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The Tambov Revolt (1920-1921)

Author(s): Seth Singleton


Source: Slavic Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, (Sep., 1966), pp. 497-512
Published by: The American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2492859
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SETH SINGLETON

The Tambov Revolt (I920-I92I)

Peasant life is known-it is to eat in order to work, to work in order to eat, and,
beside that, to be born, to bear, and to die. Our revolution is a rebellion in the
name of the conscious, rational, purposeful, and dynamic principle of life, against
the elemental, senseless, biological automatism of life; that is, against the peasant
roots of our old Russian history.
Boris Pilnyak, The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea

We cannot ignore the decision of the rank and file of the people, even though
we may disagree with it. In the fire of experience, applying the decree in practice,
and carrying it out locally, the peasants will themselves realize where the truth
lies.
Lenin, introduction to the Land Decree, November 8, 1917

IN THE FIRSTYEARSof Soviet rule both Bolshevik fear and distrust of the
peasant "class enemy" and peasant fear and distrust of the government and
the city were confirmed in that "fire of experience" which Lenin so often
mentioned. The story of the Tambov revolt illustrates how this occurred.'
The prologue to the peasant revolts of 1920-21 is well known. In the
'Three unpublished documents provide the source material for this article: (a) V. A.
Antonov-Ovseenko, "O banditskom dvizhenii v tambovskoi gubernii," Trotsky Archives,
Harvard University, doc. # T686. This is the report of Antonov-Ovseenko, Soviet military
commander and chairman of the plenipotentiary Commission for the Liquidation of
Banditry in Tambov Province (guberniia) from February to July 1921, to Lenin and the
Central Committee. The report is dated July 20, 1921. To judge from the comments written
on it, the report passed through Lenin's hands to Trotsky. Written with the characteristic
bluntness and clarity of a military order, the report examines the causes of the Tambov
revolt, its organization, the measures taken to suppress it, and their effects. Antonov-
Ovseenko's analysis seems truthful, perceptive, and intelligent, and in fact it substantiates
the judgments of the other two, anti-Bolshevik, commentators.
(b) M. Fomichev (Mikhail Lidin), "Antonovshchina, iz vospominanii Antonovtsa," Rus-
sian Archive, Columbia University. Fomichev was a partisan leader in the Tambov re-
volt, a former officer disillusioned with the Whites. He offers an analysis of the revolt and
its causes and provides vital information about the nature and extent of peasant participa-
tion in the revolt. Fomichev's anecdotes and descriptions vividly convey the desperate
atmosphere of the revolt and the merciless nature of the fighting. Although the date that
appears on the document is 1951, Fomichev must have written it shortly after the revolt
or compiled it from a diary.
(c) "Kak tambovskie krest'iane boriatsia za svobodu," Russian Archive, Hoover Library,
Stanford University, doc. # 208 (hereafter cited as "Tambovskie krest'iane"). The anony-
mous author of this document, dated 1921, was almost certainly a Socialist Revolutionary
writing during the course of the revolt, for he sympathizes with the peasant cause while
criticizing partisan leaders for not following the instructions of the SRs. The document
is valuable for its information on the peasant revolutionary organization, the outbreak of
armed revolt, and the role of the SRs.
498 SLAVIC REVIEW

summer of 1918 Bolshevik leaders discovered that their survival depended


on the supply of peasant grain. The regime faced a crucial decision-
coercion or concessions. Realizing that to comply with peasant demands
for free trade in grain would endanger their political control, the com-
missars chose coercion. A Bolshevik invasion was unleashed on the vil-
lages by requisition detachments of armed workers, local Committees of
the Poor (Kombedy), Red Army irregulars, and local officials, all operating
haphazardly in a fog of confusion and disorganization. This harsh policy of
forced requisition whenever and wherever grain could be found was con-
tinued throughout the period of War Communism.2
The terrible exigencies of war supply and national economic disruption
were lost on the common peasant, whose knowledge of events remained
limited to his village and whose understanding of external conditions-
famine in the cities or the fortunes of Red and White on civil war bat-
tlefields-was shaped more by rumor than by fact. As in the old days,
effective communication ended at the railroad stops. And while most
peasants understood little of the wellsprings of Bolshevik *fervor, they
soon discovered that the new regime offered slight protection from starva-
tion and that they might at any moment be forced at gunpoint to surrender
the family dinner. Peasants waited, and grumbled, and planted only
enough for themselves3 until the threat of famine forced them to act
against the new and terrible exploitation.
During the winter of 1919-20 local peasant groups began to grope
toward a coordinated organization and policy, relying in part on the
remnants of the old Socialist Revolutionary party network in the country-
side. According to the Cheka, the movement spread to twenty-two provinces
(gubernii) in early 1920. In the spring hundreds of thousands of peasant
soldiers returned to their villages from the ranks of the Red Army, and
many quickly turned against the Soviet regime. Local and provincial
soviets and peasant conferences became anti-Bolshevik demonstrations.
Yet, as in past peasant uprisings, violence outran organization. Through
1920 the number and extent of armed peasant revolts multiplied, spread-
ing from the Ukraine to the Crimea, the Don, the Kuban, the Trans-

2 A Soviet
economist reported that grain sent to the cities declined from 212.5 million
poods in 1917 to i8o.5 million in 1920 and that by 1920 all grain sent from the villages
was collected by forced requisition (Leonid Kritsman, Geroicheskii period velikoi russkoi
revoliutsii [Moscow, 1926], p. i8i).
"According to the League of Nations Report on Economic Conditions in Russia (C.705
M.451, 1922), the harvests of 1920 and 1921 were less than half that of 1916:

Year Poods of grain

1916 3,955,000
1920 1,738,000
1921 1,602,000

From 1915 to 1921 the area sown to crops declined by 37 percent, from 85.0 to 53.2 million
dessiatines (Michael S. Farbman, Bolshevism in Retreat [London, 1930], p. 230).
THE TAMBOV REVOLT 499

volga, and Siberia. In February 1921 the Cheka reported ii8 separate
revolts!4
The fiercest and most stubborn of these revolts occurred in the province
of Tambov, 250 miles southeast of Moscow in the center of Russia's bread-
basket. The Tambov revolt and its suppression were not unusual events,
but rather a local case typical of what happened throughout the country.
In Tambov, all the conditions inciting to revolt were present to an extreme
degree. More than go percent of Tambov's 3.5 million inhabitants were
peasants. Land hunger, overpopulation, and poverty had long been acute.5
The emancipation of 1861 had dealt harshly with Tambov peasants,
and landlords had continued to exploit land and labor in conditions little
better than those of serfdom. Village antagonisms were aggravated by the
haphazard land redistribution carried out by the peasants themselves in 1918,
while the reform in fact brought only meager economic relief.6
Hostility in the Tambov countryside flared to fever pitch with the first
attempts of the new regime to collect the harvest. The Committees of the
Poor established to extend Bolshevik control to the villages were especially
rapacious in Tambov. Composed chiefly of local opportunists, described
as "dispossessed muzhiks, drunks, and loafers," 7 most members of the
Committees had in common with the Soviet regime only the desire to share
the spoils of forced grain collection and property confiscation. A grain-
surplus province-in theory-and one of the few such provinces that re-
mained in Bolshevik hands throughout the civil war, Tambov was
thoroughly scoured by requisition detachments sent from the cities. Swarms
of deserters and bandits-Reds, Whites, and those who simply refused to
fight-lived off the land and fought all who dared molest them. Punitive
detachments sent to Tambov to catch these outlaws seldom achieved their
object but instead occupied villages in the areas where the outlaws were
hiding, helped local Bolsheviks to assert themselves over their fellow vil-
lagers, and raided the rapidly dwindling grain reserves. The Tambov
countryside was plundered indiscriminately, and the distinction between
4This information of the Cheka is reported both by the Socialist Revolutionary press
(A. Shilkov, "Krest'ianstvo i Sovetskaia vlast'," in Krest'ianskaia Rossiia, Vol. I [Prague,
1922]) and by a contemporary official Soviet source (Itogi bor'by s golodom, with an
introduction by M. I. Kalinin [Moscow, 1922]). While both the SRs and the Soviet govern-
ment wanted to pin responsibility for the movement on the SRs, the Soviet government
seems to have had no reason for exaggerating the extent of peasant discontent.
5The journalistic accounts of Soviet sources are substantiated by the scholarship of
Geroid T. Robinson: "In the black-soil region, say in the guberniia of Tambov, an
American traveler who rode through the grainfields in 1913 might have expected to find
a scattering of farmhouses supported by this casual culture; but instead he would have
found, perhaps, a village of a hundred households, then, a few miles further on, a village
of a few hundred more. A constricted acreage, a nonintensive agriculture, a comparatively
dense population-the landscape told no lies; there was really a malignant discord here"
(Rural Russia Under the Old Regime [New York, 1932], p. 245).
"S. Prokopovich, Narodnoe khoziaistvo SSSR, Vol. I (New York, 1952), p. 132. Even if
the Tambov poor peasant doubled his holding of perhaps half a dessiatine, he would
have been left with at most a bare margin of subsistence.
7 Fomichev, p. i6.
500 SLAVIC REVIEW

soldier, bandit, and food requisition detachment wore thin indeed. Tambov
had exported grain before the revolution, but by 1920 most districts in the
province were not growing enough to feed themselves, let alone supply to
the starving cities and the Red Army the excessive quotas set by the Mos-
cow Commissariat of Food Supply.
The effects of anarchy and extreme poverty were compounded by those
of arbitrary administration. Behind the front lines of the civil war Soviet
administration had a "military-administrative character," which meant
that the Soviet commander had absolute authority if he could enforce it.
"Revolutionary legality" was merely a slogan, and frequent abuses of power
by Soviet officials who enforced their will by "floggings, shootings, and food
detachments" went unpunished.8 Local Bolsheviks came to be regarded as
parasites "supplied with comforts on the broad back of the peasant." 9
Soviet commander Antonov-Ovseenko, sent to Tambov in the winter of
192o-21 to put down the revolt, reported without mincing words the pre-
vailing administrative situation to his superiors on the Party Central
Committee:
In general, in the conception of a majorityof peasants,the Soviet power is identi-
fied with raiding commissarsor officials, boldly giving orders to volost executive
committeesand village soviets,and placing the representativesof these local bodies
under arrest for nonfulfillment [of requisition quotas], and all this along with
entirely absurd demands [for grain]. They still identify the government with the
food detachmentsthat act with direct harm to the peasant economy and without
any benefit to the state. In the mass, the peasantryis accustomedto regard the
Soviet power as somethingexternal, something that only commands,giving orders
quite zealouslybut not at all economically.10
The civil war-which was responsible for the arbitrary and disorganized
application of Bolshevik excesses-for a time kept the lid on in Tambov.
Tambov peasants knew that with the Whites came the landlords, and "the
fear of losing the land and the threat of compensation" 11 forced the
peasants to forgo open rebellion while the outcome was in doubt. A repre-
sentative of the White Cossack raider Mamontov sent to contact dissatisfied
peasant groups in Tambov encountered only suspicion and hostility and
was told by spokesmen of the peasant partisans that Tambov was for free-
dom, not the old regime, and could not cooperate with the Whites.12
Yet the idealistic aspect of the revolution was entirely foreign to the
Tambov peasants, who reacted with mistrust and derision to speeches of
"city slickers" about world revolution and the union of proletariat and
8Ibid., p. 8.
9"Tambovskie krest'iane," p. 2.
'0Antonov-Ovseenko, p. 5. Antonov-Ovseenko gained prominence as the captain of the
cruiser Aurora during the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd. During the civil war he was given
important military-administrative assignments by the Central Committee of the Party.
The last of these was the suppression of the Tambov revolt. Antonov-Ovseenko served on
the Central Committee in the 192oS but, with most of his old Bolshevik comrades, perished
in the great purge.
"Fomichev, p. 1.
l2Ibid., pp. 14-15.
THE TAMBOV REVOLT 501

toiling peasantry. "Facts spoke to the peasant on this basis: punitive and
food detachments in the countryside were composed exclusively of work-
ers." 13 Traditional suspicion grew to fierce hatred of the city in general
and of workers in particular, and this hatred partially explains the merci-
less character of the peasant revolt and the Bolshevik retribution.
Subject to military occupation by the alien city power, plagued by
typhus, hunger, banditry, and total lack of shoes, kerosene, and other
manufactured goods, Tambov peasants had little to lose. Antonov-Ov-
seenko reported that by February 1921 many had been reduced to eating
tree bark.14
In May 1920 peasant representatives formed the Union of the Working
Peasantry, or STK (Soiuz trudovogo krest'ianstva), at the village of Ka-
menka, in Tambov District (uezd). The STK was clearly a revolutionary
(or counterrevolutionary) organization, for it resolved "to fight the Bol-
sheviks to the end." In its manifesto the STK contrasted Bolshevik promises
of peace, bread, and freedom with the reality of food detachments, Cheka
administration, "the abolition of freedom of press and speech," and "the
destruction of churches and persecution of the godly." 15 The influence of
Socialist Revolutionary members of the STK was apparent, for "socializa-
tion of the land" and a constitutional convention were included among
the political goals of the new organization. The Socialist Revolutionaries,
however, opposed those who clamored for rebellion, and at the May 20
meeting of the STK, SRs spoke strongly against an armed revolt which,
they felt, would be quickly crushed by the Red Army. The SRs clearly
carried weight within the STK, for "in spite of the insistence of its rank-
and-file members, the STK spoke out against immediate action but did
not hide from itself the inevitability of armed struggle with the Bol-
sheviks in the future." 16
Were the Socialist Revolutionaries in fact responsible for the Tambov
revolt? Antonov-Ovseenko, bowing to the Bolshevik tendency to blame
all opposition on conscious, politically motivated groups, stated that they
were, although he linked them to "kulaks and other undesirables." Fomi-
chev, an officer with the rebels, staunchly maintained that "this SR veneer
on the surface of the Tambov rebellion gave the Bolsheviks the right to
blame the SRs for the organization and leadership of the Tambov revolt.
It was, of course, not so. The SR central committee prohibited their
party organization and its individual members from participating in the
revolt." 17 The unknown author of How the Tambov Peasantry Fights for
Freedom, probably an SR himself, concurred.
Tambov had been a Socialist Revolutionary stronghold since the turn
of the century, and certainly local SRs provided the talent necessary to
13 Ibid.,p. 2.
14
Antonov-Ovseenko, p. 5.
16Fomichev, p. 20.
"' "Tambovskie
krest'iane," p. 3.
17 Fomichev, p. 9.
502 SLAVIC REVIEW

organize the STK to agitate systematically in Tambov villages. The truth


seems to be that just as the Socialist Revolutionary leadership was not
strong enough to bind the STK to its will, so it was not strong enough to
enforce its dicta on local SRs. As a party, the SRs neither instigated nor
approved of the violence; as individuals, they probably did both.
-Local cells of the STK were soon formed, and under the guidance of a
central committee anti-Bolshevik propaganda began to circulate in Tambov
villages. Leaflets proclaiming "release from serfdom of men and horses, in
the name of fraternity, equality, and freedom" drew peasant support, and
phrases aping those of the STK began to appear in resolutions of peasant
conferences and in the eloquent handwritten notices of various outlaw
bands.
The result of this agitation, as the Socialist Revolutionaries had feared,
was a spontaneous peasant movement that soon raged out of STK con-
trol. Incidents multiplied throughout the summer in the southern part of
Tambov and Kirsanov districts. To reduce the rapidly growing tension,
Bolshevik officials hurriedly convoked a peasant congress in August. Just as
the congress assembled, however, fighting broke out at Kamenka, the home
village of the STK, where peasants beat off a detachment sent to confiscate
their grain reserves. Expecting retaliation, the peasants chose a "command"
and dug in to resist. The expected punitive detachment was put to flight,
and a second and third as well.
At this turn of events the Cheka made the blunder of arresting those
delegates to the peasant congress who had advocated resistance to the
Soviet regime. Directly challenged, the peasant organization could no
longer remain inactive. Enthusiastically supported by the general mood of
the province, the STK rose in defiance of the "Soviet power."
News of the events at Kamenka spread quickly. Village after village
prepared to resist the punitive detachments by force of arms. Village
soviets were replaced by peasant "commands." In villages under attack
Communists were killed to the last man, while elsewhere local Bolsheviks
either fled or joined the revolt. Still completely uncoordinated, the rising
culminated in a mass march on the city of Tambov. This chaotic attempt
was dispersed about ten miles from the Bolshevik stronghold, and a coun-
terattack succeeded in capturing and burning several of the rebellious
villages. Yet as the jacquerie subsided, only the towns and the railroad
lines were firmly in Bolshevik hands. The regime was without power or
influence in the countryside, and its men were invaders of a hostile land.
From the initial confusion emerged the partisan leader A. S. Antonov
(not to be confused with Bolshevik commander Antonov-Ovseenko), who
soon. became the actual and symbolic leader of the Tambov revolt.. A
native of Tambov and a former Socialist Revolutionary, Antonov had
been exiled to Siberia for revolutionary activity, returning only after the
February 1917 revolution. He quickly became impatient with the Pro-
visional Government and urged complete destruction of both Bolsheviks
and right-wing generals to save the revolution. When the Socialist Revolu-
THE TAMBOV REVOLT 503

tionaries went underground in the summer of 1918, Antonov became an


outlaw and a terrorist, a partisan leader of the most romantic and colorful
sort. The legend of a latter-day Robin Hood, virtuous and invincible,
soon spread far and wide, and by 1920 Antonov was both well known to
Bolshevik commanders and a hero to the peasants of Tambov.
The peasant insurgents thus naturally turned to Antonov to continue
the revolt and volunteered in large numbers to serve with his partisan band.
The "first Kamenka partisan regiment" became the nucleus of a "people's
army" whose "regiments" were actually irregular bands of poorly armed
peasants. Picturesque as these troops might be with their tattered overcoats
and ancient rifles, they were completely unreliable. "Regiments" were
formed and melted away overnight, and partisan officers could never be
sure of their own strength. Antonov-Ovseenko, perhaps exaggerating the
strength of the revolt after its suppression, estimated partisan forces at
40,000 men in February 1921, while the author of How the Tambov
Peasantry Fights for Freedom, also an eyewitness, claimed that no more
than 3ooo men were in the field at any one time. Many partisan soldiers
lived in their native villages, while the others foraged for food and sup-
plies through the cold of the Russian winter. The partisan officers-some
of whom, like Fomichev, were former White officers disillusioned with in-
creasingly reactionary White leaders-tried earnestly to create an efficient
army, "but the carping of the officers and the lack of discipline among the
troops posed an insuperable obstacle." 18 The courts-martial of the partisan
command waged a stubborn fight against the disintegrative effects of
drunkenness and poor discipline, but little was achieved despite the flog-
ging and shooting decreed for offenders.
In the interval between the outbreak of revolt in August 1920 and the
massive Bolshevik campaign against the rebels which began in March 1921,
a rapidly expanding network of STK committees functioned as the ef-
fective government in most of Tambov. The STK provincial committee
was the apex of a pyramid of elected village, volost, and uezd committees
that reached into every corner of the province. On instructions from
Antonov's headquarters these committees mobilized troops for the "peo-
ple's army," organized the flow of military supplies to the insurgents, and
helped the families of partisan volunteers with food, money, and medical
care. Local peasants were persuaded to quarter partisans and supply horses.
Most important, the STK committees and their contacts were the eyes and
ears of the partisan bands.
In addition to the partisan soldiers and the STK, several thousand men
(according to Antonov-Ovseenko) served in the Vokhra (Vnutrenniaia okh-
rana), or secret police. The Vokhra dealt summarily with "Reds" and
Bolshevik collaborators. Its informants reached into the Tambov Cheka
organization, the provincial Party executive committee, and the Bolshevik
military command. In fact, partisan intelligence was so effective that Red

18Antonov-Ovseenko, p. 7.
504 SLAVIC REVIEW

Army troop movements and the passage of food convoys through rebel
areas were reported to Antonov as soon as they were planned.
Such an organization obviously could not have carried on without mas-
sive support from the Tambov peasantry. From the Boshevik side, Anto-
nov-Ovseenko implied that the peasantry was only passive, that the coun-
tryside "fell under" the control of "armed kulaks." 19 "Lawless plunder,
victories over weak and incompetently led Red detachments, and the or-
ganizational work of the kulaks aroused the countryside to support the
rebels." 20 The rebels were in fact supported in many areas so com-
pletely that the terms "peasant" and "partisan" became synonyms. Even
the "neutral" peasants winked at certain tendencies of Antonov's men
to make off with food and fodder, for Antonov was no bandit but their
defender, "the invincible avenger of their violated interests." 21 Antonov's
more or less permanent forces were supplemented at crucial moments by
large numbers of local peasants who vanished into the rural background
as soon as military operations had ended.22 As a frustrated Antonov-Ov-
seenko admitted, "the availability of the organized cooperation of the local
population made the bands scarcely vulnerable, extraordinarily invisible,
and, so to speak, ubiquitous." 23
The character of partisan warfare in the early months of the Tambov
revolt was confused, to say the least. Antonov's guerrillas easily eluded the
pursuing troops and from time to time passed over to the attack. Small
Bolshevik units were annihilated in raids on state farms, fortified villages,
and railroad stations. At this time Antonov faced Bolshevik irregulars-
sailors, party workers, "international brigades"-who were ill-trained and
inexperienced.24 Partisan appeals to these units not to fire on their peasant
countrymen were often successful. Many units surrendered their arms,
and a few even went over to the partisans. Others were persuaded to defend
a village against a food detachment in return for a share of the grain
saved. "Peaceful" peasants, in the presence of superior Bolshevik forces,
continually cursed the "bandits" and affirmed their devotion to the regime,
but if the passing force was not too large or was lightly armed, it might
very well be ambushed and cut to pieces by those same "peaceful" peasants.
The fate of the First International Punitive Brigade is instructive. Sent
to surround and catch Antonov, the brigade had ventured only a few miles
91In Bolshevik terminology a "kulak" meant, of course, any peasant who happened to
be opposing the Bolsheviks, regardless of his economic status.
2 Antonov-Ovseenko, p. 6.
2 "Tambovskie krest'iane," p. 6.
22 This was, of course, what led the Bolsheviks to overestimate partisan strength so
drastically. Everyone in southeast Tambov seems to have fought the Bolsheviks on occa-
sion, but only a few lived apart from their villages. Thus estimates of partisan strength
could vary from a few hundred to almost the total male population of the area.
23Antonov-Ovseenko, p. 9.
24
The Red Army was, of course, occupied elsewhere in the fall of 1920. War with
Poland did not end until the preliminary peace of October i2, and Baron Wrangel's White
army was defeated in the Crimea only in mid-November. Red Army veterans began to
arrive in Tambov in January and February 1921 for a spring campaign against the
partisans.
THE TAMBOV REVOLT 505

from the city of Tambov when it was itself surrounded by partisans, acting
on Antonov's orders-"to give no peace or rest to the Bolsheviks either day
or night." All communications were cut, and the brigade was swallowed up
by the countryside. Exhausted, its morale shaken, and its supplies al-
most gone, the brigade finally reached its destination, a village seventy
miles from the city of Tambov, where the Bolsheviks expected to find
Antonov. After a sleepless night of skirmishes Antonov in fact appeared-
to lead the massacre of the First International Punitive Brigade by a large
force of peasants and the partisan cavalry.25
Partisan military success was only belatedly matched by clarification of
the political aims of the revolt.26 The STK finally issued a program of
political goals, but its efforts were too little and too late to instill even
limited political consciousness in the mass of peasants, who, as always,
wanted to be left in peace to enjoy-or rather eat-the fruits of their land.
Guerrilla war only further obscured whatever positive aims the rebels
had, for Antonov's raiding tactics merely elicited counterforce and re-
prisal from the Bolsheviks. The conflict escalated, and attitudes hardened
to the point at which no military alternatives remained other than the anni-
hilation of the rebels or the withdrawal of the "Soviet power" from Tambov.
By midwinter the revolt had spread far from its area of origin in south-
eastern Tambov to the outlying districts of the province and to neighbor-
ing Voronezh and Saratov as well. Faced with such a formidable rebellion,
the regime was weak and disorganized. Only 3ooo Red Army regulars
could be spared to oppose the partisans during the fall of 1920. Party
committees haggled among themselves over strategy in dealing with the
revolt, while flagging Party discipline and general discouragement led half
the provincial Party membership to quit. The provincial Party conference
disintegrated into a "formless brawl,"27 and by February the Tambov
provincial committee for all practical purposes had ceased to exist. Troops
sent in January to cope with the partisans found an apparatus that was in
chaos, without supplies, and totally incapable of providing logistic sup-
port. Even the Cheka was unreliable. Intelligence was so bad that periodic
panics swept the city of Tambov as a result of absurd rumors of imminent
attack by the "people's army" circulating at Soviet military headquarters.
Confused and uncertain, the Party in January tried the "red terror,"
burning several villages and executing captured peasants believed to be
partisans, then tried "pacification," freeing two hundred arrested peasants
without trial. These ambivalent tactics only invited disaster. "The Soviet

25The story of the brigade is taken from Fomichev, whose narrative contains many
bloody military anecdotes.
26The author of "Tambovskie krest'iane" (p. i6) believed that lack of a clear political
program was from the beginning the revolt's fatal flaw. "The tragedy of the Tambov
peasantry is that it is without ideological leadership; a powerful peasant revolt without
ideological leadership may degenerate into partisan warfare." "Ideological leadership"
-from the viewpoint of this writer-meant SR control, which in Tambov might have
meant no armed revolt at all.
27Antonov-Ovseenko, p. 10.
506 SLAVIC REVIEW

forces were almost completely driven from the villages of five districts into
the city, and the Party organization in the countryside was destroyed. At
that time they did not know how to manage the concentration and with-
drawal of their forces from the rebellious countryside, and thousands of
Communists perished." 28
By February Moscow had become sufficiently alarmed to intervene.
Red Army regulars were dispatched from units that had fought in Poland
and the Crimea. The "Plenipotentiary Commission for the Liquidation of
Banditry in Tambov Province," empowered with total authority, replaced
the defunct Party organization.
The Commission lost no time in producing a "concrete plan" designed to
resurrect Soviet rule in Tambov. "Neutralization" of the peasants was cor-
rectly judged to be the necessary condition for a successful military campaign.
Peasant conferences would arrange "a village verdict against the bandits" 29
and would also clarify the causes of peasant unrest. The middle and lower
strata of the peasantry were to be isolated from the rebel "kulaks" and So-
cialist Revolutionaries. Food requisition detachments were given the new
name of "sowing detachments" and were told to cooperate with the peasants,
urging them to plant more grain than had been planted the previous year.
To promote "revolutionary legality" an investigation of past administra-
tive abuses was arranged to proceed in the glare of publicity and in the
proper spirit of self-criticism. A purge of the Party, the military command,
and the Cheka was begun, while a regular food supply and stern en-
forcement of discipline in the military courts began to raise the morale of
the troops. The Cheka, in order "to seize and liquidate the directing and
counterrevolutionary STK organization, which was the lifeline of the par-
tisan rebels," 30 once again found informants in the villages. Success de-
pended on military force, however. The keystone of the plan was systematic
occupation of rebellious districts to dislodge the partisans from their local
base and force them into the open.
The first action taken under the comprehensive plan was the convocation
of a peasant congress on March io, 1921.
At the conference the state of mind of the basic strata of the peasantrywas re-
vealed with extraordinaryclarity to be discontent with the workers'dictatorship.
A series of delegates condemned the new governmentas being not a coalition but
a governmentof workersover the peasantry.They felt that power should belong
primarilyto the peasant,who constitutesthe main strengthof the state.3'
Yet the congress obediently appealed to the rebels to end their struggle
because "it was playing into the hands of enemies of the working people." 32
Still more obediently, the delegates affirmed that STK propaganda had no
28
Ibid. Both other sources were vague in their chronology, and neither identified events
described as occurring in the spring of 19i2. Hence we must rely mainly on Antonov-
Ovseenko for the account of later developments in Tambov.
29Ibid., p. 12.
30Ibid., p. ii.
31Ibid., p. 15.
32Ibid., p. 13.
THE. TAMBOV REVOLT 507

influence in the countryside and declared the peasantry neutral "in the
struggle of Red against White." 33
"A fortnight of strengthening the Party" was declared in March. The
ranks were filled out with city comrades, who were given a cram course of
lectures on STK programs and partisan tactics and then sent as leaders of
sowing detachments or as village organizers to face the angry peasants. The
Cheka, also revitalized by new cadres, spread its network of informants
over the countryside, compiling a village-by-village list of partisans, STK
members, Vokhra agents, and "kulaks" (defined as anyone else the Cheka
considered undesirable). "Disorganizing elements" were weeded out of the
army ranks, and military discipline was restored.
Military occupation was carried out "exactly according to plan," with
fresh and experienced Red Army troops. Garrisons of infantry, each sup-
ported by a cavalry unit, were installed in those villages thought to be giv-
ing aid and comfort to Antonov's guerrillas. Political organizers were
thrown into these regions after the troops, while cavalry units tried to hunt
down the partisan bands holding out in the occupied zone. The "sowing
detachments" were also sent out but received little cooperation. Every ef-
fort was made to incite the poor peasants against the more prosperous; yet
the occupation forces had to resort to bribery to get any cooperation at all.
"The material goods necessary for rewarding the basically loyal population
... were given out and distributed." 34
To induce partisans to surrender voluntarily, a two-week amnesty was
announced. "Bandits" of the rank and file who appeared within the fort-
night were sent home without punishment, while "organizers" received
only light sentences. The amnesty was in general a failure. In the one dis-
trict where it had considerable effect, most of the 6ooo who surrendered
came unarmed. Most partisan groups remained united against efforts to
shatter their morale.
Although they succeeded in occupying rebel territory, the Soviet troops
failed to annihilate the partisans. At the end of March Antonov was able
to penetrate the occupied region with a small cavalry force. A series of
rapid and destructive raids soon forced the Red Army to retreat once more
from the countryside, and, after gaining an initial foothold, Bolshevik in-
fluence in the villages again disappeared. The partisans had been mortally
hurt, however, for many of their best units had been lost in the fighting.
The Red Army regrouped in short order, and at the end of April the rebels
were decisively beaten for the first time. "From the partisans were retaken
all the weapons lost to them earlier. The best of their forces were torn
apart, and they were again cut off from their base." 35
33Ibid., p. i6. The Tambov peasants, of course, knew the difference between the
partisans and the Whites. Since war had ended in late 1920 in Poland and the Crimea, the
only "Whites" left were peasant partisans in Tambov and elsewhere. The phrase was
probably forced down the throat of the peasant congress for the sake of its effect in other
parts of the country or abroad.
81 Ibid., p. 15.
35 Ibid.Fomichev described in detail the defeat and extermination of some of the
partisan bands who were cut off from their supplies and cornered by Red Army troops.
508 SLAVIC REVIEW

Such an ambitious assault on an exhausted and starving populace could


not but bring about a change of mood in the villages. After the announce-
ment of the single tax on grain on March 21 predatory food detachments
no longer roamed the countryside, although the food supply remained
critical. Peasants were encouraged to turn their attention to the spring
planting in the areas under Bolshevik control, and "the pull of peaceful
work and the absence of guilt in the eyes of the Soviet power" 36 stemmed
the tide of volunteers to the rebel bands. The villages were flooded with
such benevolent literature as the pamphlet What Lenin Said to the Tambov
Peasants, stressing abolition of food detachments, peasant conferences to
express the needs and desires of the villages, and the sowing campaign,
always accompanied by vehement exhortations to join "the peasant militia
for self-defense against the bandits." 37
The replacement of requisition detachments by "sowing detachments,"
the Peasant Congress, the amnesty, the public investigation of abuses, and
the propaganda were, of course, local applications of the New Economic
Policy proclaimed in Moscow on March 21, 1921. By themselves, however,
the NEP measures had little effect on the partisans. Suppression by force
remained the order of the day.
Determined occupation of the partisan base region by the "hard" Bol-
shevik garrison substantially reduced peasant aid to Antonov and greatly
weakened the fighting ability of the remaining rebel forces. As the hope-
lessness of opposing the Red Army became more and more clear, even the
most "kulak" elements began to falter. Peasants in some villages began to
resist the partisans and on occasion even collaborated with Soviet authori-
ties. "A good many of the most stubbornly rebellious villages recognized the
Soviet power on their own initiative at the beginning of May." 38
Nevertheless, it seems that the attitude of the peasantry remained
squarely on the side of the rebels in their unequal fight. Significantly,
peasant representatives voted against a Bolshevik-sponsored resolution call-
ing on Antonov and other rebel leaders to negotiate with the authorities.
The villages that did call on local partisans to surrender did so only in fear
of Bolshevik reprisals. Yet the countryside had been effectively "neutral-
ized," and, as active support dwindled, partisans were gradually forced into
the position of bandits, collecting food by forced requisitions of their own
and stealing horses from the diminishing number left in the area, raiding
first "Red" villages, then "neutrals."
'I Antonov-Ovseenko, p. 20.
37 Probably very few peasants participated in the operations against the partisans.
Many had been part-time guerrillas themselves, and none were eager to hunt their rela-
tives and fellow villagers. To the end the campaign remained in the eyes of peasants an
invasion of the countryside by the city. Of course, most Red Army soldiers sent against
the partisans were themselves of peasant origin. Because of earlier failures of Red Army
units to attack peasant partisans, coupled with a high rate of desertion and occasional
defection of whole units to the partisans, the troops sent to Tambov in the spring of 1921
were those most disciplined and hardened by campaigns against the Whites.
ss Ibid.
THE TAMBOV REVOLT 509

The partisans were not content to die a slow death by economic attrition.
They responded with terrorism, acting with the cruelty, heedlessness, and
frantic energy of a cornered beast. "Desperate efforts to strengthen their
position gave the bandits several incidental successes."39 In a typical en-
gagement the Red Army lost forty-five soldiers and four machine guns.
When Bolshevik troops were forced to surrender, partisan commanders
''consistently ordered the separation of the commanding cadres and of
Communists from the Red Army ranks. The soldiers were usually freed,
given a pass, and told to return to their homes. Commanders and all Com-
munists were killed after inhuman torture." 40
Bands attacked factories and barracks. The Karas' partisan brigade ripped
up the Tambov-Kirsanov railroad, burning stations and looting trains. As
the STK organization was broken, cutting off aid to the partisans, bands
began to terrorize the villages themselves. "Desertion committees" were
formed to punish those who refused to fight the Bolsheviks. To counteract
an order which empowered Soviet authorities to seize the families of parti-
sans as hostages and confiscate their property, the STK issued an order
applying exactly the same treatment to the families of Red soldiers as col-
laborators. Apparently the STK still had authority and legitimacy, for its
order was carried out. "The Red terror was harshly applied, but the bandit
terror was stronger still. The bandits slaughtered the families of Red sol-
diers by dozens." 41 Peasants, even if so inclined in the first place, were
afraid to collaborate with the Soviet authorities, and even Red Army
troops requested that they be allowed to leave the families of partisans
alone and abandon the "Red terror" in the face of the "White."
In May and June Tambov was swept up in a crescendo of fear and re-
prisal, as each side retaliated against the other with increasing violence and
cruelty. When the Bolshevik leaders discovered the depth and stubbornness
of the revolt, they decided "to redouble the Red terror in relation to the
bandits, their families, and those who conceal them." 42 Force was concen-
trated on key partisan strongholds, and there an extreme policy was en-
forced with implacable firmness. In many villages the peasants submitted
only when threatened with mass execution. In the villages singled out for
mass reprisal the entire male population was placed under arrest. The
families of suspected partisans were herded into concentration camps, and
if the "bandit" relative did not appear within two weeks, his family was
driven from the province and all its possessions were confiscated. Soldiers
went from door to door searching for weapons, and if any were found, the
eldest worker of the household was shot on the spot. These Draconian meas-
ures were carried out by Soviet officials cloaked with absolute authority,
total strangers to the peasants they condemned.
39Ibid.,p. 25.
40Ibid., p. 9. Again Fomichev corroborated Antonov-Ovseenko's generalization with the
unpleasant details.
41 Antonov-Ovseenko, p. 20.
42Ibid., p. 24.
510
I SLAVIC REVIEW

Resistance even in this hopeless situation-or because of it-was most


stubborn. In the holdout villages the distinction between partisan, hostage,
and ordinary peasant virtually disappeared. (This was, perhaps, back-
handed justice, for there had been little distinction when the countryside
first rose against the Bolsheviks.) Antonov-Ovseenko cited "an example of
the correct application of these orders, where Parevsk, a stubbornly bandit
volost, was broken by the firm application of the system of hostages, by the
public shooting of members of the bands and of hostages in groups until
they surrendered their arms." 43 Kamenka, the meeting place of the STK
central committee, refused any collaboration until all the men of the vil-
lage were about to be shot in a body. Most of the STK leaders were cap-
tured, and the network of STK committees was finally destroyed.
Against a backdrop of mass executions and burning villages, the Red
Army finally crushed the partisans. In June the first partisan "army"
("Boguslavskii's") and the second "army." ("Antonov's") were surrounded,
and in July the remnants were hunted down one by one and liquidated. In
the fighting no prisoners were taken.
With the guerrillas annihilated, the STK dispersed, and the rebellious
countryside terrorized into uneasy submission, Antonov-Ovseenko, never-
theless, pleaded for continued Bolshevik strength in Tambov. He noted
that few arms had been seized and hinted that both arms and partisans
were still hidden in the villages. The Party organization, though formally
resurrected, was unreliable. "Our Party has not planted deep roots in the
countryside and easily loses communication with it at the first outbreak of
revolt."44
The Tambov revolt was crushed by overwhelming military force and
mass terror. Direct military action was effective only when the peasantry
had been "neutralized" by terror, making it possible to hunt down the
partisans in the field. Terror secured a temporary and artificial change in
peasant attitude, a change lasting just long enough for the Red Army to
carry through its work of annihilation.
In the immediate context of 192i, hunger and sheer exhaustion quelled
active support for the partisans in the starving and devastated villages. The
instinctive pull of peaceful work on the land, encouraged by propaganda
and the abolition of the requisition detachments, undoubtedly caused many
peasants to turn from active rebellion to passive hostility. Yet the positive
incentives of the New Economic Policy had little relevance in the spring
and summer of 1921. Most villages could not meet the single tax in kind,
let alone contribute the extra grain for famine relief elsewhere that the
government required. The notion of selling surplus crops for personal
profit was at best a utopia and at worst a cruel joke. In peasant eyes, the
government remained a predator, and peasants remained unvaryingly hos-
tile to the Soviet dictatorship.
Recognizing the root of revolt in economic deprivation and realizing that
43 Ibid.
"Ibid., p. 32.
THE TAMBOV REVOLT 511

military occupation was an expedient, not a solution, Antonov-Ovseenko


begged the reluctant Moscow leaders for help in alleviating economic dis-
tress. Writing in July i92i that "it is necessary to establish once and for all
that Tambov Province is in a state of extreme disintegration," 4B the exas-
perated commander pleaded in vain, as famine began to stalk the villages,
that Tambov be struck from the list of grain-surplus provinces. He asked
that villages meeting only half their tax in kind be given a definite amount
of salt, kerosene, and manufactured goods, and warned that promises of
supplies must be met to restore even the slightest confidence in the Soviet
regime. Free buying of grain on evidence of need was permitted, and the
peasants were assured that local needs would have priority at the distribu-
tion of the harvest.
Antonov-Ovseenko assessed the character of the peasant movement very
well:
Their economic concernsdid not and do not lead them far from the outskirtsof
their village. The movement they raised inevitably carried an uncoordinatedand
local characterand does not place itself at the head of a defined programof govern-
ment to establisha bourgeois-democratic regime.
The masses fought the "Soviet power"
only on the grounds of their dissatisfactionwith certain aspects [of policy] which
can be reformed,but not on the groundsof the existence of this power. Their past
wavering between proletarian power and bourgeois democracycan be decided
in favorof supportof the proletariatby the correctapproachto peasantneed.46
The two revolutions, of the peasant-seeking land and well-being-and
of the Party-seeking state power-clashed during the first years of Soviet
rule, but neither side emerged a clear victor from the struggle. The Bolshe-
viks managed to preserve the political control they had so boldly seized in
the Red October. In the countryside open revolt had been suppressed by
the Red Army. Yet all Bolshevik efforts to get the grain by force had failed,
and economic power remained with the mass of peasants in their villages.
The New Economic Policy with its concessions legitimized this separation
of economic and political power, the "peaceful coexistence" of the two
revolutions.
Just as they brought little change in the balance of revolutionary power,
the first years of Soviet rule only intensified the pre-existing mutually hos-
tile attitudes of Party and peasant. The Russian peasant of 1922 lived in a
world little different from that of 1914, with the one significant difference
that he was much poorer. Illiterate, cut off by time and distance from the
towns, the peasants did not comprehend the idealism of Russia's new mas-
ters. The state remained a feared and hated tax collector, perhaps more to
be mistrusted for its pretended benevolence. The Party, on the other hand,
maintained its ambivalence toward the peasantry. Peasant cooperation was
still essential; yet the Party was, as always, committed to collective agricul-
" Ibid., p. 30.
Olbid., p. 32.
512 SLAVIC REVIEW

ture and to the eradication of that peasant way of life which embodied for
the Bolsheviks the sluggishness, stupidity, and moral degradation of old
Russia. The Bolsheviks had been badly frightened by the peasant revolts,
and fear of a political awakening in the "dark" and "mute" villages added
urgency to hostility.
An uneasy equilibrium descended on the Tambov countryside. The peas-
ants, left to themselves to till the land and sell the grain, gave little thought
to challenging the political rule of the Party during the prosperous years
of NEP. After the defeat of the peasant partisans in 192o-21, they were not
to have another chance. The Party licked its wounds and consolidated its
forces. With the rejection of Bukharin's policy of permanent accommoda-
tion, the final outcome of the "class war" was never in doubt.