Treaty of Brest Litovsk

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The ruined fortress town of Brest Litovsk, deep behind German lines in occupied Poland, was selected by the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey) as the site to conduct negotiations with the new Soviet government. There, on December 2, 1917 an armistice was signed, but it would not be until March 3 (NS), 1918 that a formal treaty was issued. Even thereafter, military action continued for several months, as the German army pushed further and further into territories nominally under Soviet control.

Initially, the Soviet government’s strategy, as articulated by Trotsky, its commissar for foreign affairs, was “neither war nor peace.” That is, assuming that the capitalist world was on the brink of exhaustion and that Soviet defiance would rouse the oppressed masses of Europe to revolution, Trotsky argued (against the opposition of Lenin) that the negotiations should be used for propaganda purposes. However, after the Germans resumed military operations on February 18 (NS) and presented stiffer demands that included an end to the Soviet presence in Ukraine and the Baltic provinces, Lenin achieved a majority in the party’s Central Committee in favor of accepting the enemy’s terms. Thus, the Treaty of Brest Litovsk provided the fledgling Soviet government with a “breathing spell,” in effect buying it time by sacrificing space.

This bow to expediency did not go down well with many Bolsheviks, not to speak of their sympathizers in Europe or Russia’s war-time allies who had feared just such a separate peace. At the Bolsheviks’ Seventh Congress, the treaty was denounced by Nikolai Bukharin and other so-called Left Communists as a capitulation to imperialism. It also was anathema to the Left SRs who, having supplied several commissars to Sovnarkom in December, withdrew them in protest and voted against the treaty at the Fourth Congress of Soviets. Their assassination of the German ambassador, Count Mirbach, in early July was preliminary to an uprising in Moscow, and the simultaneous but separately organized seizure of Yaroslavl’. In the meantime, the German army rolled across Ukraine, easily defeating the isolated soviet “republics” that had been established in Odessa, Kiev, and the Donets-Krivoi Rog, and installing General P. P. Skoropadskii as “Hetman” (Chieftain) of a thoroughly dependant Ukrainian state. The collapse of the German and Austrian-Hungarian empires in November 1918 left Ukraine once again up for grabs among the Ukrainian nationalist Rada, the Soviet Red Army, various peasant-based anarchist groups, and eventually. Poland. The German army would return in 1941.

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