Peasant uprisings

Alexander Antonov, leader of the UTP and the Tambov peasant uprising

Opposition and resistance to the Bolshevik regime was not confined to the cities or military garrisons like Kronstadt. There were dozens of peasant uprisings around Soviet Russia during and after the Russian Civil War. One official report from the Cheka, dated February 1921, numbered these uprisings at 118. 

Trouble in Tambov

The largest of these peasant uprisings occurred in Tambov in 1920-21. Tambov was an agricultural province, located several hundred miles south-west of Moscow.

During the Civil War, the Tambov peasants had opposed the Whites – but this did not make them supporters of the Bolsheviks. Tambov’s farmers had long been dissatisfied with Bolshevik policies, particularly grain requisitioning. This dissatisfaction grew through 1920, culminating in the formation of a political group called the Union of Toiling Peasants (UTP).

The UTP quickly grew in popularity. In December 1920, it issued a manifesto calling for political equality, land reform, an end to the civil war and various liberal reforms. 

The Antonovschina

The UTP was led by Alexander Antonov, a former Socialist-Revolutionary who had served as a police officer under the Provisional Government before reverting to terrorism and assassinations against Bolshevik targets.

By late 1920, Antonov had formed a cavalry force of several thousand men which attacked Bolshevik strongholds around Tambov province. His ultimate goal though was to drive the Bolsheviks from Moscow.

By 1921, Antonov’s army had more than 20,000 men, as well as supplies, weapons, an organised hierarchy and its own uniforms. His troops were sometimes referred to as the Blue Army, to distinguish themselves from the Bolshevik Red Army, the counter-revolutionary White Army and the Ukrainian-nationalist Green Army.

The Bolshevik response

Publicly, the Bolshevik hierarchy dismissed the legitimacy of the Tambov uprising. They declared the Tambov army to be nothing more than a rabble comprised of “bandits” or kulaks.

The Bolsheviks rejected the manifesto of the UTP as propaganda written by the self-serving Antonov, who was the real architect of the Tambov revolt (Lenin went so far as to call their rebellion the “Antonovschina”).

Privately, the Bolsheviks recognised the great threat that the Tambov army posed to Moscow. They took stern measures to quell the revolt.

Brutal suppression

Some of the Red Army’s most experienced commanders and battalions were summoned to the region, including a combat-hardened division led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky. They were accompanied by Cheka units, some containing Chinese ‘internationalists’ who had been recruited from the east, units known for their ruthlessness and brutality.

In total, more than 100,000 Red troops were sent into Tambov, carrying orders to shoot all suspected rebels; to use poison gas to flush them out of hiding places in the forest; to construct concentration camps and capture civilian hostages.

These tactics were brutal and indiscriminate but they worked. By mid-1921, the uprising had been suppressed. Antonov evaded capture until 1922 when he was killed during an arrest attempt.

Other uprisings

Tambov was the largest peasant uprising but there were numerous others across Russia during the first years of the Soviet republic. These uprisings were often spontaneous and formed in opposition to war communism.

In October 1918, several thousand Tatar peasants in rural areas of Kazan province rebelled against Soviet grain requisitioning. This uprising was suppressed by the Red Army in mid-November with around 30 deaths.

A much larger peasant rebellion broke out in Ufa in February 1920. Again, the impetus for this uprising was food requisitioning, which locals resisted by detaining and executing Bolshevik officials. The ‘Black Eagle’ or ‘Pitchfork Rebels’, as they became known, were defeated by Cheka paramilitary units in March 1921.

Peasants twice rebelled against Soviet rule in Altai Krai and Sorokino in south-western Siberia, first in mid-1920 then again the following year. These rebels had support from former White officers and local anarchists but were eventually overrun by the Red Army. 

A historian’s view:
“At the height of the Antonov rebellion… popular sympathy for the cause of the rebellion extended well beyond the immediate control of the Partisan Army. Yet no one in Tambov lamented the death of the ‘hero’ Alexander Antonov in 1922, and the partisan leader did not survive in popular folk culture or local mythology… If the rebellion is remembered at all, it is as a tragedy in which countless innocent lives were lost, an episode in a wider tragedy of revolution and civil war in Russia.”
Erik C. Landis

peasant rebellions

1. Opposition to Bolshevik rule was not confined to the cities or the military. There were also dozens of regional and peasant uprising during the after the Civil War.

2. The largest of these uprisings occurred in the Tambov region, where a former SR named Alexander Antonov headed a group called the Union of Toiling Peasants (UTP).

3. By early 1921, Antonov had formed a large force dubbed the ‘Blue Army’ to resist the Bolsheviks. They were eventually defeated by a much larger Red Army force.

4. Despite its size and organisation, the Bolsheviks disregarded the Tambov uprising as the work of a self-serving bandit, dubbing it the Anotonovschina.

5. There were numerous other peasant rebellions and uprisings during the Russian Civil War, most formed in response to the Bolshevik policy of grain requisitioning.

Citation information
Title: “Peasant uprisings”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 20, 2019
Date accessed: September 08, 2023
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