January 25, 2013
I became frustrated when I started studying the history of Communism in 2006. I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, The Black Book of Communism, many of Robert Conrad’s works, and much more. Absolute oppression and evil. The crushing of generations. As I kept reading I would ask, “Why didn’t anyone fight back?”
Granted, Russians didn’t have the benefit of historical parallels to their situation. The consensus was generally positive in 1917 when Lenin promised universal health care, infrastructure investments (electricity), pulling out of an unpopular war (WWI), and other hope and change assurances.
But there were Russians who did fight back, physically and economically. Called “bandits,” “wreckers,” or “internal enemies,” these were citizens who saw a tyrant’s actions through the fog of his words. They pushed back.
Finding stories of brave citizens who resisted, with little chance of success and significant chance of violent death, has sent my studies of Communism into overdrive. Let me share one of their stories: a story of vision, leadership, commitment to freedom, and of a citizenry armed against tyranny. Let me tell you about Aleksandr Antonov and his army of Greens.
Pre-1917 Revolution: Antonov (29) was a revolutionary and criminal by trade. He was granted amnesty and released from prison prior to the October Revolution and returned home to work as the local militia commander.
After the October Revolution: the Soviets recognized Antonov’s anti-tsarist past and kept Antonov on as their first Soviet militia commander in the area. Despite his role within the regime, Antonov foresaw the likely outcome of Lenin’s policies. By 1920 he was the leader of an insurgent army called the Greens.
Situation: 1918 – 1920
It took a full year for the Bolsheviks to spread their communist control through Russia. The Tambov region, roughly 200 miles southeast of Moscow, has some of the most fertile farmland in the country. Lenin moved the capital closer to Tambov– from the far-North city of Petrograd down to Moscow– in March 1918. His reach continued southward and two months later, Lenin’s policies hit Tambov hard.
Up to this point, the Peasant community had seen years of improving conditions under Tsar Nicholas II. A middle class was forming, with private property becoming a reality for some and an aspiration for others. Lenin promised, during his fragile early days of Bolshevik rule, that the Tsar’s policies would continue. Although Antonov was among a growing group who suspected a lie, this promise by Lenin was enough to maintain the peace.
But Antonov made preparations. He was tasked by a Trotsky order to confiscate the weapons from Czech Legionnaires who retreated through the Tambov province. He did as he was ordered, and with zeal. But instead of transferring the weapons to the Red Army, he distributed the weapons to the area peasants who, in turn, hid them.
Six months after taking power, as often happens with communists, Lenin’s promises turned to demands. In May 1918, his government introduced itself to the Tambov province with both a military conscription drive and food requisitions. Peasants were forced to surrender their two most precious assets: their labor, and the product of their labor.
Conscription proved difficult for three reasons. First, the Brest-Livtovsk treaty to end WWI was essentially a surrender, with Lenin and Trotsky giving up substantially more territory than originally planned due to their four months of negotiating games with the advancing Central Powers. Second, the civil war was unpopular too. And third, potential conscripts were troubled with the thought of being used by the Red Army to suppress Soviet citizens.
Food requisitions moved forward with armed commissars paying the government’s below-market prices for the confiscated grain. The peasants responded to their first taste of communism with a June 17 coup of the local government. They stole weapons and ammunition, and held for two days. Antonov was not present at the coup, but these were his future Greens.
The grain confiscation continues in 1919 and 1920. Surprise confiscations are now leaving peasants with less grain than is needed to both feed their families and plant their next crop. And conscription became a challenge. As many as 25-50% of conscripts would desert in transit to their units. Only 5% of eligible men appeared at a conscription drive in Moscow. To address this, new commissars on the scene created lists of potential conscripts, documenting potential draftees who had avoided previous conscription drives. The Soviet government had also enacted registration requirements for all bourgeois households and for all harvests.
Utopia was fleeting. Severe malnourishment in Soviet cities led to demands from the countryside for more grain, and to a mass exodus from the cities to the farms. Here is a situation report from local commissar S. Bulgakov to his superiors in Moscow:
In the villages now people are afraid of wearing clean clothes in public because they might be branded “bourgeois” and have their clothes confiscated. Anyone who owns a half-decent horse is at risk of being called “bourgeois,” and God help you if your house is actually clean and tidy – even if you have a family of ten to fifteen persons living there and you slave day and night just to keep it moderately clean. It too can become a “contribution,” or whatever they call a tax these days.
The “Greens”: 1920-1921
Antonov gains the support of the peasants as a counter-revolutionary under these deteriorating conditions. His Green Army forms from deserting soldiers, men avoiding the draft, and the Tambov peasants themselves.
This peasant army, at one time numbering 50,000 (arguably the largest in human history), fought a guerrilla war against Lenin’s Bolsheviks. When Antonov’s Greens began operations, the Soviet Reds were finishing a civil war against the anti-communists Whites.
By 1920 the peasants realize those “extreme” warnings about communism were all true. They see Antonov’s early successes with hit-and-run tactics. They either join him, or offer support. Lenin may have said “the purpose of terror is to terrorize,” but his goons were not ready for Antonov’s offensives.
Imagine a Tambov landscape with peasants working their field and the forest in the background. Church bells ring in the distance – a signal of approaching communists. A local commissar and his troops are passing through. The next scene shows the Greens from the forests leading a horse-mounted assault with military-grade weapons, supported by those same peasants with their tools. (How rich to ponder the ‘other’ uses of the hammer and sickle!) Stealing weapons, torturing and killing communists, and looting equipment and supplies. Next scene: the Greens are gone and the peasants are back in the fields working.
By October 1921, the Soviets only controlled 15 of the 56 districts in the Tambov province.
The Greens needed full support from the Tambov peasants for success.
It took three years of government failures for the Tambov peasants to give their full support to Antonov. As with all groups, some members were slow to understand the concept that once the government gets something for free, they will never pay for it. For most, however, the anger had been boiling for years, and it was vented at the hands of the Greens. From The Unknown Civil War in Soviet Russia, page 320, by Oliver H. Radkey:
…maiming and mutilation comprised a whole set of practices directed against eyes, ears, noses, limbs, bones, and intestines. Lopping off whatever could be more readily detached from the body seems to have been a basic rule.
The momentum continued into early 1921 when other revolts, combined with the catastrophic effects of Lenin’s economic policies, peaked. Makhno’s Anarchists in the Ukraine, the mutiny at the Kronstadt naval base, and another peasant uprising in Western Siberia (unarmed) forced Lenin to respond with heavy Red Army deployments. This included the use of chemical weapons to kill Greens hiding in the forest, and a new harvest tax and the New Economic Policy (NEP) to take the fight out of the peasants.
Momentum shifted to the Soviets when Lenin announced on February 2nd a flat tax on harvests, thus restoring a known and predictable expense for the peasants. The NEP, a surrender to economic realities, restored a little capitalism into the economy which pacified some of the Tambov peasants. And “some” is all that was necessary. War-weary and NEP-optimistic Tambov peasants helped the Red Army destroy the Greens, then track and kill Antonov in the summer of 1922.
The End: 1921-1922
Lenin’s Order 171 in May 1921 signaled the seriousness that the Kremlin now placed on the uprising, albeit late. The Tambov uprising was no longer the “petit bourgeois counter-revolution” that Lenin first thought. The Greens were the longest running insurgency and they were inspiring others. Order 171 ensured all Tambov peasants suffered searches of their homes and summary execution if found in violation of any part of the seven part order. The first command, from in Bandits and Partisans, page 229, by Erik Landis:
Civilians who refuse to provide their true names will be summarily shot.
Any family who has allowed their home to be used to hide a bandit will be placed under arrest and deported from the province, with all their possessions confiscated and their senior working member executed.
In the end, all uprisings were crushed. All weapons were confiscated. Some participants were deported to die in a Gulag work camp, but most were quickly executed. In a province of three million peasants, a total of 240 thousand died in the Green insurgency. Stalin eliminated the NEP eight years later. Communism ruled the land for another 70 years.