Tambov Rebellion

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The Tambov Rebellion of 1920–1921 was one of the largest and best-organized peasant rebellions challenging the Bolshevik government during the Russian Civil War.[9][10] The uprising took place in the territories of the modern Tambov Oblast and part of the Voronezh Oblast, less than 300 miles southeast of Moscow.

Tambov Rebellion
Part of the Russian Civil War
Tambov Rebellion.png
Date19 August 1920 – June 1921
Result Bolshevik victory
Green armies Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Russian SFSR
Commanders and leaders

Alexander Antonov
Peter Tokmakov [ru]  

Ivan Ishin [ru]  Executed

Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Mikhail Tukhachevsky
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Alexander Schlichter
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Ieronim Uborevich
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Grigory Kotovsky

Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Sergey Kamenev
Probably 20,000 regular and 20,000 militiamen[1]
14,000 (August 1920)[2]
50,000 (October 1920)[3]
40,000[4] – 70,000[5] (February 1921)
1,000 (September 1921)[4]
5,000 (November 1920)[3]
50,000[6] – 100,000(March 1921)[7]
Casualties and losses
50,000 civilian internees in fields[4]
240,000 dead[8][page needed]

In Soviet historiography, the rebellion was referred to as the Antonovschina ("Antonov's mutiny"), so named after Alexander Antonov, a former official of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, who opposed the government of the Bolsheviks. It began in August 1920 with resistance to the forced confiscation of grain and developed into a guerrilla war against the Red Army, Cheka units and the Soviet Russian authorities. It is estimated that around 100,000 people were arrested and around 15,000 killed during the suppression of the uprising. The Red Army used chemical weapons to fight the peasants.[11] The bulk of the peasant army was destroyed in the summer of 1921, smaller groups continued until the following year. The movement was later portrayed by the Soviets as anarchical banditry, similar to other anti-Bolshevik movements that opposed them during this period.


Alexander Antonov (centre) and his staff

The Soviet government had adopted the policy war communism during the Russian Civil War. Food for the needs of the cities was obtained by compulsory requisition from the villages without financial compensation. This was met with the resistance of the peasant population, especially as the requisitions were often violent in nature. Likewise, the amount of cereals to be requisitioned were not measured according to production. Instead, commissions gave a rough estimate based on pre-war production, so that devastation, crop failures, and population decline were not included.[12] The peasants often responded by reducing their acreage, as they no longer had the economic incentive to produce surpluses. This made the confiscations ordered from above even more draconian.[13] Unlike in the cities, the Bolsheviks had hardly any supporters in the rural regions, where in the various elections of 1917 the Socialist Revolutionaries had always won large majorities. For the most part, the peasants were indifferent to Bolshevik ideology.[12] The Soviet politician Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, who himself later played a leading role in the suppression of the uprising, characterized the peasants as follows:

(They) have become accustomed to regard the Soviet Government as something alien, something that does nothing but give orders that manage with great zeal, but little economic mind.

The requisition policy was implemented among other places in the Tambov Governorate, a relatively wealthy agrarian region 350 km southeast of Moscow. The peasants of the Governorate had largely supported the October Revolution, since Lenin's Decree on Land legalized the expropriation of property. Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks had problems in maintaining control of the governorate. In March 1918, their delegates were even thrown out of the local Soviets when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was concluded. Although they managed to consolidate their rule in the next few years, the use of force was necessary again and again, in increasingly greater degrees of intensity.[14]

Before the revolution, the peasants in the governorate produced around one million tonnes of grain. Of these, one-third was exported. On the basis of these figures, which did not include the dislocations of the civil war in the countryside, a high target for the procurement of grain was set.[12] By January 1921, only half of the grain had been collected. Antonov-Ovseyenko noticed from his own experience that every other farmer in Tambov was starving.[12]

The revolt began on 19 August 1920 in the small town of Khitrovo, where a military requisitioning detachment of the Red Army appropriated everything they could and "beat up elderly men of seventy in full view of the public".[15][16]

On 2 February 1921, the Soviet leadership announced the end of the "prodrazvyorstka", and issued a special decree directed at peasants from the region implementing the "prodnalog" policy. The new policy was essentially a tax on grain and other foodstuffs. This was done before the 10th Congress of the Bolsheviks, when the measure was officially adopted. The announcement began circulating in the Tambov area on 9 February 1921. The Tambov uprising and unrest elsewhere were significant reasons that the "prodnalog" policy was implemented and the "prodrazvyorstka" was abandoned.[17]


In August 1920, the peasants' armed resistance to re-capture grain began in a village in the Tambov province called Chitrovo. The farmers refused to deliver their grain to the Bolsheviks and killed several members of the local procurement team. A Soviet government report summarized the reasons for the violence as follows:

The commandos were guilty of some abuses. On their passage they plundered everything, even pillows and kitchen utensils. They shared the spoils and beat old men of 70 years old in front of everyone. Elders were punished for failing to catch their deserting sons who were hiding in the woods (...) What also puzzled the peasants was the fact that the confiscated corn had been carted to the nearest train station and left to spoil there in the open air.

In anticipation of an attack by the Red Army to enforce the procurement of grain, the farmers of the village armed themselves. Since only a few rifles were available, this was partly done with pitchforks and clubs. Other villages joined in the uprising against the Soviet authorities, and succeeded in repulsing the Red Army. One factor contributing to this success was the Red Army's involvement in the simultaneous Polish-Soviet War and crackdown on Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel's White Army in the Crimea, which resulted in the stationing of only about 3,000 Red Army soldiers in the Tambov region. These soldiers had been drafted from the local villages and often had little motivation to fight members of their own class.[12]

The peasants, after their first success, attempted to capture Tambov, the capital of the governorate. There, however, they failed to defeat the Red Army. It was here that Alexander Stepanovich Antonov, a radical Left Socialist-Revolutionary, led the movement into a guerilla war with the Reds. Before the uprising, Antonov and a few comrades had fought an underground insurrection against the Bolsheviks and had been sentenced to death. Since he was able to escape capture by the Soviet authorities, he was a kind of folk hero to the peasants. He demanded that the free trade and movement of goods should be allowed to end, that the grain requisitions should be ended and the Soviet administration and the Cheka dissolved.[18] His troops carried out surprise raids on railway junctions, kolkhoz and the Soviet authorities. They were supported by the population and used the villages for cover and rest. Likewise, they often disguised themselves as Red Army soldiers to move about the countryside or to exaggerate the element of surprise.[12] Socialist Revolutionaries in the Tambov region also founded a "League of Working Peasants", which was to function as the political organization of the insurgents and with which Antonov worked, even though he had left the party.[9][18] Antonov organized the farmers on the model of the Red Army in 18–20 regiments with their own political commissars, reconnaissance departments and communication departments. Likewise, he introduced a strict discipline.[12] The farmers used the Red flag as their standard and thus claimed the central symbol of the revolution.[12]

Georgi Zhukov, who commanded a cavalry squadron in battles with the rebels, described the strategy of the insurgents in his [memoirs]:[19]

The tactics of the Antonovschina amounted mostly to avoiding fights with larger units of the Red Army. They engaged in battle only if absolute certainty of victory existed and their own forces were superior. And if necessary, skirmishes in small groups fighting from an unfavorable situation, and only after they set down directions to re-group at an agreed meeting place.

They were able to control large parts of the region and managed to capture railway trains transporting requisitioned grain. The grain intended to supply Red Army units was instead re-distributed by Antonov's men to local farmers. The rebellion also spread to parts of other provinces: Voronezh, Saratov and Pensa. In the areas controlled by them, all Soviet institutions were abolished. Around 1,000 members of the Communist Party of Russia were killed by the insurgents.[12] By October 1920, the Bolsheviks had completely lost control of the rural territory of the governorate, dominating only the city Tambov itself and a number of smaller urban settlements. After numerous deserters from the Red Army joined it, the peasant army numbered over 50,000 fighters. The rebel militia proved highly effective and even infiltrated the Tambov Cheka.[20]

The seriousness of the uprising caused the establishment of the "Plenipotentiary Commission of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Bolshevik Party for the Liquidation of Banditry in the Gubernia of Tambov".[citation needed] With the end of the Polish–Soviet War (in March 1921) and the defeat of General Wrangel in 1920, the Red Army could divert its regular troops into the area.[20] Alexander Schlichter, Chairman of the Tambov Gubernia Executive Committee, contacted Vladimir Lenin.[21] In January 1921 peasant revolts spread to Samara, Saratov, Tsaritsyn, Astrakhan and Siberia.[20] In February, the peasant army reached its peak, numbering up to 70,000 and successfully defending the area against Bolshevik expeditions.[citation needed]


In August 1920, the governorate of Tambov imposed martial law. The official propaganda of the Bolsheviks tried to discredit the insurgents as bandits led by the Social Revolutionaries. According to internal reports by the Soviet authorities, the leadership was well aware that it was a spontaneous uprising of the peasants without a key role being played by the party. The central organs of the Socialist Revolutionary Party actually condemned the uprising publicly and banned its party members from supporting the rebels. However, this appeal found little resonance among local party members. They also did not stop the Cheka from starting a wave of repression against members of the party in the Tambov region. Insurgents were executed and several villages burned down. However, this could not stop the uprising.[12]

In February 1921, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko was sent to Tambov as Chairman of a Plenipotentiary Commission to end the uprising. The commission reported directly to Lenin and was directly under his authority. Antonov-Ovseyenko targeted the civilian supporters of the rebels in the suppression of the insurgency. He ordered, with the prior approval of Lenin, a wave of deportations and hostage shootings. In May 1921 Mikhail Tukhachevsky was ordered by Lenin as military commander-in-chief to suppress the uprising in Tambov. Assigned to him were tanks, heavy artillery and 100,000 soldiers,[22] mostly special units of the Cheka, with additional Red Army units.[18] As many members as possible of the communist youth organization [Komsomol] were assigned to him because they were considered politically loyal. The Red Army used armoured trains and engaged in the summary execution of civilians. The rebels responded with assassination attempts on Tukhachevsky and Ovseyenko, and the kidnapping and shooting of family members of members of the Party and Red Army.[22] The fighting with the partisans took on [civil] warlike proportions, and the resources and organizational structures that the Soviet government offered against them were similar to those of a front in the civil war.[23] Zhukov described a battle with an insurgent union as follows:[24]

We got into a very fierce fight. The enemy saw that we were inferior in numbers and expected to overrun us. That was not easy. Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the squadron had four heavy machine guns stocked with ammunition and a 76mm gun. The squad maneuvered with MGs and guns and fired straight into the ranks of the enemy. We saw the battlefield covered with fallen enemies and retreated, struggling step by step.

In June, Tukhachevsky received permission from Antonov-Ovseyenko's commission to begin use of chemical weapons, by direct order from the leadership of Red Army and from the Communist Party.[25][page needed] Publications in local Communist newspapers openly glorified liquidations of "bandits" with the poison gas.[25][page needed][26] Tukhachevsky and Antonov-Ovseyenko signed an order to their troops, dated 12 June 1921, which stipulated:

The forests where the bandits are hiding are to be cleared by the use of poison gas. This must be carefully calculated, so that the layer of gas penetrates the forests and kills everyone hiding there.[27]

Antonov's army was encircled and destroyed. Antonov himself escaped, but was shot only a year later by Soviet authorities. In early September 1921, only scattered groups of insurgents still operated, estimated at around 1,000 armed men. It took until the middle of 1922 for the province to be pacified completely.[28]


The suppression of the uprising led to very heavy civilian casualties among the population. It is estimated that around 50,000 people, including some 1,000 children, were put in dedicated concentration camps in July 1921.[29] They suffered severely from cholera and typhus epidemics. The death rate is estimated to be around 15–20% per month for the fall of 1921.[28] Exact figures on the victims of the uprising are not available. A total estimate amounts to about 100,000 of the detainees and about 15,000 executed by the authorities. As a result of the military operations against the rebels, around 6,000 of their fighters surrendered and were either shot or deported. The deportees were transferred from the local camps to special camps in the northern regions of Russia after the suppression of the uprising. These camps were otherwise reserved for officers of the White Army and captured insurgents from Kronstadt. In these camps there was a particularly high mortality of prisoners compared to the rest of the camp system.[29] The devastation of the fighting and punitive measures, together with the Bolshevik agricultural policy, led to a famine in the areas of the insurgents. In addition to Tambov, large parts of Russia were affected in the following two years.[30]

Sennikov estimated the total losses among the population of Tambov region in 1920 to 1922 resulting from the war, executions, and imprisonment in concentration camps as approximately 240,000.[31]

The uprising made the Soviet leadership aware of its failure to manage relations with the peasants and is seen as one of the factors that prompted Lenin to initiate the New Economic Policy. The Russian sociologist and contemporary witness Pitirim Sorokin even concluded that the insurgents had forced the NEP by their actions.[32] The new policy relied more on a natural tax on actual production instead of on compulsory collection of agricultural products.[28] In the military field it is mentioned that the Soviet Army Commander Mikhail Frunze was impressed by the guerillas' resistance to regular forces. He therefore began studying guerrilla tactics as a commander in the Red Army. This is regarded as a precondition of the Soviet partisans' strategy in their World War II campaign against the Nazi invasion.[33]

Union of Working PeasantsEdit

The Union of Working Peasants (Russian: Союз трудового крестьянства) was a local political organization that emerged from the rebellion in 1920. The organization was led by the former Social-Revolutionary politician Aleksandr Antonov.[34] The goal of the organization was the 'overthrow of the government of Communist-Bolsheviks'.[35]

In December 1920, the Union of Working Peasants released a manifesto, stating their intention to overthrow the Bolshevik government and their aims in doing so:[36]

  1. Political equality for all citizens, without division into classes.
  2. An end to the civil war and a return to civilian life.
  3. Every effort to be made to ensure a lasting peace with all foreign states.
  4. The convocation of a Constituent Assembly on the basis of equal, universal, direct and secret suffrage, without predetermining its choice of political system, and preserving the voters’ right to recall deputies who do not carry out the people’s will.
  5. Prior to the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, the establishment of provisional authorities in the localities and the centre, on an elective basis, by those unions and parties which have taken part in the struggle against the communists.
  6. Freedom of speech, the press, conscience, unions and assembly.
  7. The full implementation of the law on the socialisation of the land, adopted and confirmed by the former Constituent Assembly.
  8. The supply of basic necessities, particularly food, to the inhabitants of the towns and countryside through the cooperatives.
  9. Regulation of the prices of labour and the output of factories run by the state.
  10. Partial denationalisation of factories; heavy industry, coal mining and metallurgy should remain in state hands.
  11. Workers’ control and state supervision of production.
  12. The opportunity for both Russian and foreign capital to restore the country’s economic life.
  13. The immediate restoration of political, trade and economic relations with foreign powers.
  14. Free self-determination for the nationalities inhabiting the former Russian empire.
  15. The initiation of wide-ranging state credit for restoring small-scale agriculture.
  16. Freedom for handicraft production.
  17. Unfettered teaching in schools and compulsory universal literacy education.
  18. The volunteer partisan units currently organised and operating must not be disbanded until the Constituent Assembly has been convened and it has resolved the question of a standing army.

Recovery of documentsEdit

Some documents relating to the rebellion were found by the local ethnographer Boris Sennikov in 1982 while he was engaged in clearing sand from the altar of the Winter Church of the Kazan monastery.[37] During the 1920s, the monastery had been requisitioned for use as the local Cheka headquarters and the church had served as the archive of the Tambov Military Commissariat.

In 1933, the local government decided to burn documents that could compromise the Soviet regime. However, during the process, the fire grew out of control and had to be extinguished by water and, crucially, sand. All documents in the archive were believed to be destroyed; as the church altar was not used by the archive, the surviving documents, covered by a layer of sand, have never been found.[citation needed] In 1982, the local archive changed its address and the church became abandoned. When Sennikov found the documents, the Tambov department of KGB opened a criminal case against him. Later, the case was closed, but Sennikov lost his job.[citation needed]

In 2004, the publishing house Posev published the Sennikov archive as part of The Tambov Rebellion and the Liquidation of Russian Peasantry[25] along with documents relating to the Governorate Military Commissariat (including those dealing with Konstantin Mamontov's 1919 anti-Bolshevik raid, and those describing the Great Purge of the 1930s). The documents also included Red Army orders issued during the rebellion, correspondence, reports of the use of chemical weapons against the peasant rebels, and documents of the Union of the Working Peasants.[citation needed]

In popular cultureEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Hosking 1993, p. 78; Mayer 2002, p. 392.
  2. ^ Powell 2007, p. 219; Werth 1999, p. 131.
  3. ^ a b Powell, 2007: 219; Werth, 1999: 132
  4. ^ a b c Werth 1999, p. 139.
  5. ^ Waller, 2012: 194
  6. ^ Figes 1998, p. 811; Mayer 2002, p. 392.
  7. ^ Waller, 2012: 115; Werth, 1999: 132, 138
  8. ^ Sennikov, B.V. (2004). Tambov rebellion and liquidation of peasants in Russia. Moscow: Posev. In Russian. ISBN 5-85824-152-2
  9. ^ a b Conquest, Robert (1986). "Revolution, Peasant War and Famine". The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-famine. Oxford University Press. pp. 51–53. ISBN 978-0-19-505180-3.
  10. ^ Werth 1999, p. 108.
  11. ^ Figes 1998, p. 811.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Pipes 2011, p. 374 ff.
  13. ^ Werth 1999, p. 124.
  14. ^ Peter Scheibert: "Lenin in power – the Russian people in the revolution of 1918–1922", Weinheim 1984, pp. 389–393.
  15. ^ Werth 1999, p. 109.
  16. ^ Leggett, George (1981). The Cheka: Lenin's political police : the all-Russian extraordinary commission for combating counter-revolution and sabotage, December 1917 to February 1922. Clarendon Press. p. 330. ISBN 9780198225522.
  17. ^ Landis, 2004.
  18. ^ a b c Werth 1999, p. 126.
  19. ^ Georgi K. Zhukov: Memories and Thoughts , Stuttgart 1969, p. 69 f.
  20. ^ a b c Werth 1999, p. 111.
  21. ^ Lenin to Kornev, 19 October, 1920. Retrieved 21 June 2017.
  22. ^ a b Pipes 2011, pp. 378–387.
  23. ^ Pipes 2011, pp. 374 ff, 378 ff.
  24. ^ Georgi K. Zhukov: Memories and Thoughts, Stuttgart 1969, p. 72nd
  25. ^ a b c Publisher: Posev, 2004, ISBN 5-85824-152-2 B.V.Sennikov. Tambov rebellion and liquidation of peasants in Russia, Full text in Russian
  26. ^ Figes 1998, p. 811 ff; Pipes 2011, pp. 387–401.
  27. ^ Werth 1999, p. 117.
  28. ^ a b c Werth 1999, p. 134.
  29. ^ a b Pipes 2011, p. 404.
  30. ^ Werth 1999, pp. 124 f, 137 f.
  31. ^ Sennikov, Boris V. (2004). Тамбовское восстание 1918–1921 гг. и раскрестьянивание России 1929–1933гг.: "Тамбовская Вандея" [The Tambov uprising of 1918 to 1921 and the de-peasantisation of Russia of 1929 to 1933: "The Tambov Vendee"]. Серия "Библиотечка россиеведения" (in Russian). Moscow: Посев. ISBN 5-85824-152-2. Retrieved 2015-11-12. Во всяком случае, по самым осторожным подсчетам, потери населения Тамбовской губернии в 1920-1922 гг. составили около 240 тыс. человек. [In any case, according to the most careful reckoning, the losses of the residents of the Tambov Governorate in the years 1920 to 1922 amounted to approximately 240 thousand persons.]
  32. ^ Peter Scheibert: Lenin in power – The Russian people in the revolution 1918–1922, Weinheim, 1984, p. 393.
  33. ^ Pipes 2011, p. 388 ff.
  34. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on June 10, 2011. Retrieved June 10, 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  35. ^ Kowalski, Ronald I. The Russian Revolution: 1917–1921. Routledge sources in history. London: Routledge, 1997. p. 232.
  36. ^ "The Programme of the Union of Toiling Peasants".
  37. ^ An illustrated article about Tambov revolt from Gulag website (Russian)


Further readingEdit

  • Brovkin, Vladimir N. Behind the front lines of the civil war: political parties and social movements in Russia, 1918–1922 (Princeton University Press, 2015).
  • Hartgrove, J. Dane. "The Unknown Civil War in Soviet Russia: A Study of the Green Movement in the Tambov Region 1920–1921." (1981): 432–433.
  • Landis, Erik-C. "Waiting for Makhno: Legitimacy and context in a Russian peasant war." Past and Present (2004): 199–236. online
  • Landis, Erik‐C. "Between village and Kremlin: Confronting state food procurement in civil war Tambov, 1919–20." Russian Review 63.1 (2004): 70–88.
  • Landis, Erik C. Bandits and Partisans: The Antonov Movement in the Russian Civil War. — University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. — 381 p. — (Series in Russian and East European studies). — ISBN 9780822971177. — ISBN 0822971178.
  • Singleton, Seth. "The Tambov Revolt (1920–1921)," Slavic Review, vol. 25, no. 3 (Sept. 1966), pp. 497–512. In JSTOR

External linksEdit

Coordinates: 52°43′N 41°25′E / 52.717°N 41.417°E / 52.717; 41.417