Red and Black October: An Anarchist Perspective on the Russian Revolution for its 100th Anniversary
A hundred years to the day that the Winter Palace fell in Petrograd—October 25 in the Julian calendar, November 7 in the Gregorian—we present an anarchist perspective on the Russian Revolution, which began in February 1917 with a mass-mobilization and mutiny that deposed Tsar Nicholas II. Though the Revolution contained an awesome amount of liberatory potential, as reflected in workers’ self-management and peasant land-seizures, it was fatally deviated by the authoritarian Bolshevik Party, which took power a hundred years ago today. Now, Russia has gone a century without a revolution. The world awaits a new one!
Table of Contents
- What precipitated the crisis and revolutionary events of 1917?
- What helped propel the Revolution?
- What was the anarchist role in the Revolution?
- How did the events beginning in 1917 present two opposing conceptions of social revolution?
- How did the Revolution go wrong?
- What was the role of the Bolshevik Party?
- What was the Red Terror?
- What was the Russian Civil War?
- What about the imperialists?
- What happened in Ukraine?
- Were Makhno and his followers anti-Semitic?
- What happened at Kronstadt in 1921?
- How did Lenin contradict his supposed anti-imperialist principles while in power?
- How did Red October, the Red Terror, and the Civil War lead to Stalin’s rule?
- What lessons should we take from the Revolution?
- Works Cited
A map of western Russia and Eastern Europe using current borders indicating important cities and sites for the Revolution. The black star corresponds to Kronstadt.
What precipitated the crisis and revolutionary events of 1917?
Two factors were decisive in the emergence of the Russian Revolution of 1917: the Tsar’s forcible participation in the ongoing First World War, and widespread economic crisis, including near-famine conditions for urban workers. The disorganization of economic life during the war led to critical shortages for both the cities and the Army, thus making the continuation of the war-effort quite impossible. It was in the cities that the Revolution began in early 1917, spreading to the war-front by summer, provoking mass-desertions by conscripted soldiers who had experienced the utter pointlessness of the war firsthand. In fact, the Russian Revolution can in some ways be considered one of the greatest popular anti-militarist uprisings in history.
In February 1917 (March by the Gregorian calendar), starving masses rose up in Petrograd (previously and subsequently again known as St. Petersburg). On the first day of demonstrations, February 24 (Julian calendar), soldiers—perhaps in part with Bloody Sunday in mind—refused to fire on the striking workers and starving women, and the Petrograd garrison increasingly mutinied against the Tsar. Even the Imperial Guards turned on the tsarist police. The regiments in mutiny soon defeated all remaining tsarist forces in the capital, and railway workers defended the revolutionary city by refusing to transport loyalist forces to Petrograd. Finally acknowledging the reality of the situation, Nicholas II abdicated on March 2, ending three centuries of despotism by the Romanov dynasty. The Revolution had begun!
As Voline writes, the February Revolution, “the action of the masses[,] was spontaneous, logically climaxing a long period of concrete experience and moral preparation. This action was neither organized nor guided by any political party. Supported by the people in arms—the
Army—it was victorious” (emphasis in original). He clarifies that this incredible historical progression was achieved by the people without leaders, for Yuli Martov (Menshevik) and Vladimir Lenin, Lev Trotsky, and Nikolai Bukharin (Bolsheviks) were all exiled at this time, only to return after February.
What helped propel the Revolution?
Though the February Revolution gave rise to a bourgeois Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky, a social-democratic member of the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party, the emancipatory spirit of the Revolution was carried on by the insurgent peasantry and proletariat. The peasants, who made up 85% of Russia’s population at the time, immediately set about expropriating the land after the fall of the Tsar, and the Petrograd Soviet was resurrected from the 1905 Revolution, once again becoming a trusted voice of the working class and ever-greater segments of the Army. Nonetheless, the Provisional Government perpetuated Russia’s participation in the war, a decisive factor impelling the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and Kerensky even re-established the death penalty at the front. He also ordered a disastrous offensive on the Austro-German lines in June 1917.
In August, the White General Kornilov attempted to crush the Revolution in the name of the Provisional Government, but the workers of Petrograd once again mobilized as they had in February to defend the city with arms and by rerouting forces sent via rail to support Kornilov’s putsch attempt. Subsequently, the Bolsheviks won majorities in the soviets, factory committees, and soldiers’ committees, and in light of the Left-Socialist Revolutionaries’ decision to affiliate with them, the Party gained much sympathy among workers and peasants alike. Thanks to its heroic past, the SR Party, which represented the cause of agrarian socialism, had become the strongest party after February 1917, taking the majority of the seats in the Constituent Assembly, and enjoying the support of the majority of the population due to its “solid backing in the villages as a result of its pre-revolutionary activity and its work in promoting peasant cooperatives” (Maximov 50). This arrangement between the Bolsheviks and Left-SR’s would continue until July 1918, when the latter attempted to overthrow the Red State. Following the Provisional Government’s release of an arrest warrant against Lenin on July 6, 1917, the Red leader went underground to plan an insurrection against Kerensky.
For further reading:
- “Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution” (Rod Jones)
- “Soviets and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution” (Peter Rachleff)
- “Factory Committees and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (Maurice Brinton)
- “Russian Factory Committees” (Paul Avrich)
What was the anarchist role in the Revolution?
Numerically, self-described anarchists in Russia at the time of the February Revolution were not particularly strong, as the movement was just beginning, while revolutionary syndicalism was similarly germinating, and the most radical element of party politics, the Left-SR’s, was relatively weak in comparison to the Bolsheviks. Besides that, the Left-SR’s were actually in coalition with the ruling Bolshevik Party from Red October until July 1918, when they attempted to overthrow their erstwhile allies. Voline emphasizes that, had the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists had more time than they were given before the Bolshevik assault of April 1918, they could likely have influenced the masses to boldly carry on with the project of free initiative and self-organization made possible by the Revolution. Yet he remarks with disappointment upon his return to Petrograd from exile in July 1917 that, “[i]n the fifth month of a great revolution, no Anarchist newspaper, no Anarchist voice was making itself heard in the capital of the country. And this in the face of the almost unlimited activity of the Bolsheviki!” (emphasis in original).
Between May and October 1917, some anarcho-syndicalists voted with the Reds in factory committees in favor of workers’ control, and the resurgent anti-authoritarianism of the Russian masses after February to some extent led the Bolsheviks to converge opportunistically with anti-statist and federalist critiques, thus misrepresenting their own politics (Goodwin 45-6). While the Bolsheviks did want to end Russian participation in World War I and have the land be returned to the peasantry, it is also true that the Bolsheviks ultimately crushed soviet-based democracy—thus contradicting their rhetorical commitment to have “all power” be devolved “to the soviets”—and only retroactively acknowledged the peasantry’s expropriation of private property since February with their Land Decree, proclaimed on October 26, 1917, the day after the fall of the Winter Palace. Additionally, as shall be described more below, the Reds had a prejudiced, authoritarian view of the peasants in line with Marxist ideology which rationalized the commission of several atrocities against them.
Ironically, then, anarchist sailors from Kronstadt played an important role in the insurrection to capture the Winter Palace. The Dvintsi (from Dvinsk) regiment, both comprised of and commanded by anarchists, was similarly critical in the struggle against Kerensky’s forces. Their commander, Gratchov, distributed arms and ammunition to the workers shortly after the October seizure of power, anticipating the danger this posed to the Revolution, but was killed under mysterious circumstances soon after having reported to the Bolshevik authorities. Anatoli Jelezniakov, an anarchist Kronstadter, was the one who ordered the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, announcing that the parliamentarians had “prattled long enough!” Anarchists also participated in the defense against General Kornilov’s coup attempt of August 1917 and organized libertarian-oriented partisan groups, such as the “M. A. Bakunin Partisan Detachment” of Yekaterinoslav or the Black Guards detachments commanded by Maria Nikiforova in Ukraine. Anarchists were moreover critical to the defense against Admiral Kolchak’s White forces in eastern Russia and Siberia.
Grimly, the Red authorities used the pretext of the Moscow Black Guards’ supposed plans for an “anarchist counter-revolution” to suppress the movement in April 1918, by which time the movement in Russia had numbered an estimated 10,000 individuals (Goodwin 48). In parallel, Nestor Makhno’s Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine was organized on anarchist principles, and the Makhnovists played a crucial role in defending the Revolution from the reactionary White Armies led by Generals Denikin and Wrangel during 1919-1920—before they, too, were suppressed by the Bolsheviks. The Greens, a powerful guerrilla movement spearheaded by deserting ex-conscripts, successfully defended the autonomous peasant revolution against Whites and Reds alike in the Civil War (1918-20) until their eventual defeat by the centralizing Bolshevik State.
The Union for Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda began publishing Golos Truda (“The Voice of Labor”) in Petrograd as a weekly in summer 1917, continuing until spring 1918 and then restarting later in Moscow. The Union also founded an Anarcho-Syndicalist publishing house, but both the press and the Union were shut down by the Reds in 1919. Meanwhile, the Federation of Anarchist Groups of Moscow published the daily Anarchy, with an anarcho-communist perspective, carrying on intensive propaganda work from 1917-18. Though Federation members participated with the Dvintsi in the struggle against Kerensky, the Reds repressed the Federation in April 1918, eliminating the last of its militants by 1921. In Ukraine, Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, Voline, and others were involved in the founding in late 1918 of the Nabat (“Tocsin”) Confederation, which sought a unified anarchist movement, proclaimed the necessity of libertarian social revolution through its Nabat newspaper, and tried to organize a Pan-Russian Anarchist Confederation—a project that was directly stifled by Trotsky. Like the Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, all these anarchist organizations “eventually met with the same fate: brutal suppression by the ‘Soviet’ authority.”
The editors of Golos Truda, who included Voline and Maximov, among others, denounced the ongoing war and called on Russian conscripts to desert the war-effort, thus providing the possibility of an example to the rest of the world’s soldiers, who in unison could ignite a world revolution. The editors considered it their “first duty, our most sacred task, to take up this work immediately in our own land […by ] open[ing] new horizons for the laboring masses, [and] help[ing] them in their quest.” In their initial issues, they emphasized the importance of continuing and deepening the Revolution:
We say to the Russian workers, peasants, soldiers, revolutionists: Above all, continue the Revolution. Continue to organize yourselves solidly and to unite your new organizations: your communes, your unions, your committees, your Soviets. Continue—with firmness and perseverance, always and everywhere—to participate more and more extensively and more and more effectively, in the economic activity of the country. Continue to take into your hands, that is, into the hands of your organizations, all the raw materials and all the instruments indispensable to your labor. Continue to eliminate private enterprises.
Continue the Revolution! Do not hesitate to face the solution of all the burning questions of the present. Create everywhere the necessary organizations to achieve those solutions. Peasants, take the land and put it at the disposal of your committees. Workers, proceed to put in the hands of and at the disposal of your own social organizations—everywhere on the spot—the mines and the subsoil, the enterprises and establishments of airports, the works and factories, the workshops, and the machines.
Golos Truda’s editors stress the need for workers and peasants to create autonomous class organizations in order to press forward with the reconstruction of the economy from below, and the need for intellectuals to focus their efforts in helping the masses prepare for the “real Revolution” of socializing production. By means of such class organizations could the economic system realistically transition into serving popular interests. Demarcating their position from all statists, the editors observe that political parties are required for the task of taking power, but,
To take over the economy, a political party is not indispensable. But indispensable to that action are the organizations of the masses, independent organizations remaining outside of all political parties. It is upon these organizations that falls, at the moment of the Revolution, the task of building the new social and economic system.
That is why the Anarchists do not form a political party. They agitate, either directly in the mass organizations or—as propagandists—in groups and ideological unions.
As an illustration of the same, consider the fate of the Nobel refinery in Petrograd: in late 1917, the refinery’s workers decided to manage the site collectively in the wake of its abandonment by the owners during the Revolution, yet the Red authorities completely ignored their will and shuttered it anyway, laying off all the workers. The situation was generally very similar throughout much of Russia and Ukraine, for the Bolshevik authorities prohibited the masses from independent action, maligning such initiative as a “breach of discipline,” and actively suppressed autonomous social movements like those of the anarchists, the Makhnovists, and the Greens, as well as cooperatives, workers on strike, and peasants in revolt.
Golos Truda’s editors summarize it well:
Anarchism is not only an idea, a goal; it is, before anything else, also a method, a means of struggling for the emancipation of [humanity] […]. One cannot achieve Anarchism in any way except by going straight to the goal, by the direct Anarchist road. Otherwise one never will arrive (emphasis in original).
For further reading:
- Anarchists in the Russian Revolution (Paul Avrich)
- The Russian Revolution (ed. Robert Graham)
- Timeline of Russian Anarchism, 1921-1953
How did the events beginning in 1917 present two opposing conceptions of social revolution?
Voline emphasizes that, in spite of the “victory” of Bolshevism in power, anarchism represented a real alternative that envisaged “a full and integral social revolution” after February 1917. In 1918, this liberatory alternative posed such a threat to the Red State that the Bolsheviks felt compelled to utterly crush it by means of terror. It was thus through force rather than via discussion or debate that the Reds suppressed the anarchist alternative, initially in April 1918 through outright repression of anarchist individuals and collectives and the shuttering of libertarian social centers and presses, and evermore so between 1919-1921, particularly in Ukraine, where the Makhnovists struggled against White reaction and subsequently against Red betrayal. Voline writes that the period between Red October and the end of 1918 was “significant and decisive, and that it “was in the course of those months that the fate of the Revolution was decided.” Still, it was not until they had suppressed the Kronstadt Commune and otherwise eliminated the libertarian movement by the end of 1921 that the Reds became masters of the political situation, although even then their authority had in reality been destroyed throughout vast swathes of rural regions, as peasants set off mass-rebellions against conscription and the grain-requisition regimes imposed by the Reds.
Whereas the Bolsheviks implemented statist-authoritarian means as their revolutionary strategy, Russian and Ukrainian anarchists followed Proudhon and Bakunin’s vision of “direct and federative alliance[s]” among the associated workers and peasants with their unions, communes, and cooperatives organized non-hierarchically along local, regional, and international lines. In contrast to the Marxist view of centralization first, followed in theory by an eventual “withering away of the State,” the anarchists stressed the importance of an immediate rather than delayed socialization of the means of production by the working classes. It is therefore untrue that anarchists had no vision for social organization after the Revolution. On the contrary, we see two contrasting principles of organization: namely, the Bolsheviks’ centralist-authoritarian principles versus the anarchists’ libertarian and federative ones. In Voline’s words, “Naturally, the Anarchists say, it is necessary that society be organized. But this new organization should be done freely, socially, and, certainly, from the bottom [up].”
Like Bakunin, Voline sees a role for an “elite” to organize the libertarian social revolution, but such revolutionary organizers must be “true collaborators” with the people, who help them, “enlighten them, teach them, […] impel them to take the initiative, […] and support them in their action,” not “dictators” who hold power dominate, subjugate, or oppress them. This is another key difference with Bolshevism, which prescribes an elite that is to be aided by the masses and armed forces through blind obedience. In contrast, anarchism envisions that, through
The natural interplay of their economic, technical, and social organizations, [and] with the help of the “elite” and, in case of need, under the protection of their freely organized armed forces, the labouring masses should […] be able to carry the Revolution effectively forward and progressively arrive at the practical achievement of all of its tasks.
Against the Reds’ interest in the “organization of power,” anarchists counterposed the project of “organizing the Revolution.” For Voline, there exists “an explicit and irreconcilable contradiction” between the true libertarian social revolution and “the theory and practice” of statism and authoritarianism.
How did the Revolution go wrong?
“the forward march of the revolutionary masses toward real emancipation, toward the creation of new forms of social life, is incompatible with the very principle of State power” (Voline).
In contrast to Trotsky’s well-known hypothesis set forth in The Revolution Betrayed (1937), that the “degeneration” of the Russian Revolution came about only with the rise of Stalin in 1924, the Bolshevik seizure of power on October 25-26, 1917, arguably can be considered the beginning of its corruption. Voline describes the storming of the Winter Palace as amounting “virtually [to] a palace revolution” that gave the Reds a clear tactical advantage over the anarchists. That the Russian masses entrusted the fate of the Revolution to the Bolsheviks reflected both the hegemony of statism in the Russian popular imagination as well as the “insufficiency of the preliminary destruction” achieved in the February Revolution. Voline means to say that the people’s toleration of the continued existence of the State after the fall of Tsarism set the stage for the Bolshevik seizure of power and the subsequent deviation and destruction of the Revolution. Instead of the left-wing coalition government favored by the Menshevik Yuli Martov or any sense of direct democracy based on the soviets, the victorious Bolsheviks effectively instituted a one-party dictatorship which claimed baselessly to represent the interests of the proletariat. Subsequently adopting a perspective that in a way anticipated the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s distinction between “friends” and “enemies,” the Reds forcibly disarmed the workers and their organizations and suppressed all alternative factions through the use of terror. As the publisher of Gregori Maximov’s The Guillotine at Work explains, during the Russian Civil War (1918-1920):
all-non Bolshevik elements were dubbed ‘petty-bourgeois and counter-revolutionary elements.’ Right and Left Social-Revolutionists, Social-Democrat[s] of all Shades, Maximalists, Anarchists of every tendency—all were placed in the same category of ‘counter-revolutionists.’ Soon these elements began to crowd not only the Tzar’s empty prisons but the vast number of private buildings converted by the Bolsheviks into prisons. Newly built ‘concentration camps,’ which were unknown to the Tzar’s government, were quickly filled (5-6).
In this way, the Bolshevik regime effectively instituted state slavery to defend its hegemony—such was the conclusion reached by Karl Kautsky, “the most prominent leader of world Social-Democracy,” while Lenin still lived (Maximov 20).
It is therefore highly ironic yet also revealing to consider that Lenin’s popularity after the February Revolution followed in large part from the entirely misleading vision he sets forth in the “April Theses” (1917), which argue that the Bolsheviks seek a “second revolution” that would overthrow the Provisional Government; abolish the police, military, and bourgeois State apparatus; and champion soviet power in its place. Acutely aware of the strong libertarian-humanist element in Russian socialism, the former exile knew that openly presenting his political project as Marxian centralism would be a non-starter in the motherland (21-3). Instead, he would attract the masses by appealing to the liberatory memory of the 1871 Paris Commune (31). In fact, such rhetorical “deviations” led several more moderate Russian Social Democrats to criticize Lenin’s call for immediate revolution as a reversion from Marxism to “Bakuninism”: Georgii Plekhanov especially made this connection, judging Lenin’s advocacy of the overthrow of the Provisional Government as “an insane and extremely harmful attempt to sow anarchist turmoil on the Russian Earth” (emphasis in original). In parallel, the Menshevik Martov considered Lenin’s advocacy of bypassing the “objectively necessary” historical stage of bourgeois democracy as a dangerous reorientation of the struggle from Marx to Bakunin (Goodwin 45-7).
Nevertheless, this feigned affinity with anarchism was purely instrumental and opportunistic: while in opposition to the Provisional Government, Lenin had militated greatly against the reinstatement of the death penalty in the Army, immediately upon taking power in October, he took steps to ensure that the revolutionary announcement abolishing the death penalty made on October 26, 1917—the day after the Winter Palace had fallen—was a mere formality. Instead, Lenin greatly impressed the need for the persistence of capital punishment. The appeal to the Paris Commune, therefore, was mere “bait,” a “weapon clearing the road to power” (Maximov 28-34). As the Red leader himself put it, “Do you really believe we shall be able to come out triumphant without the most drastic revolutionary terror?” (29).
Like his lieutenant Trotsky, then, Lenin was a State Terrorist, the “initiator and ideologist of terror in the Russian Revolution modeled upon the terror of the French Revolution” (Maximov 30). By suppressing not only the capitalists but also the rest of the non-Bolshevik left after October, these two figures bear principal responsibility for the vast suffering and death brought about by the Civil War. In targeting socialist-democratic forces of the Revolution for destruction, the Reds similarly targeted the masses of workers and peasants who supported these forces. In contrast, Maximov speculates that, had the broad Russian left been united rather than dealing with a treacherous war launched on it by the Bolsheviks, the “resistance” of the landowners and reactionaries who would go on to comprise the White Armies would have been easily defeated, and the need to resort to terror quite baseless (32-3). Instead, a myriad of socialist and anarchist groups, trade unions, and cooperatives became the regime’s adversaries (37). In parallel, workers and peasants who resisted Bolshevik policies—such as in the case of the latter, vast grain requisitions taken indiscriminately by the Red Army from rich and poor peasants alike to feed the cities—were depicted as “enemies of the people” (39). For this reason, many were targeted for arrest or assassination by the CheKa, or the Extraordinary Committee, which Lenin established in December 1917 (54-6).
For Maximov, then, the Marxist-Leninist centralized State views virtually the entire population as its enemy, with its only “friend” being the minority of pro-Bolshevik workers. This political strategy of championing the dictatorship of the proletariat—or really, the Party over the proletariat and the peasantry—hence inevitably becomes “a slaveholders democracy, which, as distinguished from the one of the ancient world, has for its aim freedom, economic equality, freeing the entire population from slavery, and all this is to be realized… by enslaving the entire population! Could there be a more absurd theory?” (41). Maximov here echoes Bakunin’s prescient warnings about the the risks associated with a Red bureaucracy: “Take the fiercest revolutionary and put him on the All-Russian throne or give him dictatorial power, […] and he will become worse than Alexander Nikolaevich [Alexander II] himself in a year.”
In light of the constellation of forces after Red October, it is quite unsurprising that freedom and equality came to be associated under Lenin with bourgeois delusions, and the critical victories over Tsarism represented by the securing of the freedom of the press, association, and organization in February thus easily rolled back (Maximov 42-3). Voline observes with reason that this suppression of freedom of speech, press, organization, and action “is fatal to true revolution.” Indeed, the Bolshevik regime revealed its autocratic character through its mass-violation of the formal abolition of capital punishment that had been decreed the day of the fall of the Winter Palace in October 1917 (55). The regime even wantonly executed followers of Tolstoy for observing their religious beliefs regarding non-cooperation with war in refusing conscription for the Red Army (10, 195). Ultimately, Lenin’s terroristic employment of the CheKa was in no way accountable to the soviets but rather a consciously elitist effort to “direct” the Revolution toward the Reds’ consolidation of power by means of the suppression of various rivals on left and right (57-8). In specifically targeting the libertarian movement, the Bolsheviks suppressed the Revolution itself. As Voline recounts:
Thus, inch by inch, the rulers become the absolute masters of the country. They create privileged classes on which they base themselves. They organize forces capable of sustaining them, and defend themselves fiercely against all opposition, all contradiction, all independent initiative. Monopolizing everything, they take over the whole life and activity of the country. And having no other way of acting, they oppress, subjugate, enslave, exploit. They repress all resistance. They persecute and wipe out, in the name of the Revolution, everyone who will not bend to their will.
To justify themselves, they lie, deceive, slander.
To stifle the truth, they are brutal. They fill the prisons and places of exile; they torture, kill, execute, assassinate.
That is what happened, exactly and inevitably, to the Russian Revolution.
For further reading:
- “The Russian Revolution” (Anarchist FAQ)
- “The Bolsheviks and Workers Control” (Maurice Brinton, Solidarity)
- “Lenin and Workers Control” (Tom Brown, SWF)
- “How did Bolshevik ideology contribute to the failure of the Revolution?”
- “Organizational Platform for a General Union of Anarchists” (Makhno, Arshinov, et al.)
What was the role of the Bolshevik Party?
The Bolsheviks, the supposed “majority” faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party, agitated and organized against the Provisional Government and Russia’s ongoing participation in World War I following the February 1917 Revolution. Yet as Voline observes, the Reds’ most popular slogans—Long live the Revolution! Down with the war! The land to the peasants! The factories to the workers!—were in fact appropriated from the anarchists. As discussed above, moreover, Lenin’s public program, as based on the April theses, invoked the liberatory model of the Paris Commune, thus gravely deceiving the Russian masses as to the Reds’ actual political project: the imposition of State capitalism in the name of communism. Consider Lenin’s comments from “The Tax in Kind” (1921), that,
[w]hile the revolution in Germany still tarries, our task should be to learn from the Germans how to run state capitalism, by all means to copy it from them and not to spare dictatorial methods in order to accelerate this process of taking over from the Germans, doing it at an even more rapid pace than the one followed by Peter the First in Westernizing barbarous Russia […] (emphasis added).
Wrongly considered the “leaders” of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks in fact usurped power from the soviets and thus from the people through their October 1917 seizure of power, completely deviating the course of the Revolution. Even in November 1917, the editors of Golos Truda had anticipated that the soviets could well become merely executive organs of the nascent Red State; this is unfortunately what happened rather soon after Red October. Besides this, the Bolsheviks’ first major imposition on the masses came with the new authorities’ signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany (negotiations for which began in November 1917, with its ratification coming in March 1918), an accord that exchanged control over the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Belarus to the Central Powers for Russia’s withdrawal from the conflict. This deal, the invention of Lenin and Trotsky, greatly contradicted the wishes of the Russian masses, the Left SR’s, the Maximalists, the anarchists, and even the majority of the members of the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee, who preferred to continue a revolutionary war against the Austro-Hungarian and German imperialists. Lenin’s self-assertion here presages the ruthless centralism that would govern the Reds’ consolidation of power through the terroristic elimination of political rivals and enemies, and it would serve as the grounds for the Left-SR’s attempt at their overthrow (July 1918).
The Bolshevik Party carried out one of the most disastrous examples of substitutionism in history: that is, the substitution of the autonomous, independent action of the people by the centralized rule of dictatorship. While they claimed to represent the interests of the workers and peasants, the Reds, “a government [comprised] of intellectuals, of Marxist doctrinaires,” in fact greatly oppressed them by means of their imposition of State capitalism over them. Through the Red Terror and during the Civil War, the Bolsheviks practiced self-preservation at the expense of millions of lives of workers and peasants and the very Revolution itself (Maximov 149, 185). The “bourgeois statist-reformers” Lenin and Trotsky essentially employed instrumental thinking and oppression in their own supposed struggle against oppression, which in effect was quite enslaving, and demonstrated clearly for all “how not to wage a revolution.”
The reactionary meaning of Bolshevik rule is illuminated well by the proletarian Communist Party member Gavril Miasnikov, who was expelled from the Party in 1922, effectively for thoughtcrime. Reflecting on the meaning of the Russian Revolution to date, Miasnikov addresses Lenin directly, observing, “To break the jaws of the international bourgeoisie is all very well, but the trouble is that you lift your hand against the bourgeoisie and you strike at the worker. Which class now supplies the greatest number of people arrested on charges of counter-revolution? Peasants and workers, to be sure” (Maximov 271, emphasis added).
For further reading:
- “A Fresh Look at Lenin” (Andy Brown)
- “The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party” (Alexander Berkman)
What was the Red Terror?
“Lenin’s mind, like the mind of any partisan of dictatorship, of any dictatorship, works only along a single track—the police” (Maximov 150).
The infamous Red Terror launched by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in April 1918 sought to resolve the contradiction between the profoundly libertarian progress seen since February with the Bolsheviks’ authoritarian vision for the region. The Terror is outlined in Lenin’s address on April 29, 1918, “The Immediate Tasks of Soviet Power,” which stresses the putative necessity of “halting the offensive upon capital” waged by striking workers and those engaged in self-management and industrial democracy (Maximov 59-62). Acknowledging the “great deal of elemental Anarchism” evident throughout the former Empire, Lenin insists in parallel on the need for an “iron power” to keep the anarchic peasantry under control (63-66). According to Voline, the Bolsheviks saw clearly that allowing anarchists freedom would be equivalent to political suicide. Soon after publishing “The Immediate Tasks,” Lenin reiterated the necessity of an “iron order” and announced a “great crusade” to be comprised of urban workers’ brigades against “grain speculators, Kulaks, village usurers, disorganizers, grafters [… and all] those who violate the strict order established by the State” in the countryside (Maximov 68). The plundering and murders engaged in by Red grain-requisitioners provoked a vast uprising of the peasantry throughout much of Russia and Ukraine—yet rather than lament such a turn of events, Lenin considered it a “merit” that “we [had] brought civil war to the village” (69-71).
The second stage of the Terror, an intensification of the same, began after the Left-SR and ex-anarchist Dora Kaplan’s attempt on Lenin’s life in August 1918. By means of these two stages, by the end of 1918, the Reds had suppressed civil liberties and banned all non-Communist publications, broken up anarchist collectives and murdered individual anarchists, outlawed the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, suppressed the Left-SR’s, executed a countless number, and incarcerated tens of thousands (Maximov 84). In parallel, the peasantry was used as a target for exploitation and regimentation. Consider this testimony by a Left-SR about the scorched-earth tactics employed by the Reds against the peasants of Tambov:
I was arrested not in January 1921, but in September 1920. There was no wide insurrectionary movement in the government of Tambov, although there were detached cases of armed resistance on the part of the peasants to the requisitioning detachments who were shamelessly looting the villages. On the day of my arrival in Tambov the Central Executive Committee of Tambov Soviets hung out the following announcement, declaring that ‘because of their attempt to disrupt the campaign of grain collecting, the villages Verkhne-Spasskoye (ten thousand population), Koziri (six thousand), and four other villages were burnt, hundreds of peasants were shot, and their property was looted.’ During my six months of confinement in the prisons of the Tambov CheKa I had a chance to see for myself the nightmarish picture of mass-annihilation and ruination of the toiling peasants of the government of Tambov which was carried on by the Communist authorities: hundreds of peasants were shot by the Revolutionary Circuit Courts and the Tambov CheKa; thousands of unarmed peasants were mowed down by the machine guns of the students of military schools and Communists, and tens of thousands were exiled to the far away North, while their property was burned or looted. The same picture, according to the data which the party of Left-Social-Revolutionaries has at its disposal, can be drawn for a number of other provinces: the government of Samara, Kazan, Saratov, in Ukraine, Siberia, etc. (Maximov 87-8).
Official statistics show that there were at least 245 peasant uprisings in 1918, and 99 in the first half of 1919 (Maximov 91). These were cruelly suppressed by the Reds, and such suppression in turn catalyzed further rebellions. Indeed, echoing the Left-SR’s testimony cited above, the CheKa gave explicit orders for the utilization of “mass terror” against villages considered to be supportive of the Green guerrillas, who defended the local peasant revolution (122-3). Additionally, the Reds in 1919-1920 destroyed the Russian cooperative movement due to its ties to non-Bolshevik socialists; as Maximov writes, “the cooperatives furnished an abundant and ever-renewed supply of inmates for the prisons and concentration camps” (132-3). By thus “ruthlessly persecuting all those who differed with them in opinion,” Lenin and Trotsky are clearly responsible for the vast crimes of the Terror, as for preparing the conditions for the 1921 famine, which took the lives of over 5 million people, in accordance with official statistics (96, 185). While 1921 did see drought and a resulting poor harvest, that the peasantry lacked accumulated stock due to the Reds’ grain-requisition regime can explain the breadth and depth of the famine (183-4).
Yet, by this time, Lenin would rationalize such State Terror by saying that the alternative of equality and democracy advocated by Left-SR’s, anarchists, and other democratic critics would necessarily allow the White reaction victory in the Civil War, such that, according to this thought process, Left-SR’s, anarchists, and democrats effectively became imperialist stooges and agents for the “restoration of capitalism.” Lenin explicitly says as much, calling those who “continue to struggle for the ‘equality of labor democracy’ […] partisans of Kolchak,” the leader of the Whites (Maximov 94). In this way, the emergence of the Civil War and the White reaction was utilized as a new and retroactive rationalization of the pre-existing Terror, and grounds for its expansion, as in Petrograd and Astrakhan, where the CheKa in 1919 forcibly suppressed striking workers (99-103). Maximov estimates that in 1919 alone, the Chekist terror took the lives of 25,000, with some 44,000 imprisoned and subjected to starvation, forced labor, torture, and rampant disease (111-2). In the provinces ruled by Trotsky, workers were often shot for “violating labor discipline” (136). This follows from the demand he made at the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions (1920) for the “militarization of labor,” and his deluded sense that, the Soviet Union supposedly having become a “Workers’ State,” labor no longer had any need to organize independently of the State.
In February 1920, the CheKa announced the formal abolition of the death penalty in Russia with the exception of the war front, yet in May it was re-established by official decree. Just before the ban came into effect in February, however, CheKa head Felix Dzherzhinsky ordered the mass-execution of those sentenced to death, with the Left-SR A. Izmaylovich recalling the shooting of 150 prisoners in Moscow on the eve of the decree’s proclamation (Maximov 119-20). Red authoritarianism only burgeoned more: in “The Party Crisis” (January 1921), Lenin defended labor’s militarization, dismissed talk of industrial democracy, and identified the heresy of “syndicalist deviation” as something to be extirpated (Maximov 144-5). Whereas the policies of forcible grain requisitions in large part had triggered the 1921-1922 famine, Lenin in no way relieved the peasantry of this yoke but instead continued to demand further extraction, wielding terror against peasants who resisted and restricting the movement of starving peasants to other provinces in search of food by means of military cordons (149-50).
Thus, in contrast to the political opening expected by many leftists, workers, and peasants following the victory over the Whites in the Civil War—the hopes of getting on with the project of instituting a new Paris Commune in Russia, as falsely projected by Lenin in 1917 and 1918—the Reds showed that they were fully prepared to continue using State Terror to hold on to power. Alongside the fate of the Makhnovists, the suppression of the Kronstadt Commune is the best evidence for this sad reality, accounting for a quarter of the estimated 70,000 lives taken by the Red Terror in the year 1921 (Maximov 199).
Altogether, from 1917 to 1924, Maximov estimates that 200,000 lives were taken directly by the Red Terror, and that the Bolshevik experiment overall cost between 8 and 10 million lives, if we factor in victims of the Civil War and the 1921 famine, or between 10 and 13 million, if we incorporate the deaths attributable to the White Terror and reaction as well as the 1924 famine (Maximov 240-1).
For further reading:
- “Bolshevism: Promises and Realities” (Gregori Maximov)
What was the Russian Civil War?
The Russian Civil War, launched by the top-heavy White Army against the Revolution in 1918 with the forces of international reaction behind it, centrally pitted Reds against Whites but also saw important liberatory roles played by the Greens, the Left-SR’s, and the Makhnovists, all of whom opposed Whites and Reds alike. White Armies led variously by Generals Denikin and Wrangel as well as Admiral Kolchak were defeated by the joint action of the people in the revolt, the Makhnovists, the Greens, and the Red Army by 1920. Voline points out that some of this counter-revolutionary militarism was actually supported by Right-SR’s and Mensheviks. Yet by the end of 1919, with “Kolchak and Denikin […] defeated and the movements headed by them […] virtually liquidated,” much of Russia and Ukraine had been “cleared of white guardist bands” (Maximov 113). According to Maximov, irregular libertarian partisans of Russia’s Far East were decisive in the defeat of the Whites in that region (236).
The Greens, so named thanks to their forest and marshland hideouts, united many “deserter comrades” with disaffected peasants impelled by hatred of State exploitation into rural partisan armies that defended the Revolution from Red and White alike in Ukraine, the Volga and Urals regions, Siberia, and some central Russian provinces (Posadskii 8, 11). Makhno, himself a peasant, led the Insurgent Army through Ukraine, inflicting devastating losses on Whites as his liberatory forces went. Influenced by anarchism, Makhno hoped to create a peasant utopia on the land; unlike many Greens, who opposed both Reds and Whites, Makhno engaged in tactical alliances with the Reds until 1920, when the latter betrayed the Makhnovists following their vital services rendered to the defense of the Revolution. Whereas Makhno and his followers together with the Siberian Greens favored free soviets and free federations, the Greens met with a similar fate at the hands of the victorious Bolsheviks: the Red Army engaged in scorched-earth tactics against peasant communities considered to be supportive of the guerrilla movement, specifically targeting family members of known Greens for reprisal in Caucasia, Crimea, and the Don basin (Posadskii 4-14; Maximov 176-7, 194-5).
In response to their perception of the Bolsheviks’ capitulation to imperialism with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Left-SR’s assassinated the German ambassador and a high-ranking German officer in July 1918, and they spearheaded a short-lived uprising against the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Later, from 1920-1921, the Left-SR Alexander Antonov led a major Green uprising in the Tambov region, one so menacing Lenin would consider it the single greatest threat to his rule. Yet the Tambov Rebellion, too, was put down using overwhelming force, as detailed above.
The flag of the Green Armies of the Russian Revolution
What about the imperialists?
There is no doubt that the capitalist powers intervened on the side of the Whites against the Revolution in the Russian Civil War. The infamous Czech Legion, for example, seized control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad (completed under Nicholas II) during part of the Civil War, and imperialist governments supplied the Whites heavily with arms and ammunition. The “North Russia” campaign by U.S., British, French, and Polish forces captured the key port city of Arkhangelsk from the Reds in 1918. Nonetheless, such imperialist intervention cannot explain or rationalize the depravity of Bolshevik rule. As Lenin and company often blamed the shortcomings of the Revolution on “capitalist encirclement” and the “inaction” of the global proletariat, they assumed that the success of the Russian Revolution depended on the spread of social revolution to other countries, yet did not stop to think that the very lack of an expanding global revolution perhaps reflected workers’ ambiguities about the meaning of the Russian Revolution after its deviation by the Reds. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks would see the repercussions of their negotiating a peace with the German and Austro-Hungarian imperialists, when the Left-SR’s attempted an abortive uprising to overthrow Lenin and his colleagues due to their desire to defend the Revolution by continuing the war against imperialism.
What happened in Ukraine?
In Ukraine, Makhno, Arshinov, and Voline worked with the syndicalist Nabat (“Alarm”) confederation once the Revolution broke out. The Makhnovists proclaimed “Land and Liberty,” expropriated the land, and promoted soviet-based democracy in the regions they liberated. In 1919, the Insurrectionary Army led by Makhno hailed the Third Revolution against the Bolsheviks and called for land to be transferred from the Red State directly to the peasantry itself.
In 1919, the Reds conspired to crush the Makhnovists, even as the Insurrectionary Army was holding the line against the White General Denikin’s forces invading from the south. The Bolsheviks’ calculus was that Denikin would annihilate Makhno’s forces, thus eliminating a major rival to their rule, and then the Ukrainian peasantry would rebel against the occupying Whites and so weaken it before a victorious Red Army counter-offensive. Toward this end, in June Trotsky declared illegal the Fourth Extraordinary Convention being organized by the Makhnovists and ordered the arrest and execution of a number of commanders, though Makhno escaped unharmed.
Thereafter, the Insurrectionary Army regrouped and rallied to the defense of the Revolution, wreaking havoc in the rear of Denikin’s forces, which were thereafter easily defeated en route to Moscow by the Red Army (Maximov 108-111). The Reds then re-entered into a tactical military alliance with the Makhnovists to rout the White General Wrangel’s forces in Crimea. Importantly, the text of this pact stipulates that those regions in which the Makhnovists have presence are to be governed by the principles of “autonomy, federalism, and free agreement” in their relations with the Reds (126). Yet once Wrangel too had been defeated, Red Army commanders ordered the Insurrectionary Army to incorporate itself into the Red Army (127-8); when they refused to do so, they were criminalized as “bandits,” and the Reds banned their planned 1920 pan-Russian anarchist congress in Kharkov, ordering Makhno’s arrest as a “counter-revolutionary.” The militants were crushed, and the leadership driven into exile (Avrich 60).
The fate of the Makhnovists followed from the Reds’ premeditated policy of physically destroying popular insurgent movements, both “those that were hostile to them as well as those that fought together with them against Kolchak and Denikin” (173-4). How ironic that the anarchists’ heroic defense of the Southern line against the Whites only facilitated the Reds’ repression of the libertarian movement throughout Russia!
A similar story is seen in Russia’s Far East, where the Reds suppressed anarchists, Maximalists, and Left-SR’s after their critical contributions to the defeat of the White reaction in the region (Maximov 237-8).
For further reading:
- “The Russian Revolution in the Ukraine” (Nestor Makhno)
- “History of the Makhnovist Movement” (Peter Arshinov)
- “Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War” (Michael Malet)
Were Makhno and his followers anti-Semitic?
No, though Red apologists such as Trotsky like to claim that the Makhnovists hated Jews. Against such slanderous charges, Voline cites the example of Grigoriev, an ex-tsarist officer who led a reactionary peasant movement in Ukraine in 1919 that did engage in pogroms: “One of the reasons for the execution of Grigoriev by the Makhnovists was his anti-semitism and the immense pogrom he organised at Elizabethgrad, which cost the lives of nearly three thousand persons.”
He adds several other reasons showing the Makhnovists’ opposition to anti-Semitism, including the facts that a “fairly important part in the Makhnovist Army was played by revolutionists of Jewish origin,” that the Insurrectionary Army counted with several Jewish combatants and contained entirely Jewish fighting units, that Ukrainian Jewish communities provided many volunteers to the Army, and that “the Jewish population, which was very numerous in the Ukraine, took an active part in all the activities of the movement.”
Thus we see that the Makhnovist movement, though greatly inspired politically by the example of Mikhail Bakunin, progressed beyond this anarchist militant’s conspiratorial anti-Semitism to strictly punish chauvinistic acts inspired by such prejudice. For his part, Bakunin believed in the fantasy of universal Jewish power, and he conflates the power of finance capital with delusions about Jewish domination. See Statism and Anarchy.
What happened at Kronstadt in 1921?
The Kronstadt Commune of March 1921 was preceded by strike movements among workers in Petrograd and Moscow who demanded resolution to their starvation conditions as well as a halt to the terror and free soviet elections. The Reds met these striking workers with mass-arrests, lockouts, the declaration of martial law in Petrograd, and ultimately the armed suppression of workers in the city. As Maximov writes, whether ironically or not, “[t]the Petrograd scene strikingly resembled the last week of the Tzar’s absolutist regime” on the eve of the conflict (160). The sailors of Kronstadt echoed their fellow workers’ demands from across the bay, outlining in the Petropavlovsk resolution of February 28, 1921, fifteen demands, including the re-establishment of civil liberties, free elections to the soviets, the release of political prisoners, the review of all cases of those imprisoned and held in concentration camps, the right to organize labor unions, the immediate abolition of grain-requisitions, the liberation of the peasantry, and the abolition of Bolshevik commissars in the military and overseeing workplaces. While the resolution affirmed its demands within the parameters of the Soviet Constitution, Lenin and Trotsky found it profoundly threatening. They feared that its spirit could spread quickly within the armed forces—that the “petty-bourgeois [sic] Anarchist elemental forces [were] the most dangerous enemy, which might draw many sympathizers and partisans, which might obtain strong backing in the country and change the sentiments of the great masses of people” (Maximov 175). As such, they slandered the Kronstadt sailors, insulting them as being the dupes of Socialist Revolutionaries, a former tsarist general known as Kozlovsky, and the proto-fascist Black Hundreds.
The Bolsheviks then declared a state of emergency in Petrograd, clarifying that any crowds “congregating in the streets” were to be immediately shot, with any soldiers resisting such orders themselves to be summarily executed. The Reds also took several relatives of the sailors hostage (Maximov 165). In response, the Kronstadters took up arms to defend themselves and declared the abolition of the death penalty while themselves taking some 280 Reds hostage. Unfortunately, however, the weather was still cold enough to allow for the bay to be frozen over, thus facilitating a ground invasion of the island-fortress. Ultimately, after more than 10 days of artillery bombardment, Trotsky’s battalions, aided by ex-tsarist generals and supported by Chinese and Bashkir reinforcements, overwhelmed the Kronstadters and retook the island on March 17. An estimated 18,000 insurgents were killed in the fighting and executed shortly after their defeat (Maximov 164-8).
On March 18, the Reds held a public celebration in Petrograd marking fifty years since the beginning of the Paris Commune—this, as Kronstadt lay visibly in ruins. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who had attempted to intercede before the Bolsheviks to avert the Commune’s violent suppression, listened aghastly to Bolshevik military bands playing “The Internationale” in the streets. Goldman writes that “[i]ts strains, once jubilant to my ears, now sounded like a funeral dirge for humanity’s flaming hope,” while Berkman caustically observes that “Trotsky and Zinoviev denounce Thiers and Gallifet for the slaughter of the Paris rebels.”
How did Lenin contradict his supposed anti-imperialist principles while in power?
Lenin is known for his supposedly innovative characterization of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism,” and his view that capitalism will be taken down by the revolt of peoples oppressed by imperialism. Lenin expressed concern for the persistence of “Great Russian chauvinism” over the former Russian Empire’s numerous minorities and oppressed nationalities. So what was his relationship to such principles after he seized power over the Russian Empire?
See above. The Bolsheviks clearly did not favor Ukrainian self-determination.
In February 1921, the Red Army invaded and occupied its southern neighbor Georgia from Armenia, reproducing the Red Terror in the newly conquered country. This imperialistic venture followed from the general maxim of the Terror: As Georgian Mensheviks had declared independence in October 1917, this renegade province of the Russian Empire required a coercive corrective to its course. An appeal from Tiflis (Tbilisi) workers to the workers of Western Europe from August 1921 speaks to the repression imposed by the foreign Red rulers:
From the very first days Georgia was conquered, we were placed in the position of and treated as slaves. We were deprived of freedom of speech, of press, assembly, and the right of free association. A regime of military labor service has been imposed upon all the workers of Georgia, irrespective of their occupation. Everywhere Extraordinary Committees (CheKa) have been set up […]. The advanced workers of Georgia, irrespective of their party affiliation, are thrown into prison where they are being decimated by hunger and diseases. Human life has become of no value. Innocent people are shot, even those who never mixed into politics, who never took part in any political struggle. People were shot because they served the democratic government, the State; because in open war they defended their native country from the invasion of foreign troops (Maximov 171-2).
Alongside Mensheviks, then, Georgian national-liberation fighters were targeted for elimination by the occupying Reds (236).
Central Asia: Kirghiz-Kazakh Steppe and Turkestan
A map of Turkestan/Central Asia using current borders
Larger map situating Turkestan in relation to western Russia (using current borders)
In Central Asia, the Reds’ desire to maintain imperial hegemony over the region led it to support Tsarist-era settler-colonists against the indigenous populations, resulting in a popular resistance movement known as the Basmachi (Russian for “raiders”), and subsequently intensify the conflict and ultimately accommodate the resistance movement.
Both armed rebellion in the late Tsarist era and the emergence of the Basmachi movement in Soviet Turkestan had important bases in the colonization of the Central Asian steppe during the Tsarist period. This colonization, greatly enhanced by the onset of the Stolypin reforms (1901-3), which effectively targeted the rural commune for elimination, expelled the indigenous Kirghiz-Kazakh people from the best grazing lands and disrupted their traditional way of life, resulting in annual famines from 1910 to 1913 (Pipes 83; Rywkin 16). Increasingly greater stresses on the Kirghiz-Kazakh caused them to revolt in 1916 after they were targeted for conscription during World War I. One important factor that contributed to the popular resistance to this measure was that these Muslims would be conscripted to fight alongside non-Muslims against the Ottoman Caliph (Pipes 83; Olcott 353). Following repression of the revolt, many Kirghiz-Kazakh fled to Turkestan, and this together with the entirety of the travails experienced by the indigenous peoples during the late Tsarist period caused Kirghiz-Kazakh political leaders to seek the definitive termination of Russian settlement of the region (Rywkin 17). To this end, the Kirghiz-Kazakh had, before the 1917 Revolution, begun to demand territorial autonomy above all else, in the hope that self-rule would allow them to legislate in favor of indigenous peoples and reverse the excesses of Russian colonization (Pipes 85).
Following the Revolution and further armed conflict with Kirghiz-Kazakhs returning from exile, the Russian settler-colonists increasingly came to side with the Bolsheviks, hoping to use the rhetoric of proletarian dictatorship against the indigenous Muslims: Bolshevism, in this sense, was to mean the rule of workers, soldiers, and peasants, and since the Kirghiz-Kazakh supposedly had no such organized classes or groups, they were “not to rule but be ruled” (Pipes 86). Delegates to the 1917 Congress of Soviets, fearful of losing control over the empire’s many disparate nationalities and Central Asia’s lucrative cotton production, voted against any consideration of autonomy for Turkestan and the participation of Muslims in the Soviet administration in Central Asia (Pipes 91; Olcott 359-60).
Following up such rhetoric, the Reds, after their occupation of Turkestan in 1919, excluded local nationalists from political power. Even when the Kirghiz republic was allowed autonomy a few years later, Russian settler-colonists in the area refused to accept its sovereignty and worked to undermine it, and the Kirghiz-Kazakh nationalists, without an army, political organizations, or connections in Moscow, could do little to effectively liberate the region. The 1921 and 1922 famines that struck the Kirghiz-Kazakh steppe affected the indigenous populations significantly, as they had lost much of their livestock following the 1916 rebellion and disproportionately received less food from government distributions. The profound effects of this famine can explain the subsequent lack of indigenous popular resistance to the Soviet regime in the Kirghiz-Kazakh region, in contrast to the case of Turkestan (Pipes 174).
Soviet rule in Turkestan met with greater challenges than that over the Kirghiz-Kazakh region. Though Soviet rule greatly discounted indigenous interests here as it did in the Kirghiz-Kazakh steppe, it met with opposition from an indigenous Muslim government based in Kokand and, following the breakdown of the Kokand regime, an emerging popular resistance movement known as the Basmachi (Russian for “raiders”). As in the Kirghiz-Kazakh region, Soviet power found support from settler-colonial elements, but here it met opposition from the autonomy-seeking Kokand government, supported by the politically-inclined segments of the indigenous populations and anti-Communist elements. The Tashkent Soviet, in an effort to extend control over rural Turkestan, supported persecutions, expulsions from the land, and looting of the indigenous Muslims, creating a situation which one contemporary Soviet official equated with the “feudal exploitation of the broad masses of the indigenous population by the Russian Red Army man, colonist, and official” (Pipes 177-8, emphasis added). Though the Tashkent Soviet firmly controlled urban areas, it had little authority over the countryside, where the populace had been alienated by Soviet cooperation in what it deemed a continued colonization. Tensions at this time between the two rival governments came to a head, and the Tashkent Soviet, fearful of the Kokand government’s emphasis on national self-determination, ordered the city of Kokand destroyed, its government overthrown (Pipes 174-8).
Following this brazen dismissal of indigenous interests, the Tashkent Soviet made little effort to win back the allegiance of its Muslims subjects and made little effort to relieve those affected by the winter famine of 1917-18, thus pushing more Muslims into supporting and joining the Basmachi movement (Rywkin 22-3). To some, the destruction of the Kokand Islamic government and its replacement with a secular, anti-religious State constituted blasphemy and can explain emergent cooperation with the developing Basmachi movement (Olcott 358). The Tashkent Soviet’s efforts at confiscating waqf, or clerical lands, for the benefit of the regime; the closing of religious schools; and the discontinuation of shari’at courts further contributed to popular opposition to the Soviet regime (Pipes 259).
The emergence of the popular resistance movement known as the Basmachi constituted a reaction to perceived Soviet abuses and excesses which, gathering support from the general populace, struggled violently against foreign occupation and resulted in an escalation and intensification of counter-insurgency efforts. In contrast to the later occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989), the Soviets eventually came to realize that brute force itself would not succeed in bringing an end to popular insurrection in Turkestan, and so they successfully co-opted the Basmachi movement from below by responding to the needs and desires of the populace supporting the movement.
Following the fall of Kokand, many indigenous individuals involved in the government, along with others suffering under the requisitions and looting attendant with the Soviet regime, joined the Basmachi, who previously had been feared by the population at large as bandits and common criminals. The group came to represent the struggle for liberation from Soviet rule (Pipes 178; Rywkin 33). The Basmachi soon grew to control the Turkestani countryside, generally enjoying the support of the population and, by violently punishing collaboration with the Soviet regime, coercing those who would think twice about backing them (Rywkin 35; Haugen 89). Though targeted at Bolshevik rule, the Basmachi resistance increasingly came to represent a Muslim struggle against Russians rather than an anti-communist campaign (Rywkin 38). The movement, plagued by lack of unity among its leaders, hoped to overcome these difficulties and approach victory with the defection of Enver Pasha, a former ruler of Turkey whom Lenin had sent to quell the insurgency, yet who ended up joining it himself. Enver’s integration into the Basmachi strengthened the movement, increasing its numbers to twenty thousand members who now could count a number of victories under their belts. Nonetheless, Enver failed to unify the resistance, having antagonized other Basmachi commanders with his vision of a pan-Turkic Muslim empire (Pipes 258; Rywkin 39). With his death in battle against the Reds in 1922, all hopes to consolidate the resistance movement ended (Pipes 259).
The Soviet regime coupled military escalation in response to Basmachi with political concessions. The combination of these two factors undermine popular support for the Basmachi and thus their effectiveness. Moscow saw in the emergence and perpetuation of the Basmachi movement the persistent refusal of the Tashkent Soviet to grant autonomy to indigenous peoples, such that, in 1918, Stalin ordered Turkestan autonomous. However, the non-cooperation of local communists with this directive caused it to be irrelevant until Lenin later intensified central pressure on the Tashkent communists (Pipes Ibid 179, 183). The result of heavy pressuring, the 1920 Seventh Congress of Soviets was the first to allow Muslim participation, but few would-be delegates attended for fear of reprisals from the then-raging Basmachi movement (Rywkin 26). The Eighth Congress, though, yielded an indigenous majority in the Tashkent government, thus arousing the hopes of Turkestani intellectuals for self-determination. Although Lenin, in contrast to the Russian settler-colonists in Turkestan, may have favored real autonomy for the Muslim peoples of the region in theory, he was not willing to countenance an autonomy that would threaten the unity of the Soviet regime and the centralized rule of the Communist Party (Rywkin 32).
Following these political concessions came a burgeoning Soviet military presence in Turkestan. Eventually, Soviet and local leaders increasingly came to realize that the coupling of military escalation with political half-measures would not bring order to the region. To this end, the administration overturned the most unpopular reforms: the waqf was returned, Koranic schools were legalized, shari’a courts were granted increased autonomy, taxes were cut by half, and food supplies to indigenous peoples were increased (Pipes 259; Rywkin 41; Olcott 360). Moreover, the introduction of the New Economic Policy permitted a return to private trade, and ended the forced requisitions of food and cotton, the origin of much resentment toward the Soviet regime (Pipes 259; Rywkin 41). Given these substantial concessions, much of the previous support for the Basmachi dissipated, and order was restored for the Communist Party in much of the region.
How did Red October, the Red Terror, and the Civil War lead to Stalin’s rule?
As we have seen, the Bolshevik seizure of power gave rise to the Red Terror and the Civil War. According to Maximov, the “entire country was turned into a prison” so that Bolshevik control of the State would persist (192, emphasis in original). The Reds never once tried to negotiate peaceful settlement of conflicts during the Civil War or thereafter, but simply resorted to intimidation as based on the real threat of physical annihilation by means of the Red Army and the CheKa plus its successor, the GPU (State Political Administration) (179, 207). In quashing all alternatives to Bolshevik hegemony, including striking workers and peasants in revolt, the Reds exhausted the sources of resistance that could have averted Stalin’s rise or reversed it shortly after its emergence. By 1922, the rate of State repression against socialists and anarchists lessened to some degree simply because most of them had by this time already been suppressed (213-223). In cultural terms, Lenin’s partner, N. K. Krupskaya, circulated a list of forbidden literature that included Kant, Plato, the Gospels, Schopenhauer, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and Bakunin in 1923, demanding that libraries remove these authors and works from circulation immediately (221-2). Of course, the Nazis would publicly burn books by many of these same authors in the years to come.
As Paul Mattick argues, there is very little in Stalinism that did not also exist in Leninism or Trotskyism. Indeed, it is quite telling that a variation on the same boast Trotsky would make after the April 1918 raids against the anarchists—that “At last the Soviet government, with an iron broom, has rid Russia of Anarchism”—would be used by Stalin’s hangmen to hail the purges against Trotskyists and Old Bolsheviks fifteen years later.
For further reading:
- “How Lenin Led to Stalin” (WSM)
- “Stalin Did Not Fall From the Moon” (WSM)
- “From the Russian Revolution of 1917 to Stalinist Totalitarianism” (Agustin Guillamon)
- What lessons should we take from the Russian Revolution?
**Voline: pp. 156-61 = (It was fitting that…)
V: imp’ce of existing class orgs to facilitate the rev transition! (186-7**)
- “the absence of these ‘receiving sets’” = principal reasons for A’s failures in RR!
- Only via popular revolution & masses (V 197-8**)
Insufficiency of destruction: V pp. 200-6** – esp. 205
“Let Russia serve as a lesson to all other nations, let the mountains of corpses and the oceans of blood shed by its people be a redeeming sacrifice for all nations, for the toilers of all countries” (M 334)
“Twenty-two years ago the resplendent rays of freedom brightened the vast expanses of Russia. Despotism, centuries old, vanished overnight. And the common people swept over the land like spring floods and washed away the debris of the old regime. Cleansed by a bloodless revolution Russia appeared before the astonished world in all the splendor of a bold, young, and vigorous country […].
Never before had such horizons of [solidarity], equality, and freedom been revealed. And the people who experienced those thrilling moments of history will never be wiped off the face of the earth; they can never make a perpetual peace with slavery […]. The Russian people have chosen their own road: the expansion of the program of the October Revolution under the political freedom of the February Revolution” (M 336)
Avrich, Paul. Kronstadt 1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).
Bakunin, Mikhail. Statism and Anarchy, trans. and ed. Marshall Shatz (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counter-Revolution, ed. Friends of Aron Baron (Chico, California: AK Press, 2017).
Goodwin, James. Confronting Dostoevsky’s Devils (New York: Peter Lang, 2010).
Haugen, Arne. The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia (New
York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
Maximov, G. P. The Guillotine at Work: Twenty Years of Terror in Russia (Chicago: Globus Printing, 1979 ).
Olcott, Martha B. “The Basmachi or Freeman’s Revolt in Turkestan 1918-24.” Soviet Studies 33.3 (July 1981): 352-69.
Pipes, Richard. The Formation of the Soviet Union (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
Posadskii, A. V. Девятнадцатый, зеленый… («Зеленое» движение в годы Гражданской войны в России) (Saratov: Publikatsiya RFFI, 2016).
Rywkin, Michael. Moscow’s Muslim Challenge: Soviet Central Asia (Armonk, NY:
M.E. Sharpe, 1990).
Skirda, Alexandre. Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack, trans. Paul Sharkey (Oakland: AK Press, 2004).
Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1975 ).
Recommended Statements and Memoirs
- Mollie Steimer, “On Leaving Russia” (1923)
- Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. and ed. William Edgerton (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993)
- Battleship Potëmkin, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (1925)
- The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, dir. Esfir Shub (1927)
- October, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (1928)
- From Tsar to Lenin, dir. Herman Axelbank (1937)
- Doctor Zhivago, dir. David Lean (1965)
- Reds, dir. Warren Beatty (1981)
- Red in Blue, dir. Thibout Bertrand (2017)