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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.1 (2003) 129-162

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Civil Wars in the Soviet Union*

Alfred J. Rieber

During and after World War II a great variety of violent conflicts and protest movements broke out behind the lines of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army all along the western and southern borderlands of the European part of the Soviet Union. To define and analyze them politicians, publicists, historians, and social scientists have employed a number of concepts: resistance and collaboration, Shoah or Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, deportation and forced resettlement, wars of national liberation, partisan or revolutionary warfare, and internal wars. Each of these has given rise to a vast literature and the concepts themselves have undergone refinements and permutations. 1 But there have been fewer attempts to [End Page 129] perceive them as parts of a larger phenomenon or to reveal the linkages that connect them all. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that the concept of civil war can provide this missing integrative function.

First, to meet objections. The Soviet civil wars, it may be argued, lacked some of the classic attributes of the genre exemplified in the experience of the English, American, Spanish, or Russian Civil Wars. The conventional definition insists on engagements between two relatively evenly matched regular armies commanded by rival governments, each claiming legitimate authority over the same territory; foreign intervention, where it existed, remained limited to supplying men and material, and did not lead to international war.

The crucial difference in the Soviet case was that its civil wars took place under a unique set of circumstances. 2 First, they were fought in the midst of a large-scale conventional war with the overwhelming preponderance of military power deployed by the two belligerents, each of which took a highly ambivalent if not openly hostile attitude toward irregular armed bands &#8212 even, on occasion, those operating behind the lines of its mortal enemy. Second, in their conduct of the war on the Eastern Front both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union adopted radically transformative means and aims that deeply affected the demographic and social structures of the civil population under their control. Third, the clash of the great powers and the civil wars were both continuations, albeit on a more violent and destructive scale, of a long-term contest over the structure and boundaries of states contending for control of the borderlands. Fourth, Stalin perceived the conflict through the prism of a "civil war mentality," a legacy of previous episodes in the struggle over the borderlands that had already in the prewar period impelled him to exterminate most of the potential leadership of an internal opposition, especially in the national republics. As a result of these four factors, the civil wars in the Soviet borderlands were, as the plural implies, many-sided, uncoordinated, and confused, often taking the form of minimal or everyday acts of resistance, with many incidents of participants switching sides, dropping out, and reentering, and overshadowed by terrible reprisals on the part of the German occupation forces, the Soviet police, and the "destruction battalions." [End Page 130]

The Transformative Nature of the War

On the Nazi side the transformative character of the war was expressed in a set of four interrelated myths that underlay Hitler's war aims: the volkisch ideal, the fear of a "Slavic flood," Lebensraum, and redemptive anti-Semitism. 3 From the opening volley of the war against Poland, Hitler was determined to exploit the civilian population, both Jews and Poles alike, as forced labor, to weaken them physically, strip them of their cultural identity, and inundate them with waves of German colonists who would encounter no resistance from the enfeebled and denationalized local population. 4 In 1941 Hitler resurrected the bugbear of "Judeo-Bolshevism" by announcing that the Soviet Union was to be the object of a "war of annihilation." It was a slogan shared by large sections of the German military and economic elites. They too endorsed the necessity of killing off Soviet prisoners of war and selected groups of civilians...