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Creation of the Soviet Union

The Bolshevik army had been fighting a war with Poland — which had declared itself independent in 1918. This is called the Polish-Soviet War, a war about Poland's border with Ukraine and Belarus. The Poles captured Kiev in May 1920. The Bolsheviks retook Kiev in June and sent the Polish army back in a rout. By mid-August, the Bolsheviks were on the outskirts of Warsaw. The Poles rallied and pushed the over-extended Bolshevik forces back. In March 1921, devastated by the civil war, the Bolsheviks signed a treaty favorable to the Poles. The treaty put four million Ukrainians and Belorussians under Polish rule (an area that the Bolsheviks were to retake with the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939).

On their southern front in 1920 the Bolsheviks faced an army of 41,000 that had been under Denikin and was now under the Baron Peter Wrangel. Wrangel repelled several Red Army attempts, but in November the Red Army succeeded in occupying the peninsula, and Wrangel fled, to settle in Belgium.

For Lenin and the Bolsheviks the war to hold on to power had ended. But there was economic devastation. Food harvesting was down 37 percent from what had been normal. In 1921 there was severe flooding in the Volga region, and elsewhere there was drought. These plus the Civil War would be blamed for a great famine. Russia's population declined by 3.8 million in 1921, and it declined another 1.9 million in early 1922. Lenin allowed the International Red Cross and also Herbert Hoover's American Relief Association to distribute food in Russia, relief said to have saved millions of lives.

Josef Stalin tried to levy transport charges against the US relief effort, and when the Americans started to return home, Stalin had some of the anti-Bolshevik socialists who had been working with the Americans arrested. Hoover was indignant, and he intervened and managed to rescue the Mensheviks.

It was during the hard year of 1921 that sailors at the Kronstadt naval base rebelled. These were original supporters of the Bolshevik takeover back in November 1917 and had been described as the revolution's "pride and joy." The rebelling sailors of 1921 were annoyed with the Bolsheviks and were calling for "real Soviet power." They were hopelessly outnumbered, and after several days of fighting and spilling of blood the Red Army, led by Trotsky, crushed the rebellion and chased the surviving rebels across the border into Finland.

The Kronstadt Rebellion moved Lenin to abandon the rigorous economic policies that had been created during the Civil War. He allowed some free markets to reappear. State-owned industry remained, but some private commerce and small-scale industries were allowed. And peasants were allowed to sell their grain on an open market. It became known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). Lenin spoke of his New Economic Policy as a breathing space. He intended to expand the socialist sector of the economy gradually in competition with the private sector.

Then in May 1922, Lenin suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side and caused him to temporarily lose his ability to speak. In December he suffered a second stroke. It was in December (1922) that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was declared — the Soviet Union. It consisted of fifteen "autonomous" republics and considered a union of nationalities rather than an empire: Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Moldavan, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik, Turkmen, Georgian (Stalin's home country), Azerbaijani, and Armenian.

Contributing to the Soviet Union's creation had been the People's Commissar of Nationalities, Joseph Stalin. (He also served as a military commander, 1918-21.) Since April 1922 he had been General Secretary of Russia's Communist Party. He disliked the personality of Trotsky and saw himself as competing with Trotsky's standing as a leader of the Revolution, just under Lenin. Stalin favored putting the Soviet Union first — building socialism in the Soviet Union. Trotsky was People's Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs and emphasizing "permanent revolution" internationally.

The Soviet Union's Communist Party (the Bolsheviks) claimed that it could solve its internal differences of opinion democratically. That claim would be tested in the years ahead.

CONTINUE READING: The Communist Party Quarrels

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