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Russians and Civil War in 1918

Through January and February 1918, armed detachments of workers and poor peasants were confiscating and distributing food that farmers had stored. There were armed clashes with resisting farmers. In some areas, food shortages were perpetuating unrest. People carrying bread were being waylayed. Finland's government was also of concern to the Bolsheviks. Lenin's Red Guards drove the recognized Finnish government from Helsinki and helped Finnish revolutionary socialists take power. In Estonia, where Bolsheviks had won only 35 percent of the vote, Russia's Bolsheviks were supporting their fellow Estonian Bolsheviks trying to establish rule by force. In Kiev, a force of Bolsheviks from Petrograd arrived by train and drove the anti-Bolshevik regime from power. Poland, western Latvia, and Lithuania were occupied by the Germans, and the Soviet government was negotiating with Germany — while it king, Wilhelm II viewed the Bolsheviks as members of a worldwide Jewish and Freemason conspiracy.

With his generals, Kaiser Wilhelm decided to push eastward against the Bolsheviks. The advance of the Germans encouraged Petrograd's upper middle class, patriotically hostile to Germany before but now hoping for deliverance from the Bolsheviks. Against that advance, Lenin called for labor battalions made up of "all able bodied members of the bourgeois class" to dig trenches in front of the Petrograd, and anyone resisting this draft was to be shot. Lenin ordered his security force, the CHEKA, to execute on the spot all who were "enemy agents, speculators, burglars, hooligans, counter-revolutionary agitators, [or] German spies." And the Bolsheviks moved the capital eastward, to the Kremlin in Moscow.

In the Ukraine, Red Guards afraid of the German advance were transforming themselves into docile peasants, and these peasants were calling estate owners "My Lord" again. And responding to the advance of the Germans, in an agreement with Lenin's regime, the British landed 170 marines at Murmansk (on the coast in the far north), the British wanting to prevent Germany from taking control of the huge stores of ammunition that the Entente powers had sent to Russia. (The London Times, meanwhile, described the actions of Lenin and his confederates as "adventures of German-Jewish blood whose sole object is to exploit the ignorant masses in the interest of their employers in Berlin.")

The Germans were not interested in taking Russian territory, but they were interested in taking control of the Ukraine and shipping food and raw materials from there back to Germany to help offset the British blockade. The German and Austrian force in the Ukraine was not large enough to take control of the entire Ukraine, but it did occupy Kiev, and there the Germans supported a new anti-Bolshevik government.

The German advance didn't go far. The Germans were planning their big offensive on the Western Front, to start on March 21. They signed an agreement with the Soviet government on March 3. Lenin wanting peace at any price accepted the declaration of Poland, Finland, the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, western Latvia, Estonia and the Caucasus region as independent but for the time being occupied by German and other troops of the Central Powers. Signing the treaty with Germany were its allies Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. The treaty had to be ratified by the All Russian Congress of Soviets, and many of the Bolshevik's Left-Socialist Revolutionary Party allies were outraged over the surrender of territory. Lenin consulted with an amateur American diplomat in Moscow, Raymond Robins, who was trying to get Britain and US backing to keep Russia in the war. That did not work out, and Lenin went ahead with the ratification. He argued with his supporters that Russia's soldiers had voted against the war with their feet and that their revolution needed to buy time.

The Tsar was outraged with both Kaiser Wilhelm (his cousin) and the Bolsheviks. The Provisional Government had held them under a sort of house arrest at their estate following the Tsar losing power, and now it was the Bolsheviks who held them and their family prisoner, at Tobolsk, just east of the Ural Mountains. Nicholas described the agreement at Brest-Litovsk a disgrace and "suicide for Russia." Hearing rumors that the Germans were planning to rescue Nicholas and his family, his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, announced that she was looking forward to being rescued by "good Russian" friends. Many Russians were scheming and contributing money to support an escape, while contacts with the royal family were being organized by a con artist, Boris Soloviev. Alexandra trusted him, while effective plans failed to develop and Soloviev delivered a little of the donated money to her and kept the rest for himself.

More pressure on the Bolsheviks came in the form of Japanese marines landing 500 marines at Vladivostok in April. Then the British landed fifty marines there to guard the British consulate and save British property. Lenin's primary concern was control, and he was pragmatic enough to seek good relations with Britain and the United States. The amateur diplomat Raymond Robins was returning to the US from Russia, and Lenin sent a message with him expressing hope for trade. He wrote of Soviet Russia as a good opportunity for American investors. He offered the same for Britain and was hoping that competition from the United States and Britain would put a check on Japanese expansion from Vladivostok. (It was a policy of "class collaboration" that would continue on and off with Stalin and some would say exists today in China.)

Germans landed in Finland in early April and were aiding conservatives there, while Moscow was obliged to stay out of Finnish affairs by the Brest-Litovsk agreement. German units overran the Finnish capital, Helsinki, on April 13. Lenin and the Bolsheviks also had the Cossack region along the Don River to worry about. Anti-Bolshevik forces there had declared a united government and had appealed for aid from the Allies. Britain and France sent some money but little else, both powers being weighted down by their war against Germany. With the Cossacks was General Kornilov, who had escaped from prison and was now a symbol of resistance to the Bolsheviks. In April about 150 miles south of Rostov, near the Black Sea, anti-Bolshevik forces tried to take the town of Ekaterinodar, recently conquered by the Bolsheviks. There, on April 13, Kornilov was killed by Bolshevik artillery. His friends buried him. Then the jubilant and victorious Bolshevik soldiers dug up his body, dragged it to the town square and burned it on a heap of rubbish.

Lenin expressed his belief that Russia's civil war was over. It was, in fact, just beginning. In May, the Bolsheviks lost control of Siberia. This had origins in a conflict that the Bolsheviks, Czechs and Slovak former prisoners of war in Russia were on their way to join the war against Austria-Hungary for the sake of national independence from Habsburg rule. In an agreement with the Allied powers, 6,000 of them were being shipped on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, where they were to board ships. Rather than let the Czechs and Slovaks continue on to Vladivostok, an order went out to disarm them and to force them into Red Army units or labor battalions. The Czechs resisted and continued to their destination. On May 25, Trotsky ordered that any Czech or Slovak found armed was to be shot on the spot. Because the Bolshevik hold on Serbia was weak, the Czechs and Slovaks were able to take over several towns along the Trans-Siberian railway, and Czechs and Slovaks already in Vladivostok took over Vladivostok. Anti-Bolshevik Russians in Siberia were encouraged, and led by former army officers they rose against the Bolsheviks.

Trotsky put one of his able commanders, Muraviev, in charge of the eastern front. Muraviev deserted and took his pay chest and a thousand men with him to Simbirsk, on the Volga River. And there he announced the suspension of fighting against the Czechs and Slovaks and a renewal of hostilities against Germany. Forces in Siberia loyal to the Bolsheviks were forced to withdraw westward. By late June, the Soviets regime was worried about the Japanese advancing along the Trans-Siberian railway, and the Bolsheviks were worried about the arrival of 600 British reinforcements landing at Murmansk, where some French troops had also landed. The Soviet attitude toward the Allied powers turned to hostility. Trotsky sent armed detachments toward Murmansk, and Allied troops moved south to intercept them. The two sides fought skirmishes, and the Allied troops established a defensive line about 300 miles down the rail line from Murmansk. And President Woodrow Wilson sent an American force to Vladivostok to help with the withdrawal of Czechs and Slovaks from Russia.

In mid-July (1918), the Bolsheviks feared that anti-Bolsheviks would soon overrun the town of Tobolsk, where the tsar and his family were being held. So they moved the royal family westward a couple of hundred miles into the Ural Mountains, near the town of Yekaterinburg. They decided to execute the tsar and his family without delay in order to prevent the tsar from being liberated, which they feared would encourage the counter-revolution. On July 17 the Tsar and his entire family were taken downstairs and shot, their bodies burned and their ashes buried near a swamp. Grand dukes were shot the following night, their bodies flung down a mine shaft. Lenin told his comrades that they could not allow themselves to be softhearted and magnanimous while Europe was hostile toward them. Counter-revolution, he said, is rising against us on every side. "No! Excuse me," he said. "We are not imbeciles." Pointing to children at play, he said that their lives would be happier than their fathers. "Circumstances have compelled us to be cruel," he added, "but later ages will justify us. Then everything will be understood."

On August 30 came the second attempt to kill Lenin. (In January the first attempt was a shot that missed as he was in the back seat of a car.) A woman stepped up to him, pulled out a revolver, fired one bullet to the base of his neck and another through a lung which lodged in his collarbone. On that same day in Petrograd the head of Soviet state security, the Cheka, was assassinated. Lenin's would-be assassin was described by state authorities as Fanny Kaplan. She was 28 and partially blind. The Cheka reported her giving them the following statement:

Today I shot Lenin. I did it on my own. I will not say from whom I obtained my revolver. I will give no details. I had resolved to kill Lenin long ago. I consider him a traitor to the Revolution. I was exiled to Akatui for participating in an assassination attempt against a Tsarist official in Kiev. I spent 11 years at hard labor. After the Revolution, I was freed. I favored the Constituent Assembly and am still for it.

At 4 in the morning on September 3 she was executed with a bullet to the back of her head. Her body was burned and there were no remains for burial.

CONTINUE READING: Bolsheviks against Anarchists: 1918

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.