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The Soviet Union After World War I

The Soviet Union After World War I

Chronologically, Soviet history began on November 7, 1917, when the Russian Revolution culminated in the assumption of state power by the Congress of Soviets, led by the Bolshevik party under Lenin. After proclaiming itself the repository of governmental authority, the congress immediately issued decrees calling for the withdrawal of Russia from World War I, for the nationalization of all land, and for the formation of a Council of People's Commissars to act as the executive branch of government. On November 15, 1917, the Soviets granted the rights of equality and self-determination to all the numerous national groups inhabiting the territory of the former Russian Empire. The first nation to take advantage of this opportunity was Finland, where a national government was established, and its independence from Soviet rule was recognized. In another early decree, the Soviet government proclaimed the separation of church and state: although granting religious freedom to the individual, the state itself opposed organized religion. The fundamental policies contained in these and other decrees were incorporated into the first Soviet constitution, adopted in July 1918.

Peace Treaty

Peace negotiations with Germany were initiated in December 1917. The peace terms presented by the Germans in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (now Brest) proved unacceptable, and negotiations were broken off in February 1918. A new German offensive, however, persuaded the Soviet leaders to reopen the talks, and early in March the treaty was concluded. By its terms the separation of the Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states from the Soviet Union was recognized, and the Soviet government was compelled to pay heavy indemnities to Germany. Lenin considered the treaty essential to the Soviet cause, despite its severity, because it gave the government time to consolidate its power; in addition, the Bolshevik leader believed proletarian revolutions were imminent in other European countries. Although such revolts did break out later in several countries, notably in Germany and Hungary, the uprisings there were unsuccessful, and the Soviet government remained the only government proclaiming the establishment of socialism as its goal.

The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk led to a schism within the Soviet government.

The Left Social Revolutionary party, which had been collaborating with the Bolsheviks, declared the treaty a betrayal of the cause of the revolution and withdrew from the government. Relying upon their traditional methods of political struggle, the Left Social Revolutionaries assassinated the German ambassador in Moscow, in the vain hope of stirring the Germans to renew hostilities. They also made attempts on the lives of several Bolshevik leaders. Lenin was severely wounded by one of the terrorists, receiving an injury that contributed to his early death. The Bolsheviks, in return, launched the so-called Red Terror, suppressing the Left Social Revolutionary party and executing many political opponents. Other minority parties and factions were gradually eliminated by the Bolsheviks, and the Soviet Union emerged as a one-party state.

Civil War

Bolshevik political, economic, and social policies led to civil war and foreign intervention. In Siberia, a force of 45,000 Czech former prisoners of war, who had been armed by the tsarist government to fight against Germany, launched a campaign against the Soviet authorities. Murmansk and Arkhangel'sk, the principal cities of Russia's far north, were occupied by Allied forces. Japanese forces occupied Vladivostok, and an American expeditionary force landed in that city. White Russia (an area approximately equivalent to present-day Belarus), the Ukraine, and the Caucasus were occupied by the Germans. In the autumn of 1918 Admiral Aleksandr V. Kolchak, commanding a large anti-Bolshevik force, proclaimed himself "supreme ruler of Russia" and established his capital at Omsk in Siberia. Early in 1919 a powerful attack on the Soviet forces was launched from the Ukraine by a large White (that is, anti-Bolshevik) army commanded by General Anton I. Denikin. Another White army, under General Nikolay N. Yudenich, advanced on Petrograd (now St Petersburg). Despite a series of initial reverses, the Bolsheviks succeeded in repelling these attacks by early 1920. In April of that year a new campaign was launched by the Polish army, with some help from Belorussian troops commanded by Baron Pyotr N. Wrangel. Two months later the Soviet forces, which had been reorganized and renamed the Red Army early in 1918, began a counter-offensive. The war with Poland ended with the signing in March 1921 of the Treaty of Riga, by which certain western areas of White Russia and of the Ukraine were ceded to Poland.

With the expulsion of the Japanese occupation forces from eastern Siberia late in 1922, the period of civil war and foreign intervention came to an end, and the Soviet regime was no longer in immediate danger.

The Bolsheviks triumphed in the civil war and against foreign intervention because of their determination, organization, and good leadership, especially that of Lenin and Leon Trotsky, because of disunity among their opponents, and because the peoples of the intervening countries refused to support further fighting.
Bolshevik economic policy during the civil war period entailed the rapid nationalization of industry and transport, and the ruthless confiscation of all supplies and equipment needed for military purposes left the national economy completely exhausted. With hostilities ended and Soviet rule consolidated, the government faced the necessity of restoring the economy. Trotsky and certain other leaders favoured extending the rigid wartime policies and continuing forced progress towards communism. Lenin chose a different course: reduction of the heavy wartime requisitions of produce from the peasants, in order to stimulate food production, and temporary relaxation of controls over industry and trade, permitting growth of small capitalist enterprises, in order to increase production. Lenin's so-called New Economic Policy was adopted in March 1921 by the Russian Communist party, as the Bolsheviks called themselves after 1918.

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