HIS 242
NEP and the Roaring 1920s remarks by Professor Evans


"Communism is soviet power plus electrification of the whole country," one of Lenin's oft-quoted statements.  Lenin, however, did not live to see that dream come true.  See another example of this slogan being used.

Lenin Posters
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Ok, the Bolsheviks "won" the civil war, but the situation in Russia by early 1921 was not good.  Let's review:

Consider the impact of the 1917 Revolutions, the civil war, the allied interventions, the 1920 Russo-Polish War, the independence of previous parts of the Russian empire (like the Baltic states and Poland), the flight of Russians abroad.  Russia lost a lot of people, land and economic production.  By 1921, there really was no Russian economy to speak of.  Industrial production might have been 20% of the 1914 level, and agricultural production was maybe a third.  Horses, cattle and sheep were gone.  There was no real monetary system anymore.  It is only a guess but Russia might have lost fifteen million people dead plus a lot more in cases such as Poland which was no longer part of Russia.  The standard-of-living had reached rock bottom.

The situation was really not good.

  1. By early 1921, there were peasant uprisings everywhere.  Some of these were loosely organized in what was called the "Green Movement."  This was a real threat to Bolshevik power.
  2. Workers strikes has also erupted in the winter of 1920-21, including strikes in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Remember the Bolsheviks represented the workers and carried out the revolution in the name of the workers; it was not a good sign that workers were now expressing discontent.  In some cases martial law had to be imposed on the workers.
  3. Famine broke out in Russia and Ukraine in 1921-23 on an unprecedented scale for modern times.  It was only foreign aid from West European and American CAPITALIST organizations (Can you imagine how painful it was for Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders to accept that?)  that prevented an even greater catastrophe.  Still perhaps 5 million people died.  It was not a good sign that the Bolsheviks could not even feed their own people.
  4. And then the Kronstadt rebellion occurred 1-18 March 1921 just as the Bolshevik's Tenth Party Congress was getting ready to open in Moscow.

Kronstadt had been the main tsarist naval base, located on an island not far from St. Petersburg, home of the Baltic fleet.  Its sailors had long been extremely radicalized and one of the most reliable forces that the Bolsheviks could call on in times of trouble.  During 1917 the Kronstadt sailors played a key role in the seizure of power.

By early 1921, the sailors were not happy.  They did not like the forced grain requisitions--Most sailors still had ties to their villages--and they were aware of Bolshevik repression of worker strikes in St. Petersburg.  The sailors also resented the Bolshevik party dictatorship, and so they decided to revolt and call for an end to party privileges, for free elections to the soviets and the summoning of a new constituent assembly.  The sailors still saw themselves as loyal to the soviet cause; maybe not to the Bolshevik communist rulers.

The Kronstadt revolt was a major blow to the prestige of the Bolsheviks, so they had to come up with something.  On 2 March the Bolsheviks blamed the revolt on various reactionary forces (The Bolsheviks were never good at telling the truth.), and  they prepared to assault the Kronstadt rebels.  Time was extremely short, for if the ice melted between the mainland and the island, then there would be no way for the Bolsheviks to deal with Kronstadt.

Trotskii was sent to Petrograd to organize the assault under the command of Mikhail Tukhachevskii--Surely this was about as black a day as possible in their careers, but neither refused.  On 7 March 1921 guns from St. Petersburg began a bombardment of the island while Trotskii assembled a force of around 50,000 troops bolstered by volunteers from the party congress.  Over the course of the next ten days three bloody assaults were launched against the fortress--Red army troops were sometimes sent into battle at gunpoint. Troops charging across the ice were slaughtered, but they gradually depleted the strength of the rebels. Eventually, in a brutal night assault the Bolsheviks forced their way into Kronstadt. The revolt was crushed.  Exact casualties are impossible to come by, but most historians accept the figure of about 10,000 Red Army dead.  It is also clear that thousands of Kronstadt rebels were executed and thousands more sent to Siberia.

Against that backdrop, the 10th Party Congress met in Moscow; it was not in a triumphant mood.  It was at this congress that Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which provided for a kind of mixed economy, or market socialism.  The basic features of NEP were that

  1. Peasants now would pay a fixed tax, based on their income/wealth.  At first this was a tax in kind, but it later could be paid in money.  Anything that a peasant produced beyond that fixed amount, he was free to market as surplus.
  2. Medium and small economic and industrial enterprises were removed from government control.
  3. The state did retain control of the so-called commanding heights of the economy (the largest industries, foreign trade, banks), which meant that the state still controlled about 90% of industrial production.  The government did embark on some economic planning for control of this sector.

Lenin lead this economic "retreat" because, in his view, Russia was just not yet ready for communism.  Although there is some disagreement on interpreting Lenin's exact intent with respect to NEP, it is pretty clear to me, that he thought Russia would need a long period of this "alliance" (smychka) between peasant and worker to prepare for the communist future.

With Lenin's death in 1924 (and de facto incapacitation since 1922), it was Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938), who became the chief spokesman for NEP.  Bukharin had joined the Bolshevik party in 1906, worked abroad from 1911 to 1917 and supported Lenin in 1917.  With the advent of NEP, Bukharin aligned himself with Lenin's idea of a slow approach to Russian industrialization, and after Lenin's death, Bukharin became the main supporter of the pro-peasant policy-implications of NEP.  His 1925 slogan, "Enrich yourselves," would come back to haunt Bukharin later in his political struggles with Stalin.

NEP came to a rather abrupt end with the adoption of the first Five-Year Plan by Stalin in 1928 and Stalin's consolidation of political control.

As I have just noted, Lenin did not live very long once NEP had been initiated.  Even more to the point, by 1922--only a year after the start of NEP--Lenin's health had so deteriorated that he was no longer politically active.  But when he finally died in 1924, he strangely did not leave public view.  See my remarks on the preservation of Lenin's body for public display in the Lenin mausoleum.

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Some recommended books
  • Louis Fischer, The Soviets in World Affairs: A History of the Relations between the Soviet Union and the Rest of the World, 1917-1926 (1930)
  • Fedor Gladkov, Cement (1925)
  • Isaac Babel, The Odessa Tales (1921-24) and Red Cavalry (1923-25)
  • Anna Larina, This I Cannot Forget: The Memoirs of Nikolai Bukharin's Widow (1993)
  • David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein (1994)
Some recommended websites



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For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu