It is common knowledge that the history of the Soviet state has been rewritten more than once. Certain episodes were distorted with particular thoroughness. Among the latter is the rather obscure history of the revolt of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) on July 6, 1918. This is the first link in the chain of events that culminated in the transformation of the Soviet power into a Bolshevik dictatorship.
During the Brezhnev era, the Russian playwright Mikhail Shatrov wrote a play that was later adapted to the screen, in which he sought to describe the clash of the two Soviet parties in Moscow. But both the play and the film offer an incomplete and not always historically correct picture of those events — and only from the Bolshevik viewpoint. More to the point, a literary work is not a historical work. Soviet historians assigned the Left SRs the role of foolhardy adventurists in the pay of the Entente’s secret services, while the true background of events was either carefully hushed up or distorted in the spirit of the Short Course of the History of the CPSU .
A CRISIS IN THEBOLSHEVIK LEADERSHIP
The canonized history of the October coup unequivocally interprets the events of October- November 1917 as a victory of the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin. Very seldom and too reluctantly was it mentioned that the power was initially held by a series of coalition governments that were not exclusively Bolshevik. Some commissars (ministers), including those who were responsible for justice and land management, were Left Socialist Revolutionaries. But even if a Soviet commissar was a Bolshevik, his deputy represented the Left SRs. The Bolsheviks and the Left SRs had a majority at the 2nd Congress of Soviets, where Lenin proclaimed Soviet power. Since neither of the parties held a majority, the Bolsheviks had to cooperate with the other Soviet party.
At first, both parties worked harmoniously, especially in the struggle against the Right SRs, Mensheviks, and anarchists. The two parties shared the same views on the nationalities question. The Left SR Mikhail Muravev commanded the Soviet troops that advanced on Kyiv. It was he who unleashed a bloodbath in the Ukrainian capital in January 1918, which claimed thousands of lives. But serious differences connected to foreign policy questions began to appear as early the winter of 1917 and the spring of 1918. The Left SRs and the Left Communists within the Bolshevik Party categorically opposed the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
But the foreign-policy conflict was only a pretext. In fact, the contradictions went much deeper. The tense relations between the two Soviet parties mirrored the acute struggle that was taking place inside the Bolshevik Party. By the time the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, two strong groups had emerged: Lenin and the members of his inner circle, who had made certain commitments to Berlin, and those who endorsed the idea of relying on the Entente countries. Besides Lenin, the former included Zinoviev, Kamenev, Sverdlov and, later, Stalin.
The latter consisted of such well-known party activists as Bukharin, Dzerzhinsky, Radek, Kollontai, Kosior, Uritsky, Frunze, and others. Trotsky formally belonged to neither group, but his performance in the post of People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs showed that he in fact gravitated to the latter. It was Trotsky who sanctioned the landing of a British expeditionary force in Murmansk and, later, Arkhangelsk because there was a real danger that the Germans would seize these two important ports. Later, however, Trotsky joined Lenin’s group.
After signing the peace treaty with Germany, Lenin had to carry on a bitter struggle over the ratification of the peace treaty with his own party’s left wing at the 7th (unscheduled) Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the 4th Extraordinary Congress of Soviets. Contrary to the legend spun by Stalinist propagandists, the struggle was basically waged inside the Bolshevik Party. A considerable part of the Left SR leadership, headed by Maria Spiridonova, supported Lenin. The Left SRs did not oppose the treaty itself but its predatory terms.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk failed not only to ease the situation in the country but also to provide the “respite” that the Bolsheviks leaders had promised. Industry practically ground to a halt as a result of ill-considered nationalization. Production and the normal commodity and money exchange were thrown into disorder. The market was ruined, and peasants stopped bringing produce to cities. Even simple bartering became impossible, and the chaos in cities was absolute. Transportation was also paralyzed, making it impossible to move surplus food from the Volga region, Western Siberia, or the Northern Caucasus to central Russia.
Meanwhile, on the eve of the signing of the treaty, Lenin began to quickly lose his ground in the leadership. At the same time, Yakov Sverdlov, the chairman of the All- Union Central Executive Committee (the formal head of state — Ed. ) began to noticeably strengthen his positions. He was increasingly outshining Lenin at various congresses and conferences. In one case, Sverdlov presided over the 7th party congress, during which he read out the Central Committee’s report.
An even more telling episode occurred during a meeting of the Central Committee on June 26, 1918, which discussed the submission of the draft Constitution of the RSFSR to the 5th Congress of Soviets. Initially, the committee pronounced the work of the commission (in fact, Sverdlov) as unsatisfactory. Lenin and his followers proposed “taking this question off the congress agenda.” But despite the real state of affairs with regard to the draft Constitution, Sverdlov “insisted that the question be retained.” In other words, Sverdlov came out against Lenin and the other members of the Central Committee, and won.
One of the causes of the rivalry between the two Bolshevik leaders may have been the friction between the agencies they headed — the Council of People’s Commissars (SNK) and the All-Union Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) — or, in modern parlance, the struggle between the executive and legislative branches of power. In any case, when the draft Constitution was being discussed in the spring of 1918, the Sverdlov-controlled members of VTsIK called for the complete abolition of the SNK.
Sverdlov made similar calls at the 5th All-Russian Congress of Soviets. He alleged that the SNK was a VTsIK body, and that there was a clear tendency of commissariats turning into departments of the latter. The problem of Lenin and Sverdlov’s relations eased somewhat in July, during the revolt of the Left SRs, but later flared up again more acutely.
The confusion and internecine struggle within the Bolshevik leadership also affected the overall situation in the party. On May 29 the CC RCP(B) was forced to publish a circular letter to all party committees in Pravda , which pointed out that the situation in the Bolshevik Party was very serious, its membership was dwindling, the quality of its party cadres was worsening, the incidence of internal conflicts was very high, and discipline was low. The party’s membership had dropped from 240,000 in the fall of 1917 to 170,000 in March 1918, and this trend was continuing.
In contrast, the membership of the Left SRs increased from 62,000 in April to 80,000 in July. This was a considerable increase, and it was particularly disastrous for the Bolsheviks because it had taken place at the expense of the RCP(B). The “civil war against the peasants,” which Trotsky had declared, and the creation of so-called committees of poor peasants stirred up resistance among the peasants. The Left SRs, who represented their interests, also opposed Lenin and Trotsky’s policy.
The Bolsheviks, who were losing popularity rapidly, were also alarmed by the possibility that the Left SRs might emerge as a majority party at the 5th All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The only reason that this did not happen is because the administrative resource was tapped. The Bolsheviks had set a representation quota for cities that was several times higher than for rural districts. But there was not a single guarantee that this ploy would work at the next congress slated for November.
Another bone of contention was the role of the soviets, inasmuch as both parties had staged the October coup under the slogan “All power to the soviets!” Now it was clear that the Soviet coalition partners had diametrically opposing views on the role of the soviets. The Bolsheviks saw them as an appendage to the party apparatus and demanded that they be strictly subordinated to party organizations. The Left SRs stood for the supremacy of the soviets and their independence from parties, a clear separation of the powers of central bodies, and the maximum possible increase of the rights and possibilities of the latter.
The position of the Left SRs in fact coincided with that of a number of pivotal regional Bolshevik Party committees and the soviets that they controlled. Especially stiff resistance to the centralist tendencies emerged in Moscow oblast, which at the time united 14 gubernias of central Russia. In March 1918 the 4th Oblast Congress of Soviets formed an executive body called the Moscow Oblast Council of People’s Commissars, which immediately opposed the “big” Council of People’s Commissars.
This was not an isolated example. Lenin and Trotsky were well aware that a genuine system of soviets was dangerous because it carried a strong democratic message, and the time might come when the Bolsheviks would lose power. They could not accept this by definition, so a clash with the Left SRs was inevitable.
The Bolsheviks’ foreign ally — Germany — was also vacillating. In his last letter of June 25, 1918, to the German State Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Richard von Kuehlmann, Germany’s ambassador in Moscow Count Wilhelm von Mirbach-Harff wrote that he could not “give a positive diagnosis to Bolshevism. We are undoubtedly standing at the bedside of a gravely sick person who...is doomed.”
The Soviet government was also aware of the change in the Germans’ mood. It was no accident that, once Berlin and the German Embassy in Moscow began the preparations for changing the course of Germany’s eastern policies, a counterintelligence section targeting the German Embassy was formed in the most important department for the struggle against counterrevolution within the notorious VChK (Cheka: secret police) headed by Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Left Communist who opposed the Brest- Litovsk Treaty. The German counter-espionage section was headed by Yakov Bliumkin, and it employed Nikolai Andreev as a photographer. Count Mirbach, the German ambassador, was spotted making contact with the Right SRs and the Mensheviks. This was reported by Soviet agents, who had been planted in the Germany Embassy by the Cheka. There was no time to be lost.
In late June 1918 the Central Committee of the Left SRs resolved to carry out a series of terrorist acts against well-known German officials, including some in Ukraine and the Baltic region. A similar decision was made concurrently with regard to the Bolshevik leaders. But it was suggested that these acts be carried out only after the Central Committee of the Left SRs adopted one more decision. This was not done because the committee did not meet until July 6 and, hence, had not approved any list of assassination targets. Interestingly, Soviet historians always cited the June resolution without ever making it public because there was nothing in the text that would corroborate accusations against the Bolsheviks’ former allies. The Left SRs were accused of intentions, not of actions.
For some time the general threat united the warring factions in the RCP(B). It was impossible to check the Left SRs’ growing influence in a democratic way, and it was not Lenin’s style to go into opposition.
Although the story behind the assassination of Count Mirbach by the Left SRs Bliumkin and Andreev has been told many times, the accounts leave a lot of questions unanswered. To start with, Bliumkin testified that he had received the assignment and the bomb from “a Central Committee member.” For some reason, investigators were not interested in the identity of that individual, even though it was an anti-state act and every detail, even a minor one at first glance, could be of paramount importance. In all likelihood, the investigators were not interested either because they already knew about that “Central Committee member” or because he was from “the wrong” Central Committee.
Dzerzhinsky’s behavior was also puzzling. As soon as he learned of the successful attempt on Mirbach’s life, he went to the secret police detachment commanded by Popov, who was a Left SR. He walked in alone, without any guards, right into “the lion’s den,” despite his experience as a former underground fighter and the chief of the secret police. Dzerzhinsky stayed there for the entire duration of the revolt, but it is not clear in what capacity: captive or guest.
Anatolii Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar for Education, attested to the fact that Lenin knew about the plans to assassinate Mirbach. In Lunacharsky’s presence, immediately after the assassination Lenin issued an order by telephone, “Search for them, search very thoroughly, but...do not find them.” Later, in the mid-1920s, Bliumkin said in a private conversation with his house neighbor Natalia Lunacharskaia-Rosenel, Lunacharsky’s wife, in the presence of her cousin Tatiana Satz, that Lenin was very well informed about the plan to assassinate Mirbach.
Although Bliumkin never talked about this matter with the Bolshevik leader, he discussed it in detail with Dzerzhinsky. Otto Kuusinen, a well- known Comintern figure, also talked to his wife Aino about the Mirbach assassination. When Lenin was about to go to the German Embassy and offer his condolences, as protocol required, he joked, “I have already told Radek: I wanted to say ‘Mitleid’ instead of ‘Beileid,’” and he laughed at his own joke. These are synonymous German words that can be translated as “sympathy,” but while the former usually means “complicity,” the latter means “sympathy.”
In his memoirs Joachim Vacetis, the commander of the Latvian Riflemen, wrote: “Did anybody know in Moscow that a revolt was in the offing, and were there any concrete instructions about this? I can answer this question in an absolutely affirmative way.”
Further proof that the revolt of the Left SRs was carefully planned was the way guards were organized for the Bolshoi Theater, where the Congress of Soviets was to be held. It was impossible to reject the Left SRs’ demand to participate in the guard duty, but the Latvian Riflemen, who had been moved to Moscow in good time, were stationed in such a way that they could fully control their erstwhile allies and, if necessary, to neutralize them. On June 18 Vacetis ordered the commander of the 2nd Regiment to place the unit on full alert and install a machine-gun battalion at the disposal of Moscow’s military commissariat. A short time later another, third, regiment of the Latvian Division was relocated to Moscow from the south. The Latvian Riflemen - the Bolsheviks’ mainstay - were billeted in summer camps outside Moscow, a routine practice at the time.
Further events showed that these preparations were not observed by the Left SRs, although there were experienced military people among them. They did not seem to be planning anything special.
Even the so-called revolt looked more like a bad operetta. Nobody was going to overthrow the Soviet power. The Left SRs announced that they merely opposed the SNK’s policies. After gaining a numerical advantage in the first hours of the rebellion, they only managed to seize the telegraph office and the Cheka premises, and then waited passively for the Bolsheviks to concentrate their forces.
As the uprising began, the Central Committee of the Left SRs moved to the special-purpose security detachment in Moscow, commanded by Dmitry Popov, whose senior officers were also Left SRs. The detachment consisted mostly of sailors who condemned the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and what amounted to the destruction of the Black Sea Fleet. At 6 a.m. on July 7 the villa where Popov’s unit and the bulk of the Left SRs were stationed came under artillery fire. As the 5th All-Russian Congress of Soviets was underway, the members of the Left SR faction headed by Maria Spiridonova were arrested right in the hall of the Bolshoi Theater.
With direct fire raining down from 15 guns, the Bolsheviks demolished the neighborhood where the Left SRs had dug themselves in. They began retreating from their emplacements, and the Bolsheviks quickly destroyed or disarmed their small units. The revolt of the Left SRs was crushed by 5 p.m. on July 7. The events in Moscow were closely linked with the mutiny of the Left SR Muravev, the commander in chief of the Eastern Front, who tried to support his comrades in Moscow. He was killed when he was being placed under arrest.
For a long time echoes of the revolt reverberated throughout the country. In Valuiky, Kharkiv oblast, a Left SR Central Insurrectionary Headquarters and the Eastern Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army were established as an alternative to the Red command. The army was composed of two regiments. A public message addressed to the rebels urged them to ignore the orders of their Bolshevik commanders and commissars. The Left SRs appealed to the populace to resist the Soviet authorities and the food requisition squads. The rebels held out for six months and even organized their own Ukrainian government in December 1918. But they crumbled under the combined pressure of both the Whites and the Reds, with some defecting to Nestor Makhno.
Soon after, 13 rebel leaders were shot and Popov, who was sentenced to death in absentia, found refuge in Makhno’s army. The revolt claimed the lives of two Bolsheviks, the German Ambassador, and fourteen Left SRs. Yakov Bliumkin, who was sentenced to death for assassinating Count Mirbach, continued serving in his beloved Cheka/OGPU, later carrying out top-secret missions in Palestine, Tibet, Iran, and Turkey.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia devoted more than 30 lines to him. Sergei Yesenin dedicated some poems to Bliumkin, and Valentin Kataev vested Naum Besstrashny, the hero of his novella Verter Is Already Written , with Bliumkin’s character traits and physical features. Bliumkin’s connection with Trotsky proved to be his undoing. He was arrested in late 1929 on a tip from his lover Liza Gorskaia, later the famous Soviet intelligence agent Yelizaveta Zarubina, after handing over a large sum of money to Trotsky. He was shot immediately after his trial.
The liberal attitude of Dzerzhinsky, the “knight of the Revolution,” to his subordinate is very illustrative, because he was much tougher on Bliumkin’s comrades. All the members of the Left SR party were subject to arrest under the personal responsibility of the heads of regional security service and executive committees. What is most interesting is that lists with their names had been drawn up well in advance by special units of the secret police.
The leader of the Left SR Party, Maria Spiridonova, was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, but she was amnestied in late 1918. After working as an accountant for a time, she was fated to relive her prison ordeal several times over. She was tried in 1923, 1937, and 1941, and executed in Orel in October 1941. Even the Left SRs who had collaborated with the Bolsheviks - Andrei Kolegaev and Mark Natanson - were shot in 1937.
The defeat of the Party of Left Socialist Revolutionaries was the culmination of the short-lived rule of the soviets in Russia.