The Russian Civil War (1918-21) was fought to decide who should control Russia in the wake of the October 1917 revolution. During this period a conglomerate of anti-Bolshevik groups, dubbed the Whites, fought to remove the Bolsheviks from power and restore some elements of the old order. Other groups not directly aligned with the Bolsheviks or the Whites fought for independence or control of their own regions. The Russian Civil War was a pervasive conflict, drawing in many disparate political and military groups, nationalist movements and all classes of Russian society. Several foreign nations, most of whom opposed Bolshevik government in Russia, also contributed troops, weapons, supplies and intelligence to warring parties. Like most other internecine conflicts the Russian Civil War produced confusion, division, attack and retaliation, intense propaganda, war crimes and human suffering on catastrophic levels.
The Russian Civil War emerged from strong and widespread resistance to the new Bolshevik order. Opposition to the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 was pronounced, however in early 1918 this opposition began to strengthen and intensify into a counter-revolutionary movement. Tsarists, liberals, Mensheviks and SRs alike believed the Bolsheviks were usurpers who had stolen power, despite their grandiose claims that they represented the working classes. The catalyst for the outbreak of civil war was an uprising by the Czech Legion. A Russian Imperial Army unit, the Czech Legion contained volunteers of Czech and Slovak heritage who enlisted to defend their homeland during World War I. By May 1918 the Legion was distributed along the Trans-Siberian Railway but found itself unable to move, due to transport shortages and Bolshevik red tape. Tensions between Czech Legion soldiers and Bolshevik officials began to escalate. On May 14th the Legion began to rebel, killing several Bolsheviks and seizing control of Chelyabinsk, a town not far south of Ekaterinburg, where the former tsar and his family were being held.
Over the coming weeks the Czech Legion continued its revolt against Bolshevik authority, seizing control of towns and stations along the Trans-Siberian Railway. They were joined by other aggrieved groups, particularly former tsarist officers and loyalist militias. By the end of June 1918 the counter-revolutionaries controlled most of the railway, and with it all of Siberia. Behind the White armies emerged a political movement, a loose coalition of anti-Bolsheviks comprised of monarchists, liberals, non-Bolshevik socialists and disgruntled peasants. These groups had very few shared values or objectives, other than their opposition to the Bolsheviks and their determination to overthrow the Soviet regime. Most White leaders were nationalist and imperialist: they wanted to retain the Russian Empire and restore it to a position of strength in Europe and Asia. Beyond that, however, they had little in common politically. They had no system of government in mind, no agreed foreign policy, no single leader or leadership group. Some wanted the tsar restored; some wanted a constitutional monarchy; some wanted a republic; some expressed no views on the matter.
Together this broad and eclectic movement became known as the Whites. As one might expect, their biggest problems were division, disunity and a lack of leadership and coordination. Separate White armies were formed under the command of General Kornilov, General Denikin and Admiral Kolchak – all former military commanders of the tsarist regime. Kornilov’s army, also referred to as the Volunteer Army, was the largest of these. Foreign powers also intervened to bring about the collapse of Bolshevism. With the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, the Bolsheviks appeared not only as traitors to the war cause, but an ideological threat to democratic, capitalist nations. Most foreign powers refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Bolshevik regime, dealing instead with White generals in exile. British, French and American units were all sent to various Russian ports to support White forces, while Japanese troops invaded in the east. Foreign military intervention was lukewarm at best; rarely did foreign units directly engage the Bolsheviks on their own. Some foreign powers were chiefly interested in protecting resources previously lent to Russia. By late 1918 World War I had come to an end and nobody wanted to commit large troop numbers to another major conflict. As a consequence, foreign troops began withdrawing from Russia in 1919.
The Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War can be attributed to several factors. The White armies fought as separate units and for the most part were unable or unwilling to coordinate their strategy or offensives. They were geographically scattered around Russia and not often able to combine their forces in sufficient numbers to push back the Red Army. The Whites were politically divided and not particularly well led; the only common view all Whites shared was opposition to the Bolshevik regime. The Whites also lost important generals at important times: Kornilov was killed in battle in March 1918 and Kolchak was captured and executed in January 1920. In contrast to White forces, the Red Army was strongly disciplined and contained five million soldiers at its peak. The Bolsheviks and Soviets also maintained control of Russia’s industrial heartland, most of its major cities, its significant ports and railways; this gave them access to infrastructure, communications and supply lines. The Bolshevik propaganda campaign was also more successful, promoting a White victory as a return to the ‘old Russia’ – a prospect that terrified most Russians. Further, when administering the regions they controlled the Whites often resorted to similar methods employed by the Bolsheviks: conscription, grain requisitioning, coercion and terror. The Whites failed to win sufficient support from the Russian people and could not present themselves as an alternative to the Soviet regime.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Russian Civil War” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/russian-civil-war/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].
The Reds' Defeat Over the Whites in the Russian Civil War
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The Reds' Defeat Over the Whites in the Russian Civil War
From the summer of 1918 a civil war began in Russia between the
Bolsheviks (called the reds) and their opponents (called the whites).
There were several reasons why the reds won the civil war in 1921, I
will go through each of them in turn before coming to a conclusion on
which I think was the most influential.
The Reds were a single minded group with a single political aim based
on an important single geographical area of Russia. The Whites on the
other hand were divided politically and geographically and they
received only limited support from the western countries. There was a
massive turning point in the war. This was very important. Up until
the autumn of 1919, the Whites had been successful. They were starting
to look to close to victory for Trotsky’s liking. General Colchacks
forces were closing in around the Eastern front and Yudenich was on
the outskirts of Petrograd. Trotsky realized the state things were in
and rushed back to Petrograd where his armies attacked and slaughtered
the Whites armies in and around petrograd, causing them to retreat.
This was the turning point and was very important. The White army were
poorly organized. They were split up all over the country meaning
communication was very difficult. This was a major disadvantage
because it made it very difficult to organise attacks without
teamwork. Another huge disadvantage was that they lost the support of
their foreign allies. All British, French and American troops left
during 1919. Japan only stayed on longer as they wanted more power in
the Far East.
The Reds created an effective army led by Trotsky. Trotsky was a very
influential man. Without him it is questionable whether they would
have gone on to win the war. In his organising of the Red army,
Trotsky used professional army officer to make sure the battles were
carefully and tactically organised. He got political commissars to
work with the officers. This was not their only job however, if the
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officers were not loyal the Commissars were too execute them.
Sometimes they used their families as hostages. Another factor that
helped the Red Army was that Trotsky made sure they were very well
fed. He made it compulsory for men to join the Red Army and brought
back the death penalty. His ruthlessness was notorious and the means
in my opinion did not justify the ends but there is no question that
he built the red army to be a great fighting force.
The Reds used terror as a deliberate tactic to weaken opposition to
their rule. The Bolsheviks showed their true colours here. The
‘Terror’ we are talking about here is not your usual terror, but
torturing and murdering hundreds of thousands of people. They caused
fear beyond anything we can imagine. To start with they murdered the
royal family. Then, after an attempt on Lenin’s life they tortured
and murdered 200,000 people. They also took all the grain and food the
peasants had so they could feed the soldiers and the people in the
towns and cities. They even took the grain they had to plant for next
yers crops. This caused one of the worst famines ever recorded. There
was also terror against the church. They took every valuable item
belonging to the church and tried to crush their existence.
The Reds ruthlessly geared the whole economy to winning the civil war
through the policy of ‘War Communism’. ‘War Communism’ was basically
trying to control all industries and food supplies. The workers were
kept under the strictest of rules. They could not go on strike and
give surplus products and food to the government. They were not
allowed to sell anything for a profit. Once again this helped the Red
army but for everyone else it was tragic.
The Reds made great use of women to help in their war effort.
Bolshevik women were one of the reasons why the Bolsheviks won. They
were not only used as spies, to dig trenches and fortifications, and
helped with propaganda, but they fought and died on the front lines.
Konkordia Samoilovna, Alexandra Kollantai and Larrisa Reisner were all
famous women who helped the blosheviks to victory.
All of the above reason contributed to help the Bolsheviks succeed
against the whites. Of the five reasons why the Reds won the civil war
I believe that the most important reason was the way that Trotsky
created an effective and ruthless army. I believe this because without
the successful army they would never have had a chance. The whites
would have succeeded in the autumn of 1919 and on many other
occasions. The strength of the army led them to victory along with the
other reasons but the army was the decisive factor.