Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

The July-August Crisis


The months of July and August 1918 were the most critical for the revolution. Even the crisis of July 1919, which was longer, and more oppressive and painful, did not reach this pitch of paroxysm in the class war. The Soviet Republic, which had experienced the full force of German imperialism, now underwent the shock of Allied intervention in the very heart of the country. The monstrous coalition between the Central Powers and the Allies was now realized de facto against the Soviets, just when Ludendorff was launching, on the Somme and the Aisne, his last desperate offensives towards Paris. Ataman Krasnov, now in control of the Don region, was simultaneously supplied with arms and munitions by the Germans and encouraged by the Allies.

Western Russia

Look at the map. On the frontier of Finland, the Finnish-German troops menace the railway to Murmansk. In the north the Allies (the British) occupy the coast of Murmansk, Kern; Onega, Archangel and Shenkursk. The northern front extends over nearly 850 miles. The German front stretches in practically a straight line from the Gulf of Finland to the Ukraine for over 350 miles. The Germans hold down Pskov and Minsk, and are in occupation of the entire Ukraine. Around Rostov, Ataman Krasnov is turning the domain of the Cossacks into a counter-revolutionary State. The Kuban is almost completely occupied by the Whites under General Alexeyev. Menshevik Georgia is, as we know, ‘independent’. Baku is calling in the British. The southern fronts extend over 900 miles. Dutov’s Cossacks control the countryside in the Orenburg (southern Ural) region. On the Volga the Czechoslovaks hold Kazan, Simbirsk (today Ulyanovsk) and Samara; Kursk, Voronezh and Tsaritsyn (today Stalingrad) are threatened. The Republic is in effect reduced to the area of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, just as in the fifteenth century. The ambassadors of the Allies are at Vologda. In the interior, the counter-revolution is seizing Yaroslavl and pressing on Rybinsk, Kostroma, Murom and Nizhni-Novgorod, in the immediate vicinity of the capital. In the rural areas the rich peasants are instigating uprisings: the provinces of Tambov, Ryazan, Yaroslavl and Penza are at the mercy of the kulak Vendee. We shall be attentively following the events in Moscow and Petrograd, no less serious in their implications. Peril is everywhere.

Western Russia

The following figures will give an idea of the intensity reached by the famine. For rationing purposes the population of the large cities is divided into four categories: (1) Heavy physical labour. (2) Ordinary physical labour and intense intellectual labour. (3) Intellectual labour. (4) Not occupied. Here, simply as an example, are the rations allocated to these categories in Petrograd on 3-4 July and 14-15 August.

Ration for two days
Category 3–4 July 14–15 August
(1) 200 grams of bread, 2 eggs, 400 grams of fish, 5 herrings 200 grams of bread
(2) 100 grams of bread, 2 eggs, 400 grams of fish, 5 herrings 100 grams of bread
(3) 100 grams of bread, 400 grams of fish, 5 herrings 50 grams of dried vegetables, 5 herrings
(4) 50 grams of bread, 5 herrings 5 herrings

Black Sea

On 2 July the Allies occupy Murmansk. According to their official story they mean to protect the stocks of arms, munitions and provisions in the port against the designs of the German-Finnish forces. The French Military Mission arms Serbian and Italian prisoners-of-war and sends them to the north. The hesitations of the Allied governments in the matter of intervention have not ended, but a state of mind favourable to intervening has been created in western Europe as the result of the Brest-Litovsk peace, now denounced as ‘an act of treason to the Allied cause’ and to be followed by important German offensives on the French front; this hysteria extends to the mass of the people, who often believe the legend that the Bolsheviks have ‘ sold out to the Kaiser’. The arrival of American troops in France had remedied the man-power crisis and made it possible for operations in Russia to be seriously envisaged. In addition, Europe’s statesmen have now begun to understand the social implications of Bolshevism. The most enlightened of them on this score are, naturally, the Allied diplomats who have taken refuge at Vologda. Messrs Francis, the United States ambassador, and Noulens, his French opposite number, are (as we have already seen) strong supporters of intervention; the British charge d’affaires, Lockhart, supports them unreservedly. The Allied diplomatic and military missions in Russia have two objectives at present: to prevent Soviet power from consolidating itself and to prove to the governments of London, Paris and Washington, through the success of the internal counter-revolution, that an energetic intervention would both be opportune and have serious chances of victory.

Several counter-revolutionary governments are now taking shape in Siberia, where the Czechoslovaks have colonized the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Japanese are occupying Vladivostok.

This map of Russia should be borne well in mind by the reader if he is to follow events.


Let us pause briefly to look at the men who dominate these events. Later, they will acquire the semblance of giants: men will search avidly to decipher their human qualities from the deeds, facts and dates of history. But at this moment their greatness appears to us as something homely, and they themselves as simple. The distribution of roles among them is complete: each fulfils his own task.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (’N. Lenin’ is an old pseudonym for illegal writing) is forty-eight. He is a man of average stature, quite broad in the shoulders, rather stout, with a rapid stride and a lively way of gesturing. His cheekbones are powerful, his nose fleshy, his forehead high and made higher by a spread of baldness. A short, almost red beard lengthens the face, whose blue eyes often twinkle with mischief. Such simplicity in a man of genius is astonishing. He laughs freely; he looks gay and easy-tempered. When he listens, with his hand at his forehead, he sometimes has a sharp look about him, and sometimes guards his eyes and keeps his features hardened in a terrible expression of unbending thought: but one of his very common expressions is a broad smile of amusement, either approving (as if to say: ‘Yes, that’s it!’) or sarcastic. As an orator he is devoid of emphasis and averse to rhetoric: zealous to persuade and prove; with a dialectic that is rigorous, bound together by common sense, powered by sheer obstinacy; his hands make short, frank movements that seem to materialize the argument. As speaker and as publicist he is an impressive realist who carries and even forces the conviction of his hearers. Lenin is of bourgeois origins. His life-history: propaganda and agitation since the age of twenty, at the University of St Petersburg. He has memories of a brother, a young terrorist, who was hanged. Then a year in prison, two years of exile in Siberia, emigration to Munich and then London, the founding of the party, ceaseless polemics and struggles, the research and development of a theory, clandestine activity in Russia during the 1905 revolution, international congresses, and daily toil in Geneva, Paris, Cracow, Zurich throughout the war. The same insistent effort over fifteen years: building the party, preparing the revolution. The same existence, with its paradoxical regularity, as a professional revolutionary in Britain, Switzerland, France and Galicia: humble lodgings, libraries, editings of small illegal journals, meetings: comrades, tea-gatherings, long bicycle-trips. The hours of darkness have come: but there have been no falterings, no doubts. He is a trained scholar who has at his finger-tips four languages (Russian, English, German, French), Marxist sociology, the history of capitalism and the labour movement, and the politics of Russia. In order to confute the idealist tendency in the party he dedicated himself to philosophy. This revolutionary now has the experience of three revolutions. A unity which blends action, thought, word, personal living and political vocation is the cardinal trait of his character. Lenin is hewn from one single block: his whole being is tensed perpetually on his task, his mission, which fuses with the mission of the proletariat. His prestige as the founder of the party and guide of the revolution is immense; for all that, people within the party he has created do not fear to contradict him, and this is just what he wants. His utilitarian outlook may sometimes be brutal, but his hands are absolutely clean. At this moment he is chief both of party and of government. He maps out the routes and points to the destination. He is the brain of the revolution. In Sadoul’s words: ‘Lenin is a superb thinking-machine, a willing analytic mechanism of incredible precision and strength, inserted into the great revolutionary movement whose motor it has become, marvellously adapted as an integral part of the whole. [1]

Leon Davidovich Trotsky (real name Bronstein) often appears as Lenin’s equal, though he himself gladly recognizes the latter’s pre-eminence (not that these considerations have any importance). [2] At the Seventh Party Congress the two leaders were elected on to the Central Committee with the same number of votes. Thirty-nine years old. A man of lank proportions, broad-shouldered, with a military bearing and a restrained natural elegance. Long face, lofty forehead, a mass of unruly hair, green eyes that look out with a metallic glint, piercing, alive, shrewd and searching from behind the pince-nez lenses; a clean-cut profile, a large mouth whose line accentuates the firmness, and sometimes the hardness, of his other features. A small pointed beard further extends and emphasizes this face of strength and delicacy. It is a closed, distant personality, yet affable. The gestures are authoritarian, like his manner of talking. From the rostrum comes a voice of astonishingly powerful modulation, audible from afar, rapping out its brief, incisive, mordant sentences, which are constructed with the assurance of a consistently clear dialectic: each dictum scientific in precision, impeccable in form. A bitter, haughty, exact irony which neatly pierces the opponent. Trotsky’s eloquence, concentrating intelligence and will, sweeps along crowds, because it transmits greatness, force and necessity in a language of epic clarity. The style of the journalist equals that of the orator, with a superb fusion between essence and form. Biography as follows: born in 1879 in the Kherson gubernia, of Jewish and bourgeois origin. A revolutionary since his seventeenth year. At eighteen and nineteen, a member of the Workers’ Union of Southern Russia (illegal, naturally), at Nikolayev. Two years in prison (a Marxist education undergone in the jail). Two years.of exile in Ust-Kut (Siberia). Escape. Emigration. Vienna, Zurich, Paris, London, first period of collaboration with Lenin in 1903, in editing Iskra. After the split in the Social-Democratic party in 1903, separates from Lenin on questions of organization and joins the minority (Menshevik) opposition for a short while; soon, when the Mensheviks turn out to be supporters of collaboration with the liberals, leaves them and remains outside the two factions, somewhat to the Left of the Bolsheviks. Illegal return to Russia during the revolution of 1905. An adversary of all opportunism and a supporter, from this time on, of the proletarian dictatorship and the Socialist revolution, he collaborates with the Bolsheviks. President of the Petrograd Soviet. Arrested with the Soviet on 3 December. Imprisonment, theoretical and historical work, deportation to Obdorsk, on the River Obi in the Arctic, escape and flight abroad. In Vienna, collaboration with the German and Austrian Socialists, publication of Pravda together with Yoffe. War correspondent in the Balkans. Expelled from Austria in 1914; an internationalist during the war, condemned in Germany; in Paris, edits Nashe Slovo and works with the French syndicalists around Vie Ouvrière. Expelled from France in 1916. Expelled from Spain, travels to New York: collaboration with the revolutionary press in America. Leaves for Russia on the beginning of the revolution and is interned in Canada. From this time, has propounded a concept of revolution similar to that of the Bolsheviks. Returns to Petrograd; after the July events, spends a time in Kerensky’s jails. In the course of these struggles, and the studies that have gone with them, the theoretician has acquired a European culture; he has four languages. The principal organizer of the October Revolution now has the task of organizing the defence of the Soviet Republic. He goes to war, forges the blade, carries the responsibility on all fronts. He incarnates, in its keenest expression, the revolution’s will to survive.

Lenin and Trotsky have in common a method of work based on punctuality, economy of time and resources, discipline, responsibility and initiative among collaborators. They are born organizers; and they train team after team of organizers.

External defence must be complemented by defence in the interior. The man to whom the party has entrusted the difficult mission of unmasking the permanent conspiracy, of serving the proletariat as the epitome of vigilance, severity and terror, is called Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky. He is tall and thin, with angular features and acute eyes. His mortal enemies – and he has no other sort, since the struggle between him and them is to the death – admire his ascetic honesty, his unbreakable self-possession, his amazing capacity for work. Forty-one years, a Pole of bourgeois origin. A Marxist revolutionary since his eighteenth year. Five times imprisoned, thrice deported, thrice escaping, sentenced in 1912-14 to ten years of forced labour, a political prisoner for five years, liberated on the fall of Tsardom, member of the Petro-grad Military Revolutionary Committee which organized the insurrection of 1917, Chairman of the Commission for Repression of Counter-Revolution (Vee-Cheka) since it was first set up. Dzerzhinsky is a man of faith. Since adolescence he has devoted his life, with a poet’s ardour, to the transformation of man and of life. His Prison Journal is suffused with a profound idealism. ‘He had the deepest imaginable love for men,’ wrote Karl Radek, ‘ and it was only the conviction that any weakening would be calamitous for the masses that enabled him to strike so inflexibly with the sword of the revolution.’ [3]

From time to time the tall frame and the intellectual’s face of Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov could be glimpsed behind Lenin. We have already made our acquaintance with Sverdlov. [4] He is organizer extraordinary to the party and to the Republic, whose constitution he has just drafted.

Grigori Yevseyich Zinoviev (Radomyslsky), a collaborator of Lenin’s since 1907, theoretician, popularizer and orator, is defending, at Petrograd, one of the most advanced and most threatened. outposts of the Republic. As President of the Executive Committee of the Northern Commune, he is the dictator of a great workers’ city, starving, cholera-stricken and vulnerable to surprise attack. His colleague Volodarsky, a garment-worker returned from the United States, unsparing as a speaker and a writer, has just been assassinated by unknown men (by Right S-Rs, it will be discovered later, when the organizer of the murder goes over to Bolshevism). Zinoviev, with his tousled head, smooth, rather flabby face, nonchalant stance, rounded gestures, deep, sometimes strident and always audible voice, Zinoviev with his merciless choice of words often confronts and subdues, in the old capital’s factories, the discontent and anger of a proletariat whose best sons are at the front, and which is dying of hunger. [5]

Another man must be named here, who is not visible on the scene: Dr Adolph Abramovich Yoffe, the Republic’s ambassador to Berlin, accredited to his Imperial Royal Majesty Wilhelm II. Functions whose delicacy requires a discreet penumbra, whose importance demands quite unusual skills. The foundations of the German Empire are being mined, the edifice can be heard cracking. Its fall will be the salvation of the Russian revolution, and perhaps the signal for the revolutionary explosion in Europe. This first Bolshevik ambassador, who in a time of war flies the Red Flag over his home in Berlin, has a paradoxical mission: to avoid a resumption of hostilities and to prepare the German revolution. No Spartacist’s house is more closely watched than his residence: none more assiduous than he in practising the cult of appearances. But the mission is being accomplished. Dr Yoffe is thirty-five: large forehead, pronounced Jewish physiognomy, powerful lips, an Assyrian beard, the grave demeanour of a man of science or of business trained in Berlin. At the age of sixteen, in the town of his birth in the Crimea, he was already a Social-Democrat. He did his medical schooling in Germany, from which indeed he was expelled in 1907 by Chancellor von Bülow. He has seen the inside of prison several times, has organized the transmission of illegal literature in the Caucasus, organized the escape from Sebastopol of a comrade from the Potemkin, performed a large number of clandestine missions in Russia during the years of reaction, undergone a sentence of hard labour and four years’ deportation to the Tobolsk gubernia, right up to the revolution. The revolution has a worthy representative at the court of the Kaiser. Bolshevism’s first ambassador to Germany was to follow a long and brilliant career as a revolutionary diplomat. He led the peace negotiations with Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland (1920-21), represented the Soviets in China, where he skilfully steered Sun Yat-sen to a pro-Soviet orientation, then in Tokyo, then in Vienna (1925). Having become the victim of an incurable illness, he took his own life in 1927 (in Moscow), having declared his solidarity for the last time with the opposition in the Communist party.

There is another great figure that does not appear, in this work, in the first rank, even though he belongs to that level. We have had to concentrate our attention on the very heart of events, deliberately neglecting the fortunes of the revolution in the Ukraine. Bolshevism, with the aid of peasant uprisings, is engaged in a contest for this abundant granary against Skoropadsky’s dictatorship, which rests on the German occupying armies. Bolshevism’s man in Kiev is called Christian Rakovsky. At this moment he is negotiating a peace between the Ukraine and the Soviet Republic; in reality, he observes, waits, struggles and prepares. Later he will be, for some years, head of the Soviet government of the Ukraine, the soul of the proletarian revolution in this land devastated over four years by some fifteen invasions and armed restorations from the counter-revolution. Christian Rakovsky is now, at the prime of his life, a veteran Socialist of Europe, an old hand at international congresses, gallicized by long spells in Paris, Russified by long-standing contacts with the Russians. Bulgarian by birth, Rumanian by nationality, he bears a name which is inscribed in the history of Bulgaria and which has recently entered the annals of Rumania. A revolutionary internationalist before and during the war, associated with the concept of a Balkan Socialist Federation, prosecuted in many trials, feared in Bucharest as the régime’s mortal enemy, tracked by assassins, Rakovsky emerged on May Day from the prison at Jassy to the acclamation of the Russian soldiers who had opened its doors for him: he immediately formed the first revolutionary government of the Rumanian republic at Odessa. Lithe and svelte, of Latin appearance and temperament, this gentleman of the handsome, hairless countenance, this tribune of the lashing tongue blends an unshakable revolutionary integrity with a Western intelligence of infinite subtlety. [6]


Behind these great figures of the foremost rank there naturally stands a multitude of others, ready to replace them if they vanish: these too are energetic, powerful, great in their way. The revolution is rich in men, because it awakens to creative activity innumerable masses from social strata which are full of young, unused vigour. The personalities of the second rank are numerous, and deserve study. Numerous also among these are men who await no more than the event which will arouse them to a new stature. Nonetheless, the selection of leaders that has been achieved has nothing arbitrary or unjust about it: the passage of the years enables us now to make this judgement. It is the result of twenty years of revolutionary preparation and of eighteen months of turmoil: not of the caprice of a congress or of an electorate’s balloting.

And yet these men have their greatness and strength only through the greatness and strength of the party, which itself derives its power from that of the masses, of the classes in society. We shall not deal here in any depth with the problem of the role of personality in history. The classes, the masses, the party work through the agency of individuals; their choice of individuals demonstrates precisely the fitness of these larger forces for victory. Had Lenin and Trotsky been assassinated in September 1917, would not the revolution’s chances of victory have declined immeasurably? Would not their disappearance at this juncture, in July-August 1918, have been like the loss of an experienced sea captain who, in a ship in mid-ocean assailed by tempest, computes within his skull the maximum chances of safety? Lenin had suffered this very uncertainty: ‘Tell me,’ he said one day to Trotsky, ‘if the Whites kill you and me do you think Bukharin and Sverdlov will be able to pull through all right?’ That phrase of the English which is so remarkably accurate in business matters, The right man in the right place, applies with even more force to the class struggle. And it is a fact of serious significance that neither the Tsarist régime nor the Russian bourgeoisie was able to find or to introduce in their appropriate places the men whom they needed, whereas the proletariat found them at once; just as it is significant that, increasingly over the whole world, the bourgeoisie is forced to borrow its political leaders and statesmen, if not from among the proletariat, at least from the Socialist movement.

We have noted how Lenin, in emphasizing the salutary role of individual authority, has demonstrated the compatibility between personal dictatorship and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The limitless strength of the revolutionary classes now appears to us, in short, as an elemental power that must be canalized, dammed, directed and organized so as to prevail against the forces of the counter-revolutionary classes, which are already organized. An effectively organized and directed social class will in the last resort be able to impose its will upon classes which are stronger but which lack organization and direction. It is like the difference between a multitudinous mob and a small army. The party works as the yeast of organization among the worker and peasant masses. At such moments its function takes many forms: it expresses the most general, most basic aspirations of the crowds, and translates them into conscious actions; it attracts, mobilizes, staffs and disciplines the most active elements of the class it represents: it selects from these the administrators, agitators and leaders; it establishes between the leaders and the masses a network of continual contacts and exchanges, be it through great assemblies, congresses, meetings or the daily work-round; finally it ensures the predominance within the working class of the conscious element over the backward strata, the victory of intelligence and the higher instincts over alien influences, ancient vices and the baser instincts.


The Anglo-French expedition landed at Murmansk on 1 July; the Whites entered Orenburg on the 2nd; the Czechs entered Ufa on the 3rd. The Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets met on the 4th.

1,164 delegates were present. Of these 773 were Communists, 353 Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, seventeen Maximalists, ten non-party, four anarchists, four Internationalist Social-Democrats and three representatives of nationalities. The Congress opens with an urgent statement from the Commissar for War, Trotsky. The political battle is now on with a vengeance. In the Kursk region, close to the Ukrainian frontier now held by the Germans, a disquieting agitation is being conducted among the Red troops. They are being incited to war against the Germans. Some units are demanding an offensive. One commissar has been killed and a brigade leader wounded. Guerrilla strikes into Ukrainian territory have taken place. Certain fanatics have threatened the head of the peace delegation in the Ukraine, Rakovsky, with their grenades. All this must stop. ‘I have given the order,’ states Trotsky, ‘to shoot the agents of the enemy who are fomenting these disturbances; I demand the approval of Congress for this action.’ The hall echoes with shouts. ‘Executioner! Kerensky!’ cry the Left S-Rs. From the rostrum their leader Kamkov openly endorses ‘the broad, healthy movement which is leading the revolutionaries of Russia irresistibly to the aid of their brothers in the Ukraine’. This explicit backing for the guerrillas who are seeking to create a state of war as an accomplished deed excites indignant objections. The vehemence of the Left S-Rs at once breaks into a kind of paroxysm. ‘Allow us to speak,’ they shout, ‘before you shoot us!’ Zinoviev defends Trotsky’s proposal, which is carried by a two-thirds majority. ‘The safety of the Republic,’ it is proclaimed, ‘is the supreme law. Those who oppose it will be put down.’ The S-Rs demonstratively leave the meeting, then return to it, and the duel is resumed even more violently.

Maria Spiridonova [7] now attacks the Bolsheviks with a passion bordering on hysteria. She speaks of the martyred and betrayed Ukraine; accuses the ‘Bolshevik usurpers’ of ruining the peasantry, of sending the Germans secret trains loaded with gold, of being in the service of Germany. Lenin shakes his head as he listens. His rebuttals, which are sometimes drowned in interruptions, are notable for their commonsense. ‘A party which drives its sincerest representatives to wallow in this mire of lies and errors is a doomed party.’ [8] To want to tear up the Brest-Litovsk treaty is to put the peasants’ neck into the big landlords’ noose. It is essential to gain time: the Republic is getting stronger, the rival imperialisms are at their last gasp. Civil war is necessary to Socialism, but the parties must not base themselves on the standpoint of the starving individual, but on that of Socialism. The Left S-Rs are setting the peasantry against us: merciless war upon those Socialists who desert us while some are cornering all the grain and others are dying of hunger! We shall not shrink from any struggle whatsoever. We shall subject everything to State audit and nationalize everything, if necessary. Our practical solutions are: monopoly and taxation of grain; fixing of a maximum price; reduction of the prices of manufactured goods by fifty per cent for the poor peasants and twenty-five per cent for the middle peasants.

It is at this point in the debate, with the atmosphere electric with opposing currents, that the news comes, at 4 a.m. on 6 July, that Count Mirbach, the German ambassador in Moscow, has just been assassinated in his Legation by Left S-R terrorists belonging to the staff of the Cheka. The Congress, which is meeting in the Bolshoi Theatre, immediately suspends its deliberations, but the Left S-R deputies are prevented from leaving. They spend the evening in a state of mortal anxiety, expecting at some moments to be delivered by the insurrection that they have organized, at others to be massacred by these Bolshevik ‘agents of Germany’.


On 6 July, at about 3 a.m., two functionaries of the Cheka arrived by car and presented themselves at the German Legation. They brought with them papers concerning an obscure Lieutenant Mirbach, who was a prisoner of war. The ambassador, a secretary and the two visitors sat together in a drawing-room decorated with grey and pink silk hangings. One of the visitors, Blyumkin, opened his briefcase smartly, saying ‘Look, here is an item which ...’, pulled a Browning automatic out of it and fired point-blank at Count Mirbach. The ambassador, wounded, rushed into the neighbouring reception room, where he fell. The terrorists followed close behind him. One of them threw a grenade on to him, which failed to explode. The other (Blyumkin) picked it up and threw it again, with more force, at the man lying at his feet. The wounded man was blown to bits. The explosion threw the terrorist out of the window; an official fired at him but his companion dragged him to the car. They got away without pursuit. [9]

Dzerzhinsky went to see the Central Committee of the Left S-R party: there he learnt that the party assumed the entire responsibility for the assassination, and was taken prisoner. A detachment of special troops from the Cheka under the command of Popov formed the principal nucleus of the Left S-R forces, which that evening took the offensive at several points of the city. They took the central post office by surprise, and made haste to send telegrams everywhere decreeing as null and void any decisions of the Council of People’s Commissars, ‘the Socialist-Revolutionary party being from now on the only governing party’. ‘The people want war with Germany!’ declared the Left S-Rs: Meanwhile the population watched the operations of the troops in the streets with an indifference tinged with hostility. The Left S-Rs had at their disposal from 800 to 2,000 men, sixty machine-guns, half a dozen field-guns and three armoured cars. Some squads of anarchists and Black Sea sailors joined their forces. They had, as it appears, concealed from their own partisan forces the project of forcibly seizing power from the Bolsheviks, right up to the last moment, and so the confusion of morale among their troops condemned them to inactivity within a very short spell. Their whole strategy was limited to a few blasts of cannon-fire at the Kremlin.

The Bolsheviks could call on the Lettish riflemen, a serviceable remnant from the old army, commanded by an officer named Vatsetis [10], non-party but loyal, and on an international brigade composed mainly of Hungarian prisoners-of-war, headed by a Communist by the name of Bela Kun. The local commandant, Muralov, also had available some detachments of the young Red Army. These forces were put under the direction of two of the men who had seized the Winter Palace in 1917, Antonov-Ovseyenko and Podvoisky.

By midday on the following day, the rising was crushed. A few shells on the headquarters of the Left S-R Central Committee had put the insurgents to flight. Nearly 300 of them were arrested. Several of them were executed; among them Alexandrovich, an excellent young militant who had participated in all the actions of 1917 and enjoyed a general esteem. An assistant of Dzerzhinsky’s at the head of the Cheka, he had deceived his chief and his comrades in accordance with his party’s discipline, in order to prepare the insurrection. He died bravely. His death was much more than the penalty paid for a breach of duty: it was the ransom exacted by the peace with Germany.


The Left S-R party had committed suicide. What had it been aiming after? Its speakers at the Fifth Congress had defined its aims: ‘To tear up the Brest-Litovsk treaty (which is fatal to the Russian and the international revolution) in revolutionary style; to appeal to the solidarity of the German workers ...’; and to modify the peasant policy of the Soviet government. This party claimed to represent the interest of the ‘toiling peasants’.

This last point is of considerable importance. During the debates in the Vee-Tsik in mid-June on the Committees of Poor Peasants, advocated by Lenin and bitterly attacked by Martov, the Left S-Rs had stated their position in vigorous terms. We agree, they said, that the civil war must be taken into the countryside against the kulaks; but we think it is nonsensical to try to distinguish between the poor and the middle peasantry (in the attempt to enlist the poor, proletarian or semi-proletarian masses). It is necessary, they said, to count not on the poor peasant but on the middle peasant, who will be ‘the most reliable support of the Socialist revolution in the countryside’. [11] Against Lenin’s formula ‘the poorest peasantry’ the Left S-Rs wished to substitute the expression ‘labouring peasantry’. In other words: whereas the Bolsheviks founded their policy in the countryside on the interest and the energy of the rural proletariat, the Left S-Rs defended the interests of the rural petty-bourgeoisie – the mass of middle peasants – whom they hoped to involve in the struggle against the kulaks. Hence their differences with the Bolsheviks on the problems of food supply. While the latter worked for centralization in order to combat anarchy and the free play of local and personal egoisms, the Left S-Rs would have liked to leave the maximum initiative, authority and command to the peasant Soviets, which were obviously, for the most part, under the control of middle peasants. [12]

These differences became sharper and clearer during the discussions on the decree concerning the supply of manufactured goods to the Committees of Poor Peasants. This decree, Karelin declared, harmed the interests of the labouring (i.e. middle) peasants; it opposed the populations of infertile districts to those in fertile districts; it was part of the system of bureaucratic dictatorship which was undermining the local Soviets. It was criminal to counterpose Committees of Poor Peasants to the Soviets of labouring peasants. [13]

These facts allow us to characterize the Left S-R party as the party of the middle peasantry. Hence we can immediately under-stand its vacillations, [14] its anarchistic tendencies, its aversion to-wards the centralized State and the regular army, its penchant for guerrilla warfare, its democratic mentality which was so often opposed to the dictatorial spirit of the Bolsheviks. But were the middle peasants, then, in favour of war? Of course not, since it was they, more or less, who had imposed the peace. The fact that their party committed political suicide for the sake of provoking war was due to its having become the plaything of other forces. (which we shall see working out later) through the lack of political independence so characteristic of the petty-bourgeoisie, the feverishness of its emotions and the fuzziness of its politics.

In July 1918, the peasantry, which had from July the previous year up till January and February supported the Bolsheviks as instruments for the expropriation of the landlords, had now as a whole become hostile to them. On the key question’ of the trade in grain, peasant interests allied the middle peasants with the kulaks. The Left S-R party, whose leading circles were made up of sincere Socialist intellectuals, had by now lost its social base. Between the intentions of its leaders and the aspirations of the class which lent it strength, the gap was widening. All that could issue now was some kind of adventure. In such situations all that remains for revolutionary idealists is to try their luck for the last time, to fall and break their necks.

The defeat of the S-Rs, coming as it did after the disarmament of the anarchists, marked (in Trotsky’s words) the end of the Soviet alliance that had been cemented the previous November through the combined efforts of the peasant masses and the proletariat. Once the bourgeois revolution carried out by the rural masses had run its course, the contradiction between these aims and the aims of the Socialist revolution made itself felt with increasing cruelty. The ideologues of the petty-bourgeoisie, torn by contradictory interests and sentiments, split from the party of the proletariat, not without much inner turmoil. It is the moment chosen by influences from abroad to intensify their pressure.

The end of the Soviet alliance produces in its’ wake a formidable concentration of power. Up till this time, the dictatorship was in a way democratic; constitutional forms were spelt out within its structure. The multiplicity of local activity, the existence of parties and groups, the demands of public opinion, the democratic traditions of revolutionaries trained in the school of Western democracy, and the weakness of the central authority all worked in this direction. The debates within the Bolshevik party, too, have shown us the vitality of its internal democracy. But everything changes at this point. The Allied intervention, striking simultaneously with the rebellion of the kulaks and the collapse of the Soviet alliance, poses an unmistakable threat to the survival of the Republic. The proletarian dictatorship is forced to throw off its democratic paraphernalia forthwith. Famine and local anarchy compel a rigorous concentration of powers in the hands of the appropriate Commissariats. The catastrophe of the transport system compels a recourse to draconic methods of authority on the railways. The war, the total encirclement of the revolution and the inadequacy of spontaneous foci of resistance compel the establishment of a regular army, to supplement and supplant the guerrilla formations. Bankruptcy compels the centralization of financial policy. Conspiracy compels the introduction of a powerful apparatus of interior defence. Assassinations, peasant risings and the mortal danger compel the use of terror. The outlawing of the Socialists of counter-revolution and the split with the anarchists and Left S-Rs have as their consequence the political monopoly of the Communist party and the extinction, for practical purposes, of the constitution. With the disappearance of political debates between parties representing different social interests through the various shades of their opinion, Soviet institutions, beginning with the local Soviets and ending with the Vee-Tsik and the Council of People’s Commissars, manned solely by Communists, now function in a vacuum: since all the decisions are taken by the party, all they can do is give them the official rubber-stamp.

The defeat of the Left S-R party is final. Many of its organizations and members break with it. Up till 1923 it retains the mere ghost of a legal existence, with a small review and a few deputies in a few of the Soviets. After the bloody days of July it splits into three tendencies. Certain of its militants found the ‘People’s Communist party’, shortly to be absorbed by the Bolshevik party. Others, persisting in the anti-Bolshevik struggle, will engage in dreams of a Third Revolution, cooperate with Makhno and the Ukrainian anarchists, and assist in 1919 in the anarchist attempt to kill the Moscow CP committee. [15] Spiridonova and Kamkov will adopt an attitude similar to that of these ‘activists’, and be interned. A third group, led by the former People’s Commissar for Justice, Steinberg, will try to keep for the party some legal existence as a loyal opposition, seeking a liaison with those Socialists in western Europe who attempt, in vain, to found’ a Left Socialist International between the Socialist and the Communist Internationals, which is sometimes called the ‘Two-and-a-Half International ’. [16]


During the street fighting in Moscow the counter-revolutionary forces took over Yaroslavl. This ancient city, situated on the Volga on the Archangel railway line between Moscow and Vologda, is an industrial concentration (16,000 workers out of nearly 100,000 inhabitants) and a religious centre, celebrated for its fine sixteenth- and seventeenth-century churches. Reactionary influences had been so successful in this provincial environment that in the spring of 1917 officers had been known to murder Jewish soldiers and non-believers had been lynched by the mob. The Mensheviks were able to provoke strike movements there and the Bolsheviks were hated like the plague. It had been necessary to break the resistance of the post and telegraph offices and the employees engaged in food supply. The populace was rationed; the Soviet raised forced levies from the bourgeoisie. Public processions were organized by the clergy, who were held personally responsible by the Soviet for any disorders. The town was actually held by two or three hundred determined Communists led by Nakhimson, a young doctor of philosophy from Berne University who had fought in the 1905 revolution, and the watchmaker Zakheim: both being Jews. Meanwhile the Fatherland and Freedom Defence League was concentrating its forces there secretly. The League, which could count on several thousand reliable sup-porters, had at first intended to start simultaneous insurrections in Moscow, Rybinsk, Murom, Kostroma, Yaroslavl and Kazan. The preventive measures taken by the Cheka in Moscow and Kazan forced it to abandon this extensive plan of operations. At the beginning of July Boris Savinkov arrived at Yaroslavl accompanied by his assistants, including Colonel Perkhurov, who had been appointed to the command of the local forces. This high-ranking officer had served the Red Army on a number of occasions and had only recently been an inspector of artillery with a partisan corps. He now had two or three hundred ex-officers in his organization.

On the night of 6-7 July, 110 of his men assembled not far from the town. Their arms amounted to about a dozen revolvers. They began by seizing the artillery depot and getting themselves armed. The mounted militia surrendered without a struggle and a Red regiment decided to stay neutral and allow itself to be disarmed. The Whites had been promised the support of several hundred workers; in the event they got hardly a few dozen. Arrests of the Communists began. Nakhimson and Zakheim were captured when just out of bed, and shot on the spot. The town awoke to find itself in a state of siege, and under the authority of the ‘volunteer army of the north’, commanded by the ‘old revolutionary’ Boris Savinkov and Colonel Perkhurov, acting on behalf of General Alexeyev (then away organizing the volunteer army of the south, with Denikin). Several commissars, including one Bolshevik, went over to the Whites. Intellectuals, high-school pupils, middle-class youngsters flocked to enlist in hundreds under the banner of ‘order’. News of sweeping Czechoslovak victories was being given out.

The Whites arrested around 200 Communists and suspects and, not knowing what to do with them, interned them on a barge moored between the two banks of the Volga. These 200 captives, men, women and children, wounded, sick and dying, were crammed on top of each other in their floating prison, in which they spent thirteen days, exposed to the fire of the belligerent forces; they received nothing in the way of food.

The Mensheviks, who had been informed of the reactionary coup that was being organized, had decided to observe complete neutrality.

The Communists, although surprised by this attack, delivered at the moment when the political conflict with the local Left S-R branch was occupying all their attention, soon recovered and concentrated around the city all the Red units they could call in. They made use of the powerful artillery they had at their disposal to begin immediately with a bombardment that was to last twelve days. A ferocious battle ensued. When the promised descent of the Allies from Archangel failed to materialize, the Whites knew they were lost. They tried in vain to call the surrounding countryside to insurrection, but the peasants demanded arms for the sole purpose of defending their villages against the Bolsheviks and were unwilling to engage in any further operations. Perkhurov managed in the end to escape from the city by boat, under cover of fog, at the head of fifty officers. [17] Most of the Whites refused to risk a breakthrough; hoping to escape the vengeance of the revolution by a subterfuge, they surrendered on 21 July to a German lieutenant who headed a committee of prisoners-of-war, and declared themselves to be the prisoners of Germany. The town, full of corpses and smoking ruins, had now exhausted its bread supply.

The extraordinary Red General Staff for the Yaroslavl front issued an order to the population decreeing that:

any person who wants to save his life must leave the city within twenty-four hours and surrender on the American Bridge. Those who remain in the town after this interval will be treated as rebels. After twenty-four hours, no quarter will be given to any person. The town will be mercilessly bombarded by heavy artillery, using poison-gas shells. Any who remain in it will perish in the ruins, along with the rebels, the traitors and the enemies of the workers’ and poor peasants’ revolution [20 July].

The population, terrified at this announcement, came out into the fields in throngs to surrender at the designated point; there they filed in their entirety past the tables of the Cheka, which had been drawn up in the open air. Three hundred and fifty Whites were arrested in the course of this summary tribunal and shot without delay. Fifty-seven officers had already been executed when the Reds entered the town. It was the first serious episode of the terror.

The futile battle of Yaroslavl left 4,000 workers without jobs and 40,000 persons homeless. Fourteen factories had been destroyed, 2,147 houses out of 7,618, nine out of ten schools, twenty public buildings out of forty-seven. [18]


The battle of Yaroslavl was, as a matter of fact, no more than one episode in the Allied intervention in Russia. In the previous chapter we have already mentioned the plan for encircling Moscow which had been envisaged by General Lavergne. The testimony of Boris Savinkov before the Moscow Revolutionary Tribunal in 1924, which moreover accords fully with all the written sources in this affair (and there are many of them) is absolutely clear.

I thought at first [said Savinkov] of operating in Moscow; but the French [Consul Grenard and General Lavergne, the latter speaking on M. Noulens’s behalf] told me that the Allies felt that it was possible to continue operations against the Germans on the Russian front ... They informed me that a sizeable landing of Anglo-French forces would be taking place at Archangel, with this purpose in mind, and that it was necessary to support this expedition from the interior. The plan was to occupy the north of the Volga basin, when the British and French would support the insurrection. We were to take Yaroslavl, Rybinsk, Kostroma and Murom. The French would concentrate on Vologda. But they deceived us. The Allied landing did not take place and we found ourselves on our own at Yaroslavl ... The French knew all the resources we could call on ... I saw Grenard and Lavergne several times.... The French put money at my disposal. Our own funds [those of the Fatherland and Freedom Defence League], which were on a relatively small scale, came from three sources. There were insignificant donations; I had 200,000 roubles (Kerensky issue) via a Czech intermediary named Klepando. The French gave about two and a half million Kerensky roubles. [19] An official brought me the money, in small amounts at first; when the insurrection was in the offing they gave a huge sum all at once, two million I think ... [20]

The French advised me to seize Yaroslavl, Rybinsk and Kostroma. I hesitated, as I felt that our forces were insufficient. For a while I was thinking of transferring them all to the Czechs, and even gave the order for a section of them to go off to Kazan, which was still held by the Reds, to start a rising there when the Czechs came near. But I had a message from Vologda via Grenard in which Noulens confirmed categorically that the landing at Archangel would be taking place on 5 and 10 July (or else 3 and 8 July, I cannot remember exactly) and asked me at all costs to begin the action on the upper Volga precisely on that date.

The British did not land at Archangel until a month later, on 3 August. There was never any question of a French landing. All the indications are that M. Noulens wanted popular insurrections against the Bolsheviks as a means of influencing his government to support his own interventionist policies. [21] Savinkov’s activities on the upper Volga were to complement those of the Czechoslovaks and the Right S-Rs farther down the river. A kind of S-R government had been functioning for a month in Samara, receiving its directives likewise from M. Noulens. One of the leaders of the S-R party at this time, who was also a leading figure in the so-called Constituents’ movement, wrote:

In June we received an official note from M. Noulens ... giving a categorical confirmation of the Allied governments’ decision to supply forces for joint action against the Germano-Bolsheviks; such forces were to be large enough to take the weight of the struggle in the first stage and to enable the anti-Bolshevik contingents to form themselves into a big regular army. The Allies rejected any possibility of co-existence with the Bolsheviks and proposed the formation of a single coalition government, to take the form of a directorate of three persons, armed with dictatorial powers until the existing Constituent, Assembly could meet.... The Allies, in addition, intended to recognize the Assembly only in respect of its right to invest the directorate with its authority and to prepare fresh Constituent elections. [22]

A letter from M. Stephen Pichon, then Foreign Minister in Clemenceau’s cabinet, to the Foreign Minister of the Samara government, Vedenyapin (a Right S-R), written at the same time or shortly afterwards, contains a note to exactly the same effect. [23] The Right Centre (Prince E.N. Trubetskoy, P.B. Struve, Gurko) and the League for Renewal, dominated by the liberal bourgeoisie, equally collaborated with the French. The Left S-Rs, too, though sincere and determined adversaries of all these counter-revolutionary groups, appear to have had relations with the French Military Mission. I have been assured from several quarters that the latter supplied the grenades which were used in the murder at the German Legation. Savinkov testified: ‘I remember one conversation that I had, I think, with Grenard. He told me that the French had given facilities for the assassination of Count Mirbach by the Left S-Rs.’

We can be certain that the Soviet régime’s pro-war party was in contact with the Allies. One is therefore led to conclude that the French, being as much informed of the Left S-Rs’ plans as they were of Savinkov’s and the Czechoslovaks’ activity, managed to apply a certain division of labour between the various parties, unbeknown to one another. It was they who, after a certain fashion, achieved a unified command over two rival fronts. The betrayal of Muraviev, to be related below, strengthens this conviction of ours.


For several days Russia lived under the menace of a renewed war with Germany. In spite of some reassuring statements made to the Reichstag by the Chancellor, Germany presented the Soviet Republic on 14 July with a Note demanding that a battalion of uniformed troops be allowed into Moscow to ensure the security of the Imperial embassy. It would have amounted to an occupation of Moscow. The Russian reply, drafted by Lenin, was an outright refusal.

We would have been obliged [Lenin told the Vee-Tsik] to reply to this action as we have already replied to the Czechoslovaks’ mutiny and the British military operations in the north: by an expanded mobilization, calling on all adult workers and peasants to resist and, if a temporary retreat should become necessary, to destroy by fire all stores without exception to prevent them falling into enemy hands. War would then be for us a fateful but absolute and unconditional necessity and this would be a revolutionary war waged by the workers and peasants of Russia, shoulder to shoulder with the Soviet government until their last breath.

But Germany, preoccupied by the failure of its last offensives on the French front, was no longer in a fit condition to invade Russia. All that happened was that the German Legation was transferred to Pskov, in occupied territory.

The attempted insurrection of the Left S-Rs had one jarring echo on the eastern front. There the Red troops operating against the Czechs and the counter-revolutionary bands had been placed under the supreme command of Colonel Muraviev, whose role in the defence of Petrograd after the October victory and in the capture of Kiev a little later we have already recorded.

He was a born adventurer. He considered himself to be a Left S-R (membership of this party was a convenient solution for a number of people who wanted to be adopted by the Soviet régime without demeaning themselves by submission to Bolshevik discipline). He had, I believe, lectured in tactics at a military academy. A bluffer and a braggart, Muraviev was not lacking in certain military capabilities: quick-wittedness, daring and the art of addressing soldiers and giving them heart [Trotsky].

As an organizer he was a spirited character. Having received the directive of his party, and being still ignorant of the outcome of the Moscow coup, Muraviev suddenly announced that he considered himself to be at war with Germany, ordered his troops to wheel round towards the east, had the Simbirsk Soviet surrounded and presented himself there to demand their support. [24] He was received in the Soviet by angry shouts, insults and threats; completely isolated, he was killed on the spot (12 July). A young officer named Tukhachevsky [25] continued with the operations against the Czechoslovaks on his own initiative. The Lett Vatsetis took over the high command of the front.


When it resumed its sessions on 10 July, the Fifth Congress of Soviets adopted the draft constitution for the Russian Federative Soviet Republic which had been drawn up by Sverdlov. Article I consists of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Exploited and Labouring People’. Article II states the general principles: dictatorship of the proletariat and the poorest peasants ‘in order to abolish the exploitation of man by man and to build Socialism which will have neither classes nor a State’; ‘the Russian Republic is a free association of toilers ...’ The supreme authority there is to belong to the Congress of Soviets, and between Congresses to the All-Russian Soviet Executive (Vee-Tsik). The Church is separated from the State and education from the Church ‘in order to guarantee freedom of thought to the workers’. ‘In order to guarantee the toilers the real freedom to express their opinions, the Republic ... abolished the subjection of the press to capital and offers to the working class and the poor peasantry all the technical and material means for publishing newspapers ... [etc.] and for distributing them freely in the country.’ The freedoms of assembly, association and education are guaranteed by similar measures. ‘The Republic ... considers labour to be an obligation for all its citizens, and adopts the motto: He who does not work, neither shall he eat!’ There is to be compulsory military service, with only the workers having the privilege of bearing arms. Foreign workers living in the Republic are to enjoy all political rights. The Republic offers asylum to all those in foreign countries who are wanted for political or religious crimes. All nationalities are to be equal. Individuals or groups who make use of their rights against the Republic may be deprived of them.

Article III concerns the structure of authority. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets consists of representatives of local Soviets, the towns being represented by one deputy for every 25,000 inhabitants and the country areas by one deputy for every 125,000. This article formalizes the dominance of the proletariat over the peasantry. Congresses will be held at least twice a year. Extra-ordinary Congresses may be summoned either by Vee-Tsik or on the demand of Soviets representing one third of the country. The Congress is to elect its All-Russian Executive of 200 members at the maximum, responsible to itself. This Executive selects the Council of People’s Commissars and enjoys legislative power. Its members are to perform specific missions or do other work in the Commissariats. The Executive may annul or suspend any measure taken by the Council of People’s Commissars, which is to submit its most essential decisions to it for approval. The People’s Commissars are to number seventeen (Foreign Affairs, War, Navy, Interior, Justice, Labour, Social Insurance, Public Education, Posts and Telegraphs, Nationalities, Finance, Communications, Agriculture, Commerce and Industry, State Control, Supreme Council of the Economy, Public Health). At the head of each Commissariat is placed a collegium whose members are nominated with the approval of the Council of Commissars; the members of the collegium can appeal from it to the Council and to the Vee-Tsik Bureau. The Council of People’s Commissars is responsible both to the Congress of Soviets and to Vee-Tsik.

The All-Russian Congress of Soviets authorizes, amends and supplements the constitution, directs general policy, declares peace and war, fixes the plan for the nation’s economic life, votes the budget, regulates financial and similar agreements, legislates and amnesties. In between Congresses, Vee-Tsik enjoys all these powers with the exception of amending the Constitution and ratifying peace treaties. Matters of emergency importance are thus anticipated as falling within its domain.

The various Soviet Congresses are laid down as follows. Regional Congresses are to have one delegate from town or district Soviets per 25,000 inhabitants, and one per 5,000 electors on town registers, with 500 delegates at a maximum. These norms are to form a limit on the deputies elected to the Regional Congress from the Provincial Congresses. The Provincial Congress is to have one delegate from the ward or district Soviets per 10,000 inhabitants, and one delegate per 1,000 town electors, with 300 delegates as a maximum per province or gubernia. The Ward Congress is to have one representative per 1,000 inhabitants, to a maximum of 300 deputies, and the County Congress (in the rural areas) one deputy for each ten members of local Soviets. These congresses will constitute the supreme local authorities and will elect Executive Committees.

The Soviets, or Councils, are constituted in the towns in the ratio of one deputy per 1,000 inhabitants; they are to number not less than fifty nor more than 1,000 members. In the country areas and in towns of less than 10,000 inhabitants, one deputy is to be elected per 100 inhabitants, with a minimum total of three and a maximum of fifty for each village; the period of election is three months. The Soviets are to elect Executive Committees. Their local powers are very extensive.

The right to vote is enjoyed by all toilers of both sexes, soldiers and sailors. The following may not vote or stand for election: persons who exploit the labour of anyone else; persons living off unearned income or engaged in commerce; priests, monks, former police officers, members of the former ruling dynasty, the insane and those condemned to deprivation of civil rights. Elections are to take place ‘according to custom’ (which amounts to specifying a vote by show of hands) in the presence of an electoral commission and a representative of the Soviet. The credentials of those elected are to be verified by a mandates commission appointed by the Soviet; electors may at any moment recall their deputy and proceed to fresh elections.

Article V of the constitution deals with the budget. Section 79 makes it clear that the financial policy of the Republic ‘works towards the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and prepares the general equality of all citizens’, without hesitating to infringe on private property in the pursuit of this end. The Congress is to delimit the income of the State and that of the localities. All expenditures of the Exchequer are to be controlled by the central government. Article VI concerns the emblem of the Russian Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics: sickle and hammer on a red background, within the rays of the rising sun, the whole surrounded by a crown of wheat-ears. Motto: Proletarians of all lands, unite. The Red Flag is to bear the initials of the Republic.

This constitution was not debated. Its role was purely that of sanctioning and codifying the organization of a new form of State which had been born, as it were, spontaneously, from the base to the summit. Its distinguishing features were: unification of legislative and executive powers, political monopoly for the labouring classes, dominance of the proletariat over the peasantry, participation of the masses in public life and class dictatorship. The profusion of electors, deputies, Soviets and Congresses, and the rights that these enjoyed, appeared to provide the most substantial guarantees of a labour democracy; the dictatorship was assured by the multi-stage character of elections and the centralization of powers. But, as we have seen, the bloc between the Soviet parties had just collapsed precisely at this moment. Soviet democracy gave place, through the force of irresistible historical necessities, to the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party; the constitution was to become increasingly a project for an ideal proletarian democracy for whose realization neither the time nor the means was available. Any normal functioning of this array of institutions, so simple in their social character, yet of an enormous scope and practical complexity (since they implied a mobilization of the political activity of millions of labouring people), would have pre-supposed, in default of an actual revolutionary upsurge, at least peace, security and a level of sufficient prosperity to permit a free, rich, variegated and constant political life to be conducted in the nation, reflected in innumerable initiatives. But it was just at this moment that mortal peril converted the Republic into an entrenched camp, defended by a phalanx of staunch and conscious revolutionaries in the front rank, in whose hands the dictatorship was to function as the decisive weapon. We must note that up to this time no one had formulated the theory, later to acquire the force of law, according to which the dictatorship of the proletariat is naturally exercised by the Communist party. This theory will be imposed later, by life. [26]


The situation on the front was worsening daily. The Czechoslovaks entered Ufa on 5 July, Verkhne-Uralsk on the 7th, Zlatust on the 8th, Syzran on the 10th, Simbirsk on the 22nd and Ekaterinburg on the 25th; they crowned this series of successes on 6 August with the capture of Kazan. (In the meantime counter-revolutionary attempts on the lines of Yaroslavl had taken place at Murom, Rybinsk and Arzamas on 11 July, and Nizhni-Novgorod on the 14th; the British occupied Onega on the 31st and, with support from the Whites, Archangel on 2 August.)

The Czechoslovaks thus occupied the middle stretch of the Volga and the Ural mountains. They held down the country’s most important river artery, the granary of European Russia, the mining and industrial region of the Urals and the roads of Siberia. Farther to the south, General Dutov’s Cossacks were occupying Uralsk and Buzuluk, so that communications with Turkestan were practically cut off. The strategic aims of the Czechoslovaks were to link up with the Allies who were landing on the White Sea coast, and to support the Japanese intervention which might very easily be extended, it seemed, as far as the Ural region via the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The regular, efficiently commanded Czechoslovak formations, which aroused support everywhere from the counter-revolutionary elements of the population, found themselves faced in battle only by improvised, indisciplined and anarchical units, good at most for a guerrilla war against an adversary exposed to the hatred of the masses. One corps of 1,105 bayonets, for instance, which held the front near Myas, not far from Chelyabinsk, was made up of thirteen local detachments, the smallest of which contained nine men and the largest, from Perm, 570. It had twenty-four horsemen and nine machine-guns. However, the four companies that came from Perm had not a horse among them while the thirty-nine volunteers from Katai had twelve. Each detachment had its own leaders and tried to act as it liked. The basis of their organization was the local factory. Some data concerning a certain Simonov Brigade give some idea of their military preparation. Here there were about 100 experienced soldiers, about 100 who had done some drill five times or less, and about 600 totally ignorant of the handling of weapons. ‘Armed to the teeth, after any fashion they could manage, they did not know how to make use of their arms.’ These bands sometimes fought very well, and sometimes very badly; they knew almost nothing of the art of reconnaissance, of the main forms of defence, of the most elementary precautions to be taken in a march across country. They might abandon a position simply to carry on a leisurely debate about what to do a little further off; or retreat before the enemy, without bothering to warn other comrades, simply to take a rest (’We’re fed up with it!’). We shall quote a passage from a report on some operations on the river Kyshtyma:

At about eleven the firing slackened off. The leader of the detachments from Rozhdestvenskoe telephoned to say that his men had learnt that the enemy had captured some villages close to their own and had decided to leave the line and defend their own village; the workers had taken the same view, so the orders that had been given could not be carried out ... The Seventh Ural regiment left its positions to take a breather without telling anybody. When asked about it, its leader answered: ‘The men wanted to get themselves dry and have a sleep; they decided to go off only for half an hour but are still sleeping; I can’t do any more.’ After one very ragged battle it was found that out of 2,200 troops only 900 were left, many of them barefoot and without rifles; out of four cannon three remained, out of fifty machine-guns twelve working and five damaged; two detachments were missing without trace. The T–– detachment stationed machine-gunners around its village and decided not to budge. [27]

These partisans were beaten with ease by the Czechoslovaks.

At the same time, a general drive towards mobilization was taking place: battalions, regiments and divisions sprang up almost spontaneously on the initiative of hosts of militants. These mobilized officers in their service, and created general staffs and the machinery for supplies. The Red Army was born as much from these numberless initiatives as from the organizing effort directed by.Trotsky. In a speech before the Moscow Soviet on 29 July, Trotsky defined the tasks of the moment: ‘Our troops lack cohesion. The servile drill of the old army must be replaced in the Red Army by a sharp, clear consciousness of the absolute necessity to fight.’ This was the revolutionary master-idea of the Red Army’s creator. All the regular armies of modern times have had a triple backbone to stiffen them: the State, the court-martial (with the death penalty) and the cult of the fatherland to complement the rest (the anti-militarist joins the colours like any other citizen). The Red Army must be, above all, the organized expression of the workers’ collective consciousness; its discipline must rest on the soldier’s personal convictions.

The force that the old armies acquired through long months of drill, training, and practice with weapons, cementing units mechanically together, must be provided by us in the spiritual plane, by introducing into our army the best elements of the working class: that will ensure us victory, despite the weakness at command level.

In each unit a core of Communist revolutionaries must be placed to be its life and soul: five to ten workers will suffice. Moscow had already given the army two or three hundred agitators, commissars and organizers; it must give twice as many again. The Petro-grad Soviet has resolved to send a quarter of its members, 200 men, to the Czechoslovak front. If we pay this price the treacherous officers will be broken down over and over again. We will shut them up in concentration camps at the front, ‘we will case them in with commissars whose revolvers are at the ready’. The commissars will be the living incarnation of the army, the force that determines power: ‘Let him who feels he is not of this stamp be off and packing! Let him who remains give his life!’

The Communist backbone of the Red Army goes off to organize a vast service of political agitation, propaganda, education and action, such as no army has known before. In place of passive obedience the proletarian revolution substitutes the obedience of a discipline that is based on political consciousness.

In Petrograd, Moscow and other industrial regions, the working-class youth is mobilized. ‘Victory or death’ is the slogan issued to all. ‘Sons of the working class, we have made a pact with death, and therefore with victory’ (Trotsky). These are not idle words; for death is everywhere.


The Czechoslovak intervention settled the fate of the Romanovs. Ever since the first days of the revolution, the royal house had been the field of a persistent battle between those who wanted to preserve the dynasty and those who wished to annihilate it. This struggle had begun on 16 March 1917, when the Soviet had demanded that Prince Lvov’s Provisional Government should arrest Nicholas II. Shortly afterwards the British ambassador in Petrograd sounded out the government on the possibility of transferring the Imperial family to Britain. These discussions went on while the Romanovs were interned in their usual residence of Tsarskoye-Seloe (now Dietskoye-Seloe) close to the capital. After the serious riots of July 1917 the Kerensky Cabinet, in order to give some satisfaction to the revolutionary masses, and also to whisk the ‘august captives’ out of their reach, exiled the Imperial family to Tobolsk. Nicholas II, his closest relatives, his retinue of five courtiers and thirty-five servants left Tsarskoye-Seloe on 14 August in a special train that flew the pennant of the Japanese Red Cross. They were lodged in Tobolsk in the mansion that had belonged to the governor-general on ‘Liberty Street’. The instructions of the Provisional Government placed them ‘under the protection’ of their escort: the soldiers performing this duty decided of their own accord to take all possible measures to prevent an escape. In this large Siberian town the former Emperor enjoyed a tolerable existence, like a man of modest property under surveillance. There, while the civil war was ranging across the country, he spent quiet winter evenings, a good bourgeois at his fireside. Nicholas II read through the foreign reviews; Alexandra Feodorovna played bezique with old General Tatishchev; the four Grand Duchesses devoted themselves to the proper occupations of ladies. In the night and the snow, revolutionary soldiers kept guard on the doors. A commissar from the Provisional Government, a Socialist-Revolutionary who had known exile in Siberia, lent every attention to the desires of His deposed Majesty. Archbishop Hermogenes of Tobolsk, an old friend of Rasputin, assisted by his clergy, succoured the ‘martyr Emperor’ with their active solicitude. Meanwhile monarchist officers were preparing to liberate him. This situation lasted even after the October Revolution.

However, among the guarding party a group of soldiers came together, who swore that they would never allow the Romanovs to escape alive; the soldiers of the escort searched the ex-Emperor’s quarters, confiscated his Cherkassian dagger, compelled him to remove his braid of office, and rationed him. The Ural Regional Soviet insistently demanded of Vee-Tsik that the royal captives be transferred to Ekaterinburg, and sent Red Guards to watch over the points through which they would have to pass, in case of an escape. Some Bolsheviks from the Ural arrived at Tobolsk with the object of arranging the execution of the Romanovs there, at their,own risk and on their own responsibility. The prisoners were thus enveloped by two opposing conspiracies: one for their rescue, the other for their death.

The officers and the monarchist clergy lacked energy, intelligence and even dedication to their aim. At one point, it seems, they had available a force of several hundred men as well as considerable funds. Quarrels over money and influence between a Lieutenant Soloviev and a priest named Vassiliev caused them to miss the moment to act. The Ural Soviet at last obtained Vee-Tsik’s authority for the transport of the Romanovs to Ekaterinburg. Vee-Tsik entrusted an adventurer by the name of Yakovlev to conduct the transfer at the head of a troop of workers on horse. Simultaneously, the Ural Executive Committee dispatched another party, under more reliable command, to bring back Nicholas II ‘dead or alive’ (this was the end of April). From the start, Yakovlev’s behaviour aroused such suspicions that the Ural Executive resolved to take the Romanovs off him, by force if necessary. The soldiers from the Tsar’s escort were also afraid that this might be an escape attempt, and made Yakovlev take eight of them with him. Yakovlev took the Tsar, the Tsarina, their daughter Maria and five other persons in sledges over the frozen Irtysh towards Tiumen. The extraordinary caravan passed through Pokrovskoe, the village in which Rasputin had been born. Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna received the last homage of their last subjects on the threshold of the house of that ‘holy man’ who had been so instrumental in bringing about their down-fall. Their last chance now came. Yakovlev tried to change the itinerary given in his instructions, and to take the Romanovs not to Ekaterinburg but towards Moscow, via Omsk, Chelyabinsk and Samara. His plan was to offer them asylum in the mountains during the journey, and await events there. The Omsk Soviet refused to let the party cross their territory and ordered him to turn back. Faced with the threat of being outlawed, he complied. [28]

In the meantime, the Regional Congress of the Communist party had met at Ekaterinburg and demanded the death of the Tsar. Nicholas II was received in the working-class capital of the ’Ural region by an energetic Bolshevik, Byeloborodov, Chairman of the Regional Soviet Executive, who had directed the conduct of the whole matter. The former Tsar was housed in the sumptuous mansion of the engineer Ipatiev, who had been given twenty-four hours to move out. The other members of the Imperial family arrived at the end of May with an entourage of twenty-three persons. However, they were allowed to keep none of these except Dr Botkin (who was needed for the Tsarevich Alexei, always in bad health), a cook, a scullery-boy, a footman and a maid. From now on their guard was composed of factory workers. Three sentries watched night and day in the corridors next to their rooms. The prisoners were allowed out into the garden only for half an hour each day.

The Ural Soviet was now demanding the Tsar’s death. The Left S-Rs were insisting on it. Certain anarchists and Left S-Rs, mistrusting the Bolsheviks, prepared an assault upon the Ipatiev house. The Bureau of Vee-Tsik had different ideas; it wanted to conduct a trial of the last Tsar before the proletarians of the Ural. This was to open at the end of July, and Trotsky was to take the role of public prosecutor. Further developments were cut short by the approach of the Czechoslovaks. The Ekaterinburg Cheka had just uncovered an officers’ plot and arrested a number of agents sent by the ambassador of Serbia, Spalaikovic. On 12 July the Soviet noted that it was impossible to proceed with the trial: the Czechoslovaks were approaching the town from both sides and could capture it before the end of the week. The decision was taken to execute the Romanovs without delay and to destroy their remains completely so that no relics might be left for future use.

A worker from the Verkhne-Isetsk factory, Pyotr Zakharovich Ermakov, was deputed to carry out the execution with a squad of reliable men. On the night of 15-16 July, around midnight, Nicholas II, the Tsarina, the Tsarevich Alexei, the four young Grand Duchesses, Dr Botkin and the former heir’s governess and tutor, eleven persons in all, were asked to assemble in a ground-floor room. They expected to be transferred again somewhere else. They stood in a row facing a group of armed men. The sentence of death, in the name of the Regional Soviet, was read out to them, and they had no time to take it in properly. All that Nicholas II said was, in a surprised tone: ‘So we’re not being transferred to another place?’ He was never to recover from his surprise. Moments later, the Romanovs were no more than a heap of corpses hurled against a bullet-pitted wall. Their remains were taken, rolled in bedclothes, by lorry to an abandoned mine eight versts from the city. There their clothing was meticulously searched: the garments of the Grand Duchesses were found to contain a large number of diamonds; the bodies were burned, and the ashes buried in a nearby swamp. This destruction was so effective that the Whites, despite two years of obstinate searching, found almost nothing. The Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, the Tsar’s brother, in whose favour the latter had abdicated, had disappeared for some days. He was living at liberty in Perm; a group of workers, headed by Myasnikov, a determined old Bolshevik, had kidnapped him on the night of 12-13 July, pretending to make an arrest. The local authorities believed that he was in flight; but he had been shot.

A number of other members of the royal house were interned in a disused school in the small factory town of Alapayevsk, 250 miles to the north-east of Ekaterinburg: the Grand Dukes Sergei Mikailovich, Igor, Constantine and Ivan Constantinovich, Prince Palei, Elisabeta Fyodorovna, widow of the Grand Duke Sergei assassinated in 1905, and Princess Helena of Serbia. These were shot on the night of 17-18 July and their remains thrown down a mine shaft.

The Bureau of the All-Russian Soviet Executive learnt of the Romanovs’ execution during its session on the 18th. A draft decree on public health was being debated; Semashko was giving the report. Sverdlov entered and sat down at his place, just behind Lenin. When Semaskho had finished, Sverdlov leaned over towards Lenin and murmured a few words to him.

‘Comrade Sverdlov requests a moment to make a communication.’

Sverdlov said, with his level voice:

‘I have been informed that Nicholas has been shot at Ekaterinburg, on the order of the Regional Soviet. Nicholas wanted to escape. The Czechoslovaks were approaching. The Bureau of Vee-Tsik approves.’

There was silence.

‘We will pass,’ said Lenin, ‘to the detailed examination of the draft.’

A decree confiscating the property of the Romanovs was issued on the 19th of the month. [29]


[1] Jacques Sadoul, Notes sur la Révolution Bolchevique (Paris, 1919). This book contains a number of fine portrayals of the men of the Russian revolution: they are strikingly faithful portraits, though a little hasty.

[2] ‘Trotsky proclaims aloud with superb style and, more importantly, with complete sincerity, that Lenin is the uncontested head of the Russian revolution. Lenin and Trotsky form, for all who see them at close quarters, an example of the most confidential unity and of the most fertile collaboration’: Sadoul, ibid., letter of 11 May 1918. So close a collaboration, in a complete community of thought and action, is bound to recall that of Marx and Engels. [Sadoul, by the time Serge wrote these lines, had become an unflinching Stalinist: he was to repay this embarrassing reminder of his early enthusiasm for Trotsky by denouncing Serge (whom he had known well in the French Communist colony in Petrograd) as a terrorist during the latter’s campaign in 1936 against the Moscow trials.]

[3] [Dzerzhinsky died suddenly in 1926, having collapsed in a Central Committee session in which, apparently, he had been fulminating against the Left opposition. In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (London, 1967), Serge quotes another assessment by Radek: ‘Felix died just in time. He was a dogmatist. He would not have shrunk from reddening his hands in our blood.’]

[4] See the biographical note in Chapter 4 (note 32, p.385) giving a biography of Y.M. Sverdlov.

[5] [Zinoviev, at the time that this reference to him was published, was in disgrace both with the Stalin wing of the Russian Communist party (he had been expelled in 1927 for leading the united opposition along with Trotsky) and with the residual Left opposition itself (for he had recanted his dissident views). Hence, perhaps, a certain circumspection in Serge’s language about him. Expelled again in 1932 and 1934 from the party, he recanted ever more abjectly down to his ‘confession’ in the Moscow trial of 1936, where he was sentenced to death.]

[6] [Rakovsky was still, at the time of publication, an intransigent Left oppositionist evolving, in his exile and disgrace, one of the first ‘new class’ theories of the Stalinist bureaucracy. He capitulated to Stalin in 1934, confessed in the 1938 Moscow trial to having been a British spy since 1924, and was sentenced to imprisonment for twenty years, three of which he managed to survive.]

[7] In 1906 while still a young student, a member of the S-R party even then, Maria Spiridonova executed the governor of Tambov province, who had put down peasant disturbances with signal cruelty. She was arrested, and brutalized by the police: she then spent eleven years in the Siberian convict-prison of Akatui, where the régime was so harsh that suicide became the political inmates’ final form of protest. Liberated by the 1917 revolution, Maria Spiridonova became the Left S-R party’s leader. An irreconcilable foe of the Bolsheviks, she was later detained for many years. [Spiridonova was named in the 1938 Moscow trial in connection with the tale of a conspiracy, between Left Communists and Left S-Rs, to kill Lenin in 1918: she did not appear as a witness in the trial, perhaps because she had already been executed.]

[8] N. Lenin, Collected Works (London, 1969), Vol.27, p.527.

[9] I have elsewhere published in Vie Ouvrière, around the end of 1921, the detailed story of this assassination as it was related to me by one of the terrorists concerned, Y.G. Blyumkin, who had become a Communist after having twice miraculously escaped death in attempts committed against his person in the Ukraine by his ‘activist’ Left S-R comrades who objected to his closer ties with the Bolsheviks. [Blyumkin had joined the Trotskyist opposition and been executed by the GPU just before Serge published this book.] His companion in the assassination, Andreyev, later fought alongside Makhno and was killed.

[10] [Vatsetis resigned from his post as the Red Army’s commander-in-chief in early 1919, following disagreements on strategy in which his unsuccessful advocacy of a switch to the southern front was supported also by Trotsky. He retained high responsibility in the Red Army in Stalin’s era until 1937-8, when he perished in the massacre of army commanders.]

[11] On the Left S-R rising, see the following: Y. Peters, Reminiscences of a Cheka Worker in the First Year of the Revolution, Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No.10 (33), 1924; L.D. Trotsky, Collected Works (Moscow and Leningrad, 1926), Vol.17, Pt.1; and Dzerzhinsky’s report on the incident.

[12] See Trutovsky’s speech to Vee-Tsik, 20 May 1918.

[13] Karelin’s speech, same session.

[14] In 1917, the Left S-Rs opposed Kerensky and Chernov, without going to the length of splitting the party they shared with them. In October, when the insurrection was being prepared, they refused formally to give it any support; once the revolution had taken place, they applauded it. Even then, they refused to participate in the first Soviet government and advocated instead a broad Socialist coalition. In the end, they joined the government; they soon left it in order to criticize it more freely, while practising a policy of support towards it; they finished up with an attempt to govern alone.

[15] With a dozen deaths as the result. The Left S-R, Cherepanov, who until then had led an excellent revolutionary career, was one of the authors of this killing. He was shot by the Cheka.

[16] [The ‘Two-and-a-Half International’, or Vienna Union, uniting thirteen moderate internationalist parties (including the British ILP, the German USPD, most of the French SFIO and the Swiss Social-Democratic party) was founded in 1921, and dissolved into the more Right-wing Labour and Socialist International (‘Second International’) in 1923.]

[17] Perkhurov resumed fighting on the Czechoslovak front. Taken prisoner later by the Reds, he re-entered the service of the Red Army and was arrested only in 1921, at Ekaterinburg, at the moment when he was preparing a new coup. He appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and was shot in 1922.

[18] See Sixteen Days: Materials on the History of the White Revolt at Yaroslavl (Shestnadtsat Dnei: Materialy po Istorii Yaroslavskogo Belogvardeiskogo Myatezha) (Yaroslavl, 1924).

[19] [Lockhart’s report to the War Cabinet on his return home (Memorandum on the Internal Situation in Russia, 1 November 1918, copy in Public Record Office, File FO 371/3337, the relevant section of which is summarized in R.H. Ullman, Intervention and War (Princeton, 1961), p.231) confirms this part of Savinkov’s testimony in great detail, down to the sum of two and a half million roubles donated by the French and to Noulens’s false information about the Allied landing.]

[20] Prukopnik Svobody, the organ of the Czech Communists in Russia, revealed in its issue of 28 June 1918 that the National Council which stood over the Czechoslovak troops in Russia had, between 7 March and the beginning of their campaign against the Bolsheviks, received 11,188,000 roubles from a French consul and £70,000 from a British consul. Prukopnik Svobody provided in its report all the further details one could desire. [Lockhart, in his report to the British government (Memorandum on the Internal Situation in Russia, op. cit.), lists the Czech National Council as one of the ‘various counter-revolutionary organizations in Moscow’ with whom ‘I began to strengthen my relations’ after the failure of his hopes for joint Allied-Soviet cooperation. He adds: ‘The French commenced to finance and support these organizations before I did.’]

[21] ‘It was precisely because the intervention, which M. Noulens constantly presented as the firm policy of the Entente powers, had in fact run up against the most serious objections, that our ambassador was led – in order to overcome the resistance he had encountered (which hurt his pride) and in order to give some force to his arguments – to prove through events them-selves that he had fully prepared the ground, so that it needed only a mini-mum effort to overthrow the Bolshevik government and secure the installation of a national Russian government’ (Rene Marchand, Pourquoi Je Me Suis Bailie à la Formule de la Révolution Sociale (Petrograd, 1919)) Sadoul’s letters for July 1918 several times use expressions like ‘ M. Noulens, who has inspired the insurrection now going on in Yaroslavl’ (Sadoul, op. cit., p.99).

[22] A. Argunov, Between Two Bolshevisms (Mezhdu Dvumia Bolshevizmami) (Paris, 1919).

[23] Cited by I. Maisky, The Democratic Counter-Revolution (Demokraticheskaya Kontr-Revoliutsiya) (Moscow, 1923).

[24] A message, To All, To All, To All, published on 11 July under the signatures of the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, N. Lenin, and the War Commissar, L. Trotsky, had stated: ‘The former commanderin-chief on the Czechoslovak front, the Left S-R Muraviev, is declared a traitor and an enemy of the people. Any honest citizen who crosses his path is instructed to kill him on the spot.’

[25] [Tukhachevsky was to play a prominent part in Soviet military history. In his twenties he commanded armies on several civil war fronts, including the attack on Poland in 1920 where failures of coordination between him and Stalin led to the Red Army’s defeat and some subsequent enmity between the two men. At first an advocate of ‘the military opposition’ which emphasized militias and guerrillas as against Trotsky’s centralizing plans for the Red Army, Tukhachevsky later led the modernizing team that re-organized the USSR’s armed forces. One of the first Marshals of the Soviet Union to be appointed (in 1935), he was executed after a secret trial in 1937 following the Gestapo’s planting of forged documents incriminating him as a German agent.]

[26] The present constitution of the USSR follows that of 1918 in its main outlines, with additions on the rights of the federated republics and the Union’s central institutions. [The later constitution of 1936, with its guarantees of civil rights and its replacement of indirect by direct election, was of course even more solely ‘the plan for an ideal proletarian democracy’.]

[27] Cited in A. Anishev, Sketches of the History of the Civil War (Ocherki Istorii Grazhdanskoi Voiny) (Leningrad, 1925).

[28] Yakovlev was to go over to Kolchak in October 1918.

[29] V. Milyutin, Pages from a Journal, Prozhektor, No.4, 1924. See also P.M. Bykov, The Last Days of the Romanovs (Poslednie Dni Romanovykh) (Sverdlovsk, 1926); and local publications in the Ural area.

Last updated on: 7.2.2009