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Civil War, Lenin and Rise of Stalin

The Russian Civil War | British Intellectuals visit Moscow | Lenin against premature revolution | Bolsheviks against Anarchists | Emma Goldman describes Lenin and Russia | Instability and Lenin's New Economic Policy | Stalin's Growing Influence | Stalin, from Child to Bolshevik Leader | Filling Lenin's Shoes | Stalin becomes the "Great Builder"

The Russian Civil War

In mid-July, 1918, the Bolsheviks feared that advancing Czechs and Slovaks, who had been prisoners of war, would soon overrun the town of Tobolsk, where the tsar and his family were being held. So the Bolsheviks moved the royal family westward into the Ural Mountains, near the town of Ekaterinburg. They decided to execute the tsar and his family without delay in order to prevent the tsar from being liberated, which they feared would encourage counter-revolution. On July 17 the tsar and his entire family were taken downstairs and shot, their bodies burned and their ashes buried near a swamp. Grand dukes were shot the following night, their bodies flung down a mine shaft. Lenin told his comrades that they could not allow themselves to be softhearted and magnanimous while Europe was hostile toward them. Counter-revolution, he said, is rising against us on every side. "No! Excuse me," he said. "We are not imbeciles." Pointing to children at play, he said that their lives would be happier than their fathers. "Circumstances have compelled us to be cruel," he added, "but later ages will justify us. Then everything will be understood."

Red recruiting poster

Hey you, have you volunteered?

Anti-Communist poster

General Trotsky as a Jewish devil.

A second attempt to kill Lenin came on August 30 1918. An attempt in January missed, wounding a companion in the back seat of a car as they were about to drive away from a speech he had delivered. The August assassination attempt came after a speech at a factory in Moscow. Lenin was about to enter his car. People were around him. It was evening. A woman stepped up to him, asked him a question about food, pulled out a revolver and sent a bullet to the base of his neck and another through a lung which lodged in his collarbone. On that same day in Petrograd the head of Soviet state security, the Cheka, was assassinated.

Lenin's would-be assassin was described by state authorities as Fanny Kaplan.She was 28 and partially blind. The Cheka had taken her into custody and reported that she made the following statement:

Today I shot Lenin. I did it on my own. I will not say from whom I obtained my revolver. I will give no details. I had resolved to kill Lenin long ago. I consider him a traitor to the Revolution. I was exiled to Akatui for participating in an assassination attempt against a Tsarist official in Kiev. I spent 11 years at hard labour. After the Revolution, I was freed. I favoured the Constituent Assembly and am still for it.

The Cheka was described as getting nothing more out of her, and at 4 in the morning on September 3 she was executed with a bullet to the back of her head. Her body was burned and there were no remains for burial.

Historians find contradictions in the Soviet version of Kaplan as the assailant. No one around Lenin identified Kaplan as the assailant.

The Social Revolutionaries had become enemies of the Bolsheviks, and only hours after the assassination attempt the Bolsheviks issued a call for an all-out struggle against the enemies of the Bolshevik's Soviet regime. They called for death to counter-revolutionaries, and they rounded up and executed eight hundred people.

In addition to terror against their enemies, the Bolsheviks were resorting to what some people called an iron dictatorship. This included complete control over the economy, which was put under military discipline. In the fall of 1918, trade became a state monopoly. The death penalty was re-established in the army. Earlier Trotsky and some other revolutionaries had favored its abolition, seeing it as something from tsarist times, but Lenin favored it.

The Bolsheviks drafted people into their armies, and Trotsky welded the new Red army into a disciplined fighting force. And in their fight against the enemy armies that had formed against them the Bolsheviks benefited from having let the peasants confiscate lands. Peasants with confiscated lands feared that those who crushed the Bolsheviks would take these lands from them.

Many of the officers in the anti-Bolshevik armies favored monarchy and the sanctity of ownership of property. Their announced purpose of warring against the Bolsheviks was to reconvene the Constituent Assembly and to enforce the laws of the Provisional Government. But in warring against the Bolsheviks they cared little about winning hearts and minds. These were men who have been described as disliking politics and as not having been skilled at politics. They made the same mistake that German military planners before World War I: they put the power of their violence ahead of everything else. And they drove people on the borders of Bolshevik controlled areas into supporting the Bolsheviks against them.

Trotsky's Red Army had various advantages over the anti-Bolshevik armies. One advantage was in human resources. Many who were drafted into the Red Army had little love for the Bolsheviks, and desertions from the army were high, but the Red Army had enough men who believed that they were fighting to change the world and who wanted to defend the revolution against counter-revolution. Another advantage was in military hardware. The Bolsheviks were in possession of military hardware left by the imperial army. They had defense industries. And the Bolsheviks had the advantage of holding a central position. The anti-Bolshevik armies, on the other hand, were scattered and their moves uncoordinated, and they were dependent on what little outside powers gave them in money, supplies and instructors.

Forces in Russia's far northwest, consisting of British, British Commonwealth and US troops, were diminishing. Allied troops were expelled from around the town of Shenkursk after an intense battle on 19 January 1919. That month Britain's Daily Express echoed public opinion when it paraphrased Germany's Otto von Bismarck and said: "the frozen plains of Eastern Europe are not worth the bones of a single grenadier."

Admiral Kolchak

Alexander Kolchak

A major threat to the Bolsheviks came in the summer of 1919 when an army from Siberia led by Alexander Kolchak, a former admiral in the tsar's navy. Pillage and murder were perpetrated by those under the command of one of Kolchak's officers: Colonel Sephanov. Hundreds of peasants and townspeople were murdered. And Kolchak's army executed people they found unenthusiastic for their cause. Anti-Bolshevik armies from other directions were not making attacks simultaneous with Kolchak's offensives, and Kolchak's forces could not hold against the full weight of the Red Army. The Red Army drove Kolchak's forces back, and Kolchak's army turned into a rabble of individuals solely concerned with their own survival – officers, wives and mistresses, hordes of soldiers and civilians, rushing eastward.

From the south an army led by a former tsarist commander, Anton Denikin, was driving the Bolsheviks out of the Caucasus region, and late in 1919 Denikin's army came within two hundred miles of Moscow. Simultaneously an army from Estonia with British tanks led by another former tsarist army commander, Yudenich, pushed within ten miles of Petrograd. The Bolshevik forces rallied and threw Yudenich back. And they forced Denikin's army into retreat. Denikin's army fell to pieces. And continuing their drive southward in early 1920 the Bolsheviks overran Rostov, by the Sea of Azov.

General Denikin

General Anton Denikin, anti-Bolshevik commander-in-chief devoted to restoring law and civil liberties in the areas under his control. He would be in France in 1940 when the Germans invaded, and he would refuse to cooperate with them.

In 1920, the Red Army pushed into the Ukraine, undoing losses agreed to at Brest-Litovsk. Poland's new leaders wished to re-establish their old empire, and they sent armies into the Ukraine, using war material from France, and they financed their operation with money from a United States food loan. The Poles took Kiev in May 1920. The Bolsheviks retook Kiev in June and sent the Polish army back in a rout. By mid-August, the Bolsheviks had pushed westward to the outskirts of Warsaw – causing concern in Britain and France. But within days, Poland's forces rallied, and now it was their turn to send the over-extended Bolshevik forces back.

In August 1920, the Bolsheviks signed peace agreements with Estonia, Finland and Latvia, and in October they signed an armistice with the Poles, freeing their armies to finish off their enemies on their southern front. There they drove against the army that had been under Denikin and was now under the Baron Peter Wrangel, a former commander of Cossacks during World War I. In November, Wrangel's army fell apart and fled with civilians to Constantinople. This marked the end of Russia's civil war.

Moscow still lacked a settlement with Poland. Devastated by the civil war and desiring peace more than did the Poles, the Bolsheviks signed a treaty with Poland on terms favorable to the Poles. The border between the Soviet Union and Poland placed four million Ukrainians and Byelorussians under Polish rule. A huge strip of land that had been a part of tsarist Russia was lost to the Poles – an area that the Bolsheviks were to retake with the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939.


Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.