(POWER to the SOVIETS – continued)

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POWER to the SOVIETS (6 of 6)

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Civil War develops, to July 1918

More pressure on the Bolsheviks came in the form of Japanese marines landing 500 marines at Vladivostok in April. This followed news that had reached Japan about Russians in Bolshevik uniforms having robbed a Japanese store killing a clerk. The British followed suit and landed fifty marines at Vladivostok, to guard, they said, the British consulate and save British property. The Japanese and British marines met no resistance, there being no substantial Bolshevik force in the area. Lenin believed that forces from the United States would soon join the Japanese and British, and he spoke of policy in the United States as being controlled by "finance capital," and finance capital, he said, wanted "control of Siberia."

Lenin's primary concern was control, and by the way he was hoping for good relations with the United States. The amateur diplomat Raymond Robins was returning to the US from Russia, and Lenin sent a message with him expressing hope for trade. He wrote of Soviet Russia as a good opportunity for American investors. He offered the same for Britain and was hoping that competition from the United States and Britain would put a check on Japanese expansion from Vladivostok.

In Finland, meanwhile, his Bolsheviks were losing a war that was raging between the pro-Bolshevik regime and an army of conservatives. Germans landed in Finland in early April and were aiding the conservatives, while Moscow was obliged to stay out of Finnish affairs by the Brest-Litovsk agreement and sent no help to Finland's Bolshevik regime. The conservative Finns are said to have been better organized and better led than the Finnish Red Army, and German units overran the Finnish capital, Helsinki, on April 13.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks also had the Cossack region along the Don River to worry about. Anti-Bolshevik forces there had declared a united government and had appealed for aid from the Allies. Britain and France sent some money but little else, both powers being weighted down by their war against Germany. With the Cossacks was General Kornilov, now a symbol of resistance to the Bolsheviks. In April about 150 miles south of Rostov, near the Black Sea, anti-Bolshevik forces tried to take the town of Ekaterinodar, recently conquered by the Bolsheviks. There, on April 13, Kornilov was killed by Bolshevik artillery. His friends buried him. Then the jubilant and victorious Bolshevik soldiers dug up his body, dragged it to the town square and burned it on a heap of rubbish.

Lenin expressed his belief that Russia's civil war was ended. It was, in fact, just beginning, and the Bolsheviks were still losing control over what had been the tsar's empire. Bessarabia declared its independence in April, and Germans were pushing from Ukraine into the Crimea. Ukrainians had begun a campaign of terror, seeking plunder and extorting money. These were largely Eastern Orthodox Christians attacking Jews, and they left the Jewish population destitute while the Eastern Orthodox Church with some few exceptions remained silent.

In May, the Bolsheviks lost control of Siberia. This had origins in a conflict that the Bolsheviks, greedy for control, handled poorly. Czechs and Slovak former prisoners of war in Russia were on their way to join the war against Austria-Hungary for the sake of national independence from Habsburg rule. In an agreement with the Allied powers, 6,000 of them were being shipped on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, where they were to board ships. Austrian and Hungarian prisoners of war were being transported in the opposite direction, and on May 14 at the rail town of Cheliabinsk in the Urals they crossed paths with the Czechs and Slovaks and called them traitors and threw stones at them. A Czech was killed. A brawl followed between the two sides. Czechs grabbed their weapons and sought the man who had killed the Czech. The Bolsheviks saw the Czechs and Slovaks as bourgeois nationalists and hostile to their revolution. Trotsky was now War Commissar in charge of the Red Army, and his commissariat was alarmed by Czechs and Slovaks taking command with weapons. Rather than let the Czechs and Slovaks continue on to Vladivostok, an order went out to disarm them and to force them into Red Army units or labor battalions. The Czechs resisted and continued to their destination. On May 25, Trotsky ordered that any Czech or Slovak found armed was to be shot on the spot. Because the Bolshevik hold on Serbia was weak, the Czechs and Slovaks were able to take over several towns along the Trans-Siberian railway. Those Czechs and Slovaks already in Vladivostok were disturbed by their fellow countrymen having to fight their way east, and they took over Vladivostok. Anti-Bolshevik Russians in Siberia were encouraged, and led by former army officers they rose against the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks were no challenged by a major uprising.

Trotsky put one of his able commanders, Muraviev, in charge of the eastern front. Muraviev deserted and took his pay chest and a thousand men with him to Simbirsk, on the Volga River. And there he announced the suspension of fighting against the Czechs and Slovaks and a renewal of hostilities against Germany.

Forces in Siberia loyal to the Bolsheviks were forced to withdraw westward. By late June, the Soviets regime was worried about the Japanese advancing along the Trans-Siberian railway, and the Bolsheviks were worried about the arrival of 600 British reinforcements landing at Murmansk, where some French troops had also landed – a port above the Arctic Circle near Finland and Norway. The Soviet attitude toward the Allied powers passed from distrust to hostility. Trotsky sent armed detachments toward Murmansk, and Allied troops moved south to intercept them. The two sides fought skirmishes, and the Allied troops established a defensive line about 300 miles down the rail line from Murmansk.

Preparing itself for more warfare, the Soviet government on June 28 instituted what became known as War Communism. All major branches of industry were nationalized, and industry came under military discipline. The distribution of materials and all trade were to be centrally organized. Trade union independence was ended, the Bolsheviks arguing that the working class was the government and therefore not in need of independent unions. And the Bolsheviks continued their attempt to crush whatever moves against their regime they could. They arrested anyone they suspected of counter-revolution, including some grand dukes, and they expelled all Mensheviks and moderate Socialist Revolutionaries from the Soviets.

In July, Wilson sent an American force to Vladivostok to help with the withdrawal of Czechs and Slovaks from Russia. And in July, a conspiracy began among former allies of the Bolsheviks, the Left SRs, who were unhappy about the Brest-Litovsk treaty and wanted to renew Russia's war against Germany. To these leftists the German ambassador to Moscow, Mirbach, was a symbol of German imperialism and oppression. Two Left SRs entered Mirbach's office posing as members of the Bolshevik police, the CHEKA, and murdered him. The conspirators had a force of 1,500 men, three armored cars and sixty machine guns, and they seized the Moscow telephone exchange and announced that they had taken power. A few anarchists and sailors from the Black Sea joined the rising. Some armed detachments in Moscow went over to the side of the insurgents. Some others remained neutral. The Bolsheviks appeared to be losing control. Lenin placed hope for the life of his regime in the commander of ten Latvian regiments – 18,000 men. The insurgents made the mistake of giving the commander of the Latvian regiments time to gather his forces, and the Latvians defeated the insurgents and began executing those they had taken prisoner.

Struggles for power with the Bolsheviks dominant had intensified into what would become a horrendous civil war that would take the lives of more than two million. And more horrendous bloodletting continued to unfold on the Western Front, where a showdown was taking place.


The Russian Revolution, by Richard Pipes, Knopf, 1990.

The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive (Annals of Communism),
by Richard Pipes, Yale University Press, 1999. (Lenin's letter writing, gathered from Russian archives.)

Freedom in the Modern World, (Chapter 7) by Herbert J Muller, 1966

Copyright © 2007-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.