Anton Posadsky: “If there had been no Stalin, the Soviet Union would have been different”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the confrontation between the Red and White movements in the Civil War on the territory of the European part of the country — after the Red army captured the Crimea in November 1920, the White movement remained the opponent of the Bolshevik power only in the Far East. Anton Posadsky, Doctor of Historical Sciences, the author of numerous studies on the history of the Civil War, Professor of the Volga Institute of Management (Saratov), discusses why the new government was successful in the Civil War and the mistakes of the White movement in the interview with Realnoe Vremya.

“No one declares a civil war: a country just crawls into it”

Doctor Posadsky, could Russia have avoided this monstrous massacre — the civil war — more than 100 years ago?

Any war can be avoided, but in our topic, it is still important to indicate from what time point we will start our conversation. If we start with it in the autumn of 1917, it would probably be difficult to imagine a different scenario for Russia. But if we start the conversation with the era of Stolypin's reforms and before the First World War, then it would be quite possible to build scenarios for a more prosperous development of events for the country.

Let's talk about 1917. Do you agree that in the country plagued by war, with a collapsing economy, with a fierce political struggle for power between representatives of different flanks, everything was so bad that it was impossible to prevent a civil war?

The question is not even that everything in the country was bad. No one declares a civil war: a country just crawls into it. Yes, initially, from the autumn of 1917 to the end of spring-early summer of 1918, the civil war in Russia was localised or, as it is also called, echelon one. But in a huge country, in conditions when millions of its citizens, as they say, are under arms, when they are already people with a frustrating and difficult experience of the First World War, Russia inevitably fell into a state of real civil war.

Now science uses the expression that may soon become a term — “paramilitary violence”. It means the most diverse military groups, groups — official and semi-official, which compete with each other, clash, and just since 1918, we see not so much a struggle between the Whites and the Reds, but a military way to solve various economic and everyday issues — what in the Soviet version was called “a man with a gun”.

When the Bolsheviks came to power, were they morally ready for a civil war, or did they still hope to avoid it through some measures?

The Bolsheviks always saw the picture as global: with Lenin's return to Russia in April 1917, they set a course for revolution, realising that the world revolution was already beginning. And up to the NEP, the Bolsheviks lived in the paradigm of the world revolution. And the world revolution really began, if we recall what we now call the European revolutionary crisis of 1917-1918: empires collapsed (Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian, Turkish), republic was formed in Hungary, civil war was unfolding in Germany, socialist republics were proclaimed in Bavaria and Slovakia, the East was raging. The Bolsheviks believed that the Red flag would soon fly over the entire European continent. On such a scale, the Bolsheviks simply did not raise the question of whether there would be a civil war in Russia — the conversation was only about the universal scale of the events taking place.

The main resistance to the Bolsheviks was provided by the military, led by former major military leaders of the Russian army — Denikin, Kolchak, Yudenich, as well as Cossack atamans. Were the Bolsheviks principled opponents for most of the former tsarist officers, just because they were Bolsheviks?

The armed struggle of the Whites or from the Whites' part was launched by, first, of course, the fact of the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks — many of the officers treated them as defeatist power who played for Russia's defeat in the war, were perceived as taking money from Germany. Second, for many people who joined the ranks of the Whites later, the Bolsheviks' dispersal of the Constituent Assembly was a difficult event — they believed that this decision was worthy of repulse. Third, for many representatives of the military circles, an important factor that set them up to take up arms against the Bolsheviks was the Brest peace concluded by the Bolsheviks with Germany — the peace, in their opinion, terrible, separate. The peace that a Russian officer couldn't imagine even in worse nightmares — with the loss of a million square kilometres, with the demarcation line near Kursk and almost near Voronezh.

The first page of the Treaty of Brest. Source:
For many representatives of the military circles, an important factor that set them up to take up arms against the Bolsheviks was the Brest peace concluded by the Bolsheviks with Germany — the peace, in their opinion, terrible, separate. The peace that a Russian officer couldn't imagine even in worse nightmares

“The dating of the Civil War is being shifted, and this is correct”

When did the Civil War begin? Until the summer of 1918, in fact, serious military problems for the Soviet government were created only on the Don, where the famous campaign of the newly created White Army led by General Kornilov to the Kuban took place, but it quickly failed. Are not some historians mistaken to attribute this campaign to the period of the Civil War? After all, the country was huge, and by the end of May, the picture in it as a whole was not the same as in the south, and it was controlled by the new government. Or is it more complicated?

It is a question of assessments. Compared to 1919, Kornilov's campaign was militarily modest, but let's remember: in the official Soviet representation of those events, we read the following — the whole country supported the Bolsheviks' seizure of power and, accordingly, their first decrees on peace, on land. Thus, it was officially said about the triumphal march of Soviet power, when the power of the Bolsheviks extends to most of the giant territory of Russia, including Siberia and the Far East. Then in Soviet historiography, there followed the concept of “a respite of peace”, which after the signing of the Brest peace in March 1918 meant the country's exit from the First World War, but then the interventionists and internal counter-revolution imposed a civil war on the young Soviet Republic, and here the starting point is called the end of May 1918, when a mutiny of the Czechoslovak corps broke out in the area from Penza to Vladivostok.

Currently, the date of the Civil War is shifted and it is determined not by 1918-1920, as previously, but in the autumn of 1917-1922. And this is correct, because serious pockets of resistance to Soviet power begin in the autumn of 1917.

What happened that autumn? The new government is resisted by many cities, battles are going on in Moscow for a week, the Bolshevik power is not recognised on the Don, where ataman Aleksey Kaledin sits, it is not recognised in Orenburg, where ataman Alexander Dutov began the fight against the Bolsheviks. And then there is the question of assessments — we can consider these resistances a pathetic struggle of the remnants of the counter-revolution, we can consider it the beginning of the Civil War. But the fact that there is already a hotbed of military operations in Russia, that there is no unified government in the country and it enters the mode of armed struggle, this is obvious — the Volunteer Army appeared at the end of November 1917.

Why was there no serious unification of the forces of the White movement in the fight against the Bolsheviks? After all, we know that Denikin, Kolchak, and other opponents of the Bolsheviks acted in their own way.

Formally, the White movement did become united — all the leaders of the White movement recognise Alexander Kolchak as the Supreme Ruler of Russia at different times. If we talk about the operational interaction of the White troops, it almost didn't exist, because the Whites still acted with improvisations: they came from the outskirts of the country, and the Bolsheviks seized power in the central regions as a bonus, which were both densely populated and developed in industrial terms, areas with a developed railway network, therefore, good opportunities to operate along internal operational lines, as the military says. Besides, the entire staff and military infrastructure of the country turned out to be in the hands of the Reds — Stavka and so on.

Besides, many major military personnel were in those years in the service of the Red Army. Former officers of the old Russian army did not go deliberately to the Reds, they just did not go anywhere — they served in the departments of the same Stavka and reasoned like this: war is war, politics is politics, yes, the government is changing, and maybe we will wait out the Bolsheviks, but the army is there and you can't just leave the post. Thus, many officers ended up in the Red Army “by inheritance” along with a huge military infrastructure.

And of course, one of the vulnerabilities of the White movement was the inability to arrange a more or less established life in the occupied territories. Out of the two large areas that were under White rule, that is, in the east of the country and in the south, everything was extremely bad in their rear.

Why bad?

There were both momentary factors and some specific mistakes, but the factor that makes you receive greetings from Peter the Great is also important here. Namely, the difficult communication between the educated stratum and all the rest, which was in Imperial Russia — in the Civil War, it unfolded in all its glory in the territories occupied by the White armies. The people had “grown up” socially by that time, and the idea of god-fearing peasants who live with boyars in full harmony (a more or less false idea) had already been destroyed for the Whites, but even their young administrators could not speak another language in the White movement and did not want to. Thus, the Whites had practically no people who could be adequate for the people who had grown up in the revolution and in the war. But the Bolsheviks were able to build their own big project. Yes, it was something completely non-Russian, even anti-Russian — with world revolution, where no one spoke particularly about Russia as a national project, but the Bolsheviks found the words, found the “path” to the people so that they would listen to them. In general, the topic of communication of the Reds and the Whites with the population is a very good topic for research.

Formally, the White movement did become united — all the leaders of the White movement recognise Alexander Kolchak as the Supreme Ruler of Russia at different times

“The expectations for the Whites and the Reds were different”

To what extent is it correct to say that the Whites simply could not offer anything to the common people? For example, the land was already granted to the peasants by the Bolsheviks, but the Whites rejected this approach. Besides, the Whites promised nothing to the numerous ethnicities of the country than the Bolsheviks — the White movement had Russia united and indivisible, but the Bolsheviks gave the right to self-determination.

The thing is that when there is a war, there is inevitably a competition of the White and Red projects. But the point is not who said what, the question is in the image and the presence of authority, the question is whether the government has power or not, whether this authority has order or not, and it is a very delicate moment. And we you analyse who says what, then in their coordinate system they say everything seems to be correct — both the Whites and the Reds, but for example, Denikin failed to show that the power came, that it existed and did something necessary for people

What is even more interesting — the expectations for the Whites and the Reds were different: one White officer, already in exile, wrote that the Reds promised to take everything, but took only a part, and the population was grateful to them that they left something, while the Whites promised peace and order, but took the same part of the people's property, and the population only viciously counted the losses.

And this is also a truth — the Reds went under the flag of the revolution and a global alteration of all things, with the idea of intimidation, and the Whites went with the idea of order the idea of norms, with the idea of restoring the ruined, desecrated by the Bolsheviks of life, and the Whites couldn't give order and restore this life in the household fabric.

As an example, one can cite the interesting memories of a peasant from Ukraine, where Denikin's troops moved in 1919. He lived in the real Ukraine — the right bank, in the Kiev region, and wrote that yes, people went under the banner of the followers of Petlura, but only because they were such their own guys. But when there were rumours that the Whites would come, they were expected very seriously — people believed that this was a serious, real, Imperial power, because there were former tsarist generals there, and if they said the word, then there would be order. But the power of the Whites came, writes the peasant, and they couldn't organise order — here the Cossacks were robbing, there were some outrages, and so on. And people's expectations of the Whites faded, and as a result, the men act as they know — they go to Makhno, Tyutyunnik and other atamans.

From 1918, the White armies were assisted by the Entente or interventionists, but the winners of the First World War did not seriously help either Denikin or Kolchak. Why?

Denikin correctly said about the intervention in his memoirs: “The policy of the allies was self-serving.” Of course, Soviet historiography pedaled the theme of a campaign against the young republic of fourteen powers, three campaigns of the Entente, and so on. But, of course, this does not negate Denikin's conclusion: the same Englishmen intended to lead only where they had the opportunity to stay and participate in further events in the event of a White victory — this concerned the struggle for Turkestan, for Baku. The French were also in thrall to their dreams, but quickly evacuated from the south of Russia in the spring of 1919, when the First World War ended for them — after all, if the war ends, it was difficult for both the British and the French to get troops to fight god knows where with some Bolsheviks. Another thing is supply: the allies had something to supply the White armies, and they supplied the Whites because it was not a pity to do this in principle — after the First World War, the allies had mountains of weapons, and some of them could be transferred to Denikin and Kolchak in their own interests. The famous Denikin campaign against Moscow in the summer of 1919 was provided with British weapons — guns, tanks. And although the British tanks played more of a role not military, but military-psychological, but nevertheless played one. The same applies to uniforms — the British supplied them to both Kolchak and Denikin.

Yes, the allies played a certain role for the Whites, but it is impossible to say that the intervention was clearly directed against the power of the Council of People's Commissars — after all, when the Whites lost, in 1921, the British and the Soviets quickly concluded a trade agreement, although the Civil War was still raging, because there is a famous British formula that you can trade with cannibals.

But did the Whites promise something serious to the English in the same way? Some kind of free economic or even political activity in certain territories?

The Whites did not undertake any territorial concessions for the same British, Denikin was extremely scrupulous here — “not an inch of Russian land for help!” But if you allow yourself to fantasise and imagine that the Whites would have entered Moscow in 1919 under the bell ringing, then what next? Most likely, the allies would have some preferences in Russia — some allied capital, although they had it there before. But as to what the country itself would be, the Whites were scrupulous and believed that it should be decided by the Constituent Assembly, and hence Denikin's intolerance of the Poles. The Poles in those years were also “good”, and in discussing with Denikin a joint campaign against Moscow, they recalled their territorial appetites of the 18th century, but Denikin was not ready to make any compromises with Poland on its eastern border for any help. Also the fact of Finland's independence was met with struggle and doubt in the White ranks, so it was believed that the Whites were not competent to solve territorial issues — they only defeat usurpers, invaders of power, and then in some form there is an all-Russian power.

Of course, we can recall publicist Dmitry Galkovsky with his work “Infinite Deadlock” — in it, he uses the expression “crypto colony” and says that there are only two or three real state entities in the world, among them — the United Kingdom, and all the others are crypto colonies of several major players. In this sense, Russia is a state that was under the great influence of major industrial powers — first of all, the Great Britain, so we can assume that already Imperial Russia was deeply dependent on future allies. Of course, this is already a political and economic issue and it has no direct relation to the Civil War, but the Whites actually acted in the paradigm of loyalty to allied obligations. That is, we started the war together with the allies, but this war was derailed by the Bolsheviks — “German agents” who usurped power through violence and demagoguery, and we continue to be loyal allies and fight the Bolsheviks as agents of the Germans, and then as the third international. However, the allies were not going to shed their blood once again — it was obvious.

Denikin correctly said about the intervention in his memoirs: “The policy of the allies was self-serving”

“When there is a war, it is not political or economic motives that come to the fore, but the behaviour of the parties”

Can we say that the peasant was an important factor for the victory of the Reds? Although from the summer of 1918, the peasants faced food detachments and sometimes very harshly clashed, yet the land was granted to them by the Bolsheviks and this inclined the peasants not to support the Whites — am I right?

Speaking in general terms, then, of course, for the peasants in the flaring civil war, the Red side is those who gave them the land. But then prodrazverstka came and a new order — the land is yours, but almost everything that grew on this land is subject to surrender and is taken away mercilessly. On the side of the Whites, there was another horror story: the Whites were carrying at least an order in the form of free market, but behind the Whites, especially in the south, there stood the ghost of the landlords' return and it was considered the past stage — landlords had already disappeared, their land had been divided. But when the landowner returned and there were rumours that the land could be taken away, it hit the consciousness of the peasants and turned them away from the Whites. In reality, when there is a war, the motives are not political, not economic, but a comparison of the behaviour of the parties, and if there were Whites in the village and behaved more or less decently, and the Reds came — all the grass was mowed, all the bread was “eaten” and they behaved ugly, the local population began to love the Whites. If on the contrary, that is, the Whites behaved terribly and all were flogged, and the Cossacks robbed all, then sympathy will be on the side of their opponents. And thus the whole mosaic was made up of such momentary impressions.

Finally, the peasants often emphasised self-help and self-defense, what is called the “green movement”. For example, in the Red Army in 1919, there was big desertion, and it was decided not to make new calls, and the Whites had a mass desertion, that is, it was important to hide and not let any sources or punishers into their village, and different versions of atamanshchina, zelenovshchina were also walking all over the country. Sometimes these things are called the third force in the Civil War — this is hardly correct, of course.

But did the peasant factor still prove decisive in the victory of the Bolsheviks?

It was decisive in the sense that the Civil War showed: those would be winners who could harness the peasant resource. Harnessing means to be able to force the peasants to give their bread, and their sons to join the army, to make them obey, and by the end of 1920, it was the Bolsheviks who managed to ride the village in this regard. But again, by the end of 1920, it turned out fifty-fifty, because the last stage of the civil war — this peasant-ataman stage when the Whites were defeated, but the peasant war rises against the system of war communism, which ran from the spring and summer of 1920 to summer 1921, and in some areas, as in my middle Volga region until the autumn of 1922, there was an armed struggle. The peasants managed to build up serious armed and military-political forces in the Tambov region, in the Volga region, in Western Siberia, and in the Trans-Urals. And it was the voice of the village — the village that, in general, supported the Bolsheviks, because at the head of these rebel formations we see the recent Red commanders. And the NEP, as you know, was accepted by the Bolsheviks only as a compromise — due to that the world revolution was postponed, and due to that the country was shaken, some step back was needed that would calm the country and strengthen the government.

The inability to manage the occupied territories inevitably provokes insurgent activity, so Denikin's rear in the autumn of 1919 and in the winter of 1920 was eaten by rebels

“Then they began to say that Leon Trotsky could have been brighter, and better, and smarter than Stalin”

Your colleague Viktor Kondrashin said in an interview that one of the consequences of the Civil War was the creation of the dictatorship of Stalin. Couldn't the victors have given birth to another leader?

People of my age and older remember that during perestroika, in the late 1980s, there were talks about all sorts of alternatives for the development of the country. In their course, a certain “prince on a white horse” appeared in the person of Nikolai Bukharin, and Bukharin clubs began to appear all over the country (apparently at the direction of the Komsomol). Then they began to say that Leon Trotsky could have been brighter, and better, and smarter than Stalin, and so on.

The thing is that the very construction of the Bolshevik party presupposed a leader, and if there had been no Stalin, it would have been a construction with some other character — especially since Stalin took a lot of ideas for the accelerated development of socialism from Trotsky, although he pretty much cheated him. Certainly, there had been no Stalin, the Soviet Union would have been different, but still in a narrow corridor of its development opportunities.

By Sergey Kochnev