A letter from Sergei Semenov:
Andreevskoe, 21 January 1921 Dear Anna,
Life in the village has become unbearable. True, we are much better off than the peasants in the rest of Russia. Neither the food requisitioning nor the labour duty has really yet affected us. But we still suffer from the daily acts of robbery, stupidity and dishonesty by our local bearers of Soviet Power which make normal life impossible. The labouring people, in whose name all this has been done, no longer support the new regime. I will not write another letter of complaint to Kamenev [chairman of the Moscow Soviet]. As the proverb goes, 'There is nothing worse than a deaf man who will neither listen.'
Despite the ending of the war and all the promises to get the country back on to its feet, our population does not believe the current authorities are capable of this. It is so fed up and angry, it is so devoured by the feeling of oppression, that it is incapable of positive thoughts and cannot see a way out of this situation. Many are despairing because Wrangel and the Poles were beaten — and yet nobody wants to admit that the answer to our problems lies not in changing things from the outside but in changing the way we live ourselves.36
The sense of anger and despair which Semenov's letter expresses was shared by peasants throughout Russia. All the ideals of the peasant revolution had been destroyed by the Bolshevik regime. The peasant Soviets of 1917, which to a large extent had realized the old ideal of volia, of village freedom and autonomy, had been taken over by the Communists. What had been organs of peasant self-rule now became bureaucratic organs of the state. The revolution on the land, which had aimed to make the smallholding peasant farm universal, was now threatened by the collective farms. The gentry's estates which the peasants had thought would belong to them were being transferred to the state. And what sort of state was that? Not one that helped the peasants to prosper. It was one that took away their only sons and horses for the army, one that prolonged the devastations of the civil war, one that forced them into labour teams and robbed them of their food. 'The freedom we were given by the revolution was taken from us by the new regime,' complained one peasant to a foreign journalist in January 1921. 'Life in the village is now like it was under the Tsar.'
By 1921 much of peasant Russia had been brought to the brink of a terrible famine. While the famine crisis of 1921—2 was directly caused by a year of drought and heavy frosts, the worst affected areas were clearly those that had suffered most from the requisitionings of 1918—21. In Samara province, for example, the worst-hit region of the famine crisis, the amount of grain requisitioned during 1919—20 exceeded the actual harvest surplus by 30 per cent with the result that the average peasant household lost 118 kg of food, fodder and seed from its basic stores. In the harsh conditions of 1921 this often proved the difference between life and death. In the Balashov district of neighbouring Saratov province, where Cheremukhin's murderous brigade collected the levy, the amount of requisitioned grain even exceeded the total harvest so that the peasants were forced to pay it from stocks they had accumulated in previous years and in the autumn of 1920 there was, in the words of one official, 'no seed left to sow'. Throughout the grain-producing regions of Russia the Bolsheviks had deliberately set their food levies higher than the estimated harvest surplus on the grounds that the peasants would hide up to one-third of their actual food surplus. On this same basis the requisitioning brigades had indiscriminately seized whatever foodstuffs they could find in the village barns, often shooting peasants who resisted them as 'kulaks', even though, as many Bolshevik officials were forced to admit, these were usually the poorest peasants who would simply starve if they lost their last vital food stocks to the levy. During 1920, as the signs of the imminent crisis became clearer, provincial food officials pleaded with the Centre to call a halt to their disastrous levies. 'There is simply no grain left to take,' warned one official from the German Volga region in September 1920. And yet Moscow pressed for more. In the German Volga region 42 per cent of the paltry 1920 harvest was seized and shipped off to the hungry north.
Villages were ransacked, children held to ransom, peasants whipped and tortured to squeeze their last few grains from them.37
To begin with the peasants defended themselves with the usual 'weapons of the weak': passive resistance and subterfuge. They buried their grain beneath the ground, fed it to their livestock, or turned it into moonshine rather than lose it to the Bolsheviks. They also began to take up arms in sporadic local revolts and rebellions of increasing frequency, size and violence. Two thousand members of the requisitioning brigades were murdered by angry peasants during 1918; in 1919 the figure rose to nearly 5,000; and in 1920 to over 8,000. By the autumn of 1920 the whole of the country was inflamed with peasant wars. Makhno's peasant army, still up to 15,000 strong after Wrangel's defeat, roamed across the Ukrainian steppe and, together with countless other local bands, succeeded in paralysing much of the rural Soviet infrastructure until the summer of 1921. In the central Russian province of Tambov the Antonov rebellion was supported by virtually the entire peasant population: Soviet power ceased to exist there between the autumn of 1920 and the summer of 1921. In Voronezh, Saratov, Samara, Simbirsk and Penza provinces there were smaller but no less destructive peasant rebel armies creating havoc and effectively limiting the Bolsheviks' power to the towns. Hundreds of small-scale bandit armies controlled the steppelands between Ufa and the Caspian Sea. In the Don and the Kuban the Cossacks and the peasants were at last united by their common hatred of the Bolsheviks. The rebel armies of the Caucasian mountains numbered well over 30,000 fighters. In Belorussia the nationalist-led peasants took over most of the countryside and forced the Soviets of Minsk and Smolensk to be evacuated. By far the biggest (though least studied) of the peasant revolts broke out in western Siberia: the whole of the Tiumen', Omsk, Cheliabinsk, Tobolsk, Ekaterinburg and Tomsk regions, complete with most of the major towns, fell into the hands of peasant rebels, up to 60,000 of them under arms, and virtually the whole of the Soviet infrastructure remained paralysed during the first six months of 1921. And yet throughout Russia the same thing was happening on a smaller scale: angry peasants were taking up arms and chasing the Bolsheviks out of the villages. Less than fifty miles from the Kremlin, not far from Semenov's Andreev-skoe, there were villages where it was dangerous for a Bolshevik to go.38
What is remarkable about these peasant wars is that they shared so many common features, despite the huge distances between them and the different contexts in which they took place.
Most of the larger rebellions had started out in 1920 as small-scale peasant revolts against the requisitioning of food which, as a result of their incompetent and often brutal handling by the local Communists, soon became inflamed and spread into full-scale peasant wars. The Tambov rebellion was typical. It had started in August 1920 in the village of Kamenka when a food brigade arrived to collect its share of the new grain levy. At over eleven million puds the levy for the province had clearly been set much too high. Even Lenin wondered in September 'whether it should not be cut'. The 1920 harvest had been very poor and if the peasants had paid the levy in full they would have been left with a mere one pud of grain per person, barely 10 per cent of their normal requirements for food, seed and fodder. Already in October there were hunger riots. By January, in the words of the Bolshevik Antonov-Ovseenko, sent in to help put down the revolt, 'half the peasantry was starving'. The peasants of Kamenka were relatively wealthy — which meant they starved more slowly than the rest — and an extra levy was imposed on them. They refused to pay this levy, killed several members of the requisitioning brigade, and armed themselves with guns and pitchforks to fight off the Soviet reinforcements sent in from Tambov to put their revolt down. Neighbouring villages joined the uprising and a rudimentary peasant army was soon organized. It fought under the Red Flag — reclaiming the symbols of the revolution was an important aspect of these people's uprisings — and was led by the local peasant SR hero, Grigorii Plezhnikov, who had organized the war against the gentry estates in 1905 and 1917. Meanwhile, a network of Peasant Unions (STKs) began to emerge in the villages — often they were organized by the local SRs — which replaced the Soviets and helped to supply the insurgent army. Over fifty Communists were shot.
The speed with which the revolt spread caught the Bolsheviks in Tambov unprepared. The Soviet and party apparatus in the province had become extremely weak. People had been leaving the party in droves — many of them ex-SRs who soon joined the rebels — as industrial strikes and corruption scandals had made belonging to it a source of both danger and embarrassment. Because of the war against Poland there were only 3,000 Red Army troops, most of them extremely unreliable, in the provincial garrison. They had only one machine-gun for the whole of the insurgent district of Kirsanov. The rebels took advantage of this weakness and marched on the provincial capital. Thousands of peasants joined them as they approached Tambov. The Bolsheviks were thrown into panic. When reinforcements arrived they forced the rebels back and unleashed a campaign of terror in the villages. Several rebel strongholds were burned to the ground, whole herds of cattle were confiscated, and hundreds of peasants were executed. Yet this merely fanned the flames of peasant war. 'The whole population took to the woods in fright and joined the rebels,' reported one local Communist. 'Even peasants once loyal to us had nothing left to lose and threw in their lot with the revolt.' From Kirsanov the rebellion soon spread throughout the southern half of Tambov province and parts of neighbouring Saratov, Voronezh and Penza. It was at this point that the Left SR activist Alexander Antonov took over the leadership of the revolt, building it up by the end of 1920 into what Lenin himself later acknowledged was the greatest threat his regime had ever had to face.39
Soviet propaganda portrayed the peasant rebels as 'kulaks'. But the evidence suggests on the contrary that these were general peasant revolts. The rebel armies were basically made up of ordinary peasants, as suggested by their agricultural weapons — pitchforks, axes, pikes and hoes — although deserters from the civil war armies also joined their ranks and often played a leading role. In Tambov province there were 110,000 deserters, 60,000 of them in the woodland districts around Kirsanov, on the eve of the revolt. Many of the rebels were destitute youths — mostly under the age of twenty-five. Popov's peasant army in Saratov province was described as 'dressed in rags', although some wore stolen suits. The bands of the Orenburg steppe were, in the words of the Buguruslan Party, made up of:
people who have been completely displaced through poverty and hunger. The kulaks help the bandits materially but themselves take up arms only very rarely indeed. The bands find it very easy to enlist supporters. The slogan 'Kill the Communists! Smash the Collective Farms!' is very popular among the most backward and downtrodden strata of the peasantry.
Inevitably, given the general breakdown of order, criminal elements also attached themselves to the peasant armies, looting property and raping women, a factor which later helped the Bolsheviks to divide the rebels from the local population.40
The strength of the rebel armies derived from their close ties with the village: this enabled them to carry out the guerrilla-type operations which so confounded the Red Army commanders. What the Americans later learned in Vietnam — that conventional armies, however well armed, are ill-equipped to fight a well-supported peasant army — the Russians discovered in 1921 (and rediscovered sixty years later in Afghanistan). The rebel armies were organized on a partisan basis with each village responsible for mobilizing, feeding and equipping its own troops. In Tambov and parts of western Siberia the STKs, which were closely connected to the village communes, performed these functions. Elsewhere it was the communes themselves. The Church and the local SRs, especially those on the left of the party, also helped to organize the revolt in some regions, although the precise role of the SR leadership is still clouded in mystery.41
With the support of the local population the rebel armies were, in the words of Antonov-Ovseenko, 'scarcely vulnerable, extraordinarily invisible, and so to speak ubiquitous'. Peasants could become soldiers, and soldiers peasants, at a moment's notice. The villagers were the ears and eyes of the rebel armies — women, children, even beggars served as spies — and everywhere the Reds were vulnerable to ambush. Yet the rebels, when pursued by the Reds, would suddenly vanish — either by merging with the local population, or with fresh horses supplied by the peasants which far outstripped the pursuing Reds. Where the Reds could travel thirty miles a day the rebels could travel up to a hundred miles. Their intimate knowledge of the local terrain, moreover, enabled them to move around and launch assaults at night. This supreme mobility easily compensated for their lack of artillery. They literally ran circles around the Reds, whose commanders complained they were 'everywhere'. Instead of engaging the Reds in the open, the rebels stuck to the remote hills and forests waiting for the right moment to launch a surprise attack before retreating out of sight. Their strategy was purely defensive: they aimed not to march on Moscow — nor even for the most part to attack the local towns — but to cut themselves off from its influence. They blew up bridges, cut down telegraph poles and pulled up railway tracks to paralyse the Reds. It was difficult to cope with such tactics, especially since none of the Red commanders had ever come across anything like them before. The first small units sent to fight the rebels were nearly all defeated — Tukhachevsky said their 'only purpose was to arm the rebels' — and they soon became demoralized. Many Reds even joined the rebels.42
The aims and ideology of the revolts were strikingly uniform and reflect the common aspirations of the peasant revolution throughout Russia and the Ukraine. All the revolts sought to re-establish the peasant self-rule of 1917—18. Most expressed this in the slogan 'Soviet Power without the Communists!' or some variation on this theme. The same basic idea was sometimes expressed in the rather confused slogans: 'Long Live Lenin! Down with Trotsky!' or 'Long Live the Bolsheviks! Death to the Communists!' Many peasants were under the illusion that the Bolsheviks and the Communists were two separate parties: the party's change of name in February 1918 had yet to be communicated to the remote villages. The peasants believed that 'Lenin' and the 'Bolsheviks' had brought them peace, that they had allowed them to seize the gentry's land, to sell their foodstuffs freely on the market and to regulate their local communities through their own elected Soviets. On the other hand, they believed that 'Trotsky' and the 'Communists' had brought civil war, had taken away the gentry's land and used it for collective farms, had stamped out free trade with requisitioning and had usurped their local Soviets.
Through the slogan of Soviet power, the peasant rebels were no doubt partly seeking to give their protest a 'legitimate' form. They sometimes called their rebel organs 'Soviets'. None the less, their commitment to the democratic ideal of the revolution was no less genuine for this pretence. All the peasant movements were hostile to the Whites — and it was significant that none of them really took off until after the Whites' defeat. Many of the rebel leaders (e.g. Makhno, Sapozhkov, Mironov, Serov, Vakhulin, Maslakov and Kolesov) had fought with the Reds, and often with distinction, against the Whites. Others had served as Soviet officials. Antonov had been the Soviet Chief of Police in the Kirsanov district until the summer of 1918, when, like the rest of the Left SRs, he had broken with the Bolsheviks and turned the district into a bastion of revolt. Sapozhkov, who led a rebel peasant army in the Novouzensk district of Samara during the summer of 1920, had formerly been the Chairman of the Novouzensk Soviet, a hero of its defence against the Cossacks and a leader of the Bolshevik underground in Samara against the Komuch. Piatakov, a peasant rebel leader in the neighbouring Saratov province, had been a Soviet provisions commissar. Voronovich, one of the rebel leaders in the Caucasus, had been the Chairman of the Luga Soviet in 1917. He had even taken part in the defence of Petrograd against Kornilov.43
The peasants often called their revolts a 'revolution' — and that is just what they aimed to be. As in 1917, much of the rural state infrastructure was swept aside by a huge tidal wave of peasant anger and destruction. This was a savage war of vengeance against the Communist regime. Thousands of Bolsheviks were brutally murdered. Many were the victims of gruesome (and symbolic) tortures: ears, tongues and eyes were cut out; limbs, heads and genitals were cut off; stomachs were sliced open and stuffed with wheat; crosses were branded on foreheads and torsos; Communists were nailed to trees, burned alive, drowned under ice, buried up to their necks and eaten by dogs or rats, while crowds of peasants watched and shouted. Party and Soviet offices were ransacked. Police stations and rural courts were burned to the ground. Soviet schools and propaganda centres were vandalized. As for the collective farms, the vast majority of them were destroyed and their tools and livestock redistributed among the local peasants. The same thing happened to the Soviet grain-collecting stations, mills, distilleries, beer factories and bread shops. Once the rebel forces had seized the installation 'huge crowds of peasants' would follow in their wake removing piecemeal the requisitioned grain and carting it back to their villages. This reclamation of the 'people's property' — in effect a new 'looting of the looters' — helped the rebel armies to consolidate the support of the local population. But not all the rebels were such Robin Hoods. Simple banditry also played a role. Most of the rebel armies held up trains. In the Donbass region such holdups were said to be 'almost a daily occurrence' during the spring of 1921. Raids on local towns, and sometimes the peasant farmers, were another common source of provisions. The appearance of these rebel forces, with their vast herds of stolen livestock and their long caravans of military hardware, liquor barrels and bags of grain must have been very colourful. Antonov's partisans made off from Kniazeva in the Serdobsk district with the entire contents of the costumes and props department of the local theatre, complete with magic lanterns, dummies and bustles. One eye-witness described Popov's rebel army in the Volga town of Khvalynsk as a long train of machine-gun carriers each drawn by six horses:
the carriers were covered with bloodstains and the horses were decorated with brightly coloured ribbons and material. Ten of the carriers also bore gramophones, while others carried barrels of beer and vodka. All day long the bandits sang and danced to the music and the town was taken over by an unimaginable din.44
By March 1921 Soviet power in much of the countryside had virtually ceased to exist. Provincial Bolshevik organizations sent desperate telegrams to Moscow claiming they were powerless to resist the rebels and calling for immediate reinforcements. The consignment of grain to the cities had been brought to a virtual halt within the rebel strongholds. As the urban food crisis deepened and more and more workers went on strike, it became clear that the Bolsheviks were facing a revolutionary situation. Lenin was thrown into panic: every day he bombarded the local Red commanders with violent demands for the swiftest possible suppression of the revolts by whatever means. 'We are barely holding on,' he acknowledged in March. The peasant wars, he told the opening session of the Tenth Party Congress on 8 March, were 'far more dangerous than all the Denikins, Yudeniches and Kolchaks put together'.45 Together with the strikes and the Kronstadt mutiny of March, they would force that Congress to abandon finally the widely hated policies of War Communism and restore free trade under the NEP. It was a desperate bid to stem the tide of this popular revolution. Having defeated the Whites, who were backed by no fewer than eight Western powers, the Bolsheviks surrendered to the peasantry.
* * * The wave of workers' strikes that swept across Russia during February 1921 was no less revolutionary than the peasant revolts. Given the punishments which strikers could expect (instant dismissal, arrest and imprisonment, even execution), it was a brave act, an act of defiance, to stage a strike in 1921. Whereas earlier strikes had been a means of bargaining with the regime, those of 1921 were a last desperate bid to overthrow it.
'Workers, you have nothing to lose but your chains!' Marx's dictum had never been more true. The militarized factory had enserfed the working class. Lacking enough foodstuffs to stimulate the workers, the Bolsheviks depended on coercion alone. Workers were deprived of their meagre rations, imprisoned, even shot, if their factories failed to meet the set production quotas. With the poor harvest and the growing reluctance of the peasantry to relinquish their grain, food stocks in the cities shrank to dangerously low levels during the winter of 1920—I. The disruption of transport by heavy snows made the situation worse. On 22 January the bread ration was cut by one-third in several industrial cities, including Moscow and Petrograd. Even the most privileged workers were given only 1,000 calories a day. Hundreds of factories across the country were forced to close their gates for lack of fuel. The Menshevik Fedor Dan saw starving workers and soldiers begging for food in the streets of Petrograd. Women queued overnight to buy a loaf of bread.46 It was reminiscent of the situation on the eve of the February Revolution.
Moscow was the first to erupt. A rash of workers' meetings called for an end to the Communists' privileges, the restoration of free trade and movement (meaning their right to travel into the countryside and barter with the peasants), civil liberties and the Constituent Assembly. White flags were hung in the factories as a traditional mark of working-class protest. The Moscow printers took the lead: they had staged a similar protest in May 1920 and both the Mensheviks and SRs were strong within their union. But such was the general level of discontent that the protest movement needed little encouragement. The Bolsheviks sent emissaries to the factories to try to defuse the situation; but they were rudely heckled. According to one (rather questionable) report, Lenin himself appeared before a noisy meeting of metalworkers and asked his listeners, who had accused him of ruining the country, whether they would prefer to have the Whites. But his question drew an angry response: 'Let come who may — whites, blacks or devils — just you clear out.' By 21 February thousands of workers were out on strike. Huge demonstrations marched through the streets of the Khamovniki district and, after attempts to disperse the crowds had failed, troops were ordered in. But, as in February 1917, the soldiers refused to fire on the crowds and special Communist detachments (ChON) had to be called in which killed several workers. The next day even bigger crowds appeared on the streets. They marched on the Khamovniki barracks and tried to get the soldiers out; but the soldiers were now locked inside and Communist detachments once again dispersed the crowds by force. On 23 February, as 10,000 workers marched in protest through the streets, martial law was declared in the capital.47
Meanwhile, the strikes spread to Petrograd. Numerous factories held protest rallies on the 22nd. As in Moscow, the workers called for an end to the privileged rations of the Communists, the restoration of free trade and movement, and, under the influence of the Mensheviks and SRs, free re-elections to the Soviets and the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. Over the next three days thousands of workers came out on strike. All the biggest metal plants — the Putilov, Trubochny, Baltic and Obukhovsky — joined the movement, along with most of the docks and shipyards. It was practically a general strike. On the Nevsky Prospekt and Vasilevsky Island there were clashes between strikers and troops. Some of the soldiers fired on the workers, killing and wounding at least thirty, but several thousand soldiers, including the Izmailovsky and Finland Regiments, went over to the crowd. Even the sailors of the Aurora, that floating symbol of Bolshevik power, docked in the city for winter repairs, disembarked to join the demonstrations.
It did not take a genius to realize that this was exactly the same situation that, four years before to the day, had sparked the mutiny of the Petrograd garrison which led to the downfall of the tsarist regime. The Bolsheviks were petrified of another mutiny and did everything they could to keep the soldiers in their barracks. They even took away their shoes, on the pretext of replacing them with new ones, to stop the soldiers going out. The city was placed under martial law on the 25th. All power was vested in a special Committee of Defence with Zinoviev at its head. The party boss, who was always inclined to panic in such situations, made a hysterical appeal to the workers, begging them to return to work and promising to improve their economic situation. Meanwhile the Cheka was arresting hundreds of strikers — together with most of the leading Mensheviks and SRs in the city — while thousands of others were locked out of their factories and thus deprived of their rations. All of which was bound to exacerbate the strikes. The workers now called openly for the overthrow of the Bolshevik regime. On 27 February, the fourth anniversary of the revolution, the following proclamation appeared in the streets. It was a call for a new revolution:
First of all the workers and peasants need freedom. They do not want to live by the decrees of the Bolsheviks. They want to control their own destinies.
We demand the liberation of all arrested socialists and non-party working men; abolition of martial law; freedom of speech, press, and assembly for all who labour; free elections of factory committees, trade unions and Soviets.
Call meetings, pass resolutions, send delegates to the authorities, bring about the realization of your demands.48
That same day the revolt spread across the Gulf of Finland to the Kronstadt naval base: a real revolution now moved one step closer. In 1917 Trotsky had called the Kronstadt sailors the 'pride and glory of the Russian revolution'.* They were the first to call for Soviet power, and they played a key role in the events of October. Yet Kronstadt had always been a troublesome bastion of revolutionary maximalism. Its sailors were Anarchist as much as Bolshevik. What they really wanted was an independent Kronstadt Soviet Republic — a sort of island version of the Paris Commune — as opposed to a centralized state. Until the summer of 1918 the Kronstadt Soviet was governed by a broad coalition of all the far-left parties. Its executive was chosen for its competence rather than its party, and was strictly accountable to the elected Soviets (or 'toiling collectives') on the naval base. Such democracy was intolerable to the Bolsheviks. They purged the Soviet of all the other parties and turned it into a bureaucratic organ of their state. The sailors soon became disgruntled. Although they fought for the Reds during the defence of Petrograd, in October 1919, they only did so to defeat the Whites, whom they saw as an even greater evil than the Bolsheviks. Once the civil war was over the sailors turned their anger on the Reds. They condemned their treatment of the peasantry. Many of the Kronstadt sailors came from the countryside — the Ukraine and Tambov were especially well represented — and were shocked by what they found there when they returned home on leave. 'Ours is an ordinary peasant farm,' wrote one of the Petropavlovsk crew in November 1920 after learning that his family's cow had been requisitioned; 'yet when I and my brother return home from serving the Soviet republic people will sneer at our wrecked farm and say: "What did you serve for? What has the Soviet republic given you?" ' The feudal lifestyle of the Communist bosses was another source of mounting resentment among both the sailors and the party rank and file. Raskolnikov, the Kronstadt Bolshevik leader of 1917, returned to the base in 1920 as the newly appointed Chief Commander of the Baltic Fleet and lived there like a lord with his elegant wife, the Bolshevik commissar Larissa Reissner, complete with banquets, chauffeured cars and servants. Reissner even had a wardrobe of dresses requisitioned for her from the aristocracy. Half the Kronstadt Bolsheviks became so disillusioned that they tore up their party cards during the second half of 1920.49
* The term had originally been used by the liberal press to describe Kerensky in 1917.
When news of the strikes in Petrograd reached the Kronstadt sailors they sent a delegation to the city to report on their development. When they returned, on 28 February, the crew of the Petropavlovsk, previously a Bolshevik stronghold, raised their own banner of revolt with a proclamation calling for free Soviet elections, freedom of speech, press and assembly (albeit only for the workers and peasants, the left-wing parties and the trade unions), 'equal rations for all the working people', and 'freedom for the peasants to toil the land as they see fit' provided they did not use hired labour. Whereas the workers' resolutions called for the reconvocation of the Constituent Assembly, the sailors remained opposed to this. It had been an Anarchist group of Kronstadt sailors who had forcibly closed down the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. Their programme remained strictly Soviet in the sense that they aimed to restore their own multi-party Soviet of 1918. Moreover, unlike the peasant rebels, whose slogan was 'Soviets without the Communists!', they were even prepared to accept the Bolsheviks in this coalition provided they accepted the principles of Soviet democracy and renounced their dictatorship. This helps to explain why—uniquely among the revolts of 1921 — more than half the Bolshevik rank and file in Kronstadt chose to join the mutiny.
Embarrassed by the loss of this former stronghold, the Bolsheviks tried to claim that the Kronstadt rebels were not the same as those of 1917, that the best proletarian sailors had been lost in the civil war and replaced by 'peasant lads in sailors' suits' who brought with them from their village 'anarchist' and 'petty-bourgeois' attitudes. Yet, as Israel Getzler has shown, this was in fact a case of the Bolsheviks being abandoned by their own most favoured sons. The Kronstadt rebels of 1921 were essentially the same as those of 1917. The majority of their leaders were veteran sailors of the Kronstadt Fleet. Some of them, such as the SR-Maximalist Anatolii Lamanov, chief ideologist of the mutiny, had been prominent members of the Kronstadt Soviet in 1917—18. On the two major ships involved in the mutiny, the Petropavlovsk and the Sevastopol, 94 per cent of the crew had been recruited before 1918.50 In its personnel, as in its ideology, the mutiny was a return to the revolutionary days of 1917.
Revolutionary anger and excitement spilled on to the streets on I March. A mass meeting in Anchor Square attended by 15,000 people, nearly one-third of the Kronstadt population, passed a resolution calling for the Soviet to be reelected. Kalinin, sent to calm the sailors, was rudely heckled, while Kuzmin, a Bolshevik commissar of the fleet, was booed off the stage. The next day 300 delegates from the various ships and shipyards met to elect a new Soviet. The mutinous Bolsheviks made up a large minority of the delegates. Alarmed by rumours that Communist guards were about to storm the meeting, the delegates chose instead to select a five-man Revolutionary Committee, which hurriedly set about organizing the island's defence. The old spirit of revolutionary improvisation had returned.
Although these rumours turned out to be false, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd were indeed preparing to suppress the mutiny. They could not wait for it to peter out. Revolts in other cities, such as Kazan and Nizhnyi Novgorod, were already being inspired by it. The ice-packed Gulf of Finland, moreover, was about to thaw and this would make the fortress, with the whole of its fleet freed from the ice, virtually impregnable. On 2 March martial law was imposed on the whole of Petrograd province. Troops and artillery were amassed along the coastline opposite Kronstadt. As in the defence of Petrograd against the Whites, Trotsky was despatched to the old capital to take command of operations. He arrived on 5 March and ordered the mutineers to surrender at once. In an ultimatum that could have been issued by a nineteenth-century provincial governor to the rebellious peasants he warned that the rebels would 'be shot like partridges' if they did not give up in twenty-four hours. Trotsky ordered the families of the sailors living in Petrograd to be arrested as hostages. When the head of the Petrograd Cheka insisted that the mutiny was 'spontaneous', Trotsky cabled Moscow to have him dismissed.51
The assault began on 7 March. For a whole day the Bolsheviks' heavy guns bombarded the fortress from the north-western coast. It was Women Workers' Day and amidst the noise of the exploding shells the Kronstadt radio sent out greetings to the women of the world. The distant thunder of heavy guns could be heard by Alexander Berkman twenty miles away on Nevsky Prospekt. The American Anarchist, whose faith in the revolution had been suddenly revived by the mutiny, noted in his diary at 6 p.m. that day: 'Kronstadt has been attacked! Days of anguish and cannonading. My heart is numb with despair; something has died within me.' The aim of the shelling was to 'soften' up the fortress in preparation for an assault across the ice. The troops would have to run across a terrifying five-mile stretch of ice exposed to the guns of the Kronstadt boats and forts. Morale was understandably low among the conscript troops and Tukhachevsky, who was put in charge of the operation, had to place special Communist security troops among their units and Cheka machine-guns behind their backs to make sure they did not run away. They moved forward early the next morning: a snowstorm provided them with cover and some of the forward troops were given white sheets. The assault, however, ended in disaster. The heavy guns of the mutineers made channels of water in the ice into which many of the assaulting troops, blinded by the snowstorm, fell and drowned. Two thousand soldiers were mown down by machine-guns from the outer forts. When the snowstorm lifted the huge expanse of ice was revealed to be littered with corpses.52
Meanwhile, amidst all this fighting, the mutineers began to carry out their 'revolution'. This was a republic built under fire. In its hectic eighteen days of rule (I—18 March) the Kronstadt Revolutionary Committee dismantled the Communist apparatus, organized the re-elections of the trade unions and prepared for Soviet re-elections. On 8 March its own Izvestiia published a statement of 'What we are fighting for'. It was a moving document of protest that summed up for the sailors — and indeed for the Russian people as a whole — what had gone wrong with the revolution:
By carrying out the October Revolution the working class had hoped to achieve its emancipation. But the result has been an even greater enslavement of human beings. The power of the monarchy, with its police and its gendarmerie, has passed into the hands of the Communist usurpers, who have given the people not freedom but the constant fear of torture by the Cheka, the horrors of which far exceed the rule of the gendarmerie under tsarism . . . The glorious emblem of the toilers' state — the sickle and the hammer — has in fact been replaced by the Communists with the bayonet and the barred window, which they use to maintain the calm and carefree life of the new bureaucracy, the Communist commissars and functionaries. But the worst and most criminal of all is the moral servitude which the Communists have also introduced: they have laid their hands on the inner world of the toiling people, forcing them to think in the way that they want. Through the state control of the trade unions they have chained the workers to their machines so that labour is no longer a source of joy but a new form of slavery. To the protests of the peasants, expressed in spontaneous uprisings, and those of the workers, whose living conditions have compelled them to strike, they have answered with mass executions and a bloodletting that exceeds even the tsarist generals. The Russia of the toilers, the first to raise the red banner of liberation, is drenched in blood.53
This was the context in which the Tenth Party Congress assembled in Moscow on 8 March. Two critical problems confronted the leadership: the defeat of the Workers' Opposition — and to a lesser extent the Democratic Centralists — with their two dissident resolutions on the trade unions and party democracy; and the resolution of the revolutionary crisis in the country.
Lenin, as always in such situations, was in a rage. He would stop at nothing to ensure the defeat of the Workers' Opposition. Kollontai was targeted for personal abuse. Lenin would not speak to her and threatened those who did. During the debates he used the fact that Shliapnikov and Kollontai were known to have been lovers to ridicule their arguments for proletarian solidarity. 'Well, thank God,' he said to general laughter, 'we know that Comrade Kollontai and Comrade Shliapnikov are a "class united".' To sly sarcasm Lenin added slander, condemning the Workers' Opposition as a 'syndicalist deviation' and accusing it of sharing the same ideals as the Kronstadt mutiny and the workers' strikes. This was of course false: whereas both groups of protesters were demanding the overthrow of the Bolshevik dictatorship, the Workers' Opposition merely wanted to reform it. But such distinctions were harder to make than they were to blur. In the atmosphere of hysterical panic — which Lenin helped to create at the Congress with his constant warnings that Soviet power could be overthrown at any moment — the Bolshevik delegates were much too frightened to question Lenin's charge. They accepted his demagogic line that strict party unity was called for at this moment and that to tolerate such opposition factions could only benefit the enemy. No doubt, if it had come to a vote, Lenin's position on the trade union question would have received a substantial majority in any case. The 'Platform of Ten', as it was known, offered a welcome compromise between Trotsky's super-centralism and the 'syndicalism' of the Workers' Opposition, effectively restoring the position of the Ninth Party Congress whereby the state would continue to run industry through the system of One-Man Management and consult the unions on managerial appointments. But Lenin's tactics made victory sure. His two resolutions condemning the Workers' Opposition received massive majorities, with no more than thirty of the 694 Congress delegates voting against them.54
Lenin now consolidated his victory with one of the most fateful decisions in the history of the Communist Party — the ban on factions. This secret resolution, passed by the Congress on 16 March, outlawed the formation of all party groupings independent of the Central Committee. By a two-thirds vote of the Central Committee and the Control Commission such factions could be excluded from the party. The ban had been proposed by Lenin in a moment of vindictive anger against the Workers' Opposition. It was passed by a Congress which had clearly become bored and impatient with the factional squabbles of the past few months, and which in the present crisis was only too eager to rally round its leader against his opponents in the party. Neither Lenin nor the rank and file fully realized the ban's potential significance. Henceforth, the Central Committee was to rule the party on the same dictatorial lines as the party ruled the country; no one could challenge its decisions without exposing themselves to the charge of factionalism. Stalin's rise to power was a product of the ban. He used the same tactics against Trotsky and Bukharin as Lenin had used against the Workers' Opposition. Indeed it was mainly to enforce the ban and carry out the purge of the Workers' Opposition that Lenin created the office of a General Secretary of the Party, with Stalin as the first 'Gensek', in April 1922. By the Twelfth Party Congress of 1923 that purge was accomplished — as was Stalin's ascendancy in the Central Committee. Shliapnikov and Kollontai, though spared the ignominy of expulsion from the party, were both sent into diplomatic exile — the former to Paris, the latter to Stockholm. Supporters of the Workers' Opposition were removed from their party and trade union posts. Most of them were harassed, some imprisoned, nearly all of them were later shot in Stalin's terror. Shliapnikov was murdered in 1937.
No less monumental than the ban on factions was the second historic resolution of the Tenth Party Congress, the replacement of food requisitioning by the tax in kind. This abandoned the central plank of War Communism and laid the foundations of the NEP by allowing the peasants, once the tax had been paid, to sell the rest of their surplus as they liked, including through the free market. It was a clear attempt to stimulate production: the overall burden of the tax was 45 per cent lower than the levy of 1920 (it was later reduced to a standard rate of 10 per cent of the harvest); there were tax rebates for peasants who increased their sowings and productivity; the individual peasant was made responsible for his own share of the tax, thus abolishing the collective responsibility of the commune; and there was to be a special fund of consumer goods and agricultural tools for exchange with the most productive peasants. Lenin, it seems, had been moving towards this 'new deal' with the peasants for several weeks. A report on the Antonov uprising, delivered by Bukharin to the Politburo on 2 February after his return from a trip to Tambov, had made it clear that it was impossible to continue with the requisitionings in view of the strength of the peasantry's resistance to them there and in many other provinces. There can be no doubt that the timing of the introduction of the tax in kind was determined by the urgent need to pacify these peasant wars, which Lenin feared more than the Whites.55
Fearful that the delegates would denounce the tax as a restoration of capitalism, Lenin attempted to limit its discussion by delaying the introduction of the resolution until 15 March, the penultimate day of the Congress, by which time many of the delegates had already left for the Kronstadt Front. Lenin's own lecture on the NEP monopolized the session, leaving little time for any other speakers. He stressed that the tax in kind was desperately needed to quell the peasant revolts and to build a new alliance — the smychka — with the peasants, based on the market. Soviet power could not survive without it, since the failure of the revolution in the West left the proletariat without other allies. The policies of the civil war had been a Utopian dream — it was impossible to create socialism by administrative fiat — and in a backward peasant country such as Russia there was no other way to restore the economy after the devastations of the past few years, let alone to accumulate the capital for the socialist transformation of the country, than through the market. He dismissed fears that restoring private trade would lead Russia back to capitalism: this was to be a socialized market. The capitalist classes in Russia, including the 'kulaks', had already been destroyed by the revolution. And as long as it controlled the 'commanding heights' of the economy, banking, heavy industry, transport and foreign trade, then the state could regulate the market and use fiscal pressures to encourage the smallholders towards the collective farms and co-operatives. Lenin's tactics clearly worked. His speech had lasted for nearly three hours and by the time he sat down most of the delegates were either too weary or too intimidated to engage in serious theoretical debate. Whereas on other issues there were up to 250 different speakers, there were only four, other than Lenin himself, on the tax in kind. All of them were chosen by the presidium, were strictly limited to ten minutes each, and none had any serious criticisms to make. Neither Trotsky nor Bukharin expressed a desire to speak on the new tax, although both had espoused contrary policies up until that time, and between them had spoken on no fewer than fourteen occasions during the other sessions of the Congress. Even Shliapnikov, who later condemned the tax as a retreat before the peasantry, remained strangely silent after his bruising of the past few days.56 The defining policy of the 1920s was passed virtually without discussion. The era of the stage-managed Party Congress had arrived.
Meanwhile the Bolsheviks focused their attention on the suppression of the popular revolts. On 10 March 300 delegates at the Tenth Party Congress volunteered to fight on the Kronstadt Front after hearing Trotsky's bleak description of the situation there. Eager to prove their loyalty, members of the Workers' Opposition were among the first to step forward. The delegates arrived in Petrograd the following day bringing news with them of the coming tax in kind to boost the morale of the troops. By this stage, the strikes in Petrograd had petered out: arrests and concessions — including a promise by Zinoviev as early as 27 February that free trade was about to be restored — proved enough to break them. Moscow's strikes followed the same pattern. On 16 March the final assault on the Kronstadt fortress commenced. After several days of heavy artillery shelling from the coast and bombing from the air, 50,000 crack troops advanced across the ice in the dark hours of early morning. The battle raged for eighteen hours. But by midnight on the 17th the rebellion had been defeated and most of the sailors had surrendered. Over 10,000 Red troops were killed, including fifteen delegates of the Tenth Party Congress who had joined in the assault. When the battle was over the government in Helsingfors requested Moscow to have all the corpses cleared away lest they should be washed up on the Finnish coast and create a health hazard following the thaw.
The next morning hundreds of prisoners from the Kronstadt base were marched through Petrograd on their route to prison. Near the centre they saw a group of workers carrying sacks of potatoes on their backs. 'Traitors!' the sailors shouted, 'you have sold our lives for Communist potatoes. Tomorrow you will have our flesh to eat with your potatoes.' Later that night some 500 rebels were shot without trial on Zinoviev's orders: the regular executioners refused to do it, so a brigade of teenage Komsomols was ordered to shoot the sailors instead. Some of the rebels managed to flee to Gorky's flat and tell him of these executions. Gorky was outraged — like many socialists he had supported the rebellion from the start — and at once called Lenin to complain. The Bolshevik leader ordered Zinoviev to explain his actions before a party meeting in Gorky's flat. But at the meeting Zinoviev promptly had a heart attack (Gorky later claimed that it was faked) and the result was that he was only lightly reprimanded for an action which, in any case, Lenin had probably approved. During the following months 2,000 more rebels were executed, nearly all of them without trial, while hundreds of others were sent on Lenin's orders to Solovki, the first big Soviet concentration camp on an island in the White Sea, where they died a slower death from hunger, illness and exhaustion. About 8,000 Kronstadt rebels escaped across the ice to Finland, where they were interned and put to public works. Some of them were later lured back to Russia by the promise of an amnesty — only to be shot or sent to concentration camps on their return.57
The suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion had a shattering effect on socialists throughout the world. There could not be a more conclusive proof that the Bolsheviks had turned into tyrants. Alexander Berkman, with 'the last thread of his faith in the Bolsheviks broken', wandered in despair through the streets of Petrograd — the city where the revolution had been born and where it had now died. On 18 March he noted with bitter irony in his diary: 'The victors are celebrating the anniversary of the Commune of 1871. Trotsky and Zinoviev denounce Thiers and Gallifet for the slaughter of the Paris rebels.'58
Military might and ruthless terror also held the key to the suppression of the major peasant revolts, although in some places such as the Volga region famine and exhaustion did the job instead. The turning point came in the early summer, when the Bolsheviks rethought their military strategy: instead of sending in small detachments to fight the rebels they swamped the rebel areas with troops and unleashed a campaign of mass terror against those villages that supported the rebels whilst trying to ween away the others through propaganda. The new strategy was first applied in Tambov province, where Tukhachevsky, fresh from his success against Kronstadt, was sent in April to crush the Antonov revolt. By the height of the operation in June the insurgent areas were occupied by a force of over 100,000 men, most of them crack troops from the elite Communist security units and the Komsomol, together with several hundred heavy guns and armoured cars. Aeroplanes were used to track the movement of the bands and to drop bombs and propaganda on to their strongholds. Poison gas was also used to 'smoke the bands out of the forests'. Through paid informers, the rebels and their families were singled out for arrest as hostages and imprisoned in specially constructed concentration camps: by the end of June there were 50,000 peasants in the Tambov camps, including over 1,000 children. It was not unusual for whole village populations to be interned and later shot or deported to the Arctic Circle if the rebels did not surrender. Sometimes the rebel villages were simply burned to the ground. In just one volost of the Tambov district — and it was not even particularly noted as a rebel stronghold — 154 peasants were shot, 227 families were taken hostage, 17 houses were burned down and 46 were torn down or transferred to informers. Overall, it has been estimated that 100,000 people were imprisoned or deported and 15,000 people shot during the suppression of the revolt.59
Along with the big stick there was also a small carrot to induce the peasants to abandon their support for the rebels. Villages that passed a resolution condemning the 'bandits' were rewarded from a special fund of salt and manufactured goods. The Bolsheviks were counting on the rebels, once they heard of these resolutions, to take reprisals against the treacherous villages so that they could drive a wedge between them and undermine the rebels' social base. There was also an amnesty for the rebels, although those who were foolish enough to surrender, about 6,000 in all, were nearly all imprisoned or shot. Finally, there was a barrage of propaganda about the benefits of the NEP, although its rather questionable efficacy hardly warrants the claims later made for it by the Bolsheviks. Many peasants, even in the Moscow region, had never heard of the tax in kind, while most of those who had, as Tukhachevsky acknowledged at the time, were 'definitely not inclined to believe in the sincerity of the decree'.60
By the late summer of 1921, when much of the countryside was struck down with famine, most of the peasant revolts had been defeated in the military sense. Antonov's army was destroyed in June, although he escaped and with smaller guerrilla forces continued to make life difficult for the Soviet regime in the Tambov countryside until the following summer, when he was finally hunted down and killed by the Cheka. In western Siberia, the Don and the Kuban all but the smallest peasant bands had been destroyed by the end of July, although peasant resistance to the Soviet regime continued on a smaller scale — and in more passive ways — until 1923. As for Makhno, he gave up the struggle in August 1921 and fled with his last remaining followers to Romania, although his strongholds in the south-east Ukraine continued to be a rebellious region for several years to come. To many Ukrainians Makhno remained a folk-hero (songs were sung about him at weddings and parties even as late as the 1950s) but to others he was a bogey man. 'Batko Makhno will get you if you don't sleep,' Soviet mothers told their children.61
The Mensheviks and SRs were suppressed along with the rebels. It was axiomatic to Bolshevik propaganda that the peasant revolts and workers' strikes had been organized by these parties. It was certainly true that they had sympathized with them, and in some cases had even supported them. But much more relevant was the fact that, as the popularity of the Bolsheviks had plummeted, so that of the SRs and Mensheviks had grown: they were a threat to the regime. By claiming that the SRs and Mensheviks had organized the strikes and revolts of 1921, the Bolsheviks sought both a pretext to destroy their last political rivals and an explanation for the protests that denied their popular base. The arrest of the 'counter-revolutionary' Mensheviks, some 5,000 in all, during 1921, and the grotesque show trial of the SR leaders the following year, when the whole party was in effect convicted as 'enemies of the people',62 were last desperate measures by the Bolsheviks to claim a popular legitimacy for their bankrupt revolution.
* * * The New Economic Policy was originally conceived as a temporary retreat. 'We are making economic concessions in order to avoid political ones,' Bukharin told the Comintern in July. 'The NEP is only a temporary deviation, a tactical retreat, a clearing of the land for a new and decisive attack of labour against the front of international capitalism,' Zinoviev added in December. Lenin also saw it in these terms. The NEP was 'a peasant Brest-Litovsk', taking one step backwards to take two steps forward. But, unlike many of the other party leaders, Lenin accepted that the period of retreat was likely to be long enough — he talked vaguely of 'not less than a decade and probably more' — to constitute not just a tactical ploy but a whole recasting of the revolution. The NEP, he reminded the party in May, was to be adopted ' "seriously and for a long time" — we must definitely get this into our heads and remember it well, because rumours are spreading that this is a policy only in quotes, in other words a form of political trickery that is only being carried out for the moment. This is not true.'63
As Lenin saw it, the NEP was more than a temporary concession to the market in order to get the country back on its feet. It was a fundamental if rather ill-formulated effort to redefine the role of socialism in a backward peasant country where, largely as a result of his own party's coup d'etat in 1917, the 'bourgeois revolution' had not been completed. Only 'in countries of developed capitalism' was it possible to make an 'immediate transition to socialism', Lenin had told the Tenth Party Congress. Soviet Russia was thus confronted with the task of 'building communism with bourgeois hands', of basing socialism on the market. Lenin of course remained full of doubts: at times he expressed fears that the regime would be drowned in a sea of petty peasant capitalism. But in the main he saw the market — regulated by the state and gradually socialized through co-operatives — as the only way to socialism. Whereas the Bolsheviks up till now had lived by the maxim 'The less market the more socialism', Lenin was moving towards the slogan 'The more market the more socialism'.64
But, like the leopard with its spots, the Bolsheviks could not easily erase their innate mistrust of private trade. Even Bukharin, who later became the main defender of the NEP, warmed to it only slowly during the course of 1921— 3. Many of the rank-and-file Bolsheviks, in particular, saw the boom in private trade as a betrayal of the revolution. What, only months ago, had been condemned as a crime against the revolution was now being endorsed and encouraged. Moreover, once the doors had been opened to the market it was difficult to stop the flood of private trade that was almost bound to follow after the shortages of the previous four years. By 1921 the whole population was living in patched-up clothes and shoes, cooking with broken kitchen utensils, drinking from cracked cups. Everyone needed something new. People set up stalls in the streets to sell or exchange their basic household goods, much as they do today in most of Russia's cities; flea-markets boomed; while 'bagging' to and from the countryside once again became a mass phenomenon. Licensed by new laws in 1921—2, private cafes, shops and restaurants, night clubs and brothels, hospitals and clinics, credit and saving associations, even small-scale manufacturers sprang up like mushrooms after the rain. Foreign observers were amazed by the sudden transformation. Moscow and Petrograd, graveyard cities in the civil war, suddenly burst into life, with noisy traders, busy cabbies and bright shop signs filling the streets just as they had done before the revolution. 'The NEP turned Moscow into a vast market place,' recalled Emma Goldman:
Shops and stores sprang up overnight, mysteriously stacked with delicacies Russia had not seen for years. Large quantities of butter, cheese and meat were displayed for sale; pastry, rare fruit, and sweets of every variety were to be purchased. Men, women and children with pinched faces and hungry eyes stood about gazing into the windows and discussing the great miracle: what was but yesterday considered a heinous offence was now flaunted before them in an open and legal manner.'63
THE REVOLUTIONARY INHERITANCE
96-7 The people reject the Bolsheviks. Above: Red Army troops assault the mutinous Kronstadt Naval Base, 16 March 1921. Below: peasant rebels ('Greens') attack a train of requisitioned grain, February 1921.
98-100 The famine crisis of 1921-2. Above: Bolshevik commissars inspect the harvest failure in the Volga region, 1921. The crisis was largely the result of Bolshevik over-requisitioning. Below, the victims of the crisis; an overcrowded cemetery in the Buzuluk district, 1921. Opposite: cannibals with their victims, Samara province, 1921.
101-3 Orphans of the revolution. Above: street orphans in Saratov hunt for food remains in a rubbish tip, 1921. Opposite above: orphans were ripe for political indoctrination. This young boy, seen here giving a speech from the agit-train October Revolution, was the Secretary of the Tula Komsomol. He was part of the generation which, a decade later, pioneered the Stalinist assault on old Russia. Opposite below: orphans also made good soldiers: a national unit of the Red Army in Turkestan, 1920.
104 The war against religion: Red Army soldiers confiscate valuable items from the Semenov Monastery in Moscow, 1923.
105-6 The revolution expands east. Above: the Red Army arrives in Bukhara and explains the meaning of Soviet power to the former subjects of the Emir, September 1920. Below, two Bolshevik commissars of the Far East.
107 The dying Lenin, with one of his doctors and his younger sister Maria Ul'ianova, during the summer of 1923. By the time this photograph was taken, Stalin's rise to power was virtually assured.
But could those hungry people afford such goods? That was the fear of the Bolshevik rank and file. It seemed to them that the boom in private trade would inevitably lead to a widening gap between rich and poor. 'We young Communists had all grown up in the belief that money was done away with once and for all,' recalled one Bolshevik in the 1940s. 'If money was reappearing, wouldn't rich people reappear too? Weren't we on the slippery slope that led back to capitalism? We put these questions to ourselves with feelings of anxiety.' Such doubts were strengthened by the sudden rise of unemployment in the first two years of the NEP. While these unemployed were living on the bread line the peasants were growing fat and rich. 'Is this what we made the revolution for?' one Bolshevik asked Emma Goldman. There was a widespread feeling among the workers, voiced most clearly by the Workers' Opposition, that the NEP was sacrificing their class interests to the peasantry, that the 'kulak' was being rehabilitated and allowed to grow rich at the workers' expense. In 1921—2 literally tens of thousands of Bolshevik workers tore up their party cards in disgust with the NEP: they dubbed it the New Exploitation of the Proletariat.66
Much of this anger was focused on the 'Nepmen', the new and vulgar get-rich-quickly class of private traders who thrived in Russia's Roaring Twenties. It was perhaps unavoidable that after seven years of war and shortages these wheeler-dealers should step into the void. Witness the 'spivs' in Britain after 1945, or, for that matter, the so-called 'mafias' in post-Soviet Russia. True, the peasants were encouraged to sell their foodstuffs to the state and the cooperatives by the offer of cheap manufactured goods in return. But until the socialized system began to function properly (and that was not until the mid-1920s) it remained easier and more profitable to sell them to the 'Nepmen' instead. If some product was particularly scarce these profiteers were sure to have it — usually because they had bribed some Soviet official. Bootleg liquor, heroin and cocaine — they sold everything. The 'Nepmen' were a walking symbol of this new and ugly capitalism. They dressed their wives and mistresses in diamonds and furs, drove around in huge imported cars, snored at the opera, sang in restaurants, and boasted loudly in expensive hotel bars of the dollar fortunes they had wasted at the newly opened race-tracks and casinos. The ostentatious spending of this new and vulgar rich, shamelessly set against the background of the appalling hunger and suffering of these years, gave rise to a widespread and bitter feeling of resentment among all those common people, the workers in particular, who had thought that the revolution should be about ending such inequalities.
This profound sense of plebeian resentment — of the 'Nepmen', the 'bourgeois specialists', the 'Jews' and the 'kulaks' — remained deeply buried in the hearts of many people, especially the blue-collar workers and the party rank and file. Here was the basic emotional appeal of Stalin's 'revolution from above', the forcible drive towards industrialization during the first of the Five Year Plans. It was the appeal to a second wave of class war against the 'bourgeoisie' of the NER the new 'enemies of the people', the idea of a return to the harsh but romantic spirit of the civil war, that 'heroic period' of the revolution, when the Bolsheviks, or so the legend went, had conquered every fortress and pressed ahead without fear or compromise. Russia in the 1920s remained a society at war with itself — full of unresolved social tensions and resentments just beneath the surface. In this sense, the deepest legacy of the revolution was its failure to eliminate the social inequalities that had brought it about in the first place.