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Civil War, Lenin and Rise of Stalin

The Russian Civil War | British Intellectuals visit Moscow | Bolsheviks against Anarchists | Emma Goldman in Russia, 1920-21 | Lenin against Left-wing Communism | 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"

Lenin sanctified: "Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live!"   (Lenin has died. Joseph Stalin follows him.)

Red recruiting poster

Hey you, have you volunteered?
(A communist army poster)

Anti-Communist poster

Anti-Communist propaganda:
General Trotsky as a Jewish devil-beast

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.

Admiral Kolchak

Admiral Alexander Kolchak, considered responsible for the brutality, theft, rape and murder in areas nominally under his control.

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. The tsar and his entire family were taken downstairs and shot, their bodies burned and their ashes buried in 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."

After the attempt on Lenin's life in August 1918, the Bolsheviks struck against their real and imagined enemies. They called for death to counter-revolutionaries, and they rounded up and executed eight hundred people. Facing attack from armies that had arisen against their rule, 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 had favored it, asking how you can have a revolution without shooting people.

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 anti-Bolshevik armies the Bolsheviks benefited from having let the peasants confiscate lands. Poor peasants with confiscated lands feared that those who crushed the Bolsheviks would force a return of these lands.

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. They ignored propaganda. These were men unskilled in politics and unmindful that war was an extension of politics. They wanted no part of politics. They made the same mistake that German military planners had made before World War I: they put violence ahead of everything else. And they drove ethnic peoples 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 for the Bolsheviks was in military hardware. They were in possession of military hardware left by the imperial army, and in the area they controlled were 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.

The first major threat to the Bolsheviks came from Siberia, in the mid-year of 1919, by an army 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. The 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 British began a diversionary offensive in the north, but it was too late to help. 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, but too late to be much help to Kolchak's army, an anti-Bolshevik force 150,000 strong, led by a former tsarist commander, Anton Denikin, drove the Bolsheviks out of the Caucasus region. 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 (St. Petersburg). The Bolshevik forces rallied and threw Yudenich's forces back. They forced Denikin's army into retreat, and Denikin's army fell to pieces. And continuing their drive southward, in early 1920 the Bolsheviks overran Rostov (at the Black Sea).

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 financing the 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 – the area that the Bolsheviks were to retake with the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939.


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