Tatyana Shvetsova







By the summer of 1918 the economy of that part of the country, which was still under the Soviet authority, was in total collapse. The industrial production had ground to a halt due to lack of raw materials. As for the village, it was thrown back to subsistence-farming. 

In these conditions the Soviet Government sought refuge in the policy of ‘military communism’. Its essence lay in a mobilization of all resources within the country for the needs of defense. One of the topmost elements of this policy was a nationalization of all large, medium and a majority of the small-scale industrial enterprises. It was also planned to achieve a maximum centralization in managing industrial production and distribution. Private trade was completely banned. All food produce and industrial goods were distributed among the population through a system of ration cards. A universal compulsory labor duty was introduced. People’s wages were all evened out.

A special system of procurement of farm produce was introduced, called ‘prodrazviorstka’. Judging by official documents, it essentially boiled down to this: Soviet Government set a certain norm for the peasants on bread and other agricultural produce. This officially allowed minimum consisted of 12 pood (1 pood is just under 16,5 kilos) of grain and 1 pood of cereals or 7 pood of potato for one person a year. Everything above that norm was officially declared surplus and had to be sold to the state at fixed prices set by the latter.

As far as the so-called ‘food surplus’ went, firstly, a majority of peasants didn’t have any. Their subsistence farming allowed their families to barely get by, no more than that.

Secondly, the peasants, fully in line with the communal psychology, that came to the fore once they had been driven back to subsistence farming, distributed the exaction of duties evenly, so that it was the better-off peasants who suffered the most, even though their life was but slightly better than that of the poorest peasant folk.

The job of extracting the ‘surplus’ food produce from the peasants fell to the Peoples Commissariat on Food Supplies, which, in turn, set up a whole army of so-called ‘supplies’ units’, made up of workers. The members of these units were paid depending on how much food supplies they could extract from the peasants. The Supplies’ units were aided by so-called ‘committees of the poor’, set up in the villages in June 1918. They comprised village proletariat, semi-proletariat, lumpenprol, impoverished folk and simply declassified elements. In the first years of the revolution a vast number of townsfolk arrived in the villages in an attempt to avoid famine.

Historian Oleg Platonov writes the following about how the supplies’ units coordinated their activity with the ‘committees of the poor’:

“This is how it all occurred in practice. A supplies’ unit, armed to the teeth, arrived at a certain village. All the local proletarians, impoverished folk and often simply god-for-nothing idlers and drunkards gathered for a meeting. From these the heads of the supplies’ units would pick out the ‘committee of the poor’. Members of the committee (often truly declassified, criminal elements) informed the supplies’ unit which of the peasantfolk had the largest stocks of grain. 

At Lenin’s personal instructions, a bonus of half the monetary equivalent of the discovered bread went to the ones who informed about the whereabouts of the ‘surplus’. Next, through the barrel of a gun the unit demanded that the peasants hand over the ‘surplus’, and the informers received their share. Thus, in the Usmansky uyezd of the Tambov Gubernia out of the 6 thousand poods of confiscated bread the supplies’ units transferred 3 thousand to the committees of the poor.”

World-renowned Russian mathematician, philosopher and public activist Academician Igor Shafarevich in one of his recent books quotes the following testimony of a witness to the operations to confiscate bread from peasants of the Voronezh Gubernia, in the black earth region of Central Russia:

“Comrade Margolin, who was conducting the confiscation, upon arriving in the village gathers all the peasantfolk and solemnly declares: “I have brought death to you, villains! See here: every one of my comrades has 120 leaden deaths for you, scoundrels”…etc. There followed demands to comply with the ‘prodrazviorstka’, followed up beatings, being locked up in cold sheds, etc.”

Hardly surprising under the circumstances that the peasants revolted against such a policy towards themselves, dying by the thousands in the struggle. 

“The entire epoch of military communism consisted of a succession of peasants’ revolts, put down by the central powers,” Academician Shafarevich writes. “In a vast number of instances the authorities simply waged war against the peasants.”

Their resistance was so powerful that the supplies’ units managed to procure ten times less grain than was planned.

Getting the food supplies to their destination was just as hazardous as obtaining them from the peasants. In the provinces the food echelons and ships with food products were regularly pillaged. According to historian Leonid Katzva, seeing the ineffectiveness of the policy based exclusively on violence, “soviet power somewhat tempered it in autumn of 1918. Supplies of industrial goods to the rural areas were augmented considerably, and the provision prices on bread raised. While in December 1918 the ‘committees of the poor’, which so alienated the more prosperous and middle peasants, were liquidated.”

The Bolsheviks decided to completely redefine their policy towards the middle peasants. This is what the leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin had to say about this:

“Today the most important question facing the party of communists, an issue that drew the most attention at the recent party congress, is the question regarding the ‘middle’ peasants…

A ‘middle’ peasant is one who does not exploit others and in no measure makes use of the fruits of someone else’s efforts, but lives exclusively by his own hard work…

Soviet power has firmly determined to establish a relationship of peace and complete accord with the middle-peasant, at any cost.

It’s understandable that a ‘middle’ peasant cannot be expected to immediately take to socialism, since he stands firmly by his customary way of life and treats with suspicion all innovations, testing them out in practice prior to accepting what he is being offered. He will never choose to alter his way of life unless he has received proof that the changes are, indeed, necessary and to his benefit.

Communist workers, appearing in the villages, should seek to establish relations of camaraderie with the ‘middle’ peasanthood, bearing in mind that a working person who does not exploit someone else, is a true comrade to the working class, one we can and must achieve a voluntary union built on complete sincerity and trust.

Various measures, suggested by the communist powers, should be viewed as but advice, a proposal to the middle peasant to change over to a new order. Only through joint work, putting these new measures to practice, and by doing away with possible mistakes, will such a union of workers and peasants become viable. This union forms the pillar of Soviet power, its strength and backbone. It is this union that will ultimately ensure that the business of socialist transformation of society, the lofty task of gaining victory over capitalism, of doing away with all form of exploitation, will be brought to its logical conclusion by us.”

One of the elements of military communism was a militarization of labor. You will get a clearer picture of what it meant from the following excerpt taken from the book by Leon Trotsky “Terrorism and Communism”:

The organization of labour is, in effect, an organization of a new society: every historical society is, in essence, an organization of the labor process. If every previous society was an organization of labour in the interests of a minority … we are making the first attempt in world history to organize labour in the interests of the working majority itself! However, this does not exclude an element of coercion in all its manifestations, in the most lenient and the most extreme forms…

The sole means of attracting the necessary labour force for varied tasks of the national economy is the introduction of the compulsory labour duty. 

The very principle of compulsory labor duty is indisputable for a communist: “He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat”. And since everybody must eat – everybody must work! Our professional industrial organizations and economic executives have the full right to demand from their members the same discipline, promptitude and selflessness as up until recently only the army demanded…”

Commenting upon this apologia of compulsory labor, historian Oleg Platonov wrote:

“In Trotsky’s ideas we see a clear manifestation of a utopist striving to create a comprehensive, omniscient and all-understanding centralist system of administrative diktat, combined with a universal militarization of labor, bureaucratization and naturalization of distribution and exchange, bringing the trade unions within the fold of the state. He became one of the main initiators of putting this system into practice. When it eventually suffered a collapse, he explained this not so much by the inherent failings of the system, as the overall low level of culture prevalent among the population of Russia, which had not yet evolved enough to be able to appreciate such ‘superlative’, in his opinion, forms of economic development.”

At the end of 1918 only the central part of Russia remained under the control of the Bolsheviks. Beyond the Volga, in the Urals, Siberia – all power was in the hands of white Admiral Kolchak, prior to the revolution a well-known polar explorer. He pronounced himself the supreme ruler of Russia

The south was occupied by German and Austrian troops, which continued their advance, ignoring the peace accords that had been signed with them.

The Far East was practically occupied by Japan, in the North of Russia the local governments relied on the support of the troops from the members of Entente.

The Bolsheviks learnt their lesson of military disability – they began to build up and strengthen the Red Army. Leon Trotsky contributed a great deal towards its establishment. He was appointed People’s Commissar on Military and Naval Affaris. He was too much of a realist not to acknowledge that one cannot build an army out of ignorant recruits. So he gathered together 30,000 professional armymen from among the former Czarist officers – so-called ‘military specialists’, so that they would train the soldiers.

There were different people among them: some actually sympathized with the Bolsheviks and shared their ideals. But there were others, too. Quite a lot of former Czarist officers who refused to accept the Bolsheviks volunteered for service in the Red Army because they resented the poorly-concealed attempts of Entente allies to lay their hands on Russian lands. While Russia, even as it was infested by the Bolsheviks, was still dear to their hearts. These patriotically inclined officers could see that the White Guards was suffering defeat and could not save Russia. While the Bolsheviks were objectively a force that could prevent Russia from disintegration, and unwittingly, served as a weapon of God’s Providence, gathering together the Russian lands, albeit not as fast as one would want.

The result of Leon Trotsky’s efforts was quite remarkable: at the very height of the Civil war there were 5 million quite well-trained soldiers fighting within the ranks of the Red Army. Trotsky himself displayed outstanding military talent. Though, at the same time he was notorious for being ruthless when it came to matters of implicit discipline and meting out punishment. He was forced to champion the very same advantages of military discipline that the revolution initially intended to eradicate. But extreme measures were, indeed, called for in such dire circumstances. 

Having been tempered in battles, the Red Army began claiming revenge for its previous setbacks. 

In one of his speeches, addressed to the Red Army, Vladimir Lenin said: 

“Comrade Red armymen! Capitalists of England, America and France are waging a war against Russia. They are wreaking vengeance on Soviet power of workers and peasants for having overthrown the power of the capitalists and landowners, thus serving an example to other peoples of the world. 

Capitalists of England, France and America are aiding with money and military hardware the Russian landowners who lead against us troops from Siberia, the Don, the North Caucuses, seeking to reestablish the absolute power of the Czar, the landowners and the capitalists.

No! This will never be! The Red Army has become seasoned in battles, has chased the armies of the gentry and the White officers from the Volga, liberated Riga, almost all of Ukraine, is approaching Odessa and Rostov. Just a bit more effort, some more months of fighting the enemy – and victory will be ours!

The Red Army is strong in its conscious and unanimous struggle for the land of the peasants, the power of workers and peasants, for Soviet power!

The Red Amy is invincible, for it has united millions of peasants and workers, who have now learned to fight, have mastered discipline and comradeship, are strong in spirit, never lose heart after minor setbacks, and attack the enemy with fresh vigor, bolstered by the knowledge their victory is close at hand!”


Copyright © 2006 The Voice of Russia

Originally published at     01/16/2006