Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

The Truce and the Great Retrenchment


Events in the Ukraine took a very singular turn. In its resistance to the revolution, the Rada asked for aid simultaneously from the Allies and the Central Powers; it obtained support from both quarters. France sent money to the Ukrainian patriots: such patriots, such defenders of order and property – actually they were engaged in selling their country to whichever power bid the higher and proved the stronger. But the press of the Entente, so indefatigible in its rage and denunciation against the ‘treason’ of Bolsheviks, who were now engaged in a desperate struggle against German imperialism, chose to ignore the very real treason of the Ukrainian nationalist bourgeoisie, a betrayal which was to pro-long the World War for several months. The episode forms a striking illustration of the contempt in which statesmen, party leaders and moulders of public opinion hold the truth and the realities of history. The interests of the propertied classes is the only guide they acknowledge; and these interests pressed them to slander the Bolsheviks at all costs as a prelude to slaughtering them later. Let the facts speak for themselves.

On 9 February (27 January, Old Style), the Red Guards entered Kiev. The Ukrainian Rada now controlled only a few towns in the Vinnitsa region. It was then that the Germans offered it their armed backing to impose a recognition of the Rada on the Soviets. This they accomplished through the provisions of the Brest-Litovsk treaty. The adventurer, Petlyura, an artful cut-throat, was already the Rada’s real leader. On the very day the Reds entered Kiev, he signed a treaty with the Central Powers in which he undertook, in exchange for their military support, to supply a million tons of grain (later to become 2,160,000 tons), 180,000 tons of meat, 30,000 sheep, 40,000 tons of sugar, etc. He also undertook to see to the needs of the German occupation forces.

From the Rumanian front to the borders of the Caucasus, the workers’ Red Guards and the first Soviet troops had just won a series of brilliant victories. The revolution was triumphant everywhere. The ‘Soviet Republic of Odessa’ and the Soviet Executive on the Rumanian front compelled the Rumanian aggressor to call off hostilities on 8 February; then, supported by Muraviev’s little Red Army of less than 4,000 men, which had travelled from Kiev within a single night, they launched an offensive in the direction of Jassy. The Rumanian conquerors of Bessarabia suffered a severe defeat at Rybnitsa, losing twenty cannon. The Diplomatic Corps at Jassy became alarmed, and through its mediation Rumania signed a treaty on 8 March ending the Russo-Rumanian quarrel. Rumania formally renounced its claim to Bessarabia and agreed to evacuate the country. This is also the period of the White defeats in the Don, the Crimea and the Kuban. The successes of the Reds, achieved despite the numerical weakness of their troops, are to be explained by the spontaneous assistance they gained from the poor peasants and the working-class population.

Such was the situation when the Austrian and German forces entered the Ukraine with twenty-nine divisions of infantry and four and a half divisions of cavalry, a total of between 200,000 and 250,000 men. Against these forces, Antonov-Ovseyenko and his sturdy lieutenants Pyatakov, Evgenia Bosch [1], Muraviev, Sivers, Sablin and Kikvidze [2] could muster about 15,000 poorly organized fighters, who were dispersed in tiny groups all over this immense territory. The German columns encountered savage resistance here and there from pockets of revolutionaries, but were able to smash these centres without much difficulty. There was in fact no shortage of arms or men on the revolutionary side – the peasants would have eagerly supported any resistance to the invasion. What was missing was organization. There was no State, not even any local institutions possessing any authority, no trained cadres, no cohesion or co-ordination. All the old institutions had collapsed and their successors were still being formed, painfully and against odds, in the midst of chaos. Armed bands sprang up practically everywhere. The cheap white bread of the Ukraine attracted ad-venturers from all over Russia. Its country districts and its small towns seemed to offer a marvellous stamping ground for all kinds of hare-brained scheme-mongers, from Ukrainian Socialists (all more or less infected with nationalism) through Left S-Rs to anarchists or semi-anarchists. Little local armies were formed under their own party flag. Often the name and banner of a revolutionary organization served merely to dignify the existence of a feudal armed band. The influence and even the organization of the Bolshevik party left much to be desired: conflicts arose within the party between Ukrainians and Russians, militants in the localities and those at the centre – for in the hearts of the Bolsheviks, the national question was far from being resolved.

The anarchists and the Left S-Rs, often working in unison, played a most important role. For a short while the anarchist Baron ran a dictatorship in Ekaterinoslav. At Nikolayev the anarchists rose in revolt, but abandoned the town to the Germans, against whom the citizens, left unaided, kept up a battle for four days. The band led by Marusya Nikiforova, which flew the black flag of anarchism, fought a street battle in Elisavetgrad for two weeks against the counter-revolutionary populace. Bands of White officers from the Rumanian front (for example, Drozdovsky’s forces) kept crossing the Ukraine in order to get to the Kuban. The Czechoslovak legions were at large in the heart of the country, under orders from the Allies to retreat before the German advance and take up positions on the Volga. The German settlers in the region were in revolt. Petlyura’s nationalist commandos, or haidamaks, held various points in the countryside. Villages that bristled with machine-guns defended themselves ferociously against all corners. Local republics were inaugurated, such as that of the Donetz workers. Red brigades, totally undisciplined, often drunk, often commanded by adventurers who had later on to be shot, discredited the authority of the Soviets with the local populations. Shooting, looting and assassinations went on everywhere. Sometimes strong formations retreated before the enemy without firing a shot; magnificent resistance came from odd handfuls, like the thirty-five Red fighters who held back two German regiments at Putivle. At the rail junction of Lozavaya a whole unit, the Lenin Battalion, was wiped out covering the Reds’ retreat.

Amid such frightful chaos, the revolutionary struggle demanded an uncommon strength of personality. In this period a woman emerged as one such figure of distinction, the old Bolshevik militant Evgenia Bosch [3]: by a noteworthy injustice of fate, she has become a little-known character. Here G. Chudnovsky, one of the conquerors of the Winter Palace, met his death.

Most of the battles were waged along the railways;. armoured trains played a capital role in the whole campaign. The stages of the German advance are worth remarking: at Chernigov, 14 March; Kiev, 16 March; Poltava, 30 March; Kherson, 10 April; Crimea, 20 April; Rostov-on-Don, 6 May. The Germans had come in after grain. They stopped at nothing to compel the farmer to deliver his stocks to them. There are stories of peasants flogged en masse, tortured, buried alive. The occupation régime, welcomed so joyously by the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie, swiftly became a reign of terror. The Ukrainian peasantry met it with a secret, scattered resistance, implacably harassing the invader. Blood flowed in the tiniest hamlets.


The treaty of Brest-Litovsk sealed the sacrifice of the Finnish proletariat, in whom the Russian revolutionaries had rightly placed their greatest hopes. [4] If Russia was, as Lenin emphasized on many occasions, one of the most backward countries in Europe, Finland was one of the most advanced nations in the world. Everything in its situation seemed to promise an easy victory for Socialism: its customs, its political culture, so similar to that of the most progressive democracies of the West, the victories of its labour movement, and even its industrial structure.

The people of Finland had known neither serfdom nor despotism. A part of Sweden since the twelfth century, a country of small owners who had never been conquered by feudalism, Finland passed to Russia in 1809 through the alliance between Napoleon and Alexander I. Constituted as a Grand Duchy, it enjoyed a large degree of autonomy within the Empire which was all the more effective because the Finns defended it cannily against their Grand Dukes – the Tsars of Russia. Finland kept its own Diet, its currency, its postal system, its schools, its militias and its internal administration. It evolved in Western fashion, like the Scandinavian countries. Nicholas II’s brutal attempts at Russification only succeeded in alienating the whole of Finnish society. Two years after the 1905 revolution, as a result of which the Tsar was forced to give Finland a constitution, the Finns introduced universal suffrage. At the first elections in 1907, the Social-Democrats won eighty seats out of 200 in the Sejm. The elections of 1916 gave them an absolute majority: 103 out of 200. They voted in the eight-hour day and an intelligent programme of social legislation.

Then, Socialist parliamentarianism found itself in peril of its life. Was it, after all, possible to travel peaceably towards Socialism, ballot-form in hand? The Finnish bourgeoisie made an alliance with Kerensky against the ‘Red Diet’ with its Social-Democrat majority: the Provisional Government in Petrograd ordered its dissolution, thus continuing, when it came to the choice, the political line of Tsardom. Russian sentinels stood on guard outside the locked doors of the Parliament in Helsinki. At the subsequent elections, the Social-Democrats gained votes (from 375,000 in the previous year to 444,000) but lost seats (from 103 down to ninety-two). This result was due to the cynical but skilful fraud practised by the bourgeois parties.

But just as the Finnish proletariat could scarcely resign itself before this electoral defeat, so the Finnish bourgeois could as little remain satisfied with such a precarious ‘victory’. Matters had to be settled with an extra-parliamentary conclusion. The bourgeois had long foreseen this outcome, and made conscientious preparations for a civil war. It was a showdown which the Finnish Social-Democratic Party, formed over twenty years in the mould of German Social-Democracy, had hoped to avoid. Ever since 1914 the bourgeoisie of Finland had been preparing to use the imperialist war to gain its national independence by force of arms. The 27th Jägers Battalion of the German army was made up of 3,000 young Finns from the wealthy and the well-to-do classes, who were in service against Russia, the ancestral enemy. Clandestine military schools existed in various parts of the country. After the fall of the Tsar, a corps of volunteer riflemen was organized in the north to maintain law and order. This was General Gerich’s Schutzkorps, the first-ever White Guard unit, which was formed quite openly. Its headquarters was at Vaasa on the Gulf of Bothnia. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie insistently demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops, who had been sent to Finland at the beginning of the war to guard the country against a German invasion.

The October Revolution was echoed in Finland by the great general strike of mid-November (14 November, Old Style; 27, New Style). This was provoked by a serious famine, which was confined to the poor classes, and by the reactionary politics of the Senate, who wanted to install a dictatorial Directorate headed by the reactionary Svinhufvud. Work stopped everywhere. The rail-ways were at a standstill. The workers’ Red Guards, with support here and there from Russian soldiers, occupied the public buildings. There were bloody clashes everywhere between Reds and Whites. The deputies sat and talked. Terrified, the bourgeoisie agreed to the eight-hour day and the new social legislation, as well as to the democratization of executive authority, which passed from the Senate to the Sejm (or Diet). And the general strike, the workers’ own victory, was consummated in the introduction of a bourgeois Cabinet, presided over by the same reactionary Svinhufvud! It was a revolution aborted. In the opinion of the Finnish revolutionaries, the seizure of power could have been managed at this moment, and would even have proved very easy – the support of the Bolsheviks being decisive. But, as Comrade O.W. Kuusinen, [5] formerly one of the principal leaders of Finnish Social-Democracy, was to write later: ‘Wishing not to risk our democratic conquests, and hoping to manoeuvre round this turning-point of history by our parliamentary skill, we decided to evade the revolution ... We did not believe in the revolution; we reposed no hope in it; we had no wish for it.’ With leaders animated by a spirit like this, the cause of the Finnish proletariat was in terrible. peril.

If the general strike had shown the workers their strength, to the bourgeoisie it had revealed their danger. The bourgeois classes of Finland realized that, left to their own resources, they were doomed. Svinhufvud asked Sweden to intervene. The Whites were busily arming in the north, where they had set up depots for their food supplies. The government was astute enough to prolong the famine in the working-class centres, making sure that food reserves were not made available for the workers. The proclamation of Finland’s independence changed nothing. The proletariat became increasingly apprehensive of the possibility of a Swedish or German intervention. On top of it all, the Sejm now, by ninety-seven votes against eighty-seven, passed a resolution making clear reference to the need for a bourgeois dictatorship. Once again the problem of power faced the workers, in even starker terms than during the general strike of November. This time it was obvious to the Social-Democrats that all chances of settling matters by parliamentary means had vanished. It was necessary to fight.

On the night of 14 January (27, New Style), the Red Flag was hoisted over the Workers’ House at Helsinki. The city was rapidly captured, and the Senate and government fled to Vaasa. In a few days, almost without resistance, the Reds took over the largest towns, Abo, Viipuri and Tammerfors, and the whole of southern Finland. So peaceful a victory might have been disquieting. The Social-Democratic leaders (Manner, Sirola, Kuusinen, etc.) formed a workers’ government, the Council of People’s Delegates, under the control of a central Workers’ Council of thirty-five delegates (ten from the unions, ten from the Social-Democratic party and five from the workers’ organizations of Helsinki). Their notion of activity was ‘to march day by day towards the Socialist revolution’, as the People’s Delegates put it. They introduced workers’ control over production, which was relatively simple given the marked concentration of key industries: wood, paper and textiles. They were successful too in stopping sabotage on the part of the banks. Public life and production very soon resumed a practically normal existence.

Was the dictatorship of the proletariat possible? Was it necessary? The leadership of the movement did not think so, although industry employed about half a million persons out of a total population of three million. The proletariat and the agricultural day-labourers formed a mass of about half a million altogether. The small and middle peasants, who were in a majority in the countryside, could have been won to the revolution or neutralized by it. Unfortunately, however, ‘until they were defeated, most of the leaders of the revolution had no clear idea of the aims of the. revolution’ (according to Kuusinen). Their aim was to establish, without the expropriation of the rich or the dictatorship of labour, a parliamentary democracy in which the proletariat would have been the leading class.

The principal measures passed by the Council of People’s Delegates were as follows: the eight-hour day; compulsory payment of wages for the days of the revolutionary strike; the emancipation of domestic servants and farmhands (who were hired by the year by the farmers and subject to very harsh regulations); the abolition of the old system of land distribution, which was based on tribute and compulsory labour as rent; the abolition of rent for small tenants; judicial reform; the abolition of the death penalty (which had very rarely been exercised previously); tax exemption for the poor (the minimum taxable income being set at 2,400 marks in the towns and 1,400 marks in the country, instead of 800 and 400 marks, and a further tax being imposed on incomes over 20,000 marks); a tax on dwellings of more than one room; the liberation of the press from its ancient restrictions; workers’ control in the factories.

A little while later, during the civil war, other measures were introduced: requisitioning of grain and potatoes; the closing down of the bourgeois press; the prohibition of the flight of capital abroad; the general obligation to labour for all able-bodied adults between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five years. It was a workers’ revolution conducted in the name of an ideal democracy, characterized in the form of a draft constitution at the end of February 1918 which was to be put to a referendum in the spring. This attractive project is worth summarizing.

The supreme authority of the ‘People’s Republic of Finland’ was to be an assembly of representatives of the people elected every three years by direct and secret balloting under universal suffrage with proportional representation; women were to have the vote and the electoral age was twenty years. In addition to the usual liberties, the constitution would have guaranteed the in-violability of the person, the right to strike, the right of strikers to guard factories against the employment of blacklegs, and the neutrality of the armed forces in labour disputes. Any modification in the constitution had to be subjected to a referendum. Minorities in the Assembly, if they amounted to one third of the votes, had the right to veto all measures, except tax laws, until the next session. Any bill introducing indirect taxes or customs dues (which chiefly affect the poor classes) had to have a two-thirds majority. The import of primary commodities was to be.exempt from taxation. In the event of war the government was empowered to take special measures against ‘the enemies of the constitution’. The right to rise in insurrection was accorded to the people in the event of an attack on the constitution by their representatives. The people even had to have the right of initiating legislation: any proposed law presented by 10,000 citizens had to be discussed forthwith. Functionaries and magistrates were to be elected for a term of five years, and could be re-elected. At any time a deputy could be compelled to stand for re-election on the demand of one fifth of his electors. The Council of People’s Delegates, who would exercise executive power, were to be voted in for three years by the Assembly; the Assembly would also appoint the Council’s president and vice-president who could not be re-elected for more than one more consecutive term and would enjoy no special powers. The government would be under the supervision of a ‘Control Commission on the Administration and Application of the Laws’. The veto of two members of this Commission was the minimum required to freeze any act of new legislation. The other clauses dealt with the election of judges, who were to be subject to control from the government, autonomy of local institutions and the provision of workers’ representatives in all administrations.

In contrast with the practice of the bourgeois democracies, this constitution would have unified, in the Assembly of popular representatives, all legislative, executive and (to a certain degree) judiciary powers. The government was reduced virtually to the exercise of executive functions. On this project, one Finnish revolutionary has remarked:

In theory, the highest conceivable degree in the development of bourgeois democracy was attained – a degree which is in practice unrealizable under the capitalist system. Bourgeois democracy has to either go on and be transformed into the dictatorship of the proletariat, if the proletariat is the winner, or become the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie if the proletariat is defeated. [6]

It was a truly noble scheme, if somewhat Utopian. ‘The weakness of the bourgeoisie,’ Kuusinen has said, ‘led us into being captivated by the spell of democracy, and we decided to advance towards Socialism through parliamentary action and the democratization of the representative system.’ Such was the influence of reformist illusions upon the Finnish Socialists. Such was their fatal ignorance of the laws of the class struggle.


The bourgeoisie displayed a much greater realism. It immediately launched a small White army, the bulk of whose forces, to the tune of about 5,000 men, were formed from the Schutzkorps (27th Jägers Battalion of the German army, consisting of young Finns, as we have mentioned), a brigade of Swedish volunteers and others recruited from the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois youth. Mannerheim, a former general of the Russian army, of Swedish origin, took the command of these troops and promised ‘to restore order within a fortnight’. The arming of the Whites was completed with the proceeds from several lucky raids against the Russian garrisons in the north, which had actually been committed with the complicity of their commanders.

The Red Guards numbered only about 1,500 men at the beginning of hostilities, and these were poorly armed. Initiative rested with the Whites who, since they controlled the cities of the Bothnian Gulf, Uleaborg, Vaasa and Kuopio, as well as agrarian Fin-land in the north, held a continuous front from the Gulf to Lake Ladoga. There were Russian garrisons at Sveaborg, Viipuri and Tammerfors, a town in the centre of the country, and part of the Baltic fleet happened to be at Helsinki. Antonov-Ovseyenko, Dybenko and Smilga had established Bolshevik organizations among these troops and crews. The Russian garrison at Tammerfors, commanded by Svechnikov, a revolutionary officer, repulsed Mannerheim’s first attacks. Under the protection of the Russians the Red Guards of Finland were able to arm and complete their organization. At this point Soviet troops had to retire from Finland under the provisions of the Brest-Litovsk treaty. All that remained of them were about a thousand volunteers incorporated in the Red Guard, and many of these were longing to get back home. Eero Haapalainen, a Finnish Socialist, and Svechnikov directed operations. The Reds opened a general offensive at the beginning of March: this failed, but the setback strengthened the Reds’ determination to win. Between 15 January and 1 April, the organizational efforts of the workers’ government succeeded in assembling a force of 60,000 men (of whom about 30,000 were stationed in the rear) and in winning numerous partial victories at the front.

Svinhufvud, the head of the White government, obtained the backing of Wilhelm II. Twenty thousand Germans under the command of von der Goltz disembarked at Hanko, Helsinki and Lovisa, taking the Reds from behind. Helsinki was captured after a bitter street battle in which the Germans and Whites made workers’ wives and children march in front of them – around a hundred of these were killed. The capture was followed by atrocious reprisals. The Workers’ House was bombarded by artillery. A Swedish newspaper published the following item: ‘Forty Red women who were said to have had arms were led out on the ice and shot without trial. [7] Over 300 corpses were picked up in the street.

Within the workers’ government the moderate current represented by Tanner was so strong that rigorous measures were only adopted against White agents behind the lines when it was too late. Often the counter-revolutionaries appearing before the tribunals were sentenced to nothing more than a fine or a mild term of imprisonment. Any summary executions were entirely due to the initiative of the Red Guards. The irresolution of the government, the differences in policy among its leaders, their refusal to push the revolution any further, and the timidity of the agrarian reforms, as well as the effect of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, all helped to weaken the Reds. The landing of the German troops had a most demoralizing impact. The power of Germany had reached its maximum at that moment.

Mannerheim surrounded Tammerfors, where 10,000 Reds led by a few Russian officers resisted furiously. The town was captured in house-to-house fighting after street battles lasting several days. Two hundred Reds were shot there, including two excellent leaders, Colonel Bulatsel and Lieutenant Mukhanov. Several thousand of the Reds managed to flee, around 2,000 were killed in the fighting or massacred later, 5,000 were taken prisoner. [8]

The decisive battle was fought at Tavastehus, between Tammerfors and Helsinki. Between 20,000 and 25,000 Reds converged on this point, pushed from north to south by Mannerheim and in the opposite direction by von der Goltz; their retreat to the east was cut off. Against the orders of their commanders they brought their families with them and often all their meagre possessions. It was the migration of a populace rather than the march of an army. Capable of turning at any moment into a chaos of fugitives, this mass of people was hardly able to manoeuvre. The Whites raked them with shrapnel. When surrounded, they fought heroically for two days before surrendering. A few thousand of them cut a way out for themselves to the east. The surrender was followed by a massacre, in which the killing of the wounded was the rule. Ten thousand prisoners remained; these were interned at Riihimaki. On 12 May Viipuri fell. A few thousand Red Guards took refuge in Russia.

The victors massacred the vanquished. It has been known since antiquity that class wars are the most frightful. There are no more bloody or atrocious victories than those won by the propertied classes. Since the bloodbath inflicted on the Paris Commune by the French bourgeoisie, the world had seen nothing to compare in horror with what took place in Finland. From the very beginning of the civil war ‘in the zone occupied by the Whites, membership of a workers’ organization meant arrest, and any office in one meant death by shooting’. [9] The massacre of the Socialists reached such a scale that people lost all interest in the topic. At Kummen, where forty-three Red Guards had fallen in battle, nearly 500 persons were executed afterwards. There were ‘hundreds’ shot at Kotka, a town of 13,000 inhabitants: ‘They were not even asked their names, but led out in batches.’ At Rauma, according to bourgeois newspapers, ‘five hundred prisoners captured on 15 May received the punishment they deserved on the same day’. ‘On 14 April two hundred Red Guards were shot in the district of Toolo in Helsinki ... The Reds were hunted down from house to house. Many women were among the victims.’ At Sveaborg public executions took place on Trinity Sunday. Near Lahti, where thousands of prisoners were taken by the Whites, ‘the machine-guns worked for several hours each day ... In one day some two hundred women were shot with explosive bullets: lumps of flesh were spattered out in all directions ... ’ At Viipuri 600 Red Guards were lined up in three rows along the edge of the fortress moat and machine-gunned in cold blood. Among the intellectuals murdered we may mention an editor of the journal Social-Democrat, Jukho Rainio, and the writer Irmari Rantamala who, when taken by boat to the place of execution, ‘jumped overboard in an attempt to drown. His coat prevented him from sinking and the Whites killed him in the water with rifle-fire.’ No statistics exist on the number of those massacred: current estimates vary between ten and twenty thousand.

There is, however, an official figure for the number of Red prisoners interned in concentration camps: 70,000. The camps were ravaged by famine, vermin and epidemic. A report signed by a well-known Finnish doctor, Professor R. Tigerstedt, notes that ‘between 6 July and 31 July 1918, the number of detainees that were held in the camp at Tammerfors and the adjacent prison varied between 6,027 and 8,597. 2,347 prisoners died in these twenty-six days and the weekly mortality-rate among detainees was as high as 407 per thousand.’ By 25 July there were still 50,818 revolutionaries imprisoned in Finland. In the September of the same year 25,820 cases were still awaiting investigation by the courts. The bourgeoisie became temporarily interested in the possibility of exporting its captives to supply manpower to Germany. A bill was passed authorizing the transportation abroad of men condemned to forced labour. Germany, now depopulated by the war, would have exchanged chemical and mineral products for this penal labour force. The implementation of this project was prevented by the German revolution.

The purge of Finnish society continued for months in all fields. On 16 May warrants of arrest were issued against all former Social-Democratic deputies still living in the country. (The revolutionaries had either perished or escaped by now.) Three of them allegedly ‘committed suicide’ in prison in the night of 2 July. Ten more were condemned to death. The Supreme Court set aside this verdict in January 1919 and pronounced one death penalty, six sentences of imprisonment for life, four of twelve years, one of eleven years, five of ten years, five of nine years, fifteen of eight years and two of seven years: ‘Many of the condemned,’ writes Kataya, ‘were that type of Social-Democrat who, with all the artfulness of traitors to Socialism, had spent all their lives serving bourgeois society. The bourgeoisie avenged itself blindly.’ It is usual for the White terror to strike indifferently at the reformists – for whom the triumphant bourgeoisie no longer has any use – and the revolutionaries. Once order was re-established, the Finnish bourgeoisie toyed with the idea of a monarch drawn from the Hohenzollern family. The increasingly precarious situation in Germany caused it to abandon this plan.

It seems to be no exaggeration to declare that the total number of Finnish workers struck down by the White terror (whether killed or given long prison sentences) was more than 100,000: about a quarter of the entire proletariat. [10] ‘All organized workers have been either shot or imprisoned,’ wrote a group of Finnish Communists at the beginning of 1919. This fact permits us to draw an important theoretical deduction on the nature of the White terror, which has been confirmed since by the experience of Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, etc. The White terror is not to be explained by the frenzy of battle, the violence of class hatred or any other psychological factor. The psychosis of civil war plays a purely secondary role. The terror is in reality the result of a calculation and a historical necessity. The victorious propertied classes are perfectly aware that they can only ensure their own domination in the aftermath of a social battle by inflicting on the working class a bloodbath savage enough to enfeeble it for tens of years afterwards. And since the class in question is far more numerous than the wealthy classes, the number of victims must be very great.

The total extermination of all the advanced and conscious elements of the proletariat is, in short, the rational objective of the White terror. In this sense, a vanquished revolution – regardless of its tendency – will always cost the proletariat far more than a victorious revolution, no matter what sacrifices and rigours the latter may demand.

One more observation. The butcheries in Finland took place in April 1918. Up to this moment the Russian revolution had virtually everywhere displayed great leniency towards its enemies. It had not used terror. We have noted a few bloody episodes in the civil war in the south, but these were exceptional. The victorious bourgeoisie of a small nation which ranks among the most enlightened societies of Europe [11] was the first to remind the Russian proletariat that woe to the vanquished! is the first law of social war.


Meanwhile, the Caucasus was detaching itself from proletarian Russia. This old ‘Imperial Lieutenancy’, a sumptuous mountain territory a little smaller than France, possessing nearly ten million inhabitants and an inexhaustible natural wealth, had been undergoing a national revolution of extreme complexity. The Caucasus had been conquered for the Russian Empire over a century of fierce warfare, from 1760 to 1864. It was divided, on both the European and the Asiatic faces of its peaks, into a number of highly variegated countries, comprising ten or more nationalities. This area was to provide the intrigues of imperialism, as well as the ambitions of its own middle classes, with a field for exercise even more tempting and profitable than the Ukraine had been. Its rich resources were bound to excite economic appetites: the grain of the Kuban, the oil of Azerbaidjan, the manganese and copper of Georgia, the cotton and tobacco of Armenia, the vegetable oils of the north, the wines of Armenia and Georgia: a stupendous spoil. The whole design required the installation of democratic republics in the region, a perspective which appeared all the easier since Russian oppression had inflamed nationalist sentiment among the proud; bellicose small peoples of the Trans-Caucasian countries. Georgians, Armenians, Cherkassians, Ossetians, Abkasians, Adzhars, Turks, Tartars, Persians, Jews and Russians lived in the area between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, in a long wait for freedom, whose coming was conceived in numerous different ways. Powerful traditions had been deposited by the revolution of 1905, which was marked in the Caucasus by terrorist acts and great popular victories, with a wake of merciless repression. The principal social forces in play were:

  1. The Russian proletariat of Baku, the oilfield capital.
  2. The petty-bourgeoisie, artisans and intellectuals of Georgia, who for a long time had been under the influence of Menshevik Social-Democracy.
  3. The Revolutionary National-Socialist party of Armenia, the Dashnaktsutiun.
  4. The reactionary Moslem party, the Mussavat.
  5. The army of the Caucasian front where the influence of the S-Rs, though still powerful, was steadily being overtaken by that of the Bolsheviks.

There were two political centres: Baku, on the Caspian Sea, with its concentrated proletariat and its Bolsheviks; and Tiflis, which was in the power of the Menshevik intellectuals, the administrative centre and Georgian capital, strategically sited at the heart of the region at the crossing of the main roads and railways.

During 1917 the Caucasus, which had achieved de facto independence, had not intended to secede from Russia. The nationalities took it for granted that they would exercise a broad autonomy within an All-Russian democracy. The Regional Military Soviet, the Regional Council of Workers’ Soviets and the Regional Committees of the large parties formed a democratic government at Tiflis which operated in virtual unison with the Kerensky administration. The Mensheviks of Georgia did affect a more lavish use of the language of class struggle than their Russian counterparts, but this was only a mixture of doctrinaire verbiage and political cunning. Tiflis received the news of the October Revolution with incredulity, and then issued an indignant condemnation of the scandalous Bolshevik usurpation, pronouncing grandly against all dictatorship and in favour of democracy. A regional government was set up there on 11 November (24), headed by Mensheviks (Gegechkori, Chkenkheli) and S-Rs (Donkoi). Baku and the army remained outside its control.

Inside the Soviet at Baku the news of the Bolshevik victory in Petrograd and Moscow resulted in a shift of power. The Bolshevik fraction, up till now in the minority, became the leading group in it. Such remarkable characters as Stepan Shaumyan and Dzhaparidze were among its leaders. Shaumyan was forty years old. Armenian by birth, and imbued with a solid polytechnical education in Europe, he was a Marxist trained by exile and activity abroad which had given him valuable experience of the working-class movements of Switzerland, Germany and Britain. He had been a Bolshevik since the split of 1903: a close colleague of Lenin, he had been arrested, imprisoned or exiled many times over. He was known as the tireless editor of the party’s clandestine journals, as an organizer of memorable strikes in 1914, as an intransigent ‘defeatist’ during the war and as a sound theoretician. Among the ranks of the great Bolsheviks Shaumyan was a figure of the first importance. Alexei Dzhaparidze was also a Bolshevik from 1903, and one of the founders of the working-class movement in Baku; he was of bourgeois origin, with four experiences of exile, in 1907, 1910, 1913 and 1915, each time returning to his post in illegal work. The experience of these leaders was tested to full stretch in their guidance of the Baku Soviet’s work. The results of the elections to the Constituent Assembly, which had been held at the end of November, give a revealing picture of the difficulties in their way. The 107,000 votes had gone as follows: Bolsheviks, 22,000; Moslems (Mussavat, etc.), 29,000; Armenian Dashnaks, 20,000; Kadets, 9,000; Mensheviks, 5,000; S-Rs, nearly 19,000; Jews, 2,000. The Left S-Rs and Left wing of the Dashnaks joined their votes with the Bolsheviks, who were now stronger than any one of their rivals. But they had to reckon with the powerful influence of Armenian and Moslem nationalisms, as well as with the resistance of a strong Right-wing minority. These were exceptionally precarious conditions in which they assumed power. These facts should be remembered: they explain what happened later.

The condition of the army of the Caucasus was beyond description. Whole divisions were literally decimated by typhus and scurvy, epidemics which sprang from filth and poverty. [12] This army of desperate men soon became ‘infected with Bolshevism’. General Przhevalsky ordered it to be demobilized, while the government at Tiflis was parleying with the Turks, and an attempt was made to form small armies based on the nationalities. A frightful tragedy which has so far gone unchronicled now took place. The Russian peasants who formed the mass of the troops tried to return, still armed, to their homes. But the democratic counter-revolution had no intention of allowing reinforcements of this order to join the Bolsheviks, and wanted to organize its own military establishment. Georgian Mensheviks, Turkish ’federalists’ from the Mussavat, Kurd highlanders, Armenian nationalists, all now proceeded to ‘ disarm’, forcibly, the military trains on their way to Russia, stopping them in the mountain gorges. Often the Russian troops resisted. On the pretext of disarmament, they were robbed of their personal belongings; and entire regiments had to march for days, barefoot and in rags, the target of revengeful nationalist populations. In several places there were standing battles, followed by massacres. The Russian military trains were often simply derailed. Often the Armenians, Turks, Tartars, Georgians or Kurds went onto fight among themselves; from one mountain slope to the next, villages blazed in flames.

In mid-February (Old Style) a Parliament, the Trans-Caucasian Sejm, was established at Tiflis. The majority in it was controlled by the Georgian Mensheviks, the Armenian Dashnaks, and the Turkish federalists (Mussavat). It was led by Chkeidze, Tseretelli, Noah Jordania, Ramishvili and Gegechkori, old Menshevik Social-Democrats, who negotiated with every available nationalism or reactionary tendency against the Bolshevik menace. The ‘Trans-Caucasian Republic’ declared itself independent. ‘The crimes of Bolshevism,’ declared Tseretelli, the ex-minister of Kerensky, ‘have cost it the loss of Trans-Caucasia.’ Another Menshevik went so far as to declare, ’We do not know now which is the worst peril for us, the danger from Turkey or the danger of Bolshevism.’ [13]

The Sejm legislated an agrarian reform, doomed to remain a paper measure through its inspirers’ impotence. It refused to join in the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, but negotiated with the Turkish commander-in-chief, Vekhib Bey, at Trebizond. One detail: although the independence of the Caucasus was proclaimed in April on the specific demand of the Turks, i.e. of the Central Powers, Vekhib Bey tried to occupy Batum (Georgia’s only port on the Black Sea), as well as Kars and Ardagan in Armenia. The Georgians were inclined to fight for Batum, but the Moslem federalists refused to take arms against Turkey: the Trans-Caucasian Republic was over. The Central Empires now insisted on the formation of separate national republics, Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaidjani, mutilated and rival units: divide and rule. The national-socialistic parties accepted willingly enough. The Mensheviks proclaimed the independence of Georgia at the end of May. In mid June, German troops occupied Tiflis; an official communiqué from Noah Jordania’s Socialist government told the population that ‘German troops have. been called in by the government of Georgia to defend the frontiers of the republic’ (13 June). Against whom? one might ask. Ertoba, the central organ of the Georgian Social-Democratic party, said it straightforwardly: against the Bolsheviks. Noah Jordania later told the Georgian Constituent Assembly, ‘I prefer the imperialists of the West to the fanatics of the East.’ These ‘Socialist’ intellectuals, representing an artisan and rural petty-bourgeoisie, would later call in the Allies as they called in the Germans, backing Denikin as they now backed the Moslem reactionaries against Baku: in short, would not shrink before any weapon that presented itself whenever it was a question of fighting the proletarian revolution. [14]


The Soviet at Baku, led by Shaumyan, was meanwhile making itself the ruler of the area, discreetly but unmistakably. Following the Moslem rising of 18 March, it had to introduce a dictatorship. This rising, instigated by the Mussavat, set the Tartar and Turkish population, led by their reactionary bourgeoisie, against the Soviet, which consisted of Russians with support from the Armenians. The races began to slaughter each other in the street. Most of the Turkish port-workers (the ambal) either remained neutral or supported the Reds. The contest was won by the Soviets.

From this point, the first Soviet Republic of Azerbaidjan began to organize itself. Shaumyan became President of its Council of People’s Commissars, which in May nationalized first the oil industry and then the Caspian tanker fleet. It was a measure difficult to implement: the running of the oil industry demanded skills which the proletariat did not possess. Moscow’s help would have to be called in. The S-Rs, the Mensheviks and the Dashnaks, for their part, defended the firms which had been expropriated.

Soon hunger struck the town. Baku was blockaded by an army of counter-revolutionary Moslem peasants, with officers sent in by Menshevik Georgia. The Mussavat had by now set up a rival government at Ganja, and an imam in Daghestan was preaching holy war against the Bolshevik city. Grain was in short supply. In May, June and July the inhabitants could be given only minute rations of nuts and sunflower seed; the small quantities of corn that the Soviet managed to bring in by sea were reserved for the troops. Attempts at requisitioning were made by the small Red Army of Baku, a poorly disciplined, poorly officered body composed largely of Armenians who were alien to the revolutionary spirit of the proletariat. These drank in excess and plundered the Moslem peasants, causing disaffection among them.

The Cheka at Baku executed no more than two unfortunates; these were two members of the proletarian government, caught out in dishonesty. [15]

The Mussavat was planning to capture the town with the assistance of Turkish troops. Some Russian troops who had been summoned from Persia (actually on some suspicion of counter-revolutionary tendencies) held them back for a while. In the famished city the Socialist parties were thinking in terms of an appeal to the British forces in the north of Persia. On 25 July the Soviet, despite the uncompromising opposition of the Bolshevik representatives, voted to call in the British. ‘The British,’ said Shaumyan, ‘only want our oil; they have no food supplies to give us.’ He was only too terribly right. Meanwhile the suspect Russian troops were disorganizing the front; the threat of a Turkish and Tartar onslaught hung over all. The Dashnaks had actually been negotiating since 21 April with General Dunsterville, the commander of the British troops in Persia. ‘Our friends,’ wrote the latter in his Memoirs, ‘seemed to be in a position to overthrow the Bolsheviks shortly and call us in ...’ [16] The People’s Commissars resigned and were replaced by a democratic Directorate, under the mysterious title of ‘People’s Dictatorship’, composed of S-Rs, Dashnaks and Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks, having tried in vain – to reach Astrakhan by sea, set up a camp for last-ditch resistance, defended by their artillery, in the centre of the port, on board the ships which also held a number of workers’ families. A group of comrades headed by Mikoyan [17] still conducted activity semi-clandestinely in the working-class districts, resisting the so-called ‘democracy’. Eventually some hundreds of British troops landed.

On the night of 14 August the Bolsheviks once again weighed anchor. Owing to bad weather, their heavy tanker vessels, loaded with cannon, horses and passengers – for whole families were fleeing – could not reach the open sea. Gunboats caught them up. The Caspian fleet had kept its officers from the Tsarist régime, and the Soviet had made the grave blunder of neglecting political work among the sailors. The local government now demanded the handing over of Shaumyan and the other main proletarian leaders, threatening to open fire if they were refused: The Reds surrendered after undergoing an hour’s bombardment in mid-sea, against which they were powerless to retaliate. They tried to get Shaumyan away but failed. About forty Bolshevik militants were arrested. They remained in prison until the British and the Directorate both fled before the advance of the Tartars and Turks in mid-September. Mikoyan freed them from the prison where they had been left to lie and wait for slaughter. Dzhaparidze, Shaumyan and his friends, to the number of twenty-six, now embarked with other fugitives for the Trans-Caspian area, governed to all appearances by a vague sort of S-R government but actually by half-a-dozen British officers. They were arrested at Krasnovodsk. Captain Reginald Teague-Jones demanded the execution of the twenty-six commissars, in the name of General Thomson and the British Mission at Ashkabad. [18] The prisoners were to be shot in the course of being ‘transported to India’ for internment. On 30 September, three whole days after being arrested, the twenty-six Bolsheviks were shot in a deserted spot on the railway-line from Ashkabad.

At around 6 a.m. [relates a witness], the twenty-six commissars were told of the fate awaiting them while they were in the train. They were taken out in groups of eight or nine men. They were obviously shocked, and kept a tense silence. One sailor shouted: ‘I’m not afraid, I’m dying for liberty.’ One of the executioners replied that ‘We too will die for liberty sooner or later, but we mean it in a different way from you.’ The first group of commissars, led from the train in the semi-darkness, was dispatched with a single salvo. The second batch tried to run away but was mown down after several volleys. The third resigned itself to its fate ... [19] Thus perished Shaumyan, who has been called ‘the Lenin of the Caucasus’. Thus perished the heroes of the Baku Commune. ‘Captain Teague-Jones told me of his satisfaction that the execution had taken place in conformity with the wishes of the British Mission,’ wrote Funtikov later, who was a Socialist-Revolutionary member of the Trans-Caspian government. [20]

The Turks and Tartars had by now invaded Baku. For three days they cut the throats of the Armenians, the Russians, the workers, the Reds. Georgadze, the Georgian Minister of War in the Socialist government of Tiflis, nevertheless remarked shortly afterwards to the Turkish General Nuri Pasha when the latter was the guest of honour at a banquet: ‘I congratulate you on chasing the Bolshevik usurpers from Baku and establishing your splendid democracy there.’ Socialist Georgia had let the Turkish troops pass over its territory.


The Third Congress of Soviets had taken place at Petrograd from 10 to 18 January (23-31). Its composition can be gauged from that of the All-Russian Executive which it appointed and which consisted of 160 Communists, 125 Left S-Rs, seven Right S-Rs, seven Maximalist S-Rs, three anarchist-Communists, two Mensheviks and two Menshevik-Internationalists. Trotsky and Kamenev reported on the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. The most important debates were those concerning the organization of the power of the Soviets. We shall give details only of Lenin’s contributions, which happen to be of capital importance.

He began his report on the work of the Council of People’s Commissars by expressing his pleasure at the fact that Soviet power had so far lasted five days longer than the Paris Commune (which had only lasted two months and ten days). He emphasized the importance of the alliance between the proletariat and the poorest peasants, as confirmed in the united front between the Bolshevik and Left S-R parties; and he stressed once more that there was no question of imposing Socialism upon the peasantry. He also affirmed the necessity of violence:

Never in history has any question relating to the class struggle been settled other than by violence. We are supporters of violence on the condition that it proceeds from the exploited toiling classes and is directed against the exploiters ...

To those who were urging an end to the civil war he asked their views on the example which had been set by the propertied classes with their pitiless repression. ‘We are still very far from exercising real terror, because we are strong.’ The confiscation of the capitalists’ goods would be enough to make them cringe. He told them of a remark made by an old woman, overheard by chance in a railway station: ‘The people is no longer afraid of the man with a rifle.’ After that, what does it matter to us that we get called ‘dictators’ and ‘usurpers’? And he announced the creation of the Red Army, a nation in arms.

He denounced two social evils: the sabotage of the intellectuals and the egoistic impulses of the backward masses. ‘The professors, teachers and engineers are making their knowledge into an instrument for the exploitation of labour: they are saying, “We want our intelligence to serve the bourgeoisie or we shall not work at all.”’

But the worst social elements bequeathed to us by the old régime are the scoundrels who are animated by one desire only: to take and then run off. All the badness from the past is concentrated in them, they must be chased out of the factories. It is worth remembering this reference by Lenin to the crude individualism of the backward citizens, which is developed and encouraged by capitalist competition and is particularly powerful among the petty-bourgeoisie. Lenin will continually return to the problem to denounce it, to fight it, to expose the immense dangers in it. Against the revolution’s thieves, adventurers and profiteers he will ceaselessly appeal to the initiative of the masses. He tells the peasants, ‘Do what you please with the land: undoubtedly you will make mistakes, but it is the only way to learn.’ He tells the Congress that ‘the proletariat has in a number of places been contacting the managers’ associations in order to secure for itself the direction of whole branches of production’. He concludes with some general reflections on the place of the Russian revolution in the world revolutionary process:

Marx and Engels used to say: the Frenchman will begin it, the German will finish it. They said ‘The Frenchman will begin it’ because he had acquired, in the course of revolutions over many decades, the revolutionary dedication and initiative which have placed him in the vanguard of the Socialist revolution. We say, though, that the movement will begin most easily in those countries which are not among the exploiting powers with all the possibilities of plunder (from the colonies) to corrupt the better-off layers of the working class ... The Russian has begun it, the German, the Frenchman and the Englishman will finish it – and Socialism will triumph.

Lenin made some very clear allusions to the suppression of the State.

Anarchist ideas [he said] now assume living forms in this epoch of the radical demolition of bourgeois society. However, it is still necessary first of all, in order to overthrow bourgeois society, to establish the strong revolutionary power of the toiling classes, the power of the revolutionary State ... The new tendencies of anarchism are definitely on the side of the Soviets.

Speaking a few days later to the agitators who were going off to one of the provinces, he again expresses one of the ideas which he loved to repeat: ‘Each worker, each peasant, each citizen must understand that he alone can bring help, and that he has nothing to rely on except from himself’. [21]


Could the Soviet Republic survive under the burden of Brest-Litovsk? This was the great question. It had lost forty per cent of its industrial proletariat (for the Austro-Germans occupied the Donetz basin with its mines), forty-five per cent of its fuel production, ninety per cent of its sugar production, sixty-four to seventy per cent of its metal industry, fifty-five per cent of its wheat, i.e. the major part of its export grain. [22] Russia, whose external trade had rested for centuries upon the export of grain, was to find herself thrown back on her own resources and doomed to inevitable poverty. ‘The peace of Brest-Litovsk,’ it was being said, ‘means slow death to the revolution’ (in Lozovsky’s words). This conviction helped to nurture the idea of revolutionary war. The discussions at the first All-Russian Congress of the People’s Economic Councils (26 May-4 June) are informative on the ideas current in the majority of the party. Radek, who gave the report on the economic consequences of the treaty, stressed that the revolution would henceforth become severely dependent on foreign powers and the world market. He advocated a policy of concessions and loans from private capital (a line which nowadays looks somewhat Utopian). Only new enterprises were to form the subject of concessions, and these were to be established outside the main industrial regions of the country (the Ural, Donetz, Kuznetsk and Baku); the State would share in the profits and would reserve the right to buy the enterprises back at the end of a certain interval. The Congress had no choice but to content itself with this hypothetical solution. It also decided to develop the industries in the Ural as well as the cotton production of Turkestan. Old Kalinin declared, ‘It is in the Ural, in the north and in Siberia that we shall lay the foundations of our future power.’ [23] These were the despairing solutions produced by revolutionaries who had been determined never to despair. Was such a Russia viable – mutilated like this, living under the constant menace of an all-powerful imperialism, a prey to the growing conflict between the towns and the countryside? The most optimistic affirmed the possibility only out of sheer necessity. The party was splitting, with the Left Communists (who were moving nearer the Left S-Rs) becoming increasingly convinced that the peace was an evil fouler than the worst war, while Lenin and the majority of the party listened to the earth tremors of Europe and waited for Germany’s collapse.

The growing antagonism between town and country was evident in the inflation, the famine and the general chaos. The value of the rouble fell dizzily. Since taxes were no longer collected – rightly in the circumstances – the government’s only resources were the banknotes it issued. Industrial production had declined terribly, so that the prices of manufactured goods kept rising. The peasant received in exchange for his corn only paper roubles with which he could buy nothing except an ever more restricted supply of manufactured articles, and these with great difficulty; and so he resorted to barter: foodstuffs against goods. A whole host of small speculators operated as middlemen between him and the town. The cities had been in a state of famine even before the revolution; so there were no reserves left. Amid this collapse individualist instincts had free play: it was easy to find a personal way out and impossible to make bread available for all. Nothing less than the discipline and collective consciousness of the proletariat could have managed even a partial success against these forces. The inflation of 1917-18 may be judged from the following figures: the total issue of paper roubles from the Imperial Bank as of 1 January 1917, was a little more than nine thousand million; in the course of 1917 14,721 million roubles were issued and twelve thousand million in the first five months of 1918. [24]

This internal situation in Russia must be kept in mind if the dissensions within the Bolshevik party are to be understood.


On 24 February the Moscow Region Committee passed a resolution in defiance of the Central Committee, refusing to submit to ‘the measures relating to the implementation of the peace treaty’. This motion was accompanied by an explanatory document, which stated:

The Moscow Region Committee, considering that a split within the party is probable in the near future, resolves to rally all serious revolutionaries and all Communist elements in struggle against the supporters of a separate peace and the moderate elements of the Communist movement. It would be in accordance with the interests of the world revolution, we believe, to accept the sacrifice of Soviet power, which is becoming purely formal. As in the past, we see our essential task to be the world-wide extension of the ideas of the Socialist revolution and, in Russia, the vigorous exercise of the dictatorship and the pitiless repression of the bourgeois counter-revolution.

‘Strange,’ replied Lenin, ‘strange and monstrous.’ Far from improving the chances of the German revolution, he pointed out commonsensically, the sacrifice of Soviet power would do it considerable harm. Did not the workers of Britain become cowed by the defeat of the Commune in 1871? Did not France in 1793 and Prussia under the boot of Napoleon’s armies show the power that could be held in a tenacious will?

Why cannot events like these be repeated in our history? Why do we have to fall into despair and draw up resolutions which are more dishonourable – yes, truly! – than the most dishonourable peace, referring to a ‘Soviet power which is becoming purely formal’? Never has any foreign invasion made a popular political institution ‘purely formal’ (and the power of the Soviets is not only a popular political institution: it is an institution far superior to all others known in history).

Foreign invasion, on the contrary, would only increase the sympathy of the people for Soviet power ... as long as the latter does not embark on adventures ... Russia is on the road to a new national war, a war for the defence and preservation of Soviet power. It is possible that this epoch, like that of the Napoleonic wars, will be an epoch of wars of liberation (I speak deliberately of wars, not a war) forced on Soviet Russia by the invaders. It is quite possible. And that is why despair, dishonourable despair, is more dishonourable than any viciously oppressive peace treaty imposed on us by the absence of an army. The consequences of tens of such oppressive treaties will not lead to our defeat if we know how to consider war and insurrection seriously. The invaders will not kill us if we do not permit ourselves to be killed with despair and phrasemongering. [25]

The Left Communists – ‘Communists of misfortune’ as Lenin called them – at first, from 5-19 March, published a daily newspaper: this was the Kommunist, the organ of the Petrograd Committee of the party, edited by Bukharin, Radek and Uritsky. Kommunist was moved soon afterwards to Moscow, where it appeared weekly from 20 April until June. Obolensky-Ossinsky and V.M. Smirnov joined the editorial team in this period. Among the collaborators of this organ of the Left may be noted: Bubnov, Bronsky, Antonov (Lukin), Lomov (Oppokov), M. Pokrovsky, E. Preobrazhensky, Y. Pyatakov, Soltz, Unschlicht, Kollontai, V. Kuibishev, E. Yaroslavsky, Sapronov and Safarov. These names give some idea of the strength and quality behind the Left movement.

The two tendencies faced each other at the Seventh Party Congress which was held in Petrograd from 6-8 March, a few days before the capital was transferred to Moscow (on the 10th, under the threat of a German occupation). The only subject discussed was the peace treaty. Lenin (supported by Zinoviev, Smilga, Sverdlov and Sokolnikov) attacked the theses of the Lefts. Trotsky, though a supporter of war, rallied to Lenin’s thesis on the grounds that revolutionary war could not be fought with the party divided. The menace of a split, which was feared by all sides, hung over the congress until the end of its work. But the delegates’ concern for unity prevailed. The oppositionists were given representation on the Central Committee as well as on the commission for the revision of the programme.

From Lenin’s various statements to the Congress we shall select those which offer the greatest historical and theoretical interest. He remarked first that the first months of the Soviet régime had been a triumphal march, but afterwards the inevitable difficulties of a Socialist revolution had made their appearance. For:

one of the essential differences between the bourgeois and the Socialist revolution is that the first, which is always born out of the feudal order, builds up its forms of economic organization bit by bit within the old régime, through the development of commerce which slowly modifies all aspects of feudal society. The bourgeois revolution has one task only: to remove, eliminate and destroy all the foundations of the old order. When it accomplishes this task the bourgeois revolution fulfils its whole mission, as it ends up by creating the system of commodity production and facilitating the growth of capitalism. The situation of the Socialist revolution is quite different. The more backward the country is where the zigzags of history cause it to begin, the more difficult is the transition from the old capitalist relationships to the new relationships of Socialism. As well as the tasks of destruction there are other tasks, infinitely difficult: those of organization.

The Soviet Socialist Republic came to birth so easily because in February 1917 the masses created Soviets before any party had time to issue this slogan.

Thus, the difference between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions is that the former benefits from forms of organization which are already in existence, while the latter has to create everything from scratch. And ‘assault tactics’ cannot be applied to economic and administrative work. The Socialist revolution ‘will be infinitely more difficult to begin in Europe than in Russia. With us, it was infinitely easier to begin, but will be hard to continue with: in Europe on the contrary it will be easier to continue once it has started.’ We have had to disarm in the presence of the imperialist beast and

our salvation, I repeat it, lies in the European revolution ... and if you say that the hydra of revolution is hidden in every strike and he is not a Socialist who does not understand that, you are quite right. Yes, the Socialist revolution is hidden in every strike; but if you say that every strike is a step forward towards the Socialist revolution, you ant saying the emptiest of stupidities.

It is absolutely true that without the revolution in Germany we shall perish. We may not perish in Petrograd or Moscow: perhaps at Vladivostok ... In any case we shall perish if the German revolution does not come. This in no way diminishes our duty to face the most critical situations without idle boasting. The [German] revolution will not be coming as rapidly as we expected. History has proved that. We must take it as a fact.

We demobilized because the army was our society’s diseased limb: the sooner it is dissolved the sooner the organism will recover. ‘We must know how to beat a retreat.’

As for the split in the party, we shall cure it (Lenin said) with our historical experience and the aid of the world revolution. He waged a polemic against the fantasies of Kommunist, which were completely refuted by the facts, and against the absurd attempt to transpose the insurrectionary methods of October to the inter-national scene. The truce is a fact, he said. He re-told the shattering tale of the eleven days of revolutionary war: they thought Petrograd would be lost, and such an emptiness stretched before the Germans that towns like Yamburg [26] were ‘recaptured’ by telegraph operators who were amazed to find that no Germans were there. ‘There it is: the terribly bitter, outrageous, painful and humiliating truth – but a hundred times more use than your Kommunist.’

What was to be done now? There must be order. Let the worker learn how to handle arms, be it for only an hour a day. That is going to be more difficult than writing the most beautiful romances. ‘Our peace is another peace of Tilsit’, so let us profit from it to prepare war. ‘History tells us that peace is a truce before war, and war is a means of obtaining a slightly better peace.’ The whole speech was couched in these terms of realism and tenacity. ‘We will retreat as far as we have to. Perhaps tomorrow we shall abandon Moscow. We shall know how to meet that test. And when the day comes we shall begin the struggle again.’ And, having crossed swords with Bukharin, who was blaming the Central Committee for its ‘demoralizing tactic’, and with Trotsky, who was urging a war against the Ukraine, he said in conclusion: ‘I want to lose space in order to gain time.’ [27]


The arguments of the Left Communists became the object of a painstaking analysis whose accuracy Bukharin was gracious enough to acknowledge in a preface written later in 1925. The Left Communists’ case was founded, both then and before the conclusion of the treaty, upon deeply rooted feelings: indignation, sorrow, anger and a tragic pessimism on the future of the revolution, all the more tragic in that it was mingled with an almost blind enthusiasm which involved a desire for total sacrifice. This feeling was expressed in a number of surprising declarations: ‘If the Russian revolution itself does not flinch, no one can master it or break it’; [28] ‘So long as the revolution ... does not capitulate, it can fear no partial defeat, however grave. The great Republic of the Soviets can lose Petrograd, Kiev or Moscow, but it cannot perish.’ [29]

Such affirmations are amazing. How was the country to hold on in reality? A ‘mobilization of spirits’ was needed. Bukharin wrote that ‘When the masses see the German offensive at work ... a true holy war will begin.’ [30] What if there is no army? Then we will use guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla war was, during the whole duration of the revolution, one of the white hopes of all revolutionary romantics. The strength of the guerrillas would lie above all in their Socialist convictions and ‘in the social character of the new army that is being mobilized’. Here a very perceptive idea was mixed up with a very misleading idealism. A new army could and must be born, based upon the class interests which are the source of revolutionary enthusiasm; it was still childish to argue that German technique could be opposed with Socialist convictions.

These theories were justified by a doctrinal affirmation and by a distortion of reality. The statement of doctrine was: No compromise! The revolution must not manoeuvre, nor retreat, nor agree to compromises. The only tactic it must apply was that of maximum intransigence. Better perish than live at the cost of a compromise! This was the basic doctrine of Left Communism, and one must give it the credit of a healthy reaction against opportunist tendencies. (We have seen how the Left Communists op-posed all relations with the capitalist powers.) The distortion of reality, which was obviously unconscious, consisted in denying the existence of the respite won from German imperialism and even of disputing its possibility. The prospect of peace, said Bukharin, was ‘illusory, non-existent’. Peace, wrote Kollontai, had become ‘an impossibility’. ‘This is not peace,’ wrote Radek after the signing of the treaty, ‘it is a new war.’

Reality became blurred in the sight of these passionate revolutionaries owing to their intense feelings; the struggle continued but the truce was a fact, imperfect and uninspiring as it was. With his typical common sense, Lenin asked them: ‘How can you deny the existence of the truce when we have already had five clear days to get on with the evacuation of Petrograd?’

The conclusions of the Left Communists summarize, in a single, clear, theoretical statement, both their sense of exaltation and the curious blend of optimism before history and pessimism before immediate reality which was so characteristic of their tendency:

We do not seek to conceal from ourselves the possibility that the rigorous application, on both the home and the international front, of a proletarian policy has many dangers, and might result in our overthrow for the moment; but we believe it to be better that we should, in the interests of the world proletarian movement, succumb to the overwhelming pressure of external forces while we are still in an authentic state of proletarian power, than that we should survive by adapting ourselves to the circumstances. [31]

It has been the general custom in Russia to view this ideology as a petty-bourgeois deviation, to use the hallowed expression. And doubtless most deviations from proletarian ideology, of their various kinds, are in general the work of intellectuals, and reflect more or less faithfully states of consciousness characteristic of the middle classes who occupy a position intermediate between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Doubtless, too, the sentiments of wounded pride, outraged patriotism and heroic sacrifice (the ‘Death before Dishonour’ school) are much more congenial to the mentality of the middle classes, and particularly of the intellectuals, than to the realistic, utilitarian, dialectical and deeply revolutionary spirit of the proletariat. But it is, as I see it, no longer deniable that this Left-wing tendency also represented something else: a reaction against the danger of opportunism. Lenin belonged neither to any Left nor to any Right: he was simply revolutionary, inflexibly yet pragmatically, and without fine phrases. However, up till the time of Lenin, all the points at which men had opted to ‘manoeuvre’ in the name of revolution had been occasions for them to fall straight into opportunism. We must also remember another essential fact. Never before had there been a successful proletarian revolution. Some of the best revolutionaries now became inclined to continue the tradition of heroic proletarian defeats, by means of a sacrifice whose fruitfulness for the future deeply and understandably impressed them. It was, however, one of Lenin’s great merits to have insisted that this tradition must be broken with.


In these crucial days the Seventh Congress of the party also de-voted its attention to problems of theory. Lenin succeeded at last in getting the name of the party changed there: the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party of Russia thus became the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Russia, a change which he had advocated ever since the beginning of 1917. This also provided an occasion for him to stress, once again, how the concept of democracy had been transcended by the State of the Soviets, conceived as it was on the model of the Paris Commune, and to recall to the delegates that Socialism aspires to the suppression of all governmental constraints and the application of the rule ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’. In refutation of the theory propounded at this juncture by all the Socialist adversaries of the revolution to the effect that ‘Poverty cannot be socialized’, he quoted some prophetic lines by Friedrich Engels, written in 1887. Engels had even then foreseen the world conflagration, and predicted the overthrow of kingdoms, devastation on an immense scale and, amid all this, ‘the victory of the working class or the creation of conditions which will make this victory possible’: Lenin declared too that human culture was indestructible, though he admitted that its renaissance at the present time might well prove an arduous task.

Bukharin, Sokolnikov and Vladimir Smirnov proposed the deletion of the current theoretical section of the party’s programme which was devoted to an explanation of the growth of commodity production: they thought that this section was outdated and that it would be enough for the programme to define imperialism and the era of Socialist revolution. This view was erroneous on several points, for even in the epoch of imperialism both commodity production and the simplest forms of capitalism continue to develop in the backward countries. But in his reply to them Lenin treated the matter more broadly. One page of his speech must be quoted in full.

Commodity production begot capitalism and capitalism led to imperialism. Such is the general historical perspective, and the fundamentals of Socialism should not be forgotten. No matter what the further complications of the struggle may be, no matter what occasional zigzags we may have to contend with (there will be very many of them – we have seen from experience what gigantic turns the history of the revolution has made, and so far it is only in our own country; matters will be much more complicated and proceed much more rapidly, the rate of development will be more furious and the turns will be more intricate when the revolution becomes a European revolution) – in order not to lose our way in these zigzags, these sharp turns in history, in order to retain the general perspective, to be able to see the scarlet thread that joins up the entire development of capitalism and the entire road to Socialism, the road we naturally imagine as straight, and which we must imagine as straight in order to see the beginning, the continuation and the end – in real life it will never be straight, it will be incredibly involved – in order not to lose our way in these twists and turns, in order not to get lost at times when we are taking steps back-ward, times of retreat and temporary defeat or when history or the enemy throws us back – in order not to get lost, it is, in my opinion, important not to discard our old, basic programme; the only theoretically correct line is to retain it. Today we have reached only the first stage of transition from capitalism to Socialism here in Russia. History has not provided us with that peaceful situation that was theoretically assumed for a certain time, and which is desirable for us, and which would enable us to pass through these stages of transition speedily. We see immediately that the civil war has made many things difficult in Russia, and that the civil war is interwoven with a whole series of wars. Marxists have never forgotten that violence must inevitably accompany the collapse of capitalism in its entirety and the birth of Socialist society. That violence will constitute a period of world history, a whole era of various kinds of wars, imperialist wars, civil wars inside countries, the intermingling of the two, national wars liberating the nationalities oppressed by the imperialists.

We have only just taken the first steps towards shaking off capitalism altogether and beginning the transition to Socialism. We do not know and we cannot know how many stages of transition to Socialism there will be. That depends on when the full-scale European Socialist revolution begins and on whether it will deal with its enemies and enter upon the smooth path of Socialist development easily and rapidly or whether it will do so slowly. We do not know this, and the programme of a Marxist party must be based on facts that have been established with absolute certainty. The power of our programme is in that alone.

The same militants advocated the deletion of the minimum programme of the party. Before the October Revolution Lenin had opposed this proposal, but now saw nothing against the deletion. All the same, he added that ‘It would be Utopian to think that we will not be thrown back once again.’

He dwelt further on the distortion by the Social-Democrats of the Marxist teaching on the State: as he had done repeatedly in 1917 he defined the nature of the Republic of Soviets:

A new type of State, without a bureaucracy, without a police, without a permanent army, which replaces bourgeois democracy by a new democracy, causes the labouring masses to act as vanguard, and confers upon them legislative, executive and military power, thereby creating the means whereby these same masses will be educated. We are just beginning this work in Russia, and for the time being we are beginning it badly.

Perhaps we are doing badly what we are doing, but we are pushing the masses into doing what they must. And may the workers of Europe say among themselves: ‘What the Russians are doing badly, we shall do better.’ [32]

I shall give only a brief summary of the draft programme submitted by Lenin to the Seventh Congress. In it the power of the Soviet is defined in ten theses, which provide what is surely the most developed exposition of his ideas.

  1. Unity of all the poor and exploited masses.
  2. Unity of the conscious, active minority for the re-education of the whole labouring population.
  3. Abolition of parliamentarianism, which separates legislative from executive authority.
  4. A unity between the masses and the State which will be closer than in the older democratic forms.
  5. Arming of the workers and peasants.
  6. More democracy and less formalism, greater facilities for election and recall of delegates.
  7. Close links between the political authority and production.
  8. The possibility of eliminating bureaucracy.
  9. The transition from the formal democracy of rich and poor to the real democracy of the toilers.
  10. Participation of all members of the Soviets in the management and administration of the State.

After this comes the listing of a number of measures, both political (those aimed towards the ‘gradual total abolition of the State’) and economic, such as ‘ socialized production ’ administered by the workers’ organizations (trade unions, factory committees, etc.); compulsory enrolment of the whole population into consumer cooperatives; the registration of all commercial operations (since money is ‘not yet abolished’) conducted by the producers’ and consumers’ communes; general obligation to work (‘which we discreetly extend to include those peasants who live off the fruits of their own labour’); the establishment of ticket-books for labour and consumption for all persons either with an income of over 500 roubles per month or employing wage labour or domestic servants; the concentration of all financial operations in the hands of the State Bank; control and accountancy of all production and consumption, first by the workers’ organizations and eventually by the whole population; organized competition among producer and consumer cooperatives, with the aim of improving the efficiency of labour while reducing its duration; systematic steps towards collective dining facilities, by groups of families; the abolition of indirect taxes and their replacement by a progressive income tax and a levy on the takings of the State’s monopolies.


Finland, the Baltic countries and the Ukraine were now occupied by the Austro-German forces. The Turks were in the Caucasus, which was still supposedly ‘independent’. The British were occupying Baku, and the Rumanians had taken over Bessarabia. [33] On 6 April, the Japanese landed at Vladivostok. The revolution was encircled by iron and fire. It needed an army. And this army had to be created from a sheer void.

On 2 (15) January, during the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, a decree on the constitution of a Red Army of volunteers had been promulgated. [34] The Red General Staff – consisting of the remnants of the General Staff of the former régime – called on the local Soviets to show their initiative by recruiting new military formations, with the battalion of 150 men as the basic unit. This appeal was taken up: when the actual Red Army took shape later, it was to be formed on the skeleton provided for it by these first improvised units. A Supreme Council of the Army was established on 1 March. From these very first days Trotsky stood out as the indefatigable inspirer of this creation of an army. ‘We have need of a properly organized army, a new army,’ he proclaimed on 19 March to the Moscow Soviet. ‘We shall work twelve hours a day if necessary ... but we shall march forward on the path of discipline, work and creative action.’

Determined labour, revolutionary discipline: these were the slogans he repeated, inserting and implanting them in the brains of his listeners. On his proposal, the decree on general and compulsory military training was passed on 22 April. It was a preparatory measure only: a large section of the population was still hostile to the régime. The army now being organized had to be made up from volunteers whose social origins and political opinions had to be the prime consideration. But a modern army is a highly complex machine. The machinery cannot be set in motion and its functioning cannot be guaranteed without specialized skills. Where were the technicians of war to be found? There existed only those from the old régime, those belonging to the enemy classes. Trotsky argued, from an early stage, that these specialists must be employed. In order to carry this policy he had to overcome wide-spread resistance and well-founded anxieties. Even Lenin offered objections at first, but then withdrew them. In Trotsky’s On Lenin we read:

‘Without serious, experienced military men,’ I told Vladimir Ilyich, ‘we shall never get out of this chaos.’

‘That seems fair enough. But what if they start to betray us?’ ‘We shall put a commissar next to each one of them.’

‘We’ll put two commissars,’ cried Lenin, ‘With burly fists. At any rate we are not short of burly Communists!’

The leading organs of the new Red Army were conceived on the following pattern: one specialist (a career officer) and two Bolshevik commissars. The military staff, it seems, accepted this pattern of control without too much difficulty. Accustomed to passive obedience and to the service of the State, they submitted once authority was imposed on them. In their memoirs the White generals complain of the facility with which the Bolsheviks recruited the technical personnel of the Red Army. After all, these latter had to make a living. Patriotic sentiment also had its appeal for them. Nevertheless, there were numerous officers who were to enter the Red Army and remain enemies of the revolution. The army became infiltrated with a permanent conspiracy. Trotsky had to answer the arguments of those who feared that the army, headed as it was by former generals, might become an instrument of counter-revolution. He replied that, manned by workers and poor peasants, and officered by strong forces of Communist cornmissars, it need fear only individual betrayals. He had to attack the manners and customs which had been instituted by the revolution itself. For many long months the military leaders had been elected, a principle made imperative by the need to democratize the old army.

So long as power belonged to the enemy class and the leading elements of the army were the instrument of that class, we had to break the resistance of the high command through introducing the election of officers. But power today is in the hands of the working class, from whose midst the army is being recruited. In these conditions – I say this in all frankness – the election of officers has no further political utility and is technically inadequate. In fact, it has already been abolished by decree.

However excellent these reasons were, they were not imposed easily. How could it be otherwise, when first-class revolutionaries, proletarians, were being replaced in the high command by the generals who ran yesterday’s firing-squads and by officers who remained counter-revolutionaries at heart? It was a high command controlled by commissars, it is true, but how competent were, these? But it was necessary. ‘The creation of the army,’ Trotsky would say, ‘is a matter of life or death for us.’

No administrative machinery existed that was capable of mobilizing the forces required for the army. The party had to take over from the State, revealing once against the key importance of its mission in history. The Red Guards, the partisan units (numerous in the south, but anarchical, undisciplined and infinitely resistant to control), and a few regular (but only just regular) units left over from the old army furnished the Republic with her first soldiery, which was of very uneven and unreliable quality. The recruiting campaign produced quite useful results, though still insufficient. On 1 April, Petrograd supplied 25,000 volunteers and Moscow 15,000. One hundred and six thousand volunteers joined up within six weeks.


[1] Evgenia Bosch’s book A Year of Struggle: The Struggle for the Régime in the Ukraine (God Borby: Borba Za Vlast Na Ukraine) (Moscow, 1925), forms a remarkable contribution to the history of this epoch. Antonov-Ovseyenko’s Reminiscences of the Civil War (Zapiski o Grazhdanskoi Voine) (Moscow, 1924-9), are also of interest.

[2] Kikvidze, a Maximalist Socialist-Revolutionary released from jail by the February revolution, was at the age of twenty-three one of the architects of the October Revolution on its western front. A partisan leader, then head of a division of the Red Army, he became one of the revolution’s most talented generals. He fought against Krasnov, and was wounded thirteen times. He was killed at the age of twenty-five, in the Don district, on 11 January 1919.

[3] An indefatigable militant, a Bolshevik founding member, who experienced both Siberian exile and emigration abroad, Evgenia Bosch performed a role of the first importance in the Ukrainian’revolution, where she directed the work of Soviet organization and the resistance to the German invasion. Exhausted, ill and condemned to inactivity, she took her own life at the beginning of 1924. She was one of the great figures of the Russian revolution, now practically unknown. [As Serge’s discussion of Bosch’s suicide in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (London, 1967) makes clear, her memory was deliberately suppressed because of her sympathy with the opposition.]

[4] ‘Let us not forget’, wrote Lenin from Zurich on 11 (24) March 1917, ‘that we have, adjoining Petrograd, one of the most advanced countries, a real republican country, Finland, which from 1905 to 1917, under the shelter of the revolutionary battles in Russia, has developed its democracy in conditions of relative peace, and won the majority of its people for Socialism ... The Finnish workers are better organizers than us and will help us in this field; in their own fashion they will form a vanguard pressing towards the foundation of the Socialist Republic’ (Third Letter from Afar, before Lenin’s return to Russia).

[5] The author of these lines, O.W. Kuusinen, rallied to Communism during the Finnish revolution. The quotation above is from his remarkable pamphlet The Finnish Revolution: A Self Criticism (Revoliutsiya v Finlandii: Samokritika) (Petrograd, 1919). [A slightly abridged version of the English translation published in London, 1919, is given in Labour Monthly, February and March 1940.] O.W. Kuusinen belongs today (1929) to the Executive Committee of the Communist International. [He died in 1967, having played an obsequious role in all the turns of Moscow’s international policy, including a spell as ‘Prime Minister’ of the ‘Finnish Democratic Republic’ set up briefly as a cover for Stalin’s invasion of Finland in 1939-40.]

[6] Edvard Torniainen, The Workers’ Revolution in Finland [no other title available] (Moscow, 1919).

[7] C.D. Kataya, La Terreur Bourgeoise en Finlande (Petrograd, 1919). [Published in French by the section of the Communist International’s administration which Serge was put in charge of on his return to Russia in 1919.]

[8] M.S. Svechnikov, Revolution and Civil War in Finland, 1917-18 (Revoliutsiya i Grazhdanskaya Voina v Finlandii 1917-18) (Moscow and Petrograd, 1923).

[9] We are continuing to quote from C.D. Kataya. Most of these facts have become notorious from other sources, and the description of them given by our comrade is certainly an understatement.

[10] The bourgeois press in all countries kept silence about these facts but spoke at length on ‘the crimes of the Reds’. It seems instructive here to cite the figure for the Reds’ victims given by a pro-White author, Lars Henning Soderhjelm, in a book translated from Swedish into English and intended for propaganda consumption abroad: The Red Insurrection in Finland in 1918 (London, 1919). Soderhjelm calculates that ‘over a thousand’ persons perished behind the lines of fighting under the blows of the Reds; however, the statistics he gives indicate only 624 persons.

[11] Finland has practically no illiterates.

[12] S. Shaumyan, The Baku Commune of 1918, Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No.12 (59), 1926.

[13] D. Oniashvili, speech to the Sejm of Tiflis, 22 April 1918, in the collection of official documents produced by the Menshevik government of Georgia: Documents and Materials on the Foreign Policy of Trans-Caucasia and Georgia (Dokumenty i Materialy po Vneshnei Politike Zakavkazya i Gruzii) (Tiflis, 1919).

[14] See M. Amya, The Paths of the Georgian Gironde [no Russian reference available] (Tiflis, 1926); Y. Shafir, The Georgian Gironde (Ocherki Gruzinskoi Zhirondi) (Moscow, 1925); L. Trotsky, Russia Between Red and White (London, 1924). [The Georgian Mensheviks’ support for Denikin was in fact soon clouded by the latter’s determination to enrol the Caucasian states by force into a united ‘Greater Russia’, and the British government (which regarded the prospect of a strong Russia, even under the Whites, with some suspicion) intervened to prevent the outbreak of war between Denikin and his Menshevik allies. See R.H. Ullman, Britain and the Russian Civil War (Princeton, 1968), pp.219-20.]

[15] In order to avoid interrupting the story of the Baku events, we shall be anticipating, in these pages, material from the later chapters.

[16] [A slight paraphrase from Major-General L. Dunsterville’s The Adventures of Dunsterforce (London, 1920), p.192: ‘I was in touch with Baku by almost daily messengers, and our friends the Socialist-Revolutionaries seemed likely to be able to bring off shortly the coup d’état which was to throw out the Bolsheviks, establish a new form of government, and invite British assistance.’ Dunsterville’s book was printed by the Bolsheviks in a Russian translation (retitled Britanskii Imperializm v Baku i Persii) in 1920, and Serge has probably quoted from this edition.]

[17] Today (summer of 1927) People’s Commissar of Trade in the USSR. [Mikoyan became a member of Stalin’s inner circle: a full Politburo member from 1935, he was active in the Great Purge. He sided with Khrushchev in the de-Stalinization measures of 1956 and 1961 against the. Molotov ‘anti-party group’; played a leading role in the Russian intervention against the 1956 Hungarian revolution; has now retired from politics.]

[18] [The case of the executed commissars of the Baku Commune was to become a cause celebré in Anglo-Soviet relations: Stalin issued a denunciation of ‘the shooting of the twenty-six comrades by the agents of English imperialism’ in April 1919, and the atrocity was frequently recounted (often with added detail, as in I. Brodsky’s famous painting showing British officers directing the actual firing-squad) in popular Soviet histories of the civil war. (Shaumyan was one of those few Bolshevik leaders whose early demise during the revolution rendered them suitable for hagiographical treatment during the Stalinist re-writing of party history, a fact which may partly explain the distortion in the later treatments.) Serge’s account is free from these subsequent accretions; but the early Bolshevik version is contested, not only in the British official reply to Soviet accusations of complicity, but in the work of recent historians of British intervention in the Trans-Caspian region. Correspondence on the incident between the British and Soviet governments during 1922 is printed in HM Government White Paper on Russia, No.1, Cmd 1846 (London, 1923); the affair is analysed, with conclusions favouring the British case, in C.H. Ellis, The Trans-Caspian Episode (London, 1963), pp.57-61, and in R.H. Ullman, Intervention and the War (Princeton, 1961), pp.320-24. (Ellis, a member of the British Mission to Trans-Caspia at the time of the shootings, discusses the question also in his contribution to St Antony’s Papers, No.6: Soviet Affairs (D. Footman, ed.) (London, 1959).)

The precise measure of British involvement in the executions turns on the evidence of two witnesses, both of whom have an evident interest in their particular version of the story: Funtikov, the head of the Ashkhabad ‘Directorate’ immediately responsible for the shootings, whose statement, turning the main responsibility on the British Mission, was gathered by a journalist (and fellow S-R), V. Chaikin, apparently during Funtikov’s spell in Ashkhabad jail during early 1919; and Captain Teague-Jones himself, whose personal history of the incident was collected by the British government during the 1922 correspondence with the Soviet Foreign Office, and accepted by them as the correct version. (Teague-Jones’s statement on the affair, dated 22 November 1922, is given in Cmd.1846, pp.7-11; it demands repudiation by the Soviet government of Chaikin’s allegations, and adds ‘that I reserve to myself the right to institute proceedings for libel against Vadim Chaikin, and against any or all of the newspapers who have published any of the charges against me, at such time as there shall be a civilized and responsible government in Russia.’)

Certain features of the episode are not in doubt:

  1. The commander of the British forces, Major-General W. Malleson, who throughout the affair was in Meshed, Persia (100 miles from Ashkhabad and 600 from Krasnovodsk, where the prisoners were) was notified of the capture of the commissars on 17 September (two days after their arrest on landing in the port). On the following day he asked the Ashkhabad government ‘to give me Bolshevik leaders’ names for dispatch to India’ (i.e. in order that the leaders themselves should be dispatched, under British auspices, to India); Malleson’s reason for this measure was that the commissars’ ‘presence in Trans-Caspia is most dangerous, as at least half the Russians are ready to turn their coat once more at the slightest sign of enemy success’. See Malleson’s telegram to commander-in-chief, India, MD 00538, dated 18 September 1918, repeated in Foreign Office memo of 26 September, Public Record Office, File FO 371/3336; Malleson’s own statement of his motivation differs from that given by Ellis (The Trans-Caspian Episode, p.59) who says only that the commissars were to be kept in India as hostages for the British citizens held under arrest in Moscow and Petrograd.
  2. Teague-Jones, who had been informed of Malleson’s request to Ashkhabad, was present at the meeting of four members of the Trans-Caspian government which had the task of discussing the fate of the commissars (evening of 18 September).
  3. On the following day, Teague-Jones wired Malleson with the news that it had been decided to shoot the prisoners.
  4. On 23 September, Malleson wired to commander-in-chief, India, with the news of the executions, of whose actual occurrence he had been informed by the Meshed representative of Funtikov’s government (ibid., p.61). The telegram (MD 581, Meshed, 23 September 1918; repeated by commander-in-chief, India, telegram 76707, 25 September: Milner MSS, Box 115, File H-3) comments: ‘Apart from question of justice as to which I can express no opinion, politically this alleged execution ... means that Ashkhabad government have burnt their boats as regards Bolsheviks.’ (This appears to be a declaration, favourable rather than hostile in tone, of the anti-Bolshevik credentials of Funtikov and his colleagues; that is, as Malleson went on to say, they could no longer use the lives of the commissars as a bargaining-counter to save their own skins.) The message ended: ’Ashkhabad Committee are anxious it should be kept secret.’
  5. The British government acceded to this request of the Ashkhabad régime. The world discovered the fate of Shaumyan and his colleagues only in March 1919, when Chaikin published his report on the affair in a Baku newspaper (Ullman, Intervention and the War, p.323). Even when the unsuspecting Chicherin asked for the safe return of the Baku commissars from captivity, as a condition of the release of British hostages held by the Soviets, the Foreign Office, in cabling its ambassador in Holland (the intermediary for the negotiations on hostages) with a draft reply to Chicherin, added the news of the shooting solely ‘for your [i.e. the ambassador’s] private information’, in a postscript headed Secret. (Chicherin’s message, sent on 19 September, is summarized in Ullman, ibid., pp.293-4; the Foreign Office instruction, dated on 27 September, is in the Public Record Office, File FO 371/3336.)

The testimonies of Ellis (based in part on interviews with other members of the British Military Mission) and of Teague-Jones contain much that goes beyond this. In particular, Teague-Jones relates that he left the fateful meeting of the Ashkhabad ministers before a decision on the shooting was finally reached. The possibility had been debated in his presence; Funtikov had told the meeting that General Malleson had proved reluctant to take the prisoners and had said to the Ashkhabad representative in Meshed that the Trans-Caspian government ‘must make its own arrangements’. (Malleson’s telegrams of course establish that, on the contrary, he had been keen to have the commissars sent as prisoners to India; yet Teague-Jones, who knew this at the time, does not indicate that he tried to contradict Funtikov.) Ellis (The Trans-Caspian Episode, p.61) reports that Malleson, when informed of the executions, was ‘horrified at the action taken’. (The telegram to his chief in India, quoted above, contains no word of regret, still less of horror.) The British complicity may well, therefore, have been minimal; even though, as Ullman suggests (Intervention and the War, p.324), if Teague-Jones ‘had chosen to make an issue of the fate of the twenty-six commissars, Funtikov and his colleagues would have found it difficult to refuse the British request’, since they were so dependent on British military support. However, it may well have been more than minimal: Teague-Jones’s statement (the only evidence we have from him, since according to Ullman he refused to discuss his experiences in Trans-Caspia – and even changed his surname in order to avoid any publicity) was after all drawn up more than four years after the events it recounts. And any reservations about the executions that were felt by Britain’s local representatives, or by their superiors elsewhere, were not serious enough to prevent the continuation of British military and financial support for Funtikov’s government, at least until it was replaced (in November) by a new committee headed by the local police chief and enjoying the approval of the British Military Mission (ibid., pp.325-7).]

[19] V. Chaikin, On the History of the Russian Revolution (K Istorii Rossiskoi Revoliutsii) (Moscow, 1922).

[20] Funtikov was tried and shot in Baku in 1926.

[21] N. Lenin, Collected Works (London, 1969), Vol.26, pp.455, 459, 461, 463, 466, 468, 470, 471-2, 514.

[22] These figures, given by Karl Radek to the First All-Russian Congress of Economic Councils, were taken up by Milyutin, who stressed that, since part of the Ukraine’s coal and manufacturing output was consumed in the Ukraine itself, the loss of actually available resources was appreciably less than stated. This specious reasoning, however, only underlined the gravity of the economic amputations undergone by the Republic.

[23] From the stenographic report of the discussion at the First All-Russian Congress of Economic Councils (26 May-4 June 1918) (Moscow, 1918).

[24] From Sokolnikov’s report, ibid.

[25] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.27, pp.74, 75.

[26] Today Kingisepp, on the Estonian frontier.

[27] ibid., pp.89, 90, 91, 95, 98, 101, 104, 105, 106, 110.

[28] V. Sorin, The Party and the Opposition. 1: The Fraction of Left Communists (Partiya i Oppozitsiya. I. Fraktsiya Levykh Kommunistov), preface by N. Bukharin (Moscow, 1925).

[29] K. Radek in Soc. Dem. Brest-Litovsk [no fuller reference available].

[30] Editorial in Kommunist, No.1.

[31] Kommunist, No.4.

[32] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.27, pp.129-30, 131, 133, 135, 136, 137.

[33] On events in Bessarabia, see Chapter 4 (The Tragedy of the Rumanian Front), pp.117-19. On 26 (13) January the Rumanians, who had several times been checked by the revolutionary forces, at last captured Kishinev. The Russian General Shcherbachev announced that the city had now been purged of Bolsheviks. A few days later the Sfatul Tarii, the national representative body subservient to the Rumanian invader, proclaimed the independence of the Moldavian Republic while all dissidents were being hunted down and shot. It was the first step towards a disguised annexation. The People’s Commissars replied by ordering the arrest of the Rumanian ambassador to Petrograd, M. Diamandi: following protests by the diplomatic corps, he was promptly released. On the other hand, the Soviet government seized the gold reserves of Rumania which had been deposited at the Russian State Bank. The reserves were declared ‘inaccessible to the Rumanian oligarchy’ and ‘to be handed over only to the Rumanian people’. On 21 (8) February, France, Italy and Britain proposed an amicable settlement of the Russo-Rumanian conflict. Negotiations began at Odessa between Rakovsky and General Averescu, and peace was concluded on 5 March. Rumania undertook to evacuate Bessarabia within two months. However, the Germans invaded the Ukraine, and the Sfatul Tarii (on 27 March) proclaimed the union of autonomous Moldavia with Rumania. The treaty just signed proved to be no more than a scrap of paper in the hands of the Rumanians, who were listening to French advice. In April a Rumanian politician declared: ‘Bessarabia was occupied by our troops ... in accordance with an agreement between M. Bratianu and the French General Berthelot. The French General Vuillemin headed the occupation troops in Kishinev ...’ (Statement of M. Antonescu to La Victoire (Paris), 14 April 1918). The Soviet Republic has never recognized this seizure of a country.

[34]Preamble: The old army was a weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie for oppressing the toiling masses. The transfer of power to the toiling and exploited classes necessitates the creation of a new army, which will be the bulwark of the power of the Soviets, will prepare in the near future for the replacement of a permanent army by the nation in arms, and will serve to assist the impending Socialist revolution in Europe. Article 1: Clause 1: The Red Army of Workers and Peasants is formed from the most conscious and organized elements of the toiling masses. Clause 2: Admission to the army is open to whoever is ready to die for the conquests of the October Revolution, the Soviets and Socialism. References for each entrant are required from military committees, democratic organizations constituted on a Soviet basis, parties or trade unions: or at least from two members of such organizations. Collective enrolment will be taken on the basis of a roll-call in which each reply for all, as all for each.’

The establishment of local Military Commissariats through a decree of 8 April marked the beginning of a systematic manpower policy. Up till then the organization of the Republic’s forces had been undertaken by M.D. Bonch-Bruyevich, whose plan for successive levies of men, on the western front, then in central Russia, then in the Volga region, had proved a complete failure.

Last updated on: 7.2.2009