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Vladimir Lenin

Civil War

From March to October

Consolidation and the Last Years

In November 1917, Lenin's Bolsheviks held St. Petersburg (Petrograd) but little else, and it seemed unlikely that they could possibly establish permanent control over the vastnesses of Russia. But Lenin, displaying the same indefatigable energy that had carried him through a decade of disappointment, immediately set to work on the task of consolidating power. World War I constituted the foremost obstacle to his goals, and on December 3 he opened talks for an armistice with the German government. At the same time, the Bolsheviks also faced a challenge from the Constituent Assembly, which the Provisional Government had declared Russia's first elected government. At first, Lenin and his allies expressed support for this body, and allowed its elections to proceed throughout December. 168 Bolshevik delegates were elected- -but there were 703 seats in the Assembly, meaning that some sort of power- sharing arrangements would have to be worked out. But Lenin wanted no part of any such arrangement, and when the Assembly met for the first time, in January of 1918, Bolsheviks sent armed sailors to break it up. Democratic rule was thus displaced in favor of "Party rule," which became official in March 1918 when the Bolsheviks renamed themselves the Communist Party, a title under which they would govern Russia for seventy years.

Meanwhile, negotiations with the Germans bogged down temporarily in the winter of 1918, and the German armies resumed the offensive, with such alarming results that on March 3 Lenin's government, having moved from Petrograd to Moscow, was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which conceded vast swaths of western Russia to the advancing Germans. But despite the disgrace, Lenin had managed to extricate his country from World War I, leaving him free to deal with the rebellions that had sprung up at home. In various parts of Russia, "White" armies rose up to combat Lenin's "Reds." Although they maintained various loyalties–some pledged devotion to Nicholas II (now a prisoner of the Communists), some to Kerensky's government, some to their own generals–the Whites were united in their opposition to the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, soldiers from Britain, France, and the U.S. had landed in various Russian ports, hoping to put an end to what they thought was the "temporary madness" of Bolshevism and bring Russia back into the war.

And so began the great and ruinous Russian civil war, in which Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries battled a confused, patchwork group of adversaries across the vast stretches of Russian countryside. Lenin survived a number of assassination attempts during these years, most notably in August 1918, when a woman named Fanya Kaplan very nearly killed him, her bullet passing through his neck between the larynx and the gullet without doing any vital damage. Had the bullet entered a millimeter to either side, Lenin would have died then and there. Instead, he lived on, and Kaplan was tried and summarily executed. Asked to explain her motives, she declared, "I regard him [Lenin] as a traitor. The longer he lives, the further he'll push back the idea of socialism."

A number of times during the civil war, the Communist cause would appear to be lost, as White armies converged on Moscow and Petrograd, but the various White leaders failed to work together, and they were up against Leon Trotsky, whom Lenin appointed "People's Commissar for War" in March 1918, and who essentially created the Red Army out of the skeleton of the old imperial forces. Despite massive desertions, by 1919 Lenin had created a fighting force of 3 million men, a mass larger than anything his enemies could put on the field.

While Trotsky was displaying a ruthless military genius in leading the resistance against the Whites, Lenin was overseeing the horrific "Red Terror", which began in earnest in September of 1918 (just after the assassination attempt, not incidentally) and continued throughout the civil war. Thousands were massacred for opposing the Bolsheviks, thousands more for simply belonging to the wrong class–for being "kulaks," or wealthy peasants, a group that Lenin repeatedly compared to vermin and "bloodsuckers," language that Stalin would adopt in the 1930s, and which bears a striking resemblance to the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Hitler's Nazis. In the dark years of civil war, Marxism's doctrine of "class warfare," heretofore purely theoretical, took on a terrible reality, as the revolutionary forces carried out atrocities exceeding even the worst of the Tsars' oppressions. (Among these was the murder, on July 16, 1918, of Nicholas II and his entire family.) Meanwhile, the economic policies pursued by Lenin, which sought to create a Communist economy immediately through massive seizures of food and supplies from the peasantry, exacerbated the suffering, and eventually led to the terrible famine of 1921, in which nearly five million people died. Only then did the government finally restore a limited market economy to the countryside, calling it the New Economic Policy (N.E.P.).

A number of later (Soviet) biographers would try to minimize Lenin's role in the atrocities of this period, either by denying that they took place, or by pinning the blame for the terror on Trotsky and other Bolsheviks. But neither of these arguments is tenable today. Certainly, Lenin was not directly responsible for the executions, slaughter, and starvation in rural areas, any more than Stalin directly administered the gulags or Hitler the death camps. Indeed, Lenin stayed clear of the battlefields and villages where the Terror was raging, and he was careful–perhaps he had an eye to history here–to rarely order the shooting of "counter-revolutionaries" himself, preferring to operate through coded telegrams, dispatches, and anonymous decrees. But it was Lenin who put into daily practice the ideas later published as "How to Organize Competition," which proposed "the cleansing of the Russian land of any harmful insects, swindler-fleas, wealthy bugs and so on and so on. In one place, they should imprison a dozen wealthy people... in a fourth place, one out of every ten people guilty of parasitism should be executed on the spot." It was Lenin who declared, in August 1918, "merciless war against these kulaks! Death to them!"

It was Lenin who blithely permitted the Red Armies' campaign of raging anti-Semitic violence. It was Lenin who approved the cold-blooded execution of the entire Imperial family, including women and children. It was Lenin who allowed the new secret police, the "Cheka," to take innocent hostages at random–and shoot them, if necessary–to secure the grain supply. It was Lenin who exiled all political opposition, including the Mensheviks. It was Lenin who, in every way, institutionalized terror as a method of state policy, establishing both the system of deportation to concentration camps and the practice of political murder that his successor Stalin would hone into such effective weapons.

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