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Reforms following the November Revolution
In the period immediately following the November Revolution, the Bolsheviks were divided
over how to rule the country. Some, fearing civil war, wanted to form a coalition government with
the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. But others – led by Lenin and Trotsky – were
unwilling to cooperate with the Mensheviks, whom they distrusted, following the latter’s support
for the Provisional Government. However, Lenin did forge an alliance with the left Socialist
Revolutionaries, since this would increase the government’s support among the peasants. The left
SRs took two positions in the new Bolshevik-dominated government (the Council of People’s
Commissars, or Sovnarkom).
The Mensheviks and moderate Socialist Revolutionaries walked out of the All Russia Congress
of Soviets following the November Revolution (since they objected to the Bolsheviks’ actions),
leaving the Bolsheviks and left SRs in control.
The Bolsheviks also introduced a series of reforms aimed at consolidating their support among
the peasants and the working class: all land owned by the church, the Tsar and the nobles was to
be handed over to the peasants; working hours were reduced; insurance was introduced for
workers; factories were put under the control of workers’ committees.
However, the Bolshevik coup was not welcomed by all peasants and workers. There was a wave
of strikes in November and December 1917, when workers realised the Bolsheviks were not
intending to share power with other political forces.
The Bolsheviks employed two tactics to deal with this opposition. On the one hand, they
arrested the leaders and closed their printing presses. On the other hand, they proceeded with the
election for the Constituent Assembly (the Duma), confident that they would win a majority of its
seats. This would then allow them to claim that they represented the majority of the people of
The election was held in December 1917, but the result was not as the Bolsheviks expected.
They received only 24 percent of the national vote; the SRs got 40 percent; the Cadets (liberals)
got 5 percent.
The Bolsheviks reacted by delaying the opening of the Assembly (till January), then by arresting
and intimidating its members. The Cadet party was banned; all opposition newspapers were
closed, and a secret police force (the Cheka) was established. A number of leading Bolsheviks,
including Kamenev, Zinoviev and Rykov, temporarily resigned from the party in opposition to
these policies.
When the Constituent Assembly did finally meet, the Bolsheviks realised they could not control
its proceedings. As a result, they closed it down the same day, preferring to rule via the All
Russian Congress of Soviets (which they did control). As Trotsky put it, “We have trampled
underfoot the principles of democracy for the sake of the revolution.” It should be noted that there
was very little popular opposition to the demise of the Constituent Assembly.
The Bolsheviks then initiated peace negotiations with Germany. Initially, they hoped to end the
war without the loss of territory. However, the Germans rejected these demands and resumed the
offensive. The Russian Army had all but disintegrated, so it was able to offer very little resistance.
The Bolsheviks were forced to agree to the Germans’ terms (although Lenin believed these could
later be reversed, once the Bolsheviks had consolidated their power). On March 3rd 1918, they
signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Under its terms, Russia lost Poland, the Baltic states (Latvia,
Estonia and Lithuania) and the Ukraine – territories which represented 25 percent of the nation’s
land (including 32 percent of its agricultural land) and 30 percent of its population. It also had to
pay reparations of 6 billion gold marks. The territorial losses were so great that it was decided to
move the capital to Moscow, which was further away from the new border.
The left Socialist Revolutionaries refused to ratify the treaty, and walked out of the Soviet. This
left the Bolsheviks as the sole party in power.
The White armies
No sooner had the Bolsheviks consolidated their power in Petrograd, Moscow and the major
cities of the northeast, than their enemies elsewhere in the country set out to destroy them. The
anti-Bolshevik forces consisted of monarchists, liberals, moderate Socialist Revolutionaries,
anarchists and ex-officers from the imperial army. They were collectively known as the ‘Whites’.
The Whites were aided by the French, British and Americans, who hoped to get Russia back
into the war by overthrowing the Bolsheviks. The foreign powers also wanted to rid Europe of
communism, which they feared might spread west following the war. In addition, the British and
French wanted to protect their investments in Russia (since the Bolsheviks had repudiated all the
nation’s international debts) and to prevent the Germans from capturing supplies they had already
sent to the Russian front. The Japanese also sent troops to fight the Bolsheviks, although their
motive was to gain territory in Siberia.
The strongest of the White armies were those of General Denikin (in the north), who wanted to
restore the power of the Constituent Assembly, and Admiral Kolchak (in Central Russia), who
had declared himself ruler of Russia. Kolchak was allied with a force of Czech soldiers who had
been fighting with the imperial army. General Kornilov controlled the region between the Black
and Caspian Seas, while General Yudenich controlled Estonia. Meanwhile, the Mensheviks had
set up their own democratic government in Georgia. Indeed, by the middle of 1918, there were
thirty different groups claiming to govern all or part of Russia.
Trotsky and the Red Army
Trotsky was appointed War Commissar in March 1918. He brought his brilliant organisational
and military skills to the Red Army, and turned it into a formidable fighting force.
Realising the need for experienced military leaders, Trotsky recruited 50,000 former imperial
army officers into the Red Army. To ensure the loyalty of these men, he attached to each a
political commissar, who shared command.
The Bolsheviks introduced conscription for all workers and peasants, and the Red Army grew
from 800,000 men to 5 million men between 1918 and 1920. These men were subjected to harsh
discipline, to ensure their loyalty. Failure was severely punished - even by death.
The Russian Civil War
The Civil War raged for four years, and for a time it looked certain that the Bolsheviks would be
defeated. At one stage in 1919, they controlled little more than Moscow and Petrograd.
The Bolsheviks were also rocked by the failure of the German socialist revolution, which was
crushed by the forces of the political right in the first half of 1919. This had a demoralising effect
on their leaders. For a while, even Lenin gave up hope the Bolshevik regime would survive.
However, by the end of 1919, the Red Army had defeated the most potent of the White armies,
driving the remnants into Siberia. By 1921, the Red Army had recaptured virtually all the
territories of the old Russian Empire. Finally, the Japanese were driven out in 1922, allowing the
Bolsheviks to impose their control over eastern Siberia.
The Whites failed to defeat the Bolsheviks for a number of reasons. In the first place, they were
badly divided - both geographically and ideologically. They could not agree on political or
military objectives. In addition, huge distances separated their armies, and with the Bolsheviks
controlling the interior lines, it was difficult for the Whites to coordinate their attacks. As a result,
the Bolsheviks were able to concentrate their forces on each of the White armies, and crush them
one after the other.
The Bolsheviks had the advantage of controlling the region between Moscow and Petrograd,
where most of the nation’s population, resources (both industrial and agricultural) and
transportation were found. The Whites, on the other hand, were based on the periphery of the
empire, where resources were few and transportation primitive. It was therefore far easier for the
Bolsheviks to marshal the resources at their disposal.
There was a significant difference in the quality of leadership on both sides. The Bolsheviks
were fortunate to have the political skills of Lenin and the military and organisational skills of
Trotsky. Although Trotsky had no military training, he had a brilliant mind, and soon mastered the
skills needed to win the war. He toured the various fronts in a special armoured train, directing
battles and inspiring the troops.
The White forces made the crucial error of failing to win over the peasants, who made up the
bulk of Russia’s population. The main reason was that the Whites returned land to the nobles and
the church in the territories under their control. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, had abolished
the land rights of these two groups. As a result, the peasants were more likely to support the Reds
than the Whites.
The Whites also treated those under their control very brutally. Tens of thousands of Bolshevik
sympathisers (or those accused of harbouring pro-Bolshevik views) were put to death. As a result,
many people who might otherwise have supported the Whites saw little difference between them
and the Bolsheviks.
Finally, the Bolsheviks also had a propaganda advantage. They used the intervention of the
foreign powers to whip up support for their cause. They were the only group calling for the
removal of these forces from Russian soil.
The Red Terror
Once it became clear that the Bolshevik regime was under immediate threat (as were the lives of
the Bolsheviks leaders themselves) Lenin realised that terror would be necessary in order to retain
power. Once-cherished principles such as freedom of speech and the right to vote were abandoned
in preference to policies which might defeat the revolution’s enemies.
The most extreme measure Lenin took was to reestablish a secret police force in December
1917. This organisation was known as the Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle Against
Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (or Cheka), and was controlled by Felix Dzerzhinsky.
Lenin also established a system of Revolutionary Tribunals, to deal with enemies of the regime.
To get convicted, a person only had to be accused of counter-revolutionary activities. Such
activities included simply being opposed to the regime.
Following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the left Socialist Revolutionaries began a terrorist
campaign against the government, but this was ruthlessly suppressed. The SR leaders were
arrested and their party disbanded. The Mensheviks were suppressed in mid 1918, although they
had never actively opposed the Bolshevik government. However, they were seen as a potential
In July 1918, the Tsar and his family were executed, to prevent them from being rescued by the
Whites. The Bolsheviks wanted to prevent the Whites from ever restoring the monarchy. For this
reason, they also killed many other members of the royal family.
The Cheka’s activities were stepped up in August 1918, following an attempt on the life of
Lenin. Hundreds were shot - many for simply being ‘class enemies’. As the Civil War intensified,
so too did the Cheka’s repression. Groups subjected to mass execution included Left Socialist
Revolutionaries, former officers, prosperous farmers, priests, lawyers, doctors and members of
pre-revolutionary governments. Even some workers were shot. By 1924, the organisation was
estimated to have caused the death of a quarter of a million people. Many others were sent to
prisons or concentration camps. The government’s enemies were completely eliminated.
Bolshevik policy and the nationalities
When the Bolsheviks came to power, they decided that Russia’s various national groups could
have their independence if they so wished. Finland and Poland were both given their
independence. The Ukraine also declared itself independent. However, when the new government
in the Ukraine appealed to the Germans for help, the Bolsheviks moved to re-impose their own
control. Lenin declared that only workers’ governments had the right to secede from the Russian
With Russia in a state of civil war, Poland decided to expand the territories allotted to it at the
Paris Peace Conference. In 1920, its forces attacked Russia, but were driven back by the Red
Lenin then decided to advance on Warsaw, hoping to establish a soviet government in Poland.
This would extend the Bolsheviks’ control to the German border, and allow them to provide aid to
revolutionary forces in that country.
This was the first attempt to spread the revolution by force, but it failed when the Poles defeated
the Red Army. The Bolsheviks were forced to sign the Treaty of Riga in October 1920, ceding
territory and population to Poland.
The Kronstadt Rebellion
By 1921, the Bolsheviks had won the Civil War, but the cost had been high – to both the nation
and themselves. Altogether, ten million people had died, mostly from starvation, cold and disease.
The Bolsheviks’ enemies had been eliminated, but now opposition was growing among formerly
staunch supporters.
In February 1921, the Kronstadt sailors revolted, in reaction to the policies pursued by the
Bolsheviks over the last three years. They were demanding new elections to the soviets, with
measures introduced to prevent the Bolsheviks from rigging the ballots. They wanted freedom of
speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly for all left wing groups. They wanted a
return to free trade unions and the release of left wing political prisoners. These were all polices
the Bolsheviks had promised before they seized power in 1917.
Lenin and Trotsky refused to accede to these demands, and sent troops to crush the revolt.
Hundreds of sailors were shot by the Cheka.
As historian J.N. Westwood has put it, the Kronstadt Rebellion revealed more than anything
“the gap between the aspirations of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and their intentions in 1921. In the
intervening four years the Bolsheviks had given the retention of power overriding priority in their
struggle against all kinds of perils. In their own terms they had emerged victorious, but in terms of
ideals, of ambitions, of compassion, of all the things which make a revolution worthwhile, they
were no longer the same people. The Communist Party of 1921 was not the Bolshevik Party of
1917.” (Westwood: 276)