Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Centenary of 1921 Peasant Rising, One Even More Fateful than Kronshtadt Revolt, Recalled

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 1 – Russians are currently marking the centenary of the Kronshtadt revolt, but they generally passing over in ignorance and thus silence of the much larger West Siberian peasant rebellion which shook Lenin’s regime to its foundation and was defeated only after two years of fighting when the Red Army drowned the revolt in blood.

            There are dozens of books and hundreds of articles about Kronshtadt in both Russia and the West, but there are very few either which touch on the West Siberian or Ishtim revolt even though the latter involved far more people over a broader area, threatened the existence of the Soviet state more fundamentally and required months to put down.

            Among the few works which cover the West Siberian revolt, Vladimir Brovkin’s Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War (Princeton, 2015) is particularly valuable for English readers. Among the best studies in Russian are Ivan Klimin’s The Russian Peasantry in the Years of the Civil War (2004) and Dmitry Safronov’s The Great Peasant War (2015). For a critical bibliography, see Vladimir Shishkin’s The Western Siberian Revolt of 1921 (2001).

            This year, the state media have ignored the anniversary, but some independent writers have picked up on the peasant revolt against Soviet power and its meaning. Chief among them is historian Vitaly Drobyshev who argues that Russians should know far more about that event than they do (rusk.ru/st.php?idar=88976).

            “One hundred years ago, the Soviet authorities drowned in blood the Ishtim revolt of peasants, something few have heard about.” Russian writers can’t even decide what to call it when they do bother to talk about it, and many continue the Soviet practice of describing it as one of a string of minor peasant uprisings at the end of the Russian Civil War.

            They thus ignore its cause: Bolshevik confiscation of food to the point that peasants were left starving, how large an event it was – the revolt encompassed all of Western Siberia and Northern Kazakhstan – how much it threatened the Soviet state which couldn’t feed the cities without grain from this region, and its suppression by hitherto unheard of violence.

            The revolt broke out spontaneously throughout the region, Drobyshev says. “This was a truly peasant war,” in which peasants armed with their tools attacked Bolsheviks armed with machine guns. Within days, they seized portions of the Trans-Siberian railway and many government offices.

            It was thus vastly more important than the Kronshtadt rising in convincing Lenin to back down from the excesses of war communism and shift to the New Economic Policy, Drobyshev says, because it showed that peasant Russia and Russia was very much a peasant country then was ready to rise against the Bolsheviks even without guns in their hands.

            Moreover, the remaining and much depleted ranks of the Red Army weren’t enough to suppress this rising let alone one that might have engulfed all of Russia. Red Army units and the allies they managed to recruit fled for their lives and left a large swath of the country in the hands of peasants.

            The Bolsheviks couldn’t tolerate that either and so they assembled troops from the cities from around Russia and sent them against the peasants with the injunction to wipe out resistance. That is exactly what those forces did in what was a genuine “red terror against Russian peasants,” one of the groups the Bolsheviks claimed to represent.

            By the end of the suppression, uncounted thousands were butchered, not just those who took up arms but all residents including women and children who might do so. And it is one of the blank spaces in the history of the Bolshevik regime that has not yet attracted the mass of investigators that other, less significant risings have. 

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