The Antonov Rebellion

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

As White resistance in southern Russia petered out during the summer and fall of 1920, the temporarily triumphant Bolsheviks were faced by their most dreaded enemy, a revolt of the peasantry, unspoken junior partner in the “union of laboring classes.” Previously fearful that Communist defeat would mean the loss of recently gained land, peasants turned on the Bolsheviks in 1920, inflamed by the arrest of village priests and closing of churches. Their resentment burst into flames in the fall when requisition detachments arrived to confiscate the meager harvest, and by spring 1921 peasants were in full insurrection. Revolt flared in the black-earth districts, the Northern Caucasus, the Volga region, all fertile grain producers. The largest seems to have been in western Siberia, but the most extensively documented outburst of peasant resistance took place in the province of Tambov.

Most peasant revolts began in unorganized resistance to requisition detachments. Villagers would gather the traditional assembly (skhod) and condemn state quotas, and then target local communists with violence with arms seized from local authorities. Once the detachments were driven away, the strategy was to isolate the village from the outside world, which was possible in the chaos of 1920-1921. The Tambov rebellions seems to have lacked leadership or program at its inception, but by the spring of 1921, a leader had appeared in the person of Aleksandr Stepanovich Antonov (1885-1922), whose murky past might have included leftist political activity and some military experience. Under his leadership, peasant resistance became more coordinated, attacks assumed some military organization, and an armed body of approximately 20,000 was gathered.

Identifying the program or identity of a peasant revolt can be difficult, and reasons for dissatisfaction were many. Imbalances in power between city and country and an intolerable tax burden; the incompetence and venality of local Bolsheviks; exhaustion after many years of war: all could have inspired popular fury at the appearance of requisition detachments. Antonov offered little in the way of a positive program. Rumors of socialist revolutionary leanings, the appearance of the program of a Peasants’ Union, and the vague “green” anarchism of other peasant revolts, such as that led by Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine, could all be found, but little organization took place. Antonov’s forces easily degenerated into unfocused violence and banditry. The central government dispatched well-trained troops to the province in the spring, led first by Feliks Dzerzhinskii and the Cheka, and later by Tukhachevskii, fresh from crushing the Kronshtadt rebellion. Hampered by a lack of forest to hide it, the movement was crushed by May. Peasants suspected of having joined Antonov were arrested or shot. The revolt was not a wasted effort. Lenin and the state leadership drew a clear message from it and other popular unrest, and in the NEP reforms soon announced, many sources of the peasant discontent were eliminated.

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