a Bolshevik-led government was made reality by the actions of Lenin and his party. Civil war, however, meant something different from political fragmentation and the collapse of central authority. It meant the existence of tangible challengers to the Soviet Government, challengers that faced many of the same tasks of resolving centre-periphery conflict, of consolidating control over territory and populations, and ultimately the establishment of undivided sovereignty over the territorially-limited state and its peoples.23 The emergence of internal armed challengers that posed an existential threat to the Bolsheviks and the new Soviet Government necessitated the assertion of control over territory and people. The enforcement of ‘Bolshevism’ during the years of civil war was principally an expression of the Soviet state’s efforts to successfully wage war and extend sovereignty over the lands of much of the former Russian Empire.

The strength of the Bolshevik Party was largely limited to urban centres and among the soldiery both at the front and in the dispersed garrisons of the Russian interior. Seizing power in the name of the Petrograd Soviet, and then the formation of a coalition government with Left Socialist Revolutionaries, enabled the Bolsheviks to maintain a modicum of legitimacy at a time when the elections to the Constituent Assembly were imminent and very few people expected the Bolsheviks to become entrenched as the ruling party.24 A reasonable showing in the November elections placed the Bolsheviks as the second largest party by representation in the future assembly, second to the Socialist Revolutionaries, whose election slates had been finalized before undergoing a formal organizational split. The transfer of power to the soviets in the provincial centres and towns outside of Petrograd was uneven but largely without excessive bloodshed, as the Bolsheviks and their allies were able to command greater loyalty from the available garrisoned soldiers and armed workers in most urban settings of European Russia than were their liberal and moderate socialist opponents. On the periphery of the Russian Empire, however, fighting did occur between pro-Soviet militia and mainly non-Russian groups. In the ‘railway war’ of the final weeks of 1917 and early 1918, so-called because of the small numbers of active fighters involved and their dependence upon the railroads to reach trouble spots as they appeared, pro-Soviet forces were able to gain an upper-hand against similarly weak opposition in the Don Cossack region and Kuban of South Russia and the North Caucasus.25 These early clashes were more a prelude to the Russian civil war because none of the belligerents engaged in hostilities from a stable organizational base, let alone territorial or political ones.26 But it was also true of the Bolshevik Party and Soviet Government, which lacked extensive and cohesive political and military institutions to expand its administrative control beyond the major urban centres of European Russia. Much of ‘sovdepia’, as the core of Soviet-held territory came to be known in the early months of the civil war in 1918, was a zone of minimal control for the Soviet Government, a condition that was both an inheritance of the under-administrated old regime and a consequence of the revolution.

The revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion at various points along the railway network in May 1918 opened up pockets of opportunity that anti-Bolshevik opponents filled, thus creating the moment when most historians date the start of the Russian civil war. That a dispersed and unevenly disciplined military force of some 40,000 men could so decisively alter the strategic situation in Russia at the time is testament, particularly, to how weak both government and domestic opposition forces were at that stage. The first beneficiary of the Legion’s conflict with the Soviet Government was the Komuch Government of the Middle Volga region.27 Led by moderate Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) who sought to rally popular support under the flag of the Constituent Assembly, whose existence was ended by armed pro-Bolshevik supporters in Petrograd after only a single day in session in January 1918, the Komuch Government was reliant upon the military support of the Czechoslovak Legion as it established its base in Samara, and it remained reliant even after it began to mobilize its own military force, the ill-disciplined ‘People’s Army’. The Legion was also behind the emergence of a rival anti-Bolshevik Government based in Western Siberia, the Provisional Siberian Government in Ufa, which was dominated by more conservative political elements but which was forced into negotiations with the socialist Komuch by the leaders of the Czechoslovaks, who had little interest in prolonging their armed involvement in Russian domestic affairs. Both of these new bases of opposition to the Soviet Government were short-lived and transitional, for neither proved capable to transcending a dependence upon the artificial conditions created by the presence of the armed Czechoslovak Legion. Particularly the Komuch found it difficult to extend its influence beyond the towns of the Middle Volga region, and their turn to reliance upon an array of plenipotentiaries mirrored the Provisional Government’s own appointment of commissars in an effort to gain a foothold in local administration.28

Neither, of course, was the Soviet Government able to extend its control over territory to limit the opportunities for armed opponents. The rallying cry of ‘All Power to the Soviets’ in the autumn of 1917 had been met with a positive response in the countryside of European Russia, where rural village and district soviets began to appear in greater numbers before and after the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in Petrograd. But what appeared to be a popular validation of the decision of the Bolshevik leadership was, in practical terms, little more than a continuation of the same fragmentation that proved so debilitating for the Provisional Government in 1917. The problems surrounding food supply remained tied to the central Soviet Government’s relations with the countryside. The declaration of a food ‘dictatorship’ in May 1918 represented an intensification of the Provisional Government’s grain monopoly in that it prioritized the creation of channels into the village as a means of getting peasants to make grain deliveries. The Provisional Government was limited largely to exhortation in its efforts to enforce grain deliveries, and the Bolsheviks similarly sought to establish a means of overcoming localist tendencies in the provinces by imposing their own ‘master cleavage’ that would inform decision-making in the villages. As such, the decrees that together formed the creation of the food supply dictatorship utilized the language of class warfare to identify those suspected of disrupting or sabotaging the successful functioning of the system of food procurement—the village bourgeoisie, or kulaks.

While the kulaks were hardly an invention of Bolshevik politicians, their prominence in official state pronouncements grew rapidly as the tangible military threats to the Soviet Government became manifest in the early summer of 1918. Food brigades drawn mainly from the hungry urban areas of the Northwest became the agents of grain collection in the agricultural provinces within Soviet territory, and these brigades were granted both a stake in the total amount collected from the villages (a portion of their collections would remain with the members of the brigade, who were frequently from the same factory or public organization) and armed with extensive powers reinforced by a supercharged language of class war, the tone of which was set at the very top of the Soviet Government.29 The food brigades were instrumental, along with the soldiers of the recently-organized Red Army, in creating new institutions at the village level in rural Russia, the Committees of the Poor (kombedy), which were intended to displace the soviets as the locus of authority in the village. The new committees were meant to embody the regime’s commitment to enlisting the support of poor villagers as a pro-government constituency, one that would be able to exercise pressure on less enthusiastic and uncooperative villagers (the kulaks) once empowered with an institutional basis to execute state decrees and distribute scarce material resources, such as manufactured goods, fuel, and other items over which the state sought to establish monopoly control. While the worker-led food brigades were critical to the short-term project of improving the supply of grain to the cities, the introduction of the kombedy was an indication of the Soviet state’s acknowledged need to overcome political fragmentation and improve the supply and quality of information regarding the civilian population and the resources it possessed within Soviet territory, information critical to the twin demands of military conscription and grain collection for which the state relied upon the villages.

The committees, however, failed to resolve the fundamental issues of control, sovereignty and information. As Orlando Figes detailed on the basis of extensive evidence from the Middle Volga region, the rural poor elevated to positions of authority in the system of kombedy were largely ‘outsiders’—recent in-migrants from the cities and towns, landless labourers, and so on—and the conflicts that arose in the brief period during which the committees were introduced did not so much divide the farming peasantry as instil an in-group solidarity that frequently resulted in violence.30 Formed at a time when the state did not possess the resources to rely upon military occupation and coercion, the dream of consolidating what Soviet leaders preferred to term ‘the revolution’ (ie sovereignty) by driving a wedge into the village communities and manufacturing a pro-state constituency that could govern effectively was abandoned in the autumn of 1918, amid unprecedented levels of intra-village and anti-state violence in the countryside.

The abandonment of the Committees of the Poor resulted in a renewed commitment to the rural soviets, the creation of rural cells of the Communist Party, and to the articulation of a relatively inclusive policy regarding the peasantry, one that remained hostile to so-called kulaks but which identified a third tier—the middle peasants—as a potential pro-Soviet constituency. This commitment to the middle peasant, to the soviets as local institutions of administration, and to ‘neutralizing’ (in Lenin’s expression) the peasantry as a political factor in the civil war, resulted in an alteration of policy as regards food supply. The Soviet razverstka, in which central government designated its own targets for food procurement and relied upon provincial, county and district administrations to distribute those targets to the grain-producing households, promised transparency regarding the requirements of the state, but it maintained the same reliance upon local institutions for the effective collection of information regarding sown acreage and harvest yield, and thus for the appropriate distribution of targets. With so much flux in the system of local administration, of which the disturbances surrounding the kombedy were only the latest chapter, the razverstka policy was exceptionally compromised from the moment it was ventured in practice. The uncertainties surrounding the military conflict, with the forces of the White and Volunteer armies under Admiral Kolchak and General Denikin reaching their respective heights in the spring and summer of 1919, made for an uneven campaign to re-elect local soviets over the course of that year. The conscription of Communist party members, as well as evacuations of state and party personnel in areas under direct threat from enemy forces, similarly compromised the effort to collect grain under the new policy and strengthen the institutions upon which its success depended.

The resulting campaign in the autumn and winter of 1919–20 was characterized by reliance upon the armed brigades of food requisition agents assigned to individual provinces. The dependence upon coercion and the disregard given to the protestations of villagers and local administrators alike was the product not simply of the desperation of the ‘grain-deficit’ regions of Soviet territory, although this was considerable. It was also the result of a fundamental lack of information regarding local conditions and the capacity of individual villages and households to meet the targets of the Food Commissariat and the demands of the requisition brigades.31 The circumstances of the civil war frequently prevented the Soviet Central Government and the Communist Party from pursuing, let alone realizing, its policy objectives regarding the cultivation of local institutions and the construction of an effective machinery of the state. Overcoming localism increasingly became the basis for the appointment of special commissars and plenipotentiaries with extraordinary powers designed to cut through parochial obstructionism and localized bureaucratic power struggles surrounding such critical pursuits as industrial production, military conscription, as well as food procurement. Combating localism also entailed the reshuffling of personnel in strategically vital provinces and counties, removing natives with individuals or teams of trusted Communist party members whose primary concerns were in harmony with those of the central commissariats and the Kremlin.32 The civil war in the Soviet Republic was a time of tremendous flux in the existing institutions of the Communist Party and state in part due to the rapidly changing circumstances on the front lines, and also due to the centre-periphery tensions that existed in varying degrees across all provinces of Soviet-held territory.

Ultimately, the question of the resort to coercion and violent means to achieve vital state objectives had been laid at the door of each of Russia’s three successive regimes—the Tsarist, Provisional, and the Soviet. The matter of utilizing ‘real’, or armed, force to overcome the absence of material incentives and an effective local machinery of state, as well as the general obscurity of local conditions, also confronted the Soviet Government’s principal foes, the Whites. On the whole, the Whites lacked the generalized concern with effective state-building that their Bolshevik enemy possessed, a quality that emerged both from the Whites’ peripheral territorial situation but also corresponding to the Bolsheviks’ own inheritance of much of the surviving machinery of state (including its personnel) after the deposition of the Provisional Government.33 While the Whites did not ignore the role of institutions as an integral component of consolidating territory and managing civilian populations, their activities in this regard betrayed a clear bias against such pursuits in favour of what was (misguidedly, perhaps) considered the priority of achieving front line objectives.34 As with the Soviet Government, the resort to coercion was an indication and admission of weakness and an inability to overcome centre-periphery tensions by less violent means.35

While the human cost of the civil war is measured, in the first instance, with the casualties resulting from famine and disease, the violence of the civil war was mainly a result of the weak levels of control exercised by the principal belligerents. The Soviet Government was forced to tolerate low levels of control over the institutions of village and district administration and rely upon plenipotentiaries, requisition brigades, anti-desertion patrols and the like as it pursued short-term objectives that were understood as components of the civil war effort. Like the Whites, it drew upon the practices and strategies that had been developed in earlier wartime contexts, and while the tenor of their application may have differed, both faced similar conditions during the civil war that structured their use of wartime practices against the civilian population.36

The clearest example of how violence against civilians was a result of struggles for control during the civil war once again concerns the countryside and the phenomenon of rural rebellions at the end of the civil war period. The Soviet Government suffered rural rebellions and disturbances throughout the civil war, mainly in response to state efforts to collect grain, conscript men, and collect monetary taxes.37 Only a relatively small number of these, however, were significant in scale or prolonged in duration until 1920–21, when the Soviet Government was confronted by larger insurgencies in grain-growing regions in Central Russia, the Middle Volga, and Western Siberia. These insurgencies capitalized upon the profound grievances of a rural population that had endured unsustainable demands from government commissariats, frequently enforced by heavy-handed and arbitrary agents of the state and the ruling party. The insurgencies also arose in areas of minimal state control, where the weakness of the Communist Party organization, itself overextended by the demands of the war effort, and of the soviet administration did not offer a basis for the extension of the state into the rural milieu.

Thus, with control at a minimum and popular grievances intense, political opportunity was seized by entrepreneurial opponents of the Soviet regime, just as the spaces behind the front lines of the Whites in Siberia and the South of Russia were seized by an assortment of self-styled warlords, atamans, and freedom fighters. Frequently, where possible, the response of local Soviet authorities was indiscriminate acts of violence—burning villages, rounding up and executing hostages, mass confiscations of moveable property—pursued on the assumption that such demonstrative acts would raise the costs of continued rebellion beyond an acceptable level for most civilians. With neither the means to occupy the territory nor the local knowledge to develop strategies in which selective violence could be utilized, such indiscriminate measures against civilians did little to pacify the armed resistance of anti-Soviet rebels, but instead frequently served to inflame the situation and hasten the collapse of state authority more broadly.

Anti-Soviet rebels and other groups that sought to exploit those spaces frequently developed political programs and projected a collective identity that emphasized the worthiness of their struggle. But they also confronted the practical demands of control over the territory they had carved out of the civil war landscape. Local committees at the village level were a feature of the rural rebellions of 1920–21, as were efforts to establish regulation over the local economy, the administration of justice, and of policing public order. Regardless of the success rural rebels achieved in this regard, the point remains that a significant component of their armed struggle with the Soviet state involved their own struggles with ‘localism’, centre-periphery tensions, and the politicization of everyday life that could sustain their insurgencies. It is unsurprising, therefore, that such rebellions at the end of the civil war period turned increasingly toward the use of violence and coercion against civilians as their control over the countryside came under pressure from the Red Army.

The deployments of larger and larger numbers of such troops to reinforce the presence of internal security forces in 1921 enabled the Soviet Government to maintain a strong presence in the countryside, whereas previously the shortage of armed troops had limited the state’s reach to only the towns and cities of the provinces affected by significant insurgencies. The Red Army extended its area of control through the utilization of many standard counterinsurgency practices directed at the civilian population, such as the establishment of concentration camps, mobile field courts martial, and the rounding up of hostages from the village communities. The levels of bloodshed only rose as the state made its full weight bear on the insurgent countryside and the rebels correspondingly struggled to maintain their own areas of control. Garrisoning troops in the countryside also enabled the creation of local institutions, such as revolutionary committees, to supplant those of the rebels, which were instrumental in encouraging collaboration and the collection of information about the local communities and erstwhile ‘bandits’, further facilitating the employment of selective violence as a tool of extending state control. These institutions would be transitional components of the ‘pacification’ of the countryside, eventually yielding to elected soviets and the formation of local Communist Party cells as the conflict was wound down.38

Military control was a necessary precondition for short-term collaboration and the medium-term socialization of formerly insurgent populations who had harboured such strong grievances against the Soviet state.39 This is not to suggest that the outcome of the civil war was steadfast loyalty to the Soviet regime, nor is it to suggest that armed force played an equally significant role across all parts of the Soviet Republic, for not all areas experienced popular rebellions of equal severity.40 Rather the process of the civil war, of which the violence suffered by civilians was a significant component, served to extend Soviet control both through the elimination of armed rivals and through the resolution of many of the centre-periphery conflicts and the suppression of the centrifugal forces that had found institutional expression after 1917. In particularly recalcitrant localities, only military occupation could establish the conditions for the creation of stable local institutions that were more reliably in harmony with the policies and orientation of the central Soviet Government. It seems reasonable, therefore, to understand state-building as an ‘externality’ of the civil war conflict.41 Not only were the most significant central institutions of the future USSR—the Communist Party, the Red Army, the Cheka, Sovnarkom—established and ‘hot-housed’ during the four-year conflict; the civil war was also a time during which the widespread use of armed coercion and violence against civilians suppressed localism and facilitated short-term collaboration in a manner that enabled Soviet victory and created minimal conditions for the consolidation of Soviet state control in the former Empire.

Further Reading

Acton, Edward, Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev and William G. Rosenberg (eds), The Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914–1921 (London: Arnold, 1997)Find this resource:

Raleigh, Donald J. (ed), A Russian Civil War Diary: Alexis Babine in Saratov, 1917–1922 (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1988)Find this resource:

Churakov, D. O., Revoliutsiia, gosudarstvo, rabochii protest: formy, dinamika i priroda massovykh vystuplenii rabochikh v Sovetskoi Rossii: 1917–1918 gody (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2006)Find this resource:

Figes, Orlando, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996)Find this resource:

Kondrashin, V. V., Krest’ianskoe dvizhenie v Povolzh’e v 1918–1922 gg. (Moscow: Izd. ‘Ianus—K’, 2001)Find this resource:

Mawdsley, Evan, The Russian Civil War (Edinburgh: Berlinn, 2000)Find this resource:

Narskii, I. V., Zhizn’ v katastrofe: budni naseleniia Urala v 1917–1922 gg. (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2001)Find this resource:

Sanborn, Joshua, Drafting the Russian Nation: Military Conscription, Total War and Mass Politics, 1900–1925 (DeKalb IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003)Find this resource:

Smith, Stephen A, Revolution and the People in Russia and China: A Comparative History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)Find this resource:

Von Hagen, Mark, Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship: the Red Army and the Soviet Socialist State, 1917–1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990)Find this resource:

Wade, Rex A., The Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War (London: Greenwood Press, 2001)Find this resource:


(1) Alexander M. Michelson, Paul N. Apostol, and Michael W. Bernatzky, Russian Public Finance During the War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1928), 259.

(2) Lars Lih, Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914–1921 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990), ch. 1.

(3) On the prevalence of rumours of treason, see William C.Fuller, Jr., The Foe Within: Fantasies of Treason and the End of Imperial Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

(4) Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 43–8.

(5) Marc Ferro, The Russian Revolution of February 1917 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), trans. by J. L. Richards, 58.

(6) See Rex A. Wade, The Russian Revolution, 1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 55.

(7) Alan K. Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers’ Revolt (March–April 1917) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 190.

(8) See Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army, 246–90.

(9) The continuing relevance of the Petrograd Soviet in the ‘centre’ is illustrated in the selection of appeals and letters written by soldiers’ groups reproduced in Mark D. Steinberg (ed), Voices of Revolution, 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 106–28.

(10) In the words of P. Holquist: ‘To the extent that people came to participate in the politics of revolution, they did so originally and, for much of 1917, predominantly through new political organs, such as civic committees, rather than through political parties.’ See Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914–1921 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 57.

(11) See the 14 March 1917 Ministry of Internal Affairs circular in Robert Browder and Alexander Kerensky (eds), The Russian Provisional Government: Documents (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1961), 3 vols, 1: 243.

(12) Orlando Figes, Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917–1921 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 34–6. The commissars similarly experienced difficulties in the administrative centres of many provinces of Russia in 1917. A representative example is Smolensk. See Michael Hickey, ‘Local Government and State Authority in the Provinces: Smolensk, February-June 1917’, Slavic Review 55 (1996): 863–81.

(13) J. L. H. Keep, The Russian Revolution: A Study in Mass Mobilization (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976), 167–8, 237–8.

(14) See Sarah Badcock, Politics and the People in Revolutionary Russia; A Provincial History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 203–8; L. G. Protasov and D. G. Sel’tser, ‘Zemel’nye komitety v 1917 godu: novyi etap izucheniia’, in Obshchestvennye organizatsii v politicheskoi sisteme, 1917–1918 gody, ed. by P. V. Volobuev (Tver: Tverskoi gosudarstvennyi universistet, 1992), 20–7; V. I. Kostrikin, Zemel’nye komitety v 1917g. (Moscow: Nauka, 1975). On the ministerial conflicts that surrounded the introduction of the land committees, see Daniel Orlovsky, ‘Reform during Revolution: Governing the Provinces in 1917’, in Reform in Russia and the USSR: Past and Prospects, ed. Robert O. Crummey (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 100–25.

(15) Alexander Kerensky, Russia and History’s Turning Point (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1965), 229.

(16) On the Kerensky ‘cult’, see Boris I. Kolonitskii, ‘Kerensky’, in The Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914–1921, ed. by Edward Acton, Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev and William G. Rosenberg (London: Arnold, 1997), 138–49.

(17) Stephen A. Smith, The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 31–2.

(18) The acute lack of information was notable in the case of the countryside, where efforts to facilitate the collection of grain depended, initially, on the collection of accurate data regarding land tenure, cultivation, and harvests. See Lih, Bread and Authority, 64–5; Aaron B. Retish, Russia’s Peasants in Revolution and Civil War. Citizenship, Identity, and the Creation of the Soviet State, 1914-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 108–18.

(19) Wade, The Russian Revolution, 196–7.

(20) Holquist, Making War, 106–7; Lih, Bread and Authority, 48–53; George Yaney, The Urge to Mobilize: Agrarian Reform in Russia, 1861-1930 (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1982).

(21) See Protasov and Sel’tser, ‘Zemel’nye komitety’.

(22) Figes, Peasant Russia, 66–7.

(23) Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1932), 3 vols, trans. by Max Eastman, 1: 208. Of course, Weber’s classic definition of state sovereignty (‘monopoly of the legitimate use of force’) approvingly cites Trotsky as recognizing that ‘every state is founded on force’. See ‘Politics as a Vocation’, in Max Weber’s Complete Writings on Academic and Political Vocations (New York: Algora, 2007), ed. by J. Dreijmanis, trans. by G. Wells, 156.

(24) This despite the rancour that surrounded early attempts to form an all-socialist coalition government following the Bolshevik seizure of power. See Geoffrey Swain, The Origins of the Russian Civil War (Harlow: Longman, 1996), 74.

(25) Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War (Edinburgh: Berlinn, 2000), ch. 2.

(26) See Holquist, Making War, ch. 2.

(27) Figes, Peasant Russia, 162–7; Jonathan Smele, Civil War in Siberia. The Anti-Bolshevik Government of Admiral Kolchak, 1918–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 30–39.

(28) Figes, Peasant Russia, 168.

(29) eg, see Lenin’s initial appeal (22 May 1918) for worker volunteers for participation in the food brigades, in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow: Progress, 1972), 45 vols, 27: 391–8. One should not underestimate the role such cues from leaders played in producing the violent conflicts over grain procurement in 1918. See Joel Andreas, ‘The Structure of Charismatic Mobilization: A Case Study of Rebellion in the Chinese Cultural Revolution’, American Sociological Review 72 (2007): 434–58.

(30) Figes, Peasant Russia, 188–99.

(31) Figes, Peasant Russia, 263–7; Erik Landis, ‘Between Village and Kremlin: Contesting Soviet Food Procurement in Civil War Tambov, 1919–1920’, Russian Review 63 (2004): 70–88.

(32) eg, see Delano DuGarm, ‘Local Politics and the Struggle for Grain in Tambov, 1918–1921’, in Provincial Landscapes: Local Dimensions of Soviet Power, 1917–1953, ed. by Donald J. Raleigh (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), 59–81; Donald J. Raleigh, Experiencing Russia’s Civil War: Politics, Society and Revolutionary Culture in Saratov, 1917–1922 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), ch. 3.

(33) On the importance of continuity of institutions and specialist personnel in the Soviet state after 1917, see Daniel T. Orlovsky, ‘State-Building in the Civil War Era: The Role of the Lower-Middle Strata’, in Party, State, and Society in the Russian Civil War: Explorations in Social History, ed. by Diane Koenker, William Rosenberg, and Ronald Suny (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989), 180–209; James Heinzen, Inventing a Soviet Countryside: The Soviet State and the Transformation of Rural Russia before Collectivization (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004); Don K. Rowney, ‘Narrating the Russian Revolution: Institutionalism and Continuity across Regime Change’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 47 (2005), 79–105.

(34) Victor G. Bortnevski, ‘White Administration and White Terror (The Denikin Period)’, Russian Review 52 (1993), 354–66; Smele, Civil War in Siberia, 671–72.

(35) There is also the simple consideration of cost-effectiveness; in the pithy phrase of Charles Tilly: ‘coercion works’. See Coercion, Capital, and European states, AD 990–1992 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 70 (emphasis in original).

(36) For a forceful statement regarding the roots of shared civil war practices, see Peter I. Holquist, ‘“Information is the Alpha and Omega of Our Work”: Bolshevik Surveillance in Its Pan-European Context’, The Journal of Modern History 69 (1997), 415–50.

(37) For a survey, see Vladimir N. Brovkin, Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War: Political Parties and Social Movements in Russia, 1918–1922 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

(38) See Erik Landis, Bandits and Partisans: The Antonov Movement in the Russian Civil War (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008).

(39) The strength of grievances and the experience of violently turbulent periods can be lost in the fog of memory, especially as people adjust to the political realities of the post-conflict regime. An exploration of the reconstruction of individual identities and the memory of personal experience is found in Frederick C. Corney, Telling October: Memory and the Making of the Bolshevik Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

(40) There may be a bias among historians producing local histories toward episodes of popular resistance and rebellion. A partial exception is Retish, Russia’s Peasants in Revolution and Civil War.

(41) Stathis Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 385.