History of the Soviet Union, 1921-1924: Comintern to the Workers’ Opposition

By Dr. Lewis Siegelbaum / 12.28.2015
Professor of Russian and European History
Michigan State University




Left: Long Live the Third International! (1920) / Poster for the Second Congress of the Third International, Moscow
Right: Greeting the Third International, by Boris Kustodiev (1917)

The Third or Communist International (typically abbreviated as Comintern) was founded in Moscow in March 1919 amidst proclamations of the end of the world capitalist order and the coming triumph of the revolutionary proletariat. That optimism was still evident at the Second Congress in July-August 1920 when G. E. Zinoviev, president of the Comintern’s Executive Committee, presented twenty-one “conditions” for membership and participation in the Comintern. These conditions, patterned on the Bolsheviks’ own practices of “democratic centralism” and unwavering hostility towards socialist parties affiliated with the all-but moribund Second International, were overwhelmingly approved by the delegates.


Left: World Revolution Marching in Three Columns (1919) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: The Song of the International (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database

However, by the time the Third Congress met in June-July 1921, the revolutionary tide in Europe had receded and the Bolsheviks had embarked upon their New Economic Policy. The Congress approved theses concerning the methods of work among working women and the establishment of a Red International of Trade Unions (Profintern), perhaps tacit acknowledgment that the road to revolution would be more protracted than initially anticipated. In December, the Executive Committee issued theses calling for a “united front” of the proletariat that permitted limited cooperation with other socialist parties and trade unions but warned against capitulation to “Centrist and semi-Centrist ideology.”

To Russian Workers in America (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The Comintern held four more congresses, the last of which, in 1935, adopted the Popular Front strategy of coalition-building with all “progressive forces” against fascism. Once a beacon to Communists throughout the world, the Comintern succumbed to its subordination to the dictates of the Soviet Communist Party and its determination of Soviet state interests, periodic purges of other Communist parties, mutual denunciation and arrest in 1937, and disbandment in 1943.

Confiscating Church Gold


Left: The Church Gold (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: The Spider of Hunger is Strangling the Peasants of Russia (1922) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Ever since the new Patriarch Tikhon had anathematized the Bolsheviks in 1918, church-state relations had been touchy. The period of NEP, which otherwise saw a moderation of state policies, sharpened state attacks on the church. Cheka pressure on the clergy increased, and Lenin and his colleagues devised a three-prong plan to undermine church authority. The plan included attempts to split the church from within, leading to the creation of the Living Church by new-thinking young clergy; assaults on the religion of national minorities, particularly Muslim; and a scheme to confiscate the vast wealth of the Orthodox Church.


Left: Jeweled headgear confiscated from Russian Orthodox clergy, Moscow (1921) / From Religion in the Soviet Union: An Archival Reader, by Felix Corley
Right: The Church Gold (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The latter goal inspired a brutally cynical scheme hatched by the Bolsheviks in connection with the appalling famine of 1921-1922. The need to buy grain abroad compelled authorities to collect and impound all the gold and foreign currency. Lenin proposed turning this against the church, demanding that the church surrender the rich collection of gems and precious metals represented by its ceremonial implements, and blaming the church for the starvation when it did not. Surely the Bolsheviks carried far more blame than the church, yet the campaign was effective, tarring the church as an irrational organization caring little for its flock, and allowing the authorities to launch a full-scale attack on church property. On February 23, 1922 the VTsIK issued a decree ordering the church to turn over objects containing jewels and other valuables that could be exchanged for hard currency with which to make purchases of food abroad. Faced with accusations of insensitivity towards the sufferings of famine victims, some Orthodox clergy complied with the decree but others, including the Patriarch Tikhon resisted. The ransacking of churches and trials and executions of priests followed, notwithstanding demonstrations against such measures. By July of 1922 the state had confiscated vast stores of precious items from the church.


Left: Death Approaches (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Citizens! You need to give food, Citizens! / Hoover Political Poster Database

The campaign for the church gold radicalized church-state relations in a way that could not be undone for twenty years, forcing even moderates to choose sides. Metropolitan Veniamin of Petrograd initially championed using church valuables to aid the starving population, but under a strict church control. Once inclined towards reconciling with the state, the confiscation of property and creation of the Living Church drove him to opposition. He was arrested in May 1922 and executed in August; after 1991, he was among the first Soviet-era hierarchs canonized.

Death of a Poet

Blok on His Death Bed, by Iurii Annenkov (1921) / Inter-Language Literary Associates, New York

On August 7, 1921 in the city of St. Petersburg (since 1914, Petrograd), the great poet Aleksandr Blok died from a combination of maladies that might have included syphilis, but surely included exhaustion and ennui. His funeral attracted crowds of mourners, for whom his passing meant the death of a tradition. Blok had welcomed the revolutions of 1917 as outpourings of popular will, and believed that his duty as an intellectual was to give expression to the inchoate feelings of the people. For two decades prior, he had provided words for the longings and anxieties of the intelligentsia. The naive idealism of Verses on the Beautiful Lady (1904); the playful mockery of Balaganchik(1906); the ominous prophecies of the Retribution cycle (1910-1921), all led to Blok’s two famous 1918 poems on the revolution, Scythians, which saw revolution as a cleansing wave of barbarism; and The Twelve, in which revolutionary chaos gives birth to a messianic leader.

Anna Akhmatova, by Natan Altman (1914) / Wikimedia Commons

Son of a professor and jurist, with both parents harboring artistic interests; son-in-law of the great chemist Mendeleev; friend of Andrei Belyi (author of Petersburg, the first great modernist novel), Blok inspired a generation to understand the world through artistic expression. When he died, so too died St. Petersburg, once the imperial capital, now a second city slipping into decades of intentional neglect. Magisterial avenues such as Nevskii Prospect now bore revolutionary names; its spacious apartments and broad sidewalks were clogged with parvenu newcomers; its plaster cracked and chipping. As Blok faded visibly from life, his city faded too, along with the elegant traditions of its elites. His most worthy successors were perhaps the great poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam, whose verse rejected Blok’s filmy mysticism for a grounded world of things, yet whose lives upheld his example of honor and courage.

Poet Aleksandr Blok, Photograph by Mikhail Nappelbaum (1921) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova

The generational shift promised by the October Revolution finally happened in 1921, as older poets left the scene and new ones arrived. Konstantin Balmont, inspiration for two generations of Symbolist poets, emigrated to France. Marina Tsvetaeva published a collection of poetry, Versty, and received word that her long-lost husband was alive in Berlin. That coming May she left Russia for almost twenty years of artistic accomplishment and personal misery in Paris. Nikolai Gumilev, once husband of Anna Akhmatova, and the organizational leader of the Acmeist movement, was shot for alleged counter-revolutionary activities. These poets were spiritually and politically alien to the Bolsheviks; yet old leftists too fled revolutionary Russia. Maksim Gorky, friend of Lenin and future progenitor of socialist realism, left Russia for a decade of residence in Europe; and Evgenii Zamiatin wrote his prophetic essay “I’m Afraid,” warning against the alliance of literature and the state. Signs for the future were mixed. October 1920 witnessed the modest birth of VAPP (The All-Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), which in the late 1920s would foment the Cultural Revolution; but in December the radical proletariat cultural organization Proletkult was shut down. The dreaded Cheka was finishing its life in 1921; but early 1922 gave birth to the OGPU, the new and more structured state security police that could, in time, more efficiently intervene in literary life.


Left: Aleksandr Blok, by Konstantin Somov (1907) / From The Age of Revolution: Russian Literature & Culture of the 20th Century, by Gregory Freidin
Right: Evgenii Zamiatin, by Boris Kustodiev (1923) / From The Age of Revolution: Russian Literature & Culture of the 20th Century, by Gregory Freidin

Soviet literature was coming into being in 1921. Dmitrii Furmanov, a Red Army commissar during the Civil War, published Red Landing Force, and in two years published his classic novel Chapaev. The Serapion Brotherhood was formed that year, sheltering talented writers who were not fully aligned with the Bolsheviks: these including the great humorist Mikhail Zoshchenko, Aleksei Tolstoi, Marietta Shaginian, Leonid Leonov. They joined “Fellow Travelers” (poputchiki: Trotsky’s term for non-socialists willing to engage Soviet reality) such as Iurii Olesha, Vsevolod Ivanov and Isaak Babel, found print in a new thick journal Red Virgin Soil (Krasnaia nov’), founded with Lenin’s approval by the old Bolshevik Aleksandr Voronskii and devoted to the best prose and poetry, and imposing no political tests beyond a general sympathy for the Revolution.

Electrification Campaign

Electrification of the Entire Country, by Gustav Klucis (1920) / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman

On February 7, 1920, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets announced the formation of a State Electrification Commission (GOELRO) under the chairmanship of the Bolshevik electrical engineer, Gleb Krzhizhanovskii. The task of the commission was to devise a general plan for electrifying the country via the construction of a network of regional power stations. Ten months later, GOELRO presented its plan, a document of more than five hundred pages, to the Eighth Congress of Soviets in Moscow.


Left: Lenin and Volkhvostroi, by Shass-Kobolev (1925) / Moscow: Sovetskii Khudozhnik
Right: The Soviet and Electrification (1921) / Wikimedia Commons

The plan, forecasting demand to 1930, represented the first attempt to establish “one single plan of the state economy,” and thus may be seen as a precursor of the Five-Year Plans under Stalin. For Lenin, who devoted a substantial portion of his report on the work of the Council of People’s Commissars to GOELRO’s plan, electrification constituted “the second program of our Party.” It was critical to transforming Russia from a “small-peasant basis into a large-scale industrial basis,” and quite literally would bring “enlightenment” to the masses. Thus, as he intoned, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” This slogan was repeated often thereafter and eventually appeared on a huge sign on the banks of the Moscow River opposite the Kremlin.


Left: Il’ich’s Little Lamp, Photo by Arkadii Shaikhet (1925) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova
Right: Volkhvostroi, Photo by S. Ivanov (1926) / Moscow: Iskusstvo

GOELRO’s plan, put into operation by the Main Electrotechnical Administration (Glavelektro) within the Supreme Council of the National Economy, was infused by a utopian vision of a technologically advanced society, brimming with productivity and beaming with brightness. “We must snatch away God’s thunderbolts,” wrote Vladimir Maiakovskii in Mystery-Bouffe (1920-21). “Take ’em/We can use all those volts/for electrification.”

Famine of 1921-1922


Left: Comrades! Citizens! The 9th Congress of Soviets Calls All to the Battle with Hunger…Donate Money!, by Mikhail Cheremnykh (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: From America to the Starving of Russia (1922) / Wikimedia Commons

Food shortages were a critical source of social unrest and political instability during the first year of Soviet power. Through the course of the civil war, efforts by the Soviet government to acquire sufficient foodstuffs to support the Red Army and the urban population assumed massive proportions. Food detachments sent out from the cities were a regular feature of the “food dictatorship” that was imposed on the peasantry. Even after the civil war wound down, requisitioning of grain and other food supplies provoked violent confrontations between Soviet authorities and peasant producers. One consequence of these encounters was the reduction of sown area which left little margin for crop failures. The situation was “ripe” for famine. The New Economic Policy, which permitted peasants to sell their surpluses after meeting tax obligations, was a bold attempt on the part of the state to break the cycle of violence that characterized its relations with the peasantry. But no sooner was it introduced in the spring of 1921 then the entire Volga basin was hit by a devastating crop failure, actually the second in as many years.


Left: Soldiers Unloading Rail Cars, by Alekseevich Vladimirov (1922) / Brown University Digital Repository
Right: From America to the Starving of Russia (1922) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The resulting famine affected at least twenty million people, one and a quarter million of whom trekked from the stricken region to other parts of the country. In July 1921, the Soviet government gave authority to local authorities to exempt from the tax-in-kind peasants suffering from crop failures. The famine forced the Bolsheviks to re-establish ties with capitalist nations in the west, from which food aid poured in. It appointed an All-Russian Committee to Aid the Hungry, consisting of prominent intellectuals including Maksim Gorky. Gorky’s appeal for foreign assistance bore fruit in the agreement concluded between the Soviet government and the American Relief Administration directed by Herbert Hoover. Over the next two years, the ARA supplied food and medical assistance to a reported ten million people. Nevertheless, an estimated five million people died as a result of the famine, succumbing to outbreaks of cholera and typhus that proved fatal owing to weakened resistance.

Homeless Children


Left: Homeless boy with a cigarette butt (1920) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk
Right: Peasant child begging (1920) / From Faces of a Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, by Dmitrii Baltermants

The term “besprizornye,” literally translated as the “unattended” or “neglected” but generally understood to mean homeless children, refers to a mass phenomenon occasioned by war, revolution and civil war. How large a phenomenon it was remains unclear, for accurate data on many social phenomena were themselves one of the casualties of the early years of Soviet power, and countless abandoned children managed to elude attempts to count them precisely. It has been estimated that by 1921 there were some 4.5 million besprizornye throughout Soviet Russia. The People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, which claimed responsibility for rehabilitating street children, set their number in 1922 at five million for the Russian Republic alone. Other sources give higher estimates of seven to 7.5 million by the end of the famine which swept many of the central Russian provinces in 1921-22.


Left: Forsake by Everyone, We Have Perished (1920s) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Friends of Children in the Struggle against Homlessness (1926) / Russian Antiquity

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of besprizornye were from working-class or peasant families. Many such families disintegrated under the cumulative impact of combat, flight, hunger and disease. Children found themselves homeless either because of the incapacitation or death of their parents, or because they were discarded by parents incapable of supporting them. Whereas there existed a tradition of relatives or neighbors taking in and adopting abandoned children, the general decline in living standards militated against them being able to do so. The homeless children could appear pathetic and helpless, as undoubtedly many of them were. Abandoned children formed gangs, roamed the streets and alleys in search of sustenance or pleasure, engaged in pilferage, prostitution, and gambling, created their own argot, rode the rails, and pursued other classic pastimes of the criminal underworld. They were, thus, both victims and victimizers, the preyed upon and predators, to be both pitied and feared.


Left: Census of Homeless Children (1926) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk
Right: Two homeless boys holding each other (1922) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

What did the Soviet state do about the proliferation of besprizornye? Initially, responsibility for handling abandoned children was shared by the Commissariat of Health (Narkomzdrav), the Commissariat of Social Security, and the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros). Throughout the civil war, a myriad of commissions, departments and sub-departments of these commissariats functioned to provide food, medical assistance, housing, education and vocational training. Assistance was also provided by the American Red Cross and other foreign or international famine-relief agencies. By the early 1920s, Narkompros had developed three stages of institutions, those responsible for removing children from the street; those observing and evaluating them; and those dedicated to rehabilitation. The most common site for rehabilitation was the children’s home (detdom). The Russian republic contained over six thousand in 1921-22, some 2,800 by 1925 and less than two thousand by 1928. The number of children housed in the Russian republic was 125,000 in 1919, 400,000 in 1920, and 540,000 in 1921 and 1922, after which it declined, reaching 129,000 by the end of the decade. Facilities were often makeshift, supplies were short, and, especially at the height of the famine, mortality was extremely high.


Left: 6,000,000 Children Not Served By Schools, by Rudolf Frents (1923) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Homeless children sleeping (1922) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

Labor communes, some administered by Narkompros and others by the OGPU, comprised another institution that sought to rehabilitate besprizornye. Best known of all of them was the OGPU’s Dzerzhinskii Labor Commune, established near Kharkov in 1927 and directed by Anton Makarenko. Makarenko’s imposition of strict discipline and regimentation was criticized by many but was also celebrated in the 1931 film, Road to Life. Towards the end of the 1920s it was assumed that the number of besprizornye would continue to dwindle and that soon there would not be a single abandoned child in the Soviet Union. Indeed, by 1931 when Road to Life premiered, it was accompanied by statements that the problem was largely if not entirely historical. Yet, thanks to collectivization and dekulakization, a new cycle of destitution, famine, disease and child abandonment occurred. This time, however, the state was far less willing to publicize the existence of children roaming the countryside and the towns. It also dealt more harshly with them, de-emphasizing their victimization and rehabilitation and resorting to incarceration.

Kronstadt Uprising

Red soldiers enter Kronstadt (1921) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

The naval base of Kronstadt lies on Kotlin Island near the head of the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great captured the island from the Swedes in 1703 and built it into a naval fortress to protect his new capital. The concentration of heavy armory and sailors on the small island made it a bulwark against foreign invasion, but also a tinderbox in times of internal unrest. During the stormy years 1905-1906 several mutinies broke out on Kronstadt. The sailors were important allies to the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution (1917), when the Kronstadt Soviet opposed the provisional government, declared a “Kronstadt Republic,” and took part in the July 1917 mutiny. The famous cruiser Aurora, which had bombarded the Winter Palace on October 25, 1917 with its famous shot heard round the world, belonged to the Baltic Fleet based in Kronstadt.

Kronstadt (1921) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

It was a rude shock to the Bolsheviks when the red sailors of Kronstadt went into open rebellion in March 1921. The sailors saw themselves as loyal to the Soviet cause, if not to the Communist rulers. That bitter winter saw Kronstadt, like most other cities in Russia, hungry and discontented. Anger at material deprivations was compounded by the authoritarian regime the Bolsheviks were building, which seemed to violate the spirit of the revolution that the sailors had helped win. Popular unrest finally grew into strikes, which led to riots, lockouts, arrests. Finally on February 26, local Communist authorities declared martial law. A pattern of sharp protest and response escalated rapidly from here to a state of mutiny.

The mutiny was centered on two battleships with revolutionary pedigrees, the Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol, which were frozen in the ice of Kronstadt harbor. A delegation headed by Stepan Petrichenko, chief clerk of thePetropavlovsk, drafted a set of fifteen demands which it presented to the Kronstadt Soviet on February 28. They included such traditional democratic rights as freedom of assembly and speech; egalitarian measures such as equal rations for all working people; and an end to the Bolshevik monopoly on power. The sailors also demanded an end to the strict economic controls of war communism. The Kronstadt Soviet, run by loyal Bolsheviks, called a public meeting for 1 March in response to the insurgent demands. It was attended by over 16,000 people, including Mikhail Kalinin, who was shouted off the platform when he tried to speak. The assembly adopted the resolutions unanimously, and elected a Revolutionary Committee chaired by Petrichenko. When Pavel Vasiliev (chairman of the Kronstadt Soviet) and Nikolai Kuzmin (Political Commissar of the Baltic Fleet) threatened the committee with retribution the next day, they were arrested and imprisoned. Squads of sailors established control over Kronstadt, under the slogan All power to the Soviets, and not the parties.

Attack over the ice (1921) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

The discontent had grown into full rebellion. When Kalinin reported back to Lenin and Zinoviev, their response was to isolate the island, order a press blackout, and organize special shipments of clothing, shoes, and meat into Petrograd. In an ultimatum issued on March 5, they branded the insurgents as puppets of the White Army. Lev Trotsky was sent to Petrograd to organize the armed response. He assembled as many loyal troops as he could under the command of Mikhail Tukhachevskii, and on March 7 began the bombardment of the island by the great guns of Petrograd. Over the next ten days three bloody assaults were launched against the fortress. Troops marching across the ice were slaughtered, but they gradually depleted the strength and supplies of the rebels. Though the government forces lost hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded, they numbered about 45,000 troops by March 16, when the final assault was launched. Clad in white snow capes, and bolstered by hundreds of volunteer delegates from the Tenth Party Congress then proceeding in Moscow, the troops attacked by night from three directions and forced their way into the city. Vicious fighting ensued throughout the city, and by March 18, the revolt was crushed. Many rebels escaped across the ice into Finland; many were killed in the fighting, and many who survived were executed or sent to prison camps.

The Kronstadt Card is Trumped!, by Vladimir Kozlinskii / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman

The short-lived uprising had a deep if ambivalent impact on Soviet rule. While it was still in progress, the government announced the abolition of grain requisitions, replacing them with a tax in kind. It is widely assumed that the rebellion inspired Lenin and the regime to announce the New Economic Policy, which answered some of the Kronstadt demands. Liberalization of the economy was not matched by liberalization in the political sphere. The Tenth Congress saw the Workers’ Opposition condemned and ordered to disperse in a move that many consider a harbinger of Stalin’s dictatorship. Russian anarchists and their Western allies, such as the American Alexander Berkman, correctly saw the party reaction as a decisive moment in their history, though they were not fully justified in considering the rebellion part of their own tradition.

Militarization of Labor


Left: Our Soldiers Will Protect Our Workers, by V.U.K. (1918-1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Make a Suggestion! (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The success achieved by the Red Army on the military front during the civil war and the continued disintegration of the economy stimulated interest in applying the military model to the organization of labor, and catapulted Lev Trotsky, as Commissar of War, to the forefront of those advocating its implementation. The militarization of labor involved two main processes: converting military units into labor armies, and “mobilizing” industrial workers to carry out particular tasks under quasi-military supervision.


Left: I Am a Union Member, by Aleksandr Rodchenko (1925) / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman
Right: Entente-Chaos in the Bourgeois West (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database

In January 1920 Trotsky took steps to convert the Third Army, located in the Urals, into the First Labor Army. The labor army, under the direction of a Revolutionary Council composed of representatives of various commissariats, was assigned duties in mining coal, cutting timber, loading and unloading freight, and clearing road and rail lines. Subsequently, labor armies were set up in other parts of the country including Ukraine where Stalin served as chairman of the republic’s Council. Simultaneously, more than twenty mobilizations of workers were conducted, some fixing workers to particular “militarized” enterprises, and others ordering their transfer to areas of labor deficit. The mobilizations covered a variety of occupations ranging from mining, metal processing and shipbuilding, to the woolens and fishing industries and even “tailors and shoemakers who worked in Great Britain and the United States.” The entire operation was placed under a Main Committee for Compulsory Labor (Glavkomtrud) which was chaired by Feliks Dzerzhinskii, head of the Cheka.


Left: The Ship Repair Front (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Strengthen the Trade Unions!, by Vladimir Maiakovskii (1921) / Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft fur Bildende Kunst Berlin

These and other forms of compulsory labor, including the enlistment of the trade unions in administering punitive measures against “labor deserters,” were endorsed by the Ninth Party Congress in March 1920. However, when Trotsky cited the need to “shake up” the unions themselves (along the lines of what already had been done to the union of railroad workers), it provoked outrage among party activists and especially from the Workers’ Opposition. The issue roiled until the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921 when Trotsky’s proposal for “statification” of the trade unions was soundly defeated. Nevertheless, while rejected in principle, the subordination of the trade unions to the state was achieved in practice via tight party control of the unions’ All-Russian Central Council.

The Muslim East


Left: Man with two veiled women / Anahita Gallery
Right: Children’s orchestra, photo by Georgii Zel’ma (1924) / Anahita Gallery

The term Central Asia encompasses the five former Soviet and now independent republics of Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang (also known as Eastern Turkestan), and Afghanistan. Beginning with the acceptance of Russian overlordship by the khan of the lesser Kazakh horde in 1730, Russian subjugation of most of Central Asia was complete by 1876, with the khanate of Khiva and the Emirate of Bukhara surviving as Russian protectorates. The vast stretches of steppe, mountains and desert were administered as two Governor-Generalships, one covering most of the Kazakh and Kirghiz territories to the north and east of the Aral Sea, and the other, the Governorship of Turkestan, containing lands to the south. Among the most significant effects of Russian rule prior to the 1917 Revolution were extensive colonization in the Kazakh steppe by ethnic Slavs, and the introduction of cotton as a major cash crop in the Fergana Valley of Turkestan. Small indigenous elites, influenced by developments in the Ottoman empire as well as among fellow Turkic-speaking Tatars and Azerbaijanis within the Russian Empire, initiated reformist movements around the ideals of pan-Islam and pan-Turkism. Jadidism, a secular movement advocating educational and social reform, also emerged among the more radically inclined intelligentsia.


Left: Kirghiz Yurt with reed screen / Anahita Gallery
Right: Folk story teller, photo by Georgii Zel’ma (1924) / Anahita Gallery

World War I not only disrupted commercial relations with the rest of the empire leading to dire food shortages in much of Turkestan, but also precipitated a major rebellion among Kazakhs who rose in 1916 against the abolition of their exemption from military service. With the overthrow of tsarism, political power in Central Asia briefly passed into the hands of religious conservatives, but after the October Revolution the Tashkent Soviet, dominated by Russian railroad workers and rank-and-file soldiers, claimed authority in the region. The Soviet government for its part appealed to “Muslims of Russia and the East” to throw in their lot with the revolution, promising them the inviolability of their faith and customs and national self-determination. Ex-Jadidist reformers-turned-Bolsheviks sought and for a time won support from the party’s Central Committee as the authentic voice of the indigenous toiling masses. However, their intention to set up a unified state of all Turkic peoples was thwarted by Moscow which instead established an autonomous Turkestan republic within the RSFSR and, after their conquest in 1920, two loosely affiliated “people’s republics” — Bukhara and Khorezm. In September 1920, a Congress of the Toiling Peoples of the East, which met in Baku and was attended by such leading Bolshevik and Comintern officials as Grigorii Zinoviev and Karl Radek (as well as the American Communist John Reed), endorsed the call among Muslim delegates for a jihad against the European colonialist and imperialist powers.


Left: Turkmen horsewomen, photo by Georgii Zel’ma (1924) / Anahita Gallery
Center: City Square and Lenin, photo by Maks Penson (1925) / Anahita Gallery
Right: Girl playing instrument, photo by Samuil Dudin (1914) / Anahita Gallery

Pacification of Soviet Central Asia was an extended affair. Ranged against Soviet power and the presence of Russians in Central Asia were numerous armed bands that were known collectively as Basmachi (“bandits”). The Red Army’s efforts to subdue the Basmachi were complicated in November 1921 by the defection of Enver Pasha, an erstwhile Young Turk who proclaimed himself commander-in-chief of all the armed forces of Islam. In March 1922, he was joined by the Bukhara Commissar of War, Ali Riza. The insurgents succeeded in capturing Dushanbe, the chief city in eastern Bukhara, but in July 1922 were thrown back by the Red Army. The death of Enver himself during a battle with a Red Army patrol in August effectively marked the end of civil war in Central Asia, although Basmachi guerrilla activity continued in the mountainous and desert regions for many years to come.

The New Economic Policy


Left: Worker, Look at These Two Decrees! / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Fuel is the Foundation of the Republic, by Mikhail Cheremnyhk (1922) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced by Lenin at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, represented a major departure from the party’s previous approach to running the country. During the civil war, the Soviet state had assumed responsibility for acquiring and redistributing grain and other foodstuffs from the countryside, administering both small- and large-scale industry, and a myriad of other economic activities. Subsequently dubbed (by Lenin) “War Communism,” this approach actually was extended in the course of 1920, even after the defeat of the last of the Whites. Many have claimed that War Communism reflected a “great leap forward” mentality among the Bolsheviks, but desperation to overcome shortages of all kinds, and particularly food, seems a more likely motive. In any case, in the context of continuing urban depopulation, strikes by disgruntled workers, peasant unrest, and open rebellion among the soldiers and sailors stationed on Kronstadt Island, Lenin resolved to reverse direction.

NEP-Period Marketplace (1921) / Marxists Internet Archive

The linchpin of NEP was the introduction of a tax-in-kind, set at levels considerably below those of previous requisition quotas, which permitted peasants to dispose of their food surpluses on the open market. This concession to market forces soon led to the denationalization of small-scale industry and services; the establishment of trusts for supplying, financing, and marketing the products of large-scale industry; the stabilization of the currency; and other measures, including the granting of concessions to foreign investors, all of which were designed to reestablish the link (smychka) between town and country. Referring to NEP as a retreat of the state to the “commanding heights of the economy” (large-scale industry, banking, foreign commerce), Lenin insisted that it had to be pursued “seriously and for a long time.”


Left: Hauling Duty is Replaced by a Hauling Tax, by Mikhail Cheremnhyk (1922) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Financial Report for 1921 (1921), by Mikhail Cheremnhyk / Hoover Political Poster Database

Under NEP the Soviet economy revived. By 1926-27, most economic indices were at or near pre-war levels. But recovery via market forces was accompanied by the re-emergence of a “capitalist” class in both the countryside (the kulaks) and the towns (NEPmen), persistent unemployment among workers (some of whom referred to NEP as the “new exploitation of the proletariat”), and anxieties within the party about bourgeois degeneracy and the loss of revolutionary dynamism. The triumph of Stalin over his political rivals, the adoption of the First Five-Year Plan for industrialization, and the decision to launch a “Socialist Offensive” against the kulaks effectively marked the abandonment of NEP by 1929.

The Antonov Rebellion

Meeting of the Village Poor Committee (1920), by Aleksandr Moravov / Leningrad: Avora

As White resistance in southern Russia petered out during the summer and fall of 1920, the temporarily triumphant Bolsheviks were faced by their most dreaded enemy, a revolt of the peasantry, unspoken junior partner in the “union of laboring classes.” Previously fearful that Communist defeat would mean the loss of recently gained land, peasants turned on the Bolsheviks in 1920, inflamed by the arrest of village priests and closing of churches. Their resentment burst into flames in the fall when requisition detachments arrived to confiscate the meager harvest, and by spring 1921 peasants were in full insurrection. Revolt flared in the black-earth districts, the Northern Caucasus, the Volga region, all fertile grain producers. The largest seems to have been in western Siberia, but the most extensively documented outburst of peasant resistance took place in the province of Tambov.

Most peasant revolts began in unorganized resistance to requisition detachments. Villagers would gather the traditional assembly (skhod) and condemn state quotas, and then target local communists with violence with arms seized from local authorities. Once the detachments were driven away, the strategy was to isolate the village from the outside world, which was possible in the chaos of 1920-1921. The Tambov rebellions seems to have lacked leadership or program at its inception, but by the spring of 1921, a leader had appeared in the person of Aleksandr Stepanovich Antonov (1885-1922), whose murky past might have included leftist political activity and some military experience. Under his leadership, peasant resistance became more coordinated, attacks assumed some military organization, and an armed body of approximately 20,000 was gathered.

Identifying the program or identity of a peasant revolt can be difficult, and reasons for dissatisfaction were many. Imbalances in power between city and country and an intolerable tax burden; the incompetence and venality of local Bolsheviks; exhaustion after many years of war: all could have inspired popular fury at the appearance of requisition detachments. Antonov offered little in the way of a positive program. Rumors of socialist revolutionary leanings, the appearance of the program of a Peasants’ Union, and the vague “green” anarchism of other peasant revolts, such as that led by Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine, could all be found, but little organization took place. Antonov’s forces easily degenerated into unfocused violence and banditry. The central government dispatched well-trained troops to the province in the spring, led first by Feliks Dzerzhinskii and the Cheka, and later by Tukhachevskii, fresh from crushing the Kronshtadt rebellion. Hampered by a lack of forest to hide it, the movement was crushed by May. Peasants suspected of having joined Antonov were arrested or shot. The revolt was not a wasted effort. Lenin and the state leadership drew a clear message from it and other popular unrest, and in the NEP reforms soon announced, many sources of the peasant discontent were eliminated.

ROSTA Windows Close

Red Armyman! Take the Last Straw from the Bourgeiosie! (1919) / From The Bolshevik Poster, by Stephen White

ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency, came under new management in 1921, and promptly closed its windows. Established in September 1918 by the VTsIK from the old Petrograd Telegraph Agency, ROSTA carried the dual charge of gathering the news and propagating the party line to Russian citizens. Upon its founding in 1918 its first task was to find journalists willing to combine the two duties. When old Bolshevik and Proletkult leader Platon Kerzhentsev took charge in spring 1919, he radicalized the staff, demanding partisan reporting and forthright propaganda from his reporters.


Left: Remember Red Barracks Day (1920), by Vladimir Maiakovskii / Leningrad: Avora
Right: ROSTA Red Window No. 132, by Vladimir Maiakovskii / Leningrad: Avora

ROSTA management sought help in untraditional places. The older press corps was hostile to the Bolsheviks; a new generation had yet to be trained. Though many of the Bolsheviks themselves were highly skilled journalists, they were busy governing. There was also a new audience for the press, much of it illiterate. Thus the proposal of avant-garde artists and writers to work for the agency was gladly accepted. From 1919 to 1921, ROSTA and its affiliates in Petrograd, Moscow, Odessa, and other smaller cities, turned out hundreds of the so-called ROSTA Windows, the fruits of the collaboration. Master poets, led by Vladimir Maiakovskii, and painters such as Mikhail Cheremnykh and Ivan Maliutin, took the headlines of the day and turned them into comic-book posters, based on the style of the traditional lubok (wood-cut) print. The primitive style of the art and verse harnessed by highly skilled artists made for powerful propaganda displayed throughout Russian cities.


Left: Story of the Bun and of the Peasant Woman, by Mikhail Cheremnykh (1920) / From The Bolshevik Poster, by Stephen White
Right: Pick Up a Rifle! (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database

ROSTA was a dream for avant-gardists who felt that they best expressed the spirit of the Revolution, and who wanted to break down the boundaries between art and life. They had an audience of milliions, and a style that could reach even the most illiterate. The atmosphere of the Civil War, in which good and evil were clearly delineated, and in which the Bolshevik message was as simple as possible, fit the artists’ needs. When Nikolai Smirnov, former editor of the railway journal GUDOK, took over in 1921, he faced a new post-war reality. The simple black-white judgments of the Civil War, and an audience for whom literacy was ever more important, inspired him to close the Windows and invest those funds in print journalism.

Tenth Party Congress

The Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) convened in Moscow on March 8, 1921 one week after the outbreak of the rebellion of soldiers and sailors at the naval base at Kronstadt. The rebellion and the strikes of workers in Petrograd that touched it off represented a major challenge to the legitimacy if not survival of Communist party rule, driving home to the eleven hundred assembled delegates the urgency of revising the party’s policies. Before the Congress concluded on March 16, some three hundred of them had joined the effort to suppress the rebellion, ten of whom lost their lives in the process.

The resolutions adopted by the Congress were to have far-reaching consequences for both the Party and Soviet society. In preparation for the Congress, Lenin had written: “The lesson of Kronstadt: in politics — the closing of the ranks (+ discipline) within the party … in economics — to satisfy as far as possible the middle peasantry.” As far as “economics” was concerned, Lenin’s report on “The Substitution of a Tax in Kind for the Surplus Grain Appropriation System” formed the basis for a resolution that essentially recognized peasants’ right to engage in unrestricted trade and thereby paved the way of the New Economic Policy. As for discipline within the party, a resolution “On Party Unity” banning factions and another “On the Anarchist and Syndicalist Deviation in the Party,” directed explicitly against the Workers’ Opposition (the most trenchant of factional groups) were approved on the last day of the Congress. Later in the 1920s, the ban of factions would become a weapon in the hands of Stalin against his rivals for party leadership.

The Congress also debated three competing resolutions on the role of the trade unions in the Soviet state. While the overwhelming majority of delegates rejected Trotsky’s scheme for transforming the unions into state organs, the resolution sponsored by the Workers’ Opposition and calling for the placing of unions in charge of “the entire economic administration” also received scant support. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the majority of delegates found Lenin’s resolution characterizing the trade unions as a “school of communism” “just right.”

Trade Pacts with the West

Make Way for Our Peasants’ Grain (1923) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Faced with an economy in ruins and a discontented population, the Bolsheviks opted for pragmatism in their foreign relations. Lenin, though still skeptical about western motives, knew that the new economic policy would collapse without foreign trade and credits. He needed capitalist goods and industrial technology to rebuild, and capitalist money to trade. Formulating his own policy objectives, and using Narkomindel pragmatists such as Georgii Chicherin, Maksim Litvinov, Leonid Krasin, Khristian Rakovskii, Lenin steered Soviet Russia back into Europe.

Economic Exploitation of Russia by England, America and Japan (1919) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The western nations, led by England and the United States, remained indignant about certain issues, such as the outstanding wartime debts and the lack of compensation for nationalized properties. Nobody could fail to notice that the Comintern was still fomenting world revolution. Yet capitalists were eager to expand their markets in post-war Europe, and Russia offered tremendous opportunities. Although the United States eventually did not sign a trade agreement and did not offer diplomatic recognition, the British government under David Lloyd George did.

Entente – Under the Mask of Peace (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Recently isolated from the brotherhood of nations, Soviet Russia reestablished valuable foreign ties in 1921. Although each individual country was wary of Soviet motives, Soviet negotiators played off their fears with some cunning. They managed to sign treaties with Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey, Afghanistan and Persia, achieving some international recognition. They allayed fears in those countries by promising not to foment revolution. This strengthened their hand in dealings with European powers, with whom they signed bilateral agreements throughout 1921. Their greatest triumph occurred in April 1922, during the international Genoa Conference. It was the goal of Lloyd George to return Russia to the “concert of powers,” and then reward them with credits and loans. However Soviet representatives opposed the stiff conditions attached, which included repayment of all debts; and fearful of a united Western front, they aligned themselves with Germany. In a private meeting the small Italian town of Rapallo, Soviet and German representatives signed a treaty renouncing all financial claims, securing mutual trade relations, and securing German aid to Russia. The treaty allowed both countries to reassert their international independence, and to begin rebuilding their power. Russia secured help in rebuilding its economy, and Germany received Soviet help in rebuilding its military. The treaty served them well until Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.


Peoples of the East, Unite! (1920) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams

Formerly a part of the tsarist empire, the mountainous isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas that Russians call Transcaucasia proved resistant to the spread of Soviet power until 1920. The only exception was the Baku Commune, set up in April 1918 by local Bolsheviks. It survived for four months before succumbing to Azerbaijani nationalists backed by Ottoman Turkish troops. From 1918 until 1920, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia existed as independent states. Whereas the Menshevik government in Georgia enjoyed widespread popular support, the nationalist government in Azerbaijan relied on Ottoman Turkish and then British military protection, while the fragile Armenian nationalist (Dashnak) government looked to the Entente powers for protection, primarily against the claims of Turkey.

Comrade Muslims! (1919), by Dmitri Moor / From The Bolshevik Poster by Stephen White

The withdrawal of this protection in the aftermath of the Versailles settlement and the winding down of the Russian civil war left these states vulnerable to invasion. In the case of Azerbaijan, the government could count on neither the peasantry which exhibited only a weak nationalist consciousness nor the multi-ethnic population of Baku which was not unsympathetic to the Bolsheviks. In April 1920, the Red Army, meeting little resistance, marched into Baku and an Azerbaijan Soviet government was organized under the guidance of the Caucasian Bureau (Kavbiuro) of the Russian Communist Party. The Armenian government, faced with invasion by the Turkish army, reluctantly concluded an agreement with Soviet Russia in December 1920 that led to the effective division of historic Armenian lands between Turkey and a Soviet Republic of Armenia. In February 1921, after the Red Army left Armenia for Georgia, the Dashnaks seized the capital, Erevan, but in April they were driven into the mountains and across the border into Persia by returning units of the Red Army. After the occupation of Armenia, the Kavbiuro under Sergo Ordzhonikidze turned its attention to Georgia. However, Lenin, mindful of the Georgian Mensheviks’ popularity and fearful of adverse international reaction, turned down several requests from Ordzhonikidze to launch an invasion. Only after the outbreak of a Communist-led uprising, did he relent and on February 14, 1921 he authorized the invasion.

The Caucusus, photo by Iu. P. Eremin (1920) / Photodome

Even then, Lenin insisted on “special concessions towards Georgian intellectuals and petty traders” and a “compromise” with elements of the Georgian Mensheviks. Ordzonikidze’s failure to abide by these strictures over the next two years led to a complete rupture between the Kavbiuro and the Georgian Communists and a showdown between Lenin and Stalin over the latter’s support for Ordzonikidze’s ruthlessness. In March 1922, the three nominally independent Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia were amalgamated into a Transcaucasian Federation. They became fully fledged union republics in 1936.

Workers’ Opposition

Kollonatia in Stockholm (1938) / Marxists Internet Archive

Formed in the winter of 1920-21, the Workers’ Opposition formed a faction within the All-Russian Communist Party to try to halt the perceived drift towards bureaucratism in both Soviet institutions and the party itself, and to promote a syndicalist agenda of trade union control of the economy. Along with the Democratic Centralists, the Workers’ Opposition represented the most serious threat to party unity since the October Revolution and was indicative of considerable working-class disenchantment with the party leadership and its policies. The leading figures in the Workers’ Opposition were Aleksandr Shliapnikov, chair of the central committee of the Metalworkers’ Union, and Aleksandra Kollontai, the most prominent Bolshevik feminist.


Left: Bureaucrats, by A.M. Kavenskii (1921) / “Fighting Pencil Group”, Red Tape from the Red Square
Right: A Terrible Place, by K. Eliseev (1925) / Moscow: Isd-vo Pravda

The Workers’ Opposition became embroiled in the trade union controversy that broke out in preparation for the party’s Tenth Congress. Most fully articulated by Kollontai, it advocated a congress of producers to be elected by the trade unions and responsible for management of industry and control over the entire economy. Condemning the increasing reliance on “bourgeois specialists,” Kollontai wrote that “only workers can generate … new methods of organizing labor as well as running industry.” As for the party, the Workers’ Opposition called for the expulsion of all non-proletarian elements and for future eligibility for membership to be contingent on the performance of manual labor for “a certain period of time.”

Kollontai with Klara Zetkin (1921) / Marxists Internet Archive

At the Tenth Congress, the Workers’ Opposition’s position on trade unions received only 18 of over 400 votes cast by delegates. The party apparatus’ manipulation of delegate selection at the provincial level undoubtedly contributed to the Opposition’s poor showing. Weary of the divisions within the party ranks, Lenin pushed through resolutions on “party unity” and against “the anarcho-syndicalist deviation” that effectively banned the Workers’ Opposition and other party factions. A purge of the leadership of the Metalworkers’ Union followed soon thereafter. Complaints against the party’s repression of dissent within its ranks such as a “Declaration of the Twenty-Two” addressed to the Comintern and an appeal of the “Workers’ Truth” group continued into 1922. Ironically, Trotsky was to lodge similar complaints, but only after these groups that he had opposed ceased to exist.