2 'Kulaks', Bagmen and Cigarette Lighters

In January 1920 Emma Goldman returned to the Petrograd she had known as a teenager in the 1880s. For over thirty years, while the Anarchist had lived in the United States, the 'gaiety of the city, its vivacity and brilliancy' had remained fresh in her memory. But the Petrograd she found in 1920 was a very different place:

It was almost in ruins, as if a hurricane had swept over it. The houses looked like broken old tombs upon neglected and forgotten cemeteries. The streets were dirty and deserted; all life had gone from them. The population of Petrograd before the war was almost two million; in 1920 it had dwindled to five hundred thousand. The people walked about like living corpses; the shortage of food and fuel was slowly sapping the city; grim death was clutching at its heart. Emaciated and frost-bitten men, women, and children were being whipped by the common lash, the search for a piece of bread or a stick of wood. It was a heart-rending sight by day, an oppressive weight by night. The utter stillness of the large city was paralysing. It fairly haunted me, this awful oppressive silence broken only by occasional shots.24

The great cities of the north were the major casualties of the revolution and civil war. They suffered most from its physical destruction, becoming little more than ghost towns. Petrograd was one of the principal victims: the evacuation of the capital to Moscow seemed to deprive it of all life. Gorky, a Peterburzhets to the end, saw its decay as a sign of Russia's fall from civilization, its descent from Europe into Asia. 'Petrograd is dying as a city,' he wrote to Ekaterina in 1918. 'Everyone is leaving it — by foot, by horse, by train. Dead horses lie in the streets. The dogs eat them. The city is unbelievably dirty. The Moika and Fontanka are full of rubbish. This is the death of Russia.'25 Zamyatin, in his story The Cave (1922), depicted civil-war Petrograd as an ice-age settlement, peopled by troglodytes who worshipped their 'cave-god', the primus stove, and burned their books to keep themselves alive. The hero of the story, Martin Martinych, a lover of Scriabin's Opus 74, is reduced to stealing logs from his neighbour.

To the city survivors of these years, it must indeed have seemed as if the urban life of Russia was returning to the prehistoric age. The once bustling city centres were now pervaded by an eerie silence. Shops and restaurants were boarded up; factories were closed. There was so little traffic that weeds began to grow in the deserted streets. 'Petrograd is becoming a cemetery,' Vasilii Vodovozov, an aged professor and liberal activist, noted in his diary during the spring of 1919. 'But the air is as clean as in a village cemetery.' Horses vanished from the city streets, as their owners could no longer feed them, only to reappear as stinking meat in soups and goulashes. 'Civil war sausage' was a euphemism for horsemeat — or even worse (for it was not just horses that disappeared: hunger also wiped out the urban populations of dogs, cats and birds, along with the animals in the zoos). One of the sights of the cities in these years was the emaciated figures of children pulling carts and taxis as human draught animals. Even the Kremlin could not feed its horses — twenty of them died from hunger — so its officials had to travel around in private taxis.26

Rats and cockroaches were the only species to thrive. The decay of the housing stock and the sanitation system produced a breeding ground for vermin. Wooden fences disappeared as people ripped them up for firewood. A three-storey house that had been abandoned would be stripped down to its brick foundations within a couple of nights. Three thousand wooden houses were stripped apart in Petrograd alone during 1919—20. People walked away with window-frames, floorboards, doors and wall panels. Whole urban tree populations disappeared as people chopped them down for firewood. In the Ukrainian city of Nikolaev the central boulevards lost all their trees during the two days of January 1920 between the departure of the Whites and the arrival of the Reds. In the freezing winters of the civil war the most valuable gift one could give a friend was a piece of firewood. People were literally prepared to kill for it. They burned their own furniture, their books and letters, just in order to keep the cold away.27

As for the sanitary conditions of the cities, they were almost indescribable. Water pipes cracked in the arctic winter frosts. People had to collect water from pumps in the street, and to use the courtyards for toilets. The staircases of apartment blocks always smelled of urine. Without electric light, which was only turned on for two or three hours in the evening, people made their own sort of wick-and-oil lamp out of a bottle filled with fat. It was called a nedyshalka (a 'don't breathe'), since it filled the room with a smelly smoke that irritated throats and lungs and blackened all the walls. According to one contemporary, this primitive lamp 'made darkness visible but did not permit reading or writing or even much movement' because it 'went out at the slightest breath'. There was no real system for collecting rubbish because of the shortage of horses. People dumped their rubbish in the streets and squares — which soon attracted vermin. Diseases spread at epidemic rates: cholera, typhus, dysentery and influenza killed people in their thousands every year. The death rate in Petrograd reached an estimated eighty per thousand in 1919. Morgues and cemeteries could not cope, and corpses lay around for months waiting to be buried.28

Food, or the lack of it, lay at the heart of the urban crisis. 'Famine in Petrograd has begun,' Gorky wrote in June 1918. Almost daily they pick up people who have dropped from exhaustion right in the streets.' Food deliveries to the cities plummeted. Bakeries closed. Even in the Volga city of Saratov, right in the middle of the country's richest grain-producing region, long bread queues would form before 5 a.m., two hours before the bakeries opened. The average worker was consuming fewer than 2,000 calories a day — less than half the recommended intake. Compared with the pre-war years, hardly themselves a golden age, he was eating half the amount of bread and one-third the amount of meat. Food prices rocketed, and workers' wages could not keep up. In 1918 the real value of the average worker's wage was 24 per cent of its value in 1913; and by the end of 1919 its value was as low as 2 per cent. Studies showed that the average worker was spending three-quarters of his income on food, as opposed to less than half in 1913. They also showed that wages accounted for only half the workers' income. In other words, the mass of the workers were forced to feed themselves through the informal or black economy. Ethel Snowden, who came to Moscow in 1920 as a member of the British TUC and Labour Party delegation, asked her guide during a factory tour how much the average worker earned. When she was told what this was, and that it was enough to feed his family for no more than three days, she exclaimed naively: 'Oh! how clever and frugal of the workers to live without any food for the other twenty-seven days of the month. How do they do it?' The answer, of course, was that they traded on the side. They sold their belongings in the flea-markets; travelled to the countryside to barter with the peasants; put their children on the streets to beg; and their wives and daughters on the streets to sell themselves. There were at least 30,000 prostitutes on the streets of Petrograd in 1918, most of whom were teenage girls. Many of them were from 'respectable families'. One study in the early 1920s found that 42 per cent of the prostitutes in Moscow were from the gentry or bourgeois families who had been ruined by the revolution. Emma Goldman found the Nevsky Prospekt lined with nice young girls 'selling themselves for a loaf of bread or a piece of soap or chocolate'.29

For the so-called 'former people', without employment or a living ration, the daily hunt for food was soul-destroying. Once mighty scions of the aristocracy were reduced to selling their last precious possessions on the streets. The fat classes became thin. When asked how they were, people would joke: 'It could be worse. At least, I'm managing to lose some weight.' Even the Brusilovs often went hungry, despite the regular gifts of butter, milk, honey and sour cream that were sent to them by loyal peasant veterans of the war. In 1919 Brusilov agreed to accept a position in the archives office of the Red Army Staff to supervise a compilation of Russia's part in the Great War. This paid him a wage of 3,500 roubles a month, which was hardly enough to live on. 'It was painful to see how they lived,' recalled a close friend of the Brusilovs. 'Their main meal was a single dish, usually consisting only of potatoes.'30

Gorky took up the cause of the starving intelligentsia. He publicized their desperate plight in his editorials in Novaia zhizn. Professor Gezekhus, the famous physicist, now an old man of seventy-two, was ill in hospital, 'blown up with hunger', like some African famine victim. Vera Petrova, a zemstvo physician, was 'dying of hunger, helpless, dirty, in a dusty awful room'. Glazunov, the famous composer, had grown 'thin and pallid', and lived with his aged mother in two unheated rooms in Petrograd. When H.G. Wells came to visit him, Glazunov begged him to send him some paper so that he could write out his compositions. Even Pavlov, Russia's only Nobel scientist, was forced to spend his time growing carrots and potatoes. Gorky appealed to the Bolshevik leaders for special rations, a better flat and other requirements on behalf of these starving geniuses. Lenin indulged most of his requests: he had always retained a special fondness for Gorky and, perhaps more relevantly, was very aware of his influence abroad. Gorky used this to save as much of the old Russian culture as he could: he became its self-appointed curator (sometimes using his position to buy up works of art cheaply for himself). The threat to culture posed by the revolution had been one of Gorky's constant themes. On the morning of the Bolshevik seizure of power he had headlined his column in Novaia zhizn CULTURE IS IN DANGER! He established a writers' refuge in the former house of Yeliseev, a wealthy merchant, on the corner of the Nevsky Prospekt and the Bolshaia Morskaya. At night the pointed building looked like a boat, so that it became known as the 'ship of fools'. Later Gorky set up a House of Artists too. He also established his own publishing house, World Literature, to publish cheap mass editions of the classics. Its offices employed hundreds of writers, journalists, academics, musicians and artists as translators and copy-editors who would otherwise have been left to fend for themselves. Gorky saw it less as a business than as a charity. And indeed many of the greatest names of twentieth-century literature — Zamyatin, Gumilev, Babel, Chukovsky, Khodasevich, Mandelstam, Shklovsky, Piast, Blok and Zoshchenko — owed their survival through these hungry years largely to the patronage of Gorky. Although in later years many of them condemned Gorky for his close links with the Bolsheviks, they themselves would not have survived the civil war without his contacts.31

Gorky turned his enormous flat on the Kronversky Prospekt into a refuge for the penniless and the persecuted victims of the civil war. Compared with the cold and the dampness in which most of the population lived, it was something of a paradise. Viktor Serge described it as 'warm as a greenhouse'. Gorky accumulated various 'wives' and 'sisters', 'daughters' and 'brothers', all of them in some way victims of the terror, whom he allowed to shelter in his home. So many people came to Gorky's flat — at first simply to drink tea and chat but they somehow ended up by staying several years — that the wall between it and the neighbouring flat had to be knocked through and the two apartments made into one. Gorky's mistress, Moura Budberg (then still Baroness Benckendorff), lived in one room, and cooked most of the meals with a girlfriend of the artist Tatlin, who lived in another. There was always an interesting and motley collection of people around the lunch and dinner tables. Famous writers and artists would rub shoulders with the workers and the sailors whom Gorky had picked up on the streets. H. G. Wells stayed when he came to Russia in 1920. Shaliapin was a frequent visitor, and always cursed the Bolsheviks; yet so too were the Bolshevik leaders, Lunacharsky and Krasin, and the deputy head of the Petrograd Cheka, Gleb Bokii, who must have met many of his victims there. There was even a former Grand Duke, Gavril Konstantinovich Romanov, together with the former Grand Duchess and their dog. Gorky had taken pity on them and rescued them from the Cheka jails after Gavril had fallen ill. The couple lived on the top floor, in a room filled with antique furniture and Buddhist statues, and hardly ever left the house for fear of arrest. At meals they would sit in haughty silence. For, as the former Grand Duke later wrote, there were the sort of people at Gorky's table 'that rejoiced at our misery', and 'it was distasteful for us to have to mix in such society'.32

It did not take long before the rumour spread that Gorky could help anyone, and he was besieged by begging letters. A certain professor wanted Gorky to procure a special pair of spectacles for him. A poetess begged for a ration of milk for her baby. A provincial doctor needed a new set of premises since the old ones had been requisitioned by the Soviet. A widow wanted a railway ticket to return to her family in the countryside. One old man even wrote with a request for false teeth. Many people wanted Gorky to help them get their relatives released from the Cheka jails — and he did try to intervene on behalf of many (see pages 648—9). But others asked for the impossible. One man, for example, wrote to ask what Gorky was going to do about the fact that he had been robbed. And a prisoner wrote to ask if there would be an amnesty to celebrate the occasion of Gorky's fiftieth birthday — and, if so, if he could be released.33 Like Rasputin, Gorky had become a sort of maitre de requites for all those who were too powerless to penetrate the offices of the state.

* * * The urban food crisis was, in the main, a problem of distribution and exchange rather than production. The railway system had virtually collapsed, largely as a result of the economic crisis and the chronic shortages of fuel, and could not cope with the transportation of foodstuffs to the cities. The railway depots were graveyards of broken-down locomotives. More than half the rolling stock was in need of repair, yet the railway workshops were totally run down. The main problem was lack of parts. In one repair shop, for example, the workers were found to be stripping the parts from one engine in order to repair another, so that for every engine that was repaired several others would be even further disrepaired. The railways were thrown into further chaos by the vast crowds of hungry townsmen, soldiers and refugees from the war zones, who stormed every train bound for the countryside, where they hoped to settle or buy up cheap food. Railway officials were easily bribed, and many goods trains were pilfered or diverted. Food wagons which left the countryside full would arrive empty in Petrograd or Moscow.34

But the real root of the urban crisis was the peasantry's reluctance to sell foodstuffs for paper money. With the wartime collapse of consumer production and the huge inflation of prices, peasants could buy less and less with the rouble fortunes they were being offered for their produce. Government efforts to buy the food at fixed prices, going back to 1916, had only encouraged the peasants to withdraw from the market. They reduced their production, shifted to crops not subject to state control, or hid their surpluses from the governments procurement agents. Many peasants used their grain to fatten up the cattle, or sold it to black-market traders from the towns, while many others turned it into vodka.

Cottage industries boomed, largely undetected by statisticians, as the peasants sought to manufacture all those household products they had once bought from the towns but which were now either unavailable or too expensive for them to buy. Rural craftsmen fashioned simple ploughs and sickles out of old scrap iron. Flax and hemp were grown for clothes and rope; timber was cut to make wheels and furniture; reeds were gathered to make baskets; clay was dug for pottery; and oil-producing seeds were grown for fuel. Old rural handicrafts that had gone to the wall in the age of steam were now resurrected. Rural Russia was slowly returning to the methods of the Middle Ages, when, in the words of one official:

Rus' had neither railways nor steamboats, nor steam-mills, nor factories, nor any other 'European invention', when handicraftsmen fed, clothed, and heated the whole of Russia and made all its footwear, when everything was done by them on a tiny scale and very coarsely — with a hand chisel instead of a lathe, with an axe instead of a saw.35

The countryside, in short, was becoming more archaic and more autarkic. It was learning to live without the towns and, on the whole, was doing very well without them. True, there were places where the peasants themselves went hungry during the spring of 1918, especially in the northern regions, which had always been dependent upon importing grain. It was nonsense for the Bolsheviks to claim that any peasant hoarding food was a 'kulak', or capitalist, since many did so to avoid starvation in the winter months. The harvest of 1917 had been small and, with the gentry's extra land now to sow, many of the peasants had no surplus. In Tver, for example, they were said to be eating 'cakes made of linseed oil and straw'. Even Semenov, a model peasant farmer, wrote to a friend in April 1918 that he did 'not have nearly enough grain to eat or feed my cattle'. Like thousands of other peasant communities, Semenov and his fellow villagers of Andreevskoe were forced to mount an expedition to buy up and import grain from the fertile south.36

Which is just what the townspeople did as well. Millions fled from the hungry cities and tried to settle in the countryside to be closer to the sources of food. The great industrial cities of the north lost half their populations as Russia returned to its rural past. 'The city is in danger!' declared Viktor Serge. Petrograd lost nearly three-quarters of its population between 1918 and 1920. Moscow's population was more than halved. Railway stations were thrown into chaos as crowds battled to get on to trains bound for the countryside. People travelled on the roofs of the carriages, and hung on to the windows and the brake-pads, risking life and limb. One train left Petrograd so overcrowded that it overbalanced on a bridge and fell into the Neva River, drowning hundreds of passengers.37

The nobility fled to what remained of their landed estates. Tanya Kuzminsky, Tolstoy's sister-in-law, travelled from Petrograd to Yasnaya Polyana. Her niece helped her on the way, pleading with the porters to find her a seat on the train: 'She was Natasha Rostova in War and Peace! But this meant nothing to the guards. It was only thanks to a group of commissars that the frail old woman, dressed in her furs, was finally given a wooden box to sit on in one of the goods wagons. Other nobles, without estates, tried their luck in the countryside in any case. The Brusilovs went to stay in a village north of Moscow on the invitation of the peasants. Marina Tsvetaeva, the poetess, went to live in the rural backwaters of Tambov province, where she could trade her last possessions for pork fat, pumpkins and potatoes. Countess Meshcherskaya, a scion of the Russian aristocracy, went with her daughter to the sleepy rural town of Rublev, where they worked in the kitchens of a water-mill and lived in the workers' dormitory. All that she had left of her inheritance — which had once included three huge estates, two palaces and a famous Botticelli — was a china teapot in the rococo style which she donated to the workers' tea-room.38

But it was the workers who made up the bulk of those who fled the starving cities. Many of them had been laid off by their factories as a result of the industrial crisis of 1917—18. Although no one knows the precise figure, something like a million workers were unemployed by the spring of 1918. The war industries were the hardest hit, particularly munitions and chemicals, losing in all some half a million workers. The metal industries of Petrograd, in particular, were devastated by fuel shortages, demobilization and the evacuation of the capital. The workforce of these factories declined from a quarter of a million to barely 50,000 during the first six months of 1918. It was a catastrophe for the Bolsheviks. Their once mighty strongholds, the New Lessner and the Erickson plants, each of which had had more than 7,000 workers during the autumn of 1917, were reduced to a skeleton workforce with only 200 workers between them by the following spring. During the first six months of the Bolshevik regime, the number of Bolsheviks in Petrograd fell from 50,000 to a mere 13,000. The Bolshevik Party, in the words of Shliapnikov, was becoming 'the vanguard of a non-existent class'.J9

According to the Bolsheviks and their historians, it was the skilled and 'class conscious' workers who mainly fled the cities. The depopulation of the cities thus paralleled their 'declassing', to adopt the rather ugly Marxist phrase, meaning the breakdown of the working class. It was important for the Soviet establishment to argue this because it allowed them to depict the growing wave of workers' strikes and protests from the spring of 1918 as the work of 'backward' or 'petty-bourgeois' types stirred up by the Mensheviks and the SRs. How embarrassing it would have been for them to have to admit that the very workers who had helped to bring them to power in October were calling for their downfall six months later. Yet that was more or less what happened. Those most likely to flee to the countryside were those workers who had arrived in the cities last — especially the women who had come during the industrial boom of the First World War — and who thus had retained the closest ties with their native villages. These were the unskilled and semi-rural workers — invariably the first to be laid off by the factory employers — so that the workers who were left in the cities tended to be the most skilled and proletarian (i.e. those who had been born in the cities and who had no real links with the countryside). It was these workers who led the strikes and protests against the Bolsheviks in 1918 (see pages 624-6).

The prospect of a share in the communal land or of setting up in some rural trade was usually enough to lure semi-rural workers back to their native villages. According to a report from the Briansk metallurgical factory in 1920, 'all the workers with a tie to the village want to leave the factory and settle there'. Generally, the peasants welcomed those workers who had relatives in the village or who had some useful trade to contribute (e.g. carpenters and blacksmiths); but they were very rarely willing to give either land or food to those who had neither. These immigrants were usually left to support themselves by casual labour, and their plight was often desperate. One memoirist from Tambov province recalls these workers and their families 'walking across the fields after the rye harvest looking for any ears of grain that had been dropped'.40

It was not just the flight of the workers with which the Bolsheviks had to contend. Industry and transport were thrown into chaos by the endless travelling of city people to and from the countryside to buy up stocks of food. Millions of townspeople, from all classes, relied on this petty trade — or 'bagging', as it was called — to feed themselves. They would leave the cities with bags of clothes and household goods to sell or exchange in the rural markets, and return with bags of food. The railways were paralysed by the armies of 'bagmen'. The Orel Station, a major junction en route to the south, had 3,000 bagmen pass through it every day. Many of them travelled in armed brigades which hijacked trains, leaving the local authorities powerless. The most popular destinations — Tambov, Kursk, Kazan, Simbirsk and Saratov provinces — were each invaded by something in the region of 100,000 bagmen every month.41

For the hungry cities of the north this primitive trade was a universal means of livelihood. Virtually everyone was forced to turn themselves into a part-time trader — workers, officials, even Communists. It was a natural and spontaneous response to the economic crisis and the breakdown of the market between town and country. But it brought chaos to industry. Nearly all the workers were engaged in the bag trade in some form. Many of them travelled into the countryside with tools, fuel and scrap-iron, which they had stolen from their factories. Others fabricated primitive goods in their factories to barter with the peasants. Primus stoves, penknives and cigarette lighters were the most common trade. But shoe soles were also made from conveyor belts; candlesticks from bits of piping; axes and ploughs from iron bars. The whole phenomenon became known as 'cigarette lighterism' (zazhigolochnichestvo), one of the longest and hardest words to pronounce in the Russian language. It was not uncommon for factory committees to sanction or at least to turn a blind eye to these spontaneous initiatives. Many of the committees gave their own anarchic gloss to the Decree on Workers' Control, taking it to mean the right of the workers to divide between themselves the products of their labour — or, if there were none, the assets of their factory — just as the peasants had divided up the land. Industry was brought virtually to a halt as most of the workers spent most of their time fabricating these black-market goods and running off to the countryside to barter them for food. On the average day in the average factory 30 per cent of the workforce would be absent. In some metal factories the rate of absenteeism could be as high as 80 per cent.42

During their first precarious months in power the Bolsheviks could do very little to stop this 'bagging'. Any restrictions they tried to impose were bound to be evaded by the workers who depended on the bag-trade to survive. The right to travel to the countryside for food was a major demand of the workers' strikes and protests during the spring of 1918. Many of the factories and even some of the district and city Soviets organized this trade on a collective basis. Without recourse to some form of trade, industry would have to come to a complete halt. The factory or the Soviet would make an agreement with a village or a rural Soviet to exchange a certain number of factory goods for an equivalent amount of foodstuffs. A brigade of workers would then be sent to complete the exchange. Try though they did, the Bolsheviks were powerless to prevent this collective bartering. One commissar in Samara province claimed that it was useless trying to stop the bagmen 'since they all travel with passports from their Soviet'. Local rates of natural exchange began to take the place of money. In Kaluga, for example, a yard of cloth was worth a pound of butter, or two pounds of peas; a pound of soap was worth two pounds of millet; and a pair of boots a pound of potatoes. Flour was the gold standard of this medieval system: a pound was worth thirty pounds of kerosene, or three pounds of tobacco, or a winter coat.43

The co-operatives played an important part in this local trade, often setting the terms of barter and exchange. The co-operatives had flourished during the war as one of the main means of trade between town and country. By 1918, they claimed to serve the needs of a hundred million consumers (70 per cent of the population).44 Factories, trade unions, professional groups and resident associations formed themselves into urban co-operatives for the procurement of goods. Peasants joined co-operatives to market their goods and obtain the manufactures they needed in exchange. The rural co-operatives also served as a conduit for agricultural improvements, offering the peasants advanced tools, fertilizers, credit and advice on the latest farming techniques. For Semenov, a pioneer of the co-operative movement in Volokolamsk, this was one of the revolutions main achievements.

* * * Had they not been so hostile to the market, the Bolsheviks might have used this collective barter system to help feed the cities and supply industry. Primitive and chaotic though it was, it would still arguably have been more efficient than the state monopoly of food supply which they began to introduce from May 1918 as the foundation of their planned economy. War Communism, as this system became known, was in many ways a prototype of the Stalinist economy. It aimed to abolish all private trade, maximize the state's control of distribution and the labour market, nationalize all large-scale industry, collectivize agriculture, and at its height in 1920 replace the money system with a universal system of state rationing.

The origins of War Communism have long been a subject of intense debate between historians. To those on the Left it was essentially a pragmatic response to the military exigencies of the civil war; while to those on the Right it was derived directly from Leninist ideology. The argument has broader implications for the nature and development of the Soviet regime. According to the left-wing view, War Communism was no more than a temporary diversion from the mixed economy that Lenin had outlined during the spring of 1918 and to which he returned in the New Economic Policy of 1921. This implies that the 'soft' or pro-market socialism pursued by the Bolsheviks in these two periods was the real face of Leninism as opposed to the 'hard' or anti-market socialism of the War Communist and Stalinist eras. Hence the 'Leninism' proclaimed for Gorbachev's reforms. In the right-wing view, however, the 'hard socialism' of the civil war was directly inspired by the statist methods at the heart of Lenin's revolutionary ideology. The Bolsheviks, in this account, adopted War Communism as a means of introducing socialism by decree, and made concessions to the market only when they were forced to do so. There was thus a logical progression, a historical continuity, between Lenin's programme of 1902, War Communism and the Stalinist planned economy.

While both pragmatism and ideology were relevant factors, neither is sufficient as an explanation of the way in which the world's first planned economy was organized.

The pragmatic argument has fundamental flaws. As a purely pragmatic response to the chaos of the spring, the Grain Monopoly of May 1918 — the first major element of War Communism — was disastrous. Its futile and absurd efforts to stamp out the free market merely caused more chaos, as thousands of commissars and much of the state's resources had to be diverted to the war against free trade. On purely practical grounds, it would have been better to retain the market rather than to try and stamp it out, as Lenin himself recognized in 1921. And indeed at crisis points throughout the civil war the Bolsheviks were forced to lift the bars on private trade in recognition of the fact that the state distribution system was unable to feed the cities. Amongst themselves the Bolsheviks acknowledged that, despite their own anti-market rhetoric, they could not survive without the market.

What about the argument that War Communism was a reponse to the exigencies of the civil war? To be sure, the Bolsheviks, like all the wartime governments in Europe at this time, were trying to control the economy in the military interests of the state (much of the Bolshevik economic programme was modelled on the German war economy). But War Communism was not just a response to the civil war; it was also a means of making civil war. The civil war was not fought only on the battlefields. It was a fundamental aspect of the Bolsheviks' revolutionary strategy, and was also fought on what they called the 'internal front', in society and the economy, through the policies of War Communism. Unless one acknowledges this fundamental fact — that the policies of War Communism were seen by the Bolsheviks as an instrument of struggle against their social or 'internal' enemies — it is impossible to explain why these policies were kept in place for more than a year after the White armies had been defeated.

The case for War Communism as inspired by ideology is also insufficient. Certainly, the Bolsheviks were all united by a fundamental belief in the possibility of using state coercion to effect the transition to socialism in a backward peasant country such as Russia. This was the essence of their ideology. They also shared a deeply ingrained mistrust of the market which could be defined as ideological. Foreign socialists were shocked by the violence of the Bolsheviks' hatred of free trade. The Bolsheviks did not just want to regulate the market — as did the socialists and most of the wartime governments of Europe — they wanted to abolish it. 'The more market the less socialism, the more socialism the less market' — that was their credo. This crude political economy was no doubt the result of the Bolsheviks' own life experience. Most of the party's rank and file were peasant sons and workers, young men like Kanatchikov, who had suffered from the worst of both rural and urban poverty. Marx had taught them that all this was the result of 'capitalism'. They saw the workings of the market as a simple expression of capitalist exploitation. Even the primitive trade of the bagmen would lead in their view, if unchecked, to the resurrection of the capitalist system. Although the overwhelming majority of the bagmen were trading for consumption rather than profit, the Bolsheviks depicted them as 'speculators', 'profiteers' and 'parasites'. All the social evils of the post-war world, from unemployment to prostitution, were blamed by them on the workings of the market.

It could not be said, however, that this dirigiste and militantly anti-market ideology had been expressed in a clear economic strategy before the introduction of War Communism. Indeed, the Bolsheviks were sharply divided over economic policy during 1918. Whereas the Left Communists wanted to move immediately towards the abolition of the capitalist system, Lenin talked of using capitalist methods for the revolutionary reconstruction of the economy. These divisions resurfaced repeatedly throughout the years of the civil war — especially over fiscal policy and the use of 'bourgeois' managers — so that the policies of War Communism had to be chopped and changed in the interests of party unity. Hence, whereas right-wing historians may think of War Communism as a monolithic programme integral to Bolshevik ideology, much of it was in fact improvised.

The introduction of War Communism was essentially a political response to the urban crisis of 1918. During that spring the Bolsheviks were obsessed by the example of the Paris Commune. They constantly compared their own position to that of the Parisian revolutionaries of 1871, and debated their own policies by the light of historical analogy, trying to work out whether they might have saved the French revolutionaries from their defeat. The Bolsheviks were all too conscious of the fact that their power base, like that of the Communards, was confined to the major cities, and that they were facing defeat because they were surrounded by a hostile peasantry with whom they had no goods to trade for food. They had convinced themselves that, unless they extended their power to the countryside and launched a crusade against the 'grain-hoarding' peasants, their urban revolution, like that of the Commune, would be destroyed by starvation. The flight of the workers from the cities and their strikes and protests against food shortages were seen as the first signs of this collapse. It was essential, as the Bolsheviks saw it, to seize the peasantry's grain by force, to stem the chaos of the bag-trade and to get a firm grip on industry, if they were to avoid certain defeat.

* * * When Trotsky defended the introduction of the grain monopoly at a Soviet assembly on 4 June, he was heckled from the floor. The Left SRs accused him of 'waging a civil war against the peasantry'. On 9 May the Bolsheviks had indeed declared that all the peasants' surplus grain would henceforth become the property of the state. They were now despatching armed brigades to requisition the grain from the peasantry by force; and their propaganda made it clear that this was to be seen as a 'battle for grain'. Trotsky himself told the meeting on 4 June: 'Our Party is for civil war! Civil war has to be waged for grain. We the Soviets are going into battle!' At this point a delegate had shouted: Long live civil war!' No doubt he had meant it as a joke. But Trotsky turned on him and replied with deadly seriousness: 'Yes, long live civil war! Civil war for the sake of the children, the elderly, the workers and the Red Army, civil war in the name of direct and ruthless struggle against counter-revolution.'45

For Lenin and most of his followers, civil war was a vital phase in any social revolution. 'Civil war is the same as class war,' declared one of the Bolshevik leaders in Baku. 'We are supporters of civil war, not because we thirst for blood, but because without a struggle the oppressors will not give up their privileges to the people.'46 As the Bolsheviks saw it, a civil war was no more than a violent form of class struggle. There was no real distinction in their view between the military conflict and the social conflict in every town and village.

As such, in Lenin's view, the civil war was to be welcomed as a necessary phase of the revolution. He had always argued that the civil war had been started by the forces of the Right during the summer of 1917, and that the Bolshevik seizure of power should be seen as the joining of the armed struggle by the proletarian side; the class conflicts of the revolution were unresolvable by political means. Russia was split into two hostile camps — the 'military dictatorship' and the 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' — and it was a question of which side would prevail. All Lenin's policies, from the October seizure of power to the closure of the Constituent Assembly and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, could be seen (and were seen by the opposition) as a deliberate incitement to civil war. Lenin himself was doubtless convinced that his party's best hope of building up its own tiny power base was to fight a civil war. Indeed he often stressed that the reason why the Paris Commune had been defeated was that it had failed to launch a civil war. The effects of such a conflict were predictable — the polarization of the country into 'revolutionary' and 'counter-revolutionary' forces, the extension of the state's military and political power, and the use of terror to suppress dissent — and were all deemed by Lenin to be necessary for the consolidation of the dictatorship. Of course Lenin could not have foreseen the full extent of the civil war that would unfold from the following autumn — in April 1918 he had even declared that the civil war was already won — and, if he had, he might have thought again about using civil war to build up his regime. But even so, it is surely true that the Bolsheviks were psychologically prepared for a civil war in a way that could not be said of their opponents. One might compare it to the Spanish civil war: Franco's side was ready — and eager — for a civil war; the same could hardly be said of the Republicans.

The 'battle for grain', the Bolsheviks' civil war against the countryside, was rooted in a fundamental mistrust — bordering on hatred — of the peasantry. As Marxists, they had always viewed the peasantry with something akin to contempt. Anarchic', 'backward', 'counter-revolutionary' — thus began their peasant lexicon. The peasants were too illiterate and superstitious, too closely tied to the Old Russia, to play a role in the building of their new society. They were too 'petty-bourgeois' (O most heinous of Marxist sins!), too imbued in the principles and habits of private property and free trade, to become comrades. This contempt for the peasantry was often most marked among those worker Bolsheviks of peasant stock — the Kanatchikovs of the party — who as young men had run away from the crushing poverty and the boredom of the village, from the domination of the priests, and the violence of their heavy-drinking fathers, to roam the cities in search of work. For them the city was a world of progress and opportunity, symbolized by school and industry, whereas the village stood for everything — backwardness, poverty and stupid superstition — they wanted to sweep away. 'I am not village' was the first expression of their adopted working-class identity. And through the proletarian culture of the cities, which had first led them to Bolshevism, they sought to banish their peasant past.

A clear sign of this anti-peasant attitude — which was so vital to the whole development of the Soviet regime — may be found in the small biographies that all Bolsheviks were asked to write about themselves on taking up Soviet office. A quarter of them came from peasant backgrounds; yet few spoke of their past in positive terms. 'From an early age', recalled one Bolshevik from Vologda, 'education was my only chance to escape from the impoverished and idiotic life of the village. I wanted to run away, anywhere, as far away from the village as possible.'47

Marxism gave a pseudo-scientific respectability to this hatred of the peasantry. Its 'laws' of historical development 'proved' that the peasantry was doomed to extinction. The penetration of the market and of capitalist relations into the countryside would inevitably result in the class division of the peasantry. Lenin had shown that the village was becoming divided into two hostile classes — the poor peasants, who were said to be the allies of the proletariat, and the 'kulaks', or 'capitalist farmers', who were said to be its enemies — and this schema became the guiding principle of Bolshevik policy in the countryside. In fact the analysis was pure fantasy: the number of peasant capitalists was very small indeed — certainly not enough to constitute a 'class'. Even the number of peasant households employing regular wage labour had numbered less than 2 per cent before the revolution and declined considerably in 1917. In the vast majority of villages all that distinguished the richest from the poorest peasant was the ownership of an extra horse or cow, or a house made out of brick, as opposed to one of wood, with a raised floor instead of boards laid on the ground.

The peasants whom the Bolsheviks categorized as 'kulaks' were usually no more than the patriarchal leaders of the village. These were the Maliutins of Russia, the white-bearded peasant elders like the one in Andreevskoe who stood in the way of all Semenov's reforms. These, it is true, were often the richest farmers, to whom the rest of the villagers might well have been indebted, either for the use of a horse or for the loan of money. But this did not make them 'kulaks' in the eyes of the peasants — and even Semenov, who had good reason to despise Maliutin, never called him one. Many of the peasants looked up to these elders with a mixture of fear and respect. As the most successful farmers in the village, they were often seen as the natural leaders of the community. They were usually the staunchest upholders of communal traditions, the people who dealt with the outside powers, and their neighbours naturally went to them for advice on agricultural matters. The first peasant Soviets were often headed by these village elders.

The Bolsheviks had given vocal support to the peasant Soviets during the first months of their regime. This enabled them to neutralize the peasants during their struggle for power in the cities. But as a result Soviet power in the countryside had been decentralized — which had made the task of extracting food and soldiers from the peasantry all the harder. The peasant Soviets naturally defended the economic interests of the local population. They tried to block the export of grain to the cities or at least to demand a price high enough to allow them to buy the goods they needed in return. As the urban food crisis deepened, the Bolsheviks increasingly blamed it on so-called 'kulak hoarders'. Their propaganda portrayed the typical 'kulak' as a fat and greedy capitalist who speculated on the hunger of the urban workers. The 'kulak' took his place alongside the burzhooi as the 'internal enemy' of 'the revolution'. For the Bolsheviks the 'kulak' was a scapegoat, a means of focusing the anger of the workers against the 'counter-revolutionary' village rather than themselves. The Bolsheviks now claimed that the peasant Soviets were dominated by the 'kulaks' and were being run by them in league with the SRs to starve the revolution out of existence. This was false — and Lenin knew it. The rural Soviets, as he himself had acknowledged, were general peasant bodies. They had merely put their own interests before those of the cities. But the myth of a 'kulak grain strike' gave his party the pretext it needed to launch a civil war against the peasantry.48

Lenin gave the battle cry in a speech of astounding violence during the summer of 1918:

The kulaks are the rabid foes of the Soviet government. . . These bloodsuckers have grown rich on the hunger of the people . . . These spiders* have grown fat at the expense of the peasants ruined by the war, at the expense of the workers. These leeches have sucked the blood of the working people and grown richer as the workers in the cities and factories starved . . . Ruthless war on the kulaks! Death to all of them.49

The 'Food Army' led this onslaught on the 'kulak hoarders'. Its armed requisitioning brigades (prodotriady) were empowered to occupy the villages and extract their surplus grain by force. Before they left the cities, they would pose for a photograph, like an army going off to battle. The brigades were supposed to consist of the cream of the working class. But in fact, like the first Red Army units, their 76,000 members were made up mainly of the unemployed, the rootless and migrant lumpen elements, and former soldiers with nowhere else to go. The provincial provisions authorities constantly complained that the brigades were 'of poor quality and indisciplined', that they 'carried out their work without the slightest plan', that they 'often used coercion against the peasantry', and that they took from them not only surplus grain but vital stocks of seed, private property, guns and vodka. In the words of one provincial commissar, their work amounted to little more than 'organized robbery from the peasants'.50

At times', wrote Tsiurupa, the People's Commissar for Provisions, 'the food brigades would emulate the methods of the tsarist police.' Sometimes they occupied a village and tortured the peasants in a brutal fashion until the required amount of food and property was handed over. 'The measures of exaction are reminiscent of a medieval inquisition,' reported one official from Yelets, 'they make the peasants strip and kneel on the floor, and whip or beat them, sometimes killing them.' The approach of a food brigade was enough to make the peasants flee in panic. One shocked commissar in Ufa province reported the following incident. He had entered the hut of a peasant woman who, it seemed, had failed to run away when his small platoon, which she had mistaken for a food brigade, had arrived in the village. She began to scream and seized her little boy. 'Cut me down and kill me but don't take my child,' she cried. The commissar tried to calm her down by telling her that she was safe, whereupon the peasant woman said: 'I thought you were going to kill me. I had no idea that there were Bolsheviks who did not murder peasants. All those we have seen are oprichniki [the detested henchmen of Ivan the Terrible].' In the Borisoglebsk district of Tambov province — a future stronghold of the Antonov revolt (see pages 753—5) — there was a barbarous brigade leader named Margolin, who stole indiscriminately from the peasants, and raped their women or took away their horses when they could not pay the levy. Many of the peasants were forced to buy up grain from the neighbouring province of Voronezh, or part with their last vital stocks of food and seed, to keep Margolin satisfied. Another local tyrant, a brigade leader named Cheremukhin, turned the southern villages of Balashov, just behind the Red Front against Denikin, into his corrupt private fiefdom. Peasant food and property were requisitioned with brutal force, often leaving the farmers with nothing to eat or sow, and peasant women were routinely raped. The leader of a nearby food brigade left a vivid impression of the peasant mood on passing through one of 'Cheremukhin's villages':

The peasants mistook us for some of Cheremukhin's assistants and all fell down on to their knees and bowed before us. One could feel that the spirit of the Revolution among the people of this village had been entirely suppressed. The slavery of Tsarism was again clearly visible on their faces. The effect upon us was one of overwhelming demoralization.51

* No doubt a reference to Spiders ani Flies, the best-selling pamphlet of 1917 which had done so much to shape the popular myth of the burzhooi (see pages 523-4).


Most peasants tried to hide their precious grain stocks from the food brigades. Bags of flour were buried under floorboards, in the lofts of barns, deep in the woods and underground. The brigades assumed that all the villages did this and that the hidden grain was surplus, whereas in fact it often found vital reserves of seed and food. A 'battle for grain' thus began, with the brigades using terror to squeeze out the stocks and the peasants counteracting them with passive resistance and outright revolt. During July and August 1918 there were over 200 uprisings against the food brigades. The Bolsheviks tried to portray them as 'SR-kulak revolts'; but they were in fact general village rebellions, in which the poorest peasants (who were left the hungriest by the requisitions) often played a leading role. These uprisings were violent and spontaneous, usually in response to some atrocity perpetrated by the brigades. In one village of Samara province, where the food brigade had robbed and murdered several villagers, the peasants exacted a savage revenge. One night in November, they decapitated the twelve members of the brigade as they slept in the party offices and placed their heads on poles at the village entrance as a gruesome warning to other brigades. Three weeks later the Red Army bombarded the village with artillery and, when all the villagers had fled to the woods, burned it down.52

Inside the village the brigades were supposed to be assisted by the new Committees of the Rural Poor (kombedy). Lenin heralded their institution, on 11 June, as the moment when the countryside embarked on the Socialist Revolution. This was to be the peasants' October, when the 'rural proletariat' would join the 'class struggle' against the 'kulaks', the 'rural bourgeoisie'. By helping the brigades to extract their grain, the kombedy were to bring about the 'socialist transformation' of the village, replacing the 'kulak Soviets' and completing the expropriation of other 'kulak' property, such as surplus land and livestock. As Sverdlov put it, the aim was to 'split the village into two warring classes' and 'inflame there the same civil war as in the cities'. Upon that depended the survival of the Soviet regime in the countryside.33

The kombedy failed dismally to ignite this 'class war' in the village. This was where Marxist dogma collapsed under the weight of peasant reality. Most villages thought of themselves as farming communities of equal members related by kin: they often called themselves a 'peasant family'. That was the basic idea (if not the reality) of the peasant commune. As such, they were hostile to the suggestion of setting up a separate body for the village poor. Didn't they already have the Soviet? Most village communes either failed to elect a kombed, leaving it to outside agitators, or else set up one which every peasant joined on the grounds, as they often put it, that all the peasants were equally poor. In this case, the kombed was indistinguishable from the Soviet. The peasants of Kiselevo-Chemizovka in the Atkarsk district, for example, resolved that a kombed was not needed, 'since the peasants are almost equal, and the poor ones are already in the Soviet. The organization of a separate kombed would only lead to unnecessary tensions between citizens of the same commune.' The Bolshevik agitators were quite unable to split the peasants on class lines. The poor peasants were simply not aware of themselves as 'proletarians'. Nor did they think of their richer neighbours as a 'bourgeoisie'. They all thought of themselves as fellow villagers and looked at the efforts of the Bolsheviks to split them with suspicion and hostility.54

So the kombed in many places was set up by elements from outside the commune. These were not the poor peasant farmers but immigrant townsmen and soldiers, landless craftsmen and labourers excluded from the commune. A study of 800 kombedy in Tambov province found that less than half their members at the volost level had ever farmed the land; 30 per cent of them were soldiers. In the semi-industrial villages of the north these social types may well have been 'insiders'; but in the agricultural south they were strangers to the village core. Disconnected from the peasant commune, upon which all rural government depended, they were unable to carry out their tasks without resorting to violence. They requisitioned private property, made illegal arrests, vandalized churches and generally terrorized the peasants. They were more like a local mafia than an organ of the Soviet state. In one Saratov volost, for example, the kombed was run by the Druzhaev brothers in alliance with the chief of the regional police, comrade Varlamov. They went around the villages extorting money, guns and vodka from the terrified peasants. Livestock was also confiscated and handed over to their henchmen among the 'village poor'. One peasant who could not pay was forced to watch them rape his wife. This state of terror lasted for six months. The villagers petitioned 'comrade Lenin' in the hope of ending it. As one of them put it: 'The people are beginning to say that life was better under the Tsar.'55

Along with the food brigades, the kombedy sparked a huge wave of peasant revolts. These reached a peak in November, the height of both the 'battle for grain' and the first major Red Army mobilizations. Whole districts of Tambov, Tula and Riazan' were swallowed up by peasant bands armed with pitchforks and guns. Elsewhere the uprisings were more sporadic but no less violent. The peasants lynched and murdered the kombed members, the local Bolsheviks and the leaders of the Soviets. The Bolshevik Central Committee member Smidovich, who was sent to report on the Tula revolts, concluded in November that 'the peasants are beginning to feel as if they are being ruled by the arbitrary will of an alien set of masters; they no longer believe in the promises of Soviet Power and only expect bad from it'.56

At the Sixth Soviet Congress in November Lenin called for the abolition of the kombedy. This was the start of a new policy, endorsed by the Eighth Party Congress the following March, to improve relations with the middle peasantry. It was an admission that the kombedy had, as Lenin put it, waged a 'reckless war of destruction against the interests of the peasants'. The whole attempt to divide the village into two hostile classes had, as he admitted, been misconceived, and it was now to be abandoned.57 But it was surely too late for the Bolsheviks to repair their relations with the peasantry.

A few weeks after the abolition of the kombedy, in January 1919, the Bolsheviks also changed their tactics in the 'battle for grain. The requisitioning of the 1918 harvest, the first carried out by Soviet power, had been nothing less than disastrous. Only a fifth of the levy had been collected by the end of the year. Of course the Bolsheviks blamed it on the 'kulaks'; but in fact the weakness of their own procurement infrastructure was to blame. The food brigades had no effective means of accounting for the harvest. The kombedy pursued their own local interests at the expense of the centre, sometimes even keeping the grain for themselves. The collection depots were unable to cope with the volume of grain because of fuel shortages. And the chaos on the railways often meant that grain did not reach the towns. The January reform, known as the Food Levy or prodrazverstka, had been intended to reinforce the system. It differed from the grain monopoly of May 1918 in two main respects. First, whereas the grain monopoly had been limited to cereals, all the major foodstuffs, including livestock and vegetables, were subjected to the food levy.* And second, whereas the quotas of the grain monopoly had been set by the local food organs in accordance with the harvest estimates, the quotas of the food levy were set from above, by the central state, in accordance with its general needs and then simply divided among the provincial authorities. Thus the principle, however loosely it may have been applied, that the quotas should match the actual harvest surplus was abandoned altogether. Increasingly, the levies bore no relation to the peasantry's ability to pay. The requisitioning brigades were simply instructed to extract the necessary amounts of food by force, even if this meant taking the peasants' last vital stocks of food and seed. It was assumed, in this terrifyingly ignorant calculus, that an empty barn was a sign that its owner was a 'kulak' hiding food.58

And so as the civil war moved towards its climax, during the spring of 1919, the 'battle for grain', that other civil war behind the Red Front, also reached its own insane heights. It became a life-and-death struggle between the Bolsheviks and the peasantry.

* * * Stamping out the bagmen was the final element of the Bolshevik 'battle for grain'. Flying brigades (zagraditel'nye otriady) were set up to police the roads and railways. They were ordered to confiscate all foodstuffs from the passengers coming into town, leaving them only their legal allowance of one-and-a-half puds (hence the bagmen became known as the 'one-and-a-half puders'). Trains were stopped and searched, their passengers forced to disembark and open up their luggage. The brigades behaved more like bandits than government officials. They confiscated money, clothes and drink from the passengers. The Cheka

* One exception was onions — no doubt the result of a bureaucratic slip. A boom in onion production soon followed, as the peasants sought to exploit this last remaining legal area of free trade.

carried out similar raids on the urban markets, hunting out bagmen from the countryside.                                                                           

All this of course was a futile exercise. It was impossible to stamp out the market, just as King Canute could not force back the sea. Throughout the period of War Communism the trains continued to be filled by bagmen (it was easy for them to bribe the railway officials). Lenin himself acknowledged that at least half the foodstuffs reaching the towns had been brought in by the bagmen; and at times the figure was much higher. The Bolsheviks had little choice but to tolerate this private trade, without which the workers would have starved. Their policy towards the bagmen vacillated in fact: at critical moments of the civil war, when they needed to keep the railways free for the military, they would clamp down on them and try to ban all passenger transport; but at other times the bagmen were allowed to continue more or less without hindrance. Bolshevik policy on the urban markets was equally fitful. The Cheka would occasionally carry out a raid, seizing goods and arresting vendors, after which business would slow down for a few days, but then the markets would return to normal. The enormous Sukharevka market in Moscow flourished throughout the civil war years, despite constant Cheka raids. Most of the state's own textile factories in the capital purchased their cloth from private salesmen there. The Sukharevka came to symbolize the old world of free trade which the Reds could not conquer. Lenin himself once lamented that in the soul of every Russian there was a 'little Sukharevka'.59

Futile though it may have been to try, squeezing out the bag-trade was essential for the Bolsheviks in industry. It was impossible to maintain industrial production if the workers kept running off to the countryside for food. Control of the food supply went hand in hand with the control of labour. The Bolsheviks were adamant on the state's need to control the movement of labour. This was the essence of War Communism — 'the right of the dictatorship', as Trotsky put it, 'to send every worker to the place where he is needed in accordance with the state plan'. To advocate the freedom of labour, as the Mensheviks did, was, in Trotsky's words, the 'milky way to Socialism'. Without the food monopoly or the abolition of the labour market, the economy would be ruined and the working class destroyed by the 'chaotic movement of the workers from one factory to another.' The high road to socialism, in his view, entailed ending all free labour and imposing state control on all large-scale industry. This was to be a completely planned economy.60

Throughout the spring of 1918 the Bolsheviks had been moving towards the nationalization of industry. Imposing their own managers in the factories seemed the only way to stop the chaos brought about by the 14 November Decree on Workers' Control, which had been a vital political concession to the factory committees and trade unions. Control by the factories through collegial management boards had helped the Bolsheviks to win th support of many of the workers, and dealt a blow to the factory owners during the regime's struggle for the control of the industrial capitals. But the economic effect of the policy had been catastrophic. The workers' bodies in control of the factories had merely voted themselves huge pay rises, fuelling the inflation. They had also carried out a destructive campaign of terror and violence, often motivated by revenge, against the old managers and technicians, which had disrupted the management of production. The workers' bodies had done very little to stop the decline of labour discipline and the constant thefts of tools and raw materials to make cigarette lighters and other illegal goods for the bag-trade.

Even more importantly, the factory committees and trade unions had become part of a growing workers' protest movement against the Bolshevik dictatorship. The working class remained just as militant as in 1917 — only now their anger was focused on the party that ruled in their name. Strikes and workers' protests engulfed all the country's major industrial districts, including the former Bolshevik strongholds in Petrograd and Moscow, during the spring of 1918. Much of the discontent was of the most basic economic kind. Workers complained about the shortages of bread and the threat of unemployment; they were disgusted that the so-called Workers' State had done nothing to improve their lives. This gave rise to a general disillusionment with politics, often combined with vague hostility towards the Bolsheviks as the ruling party, among many workers. According to Gorky, many 'workers spat whenever they heard the name of the Bolsheviks mentioned'. This sort of cynical — but essentially pre-political — attitude was best summed up by the slogan which began to appear on city walls: 'Down with Lenin and horsemeat! Give us the Tsar and pork!'61But for other workers politics still mattered, especially for those with a background of Menshevik or SR activism who had an alternative political vision to counterpose against that of the Bolsheviks; and their reaction to the crisis of the spring was to form themselves into a protest movement, the Extraordinary Assemblies of Factory and Plant Representatives, which was by far the most powerful threat the Bolsheviks ever encountered from the working class.

The Extraordinary Assemblies were a grass-roots workers' movement. Established in March, they had a membership of several hundred thousand workers at the height of their influence in June. The Mensheviks and SRs played a prominent role in their leadership at the national level, and it was often their local activists who were to the fore in factory assemblies. The spring marked a general resurgence of these parties' fortunes in the industrial cities. By establishing an electoral pact they were able to defeat the Bolsheviks in several city Soviet elections. But it does not follow that the workers' assemblies were a protest movement for the Mensheviks and the SRs as opposed to one (which happened to include them) against the Bolsheviks.62 True, many of the factories' protest resolutions voiced the same concerns as the Mensheviks and the SRs: they condemned the closure of the Constituent Assembly, the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the repression of the opposition. But this may only go to show that Mensheviks and SRs wrote these resolutions and either added these demands to those of the workers or else framed the workers' demands in their own terms. In any case, judging from the minutes of the factory meetings, the thing that exercised the workers most was a general feeling that the promise of a 'workers' revolution' — a promise that had led many of them to support the Bolsheviks in the autumn of 1917 — had not been fulfilled. As the striking workers of the Sormovo factory declared in June: 'The Soviet regime, having been established in our name, has become completely alien to us. It promised to bring the workers Socialism but has brought them empty factories and destitution.' This, as far as one can tell, was a general feeling shared by all the politicized workers — including a large proportion of the rank-and-file Bolsheviks, many of whom joined the Extraordinary Assemblies movement. Even the Vyborg district party committee in Petrograd, that bastion of militant Bolshevism in 1917, distributed the propaganda of the Extraordinary Assemblies to its members.63

By April 1918, Lenin had come round to the view that industry had to be brought under state control, as opposed to workers' control through collegial boards, with a traditional management structure ('one-man management') capable of restoring labour discipline. In 'The Immediate Tasks of Soviet Power', written that month, Lenin demanded that the working-class offensive against the capitalist industrial system should be halted in the broader interests of economic reconstruction. The expertise of the 'bourgeois' managers had to be tapped in the interests of the state; this, he admitted, meant using capitalist methods to construct the socialist order. It would be necessary to pay the bourgeois managers a high salary, and to restore their authority on the shop-floor, in order to ensure their co-operation with the Soviet regime, even though this went against the egalitarian principles of the Left. But, he argued, since the working class had not yet been trained for the tasks of management, this was a 'tribute' that had to be paid. The ideals of equality had to be sacrificed in the interests of efficiency.64

From this point on the Bolsheviks began to encourage the process of nationalization, the second major plank of War Communism after the war against the market. Until then, it had developed largely from below, on the initiative of the local Soviets and workers' organizations, and had assumed the character of a revolution in the factories with the workers using the process to impose their own control on the managers. Now, with Lenin's backing, it was taken over by the central state and its All-Russian Council for the Economy (VSNKh), which used the process to replace the workers' system of factory management with state-appointed ('bourgeois') managers aiming to restore discipline on the shop floor. This in effect meant shifting the centre of industrial power from the factory committees and the trade unions to the managerial apparatus of the party-state.65

The change in policy was clearly motivated by the growing threat from the working class. The easiest way to stop the factory organizations from acting as a channel for the workers' opposition movement was to bring them under central dictation. The Sovnarkom Decree of 28 June, by which most of Russia's large-scale industry was nationalized, came just three days before a general strike in Petrograd called by the Extraordinary Assemblies in protest against the Bolshevik regime. Although the decree had been in preparation for several weeks, there is no doubt that its precise timing was largely dictated by the need to preempt this strike.* Since 9 May, when the Cheka had opened fire on a crowd of demonstrating workers in the Petrograd suburb of Kolpino, there had been a spiral of strikes and workers' protests, industry had been brought to a virtual halt, and in those cities where free polling was allowed, the Mensheviks and SRs had swept the board. In short, it appeared as if the Petrograd strike, if it was allowed to go ahead, might easily develop into a national strike, perhaps leading to the downfall of the regime. This was also a critical moment in the civil war, with the Czechs and the SRs building up a power base on the Volga and widespread revolts in the Red rear. The Bolshevik Commissar for the Press, Volodarsky, was assassinated by an SR on 20 June. The Bolshevik leadership was afraid that this might be the start of a coup d'etat by the SRs and the Mensheviks. They thought it was essential to bring the factories under state control and to head off the threat of a general strike in their last remaining stronghold of power.

The Decree on Nationalization transferred the management of the factories from the workers' organizations to the party apparatus. The party bosses used it to threaten the workers with dismissal if they went ahead with their planned strike. The strike organizers were arrested — especially those who were known to be connected with the SRs and the Mensheviks — and dozens of them shot as 'counter-revolutionaries'. Not surprisingly, given this intimidation, very few workers came out on to the streets for the general strike. The Bolsheviks drove home their victory: the Extraordinary Assemblies were outlawed, their leaders imprisoned and the dissident trade unions purged. The Mensheviks and SRs were now expelled from the Soviets, denounced as 'counter-revolutionaries', and driven underground. The last of the opposition newspapers were shut down. Even Gorky's Novaia zhizn, which had helped to organize the Petrograd strike and which had often declared its support for the Extraordinary Assemblies, was finally closed on 16 July. 'We are heading for a total civil war,' a despondent Gorky wrote to Ekaterina, 'and it seems that the war will be a savage one ... Oh, how hard it is to live in Russia! We are all so stupid — so fantastically stupid.'66

Another consideration was that many of the joint-stock companies affected by the decree were German-owned and that under the Brest-Litovsk Treaty any of these companies which were nationalized after I July would have to be fully indemnified (Malle, Economic, 59—61).

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!