R. Page Arnot

A Short History of the Russian Revolution

from 1905 to the present day (1937)

Part II
from February 1917 to the present day

Intervention and Civil War

THE FULFILMENT in all its amplitude of the Socialist task set by Lenin was confronted by an attempt to cut short the life of the Soviet Republic by intervention and civil war. Civil war, indeed, had already begun amongst the Don Cossacks, but from the beginning, in early summer 1918, of the civil war, right up to its final end in 1922, the rebels against the Soviet Government, the Whites of various shades, all depended upon the support and active assistance of foreign Powers.

There have been other occasions in history when a revolutionary Government has been assailed by the armed forces of foreign reactionary States. The French Revolution had to combat the armies simultaneously of seven European Powers, but the Russian Revolution had to fight simultaneously against the armed forces of no less than fourteen capitalist Powers. Throughout the last half of 1918 there is war and civil war; there is marching and fighting in all the Russias. From the Polish border to the Pacific, from the High Pamirs to the Arctic Ocean, there are hostilities of Germans, Austrians, Czecho-Slovakians, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, British, Japanese, Americans, Chinese, French, Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, etc. The territories of the Tsardom appear to be disintegrating; and within each sector, near the borders, there appears a foreign invader or an adherent of the old regime.

For the first six months and more of the intervention and civil war, both the Germans and their allies on the one hand, and the French, British, and Americans on the other hand, though locked in deadly combat, were actually co-operating in an endeavour to weaken or crush Bolshevism. The German imperialists and their associates regarded the Soviet Government as a Power to be weakened to the utmost extent. In all the western provinces which they had seized, the Baltic barons (as the Germanised upper classes and large proprietors were termed) were given full power and all Socialist activities were suppressed. In Esthonia and Latvia the Germans enabled the counter-revolution to triumph. The same was the case in Finland, where the capitalist parties, defeated in the elections, had dropped all pretence of constitutionalism and appealed to the arbitrament of civil war. The Finnish Whites appealed to the Hohenzollern Government for help. The independence of Finland was recognised by the Germans at the same time as negotiations were carried on for the establishment of a Finnish monarchy, with a German princeling as king; and German soldiers were poured into Helsingfors. Within a few months the majority of the more active Reds had been exterminated or cast into prison, and General Mannerheim was in the saddle as regent, supported by German bayonets. The huge populous Republic of the Ukraine the Germans frankly regarded as a protectorate whose harvest and production must supply the German military machine. They abolished the Rada and put the Government of the Ukraine in the hands of the Hetman Skoropadsky, under the surveillance of Field Marshal Von Eichhorn; and then pushed on beyond the Dnieper and the Don to the northern shores of the Black Sea. Here they began to occupy territory within the bounds of Soviet Russia, returning no satisfactory answer to the repeated remonstrances of the Soviet Government, who were compelled themselves to sink the Black Sea Fleet to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Germans. Their ally, the Sultan of Turkey, pushed up northward into the Caucasus, attacking the Soviet forces and turning an equally deaf ear to the Moscow wireless. To German imperialism and its allies, the problem of the former Russian Empire was capable of a threefold solution—political, economic, and military. Firstly, it was important for them to keep the Soviet Government as weak as possible (co-operation with it having proved out of the question), to utilise for this purpose the hatred of the Bolsheviks amongst the bourgeoisie of the outlying territories, and by this means to build up a German hegemony on the Baltic and on the Black Sea. Secondly, it was their purpose to seize the harvests of the Ukraine and to supplement their command of the Rumanian petroleum by a seizure of the oil fields of the Caucasus. Thirdly, the disabling of Soviet Russia and the pact with the Finnish Whites made it possible to plan the establishment of a submarine base on the Arctic Ocean, just as their possession of the Black Sea littoral formed a base for repelling the upward thrust of the British troops from Mesopotamia and Persia—or even, in the imagination of the more adventurist soldiers; for opening the high road to Persia and Hindustan.

The attitude of the allied and associated Powers was less capable of definition. It might seem that their military interests dictated to them the need of making the best of a bad bargain and of proffering their help to the Soviets for a resistance to the German encroachments. Indeed, it was under such a pretext that the first troops of the Allied Powers were sent to Russia. That it was only a pretext soon became clear. Allied statesmen and military chiefs strove to inculcate through their speeches and “inspired” articles in the Press the belief that the Bolsheviks were “German agents,” and that Russian territory must continue to be treated as a theatre of war. Significant facts, such as the open adherence of Milyukof, the former Secretary of Foreign Affairs, to the German side, they glossed over. The “German agents” myth was only one example of a manifold Allied propaganda by which they sought to compromise the Bolsheviks in the eyes of the working people of their own countries. For there were many class-conscious politicians to whom a Socialist Society existed only in order to be crushed. They agreed with Mr. Winston Churchill’s view that the Bolsheviks were a worse enemy to civilisation than the Prussians—the “Huns.”

Accordingly the foreign invasions and intervention began. Within a few months after the October Revolution had been established throughout almost the entire territory of former Tsarist Russia, the troops of the invading Powers or their hirelings had occupied the vast majority of that territory and were seeking to hem in the Soviet Government to a fraction of European Russia. Under the instigation and direction of French imperialism, armies of Czecho-Slovakian prisoners of war were brought together and organised: in May 1918 they rose in insurrection and seized part of the railway-line through the Urals into Siberia. Under their protection, in the Urals and along part of the Volga a so-called Constituent Assembly[1] Government was set up, with Avksentieff at its head and Ufa as its centre; and this claimed a primacy amongst the various anti-Soviet nuclei.

A British expedition was landed on the Murmansk coast, and another occupied Archangel and advanced down towards Vologda and Viatka (now called Kirov). Americans and a number of other nationalities formed part of this force, whose supreme commanders were British army officers. A Japanese force occupied Vladivostok, advanced through the Far East and Siberia, where they joined up with the Czecho-Slovaks. The main American force was with the British at Archangel; a second force disembarked at Vladivostok, partly to add strength to the intervention and partly to watch the Japanese. Another British expedition, comically called the “Dunster-Force,” pushed up through Persia from Mesopotamia, occupied the south of the Caspian Sea, and brought Sepoy troops into Trans-Caspia, including Turkmenistan. A volunteer army of Whites, protected in the north by General Krassnov, who received his armies from the German imperialists, and supported by counter-revolutionary sections of the Terek and Kuban Cossacks, consolidated its position in the Northern Caucasus.

Against this chain of invasions what force could the Soviet Government oppose? The old Tsarist army had been demobilised in March, or, at any rate, so much of it as had not already deserted. With remarkable energy the Soviet Government began construction of a new army, the Red Army, in which were embodied, bit by bit, the Red Guards who had helped to carry through the revolution and the various bands of volunteers occupied in guerilla warfare, called in Russia the Partisan troops. By the end of six months a severe check had been given to the forces of intervention, and a Red Army was in being. With the armistice and the German Revolution of November 1918, the pressure from the side of the German militarists was relaxed, though one of the stipulations made by the victorious Allies was that the German troops must not be withdrawn from the border regions until military forces satisfactory to the Allies had taken their place.

But the relaxation of the German pressure was the signal for an intensified attack by the allied capitalist Powers. No sooner was the armistice signed than the French fleet entered the Black Sea, transports were sent to Novorossisk with military supplies for Denikin’s army, and several divisions of French troops were landed in the Crimea and at Odessa. At the same time, the conclusion of the armistice had enabled the rest of the Allies to devote more attention to the military problem of conquering the Bolsheviks.

By the end of the winter the Socialist Soviet Republic was in an extremely unfavourable situation. In the south, in addition to the activities of Generals Krassnov and Dutoff at the head of the Cossacks of the Don and the Caspian regions, the armies of General Denikin, operating in conjunction with French, Greek, and Rumanian detachments on the line of the Dniester, had pushed up from Odessa in a wide fan, the easternmost tip of which lay upon the lower Volga. In the north, the British forces and the White troops, under the puppet Government of the Social-Revolutionary Chaikovsky, had moved from Archangel down the Pechora and the Dvina until it seemed possible that their attack, together with the British warships on the Baltic and the activities of the White Finns, would succeed in “liberating” northern and north-eastern Russia from Bolshevism. But as the spring of 1919 advanced, the most formidable enemy of the Republic appeared to be the forces under the command of Kolchak.

Admiral Kolchak was the successor of the Constituent Assembly Government of Siberia. On November 18th, 1918, the directorate of this Government had been dissolved through a coup d’etat, and several of its members put in prison by Kolchak, who assumed power under the title of “Supreme Ruler.” With Japanese and British help he organised the fighting forces of the counter-revolution and began a westward move towards Moscow. One after another the strategic positions in the west of Siberia fell before him; the border into European Russia was crossed, and the line of the upper Volga approached. As his successes grew, so the other Provisional Governments of the counter-revolution began to recognise his supreme authority. Finally, when his star in the East appeared to be nearing its zenith, the allied and associated Powers (France, Britain, Italy, the United States, and Japan) sent a despatch to Admiral Kolchak promising their assistance and stating their terms. The despatch, which was dated May 26th, 1919, began thus: “First, as soon as the Government of Admiral Kolchak and his associates reach Moscow . . .”

Alas, by the time that Allies had made this decision, Kolchak’s troops were already in full retreat. The latter part of May had seen a complete reversal of the position on the Volga-Ural front. And the Red Armies had begun their steady drive eastwards through Siberia for over a thousand miles, which ended at Irkutsk, on Lake Baikal, with the complete disappearance of the counterrevolution as a military force. The repulse of Kolchak was followed by a series of rapid blows at the army of Denikin, and the consequent contraction of his frontiers.

Meantime the southward movement of the Archangel troops to Vologda, there to meet the right wing of Kolchak’s army, had convinced British workers that all the pretexts were false and that there was no longer anything but a deliberate invasion of Russia. The triple industrial alliance of railwaymen, transport workers, and miners, the chairman of which was Robert Smillie, was threatening to strike unless British troops were withdrawn. The labour agitations thus begun culminated in the summoning of an international strike for July 21st. The strike was effective only in a few countries; but enough had happened in that early summer of 1919 to make it clear that the organised workers of Europe looked upon Russia and “the Russian problem” with very different eyes from the capitalist Government. They were no longer willing to acquiesce in the suppression of a Socialist Republic for the crime of being Socialist. At the same time there was a mutiny of the French sailors in the Black Sea, headed by Andre Marty, and there were minor mutinies and a very ugly situation amongst the troops under British command in northern Russia. This, together with the fear of British labour, was a sufficient stimulus for the War Office to withdraw the troops from Archangel. The British fleet, however, remained in Soviet waters, and remained active.

All throughout his period the intervention had not been limited to invasions and support of counter-revolutionary Governments. There had been large sums poured out in support of espionage, wrecking, and terror. The British Government admitted spending more than 100,000,000, the cost of which is still being borne by the British taxpayer, in assistance given in the shape of munitions and all supplies of war to Denikin, Kolchak, Yudenitch, and other generals. The amount expended on secret service work, espionage, wrecking, and terrorism has never been divulged. Suffice it that the special organisation created by the Soviet Government found its hands full. Six weeks after the revolution, on December 20th, 1917, a Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars created an All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to combat counter-revolution, commonly called the “Cheka,” under the chairmanship of Djerjinsky. Despite the activities of this Organisation, whose business was to deal with spies, bandits, wreckers, etc., there were many attempts at assassination, in some of which foreign consuls were implicated. In the beginning of September 1918, Uritsky and Volodarsky, two leading Communists, were assassinated in Petrograd. At the same time the assassin Fanny Kaplan, a member of the Social-Revolutionary Party, emptied a revolver into Lenin as he was coming away from a workers’ meeting.

This triple blow was met by a mass terror, which, in a few weeks, proved as efficacious as the similar terror under the French Revolution. Within a few weeks Lenin was able to resume his work: but a lasting injury had been inflicted on his health.

In the beginning of 1919 the veil of darkness that had been cast over events in Russia, and had obscured what was happening from Western eyes, began to be torn asunder. Throughout the whole world, the demobilised soldiers were returning home and the workers in industry were shaking loose from the bonds imposed upon them in wartime.

Simultaneously with the meetings of the allied War Council at Versailles, the various opportunist Socialists, who up to now had been denouncing one another and backing “their own” capitalist Governments, thought the time ripe to come together once more. At Berne, Switzerland, there was called a meeting of pro-war Socialists. In this the revolutionary Socialists refused to participate. In Moscow, a meeting was called on March 2nd to form the Third International. Lenin presided, and the meeting became the Communist International’s first Congress. From this moment onwards, in addition to the general support of the working class throughout the world for the Socialist Republics of Russia, there was added the complete adherence, in an organised form, of revolutionary Socialists to Leninism.

The early summer of 1919 had seen the defeat of Kolchak and the withdrawal of the Archangel forces; the late summer and early autumn witnessed once more an unfavourable situation. A certain degree of disorganisation of the southern front had enabled Denikin to advance up through the Ukraine as far as Oriol and Tula, only about 200 kilometres south of Moscow. Also in that autumn, with the support of the British Admiralty, there was launched a sudden attack on Petrograd by General Yudenitch. It was a close call: but the rallying of the workers of Petrograd saved the situation in the north, while in the south the tide began to turn against Denikin.

During each winter from 1918-19 to 1920-21, it was the custom of the capitalist Powers to carry on negotiations with the Bolsheviks. Each year, as the spring advanced and movements of troops became possible, negotiations were dropped and military operations resumed. In the spring of 1920 the forces of the newly constituted Poland, whose “Chief of State” was Marshal Joseph Pilsudski, launched a tremendous attack, and on April 26th invaded the Ukraine. As soon as these troops appeared to be reaching a measure of success, King George V sent a congratulatory telegram to Marshal Pilsudski expressing pleasure that it was now the first anniversary of the foundation of the Polish State. There is no record of King George V sending any subsequent telegrams on the fifth, tenth, or fifteenth anniversaries of the Polish State.

The Polish armies were able to seize Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, and were advancing triumphantly when, at Jitumir, Budyenny’s Red cavalry broke through the Polish lines. Within a few days the Polish armies were in headlong rout. In their retreat into Poland, the Red Army was at their heels. The Red Army crossed the border, and a Red cavalry raid reached the outskirts of Warsaw. It was a daring raid which, if it had been successful, would have shattered the Treaty of Versailles. Outside Warsaw, the Red Armies were defeated by the reinforcements which France and Britain had rapidly hurried to the support of their Polish puppet State.

The alarm in the West had been widespread amongst the politicians. Against the onward rush of the Red Army, the British and French Governments took council together with their chiefs of staff. Everything was being made ready to renew the war against Soviet Russia. At this point, the beginning of August 1920, there were formed in Britain Councils of Action, the object of which was to stop the war against Soviet Russia. So universal was the response, not only from the working class, but from the war-weary petty-bourgeoisie of Britain, that Lloyd George, then Prime Minister, was compelled to announce the withdrawal of the British Government from schemes of intervention. The formation of the Councils of Action had been preceded by strike action in the London docks against the Jolly George, a ship loaded with munitions for Poland.

By the autumn of 1920, peace negotiations had started between Poland and the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic.

Meantime, on the southern front, the forces of Denikin were being reorganised under the command of General Wrangel, and with the assistance of the Marquess Curzon, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who had earlier pleaded with the Soviets to allow Wrangel to evacuate the Crimea. Wrangel was more capable than Denikin. He commenced an advance towards Moscow in the late autumn. The Red Army swung round. The cavalry made a wide sweeping movement. Wrangel’s forces were driven back into the Crimea, where they endeavoured to hold the fortress of Pericop, at the neck of the Isthmus. The fortress of Pericop was taken by storm, at the cost of 20,000 casualties. The last invaders and the last White troops had been cleared out of European Russia.

It began to become clear to the capitalists that it was necessary to make peace. The negotiations for a trade agreement, begun in January of 1920 and hopefully suspended by the British Government during the Polish offensive and again during Wrangel’s offensive, were resumed. But, under one pretext or another, the agreement could never reach the stage of being signed. The British Foreign Office kept insisting that an obstacle was the alleged interference of the Soviet Government with its propaganda inside the British Empire. In February 1921 it was discovered that the British Government had been carrying on counter-revolutionary propaganda inside Russia, and that Scotland Yard had actually been responsible for a forged edition of Pravda, which was being distributed inside Russia with a view to causing insurrection against the Soviet authorities. Within a few days after this awkward discovery the trade agreement was signed.

So long as the forces of the counter-revolution held the Crimea and the northern shores of the Black Sea, it had been possible for a Menshevik Government to maintain itself in Georgia under the leadership of Noah Jordania, under the protection of the Western capitalist Powers, or, at any rate, of the oil magnates. A rising in Georgia of the workers enabled this last stronghold of the counter-revolution, which had been described curiously by Mr. Ramsay MacDonald as a “typical I.L.F. State,” to become Soviet territory in January 1921. Operations against Asiatic counter-revolution, both in midmost Asia and in the Far East, which the Japanese did not finally evacuate until the end of 1922, were to continue for several more years. In the West, in the winter of 1921-2, the White Finns attacked the R.S.F.S.R., and in the repulse of this attempt a Red Finn named Antikainen played a vigorous part: for which he was subsequently, in 1937, sentenced to imprisonment for life. But, in essentials, the civil wars were concluded, after three years of terrible devastation, in the spring of 1921. On all fronts the Soviet Government had been victorious.

In 1918, when the new ruling class of Russia had to face the chaos left by the Tsardom and the capitalists, a primitive agriculture disorganised by war, an undeveloped industry diverted from peaceful ends and collapsing under the strains of 1914 to 1917, they had to frame a policy whose content was indicated at the end of the last chapter. But that policy had to be modified and developed in accordance with military political circumstances. After the summer of 1918, military necessity was the first factor in deciding policy. Under this supreme pressure there was evolved a form of exchange which was called by the name of “Military Communism.” The original bargain, so to speak, between the peasants and the proletariat had been that Soviet power would give the peasants the use of the land, and would exchange the products of industry for the products of the soil. To that bargain military necessity said “No.” Not only the products of the soil, but the whole of the products of heavy industry, had to be requisitioned for the needs of the Red Army. The bargain had to be transformed. Instead of receiving the products of industry, the peasants received the protection of the Red Army against their embattled landlords: and, in return for this protection, all grain beyond the needs of the peasant family was requisitioned for civil and military purposes. Needless to say, though the peasants as a whole understood the implications of the bargain—else Kolchak would have conquered—many of them as individuals, and especially the kulaks, resented this requisition of grain: just as in every capitalist country throughout the war the farmers and peasants, resented any interference with the famine prices brought about by the operation of increased demand. The consequence of this was that for three years throughout the whole of Russia there was no buying and selling. Grain was grown and reaped, and the whole of the surplus was taken by the State for distribution as rations amongst amongst the army, the munition workers, and the rest of the population.

There was a war. The result was—Military Communism.

Political necessity was the second factor. The first effect of the Bolshevik Revolution had been almost complete sabotage on the part of all the professional classes and the technically skilled strata of the middle class. In the numerous memoirs published in Britain and America, it is on record that for two weeks, for two months, for six months, for eight months after November 1917, hardly anyone in the intellectual circles of Russia believed that the Bolshevik Government would last for more than a couple of days. Many of the émigrés in western Europe continued to hold that view of the impending collapse of Bolshevism for at least another ten years. A belief of this kind is the mainspring of sabotage. This sabotage had to be broken down.

In the case of the small businesses of merchants traders and minor manufacturers, whose houses premises were centres of counter-revolutionary activity, political necessity demanded their expropriation. Thus the Soviet Government, by the need of striking down these adversaries, was compelled to nationalise on a large scale. Not that the necessity was displeasing to them. The result was that, under the pressure of political and military necessity, enterprises were nationalised to an extent considerably beyond what had been contemplated by the Soviet Government when drawing up its programme of work in the spring of 1918. Similar necessities have occurred in the case of other civil wars. As in the civil wars of the seventeenth century in England, and in the civil war that began in Spain in 1936, the property of opponents was confiscated or nationalised. In the case of Russia, this immediate military necessity chimed with the ultimate aims of the revolution. Therefore, even when the pressure of military necessity began to be relaxed, a large proportion of the Communist Party were in favour of continuing the method of Military Communism.

The resulting situation that confronted the Bolsheviks in the spring of 1921 is dealt with in the next chapter.



1.  The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly has not been dealt with in the narrative, partly because the importance of this episode has been much exaggerated. As will have been apparent, the reality of the situation in 1917 was the dual control, the struggle for power between the bourgeoisie, dominating various successive Provisional Governments, and the working class organised in the Soviets. In this struggle, which divided Russia, the Constituent Assembly became a pawn in the game played by the bourgeoisie. When the Constituent Assembly finally met in January 1918, the dualism had already been resolved, the cry of “All Power to the Soviets” had become a fact. When it refused to recognise this fact, the Assembly was promptly dissolved.

Next: IV. Restoration