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Bandits and Partisans: The Antonov Movement in the Russian Civil War.

Bandits and Partisans: The Antonov Movement in the Russian Civil War. By Eric C. Landis (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. xviii plus .381 pp. $50.00).

Eric Landis' meticulously researched monograph examines the Antonov Movement, one of the largest rebellions against Bolshevik rule during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921. (1) The book is framed by a question; Why did this rebellion leave scarce traces in popular memory? Landis focuses on three sets of issues: the sources and nature of peasant hostility towards Bolshevik policies; the organizational structure of the anti-Bolshevik Partisan Army and its attempts to create and sustain a movement; and the responses of various strata of Communist Party and Soviet government officials to the threats posed by these "bandits."

Tambov peasants rejected Soviet conscription and food requisition policies because these relentlessly drained the region of labor and repeatedly drove it to the brink of famine. From 1918, Tambov's peasants readily seized opportunities to throw off the burdens of Communist rule, particularly in districts where the state was weakest. Landis describes peasant resistance as pragmatic and argues that neither the deserting soldiers who joined the rebels nor the villagers who aided them developed a deep sense of identification with the Partisans. When the central government finally applied the military resources necessary to break the rebellion and imposed a brutal occupation, peasants responded pragmatically by abandoning the rebels.

Landis' vivid sketches of the rebel leader Aleksandr Antonov and his lieutenants prove that while several had had been associated with the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries--the populist socialist party that posed the most serious threat to the Bolsheviks from the Left during the Civil War--and while their proclamations often echoed PSR rhetoric and programs, the Partisan movement was neither led by nor closely tied to the PSR. The rebels leaders' PSR connections, however, like their family and village ties and their service in the Imperial and Red Armies, helped them build networks essential to the guerilla operations that terrorized Soviet officials in Tambov in 1919-1920 and that expanded into a full-scale army in 1920-1921.

Landis argues that the Partisan Army and its political wing, the Union of Toiling Peasants (STK), articulated slogans and employed symbols and rituals meant to build a popular movement, but that their major concern was always tactical. The Partisans tapped pools of disaffected Red Army conscripts (especially deserters) and rallied peasant anger at Communist policies to build a remarkable organizational structure that could sustain small-scale guerilla operations. Still, Landis argues, the rebels' success depended in large measure on the weakness and internal confusion of the Communist and Soviet apparatus, on which the rebels had remarkably good intelligence. When the rebellion's momentum began fading in Winter 1920-1921, the rebels shifted from guerilla tactics to traditional military assaults on large towns, in hope that this would demonstrate their continuing relevance to the peasants on whom they depended for supplies. The failure of those assaults tipped the balance towards the Communist counter-insurgency.

Landis examines internal tensions in state and Communist Party policy that hamstrung the counter-insurgency before 1921 and gives special attention to conflicts between local and provincial administrators, local officials' mistrust of "outsiders" sent by Moscow, and ongoing turf-struggles between military and food requisitioning authorities. The one point on which all these groups agreed was that peasant recalcitrance must be met with force and compulsion--no carrots, just sticks. The regime failed to develop functional village-level institutions while its continuous demands for conscripts and food further alienated the peasantry.

Landis describes the chaotic state of local soviet administration at the height of the rebellion in 1920, the crisis conditions under which terrorized local officials functioned, and the desperate state of the Red Army forces garrisoned in small provincial towns, all of which help explain provincial authorities' failed military response to the rebellion. In 1919-1920 the Communist regime gave relatively more attention to a war of symbols then to actual military operations in Tambov: while the Partisan Army sought to project the image of a coherent political movement capable of overthrowing Soviet rule, the regime portrayed the partisans as "bandits"--base murderers and thieves in the hire of the Socialist Revolutionaries.

Landis argues that two major shifts in Soviet policy in Spring 1921 signaled the end for the Partisan Army. First, the regime recognized the utility of accommodating peasant grievances--for instance, abandoning forced grain requisitions in favor of a tax-in-kind (a turn associated with the New Economic Policy)--and even cast itself as spokesman for peasant complaints against abusive local officials. Second, Moscow sent General Mikhail Tukhachevskii to crush the rebellion and "pacify" rural Tambov. Tukhachevskii systematically ground down the Partisan Army. In the book's most powerful chapter, Landis discusses occupation policies designed to "sovietize" rebellious villages, including hostage-taking, mass executions, forced relocations, and the internment of thousands of men, women, and children in concentration camps. His outstanding discussion of life under the occupation concludes that peasants, aware that village life must return to "normal" were they to avoid famine, pragmatically adapted to the occupation, which effectively erased the popular memory of the rebellion.

Landis' definitive account of the Antonovshchina numbers among the best recent studies of the Russia Civil War. (2) His thoughtful analysis of the rebellion's social, military and political dimensions and of policy at the center is based on exhaustive research in regional and national archives. Landis admirably discusses the limitations of his sources and dissects their variant meanings. He also draws attention to comparative dimensions of his research (primarily in his extensive endnotes). This book has much to offer scholars of contentious political mobilizations, peasant rebellions, and insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, as well as those concerned with the reintegration of demobilized soldiers into post-war societies. Still, Landis reminds us that the Antonov rebellion "belonged to a particular era ... the unusual and brief time of revolution and civil war in Russia." (3)

Statements about the contingency of events run like a thread through the book, yet Landis seems reluctant to step back and explicitly state his arguments. His nine chapters each end with a paragraph or two of summary, but Landis might have led the reader through his major conclusions more forcefully and been bolder in stating the book's broader implications, particularly in the final chapter. But that is a minor criticism of a book characterized by clear and engaging prose.

Michael C. Hickey

Bloomsburg University


(1.) Major published English-language works on the Antonov Rebellion include Delano DuGarm, "Local Politics and the Struggle for Grain in Tambov, 1918-1921," in Donald J. Raleigh, ed., Provincial Landscapes: Local Dimensions of Soviet Power, 1917-1953 (Pittsburgh, 2002), 59-81; Oliver Radkey, The Unknown Civil War in Soviet Russia (Palo Alto, 1976); Serb. Singleton, "The Tambov Revolt," Slavic Review 25, no. 3 (1969): 497-512. Among the many recent Russian-language publications on the topic is an excellent collection of documents: V. Danilov and T. Shanin, eds., Krest'ianskoe vosstanie v Tambovskoi gubernii v 1919-1921 gg. "Antonovshchina": dokumnety i materialy (Tambov, 1994).

(2.) Among the important English-language studies to which Landis' book invites comparison are Peter Holquist, Making War, Forging Revolution. Russia's Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921 (Cambridge, MA, 2002); Donald J. Raleigh, Experiencing Russia's Civil War: Politics, Society, and Revolutionary Culture in Saratov, 1917-1922 (Princeton, 2002); and Aaron Retish, Russia's Peasants in Revolution and Civil War: Citizenship, Identity, and the Creation of the Soviet State, 1914-1922 (Cambridge, MA, 2008).

(3.) Landis, Bandits and Partisans, 285.
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Author:Hickey, Michael C.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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