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Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime

by Richard Pipes
Knopf, 587 pp., $35.00


Richard Pipes’s new volume takes its place beside its predecessor The Russian Revolution as a masterly account, which brings together the intricate story of the rise and consolidation of the Bolshevik regime, ending with the death of Lenin in 1924. Vladimir Brovkin, who earlier gave us an excellent study of the Mensheviks,1 has now admirably covered the role of the workers and the peasants, and of the political parties, in the Civil War. In many ways reinforcing and in other ways complementing Pipes, his book is a remarkable contribution to the history of the Revolution in its own right.

Pipes writes from a distinctive point of view, and explicitly rejects the call, heard from some academics, to be “non-judgmental.” He is quite right, for several reasons. First, as Lytton Strachey wrote of a work on the English Civil War by Samuel Gardiner, having no point of view it resembled nothing so much as a large heap of sawdust. Secondly, non-judgmental and supposedly “objective” historical writing merely conceals the unconscious prejudices of its proponents’ milieu. The right criterion (as Gibbon and Trevelyan saw) is whether a historian treats the evidence in good faith, and with Pipes the answer is clear:he does. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime is real history—a broad and human study of what has long been a misunderstood and misrepresented cycle of events. We can now, and largely because of Pipes’s work, see how the Bolshevik regime established itself.

Pipes tells us that recent research in Moscow “enabled me to modify and amplify certain parts of my narrative, but in not a single instance did it compel me to revise views which Ihad formed on the basis of printed sources and archives located in the West.” Vladimir Brovkin, a scholar now at Harvard who formerly worked in the USSR, might say the same. This is a major point for historians of the Soviet epoch. For there is a vast literature in the West, academic and other, which does not stand up to this test.

The period between 1917 and 1924 covered by Pipes and Brovkin was until recently the most poorly documented in Soviet history. Paradoxically the more recent and more repulsive Stalin epoch had been giving up some of its secrets as early as the 1950s, and many more were revealed in the 1980s. But in the USSR Leninism was repudiated later than Stalinism; and it remained a Soviet duty to uphold certain falsehoods concerning it, and therefore to prevent access to documents exposing its practices. Above all, the regime, as long as it lasted, was fundamentally committed to the idea that the Bolsheviks had the support of the workers.

Pipes was one of the first to do serious research on the actions and opinions of the workers in cities after 1917. As he says, the new material has thoroughly vindicated his view that the proletariat did not support the Bolsheviks. Vindicated? Yes, for old myths lasted longer in America and Britain than in Russia itself. Pipes has been accused of fighting old battles in rubbing this conclusion in. But to make such a charge is to underestimate the persistence of myth, the obstinacy of error. Indeed the idea of “worker” support for the Bolsheviks is even now not quite extinct.

From both Communist and non-Communist sources, Pipes makes clear, and Brovkin develops in unanswerable detail, that throughout Russia the workers, far from supporting the Bolsheviks, were continually taking part in strikes and mass protests against them; whenever they had the opportunity to vote they did so overwhelmingly not for Bolsheviks but for Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Almost all the “worker” Bolsheviks had become, as Zinoviev admitted, officials of the state and Party apparatus.

In fact by 1918 the Bolsheviks were, as Brovkin puts it, “without a clearly defined social base.” By the middle of that year the Bolshevik Party was no longer a political party in the old sense of the word, since “it no longer expressed the interests of any social group.” It had turned, Brovkin writes, into “a new social group in its own right.” When it came to the final showdown, the rebellion against the Bolsheviks by the sailors of the Baltic fleet based at Kronstadt, Pipes penetratingly remarks that the workers of Petrograd were just as hostile to the regime as the sailors were; the only difference was that the sailors had guns.

Brovkin describes not only the workers’ resistance to and insurrections against the Bolsheviks, but the general sequence of events in which people at every level of society at first hated the Bolsheviks and welcomed the Whites, then grew to hate the Whites and half-heartedly welcomed the Bolsheviks, and then rebelled against the Bolsheviks once more.

As for the peasants, it is hardly necessary to prove even to the most myopic Westerners that they were deeply hostile to the Bolsheviks. As Brovkin says, the peasant war against Lenin’s forces was larger, and more important for Russia’s future, than the fighting between the White and Red armies. The peasants fought alternately against Bolsheviks and Whites, and when the Whites had gone, and they were left to fight against the Bolsheviks alone, they were savagely repressed; the result was a lasting heritage of hatred on the part of the peasantry toward the new order. Pipes shows clearly how most of the intellectuals within the Bolshevik regime had no serious understanding of the different habits of mind of the peasantry, the narod. On the other hand he notes that the Social Revolutionary Party, originally organized during the early 1900s, was made up of intellectuals who had nevertheless succeeded in appealing to the peasantry. But the SRs, as he points out, were politically inept to an extravagant degree; and Brovkin’s analysis supports this. But what if they had managed to throw up a few effective leaders?

One of the major myths of pro-Soviet history was the idea that the West “tried to strangle the infant regime at birth”—by “intervention.” The metaphor of strangling is in any case slanted and the intervention could be described with a quite different phrase: that the Allies, say, were trying to “stamp out the plague before it spread.” But, as Pipes notes, though they made some military efforts these never amounted to much. The American unit in Siberia never fought at all; the incompetent French force on the Black Sea was easily brushed off. The efforts of British troops in Murmansk, who originally came there at the invitation of the local soviet, were a little more substantial, but even they only suffered a couple of hundred casualties. The vast anti-Bolshevik expeditions often referred to never occurred.

The Western powers did, indeed, support the Whites with arms and money, but these too were skimpy, and the supply was interrupted at critical moments. Pipes and most others appear to believe that the Whites could not have won in any case—at least after the withdrawal of the Czech Legion, World War I volunteers for Russia against Germany who had lately been fighting the Bolsheviks with great success. The argument is reasonably convincing, though history is full of examples of long odds paying off, and Lenin seems to have thought that the White commander, General Denikin, might be victorious—he told Molotov that, in case of defeat, “the Party will go underground.” As to the real Allied military effort, when it was wrongly reported that two British divisions had landed at Murmansk, Lev Karakhan, a leading Bolshevik, told the British officialBruce Lockhart (then a prisoner of the Cheka)the same thing—the Party would go underground. Certainly, quite a small force could have determined the outcome.

Ironically, as Pipes observes, virtually all the effectively organized units on both sides were non-Russian:the Czech Legion and, on the Red side, the Latvian riflemen—in both cases military units of World War I that had survived the disintegration of the rest of the old Russian army. The Latvians had in fact stepped in to save the Bolshevik regime as early as 1918 when it barely survived a poorly organized Left Social Revolutionary coup in Moscow, supposedly pro-Bolshevik Russian units failing to intervene. The later fate of the Latvians, including the Red commander-in-chief Ioakim Vatsetis, who went on to make a military career in the peacetime Red Army, was normal by Soviet standards. They were shot in the 1930s as spies for bourgeois Latvia.

The real argument against the theory that the Bolshevik regime was created in response to a wicked intervention is, of course, that Lenin himself regarded the entire struggle in Russia as an incident in an international civil war. As late as the failed campaign to conquer Warsaw in 1920 he intended the Red Army to carry the battle to Central Europe. Only the mutiny by the key Red commander, Nikifor Grigorev, who, in May 1919, “turned against Communist commissars and Jews” as Pipes puts it, prevented the planned Soviet attack on Romania, which was designed to link up with the Communist regime of Bela Kun in Hungary. The Red Army indeed was used to “intervene” and overthrow the temporarily independent governments in the Caucasus, the Ukraine, and Central Asia.

Churchill is almost alone among the Allied leaders in coming out well from Pipes’s story. He understood, as Lloyd George and most others did not, that Leninism’s dominating principle was unappeasable conflict, struggle to the death with the non-Communist regimes—just as he later understood Hitler when Chamberlain and the others failed to do so. Churchill also emerges well on another count:he strongly condemned the anti-Semitic excesses of some of the Whites.

Pipes quotes not only Lenin and Bukharin but also Marx on the necessity of civil war for any true revolution. The Russian civil war seems in any case inevitable, in that large elements of Russian society were bound to resist a small group such as the Bolsheviks imposing their control throughout the country on the strength of seizing the capital. And the civil struggle became in fact the testing ground of the Bolsheviks, in which military-type Leninist centralization of the Party prevailed against the disunited and contradictory ways of their opponents.

For the past few years there has been an understandable tendency in Russia to romanticize the White armies. While admirably fair to them, Pipes and Brovkin will have none of this, and they clearly describe the incompetence and brutality of most (though not all) of the anti-Bolshevik regimes and armies. It can be argued that a victory of the Whites would at least not have produced the totalitarian nightmare and have left a fair chance for a different political society to develop. But at the time, the “White Terror” was also a reality. The main difference was, as Brovkin puts it, that White Terror consisted of murdering, looting, and raping by rampaging soldiers, while politically taking the form of indiscriminate killing of socialists by undisciplined White officers. The Red Terror had much the same ingredients but was followed by an organized police terror, ordered from above.

  1. 1

    The Mensheviks After October: Socialist Opposition and the Rise of the Bolshevik Dictatorship (Cornell University Press, 1988).

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