Defending the Bolshevik revolution, October 1917-24


The closing of the Constituent Assembly

In their early October 1917 decrees the Bolshevik government appeared to support the constituent assembly, however Lenin had no intention of surrending power to the Constituent Assembly. Lenin tried in vain to pursuade collegues to postpone the elections, as he was aware the Bolsheviks wouldn't win a majority. 

The elections took place between the 12th and 15th of November and the Bolsheviks won less than 25% of votes. Lenin attacked the assembly for being unrepresentative and illegitamate. He claimed that the assembly did not relflect preferances of the voters as ballots did not distinguish between left or right SRs. This was important as as the left SRs were pro-bolshevik. He also said that the soviets best represented the views of the people as they were untainted by the bourguise unlike the assembly.  Before the assembly met Sovnarkom imposed a number if conditions. These would mean that voters had the right to recall votes and replace some representatives. Members of the assembly would have to have their credidentials checked by a Bolshevik commission, and the assembly would only be able to meet if half of members were present. 

On the 5th of January the day before the assembly was to open, 50 000 anti Bolsheviks gathered in Petrograd, causing the Bolshevik forces to open fire and kill ten. The assembly went ahead but was only in session for one day before being disbanded by the Bolsheviks. 

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Making peace at Brest-Litovsk

Lenin wanted to settle peace in the world war quickly because; without an agreement Russia would be open to a German invasion, the party had to uphold their promises in order to retain their credibility, the Bolsheviks needed to be free so they would be able to focus on internal opposition. 

Germany was also fast to agree to make peace because; the USA was preparing to enter the war, with no fighting on the Eastern front more tropps would be able to fight on the western front. 

A ceasefire was agreed quickly, however negotiations took a long time. Germany demanded significant terratory. This included; Poland, Finland, Baltic states, and the Ukraine. This would result in a loss of 26% of Russians population- and a significant loss of resources.  The severity of Germany's demands shocked the Bolsheviks. Left wing Bolsheviks called for a 'revolutionary war' against Germany involving guerrilla tactics. Trotskey campaigned for 'neither war or peace' where Russia would declare the war over but refuse to sign the deal. 

Lenin urged the acceptance of the terms, and the treaty was signed in March. This caused the Left SRs who had previously been pro-Bolshevik to storm out of Sovnarkom. Russian army commanders were ashamed to surrender, and aimed to overthrow the Bolsheviks so could rejoin the war. 

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The formation of the Cheka

The Cheka was created in December 1917 in order to supress counter revolution and any sabotage to the Bolshevik regime. By 1921 the force had 150,000 members- these involved a secret police and army style units for programmes of mass repression. 

The Checka worked outside the ordinary war. They had the right to arrest and punish anyone the believed to be counter revolutionary. They did this without trials, and executed many people on the spot. 

They were only accountable to the Sovarkom, which meant they were free to develop a reputation for savagery and torture. The leader was Dzerzhinsky who wanted the Cheka to be feared as the 'sword and shield of the revolution' 

Cheka was sometimes spoken as a 'regettable neccesity' however under a variety of names (GPU and later OGPU) the force became a permanent feature of communist rule. 

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Attacks on Bolshevik opposition

The Bolsheviks were aggressivly intolerant to any critism or opposition. They dealt with this in a variety of ways. Their Decree on Press shut down hostile newspapers.

They focuses on the Kadet party who represented a liberal view. Kadets were outlawed in November 1917 and their leaders were arrested and imprisioned. In 1918 the Russian Soviet Federated Soviet Republic- the Bolshevik constitution which denied the middle classes the right to vote, knocking the Kadet party out of support. 

The Bolsheviks later turned against other socialist groups, by mid 1918 Mensheviks and SRs were expelled from soviets and leaders were repressed or influenced to leave. 

This enabled Russia to become a one-party state.

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The Red Terror

In 1918 Cheka actions began to increase, and began the Red Terror, which was a campaign to terrorise Bolshevik controlled areas into submission. This was due to a variety of reasons; the treaty had lead to a loss of prestiege and the Bolsheviks did bad in elections to soviets spring 1918, the Civil War had also began by spring, in Summer extreme Left SRs returned to radical activity and killed the head of the petrograd Cheka. 

The Bolsheviks claimed to be targeting the bourgouse who were opposed to socialism. But in reality victims of the Red Terror were from all different backgrounds. They killed the Tsar and his family, as Lenin feared the Tsar was a rallying point for any oppostition. 

In 1918 10 000 were killed, and this number had reach an estimated 200 000 by 1923.

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State capitalism

The Bolsheviks took Russia over when its economy was extremely damaged. Iflation was out of control, unemployment was rising while productivity was falling. This meant it was important to stop any further economic decline. 

Workers and peasants expected that the issues would be sorted quickly, so it was a matter of urgancy to maintain Bolshevik support. So Lenin had to juggle maintaining support, with increasing economic stability. 

Most industy was under private ownership, but became monitored by the state. This balance of private ownership and state control was known as state capitalism. Vensenka was created to monitor industry. 

In Nov 1917; Decree on Land legitimised peasant land seizures and gained support of left SRs 

Decree on workers control gave workers a control in how factories were run to ensure they were treated right. 

There was also some limited nationalisation, including Banks and the giant Putilov works 

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War Communism

The treaty of Brest-Litsov and the Civil War meant that the Bolsheviks no longer had access to the resources of countries such as the Ukraine (taken by Germany in the treaty), this left huge economic issues. 

Industrial output slumped, shortages of food and fuel, the value of the rouble collapsed, prices soared, due to starvation in cities there was huge urban-rural migration. 

The Bolsheviks introduced War Communism which included:

Grain requistioning (sometimes forcibly by the red army), the banning of private trade (however state industry could not produce enough consumer groups so the black market flourished), the nationalisation of industry (and workers committees were replaced with single managers), labour dicipline brought back to the workplace (to try an increase labour productivity), rationing (under a class system where the Red Army and labour force got the most, whilst the old middle classes got next to nothing). 

War Communism led to a huge increase in poverty and unrest in both the cities and the countryside. Only a third of the urban diet came from rations and the rest from black market which the Cheka couldnt contain 

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Tambov rising and Kronstadt mutiny

Tambov rising:

Grain requisitioning caused resentment in the countryside, and by 1921 most of the countryside was in open revolt against Bolshevism (previously kept in check by fears of a white victory). In the Tambov provence a 40 000 man peasant force led a gurrilla campaign against the red army. The Red army used poison gas and took wives and children hostage.

Railways were disrupted and there was a food crisis in cities. This caused urban protests and calls for the restoration of trade unions. These demonstrators took to the streets and the Cheka fired, killing 30 in Petrograd. 

Kronstadt mutiny:

10 000 saliors in the baltic fleet in Kronstadt mutinied in support of the Petrograd strikes in march 1921. They produced a manifesto condemming Bolshevik abuse of power, calling for an end to the priveldges of senior bolsheviks, and the legislation of socialist parties, new soviet elections, tade unions. The mutiny lasted a fortnight and 50 000 Red army troops staged a frontal attack, causing 10 000 deaths. Previously the Kronstadt soldiers had been among the biggest Bolshevik supporters. 

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Reasons for the NEP; end of civil war, peasant unrest, Kronstant mutiny, urban unrest. 

Key features :

  • compulsory grain requisitioning was replaced by a 'tax in kind' where a fixed portion of grain was to be handed over, while the surplus could be sold for profit. 
  • private trading and ownership of small businesses was legalised. This included shops and some small manufacturers. 
  • 'commanding hights' industries of coal, railways, banks etc remained uder state control
  • state controlled industries were expected to trade at a profit, this increased unemployment of businesses aiming to improve efficiancy
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Economic and political results of the NEP

Economic results 

  • too late to prevent a major famine in 1921, as there was no crop reserves due to grain requsitioning. the death toll from this expected to be 25 million. 
  • industrial output rose sharply but still below pre-1914 levels
  • recovery erratic- scissors crisis- food prices fell but manufactured goods prices rose. 
  • the future of the NEP unknown 

Political results 

  • Lenin feared tha t economic relaxation would lead to political relaxation 
  • SRs and Mensheviks became supressed 
  • the GPU (Cheka) enlarged concentration camps for political detainees 
  • renewed attacks on the orthodox church, resistance and clashes led to 8000 deaths 
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The ban on factions 1921

During the civil war Bolshevik leaders encouraged their followers to think of War Communism as the transition to socialism. Thus leading to many feeling betrayed by private ownership in the NEP. 

Lenins reaction was to stiffle all oposition. In 1921 the establishment of factions (groups within political parties) and anyone who disobeyed this would be excluded from the Bolshevik party. This led to the end of internal debates. 

This had two clear targets- the democratic centralists, and the workers opposition. 

This led to a major purge within the Bolsheviks- from 730 000 members to 500 000 by 1923, sending a clear message not to challenge the leadership. 

By 1924 the USSR was accountable to no one, and Russia was a purely one party state. Snovakom and other state institutions became more marginalised and the Bolshevik parties political bureau (Politburo) emerged as the key decision making body, and due to the erosion of internal Bolshevik democracy decisionscould not be challenged by ordinary members. 

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Bolshevik defeat of domestic enemies

Socialist Revolutionaries 

  • Right SR fled to Somara after the Bolshevik government dissolved the consituent assembly, here they set up an alternative government to champion 'a democratic counter revolution'
  • ex Tsarist supporters and Kadets had set up the provisional Siberian Gov, and the two joined in Sept 1918. However conservatives expelled the Right SR leaders- marking the end of the Right SRs as a significant political force. 
  • The SRs never had a large force to deploy- but the Czech Legion agreed to fight for them, and later their control in western Russia reasoned for some of the foreign powers entering.

National Minorities

  • Lenin had promised for non Russia n minorities to seperate themselves from Russia, however he was not prepared to see their resources lost to the Russian state, and the Red Army tried to otherthrow break away schemes in the Baltic states, Ukraine and the Transcauscus.
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Bolshevik defeat of domestic enemies

The Whites 

  • Armies were commanded by Tsarist Army chiefs. 
  • Political conservatives and believed in capitalism and nationalism. 
  • Had major armies in Siberia, Southern Russia and North West.

Defeat of White leadership

  • Kolchak; took leadership of the white army in the Siberian region. He was a poor administrator, tempramental and had no experiance of land warfare. Built a force of 150,000- pushing the Reds back 250 miles in spring 1919- but lost momentum and was driven back. Executed. 
  • Denkin; led a force of 150,000 men in southern Russia- however this contained 40,000 Don Cossacks who mostly cared about defending their home region, rather than the whole of Russia. October only 250 miles from Moscow, but driven back again. 
  • Yudenich; North western army with the smallest force of 15 000, advanced from Estonia coming in the sites of Petrograd- however this had less strategic importance as Moscow was now made capital. 
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Trotsky and the Red Army

  • Trotsky was an excelled leader, was brave and took special forces to the places where fighting was thickest. He became an inspirational figure and gave brilliant speechs. 
  • Supported by brilliant generals. 
  • Disipline was tough with the death penalty used frequently, with certian death given for retreating in battle. 
  • The Red Army had a single unified command structure from which Trotsky moulded a highly effective fighting force. 
  • The peasent force made up the majority of the army, into which they were conscripted. Peasents were unwilling to support either side, but were more inclined towards the Bolsheiks after Lenin legitimised land seizures. 
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Geography of the Civil War

Bolsheviks held the central area, and moved the capital to Moscow- which became the hub of the railway network. This made it easier to transport men and equipment to the front. This region also contained the main arniment factories- including the Putilov works in Petrograd. Mlitary equipment also fell into the hands of the Red army. 

Whites had to operate around the circumference of the Bolshevik area, this made communicaton and the coordination of attacks difficult. Relied on equipment from foriegn powers. 

The Bolsheviks controlled the most densley populated regions, with a population of 70 million, while White areas only had a populatin of 20 million, so the Red conscripted army was much larger. 

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Foreign Intervention in Russia


  • Peace between Russia and Germany, would allow Russian troops to become concentrated on the Western Front, and the Treaty of Brest-Litsov would gain the Germans access to resources which would help them in the war. 
  • First troops entered in Spring 1918 to; establish a government willing to re-enter the war, deny Germany access to Russias economic resources, stop Germany reaching allied suppplies. 
  • After WW1 had ended allies did not leave as: French intrests in the Ukraine, British wanted supply dumps back, Japan wanted economic influence in Siberia, US wanted to ensure the Czech Legion was safe.


  • Half hearted after the end of WW1, with the US troops told to aviod combat. 
  • The British were the most active with 400 killed between 1918 and 20. They also made £100million worth of supply available to Whites, however some ended up in White hands. 
  • In late 1918 200 000 foreign troops in Russia, but there impact was limited. 
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Foreign Intervention in Russia

War weariness 

  • None of the inreventionalist powers had a strong feeling for a full fight against Russia, and although most did not agree with the Bolshevik communist principles they felt Russia should dealt with it in their own way. 
  • After the war Britian needed to cut public spending, and could not afford to intervene on a larger scale. 
  • In Britian and France leaders were concious of war weariness, and both countries were also led by strong labour governments who held some sympathy towards the Bolshevik cause. 
  • In Britian 1919 the 'Hands off Russia' campaign led to Londo Dockers refusing to load ships with wepons to the Whites. 
  • Troops were unwilling to engage in combat, and there were small mutinies in the Royal Marines. 

End of intervention

  • After the end of the war intervention was confused, un coordinated and sometimes deemed unnecessary. It was also unproductive as it allowed Lenin to portray the Red Army as the defenders of the homeland, and by early 1920 had been ended. 
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Reasons for Bolshevik victory

  • Geography 
  • Leadership 
  • Unity and Organisation 
  • Support 
  • Foreign Intervention 

Reaons for the limited effect of foreign intevention 

  • WW1
  • Geography/organisation 
  • Different motives 
  • Lack of support 
  • Aims/behaviour of the Whites 

Why did the Bolsheviks survive 1917-24?

  • Weakness of opposition                - Repression 
  • Popular policies                             - Role of individuals 
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