On December 17, 1917 (December 4 in the Old Russian calendar), an armistice between the Central Powers and the Bolshevik government in Russia began, temporarily ending a long and bloody German advance and initiating peace negotiations between Russia and the Central Powers. Though official peace through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk would not take effect for another three months, Russia was essentially out of the Great War, almost a year after anti-war protests in Petrograd led to the February Revolution. Meanwhile, the ill-reported Russian Civil War between the Red Army and the White Army was only just beginning. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.
The conflict was a civil war as well as a proxy war. The Reds constituted the Bolsheviks and their allies. The Whites were an amalgamation of pro-monarchists, proto-fascists hoping to establish a military dictatorship, moderate leftists opposed to communism, and troops from the Allied Powers, all of whom wanted to prevent a socialist regime from succeeding. Months earlier, the Allies had praised the Tsar’s abdication, and the US had been the first to recognize the post-Tsarist government. Now, as the revolution pushed Russia out of the war, the Allies directed their praise elsewhere.
The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, found themselves isolated, their new government shaky, threatened by violence from all sides. The Civil War lasted from late 1917 (or 1918, depending upon which historiography one chooses) to 1922, ending just two years before Lenin’s death. Trotsky’s 1920 book Terrorism and Communism offers an instructive perspective into this period. In Chapter Four, Trotsky examines the American Civil War as an example of state-sanctioned terrorism from both sides, including Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and the repressive violence in the Confederacy against pro-Union sentiments. Trotsky describes Confederate vigilantes running a campaign of terror against those in the Southern States who were seen as disloyal to the South, which he compares to the terror employed by the White Army, writing that the situation in the South was “extremely reminiscent of the scenes which day by day took place in the camps of Denikin, Kolchak, Yudenich, and the other heroes of Anglo-Franco-American ‘democracy'” (Trotsky).
One figure he lists, Alexander Kolchak, is notable for his temporary military dictatorship in Siberia, the Civil War’s Eastern Front. Kolchak was a former admiral in the Russian Navy who, shortly after the October Revolution, joined the White faction in Siberia known as the “directory.” As the White Army became more authoritarian, Kolchak’s supporters overthrew the directory and established a military dictatorship on November 18, 1918, seven days after the armistice in Europe. Kolchak appointed himself “supreme ruler and commander-in-chief” of a White faction in Omsk, Siberia, creating the kind of regime Kornilov failed to make in August, 1917. Under Kolchak, political opponents were imprisoned, peasants were exploited, and unarmed civilians were shot by the hundreds, all to support the White Army. David Fogelsong points out the degree to which the US supported such leaders, writing that with “support from the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the White House, the Russian embassy was able to send millions of dollars of supplies to White forces in the Russian Civil War, particularly those in Siberia” (Fogelsong 69).
The state of Russia between 1918 and 1922 was disconnected and malleable. Mark Steinberg’s description is particularly useful: “But the civil war was a more complex and varied experience than this simple binary of Red versus White suggests. The history of the civil war included terrorism and armed struggle by Socialist Revolutionaries, anarchists, and socialists opposed to both Bolshevik ‘dictatorship’ and the return of right-wing dictatorship that the Whites seemed to represent; ‘Green’ armies of peasants who fought against both Reds and Whites, mainly depending on who presented the greater immediate threat to their autonomy” were among those involved (97). The Russian Civil War more closely resembled Balkanization between ideologically opposed factions funded by competing stakeholders, comparable to Iraq and Syria today. The Reds met counter-revolutionary violence with pro-revolutionary terror in their effort to hold the country together, to prevent disintegration.Trotsky’s comparison to the American Civil War is justified, then, as well as instructive: the successful regime employed violence in much the same way the defeated faction did, ending life to preserve it.
Giorgio Agamben writes that the First World War “coincided with a permanent state of exception in the majority of warring countries” (12), so much so that he describes the period following the War as “a laboratory for testing and honing the mechanisms and apparatuses of the state of exception as a paradigm of government” (6) in which governments utilize “states of emergency” to exert tightly-crafted control over populations so that, gradually, the defense of state ideologies from external or internal threats can only succeed with the suspension of the institutions of those ideology. Trotsky’s description of the American Civil War, and of political terror in general, is stunningly close to Agamben’s analysis of the same conflict.
Continuing in Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky writes that the “degree of ferocity of the struggle depends on a series of internal and international circumstances. The more ferocious and dangerous is the resistance of the class enemy who have been overthrown, the more inevitably does the system of repression take the form of a system of terror” (Trotsky). He justifies state-sanctioned terror because it matches and counters the terror of the White Army, evident in Kolchak and others. In this sense, the shift from the older Soviet calls for bread, peace, and land to Lenin’s policies of “war communism” is similar to Agamben’s articulation of the state of exception as the suspension of democracy in defense of democracy. In the early USSR, this can be understood as the suspension of peace in defense of peace. Given the violence of the White Army, it is difficult to imagine what an alternative response could have looked like.
It is tragic, then, that the majority of people who sided with the Bolsheviks wanted an end to the violence of the Great War and were met, instead, with the brutal violence of the Russian Civil War in the reactionary violence of the White Army and the violence used to country those reactionaries on all fronts and for many years. This is not to suggest indulging in counter-factual fantasies of a Soviet Union not scarred by conflict, but to consider instead the consequences of supporting proxy violence today.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was overshadowed by the fragmentation of Russia and its territories to the south. For a moment, though, there was a temporary peace, or at least the hope for something longer lasting than an armistice. A peaceful world is unlikely to emerge by next year’s hundredth anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars. But what do we actually gain by giving up and giving into cynicism? Peace is elusive and unsustainable, a moving target. What, then, should we do with our centuries of target practice?
Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Fogelsong, David. America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism. University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford University Press, 2017.