Russian Civil War

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The Russian Civil War was fought between 1918 and 1922. Following the success of the Russian Revolution, the new Russian (Bolshevik) government made peace with Germany at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, ratified on March 6, 1918. This negotiated peace was the only option because the Russian army was in a chaotic and undisciplined state when the Germans advanced in February 1918, although the old Russian army had been re-organized in January into the "Workers' and Peasants' Red Army".

This treaty galvanised a number of anti-Bolshevik groups inside and outside Russia to act against the new regime. For example, Winston Churchill declared that Bolshevism must be "strangled in its cradle".

Most of the Civil War ended in 1920, but a notable resistance in certain areas continued until 1922 (e.g, Kronstadt Uprising, Tambov Rebellion, and the final resistance of the White movement in the Far East).

The Soviet historiography traditionally didn't apply the qualifier "Russian" and used the term "Civil War and Military Intervention of 1917-1922". Accordingly, it included the Polish-Soviet War, resistance in Ukraine, as well as Basmachi resistance and foreign intervention in Central Asia.



The war was fought mainly between the "Reds" who were the communists and revolutionaries, and the "Whites" who were the monarchists, conservatives, liberals and socialists who opposed the Bolshevik Revolution. Also, a group of nationalist and anarchist movements known as the "Greens", or sometimes the Black Army for the latter, played a much smaller part in the war, harrying both the Reds and the Whites, and sometimes even each other. In addition, the Entente and some other countries intervened on the side of the Whites, which aggravated the civil war.

Red - Frontiers, 1921Orange - Bolshevik control, Nov 1918Blue - Maximum advances of 'White' forces
Red - Frontiers, 1921
Orange - Bolshevik control, Nov 1918
Blue - Maximum advances of 'White' forces

The war was fought across three main fronts — the eastern, the southern and the northwestern. It can also be roughly split into three periods.

The first period lasted from the Revolution until the Armistice. The conflict began with dissenting Russian groups, the main force was the newly formed Volunteer Army in the Don region which was joined later by the Czecho-Slovak Legion in Siberia. In the east there were also two anti-Bolshevik administrations, Komuch in Samara and the nationalist Siberian government centred in Omsk.

Most of the fighting in this first period was sporadic, involving only small groups amid a fluid and rapidly shifting strategic scene. Among the antagonists were the Czecho-Slovaks, known simply as the Czech Legion or White Czechs (Белочехи, Byelochekhi), the Poles of the Polish 5th Rifle Division and the pro-Bolshevik Red Latvian riflemen (Красные латышские стрелки,Krasnye Latyshskiye strelki).

The second period of the war was the key stage, which lasted only from March to November 1919. At first the White armies' advances from the south (under Anton Denikin), the northwest (under Nikolai Nikolaevich Yudenich) and the east (under Aleksandr Vasilevich Kolchak) were successful, pushing back the new Red Army and advancing towards Moscow. But Leon Trotsky reformed the Red Army, which pushed back Kolchak's forces (in June) and Denikin's and Yudenich's armies (in October). The fighting power of Kolchak and Denikin was broken almost simultaneously in mid-November.

The final period of the war was the extended siege of the last White forces in the Crimea. Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel had gathered the remnants of the armies of Denikin and they had fortified their positions in the Crimea. They held these positions until the Red Army returned from Poland where they had been fighting the Polish-Soviet war from 1919 or earlier. When the full force of the Red Army was turned on them the Whites were soon overwhelmed, and the remaining troops were evacuated to Constantinople in November 1920.

Course of events

The very first attempt to seize the power from Bolsheviks was made by the Kerensky-Krasnov uprising as early as in October, 1917. It was supported by the Junker mutiny in Petrograd, but quickly put down by the Red Guards.

1918 Bolshevik propaganda poster depicting Trotsky slaying the reactionary dragon (Trotsky was People's Commissar of War, and organizer of the Red Army)
1918 Bolshevik propaganda poster depicting Trotsky slaying the reactionary dragon (Trotsky was People's Commissar of War, and organizer of the Red Army)

Britain, France, Canada, the United States and seventeen other powers intervened in Russia, initially hoping to recreate the Russian front against Germany. After the Allies defeated the Central Powers in November 1918, most withdrew. Japan remained in the Far East, hoping to annex these regions. Only the United Kingdom, under the influence of Winston Churchill, continued significant military aid, mainly in the form of supplies, during the crucial battles in 1919. Without this support the White armies would have lost the war much earlier due to lack of weapons [1].

Lenin was surprised by the outbreak of civil war and initially underestimated the extent of the forces that rose against his new country. Early successes in the Don region made him overconfident.

The initial groups that stood against the Communists were mainly counter-revolutionary generals and local Cossack armies that had declared their loyalty to the Provisional Government. Prominent among them were Aleksei Maksimovich Kaledin (Don Cossacks), Alexander Dutov (Orenburg Cossacks), and Grigory Mikhailovich Semenov (Baikal Cossacks).

In November, General Mikhail Vasilevich Alekseev, the old tsarist Commander-in-Chief, began to organise a Volunteer Army (Добровольческая Армия, Dobrovolcheskaya Armiya) in Novocherkassk; he was joined in December by Lavr Georgevich Kornilov, Denikin and a number of others. Aided by Kaledin, they took Rostov in December.

However, the Cossacks were unwilling to fight, and when the Soviet counter-offensive began in January under Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko the Cossacks quickly deserted Kaledin, who committed suicide. Antonov's forces quickly recovered Rostov and by the end of March 1918 the Don Soviet Republic was declared. The Volunteer Army was evacuated in February and escaped to the Kuban, where they joined with the Kuban Cossacks to mount an abortive assault on Ekaterinodar. Kornilov was killed on April 13 and command passed to Denikin, who retreated back to the Don. There, the Soviets had alienated the local population and the Volunteer Army found many new recruits.

White Army propaganda poster depicting Trotsky as a "Jewish devil". The text above the picture reads, "Peace and Liberty in Sovdepiya"
White Army propaganda poster depicting Trotsky as a "Jewish devil". The text above the picture reads, "Peace and Liberty in Sovdepiya"

It was not until the spring of 1918 that the Mensheviks and SRs joined the armed struggle. Initially they had been opposed to the armed overthrow of the Bolsheviks but the peace treaty and the establishment of some harsh dictatorial measures changed their outlook.

Potentially they could have been a serious threat as they had some popular support and the authority of their election victory on the Russian Constituent Assembly in 1918. However, they needed armed support. An early attempt by the SRs to recruit Latvian troops in July 1918 was a disaster. Fortunately, the Czecho-Slovak legion proved to be a more reliable group to aid their "democratic counter-revolution".

The Czech Legion had been part of the old Russian army and by October 1917 numbered around 30,000 men, mostly ex-prisoners of war and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army. Encouraged by Tomáš Masaryk, the legion was renamed the Czecho-Slovak Army Corps and hoped to continue fighting the Germans.

An agreement with the Soviet government to pass by sea through Vladivostok collapsed over an attempt to largely disarm the Corps, and the force rebelled in June 1918 in Cheliabinsk. Within a month the Czecho-Slovaks controlled much of western Siberia, and parts of the Volga and Ural Mountains regions. By August they had extended their control even farther, cutting off Siberia (and its precious grain supplies) from the rest of Russia.

The Mensheviks and SRs supported peasant action against Soviet control of food supplies. In May 1918, with the support of the Czecho-Slovaks they took Samara and Saratov, establishing the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly (Комуч, Komuch). By July the authority of Komuch extended over much of the area controlled by the Czecho-Slovaks. They intended to resume anti-German operations and began to form their own People's Army. They also implemented a socialist reform programme but without the unpopular economic changes the Soviets were pursuing.

There were also conservative and nationalist "governments" being formed by the Bashkirs, the Kirghiz and the Tatars (see Idel-Ural State) as well as a Siberian Regional Government in Omsk. In September 1918 all the anti-Soviet governments met in Ufa and agreed to form a new Russian Provisional Government in Omsk, headed by a Directory of five: three SRs (Avksentiev, Boldyrev and Zenzinov) and two Kadets (Vinogradov and Volgogodskii).

The new government quickly came under the influence of the Siberian Regional Government and their new War Minister, Rear-Admiral Aleksandr Vasilevich Kolchak. On November 18 a coup d'état established Kolchak as dictator. The members of the Directory were arrested and Kolchak promoted himself to admiral and proclaimed himself "Supreme Ruler".

To the Soviets this change of control was a military problem but a political victory because it confirmed their opponents as anti-democratic reactionaries. But as the Soviets feared, Kolchak initially proved himself an able commander. Following a reorganisation of the People's Army, his forces captured Perm and extended their control into Soviet territory.

In Soviet territory, following the Fifth Congress of Soviets in July, two Left SRs — Yakov Blyumkin and Nikolay Andreyev — assassinated the German ambassador in Moscow, Count Mirbach, in an attempt to provoke the Germans into renewing hostilities. Other Left SRs captured a number of prominent Bolsheviks and attempted to rouse Red Army troops against the regime.

The Soviets managed to put down local uprisings organised by the SRs and Anarchists. Lenin personally apologised to the Germans for the assassination, although German reprisals were unlikely due to the state of the Western Front. There were mass arrests of Left SRs and following two further terrorist acts on August 30 — the assassination of the Chairman of the Petrograd Cheka, Moisei Uritsky, and the wounding of Lenin — the "Red Terror" was unleashed in response: the Mensheviks and SRs were expelled from the Soviets and anyone suspected of counter-revolutionary activity could be imprisoned or executed without trial.

Explanations for the Red victory

The Bolsheviks controlled the most populous areas of Russia and when the decisive battle took place had more than 3 million men under arms. In 1921 they had 5 million, although desertion and disease depopulated the ranks. More than 75,000 ex-Tsarist officers served in the Red army. The strength of the White armies never exceeded 250,000. The Bolsheviks also controlled the main industrial regions and inherited almost all of the weapons of the Czarist army. The policy of War Communism, whereby the Bolsheviks requisitioned grain from the peasants, gave priority to the Red Army. They had the advantage of inner and better lines of communications, in particular railway lines. This allowed soldiers to be transported quickly to battlefields, and sufficient supplies to reach them. Their enemies were internally divided, both politically and ethnically.

Other advantages the Red Army had over the Whites were leadership and discipline. Leon Trotsky was appointed as Commissar for War in 1918 after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. He was a brilliant speaker and military organizer. From a core of Red Guards, which had been armed by the Provisional Government during the Kornilov Revolt, Trotsky built up the Red Army through conscription. Travelling on his legendary train, he boosted the Red Army's morale. He also re-introduced strict discipline (after a short period of "equality" under Soviet Order No. 1). Deserters were shot, and political commissars, committed Bolsheviks, were placed in the ranks to ensure loyalty. Trotsky, however, was not responsible for the conduct of the military operations, which remained in the hands of professional generals from the former Imperial army.


At the end of the Civil War, Soviet Russia was exhausted and ruined. The droughts of 1920 and 1921 and the 1921 famine worsened the disaster. The War had taken an estimated 8 million lives, only a few years after the nearly bloodless October Revolution.

Another million had left Russia -- with General Wrangel, through the Far East, or in numerous other ways -- in order to escape the ravages of the war, the famine, or the rule of either warring faction. These emigres included a large part of the educated and skilled population.

War Communism saved the Soviet government during the Civil War, but much of the Russian economy ground to a standstill. Private industry and trade was proscribed, and the newly established (and barely stable) state was unable to run the economy on a sufficient scale. It is estimated that the total output of mines and factories in 1921 had fallen to 20 percent of the pre-World War level, and many crucial items experienced an even more drastic decline. For example, cotton production fell to 5 percent, and iron to 2 percent of pre-war levels.

The peasants responded to requisitions by refusing to till the land. By 1921, cultivated land had shrunk to 62 percent of the prewar area, and the harvest yield was only about 37 percent of normal. The number of horses declined from 35 million in 1916 to 24 million in 1920, and cattle from 58 to 37 million. The exchange rate of the US dollar declined from two Rubles in 1914 to 1,200 in 1920.

Although Russia eventually recovered and even experienced an extremely rapid economic growth in the 1930s, the combined effect of World War One and the Civil War left a lasting scar in Russian society, and had permanent effects on the Soviet regime.

See also


  1. ^  Pipes, Richard (1994) Russia under the Bolshevik Regime 1919-1924, Harvill. ISBN 0 00 2720884 p. 63-75

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