WWI Centennial: Armistice on the Eastern Front
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 297th installment in the series.
December 17, 1917: Armistice on the Eastern Front
After overthrowing Russia’s feeble Provisional Government in November 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks moved swiftly to consolidate control of the country, purging political opponents, closing newspapers, shutting down rival power centers outside the Soviet—including the Constituent Assembly, sidelined on December 11—and installing their own representatives on local and regional Soviets across the country. Much of the work was carried out by the new secret police, the cheka (an acronym for “All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage," in Russian) under Felix Dzerzhinsky, whose paranoia and brutal methods soon made the old Tsarist okhrana look quaint.
But even with unlimited violence on demand to suppress dissent among workers, peasants, and rival socialists, the Bolshevik leaders including Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev knew there was one constituency they couldn’t afford to alienate—the soldiers. After all, it was angry soldiers of the Petrograd garrison who had made the first revolution in March 1917, and it was soldiers and sailors who had brought the Bolsheviks to power in the November coup. Even in its disorganized and demoralized state, the Russian Army still dwarfed the Bolsheviks’ armed supporters in the Red Guard and cheka—and after a few mutinies there was no reason they couldn’t stage another.
In short, the Bolsheviks had to move swiftly to appease rank-and-file Russian soldiers, most of whom were still lukewarm in their support for the communist regime, or risk violent overthrow themselves. That meant meeting their main demand, a central promise of the Bolshevik platform since the war began: in a word, peace.
Reaching a lasting peace agreement with the Central Powers would take months of tortuous negotiations, reflecting the Bolsheviks’ reluctance to make major territorial concessions and crumbling authority over border regions of the fracturing empire, as well as discord between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire about the extent of their demands and the division of spoils.
However, after their first meeting on December 3, 1917 at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk, on December 15 the Bolshevik delegation scored their first domestic political victory, as the opposing sides agreed to an armistice on the Eastern Front, temporarily halting fighting so peace negotiations could proceed (top, the Russian delegation, led by Joseph Joffe, and the Central Powers delegation, led by the German chief commander on the Eastern Front, Max Hoffman). The armistice, which took effect on December 17, would last for 30 days with periodic renewals, effectively spelling the end of Russian participation in the First World War.
Meanwhile, large parts of Russia had descended into anarchy, as hundreds of thousands of deserters wandered the countryside, begging, stealing, and indulging in more violent criminality. The simple matter of boarding a train had become a life-threatening ordeal for civilians, according to Sophie Buxhoeveden, a former lady-in-waiting to the tsarina, who described the scene in Petrograd:
As soon as passenger trains were running again, all those who could possibly do so fled from Petrograd to the provinces where Bolshevik rule was not as yet generally recognized. All timetables had been done away with, and every traveler, with his family and all his belongings, sat for long hours in the waiting room till the train he intended to go by eventually started … When the signal to leave was given a general stampede took place. All the passengers rushed on to the platform and into the train.
Later, the train became even more crowded as deserters crammed in:
The men swarmed in, carrying the most extraordinary luggage of every kind of article crammed into canvas bags and pillowcases, or made up into bundles. They completely blocked up the corridors, and sat not only on the end platforms of the coaches but on the buffers. They clung to the steps outside, sat and stood in the dressing rooms and, in short, pervaded everything, filling the carriages with the noise of their brawls … They were carrying all the loot they had amassed during their stay in the capital, as well as all the firearms that they had been able to take with them on leaving the front. Out of their bundles protruded brass candlesticks, china, pieces of stuff, as well as every possible kind of weapon. In addition some of them carried one or two rifles under their arms, and at every man's belt hung a revolver or a dagger, or a couple of hand grenades … Next morning, when we tried to get out we found to our horror that this was an utter impossibility. The door was completely jammed by the compact mass of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the corridor, and the handle could not be moved more than an inch or so.
The eagerness of soldiers and civilians alike to leave Petrograd was understandable, as conditions in the city—like in other big urban centers—were rapidly deteriorating. Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist who supported the sidelined Constituent Assembly, wrote in his diary in December 1917:
The hand of the destroyer lies heavily on Petrograd. All commercial life is stopped. Shops are closed. In the factories discipline and authority have disappeared, the workers spending their time in vacuous conversation and oratory. Mounds of dirty snow block the streets. Night and day we hear the sounds of guns. Madness, plundering, and pillage lay waste the towns and even the country. There exists no longer any army and the Germans can walk in whenever they want.
Of course, conditions weren’t much better for ordinary people on the other side of the front—and they were possibly even worse. Dominik Richert, a German soldier on garrison duty in Riga, remembered the conditions endured by natives of the occupied city in the winter of 1917:
In the civilian population the hardship increased from day to day, and the poorest people could hardly get enough to survive. There was no source of income as all the factories were silent … Practically nothing could be delivered to the town from the parts of Russia that had previously been occupied by the Germans because they had used up so much that there was barely enough to keep the inhabitants alive. A large part of the population was seized by a limitless anger against the Germans because of the shortages, with the result that on several occasions German soldiers were murdered on outlying streets. We were not allowed to go out at night without loaded pistols.
More ominously, back in “free” Russia, the Bolsheviks faced the opening phases of a civil war, as the Cossack ataman (leader) Alexei Kaledin led a rebellion on the Don Cossacks beginning December 9, while the conservative general Lavr Kornilov, Mikhail Alexeyev, and Anton Denikin soon organized a “Volunteer Army” in southern Russia—one of the first “White” forces to oppose the Bolsheviks. Thanks to Trotsky’s organizational genius the Bolsheviks managed to scrape together a new Red Army in an astonishingly short amount of time. But the future would deliver many more setbacks, including a civil war that, along with a devastating famine, claimed 7 million lives before the Bolsheviks finally established supremacy.