It’s June 1920, and General Vrangel’s counter-revolutionary White forces break out of the Crimea, while in the countryside all across Russia, the peasants are rising against the Bolsheviks – it’s the Russian Civil War.
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Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to The Great War, where we are still filming in our pandemic lockdown studio in my living room. By the summer of 1920, the revolutionary Bolsheviks had all but defeated the counter-revolutionary Whites in the Russian Civil War. But even as the final phase of the war between Whites and Reds was being played out in southern Russia and Ukraine, 100 years ago another group rose up against the Bolsheviks – the peasants. In this episode, we will cover events in the Russian Civil War up until the end of 1920.
Let us start with the Whites, who were trying, and failing, to reverse the revolution and re-establish some form of the old order. By early 1920, the White movement had been, for all intents and purposes, defeated. In the far north, the Allied intervention forces had left and the last Whites evacuated from Archangelsk in February. In the east, Supreme Leader Admiral Kolchak had been beaten on the battlefield, and then executed in early February, so once Bolshevik forces had penetrated east of Lake Baikal, they paused and shifted troops to the south to face the Whites and to the west to face the Poles.
The Red Army was now able to shift much of its growing strength to the south, to face General Anton Denikin’s Armed Forces of South Russia, who had been pushed all the back across the Don river. Denikin was now desperately trying to rally the White cause, and he offered concessions to Cossack independence, which had been a source of friction since Denikin had blocked previous Cossack demands even though they had briefly set up an independent Kuban state. But it was too little, too late. The Cossack Army of the Kuban was falling apart, and morale was low across the board. The British, who up until now had been the main suppliers of White armies, now essentially backed out. The White generals were also said to be conspiring in a so-called “generals’ revolution.” Chief among Denikin’s critics was General Pyotr Vrangel, who wrote Denikin a scathing letter after being dismissed from his command. Denikin fired back:
“You are doing everything you can to undermine the government and bring on disintegration. There was a time when suffering from a grave illness, you said […] that this was God’s punishment for your inordinate ambitiousness. May He forgive you now for the harm you have done to the Russian cause.” (Smele 136)
The dwindling White army was also ravaged by typhus, and could not take care of its wounded and sick, as a British observer recorded:
“Probably no army has ever been so handicapped from a medical point of view.” (Mawdsley 220)
Also suffering from typhus was the Red Army’s Caucasus Army group, under the command of 26 year old General Tukhachevsky, counted 215,000 men, of whom 70,000 were combat troops, against 37,000 Whites (Mawdsley 222). The Bolsheviks had also introduced a new emphasis on cavalry, and created the First Cavalry Army to mass their mounted troops in numbers the Whites could not match. War Commissar Leon Trotsky famously announced “Proletarians, to horse!” but most of the Red Cavalry was Cossacks and peasants, not workers (Mawdsley 220).
The Red Army attacked across the Don river in January, but at first was beaten back with heavy losses. A White counterattack was short-lived, and the Red Army broke through on Denikin’s flank in February and advanced along the rail line towards Ekaterinodar. The White troops and civilian refugees pulled back in disarray towards the sea and the only remaining port of Novorossiisk. One White officer recalled:
“The Exodus of the Russian people reminded me of Biblical times.” (Mawdlsey 224)
Novorossiisk became the scene of great suffering as tens of thousands waited to be taken away to Crimea or Constantinople by Allied ships. One witness described the chaos and suffering:
“It was freezingly cold … Bodies lay in all sorts of corners, while the hospitals were besieged by sick, frozen and hungry people for whom nothing could be done, so that those stricken with typhus remained just where they happened to fall. [...] The criminals of the underworld came out and in the confusion preyed on the elderly and defenseless …young girls – some of high birth – prostituted themselves to earn enough money to pay the passage for themselves and their families […] It was a sick, desperate, terrified city.” (Smele 139-140)
Over 80,000 White troops were taken prisoner at Novorossiisk and Sochi in March and April. (Mawdsley 224)
The disaster spelled the end for General Denikin’s leadership. He recalled his bitter rival Vrangel, who took control of remaining White forces concentrated on the Crimean peninsula in April 1920.
was under no illusions about the dire situation the Whites were facing, and attempted to show more political flexibility than Denikin or Kolchak, under the motto:
“With the devil, but for Russia and against the Bolsheviks.” (Mawdsley 217)
He approached the Poles, Ukrainians, Georgians, and even the anarchist Nestor Makhno, for cooperation, but White political capital had long been squandered, and Makhno had the White representative that was sent to him hanged. Vrangel created a new Government of South Russia to, as he put it, enact leftist policies with rightist hands. But this existed on paper only and he functioned as a military dictator.
Vrangel still had about 35 000 soldiers, and the Red Army had shifted most of its forces west to fight against the Poles. So in June, he planned a breakout from Crimea to coincide with a new law on land reform too gain peasant support. White forces moved north into the Tauride province, pushed back the weak Red 13th Army, and made it as far north as Zaporizhe and as far east as Mariupol. There was even an expeditionary force of 4500 men under General Ulagai sent across the Sea of Azov to the Kuban, to link up with White partisans.
But both of these offensives soon failed. The expeditionary force lasted 3 weeks, and in Ukraine, the peasants – again – did not rally to the White cause. The British maintained their policy of backing away from the Whites so they could normalize relations with Bolshevik Russia and made this plain to Vrangel:
“If you attack…His Majesty’s Government will be unable to concern themselves any further with the fate of your army.” (Mawdsley 267)
The French gave symbolic support, but it made little difference, and by October, the Poles had agreed to an armistice with the Bolsheviks. The Whites were isolated and vulnerable, but they did manage to beat off the first Bolshevik offensives and even briefly crossed the Dnepr. Even so, it was a matter of time. The Bolsheviks created a Southern Army Group under the capable General Mikhail Frunze, but preparations were too slow for Lenin’s taste, who criticized his Commander-in-Chief, Lev Kamenev:
“It turns out that all the calculation of the Main Commander-in-Chief are not worth a damn and are changed weekly, like those of an ignoramus!” (Mawdsley 269)
The famous First Cavalry Army was withdrawn from the western front for the Crimea offensive, but it was slowed by fatigue after defeats against the Poles, low morale, and committing pogroms against local Jewish communities en route. (Mawdsley 269).
By early October, the Red Army had 5 Armies totalling 133,000 men, including some of Makhno’s anarchist units, against 37,000 remaining Whites (Mawdsley 269). The Bolshevik plan was to cut off the White armies north of the Perekop isthmus, which would be an easier defensive position for Vrangel’s army. Vrangel knew this but wanted to hold his position as long as possible to bring in the grain harvest, since hunger was still an ongoing problem. The Red offensive began on October 28, and the Whites were simply too weak to hold the line for long. 20,000 White soldiers were captured, but the rest made it to the isthmus and set up a new line of defence. General Frunze was surprised at the intensity of resistance:
“I am amazed at the enormous energy of the enemy’s resistance. There is no doubt that he fought more fiercely and stubbornly than any other army could have.” (Mawdsley 270)
On the anniversary of the October Revolution on November 7, the Red Army then outflanked the White positions by crossing a small shallow sea. Frunze offered peace terms, including the right of emigration for White commanders, but Vrangel refused. White forces pulled back towards the coast, and the final evacuation began. By November 16, 146,000 White soldiers and civilian evacuees had been taken to Allied-occupied Constantinople (Mawdsley 270). Hungarian Bolshevik Bela Kun, who you might remember from the Hungarian Soviet republic, was put in charge of the Crimean Revolutionary Committee, and an unknown number of executions was carried out, said to be in the tens of thousands according to White claims. (Mawdsley 271) From now on, Old Russia would exist only in exile, and in scattered bits and pieces in the Far East.
While the Bolsheviks were crushing the last of the White forces in the south, a new faction in the Russian Civil War began to play a more important role in opposing Bolshevik power – the Greens. The Greens were different groups of peasants, often with the help of former members of the banned by the Bolsheviks. There was no nationally coordinated movement, and in different regions peasant revolts broke out at different times, which would reach their peak in 1920. One thing that the various Green revolts had in common was resentment against the Bolshevik government’s policy towards peasants, who formed the vast majority of the population. Despite the Bolshevik rhetoric about workers and peasants, the most popular party amongst Russia’s peasants was the leftist Social Revolutionary party. The peasants’ political priority in 1917 and 1918 had been the redistribution of the land, which they wanted taken away from rich landowners and administered communally by village councils. Even though the Bolsheviks banned and persecuted the Social Revolutionary Party, the peasants had been able to keep their land, so in a way they tended to prefer the Bolsheviks to the Whites, who represented the hated old order.
But peasant anger at the Bolsheviks began to grow as time went by, especially once the Reds introduced what is usually called the War Communism policy in 1918. Although it wasn’t called War Communism at the time and there is a debate as to whether it was a policy or a series of responses to crises (Smele 179). The worst part of this new economic policy for the peasants, was that Bolshevik officials and Red Army troops, known as the Prodarmiya or Food Supply Army, were sent to villages to seize grain and livestock for the needs of the Army and the cities, where Bolshevik support was stronger but there was a shortage of food. They also began forcibly conscripting peasants into the Red Army by giving villages quotas of recruits they had to provide.
Even Bolshevik officials admitted the problem in a 1921 report:
“In general the Soviet regime was, in the eyes of the majority of the peasants, identified with flying visits by commissars or plenipotentiaries who were valiant at giving orders […] and went around imprisoning the representatives of [the] local organs of authority for the non-fulfillment of frequently quite absurd requirements.” (Smele 187)
The Bolsheviks had also begun a propaganda campaign to turn the peasants against each other by vilifying the so-called Kulaks, or wealthier peasants, and giving power to poorer peasants - with limited success, because peasant culture resisted the intrusion:
“The happiness of the village consists in not having any officials about trying to see how their orders are carried out. The village therefore began to lead a completely independent life.” (Wolf 89)
As if all this weren’t enough, to add to the stress on the peasants, life in Russia had become nasty, brutish, and often short. The cities, where rural people had moved to find work in factories, were now short of food. The harvest of 1918 had actually been good, but the civil war and a wrecked transport network meant it couldn’t get to the cities to feed the people there, and the harvests after that were terrible – Viatka province, for example, saw its grain production fall by 86% from 1916 to 1921 (Smele 184). Malnutrition was so bad that 50-70% of urban women were no longer menstruating (Smele 181). As a result, peasants fled the cities back to their villages: the population of Petrograd fell by 66% and Moscow by 33% (Smele 181).
In Samara province, deaths from disease increased tenfold from 1918 to 1919 and 1920 (Smele 184) Peasants tried to ease their suffering by taking what they needed from the manors of the landowners they had seized since 1917, as Victor Serge recalled:
“From the leather upholstery of sofas one could make passable shoes; from the tapestries, clothing…I myself burned the collected Laws of the Empire as fuel for a neighbouring family, a task which gave me considerable satisfaction.” (Smele 182)
The one million hungry deserters roaming the countryside in 1919 only added fuel to the fire (Engelstein 575).
These issues led to a series of peasant revolts across the country, which grew in size and intensity as Bolshevik pressure on the countryside increased. Peasants resisted giving up their grain, and sometimes refused to plant more than they needed for their own consumption, and even killed their livestock rather than give it to the authorities. This, as we have seen, led to increased hunger in the cities, and even more pressure from the Bolsheviks.
Open revolts by peasants against Bolshevik power began as early as 1918, often just behind the front, where the Red Army requisitioned the most from villagers. Though it should be noted that the Red Army generals treated the peasants better than the Whites according to most sources – for now. (Smele 183) In all, it is estimated that 2-3 million peasants participated in the rebellions, and about half a million were arrested by Bolshevik Secret Service, the Cheka (Sumpf).
There was a major uprising in the Simbirsk and Samara regions in March 1919, the Chapan War, but it was in 1920, now that the threat of the Whites returning with the old landlords had gone, that the peasant revolts really began to shake the country. The peasants had wanted a social revolution, just not the one the Bolsheviks were putting in place, as historians Alexis Berelowitsch and Viktor Danilov point out:
“In the fight between Bolshevism and the peasant movement, the armies confronting each other were of the same composition—peasants, fighting under the same red banner, for the same slogan: ‘Victory to the real revolution!’ But they understood the meaning of this revolution in different ways.” (Engelstein 572)
The first major revolt of 1920 began in the region of Ufa, where peasants had been arrested for refusing to give up their grain. This rebellion is often called the Pitchfork Rebellion, since many of the peasants were armed with farm tools. Some 40-50,000 rebels participated, but they were no match for the 10,000 Red Army troops, equipped with artillery and armoured trains, who crushed them in March (Smele 185, Engelstein 576). About 3000 peasants were killed (Smele 185)
An even larger revolt was the Sapozhkov Uprising, which raged from July to September 1920 between the Volga and the It was led by a sympathizer of the left wing of the Social Revolutionaries and a former Red Army cavalry commander, Aleksandr Sapozhkov. He and the other officers of his unit were sympathetic to the peasants and resisted using their troops to oppress villagers, which led to his dismissal. But he refused to back down, and instead at first 4000, and later 6000, of his troops joined him in open revolt. The rank and file of the new “Red Army of Justice” was not ideologically motivated, but supported Sapozhkov’s program: keep the worker and peasant councils but get rid of the Bolsheviks, end the requisitions, abolish the Cheka, and free trade (Engelstein 577). Under the slogan “Soviets without Communists” Sapozhkov captured several towns before he was killed and his movement crushed by the Red Army in September.
But one of the most important peasant revolts against the Bolsheviks was the Tambov Rebellion of 1920 and 1921, named after the Tambov region at the heart of the movement. It soon spread to neighbouring provinces of Penza, Saratov and In Soviet history it is known by the less-than-complimentary name Antonovshchina (rabble) because its leader was Aleksandr Antonov. He had ties to the Social Revolutionary Party, and in the grain-rich Tambov province other SRs had also joined the peasants in resisting grain seizures since 1918. Together they founded the Union of Toiling Peasants, though the extent of the SR party involvement is debated (Sumpf).
The rebellion began in August 1920 when a Bolshevik grain requisition unit visited a village and spread like wildfire. By the fall of 1920 even Bolshevik officials admitted they had lost control of the region entirely:
“Bands now cover practically the entire district. Soviet authority has ceased to exist.” (Engelstein 579).
The rebellion was not just an angry mob of villagers either – the Union of Toiling Peasants developed a coherent political program based on peasant demands and Social Revolutionary Party principles. They called for restoring civil liberties and freedom of the press, the equality of citizens, land distribution, the privatization of small industry, worker control production, self-determination for minorities and a return of the banned elected assembly. (Engelstein 579, http://www.korolevperevody.co.uk/trud-krestyane.html)
The Peasants’ Union also used the standard ways of legitimizing power of the day, including some borrowed from the Bolsheviks. They set up committees, created a political program, and had a command hierarchy. Echoing the hated Cheka secret police, some peasant officials wore leather jackets, and lists were kept of loyal households. Villages could vote on whether to join the Union, but were sometimes pressured to do so, and produce statements like this:
“We declare to our cursed Bolshevik enemies on Russian land there will not remain one single Communist.” (Smele 186, Engelstein 580)
They also instituted their own grain quotas, fought under a red banner, and addressed each other as tavArish, or comrade. The Bolsheviks denounced the peasants as criminals and bandits.
The peasants even had a regular army made up of Red Army deserters, as well as a peasant militia armed with farm tools, between 20,000 and 40,000 men (Engelstein 579). At first the Red Army was surprised at the scale of the uprising and only had about 3000 troops in the area, since the rest had been sent to the Polish front in the west. But once the armistice with the Poles was signed in October, the inevitable crackdown began – including the use of poison gas for the first time in the civil war (Smele 188). General Tukhechevsky, after defeating the Whites in the south, led the 130,000 Red Army troops in the region, and decided on a slower strategy of occupation and mobile pursuit rather than a traditional campaign (Sumpf). The rebellion was finally put down in mid-1921, and up to 240,000 peasants lost their lives, including many who were interned in Bolshevik camps, and those unborn as a result of the violence (Smele 187).
The revolts I’ve mentioned are not the only ones that were raging in Russia in 1920. Cheka reports concluded that only the regions around Petrograd and Moscow could be considered calm (Eneglstein 573). The famous anarchist uprising led by Nestor Makhno came to an end in November 1920 when, after his forces had helped the Reds defeat the Whites, the Cheka killed most of the anarchist leaders and the rest, including Makhno, fled into exile. And what was likely the biggest of all peasant revolts was brewing in the lawless expanses of Western Siberia, which we plan to cover in a future episode.
So, as 1920 came to an end, the Bolshevik victory over the Whites was complete. Only fragments of White presence remained in the Far East, and these had little hope of resisting the Red Army in time. The doomed resistance of Denikin and Vrangel had not restored Imperial Russia but had perhaps helped the Allies strengthen the new anti-Bolshevik states of the cordon sanitaire in Eastern Europe by tying down the Red Army. The Whites, ironically, may have also indirectly helped the Poles in their war with Bolshevik forces (Mawdsley 271).
The bitter peasant uprisings of the Greens had also been defeated by the Bolsheviks, and although some would resist into 1921, there was no hope of breaking Bolshevik power. The peasants had failed to take control of the revolution because they proved unable to organize politically on a national scale and could not match the military might of the Red Army. But they had shaken the Bolshevik leaders, who would soon turn to a new economic policy.
More to stuff read
If you want do dive more in to the details, we have put together some excellent books on every subject.
- Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy. The Russian Revolution (London: The Bodley Head, 2017 ).
- Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War (New York: Pegasus Books, 2005).
- Smele, Jonathan. The ‘Russian’ Civil Wars 1916-1926 (London: Hurst, 2015).
- Sumpf, Alexandre. “Russian Civil War,” in 1914-1918 online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War. https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.
- Engelstein, Laura. Russia in Flames (Oxford University Press, 2017).
- Wolf, Eric R. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper, 1969)