Formation of the U.S.S.R.: Deferring the Revolution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

After Soviet Hungary and then Soviet Bavaria failed, the Communists had to deal with internal dissent, and with the reality that the revolution was deferred. This was the time for Russia to look inwards and consolidate.

Image shows a man battling a snake representing Bolsheviks.
The failure of the Soviet Republics in Hungary and Bavaria resulted in a reaction against Communism. Propaganda posters, such as the German one above, represented Bolsheviks in a negative light. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Reactions to Communism

Some opponents of the failed regimes in Hungary and Bavaria used the Jewish family origins of some prominent revolutionaries to assert a concept of ‘Judeo‐Bolshevism’. This was the claim that Jews and Communists were one and the same.

This was false and a slander, ignoring the fact that these revolutionaries had deliberately rejected both the traditions of their ancestry as well as any religious faith. In fact, the class enemies they targeted, the bourgeoisie, also included many Jews. Nonetheless, this false equivalency would often be asserted and later became a core belief of the Nazis. The second point has to do with questions of nationalism.

Strangely enough, Béla Kun’s Soviet Hungary actually sold itself to Hungarian nationalists as the one true defender of national sovereignty and national interests and won some support on this score. Here, we see the beginnings of a longer and more convoluted relationship between Communists in power and nationalism as a theme.

The Soviet‐Polish War of 1920

If the failed attempts at Sovietizing Hungary and Bavaria were disappointing, the remaining Bolshevik hopes were then dashed in the Soviet‐Polish War of 1920. In that war, the Red Army hoped to advance westwards and link up with Germany. That meant conflict with Poland, which had just regained its independence after the First World War.

Russian Bolsheviks assumed that Polish peasants and workers would support the Red Army, to overthrow rich Polish landlords and owners. Indeed, by the summer of 1920, the Red Army was on the Vistula River, but was then held back by Polish forces in front of Warsaw, in a remarkable popular and nationalist mobilization.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, Wondrium.

This is remembered by Poles as the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’. The Poles counterattacked and drove the Red Army back eastwards. After a ceasefire in the fall, a peace treaty followed in 1921. The receding of hopes for revolution in the west to link up with was a bitter realization for Lenin.

Learn more about how several decisive battles were key turning points for Eastern Europe.

The Kronstadt Mutiny

The bitterness grew with the mutiny by Soviet sailors at the Kronstadt garrison outside Petrograd. Earlier the most ardent supporters of Lenin, these sailors revolted in February 1921, against the one‐party rule of Lenin. The sailors demanded that civil liberties be restored, and that a new Constituent Assembly be elected for the country.

In the lead‐up to Red October, it had been these sailors from Kronstadt who had demanded a radical seizure of power, and Trotsky had calmed them down, calling them the pride and glory of the revolution.

Now the same Trotsky directed the attack that crushed them. The leaders were shot, their followers imprisoned in camps. Kronstadt now became synonymous with a huge reverse, and with disillusionment, given that the revolutionaries were suppressing their own.

A black and white image showing sailors that revolted against Lenin.
The Kronstadt mutineers were punished by tribunals and severely punished. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Lenin’s New Economic Policy and the Creation of the U.S.S.R.

Lenin reacted to this crisis, and the dire economic situation in the country, with another strategic retreat resembling the Treaty of Brest‐Litovsk to gain breathing space. Even as the Kronstadt revolt was being put down, a New Economic Policy, or NEP, was announced, eliminating requisitions and allowing some free enterprise on a small scale.

The government still retained control of heavy industry, as the so‐called ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. This temporary measure allowed for a surprising level of recovery but stirred worries among Communists.

The declaration and treaty in the creation of the U.S.S.R., with signatures.
The declaration and treaty on the creation of the U.S.S.R. was signed in 1922. (Image: Government Agencies/Public domain)

A final measure which acknowledged the delay in the hoped‐for international revolution was, paradoxically, the very founding of the U.S.S.R. The failure to establish a red bridge meant that the Communists in Moscow needed to organize for the long haul. They certainly did not give up on worldwide revolution but saw it as more distant.

So, instead of presiding over the withering away of the state, they founded a new one: the U.S.S.R., The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was founded on December 30, 1922.

Learn more about Eastern Europe’s remarkable diversity, it shifting borders, and its separateness from the West.

Negotiating with Capitalist Countries

Even with hopes deferred, Lenin and the Communists prioritized useful expedients that seemed worth trying, for the sake of survival. Thus, in international politics, they followed a double‐track approach: seeking to subvert capitalist countries, while also negotiating and trading.

In 1921, Britain signed a trade agreement with Soviet Russia, and more agreements with other countries and diplomatic recognition for the Soviet Union followed.

But, the Comintern at this time wanted to encourage another revolution in Germany. Germany was reeling economically because of the Ruhr Crisis, in which the French occupied Germany’s industrial heartland to compel the payment of war reparations.

The Failed Experiment in Germany

The Comintern now sent Radek in as their expert on Germany. Radek tried to encourage working with German nationalists to construct a new fusion, ‘National Bolshevism’. The idea was to unite these earlier foes, communists and nationalists.

The idea was to reach out to the same German nationalists who had recently killed Rosa Luxemburg and so many other German communists. This led, in June 1923, to a strange speech by Radek that praised a dead Freikorps fighter and associate of the new Nazi movement, Leo Schlageter, who had been executed by the French.

In the final analysis, not much came of this, and a communist uprising in Hamburg was crushed in three days.

Meanwhile, despite its deferred dreams of worldwide revolution, the new Soviet regime set about building a new civilization within its state, through social experiment. It was an unprecedented experiment in politics and would last 69 years, until 1991.

Common Questions about the Formation of the U.S.S.R.

Q. What was the result of the Soviet‐Polish War of 1920?

The Soviet‐Polish War of 1920 ended with the defeat of the Red Army in front of Warsaw, which the Polish army called the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’.

Q. What was the the Kronstadt Mutiny?

The Kronstadt Mutiny was a revolt by a group of sailors at the Kronstadt garrison outside Petrograd. They wanted civil liberties to be restored, and that a new Constituent Assembly be elected.

Q. What was Lenin’s New Economic Policy?

The New Economic Policy eliminated requisitions and allowed some free enterprise on a small scale. The government still retained control of heavy industry, as the so‐called ‘commanding heights’ of the economy.

Q. What was it that necessitated the formation of the U.S.S.R.?

The formation of the U.S.S.R. was the only solution left for the Bolsheviks after the failure of the Soviet Republics of Hungary and Bavaria. The new Soviet regime set about building a new civilization within its state, through social experiment. It was an unprecedented experiment in politics and would last 69 years, until 1991.

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