Russia 1918 to 1921

Russia by 1918 appeared to be in the hands of the communists (the Bolshevik Party) led by Lenin. The Provisional Government had been overthrown and the Bolsheviks had appeared to have gained power in Russia and that the country’s problems seemed to be over. In fact, those problems had only just begun.

Lenin controlled just a strip of land that ran form Petrograd to Moscow. He did not control any other area in this vast country. There were also many people who hated the thought of communists having control over them. There were also many who wanted the tsar back in power. All the groups that opposed Lenin were called the Whites. A civil war broke out in Russia with the Whites fighting to get rid of the Reds – the Communists. Russia was also still in World War One.

Lenin’s problems =

limited control of Russian territory many groups against his rule still in World War One

By 1921, Lenin had come through all of these problems and was the head of a communist government in Russia. How did this come about?

1. He pulled Russia out of the war with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed in March 1918. This was a cruel treaty which the Russians had to sign. Trotsky was given the task of negotiating with the Germans. Russia was to loose a great deal of land which included 60 million people to the Germans. The land also included 25% of her farming land and 75% of her iron ore and coal deposits. But the treaty got Russia out of the war and allowed Lenin the time to concentrate on home issues. (Note : remember this treaty when looking at Versailles and how harsh Versailles appeared to be. Many thought that if the Germans were willing to hand it out, they should be willing to take similar punishment.)

2. The forces that were against Lenin in the civil war were never a united group. Each had its own reason for fighting the communists and the groups that fought the Reds never united into one large army. As such, the Red Army lead by Trotsky, could pick them off one by one. Also the communists held the 2 most important cities in Russia (Moscow and Petrograd) with all the main communication centres in them including rail lines etc. Trotsky also used ex-tsarist officers who had experience in leading men and fighting battles. Their skill was to prove invaluable and there were 50,000 of them. Trotsky was also a brilliant leader who instilled into his men a belief in what they were fighting for. Discipline was harsh. If a unit performed badly in battle, its leader was shot and the men sent to prison. The Reds also treated the people very well – they were ordered to do this – while the Whites frequently abused those who lived in areas that they were in. The Reds were usually seen as liberators when they advanced to an area where the Whites had been. The peasants were also promised land by the Reds while the Whites promised to restore land back to its original owner.

Using these tactics of picking off one White army and winning the support of the people, the Reds claimed victory in 1921. With the Whites out of Russia or dead, Lenin now had Russia under his control.

Any problems were dealt with by the Cheka – the feared communist secret police. They had used what was known as the Red Terror during the civil war to keep people in order. To survive during the civil war, Lenin introduced War Communism. What was this?

In the factories, the government took complete control. The workers who had been given to right to run factories, had that right taken away. Managers ran them and discipline was strict. Food was rationed. Workers and soldiers received the most while civil servants received little. The workers had to do what the government said they had to – just as in the days of the tsar!

In the countryside, the Cheka was sent out to take food from the peasant farmers. Anybody found keeping food from others was shot. The peasants responded by producing food only for themselves and so the cities were more short of food than before. Life under Lenin appeared to be worse than under Nicholas II!

The civil war had devastated Russia’s economy. People survived by doing whatever they could – there was a great increase in robberies and law and order was on the verge of breaking down. Agriculture had been ruined by the war and in 1921, after a drought, there was a terrible famine. Five million people died as a result of this. Cannibalism was common amongst those who survived. Every part of industry was at a worse level than it had been in 1913 :


1913 1921
Grain 80 mill tons 37.6 mill tons
Coal 29 mill tons 9 mill tons
Oil 9.2 mill tons 3.8 mill tons
Iron 4.2 mill tons 0.1 mill tons
Steel 4.3 mill tons 0.2 mill tons
Sugar 1.3 mill tons 0.05 mill tons
Electricity 2039 mill kW 520 mill kW


By 1921, opposition to Lenin had grown. The country was in a disastrous stare when compared to the state it had been in under the tsar. Workers formed themselves into Workers’ Opposition demanding a) higher wages b) more food and c) the return of workers control of industry. These were the same workers who had supported Lenin in 1917 !!

Also sailors at a base near Petrograd rose up against the communist government. The base was called Kronstadt. It needed 20,000 soldiers from the Red Army to put down the rising and those sailors who had surrendered were executed. This uprising deeply upset the government as sailors had always been seen as loyal supporters of the communists.

Lenin knew that he had to change the economy if he was to survive. In 1921, War Communism was scrapped and the New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced. The NEP had 4 main features :

The taking of grain by the Cheka was stopped. The peasant farmers would have to give to the government a set amount of grain each year in tax but if they produced any extra they could sell it in the open market and make money.
Traders could buy and sell. This had been illegal under War Communism.
Small factories producing things which the people could buy but were not essential to life, were returned to their original owner. They could sell goods and make a profit.
Larger factories producing essential items remained under the control of the government.

Did the NEP work? Russia was better off generally by 1928 when it ended but not by much. After the devastation of the First World War (1914 to 1918) and then the civil war (1918 to 1921), one would have expected the figures for industry to have improved but there were still major problems. Unemployment was high, crime was high, some peasants were rich but many were very poor. By 1926, Russia had reached production levels of 1914 but there were many problems still to solve.

Lenin died in 1924 of a stroke. Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in his honour – its third name change.