The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) came into being on 7 November 1917, the day of the Revolution, the constitution of the new state being ratified on 7 July 1918. One of the first acts of state was to change the capital, previously at Petrograd, to Moscow on 10 March 1918.
The Bolsheviks faced many critical challenges in their first year: how to consolidate their base and preserve their power, how to improve the economy and feed the people, how to respond to external challenges from the Germans, and those of the counter-revolutionaries (Whites, Anarchists, non-compliant Socialist Revolutionaries, and eventually the Allies), how to create a new army, and how to centralize and impose an iron discipline oil that army and society itself. These were the problems that make revolutions fail.
The Bolshevik Revolution had been carried out under the slogan 'All Power to the Soviets'. This did not mean 'Power to the Bolsheviks' because Lenin's party was only one in the wider political spectrum. Nor did the term 'soviets' mean 'communists', as many in the West loosely applied it later during the Cold War. The soviets were workers' and soldiers' councils, some 900 of which had sprung up throughout the cities, factories and Red Guard units of the former Russian Empire during the upheavals of 1917.
These had elected delegates to the All Russian Congress of Soviets, the political entity in the name of which the Revolution had taken place. The standing body of this Congress was the Central Committee (later the Politburo} headed by Lenin and including Trotsky, Sverdlov and Stalin. 1'he Soviet or Council of People's Commissars, known as Sovnarkotn, acted as a cabinet of professionals who were assigned specific portfolios. Other departments, committees and positions, such as the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and the General Secretary, pertained exclusively to the dominant Bolshevik Party itself.
The soviets proved to be an important means of Bolshevik political consolidation. Each soviet echelon, from highest to lowest, elected a Military Revolutionary Committee, an arm empowered to 'take action' on behalf of the host soviet. The factories, army units and larger cities tended to be dominated by the Bolshevik Party, a fact that gave Lenin an almost decisive advantage over his political opponents, in a word, the Bolsheviks had 'troops', namely the revolutionized urban proletariat and factory workers, and the soldiers and sailors known as Red Guards, Beyond these, the Bolsheviks had the assured support of the elite Latvian Division, a 'revolutionized' body of at least 18,000 men divided into ten regiments. Moreover, increasing control of the soviets, or at least the more critical ones, gave l.enin a loose command-and-control structure throughout Russia. As a result, all political rivals, from the Socialist Revolutionaries to the Anarchists and the Mensheviks, had been effectively neutralized by late spring 1918.
Given control of the cities and railways, the Bolsheviks could easily wield power in the countryside. Lenin further extended this power into the rural areas through his promotion of the 'Committees of Village Poor', or Kombedy. The Bolsheviks promoted the destabiiization of the countryside by setting the poorer peasants against the so-called 'middle peasants' who had slightly better living conditions, and especially against the hated kulaks or richer peasants. The Kombctly were encouraged, with Bolshevik blessing, to seize the holdings
of richer peasants and if necessary through cooperative action with the Red Guards. The profits were divided between the poorer peasants and the supporters of Bolshevism residing in the urban areas.
These actions went hand-in-hand with the policy known as 'loot the looters' taking place simultaneously in the towns and cities. Supporters of the Revolution were encouraged to take over all industrial enterprises, seize church property and local banks and take the possessions of the nobility and the middle classes or bourgeoisie. These were cunning policies that won the Bolsheviks support from the poorer elements of society, whether urban or rural, and arguably established a grassroots base that would either actively promote, or at least acquiesce in, future Party actions. Official nationalization of property and the means of production began under the auspices of the Supreme Council of the National Economy in mid-1918.
The Bolsheviks, who had been instrumental in destroying the morale of the army of the Provisional Government through agitation and propaganda, now had to build a new army capable of taking the field. For a month after the Revolution, the Russian Army had been left primarily to its own devices. Then, in December, the Bolsheviks issued an official schedule for phased demobilization. At the same time, carefully selected units were inducted into military formations that might be found useful in the future.
The infamous Order No. 1 issued in the Spring of 1917 by the Provisional Government had abolished the death penalty, even for dereliction of duty or cowardice (although re-instituted by
1. German intervention forces land in Finland,April 3..
2. Allied intervention forces start tojrrive in ___Murmansk,April S. > f^S ^
3. German intervention force in Georgia, May.
5. Socialist Revolutionaries revolt at Yaroslavl and is crushed July 21.
6. Allied intervention force» arrive in Archangel. August 3.
7. British intervention forces arrive in Baku .August -4.
8. IzhevskAfotkinsk Revolt, August.
9. French and Greek intervention forces arrive in Odessa-Kherson, December 17.
A Turkish Occupation forces, 1917-18
B Mannerheim's White Rnnr
C Hetman Skoropadsky's Ukranians
D Ataman Krasnov s Cossacks
E Denkin's Volunteer Army
'- LL-J Central Powers area ofbmipatiapi i; Ç_J Red Army area of occu£%^ " ^ T— Central Ftowers line of occùfiaiion ^ -^Wyolga Front mJ [ùnction of Donba&r indu striai towns
Kerensky in July, then overturned again by the SRs in November, then officially reinstated by the Bolsheviks in June 1918). Soldiers' councils, essentially mirror-images of the political councils or soviets, had been established throughout the Russian Army that same spring. These talked and tried to reach a consensus about military matters and
even strategy. Votes determined a particular course of action.
These conditions lasted through the first tialf of 1918. One White veteran, who had spent several months in the Red Army before he could defect to Denikin, confided to the author that the majority of Red troops in 1918 were 'rubbish'. White memoirs based on the interrogation of Red prisoners on the Southern Front described the soldiers voting on whether or not to defend a position, whether to serve beyond one 'shift' of duty a day or whether to work beyond the normal hours of a working week. Positions were sometimes left vacant because the occupants were asleep or drinking. The Reds survived these months for the simple reason that their opponents were even weaker.
One problem in creating a revolutionary army can be found in Bolshevik theory. Officers, discipline, saluting and orders were part of imperial 'class' traditions and were seen as the trappings of nationalist-capitalist states. The Revolution would be international in scope, embracing the proletariat of all nations. Volunteerism, spontaneity, duty to class interests and revolutionary elan would overcome the older and now irrelevant methods of war. Once the Red Army came into substantial contact with an imperialist 'oppressor' army, the soldiers of the latter would find common solidarity with the Bolsheviks and naturally desert. Field combat against the Germans and Denikin's Volunteer Army in the spring of 1918 sorely disabused many of the Bolshevik leaders of these notions.
Another problem was how to convert the lied Guards into more regular troops, i.e. into what would become known as the lied Army. The term 'Red Guards' has been used interchangeably with 'Red', 'lied Army', or forces of Reds. Specifically, however, 'Red Guards' referred to 'politically conscious', paramilitary formations that defended revolutionary interests. By spring-summer of 1917, Red Guards had formed in many of Russia's cities as the militant arm of the soviets.
Red Guard units consisted of the 13-man 'decad' at the lowest level, four of these making a corporal's squad, three of these squads a company, and three companies a battalion. Combined with technical troops, the battalion totalled 500-600 men, all battalions within a specific area falling under the purview of the district division. Officers were elected. Lacking an immediate, professional army, the lied Guards, being augmented by sailors, 'revolutionized' soldiers from the front and international volunteers, fought the first months of 1918 on their own.
Innumerable volunteer formations, more accurately described as partisan groups, also aided the Reds in 1918, These were bands eager to engage in revolutionary activity and which had been raised by a particular leader, ataman or chieftain. The Bolsheviks employed these groups, which often operated alongside Red Guard units and later the Red Army. However, they were seldom trusted. One example, the hard-fighting Red 'Wolf Pack', led by a Baltic sailor, had to be sent to the civil war in Finland in spring 1918 to get them out of the way of more regular operations.
Foundations for a more regular army were laid in January, but the first official units of the Red Army did not appear until 23 February 1918, Other landmarks followed:
on 22 April a decree for 'universal military training', on 10 May the incorporation of the majority of Red Guard forces into the Red Army, and on 12June the first conscription of five birth years of the population (1892-97). By December 1918, the Red Army possessed a ration strength of 600,000.
These units needed officers, and during the first half of 1918 higher posts in the army had to be filled by former non-commissioned officers and leaders of the Red Guard. While several performed creditably, the majority had limited expertise. Four-month training courses were established in spring 1918 to raise their level of professionalism. However, these accretions were not enough to staff the rapidly expanding Red Army.
Utilization of the military specialist was the answer to this dilemma, a concept was championed, and steered to success, by the extraordinary man who became the architect of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky. This involved mobilizing former officers of the Imperial Army and placing them in positions of responsibility, a concept considered highly dangerous by many of the revolutionary leaders. These specialists would advise on technical matters, which ranged from supply to artillery to aviation. Some commanded military units (of all sizes) in the field. Nearly 50,000 had been mobilized by the end of the civil war.
Leon Davidovich Bronstein, popularly known as Lev Trotsky, inspects the elite Latvian Rifle Division as People's Commissar of Army and Navy Affairs in 1918. At far left is the commander of the elite Latvian Rifles, loakimVatsetis.The Latvians were critical for the survival of the Bolshevik regime that first year, putting down revolts of Anarchists and Socialist Revolutionaries in Yaroslavl and Moscow. Regiments of Latvians fought on every front throughout the civil war (The Greai War: The Standard History of the World-Wide Conflict vol. XVIII. August 1919)
Family members of a military specialist were registered, their lives and his being forfeit in case of betrayal or lacklustre performance. Even so, there were notable instances of defection to the Whites. On balance, however, this system, combined with an allotment of full and even extra rations, worked very well. Lenin, who never once visited the front and who possessed almost no military expertise, nevertheless appreciated the daring and pragmatism behind the plan and backed Trotsky to the hilt. Intended as a temporary measure, most of the military specialists were only phased out by the late 1920s.
A new position, the 'commissar', was created to watch over these military specialists and to instil political correctness throughout the entire command structure. Each unit commander, whether he led a front, an army, a corps, a division, a regiment or even a company, would receive as his opposite at least one commissar. The commander and commissar were considered equals. The commander ruled over military matters while the commissar reigned over political questions, including the state of a unit's morale and its level of revolutionary fervour. This system, begun more loosely in 1917, had largely taken hold by August 1918.
l.eon Trotsky was primarily responsible for the genesis and nourishment of the Red Army. Trotsky (real name, Lev Davidovich Rronstein} was born into a Jewish family in Yanovka, Ukraine, in 1879. 'Trotsky' became his pseudonym while he pursued revolutionary activity against the tsar. A former Menshevik, he joined the Bolshevik Party in August 1917 and became a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee the following month. In September 1917 he was elected deputy of the Petrograd Workers' and Soldiers' Soviet and participated directly in the Revolution, after which he received successive posts as Commissar for Foreign Affairs from November 1917 and Commissar for War from March 1918 in the newly-formed Supreme Military Council.
Possessing no military experience, he nevertheless demonstrated a genius for military organization and a penchant for fiery oratory. Trotsky willingly subordinated himself to Lenin, even though he was arguably l.enin's intellectual equal. Trotsky himself, although a Marxist since 1898, had undergone a politically evolutionary process. Durinng the 1903-04 Second Party Congress held in London, Trotsky had opposed Lenin's position over the need for a party elite that would control the destiny of Marxism, a concept known as 'democratic centralism'. From 1904 to 1917, after a brief flirtation with the Mensheviks, he became a 'non-factional' member committed to overall unity. Undergoing a change of heart over Lenin's earlier position, Trotsky converted to the [lolshevik variant of the RSDLP, the party Lenin controlled, at the end of summer 1917.
Despite occasional arguments with Lenin, he maintained his essential support over the
'The Red Guard' by K. Maximo v. (Art card, Museum of the Revolution, 1928)
following years, referring to l.cnin in his memoirs as 'file most manly of men', while recognizing his 'nnerring political instinct'. Ilappily for the Bolshevik cause, this respect was reciprocated. Good relations, on the other hand, were not established with the man who would eventually become Trotsky's nemesis, both during and after the civil war, Josef Stalin.
Stalin was horn in Gori, Georgia, in 1879, the son of poor peasants, his given names being Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. His mother, who called him 'Soso', sent him to an Orthodox seminary in Tiflis where he could become a respectable priest and escape his abusive, alcoholic father. As a young man, however, he became interested in the idea of socialist revolution and engaged in clandestine activity in T iflis and Baku. Adopting the pseudonym 'Koba', he went through the usual arrests, exiles and escapes that were so necessary later if one wished to become part of the Bolshevik elite.
In 1912 he assumed the alias 'Stalin', or 'man of steel', that he maintained for the rest of his life. Preferring to operate as a power figure behind the scenes, he became one of the guiding lights of the Pravda (Truth) newspaper in 1917 and personally helped Lenin escape capture in July. In August he was elected to the Central Committee and in November was appointed Commissar of Nationalities. Throughout the civil war he held numerous positions as a special Political Commissar to endangered fronts. Stalin opposed the more regularized army as well as the use of former imperial officers, positions that naturally set him against Trotsky,
Increased organization and discipline were also necessary in the political realm. The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revo I ut ion and Sabotage, known more popularly as the Cheka, had formed in December 1917, The first Cheka combat detachment of 1,000 troops supplemented the field agents in March 1918. This force consisted of infantry, cavalry, artillery, machine guns and a section of armoured cars. The Cheka
'The Red Guard' by K. Maximo v. (Art card, Museum of the Revolution, 1928)
as a whole contained an unusually high percentage of 'internationalists', including Poles, Finns, Jews, Latvians and Chinese who habitually dressed in black leathers. Felix 'Iron Felix' Dzerzhinsky, a Pole who had dreamed of becoming a Catholic priest before spending much of his life in prison, in exile, or on the run from police, commanded all Cheka franchises. T heir motto, 'Shield and Sword of the Revolution', described their purpose.
Over time, the Cheka proved itself an equal-opportunity employer dedicated to internal repression. A few ex-tsarist prison guards remained at their posts and former criminals who exhibited revolutionary fervour accepted new positions without discrimination. One black man, a communist-internationalist who went by the name 'Johnson', skinned his victims alive before murdering them in Odessa. One high-born female known as the 'Baroness' played the role of stool pigeon among the prisoners at the notorious Lubyanka No. 11 jail in Moscow. Nina Maslova, the nymphomaniac lover of a Cheka agent, plied her sexual charms in exchange for needed information. Still another female, a Hungarian known by the sobriquet 'Remover*, personally executed
80 young men, each in a way suggesting sexual obsession. Nor was alcohol or drug addiction a bar to employment. Before gruelling assignments, the Cheka distributed extra rations of liquor to their operatives and turned a blind eye to cocaine, as long as dutiful service was not impaired.
Local Cheka establishments dotted across Russia and the Ukraine, in fact, were noted for particular specializations. A few examples only will suffice. At Kremenchug the clergy were impaled on stakes, hand-saws were driven through hones at Tsaritsyn, victims were scalped at Kharkov, and crucifixion or stoning was de tigueur at Ekaterinoslav. A few were noted for their artistry: at Orel in winter, humans were turned, progressively, into virtual statues of ice. At each locale, women prisoners could expect to be assaulted and raped by one or more of the guards.
In 1999 the author requested a private tour of one such Cheka torture and execution room in Samara, situated in the basement of the city's current historical museum. Even after 80 years the bullet-pocked walls and smears of dried blood were much in evidence. Asking the director 'who were these people, what were they supposed to have done?', he received the grave reply, These were the people of our city.'
The application of 'Red Terror' against the enemies of the revolution became an Officially sanctioned policy ¡ust hours after the attempted assassination of Lenin on 30 August 1918. Fanya Kaplan, a female Socialist Revolutionary, had become disgruntled with the Bolsheviks after they had shut down the Consituent Assembly and once the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had been signed, surrendering a significant amount of Russian soil to the Central Powers. Seemingly in collusion with certain Allied agents, Including the renowned master spy, Sidney lleilly, Kaplan accosted Lenin after his speech at a factory in Moscow. Each of her three pistol shots struck home, one bullet striking Lenin in the jaw, one entering his left shoulder while the third passed harmlessly through his suit coat. None, however, were fatal. Briskly interrogated, Kaplan assumed sole responsibility and was summarily executed on 3 September.
T he Cheka assumed additional roles throughout the civil war: frontier control, transport and railway security, espionage, counter-espionage, the officially-sanctioned 'extermination of the bourgeoisie', and fielding a combat corps of troops to whatever sector needed reinforcement or political stiffening. Special agents even lured the famous counter-revolutionary spies Boris Savinkov and Sidney lieiily to their doom. Rising to a strength of 37,000 by January 1919, Cheka totals peaked at 261,000 in October 1921, or roughly 10 per cent of the armed forces. In the end, the Cheka establishment proved itself no less heinous and pervasive than llelnrlch Himmler's future SS in Nazi Germany.
Militarily, the RSFSR found itself in a critical position in 1918. First and foremost were the intentions of the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies. At any time, the Germans could have marched on I'etrograd or Moscow. Lenin, however, championed peace with Germany and staked his considerable reputation on the process.
Trotsky, as Commissar of Foreign Affairs, conducted negotiations for an armistice leading up to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, When the Bolsheviks dragged their feet over particular clauses, the Germans marched deep into the Ukraine and the Crimea in February. Bolshevik political resistance collapsed in the face of resolve and they accepted the punitive peace that followed, a peace that separated Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, the Ukraine, the Crimea and parts of the Caucasus from the former Russian Empire. Given geopolitical and strategic realities, nothing else could have been done.
Fortunately for the Bolsheviks, the peace with Germany held. When the Allies began intervening in August, the Reds were able to stand up the Sixth Army against the invasion on the Northern Front and hold their positions throughout the civil war. Allied
intervention in Siberia ultimately became a chimera, easily opposed by the loosely federated partisan units in the east. When the Germans began withdrawing from Russia and the Ukraine after the armistice that ended World War One in November, the Bolsheviks were able to maintain 'screens' of troops all along their Western Front. The emerging nationalist states on their western frontier were not in a position to become a serious threat. I bis fact allowed the Reds to concentrate forces against the counterrevolutionary Whites who had begun to form along their eastern and southern frontiers.
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