Faction and Opposition in the 1920s


Opposition and the Consolidation of Power

From their earlier days in power, the Bolsheviks faces three types of 'opposition':

  • From other political groups on the right and left of politics.
  • From their many opponents throughout the Empire, from other tsarist officers to capricious peasants who were ultimately to resist the regime militarily. 
  • From the ideological 'opposition' (more than perceived than real), the bourgeoisie, and upper classes of society against whom the Bolsheviks had fought.
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Which opposition was Lenin's first concern?

Political opposition in Petrograd. The Menshevik and SR opposition in the Soviet Congress of October 1917 destroyed themselves by their walkout, leaving the Bolsheviks with a monopoly of power. On the 27th October, Sovnarkom banned the opposition press, and ordered the arrest of Kadet, Menshevi and SR leaders. Over the next month, the Bolsheviks skilfully avoided pressure (from striking railwaymen) for a coalition government. So many political prisoners were put in the capital's gaols that criminals had to be released to accomodate them. 

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The Cheka

The establishment of the Cheka, under 'Iron' Felix Dzerzhinsky in December 1917, was a sign of the new regime's determination to destroy its opponents. Combined with the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly and the extension of the Red Army to deal with rebellion, it soon became clear that the Bolshevik state would do all in its power to destroy all enemies, be they political, military or ideological. 

In 1918, the Cheka established its Moscow base in the Lubianka (former insurance company) building. This housed a prison, leading to the joke that it was the tallest building in Moscow, since Siberia could be seen from its basement. The Cheka controlled units of the Red Guard and military. Most provinces had their own Cheka branch, with officials reporting directly to Lenin and the Politburo. 

From 1922, the Cheka was renamed the GPU and in 1923, the OGPU (Joint State Political Directoriate). From 1934 to 1943, it was placed under the control of the NKVD (the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs). It was therefore often referred to itself as the NKVD. 

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What was consolidation of power accompanied by?

A form of 'class warfare', which was intended to intimidate and exact revenge on the middle and upper classes. Bourgeois property was confiscated, social privilege ended and discriminatory taxes levied on the 'burzhui', the 'enemies of the people'. Ideological opponents as much as political ones were arrested, exiled or executed.

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How successful was faction and control?

In 1921, Lenin's concerns had turned to the opposition 'within' his Party. In 1920 to 1921, there were some serious disagreements about political and economic policy and groups such as the 'Workers' Opposition' under Aleksandr Shlyapkinov and Alexandra Kollontai had been set up, demanding that workers had more control over their own affairs. Lenin belived such dissension was weakening the Party and was determined to restore Party unity.

His 'ban on factions' in 1921 meant that all Party members had to accept the decisions of the Central Committee. Anyone who opposed was threatened with expulsion from the Party. The opportunity for debate and challenge was thus removed and, in the highly centralised, authoritarian, one party state that emerged from the years of civil war, opposition became virtualy impossible. 

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Give examples of torture used by the Bolsheviks.

The Cheka used extraordinary violence against their victims:

  • In Kharkov, they put victims' hands in boiling water and kept topping it up until the blisters became so bad, the skin started to peel off.
  • In Kiev, a cage full of rats was placed around the victim's body. This was heated, thus driving the rats to eat their way through the victim's body to escape. 
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When did political opposition come to an end?

In 1921, when 34 SRs were given 'show trials', and made to admit their crimes in public and denounce others. Both the SRs and Mensheviks were outlawed as political organisations that year. 

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The Red Terror

The civil war of 1918 to 1921 was the culmination of the Bolshevik fight against opposition forces. It also brought a new wave of coercion against both real and 'assumed' enemies, this creating the 'Red Terror'.

In August 1918, the attempt on Lenin's life provided the excuse for a frenzied written attack on the 'bourgeois', while the Cheka rounded up thousands on whom this label might be pinned. Confessions and the names of 'accomplices' were obtained by torture, and so began a 'Terror' that left hardly any group untouched.

In September 1918, Sovknarkom gave the Cheka authority to find, question, arrest and destroy the families of any suspected traitors. Yakov Sverdlov, chairman of the Bolshevik Central Committee, spoke of 'merciless mass Terror against all opponents of the revolution'. All remaining Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were branded traitors and 500 were shot in Petrograd alone. 

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The Red Terror (continued)

The Red Terror escalated because local Cheka agents, keen to show their zeal, often took matters into their own hands. They sought incriminations and discovered hidden opposition. Victims ranged from the Tsar and his family, shot on the 17th July 1918, to ordinary workers suspected of counter revolutionary activity becasue they associated with a class enemy or had the misfortune to have neighbours who bore a grudge. Merchants and traders (black marketeers, hoarders and Nepmen), professors, prostitutes and peasants (espeically those branded as kulaks) all suffered, as did their families, friends and sometimes entire villages. Priests, Jews, Catholics, and to a lesser extent, Muslims, were also persecuted. Around 8,000 priests were executed in 1921, for failing to hand over valuable Church possessions, which were supposedly required for the relief of famine victims. 

Some were executed immediately and it has been estimated that between 500,000 and a million people were shot in the 1918 to 1921 period. Others might be tortured and sent to labour camps, where many died as a result of the physically demanding work they were expected to perform while living on meagre rations. 

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Who was Feliz Dzerhinsky (1877 to 1926)?

  • He was a Pole from Lithuania who had once intended to become a Jesuit priest. 
  • He became involved in Marxist groups as a student and spent many years in tsarist prisons. 
  • He welcomed Lenin in 1917, because a Bolshevik, played a part on the military revolutionary committee in the October Revolution and was rewarded with the directorship of the Cheka, to which he transferred some of his early religious fanaticism. He held this post until his death. 
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The White Sea Canal

One major gulag (economic colonies (a way of exploiting the prison population to boost economic growth)) project was the construction of the White Sea Canal, joining the Baltic Sea and the White Sea, which was dug, cheaply, with no more than axes, saws and hammers in freezing cold temperatures. Some 100,000 prisoners were employed on this task in 1932, but 25,000 died in the 1931 to 1932 winter. It was opened by Stalin in a blaze of publicity in 1933, but sicne it was only 12 feet in depth, it actually proved useless to bigger shipping.

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The Shakhty and other Show Trials

In 1928, 53 engineers at the Shakhty coal mine in the northern Caucasus were accused of 'counter revolutionary activity' after there was a decline in production there. They were given a 'show trial' in which they were forced to confess. Five were executed and 44 received long prison sentences. 

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Stalin and Opposition to 1932

Stalin's rise to leadership position gave him plenty of opportunity to show his skill in our manouvering and defeating those who opposed him. He extended the use of Terror and class warfare, as practised by Lenin, to enforce collectivisation through the destruction of the kulaks and mainatin his five year plans for industry. He accomplished this by sending 'bourgeouis managers', specialists and engineers, whom he accused of machine breaking an sabotage, to labour camps. 

The Shakhty show trial of 1928 was a clear indication of Stalin's determination to find a scapegoat for the choas caused by his own economic policies, while delivering the message that the regime had to maintain its vigilance agains tthose who were set to destroy it. this heralded an industrial Terror which deprived hundreds of bourgeois specialists of their jobs and often their lives. 

Critics within Gosplan were removed and further trials took place throughout the Soviet Union. In the 'Industrial Party' show trial of November 1930, a group of industrialists were accused of sabotage. In the 1933 Metro Vickers trial, British specialists were found guilty of wrecking activities. 

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Stalin and Opposition to 1932 (continued)

By 1929, Soviet prisons could not longer cope with the numbers of kulaks, bourgeois specialists, wreckers, saboteurs, and other 'opponents' that arrived and Genrikh Yagoda was commissioned to investigate ways in which the prison popualtion could be put to better use. His proposal involved building on the corrective labour camps established by Lenin by creating a series of new camps, of 50,000 prisoners each, in remote areas of the north and Siberia, where diamonds, gold, platinum, oil, nickel, coal and timber were all to be found. By offering minimum 'per capita' funding and imposing economies of scale it was believed these gulags (an acronym for Main Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies) could contribute to economic growth, while at the same time offering appropriate correction for the prisoners. The camps were to be placed under the direct authority of the OGPU (the political police until 1934, when the NKVD took control). By then, they housed a million people. 

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Who was Genrikh Yagoda (1891 to 1938)?

  • He joined the Bolsheviks in 1907 and became a member of the Cheka in 1920. 
  • He was a deputy chairman of the OGPU, 1924 to 1934 and from 1930 was in charge of the labour camps. 
  • In 1934, he joined the Central Committee and was put in charge of the Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), into which the Secret Police was absorbed. 
  • He may have engineered the murder of Kirov. 
  • He prepared the first show trial in 1936, but was dismissed in September 1936 and replaced by Yezhov. 
  • He was arrested in 1937, accused of being a Trotskyite conspiracy. He was convicted, sentenced to death on the 13th March, and shot. 
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