Russia entered 1922 with a shaky government ruling largely by martial law, a civil war still raging, a famine spreading across the Volga region, parts of the country still occupied by foreign intervention forces – and isolated as an international pariah.
But by the end of the year, the Bolsheviks had marked the fifth anniversary of the 1917 coup known as the October Revolution, had all but ended the civil war against so-called White monarchist and capitalist forces, largely pushed out the foreign troops, and signed their first peacetime international treaty -- with Weimar Germany.
And on December 30, 1922, representatives of the Soviet governments of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Transcaucasian Republic took to the stage of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater to proclaim the formation of a new country that within less than two generations would become a global superpower -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
But with the 20/20 hindsight of a century's distance, 1922 emerges as a fateful year for the peoples of Russia and its neighborhood, a year in which the country broke decisively with its past. In terms of politics, foreign affairs, and culture, events transpired and decisions were made that laid the rails for decades of institutionalized totalitarian oppression.
This year will see many centennial anniversaries that Russian President Vladimir Putin and others who argue that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a “geopolitical catastrophe” might prefer not to remember.
The Rise Of A 'Sociopath'
"This is the first year that we have had the opportunity of devoting our efforts to the real, main, and fundamental tasks of socialist construction," revolutionary leader and Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin told the closing session of the 11th congress of the Bolshevik party in Moscow on April 2, 1922, in a speech focused on his economic plans.
"Over the past year we showed quite clearly that we cannot run the economy," Lenin conceded. "Either we prove the opposite in the coming year or Soviet power will not be able to exist."
But in retrospect, the most portentous decision of the congress was the appointment of a new party general secretary: Josef Stalin, a 43-year-old former seminary student turned revolutionary.
"This was one of the most fateful moments of the Russian Revolution and, indeed, of the 20th century," English cultural historian Kevin Jackson wrote in his 2012 book Constellation Of Genius: 1922 Modernism Year One. Although the post was still far from the total power Stalin would wield in later years, it positioned him to control the bureaucracy that would increasingly dominate the country.
The decision to name Stalin general secretary was one Lenin would live to regret -- even though he would be dead less than two years later.
Already experiencing poor health in 1921, Lenin suffered a stroke in May 1922 and a second in December. That month, Stalin took over personal control of Lenin's care and of who had access to him. In the final weeks of 1922 and the early days of the new year, Lenin dictated a final testament in which he famously urged his comrades to "think about a way of removing Stalin" from his post.
The call for Stalin's removal was the only concrete proposal in Lenin's entire testament.
"This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail…but it is a detail that could assume decisive importance," he wrote.
"Stalin was a sociopath," said Princeton University historian and Stalin biographer Stephen Kotkin in a 2017 interview with RFE/RL. “[H]e did not demonstrate even elementary compassion or doubts in his policies."
'More Organized' Terror
On February 2, 1922, the notorious All-Russian Extraordinary Commission -- abbreviated as ChK, or Cheka -- was transformed into the State Political Directorate (GPU) under the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD).
Under the ruthless Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka secret police had enforced Lenin's policy of "Red Terror," which was proclaimed in September 1918.
"We are not fighting against single individuals," wrote Bolshevik revolutionary and Cheka officer Martin Latsis in the journal Red Terror in November 1918. "We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class…. This is the essence of the Red Terror."
Ostensibly, the move to transform the Cheka into the GPU was part of an overall drive to establish stable institutions and political control over government agencies. Already, however, complaining about the booming bureaucracy was becoming so prominent that it spawned an entire Soviet satirical genre, beginning with Vladimir Mayakovsky's 1922 poem Conference-Crazy (Prozasedavshikhsya).
The reorganization of the Cheka could have reined in the Red Terror. Instead, however, it institutionalized many of the campaign’s most egregious practices, including the targeted persecution of political opponents.
"The ChK was transformed into the GPU, which put it under some degree of political control, meaning a reduction in the terror," St. Petersburg historian Boris Kolonsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service in 2021. "On the other hand, the terror became more organized.”
“In 1922, they held the trial of the Social Revolutionaries,” Kolonsky said, referring to the Bolsheviks' main remaining political rival. “And one of the major tightenings of the screws was the restriction on free discussion and factionalism within the Bolshevik party itself."
As the threat posed by the White armies in the civil war waned, this new structure turned inward. The reform meant that the Cheka's authority to carry out extrajudicial executions was temporarily eliminated, but the GPU quickly expanded the practice of sending political and economic "enemies" into exile in Siberia and the Far North.
The first camp in what grew into the gulag system was opened on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea in 1923.
One year later, GPU agents were again authorized to carry out executions "under certain circumstances."
'Generous Help…Terrible Calamity'
By far the most horrific event in Russia and the world in 1922 was the ongoing famine throughout the Volga region and beyond. It is estimated that at least 5 million people died in what at the time was one of the worst nonmilitary catastrophes in Europe since the Middle Ages.
"In 1921-22 we saw a massive famine with a horrific number of victims," Russian historian Viktor Kondrashin told RFE/RL in September. "It was something reminiscent of the early 17th century, the famine of the Time of Troubles, both in terms of the number of people in the affected region and the number of the dead."
The famine was caused by a perfect storm of events -- a major drought struck a country already depleted by World War I and the Civil War. On top of that, the Bolsheviks -- deprived by the White armies of access to food-producing regions in Ukraine and Siberia -- carried out inhumane grain requisitions in the region.
"Horrific facts have been documented," Kondrashin said. "Cannibalism, mass graves, and the suicide of whole families driven by hunger."
In 1918, Lenin sent Stalin to the southern city of Tsaritsyn -- later called Stalingrad and now Volgograd -- to requisition food. His order: “Be merciless.”
"Be assured our hand will not tremble," Stalin replied. "We won't show mercy to anyone."
In July 1921, writer Maksim Gorky issued an appeal "to all honest people" seeking famine relief. The appeal landed on the desk of U.S. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, who wrote back that he was ready to create a program of the American Relief Administration (ARA) in Russia if the Soviet government requested it formally and with the understanding that the assistance did not mean American recognition of the Bolshevik government.
The offer was extremely controversial in the United States, where many on the right argued that the famine might bring an end to Bolshevism in Russia. Hoover, however, insisted that "we must make some distinction between the Russian people and the group who have seized the government."
Many in the Soviet government, particularly firebrand Leon Trotsky, also opposed the plan, arguing the aid was the thin edge of a wedge that would soon see American businesses and banks setting up in Russia, according to The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story Of How America Saved The Soviet Union From Ruin, a 2019 monograph by Douglas Smith.
The Soviets, nevertheless, accepted Hoover's conditions immediately. An agreement was signed in August 1921 and the U.S. Congress allocated $20 million for the program. Counting the Russian government's $18 million contribution and private donations, Hoover collected about $78 million for the effort.
In 1922, the ARA was feeding 10 million people per day, bringing in at least 768 million tons of food. The program also employed 125,000 Russians in the affected areas. The ARA also provided clothes, shoes, and medicine. It aided some 16,000 hospitals treating more than half a million people daily. The project improved sanitation and prevented outbreaks of cholera and other diseases in the region. It also brought in thousands of tons of seed grain that contributed to bumper crops -- and lucrative export profits for the Soviet government -- in 1922 and 1923.
"The government of the Russian nation will never forget the generous help afforded them in the terrible calamity and dangers visited upon them," Bolshevik leader Lev Kamenev, the deputy chairman of the Russian famine relief effort, wrote in a letter to ARA representative William Haskell.
In February 1923, with the ARA estimating that 8 million Russians still needed famine aid, the Soviet government announced plans to resume grain exports. Western support for the ARA Russia program was further eroded in March when the Soviet government put a dozen Russian Orthodox clergymen and one Catholic priest, Konstantin Budkevich, on trial for organizing peaceful protests against the state seizure of church property. All the defendants were sentenced to long prison terms except for Budkevich, who was executed on Catholic Easter weekend and buried in a mass grave.
The ARA decided to wrap up its operation.
"Mr. Hoover said that he had never been so glad to finish a job as this Russian job," a State Department official reported. "…[H]e was completely disgusted with the Bolsheviks and did not believe that a practical government could ever be worked out under their leadership."
Under Stalin in the 1930s and beyond, "the history of the ARA was being expunged or distorted beyond recognition," Smith wrote in his book. Officials and ordinary Russians who had participated in the project were purged and persecuted into the 1950s. The 1950 edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia wrote that the ARA was intended "to create an apparatus in Soviet Russia for spying and wrecking activities and for supporting counterrevolutionary elements." A 1962 school textbook said the purpose of the ARA was "to secretly organize an insurrectionary force," adding that the purported plot was thwarted by the GPU.
The ARA effort was comparable, Smith argued, to the assistance provided by Europe and the United States to former Soviet countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"Between 1992 and 2007, the U.S. government provided $28 billion in assistance to the countries of the former Soviet Union," Smith wrote. "In 1999 alone, Russia requested 5 million tons of food aid from the United States, worth nearly $2 billion…. For 1999-2000, U.S. and European food aid to Russia surpassed that given to the entire continent of Africa."
On April 16, 1922, Soviet Russia broke through its total international isolation by signing the Treaty of Rapallo with Weimar Germany. Following World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, both countries were diplomatically isolated pariahs.
The Rapallo Treaty reestablished diplomatic relations between the two countries and paved the way for boosted economic cooperation. Although the pact contained no military provisions, it opened the way for intense collaboration -- in violation of the Versailles treaty -- that was initiated in a series of secret meetings in the summer of 1922. Over the next few years, Germany opened an aviation school, a chemical weapons plant, and a tank-warfare testing ground in the Soviet Union.
"These bases helped to modernize the Red Army and played a central role in developing the military technologies that would enable the rebirth of the German military under Hitler," analyst Ian Johnson wrote in the War On The Rocks blog in 2016.
In Germany, the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo was seen by some as an indication of a looming "Jewish-Bolshevik threat" to their country. It led to increased activity by the extreme right and those who financed them. In June 1922, just two months after he signed the treaty, German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau was assassinated by a right-wing terrorist group. In one of his first major speeches in Munich in August 1922, Adolf Hitler warned of “the approaching Jewish Bolshevism under the protection of the republic” at a rally where his “storm troopers” made their first appearance in their notorious brown shirts. In Italy, fascist leader Benito Mussolini became prime minister that October.
No Room For 'Heretics, Dreamers, Rebels'
1922 was also a fateful year for Russia culturally. Comparing the contours of Russian culture in 1920 -- from the visual arts to literature to music to dance to the applied arts and beyond -- with those found just 15 years later, one is struck by the drastic transformation that took place in such a short span.
Art historian Camilla Gray, in her study The Russian Experiment In Art: 1863-1922, considered 1922 the cutoff year for one of the most remarkable cultural explosions in history.
In 1922, Boris Pilnyak published The Naked Year, an impressionistic masterpiece that is the first Russian novel written entirely after the October 1917 coup.
On April 21, 1938, he was convicted of plotting to kill Stalin and, on the same day, shot in the back of the head and buried in a mass grave at the Kommunarka shooting range in Moscow.
Also in 1922, Yevgeny Zamyatin was holding private readings of his dystopian novel We, which he’d completed the previous year -- the same year in which he wrote a prophetic essay titled I Am Afraid, which argued that there seemed to be no space in the Bolshevik state for “madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.”
Zamyatin died in exile, in Paris, in 1937.
Although the novel We was published in New York in English in 1924 and finally in Russian in 1952, it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988, three years before its collapse. In 1967, Russian-born emigre critic Mirra Ginsburg wrote: “Like [Mikhail] Bulgakov and [Isaak] Babel, Zamyatin gives us a glimpse of what postrevolutionary Russian literature might have become had independence, daring, and individuality not been stamped out so ruthlessly by the dictatorship.”
As the Bolsheviks secured power with the waning of the civil war, the leadership increasingly turned its attention to remaking society. In 1921, the government set its sights on the Russian Orthodox Church. Initially, the purpose of the campaign was to confiscate as much church property as possible, but by 1922 Lenin had more ambitious plans.
In a memo dated March 19, 1922, Lenin called for a “secret meeting” between political leaders and the heads of the GPU and the People’s Commissariat of Justice. A “secret resolution” would be adopted, he wrote, ordering the complete dispossession of the church to be “carried out with ruthless resolution, leaving nothing in doubt, and in the very shortest time.”
“The greater the number of the reactionary clergy and the reactionary bourgeoisie that we succeed in shooting on this occasion, the better, because this ‘audience’ must precisely now be taught a lesson in such a way that they will not dare to think about any resistance whatsoever for several decades,” the Bolshevik leader wrote.
St. Petersburg historian Aleksandr Margolis told RFE/RL in a 2016 interview that the campaign against the church was carried out “in the most barbaric fashion.”
“Of course, the clergy tried to stop it somehow,” he said. “But the answer was clear: The more of them we hang, the better.”
On the night of August 12-13, Bolsheviks shaved the beards of Petrograd Metropolitan Veniamin and several other senior clergymen from the city and dressed them in rags. The subterfuge was necessary so that the soldiers in the firing squad would not know that they were executing clergymen. They were executed on the outskirts of the city and buried in a mass grave.
In 1992, a few months after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Veniamin and several of those executed with him were canonized as Russian Orthodox saints and a cenotaph was erected for them in St. Petersburg’s Aleksandr Nevsky Lavra. The canonization decree orders that “their precious remains, should they ever be found, shall be considered holy relics.”
Lenin had similar plans for Russia’s intellectual elite.
In an article published on March 12, 1922, and titled On The Significance Of Militant Materialism, Lenin denounced intellectuals as “graduated flunkies of clericalism” and democracy as “nothing but the freedom to preach whatever is to the advantage of the bourgeoisie, to preach, namely, the most reactionary ideas, religion, obscurantism, defense of the exploiters, and so on.”
The campaign culminated in September-November 1922, when three ships sailed from Petrograd to the West. On board, GPU agents had bundled many of the country’s most prominent thinkers and their families, largely dispossessed and sent into exile. The so-called Philosopher Ships carried away philosophers Nikolai Lossky, Yuly Aikhenvald, Nikolai Berdyayev, Sergei Bulgakov, and Semyon Frank.
They also took away Ivan Ilyin, a fascist thinker who wrote a 1933 article titled National Socialism: A New Spirit. Ilyin has been praised by Putin and, in 2005, Putin was personally involved in the effort to have Ilyin’s remains reinterred in Moscow. He consecrated the grave in 2009.
Not all of the nearly 300 intellectuals who were shipped out of the country in 1922 were famous. They included doctors, lawyers, educators, economists, and others.
Russian filmmaker Aleksei Denisov, whose 2002 documentary Russian Exodus chronicled the first wave of Russian emigration, said in 2012 that, all told, it is estimated that the Russians exiled from the country between 1922 and 1939 published more than 13,000 academic works after leaving the Soviet Union.
In May 1922, a group of artists in Moscow formed the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR). It was the direct forerunner of the Union of Artists of the Soviet Union, which was created in 1932. The group’s ideology was that the “didactic content” of a work of art was far more important than its aesthetic merits.
“Art must be comprehensible to the masses,” was the group’s mantra, as was “heroic realism.” Artists should choose their themes on the basis of the needs “of society and the party.”
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1950 says the group was “the most advanced artistic organization” of the period and that “it marked the beginning of the decisive victory of realism in Soviet art.”