It’s September 1921, the Red Army is crushing the last resistance of the largest and most successful anti-Bolshevik rebellion of the Russian Civil War: it’s the West Siberian uprising. https://youtu.be/6gyaQoeE4Pw
By early 1921 the Bolsheviks had defeated the anti-revolutionary Whites, but the country was still suffering from famine and violence. There had been major peasant uprisings against the Bolshevik regime, and a dramatic rebellion of Red Navy sailors at Kronstadt was forcing Vladimir Lenin to rethink his economic policies. Plus the Japanese still occupied much of the Far East. In the midst of this unstable situation the largest and probably least-well known uprising against Soviet power broke out in Western Siberia – and it all happened exactly 100 years ago.
By 1921 the Bolsheviks had chased the White Russian forces out of most of the country, except for a Japanese-supported White presence in the Far East. The Bolsheviks now wanted to impose their control on the country, but peasant resistance and famine made establishing some sort of stability extremely difficult. Western Siberia seemed to offer the Bolsheviks part of the solution – they saw it as untouched by the Civil War and a potential breadbasket for the rest of the starving regions. Siberia had been a prosperous region that exported food before 1917, but contrary to Bolshevik imaginations the region had been devastated by the Civil War.
After the Bolsheviks replaced the Whites in most of Siberia in 1920, they tried to impose an economic policy known as War Communism. This involved seizing grain to from peasants to meet quotas determined by bureaucrats. These quotas were based on 1913 production, which was far higher than what the war-torn peasant communities of 1920 and 1921 could manage. The Bolshevik attempt at central control also clashed with traditional West Siberian ways of life. Siberian peasants had enjoyed more freedom under the Tsars and before the war than in European Russia: there’d been no serfdom, St. Petersburg had trouble imposing itself on the remote region, and there was limited self-government.
In short, the quotas were impossible to fulfil and the people very reluctant to try. The Bolsheviks though, insisted on their demands, even referring to the question in military terms as продовольственный фронт The Food Front. Party authorities in Tumen gave clear orders to their enforcers:
“There should be no talk of the impossibility of fulfilling the Central [Party]’s goal, since the present conditions leave no choice to the Soviet Republic. Everything depends on how successfully the food issue can be resolved” (Московкин, 48)
Requisitions began in August 1920, and not only demanded grain but also meat, milk, butter, tobacco, wool, leather, and other goods. An order from the Tumen Food Committee to their enforcing detachments reveals the attitude of the local Soviet government, most of whom were career opportunists from other regions:
“You must remember firmly, that seizures must be accomplished regardless of the consequences, up to the confiscation of all the grain in the village, leaving the peasant with a starvation ration.” (Шишкин, сборник, 59)
After a visit from the food detachments, peasants were often left with no food or even seed grain, which meant facing starvation. They were also forced to work without pay. It wasn’t long before revolts began to break out, and some Soviet bureaucrats admitted the connection, as shown by one document from the Tumen Food Committee:
“We prescribe, on the basis of the order of the [Party] Center, to fulfill the state quota completely, ignoring any norms, leaving 1 pud 20 pounds [of grain] for each eater.”
An unknown hand later added a simple note in the margin: “This order caused the uprising.” "(Шишкин, сборник, 70)
Bolshevik Food Detachments regularly used violence and terror to achieve their goals, including taking hostages. Red Army officer N.N. Rakhmanov, who led the 85th Brigade in the suppression of the uprising, reported his experiences:
“[…] in the psychology of the peasantry, War Communism was regarded as robbery. This perception of the peasants was reinforced by many cases of unworthy behavior by the food detachments […]: drunkenness, beatings, incessant threats with weapons, and other arbitrary actions […] For example, a wool seizure was enforced in late fall, which resulted in the shorn sheep […] dying from the cold.” (Шишкин, Сибирская Вандея, 642)
So a combination of peasant opposition to Bolshevik politics, War Communism, and the abuses of the food detachments created the conditions for a rebellion in West Siberia. It would soon become the largest of entire the Civil War.
The terror and violence of the Bolshevik food detachments in Tumen province allowed them surpass the quotas demanded by the central party authorities in 1920. But the peasants had turned against them. As early as fall 1920, hand-made anti-Bolshevik pamphlets began to circulate with slogans like: “Comrade, if you are hungry, sing the Internationale” and “How many times have you had lunch today?”(Московкин, 49)
In December 1920 and January 1921 there were several clashes between peasants and food detachments, and women played a leading role in the resistance. Female peasants in the village of Loktinskaya disarmed 18 soldiers and locked them in a barn, while the peasant women of Povolokinsky dissolved the village Soviet, formed their own council, and sent delegates to protest against the grain seizures.
The situation escalated in January when the Bolsheviks began a new round of seizures targeting seed grain. On the 31st, in the village of Churtanovsky in the Ishimsky Uyezd, soldiers opened fire on peasants trying to stop the seizures, and the peasants chased the Red Army troops out of town using pitchforks and hunting rifles. This incident is often regarded as the start of the West Siberia Uprising.
It is difficult to say for sure exactly when or where the uprising began, since incidents similar to the one in the Ishim region took place across Western Siberia that winter. The peasants were often joined by rural intellectuals, priests, and some of the many indigenous peoples of Siberia like the Ostyaks and Samoyeds.
At this early stage, the rebellion was not very big, but the Bolsheviks were not able to stamp it out. One reason was that at first the party authorities just didn’t take it seriously. Another was that the Bolshevik administration in Tyumen province was run by two different committees with poorly defined responsibilities, so instead of acting they just blamed each other.
The Red Army troops in the area were also not in good shape. Many were themselves peasants and sympathized with the villagers, and they were short of weapons and ammunition, as pointed out by historian V.V. Tsys:
"By the beginning of the uprising, the shortage of rifles in the division reached 39%. Only about 40% of available weapons were Mosin-Nagants, while the rest were various types, including outdated Berdan rifles. Requests for ammunition by units that suppressed the rebellion include exotic variants like ‘Mexican pointed cartridges of Japanese manufacture.’” (Цысь, 29)
These bullets had been made in Japan for sale to Mexico, but then the Mexican revolution broke out in 1910, so they were instead bought by Tsarist Russia during the Great War and now ended up being used by the Red Army to fight Russian peasants.
So harsh Bolshevik policies and use of terror tactics had started a peasant rebellion in West Siberia – a revolt that soon got completely out of control.
Once the West Siberian revolt began to spread, the Bolshevik authorities rapidly lost control of most of the region. The insurgents cut telegraph communication between Yekaterinburg and Omsk, and cut both branches of the Trans-Siberian railway by blowing up the rails. By mid-February the Bolsheviks were no longer in control of most of Western Siberia and the rebels numbered perhaps 100,000, though accurate numbers are hard to pin down. The Bolsheviks though, still weren’t taking the rebellion that seriously, and blamed it on wealthy peasants they called kulaky.
Meanwhile the peasant rebels introduced anti-Bolshevik slogans, formed the People’s Rebel Army, began conscription and stockpiled weapons:
“All those able to carry weapons and who have been conscripted into the People's Army to overthrow the government that does not meet the needs of the people, are to assemble with their weapons at the former peasant chief’s building in the village of Golyshmanovo by noon today.” (Шишкин, 119)
The rebels also tried to capture the key cities of Ishim, on the northern rail line; and Petropavlovsk, on the southern rail line. They hoped a combination of cavalry attacks and support from intellectual sympathizers in the cities might turn the tide. They did take and retake Ishim, but couldn’t hold it. On February 14 the peasants occupied Petropavlovsk, but the next day a Red Army armored train arrived and the Bolsheviks recaptured the town on the 16th.
The peasants still controlled the all-important railway, but they’d fail to capture the two cities and they were facing other problems. Their forces were divided into different groups that had trouble coordinating; many peasant soldiers only wanted to fight near their home village; their leaders lacked military experience; and they were badly short of weapons. Some had firearms but most were armed with axes, pikes, or pitchforks.
Peasant regional commander V.A. Rodin tried to keep badly-armed peasant troops away from the fighting:
“Only those who are armed with firearms should be accepted; those armed with pikes, pitchforks and the like should stay in reserve. […] Unarmed men are not be sent to the front, since experience has shown when this part of our army met the enemy, their rapid flight caused panic amongst the troops and villagers.” (Московкин, 53)
Despite their difficulties, peasant forces moved south, where they were joined by some Cossacks, and captured the town of Kokchetav on February 23.
In late February new rebel forces also appeared in the north of Tumen province. They managed to force the Reds out of the important city of Tobolsk. In quick succession, the peasants also captured all of northern Tumen province, including Samarovo and Surgut. When the rebels reached Berezov, the local Bolshevik authorities panicked and executed about 200 hostages, which caused the people to turn against them and hastened the surrender of the city.
In Tobolsk, the rebels established an elected Peasant-City Council which made clear their political beliefs and goals. They were generally leftist and were against the old Tsarist and White regimes, but they also hated the Bolshevik dictatorship - their main slogan was “For Soviets without Communists.” The Council also emphasized unity between peasants, workers, and the indigenous peoples of Siberia.
The General Staff of the rebel People’s Army described Bolshevik rule in no uncertain terms:
“Life was suffocating - the blood froze and the heart stopped. A man was turned into a slave, and the whole country was turned into a military barracks unimagined in human history. The times of the Mongol yoke, the Time of Troubles, the era of serfdom […] pale next to the dark diabolical shimmer of the Bolshevik regime. […] Thought was extinguished, and the people were afraid not only to speak but to think.” (Шишкин, Сибирская Вандея, 325)
Some historians have seen the Council as a return to the values of the Provisional Government that ruled Russia after the fall of the Tsar in March 1917 until the Bolshevik coup. The Council restored freedom of speech and trade, abolished Bolshevik laws and institutions, and wanted to restore property rights. They also set up a commission to investigate Bolshevik crimes led by a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party the Bolsheviks had repressed in 1918. But the Council did not have full control over the various peasant groups, and it was subordinate to the People’s Army under Great War veteran Vasily Zheltovsky. This general lack of control meant that peasant massacres of communists are mentioned in the sources despite being forbidden by the Council.
So by the end of February 1921 the peasants of West Siberia were in control of much of the region, but their government and army were fragmented and fragile. And Red Army reinforcements were on the way.
The Red forces trying to crush the rebellion were under the command of Vasily ShOrin, who had already suppressed several regional revolts since 1918. The priority for the Bolsheviks was to free the railways. They brought in armored trains from Omsk and Yekaterinburg, but were stopped for two weeks by peasant defences at the village of Golyshmanovo. Three thousand peasants built fortifications under the direction of military engineers who had defected from the Reds, and held out until the end of February before being overrun.
By the beginning of March, the Red Army freed both the northern and southern rail lines, which trapped the rebel Siberian Front’s 20,000 men and commander Rodin. The desperate peasant army tried to break out towards the south, but Rodin was killed and only a few groups escaped. On March 5 the Red Army recaptured Kokchatev, and the surviving peasants and Cossacks began a long and perilous flight that only ended in China in May.
The Red Army had a harder time with rebel forces in the north, which were still capturing towns as late as March 9. The People’s Army fortified several villages south of Tobolsk with fortifications of logs, snow and ice which were impervious to Red artillery. The Reds wanted to take the city before the Irtysh river melted, to prevent the rebels their small fleet of captured boats. So the Bolsheviks tried again in April, moving on Tobolsk from the east and south. Red Army troops stormed the city on April 7 and took control April 8. The rebels withdrew further to the north.
Meanwhile a small detachment of Reds marched 1000km, re-appeared behind the rebel positions and took the rebel headquarters at the village of Samarovo. On May 16, the Red Army defeated the People’s Army again in northern Tumen province. Zheltovsky was killed, and the main forces of the peasant rebels in West Siberia had been beaten.
Some small rebel units continued to resist the Bolsheviks into 1922, but the West Siberia uprising was largely over by the summer of 1921. Some historians have argued that the West Siberian rebellion caused Vladimir Lenin to introduce free-market reforms known as the New Economic Program, but this is disputed. In any case the rebels had not heard of the planned changes, and simply submitted to superior military force.
The West Siberia uprising was the largest and most successful peasant rebellion of the Russian Civil War. For a time, the rebels managed to strike fear into the central government, take control of a vast territory, and formed their own government.
In the words of Siberian historian Vasily Shishkin: “In February-March 1921, a unique situation in the history of Russia occurred, when the question of who governed the country was decided not in the capital, but in the vast territories of Western Siberia” (Шишкин, статья, 140)
The West Siberian uprising has largely been forgotten despite its importance, but it was not the only peasant struggle in 1921. In September, even as the Western Siberians accepted defeat, the people of Yakutia prepared to challenge Bolshevik rule in the vast expanses of the Siberian far north.