The Russian Civil War 1918-21

russian civil war
A White propaganda poster of the Russian Civil War, depicting the Bolsheviks as a red dragon

The Russian Civil War (1918-21) was a long struggle for the control of Russia. It erupted in the wake of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik closure of the Constituent Assembly. The Civil War was fought on several fronts by different leaders and groups, each with different political ideals and objectives.

Who was involved?

The most significant groups involved in the Civil War were the Bolsheviks and their Red Army, and a loose coalition of anti-Bolshevik groups known as the Whites or White armies. There were other groups not aligned with the Bolsheviks or Whites who fought for their own objections, such as regional interests, political autonomy or independence.

The Russian Civil War was a pervasive and often intense conflict. It drew in many disparate political and military groups, nationalist movements and social classes. Several foreign powers who opposed the Bolshevik regime also contributed troops, weapons, supplies and intelligence to the Whites.

Like other internecine conflicts, the Russian Civil War was marked by periods of confusion and great division, shifting loyalties and intense propaganda. It was a brutal conflict that produced terror, war crimes and human suffering on catastrophic levels.

The roots of civil war

The Russian Civil War began with growing resistance to the Bolshevik regime that seized control of Russia in October 1917.

There had been opposition to the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution but this intensified after the closure of the Constituent Assembly (January 1918) and the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918).

To tsarists, liberals, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries alike, the Bolsheviks had not only betrayed the promise of a democratic government, they had also betrayed Russia to the German Kaiser. Opposition began to grow and intensify into a fully-fledged counter-revolutionary movement.

The Czech Legion

The catalyst for the outbreak of civil war was an uprising by Czech Legion. A Russian Imperial Army unit that served in World War I, the Czech Legion contained volunteers of Czech and Slovak heritage who enlisted to defend their homeland.

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, who were impatient to travel, and hostile 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 Nicholas II and his family were being held.

In the weeks that followed, 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 groups, including former tsarist officers and loyalist militias. By the end of June 1918, counter-revolutionaries controlled most of the railway and with it, all of Siberia.

White governments

Behind the White armies emerged a political movement, a loose coalition comprised of monarchists, liberals, non-Bolshevik socialists and disgruntled peasants. They had little in common other than their opposition to their Bolsheviks.

Some of these groups established counter-revolutionary regimes, usually based in a particular city or region. Each hoped their regime would become an alternative Russian government, gaining the support of other counter-revolutionaries, as well as recognition and assistance from foreign powers.

Two of these first White governments were formed by Socialist-Revolutionaries: the Provisional Siberian Government, based in Vladivostok, and the Committee of Constituent Assembly Members, formed in Samara.

In September 1918, these two bodies merged and relocated to the city of Ufa. This new government, the Ufa Directorate, was led by a five-man committee, three of whom were Socialist-Revolutionaries.

The rise of Kolchak

In November, a group of Cossack officers, encouraged and backed by the British, arrested the Ufa executive and forced them into exile. After this coup d’etat, command of the government passed to Alexander Kolchak, a former tsarist naval commander. After taking power, Kolchak issued a statement outlining his aims:

“…the organisation of a fighting force, the overthrow of Bolshevism and the establishment of law and order, so that the Russian people may be able to choose a form of government in accordance with its desire and to realise the high ideas of liberty and freedom.”

Yet another White government was based in Arkhangelsk, a White Sea port city, 700 miles north-west of St Petersburg. The Provisional Government of the Northern Regions, as it was known, was headed by Nikolai Tchaikovsky, though it recognised the supremacy of Kolchak and his government.

Other White regimes

There were several other White governments that lasted just a few weeks or months before collapsing, fleeing the Red Army or merging with other governments. These short-lived White governments were based in Ekaterinburg, Novorossiysk, Priamuraye, Pskov, Sevastopol and Transbaikal.

Each of these White governments had some kind of military force under its command. The size, strength and leadership of these White armies varied considerably.

The largest of these White contingents was Anton Denikin’s Volunteer Army in southern Russia, which at its peak in mid-1919 numbered around 40,000 men. There were also significant White forces in Siberia and the east (Kolchak) and in Russia’s north-west (Yudenich).

Foreign intervention

Foreign powers also intervened in Russia in an attempt to force the collapse of Bolshevism. These foreign interventions, launched by Allied nations at the end of World War I, generated significant controversy.

With the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, the Bolsheviks became not just traitors to the war but a political 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 occupied Vladivostok 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.

Why did the Bolsheviks win?

It difficult to pinpoint a definitive end to the Russian Civil War. Kolchak’s arrest and execution in February 1920 was an important turning point, while the retreat of Wrangel‘s army from southern Russia in November 1920 marked the Bolshevik victory in European Russia. Resistance continued in Siberia and Central Asia until the mid-1920s.

How and why did the Bolsheviks win the Russian Civil War? Their victory can be attributed to several factors. One is that the Bolsheviks, for all their problems, fought with a clear political objective and unity of purpose. The Bolshevik mission was to establish a soviet socialist republic across Russia. The Whites, in contrast, were not sure what they wanted to create.

White disorganisation and disunity was another factor. The White armies fought as separate units and were unable or unwilling to coordinate their strategy or offensives. They were geographically scattered and separated by vast distances. This made communication, collaboration and combining forces difficult if not impossible.

Political disunity

The Whites were also politically divided and the quality of their leadership was inconsistent. Many White generals, while capable soldiers, either had political ambitions of their own or distrusted those of their fellow White commanders. The Whites also lost important generals at critical times, such as Kornilov (killed in battle in March 1918) and Kolchak (executed in January 1920).

In contrast, the Red Army, though not without its own problems, contained five million soldiers at its peak and was tightly disciplined.

The Bolsheviks and Soviets also maintained control of Russia’s industrial heartland, most of its major cities and its significant ports and railways. This gave them better access to infrastructure, communications and supply lines.

Propaganda and terror

The Bolshevik propaganda campaign was also more successful. Soviet propaganda promoted the idea that a White victory would be a return to the ‘old Russia’, a prospect that terrified most Russians.

That the Whites used similar methods to the Bolsheviks did not help their cause. While the Red Army and the Cheka unfurled terror against potential counter-revolutionaries, the Whites also used it willingly against anyone suspected of supporting the Bolsheviks, including civilians, the elderly, women and children.

Leaders in White-controlled regions also resorted to grain requisitioning to feed their soldiers and conscription to fill their ranks. As a result, the Whites failed to win support from the people or present themselves as an alternative to the Soviet regime.

civil war in russia

1. The Russian Civil War was a three-year struggle for control of Russia, fought by the Bolshevik Red Army, counter-revolutionary White armies and other non-aligned forces.

2. The Civil War was born of anti-Bolshevik activity following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the closure of the Constituent Assembly and the revolt of the Czech Legion.

3. The Civil War saw the formation of White armies and governments in different locations around Russia, particularly in the north, southern Russia and Siberia.

4. These White regimes were backed and assisted by foreign governments, particularly the major Allies, though they were reluctant to become directly involved in the Civil War.

5. Ultimately, the political divisions and military problems of the White movement, along with the Bolsheviks maintaining control of European Russia and its industrial centres, allowed the Bolsheviks to secure victory in 1921.

Citation information
Title: “The Russian Civil War 1918-21”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 15, 2019
Date accessed: September 05, 2023
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