Saturday, February 8, 2020

Tambov in 1920-21 – When Soviets Became First to Use Poison Gas Against Their Own People

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 1 – There are few events in Soviet history Moscow has tried to downplay or ignore more than the Tambov rising in 1920-21, not only because 40,000 peasants fought the Red Army for months but also and perhaps especially because the Soviet government became the first regime ever to use poison gas against its own people, Maksim Mirovich says.

            The Bolsheviks promised land to the peasants but instead they seized often with violence as much of food the peasants produced, leaving the latter without sufficient seed for the following year or even enough food to prevent mass starvation. Not surprisingly, the peasants rebelled, the blogger says (

            Peasants throughout the areas controlled by the Soviets resisted and then revolted, with the largest of these risings being in Tambov, involving 40,000 peasants in a war against 100,000 Red Army and Cheka forces and seeking the formation of a Free Peasant Republic without Bolsheviks, Mironov says.

            Those who revolted ere not “the kulaks and bandits” the Soviets claimed. They were the entire rural population, and often its poorest elements, precisely the people that the Bolsheviks claimed to be acting for.  Moscow was so shaken by this revolt that it pulled troops off the front lines against the White Russians and sent them to crush the peasants.

            But even with the advantages that gave the Bolsheviks in men and weapons, the Soviets were still on the losing side; and they might have lost the countryside had they not become the first government in history to use chemical weapons against their own population, an action that many do not know about or have forgotten.

            But using poison gas, even more than other kinds of weapons, is indiscriminate; and the Soviet military thus killed thousands of peasants and their families who had no direct relationship to the rising.  The Tambov uprising was destroyed in this way, but it could claim a victory of a sort: it forced Lenin to announce the New Economic Policy, the NEP.

            That eliminated many of the horrors of War Communism and gave the peasants a breathing space of several years before Stalin launched collectivization.  Both what the peasants achieved by resistance and what the Bolsheviks were prepared to do to crush them must never be forgotten.

            For the most useful collection of documents on the Tambov revolt, see The Peasant Uprising in Tambov Guberniya, 1919-1921 (in Russian, Tambov, 1994) at Teodor Shanin, the great scholar of the Russian peasantry who has just died, was among those behind this assemblage.

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