Saturday, September 29, 2018

Russian Civil War was First and Foremost a Peasant War, New Portal Suggests

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 28 – The Russian Civil War from 1917 into the 1920s was one of the most fateful conflicts in the history of the country, but unfortunately, under the Soviets and even now, it was first simplified as a conflict between the Reds and the Whites and now is ignored almost altogether, some historians say (

            And that makes a new portal prepared by the Memorial human rights organization especially important because it makes clear with interviews with the descendants of those who fought that “for those who remember, there weren’t Reds and Whites but only their own people and those who came from outside” ( 
            The portal,, which was launched this week, is devoted to reports of some 200 interviews the organization’s volunteers did with people in the regions of the two largest peasant uprisings in 1920, the Tambov (Antonov) and Western Siberian (Ishim) and features both those interviews and analytic articles.
                Artem Kravchenko, one of the leaders of the project, says that people in these places can be divided into two groups, those who retain some memory of these risings and those who don’t. “For those who remember, there were no Reds and Whites, there were only their own people and those who came from outside.”

            Moreover, he says, this attitude affected not only their views of the Civil War but also of ensuing events in Soviet and even post-Soviet Russian history especially because the leaders on both sides of those conflicts suffered much the same fate: they were shot or confined to the GULAG, and their stories were reduced to ideological schemas.

            And even more than in the cities, the people in these regions often have put up monuments not to one side or the other but to both sides, with memorials devoted sometimes to the peasants and sometimes to the Red Guards who suppressed them. Today, Kravchenko says, many of their descendants don’t know how they are supposed to view this past.

            In an article posted on the new portal (,  Kravchenko focuses more deeply on these issues to explain why Memorial is focusing on these two peasant uprisings and not on other all-too-often neglected or ideologized events of that complicated period such as the atamanshchina.

            He says that “the majority of those who fought and died in [the Russian Civil War] were peasants or people closely connected with the peasant milieu,” either because they had been mobilized as soldiers for World War I or because outside forces, Red, White, or interventionist, came into their lands, sparking resistance.

            “A special place in the history of the Civil War is occupied by the major peasant risings in which rural residents began in massive numbers to show military resistance to ‘the powers that be’ regardless of whether they were Red or White,” Kravchenko says. Soviet historians reduced these to kulak risings led by the Socialist Revolutionaries, but that view is wrong and has been rejected by most post-Soviet investigators.

            “All peasant risings of the time of the Civil War were suppressed,” he acknowledges, “but they exerted an influence on the policy of the Soviet authorities and pushed the country to make the transition from war communism to the New Economic Policy.”  But that was far from their most important consequence.

            Instead, the peasant risings because they did not fit into the ideological straightjacket of the Bolsheviks became the basis for the imposition of an official version of history in which certain events were celebrated and remembered while others became “prohibited” and were seldom discussed except to be condemned.

            That is a problem that has extended far beyond these two massive peasant revolts, Kravchenko points out; and consequently, restoring the popular memory about them is about far more than just these two popular actions of almost a century ago. It is about reclaiming the past for the present and future. 

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