The Victims of Communism Foundation's Blog

Lenin’s Forgotten War in Tambov

Lenin’s Forgotten War in Tambov


November 6, 2016 marks the 99th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Interestingly, this anniversary coincides with a revival of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s reputation. Earlier this year, 25% of American millennials reported having a favorable impressions of Lenin; in Russia, Lenin’s approval rating recently topped 53% in a Levada Center study. He also continues to attract interest in the academy, with a new history of his journey to power appearing shortly, along with a number of articles, many of them sympathetic to Lenin as an intellectual.

Such circumstances naturally require a closer look at the details of Lenin’s time in power. One little-known yet revealing incident is the Tambov peasant rebellion. At the height of the Russian Civil War in 1919, when victory was uncertain, Lenin introduced a policy called prodrazvyorstka, or “foodstuff requisitioning.” This policy legalized the confiscation of enormous quantities of grain from the rural population and triggered famines in many regions. Tambov province, a major grain-growing region along the Volga River and a battleground between the Red and White Armies, found itself subject to huge requisitions by both sides. Red Army brutality in the region sparked peasant resistance which swelled by early 1920 into a major revolt. Led by a capable young soldier named Aleksandr Antonov, the revolt spread to cover much of the Volga Region.

By October 1920, the Bolsheviks had defeated their main opponents in the Russian Civil War and concluded a ceasefire agreement with the Polish government. Leon Trotsky, head of the Revolutionary Military Council (RVS), began ordering massive troop transfers to the Tambov region to deal with the rebellion. But by that juncture, the peasant rebellion had swollen to at least fifty thousand guerillas in arms, many of them Red Army deserters.[1] After suffering several bloody defeats at their hands, Lenin and Trotsky dispatched General Mikhail Tukhachevsky to the region. He soon came to the conclusion that the swampy and forested terrain which shielded the guerillas was the main obstacle to victory.

With the permission of the RVS—on which Trotsky sat, and which Lenin monitored—the Red Army began transferring gas shells to Tambov Province. On June 12, 1921, Tukhachevsky issued an order that “the forests where the bandits lurk should be cleaned out with poisonous gases.”[2] On June 24, the inspector of artillery under Tukhachevsky reported the availability of 2,000 gas shells containing asphyxiants at the ammunition depot.[3] Beginning in July and peaking in August, Red Army formations used gas extensively, depopulating villages in rebellious areas to deprive guerilla fighters of supplies and bases of operations and to reduce morale their by killing their families. In some cases, artillery units fired more gas shells than high explosive shells during their destruction of rural villages.[4] The use of gas proved effective, and resistance quickly began to decline in August and September 1921.

Adding to the brutal treatment of Tambov Province, Tukhachevsky issued Order 177 in June 1921:

1. Anyone who refuses to give his name, shoot on the spot. 2. Families who may be concealing weapons – authorities are authorized to seize hostage and shoot on the spot. 3. In the case of finding the weapons: shoot all present. 4. A family that harbors a bandit in their house must all without exception be arrested and their property confiscated. The senior worker in the family is to be shot on the spot, and the family sent [to the camps]. 5. Every family that hides family members or property of the bandits are to be regarded as “gangsters.” The senior worker in such families is to be shot on the spot…. [5]

 

These draconian measures, coupled with a growing, Bolshevik-created famine, succeeded in destroying resistance to Bolshevik rule in the region. As the conflict died down, the Red Army opened seven concentration camps where survivors from the rebellious villages died in huge numbers from starvation and disease. All told, more than 240,000 men, women, and children were killed or executed by the Red Army during the course of the Tambov rebellion.[6]

These thousands of deaths were not Stalin’s doing. They were ordered by Lenin’s government in the early days of the Bolshevik regime, long before the “Great Turn” towards industrialization and agricultural collectivization that Stalin set in motion in 1928. Nor was the Red Army’s brutality in Tambov province a matter of necessity. The rebellion was put down when it was clear that the Bolsheviks had already won the civil war. Tambov is rather a reminder of communism’s consistent contempt for human life. As we approach the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, we must remember Lenin’s victims in Tambov province, forerunners of many millions more.

 

[1] Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, trans. Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 109-133.

[2] Kakurin, “Prikaz: Kommandyushchego Voiskami Tambovskoi Gubernii N. 0116/Operativno-Sekretni [Order: Commander of the Tambov province N 0116 / Operational Secret],” June 21, 1921, reprinted in B. Sennikov, Tambovskoe Vosstanie 1918-1921 g.g. I raskrestyanivanie Rossii 1929-1933 g.g. [The Tambov Rebellion of 1918-1921 and the Russian Peasantry, 1929-1933], (Moscow: Posev Publishing, 2004). Originally F.34228. Op.1. D.292. L.5, RGVA, p. 1.

[3] S. Kosinev “Raport, Inspektor Artillerii Tambovskoi Armii [Report from the Inspector of Army Artillery, Tambov Province],” 1 July, 1921, reprinted in in B. Sennikov, Tambovskoe Vosstanie [Tambov Rebellion].

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Prikaz – Polnomochnoi Komissii VTsIK 171 [Order 171 of the Central Executive Committee Plenipotentiary Commission],” June 23, 1921, reprinted in in B. Sennikov, Tambovskoe Vosstanie, [Tambov rebellion] (Moscow: Posev Publishing, 2004), 1.

[6] Ibid.