The Russian Civil War

Long Live the Three-million Man Red Army!, 1919. Artist: Anonymous
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Russia’s October Revolution of 1917 produced a civil war between the Bolshevik government and a number of rebel armies. This civil war is often said to have started in 1918, but bitter fighting began in 1917. Although most of the war was over by 1920, it took until 1922 for the Bolsheviks, who held the industrial heartland of Russia from the start, to crush all opposition.

Origins of the War: Reds and Whites Form

In 1917, after the second revolution in one year, the socialist Bolsheviks had seized command of Russia’s political heart. They dismissed the elected Constitutional Assembly at gunpoint and banned opposition politics; it was clear they wanted a dictatorship. However, there was still stiff opposition to the Bolsheviks, not least of which from the right-wing faction in the army; this began to form a unit of volunteers from hardcore anti-Bolsheviks in the Kuban Steppes. By June 1918 this force had survived great difficulties from the infamous Russian winter, fighting the ‘First Kuban Campaign’ or the ‘Ice March’, a near-continuous battle and movement against the Reds that lasted over fifty days and saw their commander Kornilov (who may have attempted a coup in 1917) killed. They now came under the command of General Denikin. They became known as the ‘Whites’ in contrast to the Bolsheviks' ‘Red Army’. On the news of Kornilov’s death, Lenin announced: “It can be said with certainty that, in the main, the civil war has ended.” (Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War, p. 22) He could not have been more wrong.

Areas on the outskirts of the Russian empire took advantage of the chaos to declare independence and in 1918 almost the whole periphery of Russia was lost to the Bolsheviks by localized military revolts. The Bolsheviks stimulated further opposition when they signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany. Although the Bolsheviks had gained some of their support by pledging to end the war, the terms of the peace treaty caused those on the left-wing who remained non-Bolshevik to split away. The Bolsheviks responded by expelling them from the Soviets and then targeted them with a secret police force. In addition, Lenin wanted a brutal civil war so he could sweep away the substantial opposition in one bloodletting.

Further military opposition to the Bolsheviks also emerged from foreign forces. The Western powers in World War 1 were still fighting the conflict and hoped to restart the eastern front in order to draw German forces away from the west or even just stop the weak Soviet government allowing Germans free reign in the newly conquered Russian land. Later, the allies acted to try and secure the return of nationalized foreign investments and defend the new allies they’d made. Among those campaigning for a war effort was Winston Churchill. To do this the British, French and US landed a small expeditionary force at Murmansk and Archangel.

In addition to these factions, the 40,000 strong Czechoslovak Legion, which had been fighting against Germany and Austria-Hungary for independence, was given permission to leave Russia via the eastern fringe of the former empire. However, when the Red Army ordered them to disarm after a brawl, the Legion resisted and seized control of local facilities including the vital Trans-Siberian Railway. The dates of these attacks (May 25th, 1918) are often incorrectly called the start of the Civil War, but the Czech legion did swiftly take a large territory, especially when compared to the armies in World War 1, thanks to seizing almost the entire railway and with it access to vast areas of Russia. The Czechs decided to ally with anti-Bolshevik forces in the hope of fighting against Germany again. Anti-Bolshevik forces took advantage of the chaos to coalesce here and new White armies emerged.

The Nature of the Reds and Whites

The ‘Reds’ were clustered around the capital. Operating under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, they had a uniform agenda, albeit one that shifted as the war continued. They were fighting to retain control and keep Russia together. Trotsky and Bonch-Bruevich (a vital ex-Tsarist commander) pragmatically organized them along traditional military lines and used Tsarist officers, despite socialist complaints. The Tsar’s former elite joined in droves because, with their pensions canceled, they had little choice. Equally crucially, the Reds had access to the hub of the rail network and could move troops around quickly, and controlled the key supply regions for both men and material. With sixty million people, the Reds could muster greater numbers than their rivals. The Bolsheviks worked with other socialist groups like the Mensheviks and SRs when they needed to, and turned against them when the chance was there. As a result, by the end of the civil war, the Reds were almost entirely Bolshevik.

The Whites were far from being a unified force. They were, in practice, comprised of ad hoc groups opposed to both the Bolsheviks, and sometimes each other, and were outnumbered and overstretched thanks to controlling a smaller population over a huge area. Consequently, they failed to pull together in a unified front and were forced to operate independently. The Bolsheviks saw the war as a struggle between their workers and Russia’s upper and middle classes, and as a war of socialism against international capitalism. The Whites were loath to recognize land reforms, so didn’t convert the peasants to their cause, and were loath to recognize nationalist movements, so largely lost their support. The Whites were rooted in the old Tsarist and monarchical regime, while Russia’s masses had moved on.

There were also the ‘Greens’. These were forces fighting, not for the reds of the whites, but after their own goals, like national independence; neither the Reds or Whites recognized breakaway regions - or for food and booty. There were also the ‘Blacks’, the Anarchists.

The Civil War

Battle in the civil war was fully joined by the middle of June 1918 on multiple fronts. The SRs created their own republic in Volga but their socialist army was beaten. An attempt by Komuch, the Siberian Provisional Government and others in the east to form a unified government produced a five-man Directory. However, a coup led by Admiral Kolchak took it over, and he was proclaimed Supreme Ruler of Russia. Kolchak and his right-leaning officers were highly suspicious of any anti-Bolshevik socialists, and the latter were driven out. Kolchek then created a military dictatorship. Kolchak was not put in power by foreign allies as the Bolsheviks later claimed; they were actually against the coup. Japanese troops had also landed in the Far East, while in late 1918 the French arrived through the south in the Crimea and British in the Caucuses.

The Don Cossacks, after initial problems, rose and seized control of their region and started pushing out. Their siege of Tsaritsyn (later known as Stalingrad) caused arguments between the Bolsheviks Stalin and Trotsky, an enmity which would greatly affect Russian history. Deniken, with his ‘Volunteer Army’ and the Kuban Cossacks, had great success with limited numbers against larger, but weaker, Soviet forces in the Caucasus and Kuban, destroying a whole Soviet army. This was achieved without allied aid. He then took Kharkov and Tsaritsyn, broke out into Ukraine, and began a general move north towards Moscow from across large parts of the south, providing the greatest threat to the Soviet capital of the war.

At the start of 1919, the Reds attacked Ukraine, where rebel socialists and Ukrainian nationalists who wanted the region to be independent fought back. The situation soon broke down into rebel forces dominating some regions and the Reds, under a puppet Ukrainian leader, holding others. Border regions like Latvia and Lithuania turned into stalemates as Russia preferred to fight elsewhere. Kolchak and multiple armies attacked from the Urals towards the west made some gains, got bogged down in the thawing snow, and were pushed well back beyond the mountains. There were battles in Ukraine and surrounding areas between other countries over territory. The Northwestern Army, under Yudenich advanced out of the Baltic and threatened St. Petersburg before his ‘allied’ elements went their own way and disrupted the attack, which was pushed back and collapsed.

Meanwhile, World War 1 had ended, and the European states engaged in foreign intervention suddenly found their key motivation had evaporated. France and Italy urged a major military intervention, Britain and the US much less. The Whites urged them to stay, claiming that the Reds were a major threat to Europe, but after a series of peace initiatives failed the European intervention was scaled back. However, weaponry and equipment were still imported to the Whites. The possible consequence of any serious military mission from the allies is still debated, and Allied supplies took a while to arrive, usually only playing a role later in the war.

1920: The Red Army Triumphant

The White threat was at its greatest in October 1919 (Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War, p. 195), but how great this threat was is debated. The Red Army had survived in 1919 and had time to solidify and become effective. Kolchak, pushed out of Omsk and vital supply territory by the Reds, tried to establish himself at Irktusk, but his forces fell apart and, after resigning, he was arrested by left-leaning rebels he’d managed to totally alienate during his rule, given to the Reds, and executed.

Other White gains were also driven back as the Reds took advantage of overreaching lines. Tens of thousands of Whites fled through the Crimea as Denikin and his army were pushed right back and morale collapsed, the commander himself fleeing abroad. A ‘Government of South Russia’ under Vrangel was formed in the region as the remainder fought on and advanced out but were pushed back. More evacuations then took place: nearly 150,000 fled by sea, and the Bolsheviks shot tens of thousands of those left behind. Armed independence movements in the newly declared republics of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan were crushed, and large portions added to the new USSR. The Czech Legion was allowed to travel east and evacuate by sea. The major failure of 1920 was the attack on Poland, which followed Polish attacks into disputed areas during 1919 and early 1920. The worker’s revolt the Reds were anticipating didn’t happen, and the Soviet army was ejected.

The Civil War was effectively over by November 1920, although pockets of resistance struggled on for a few more years. The Reds were victorious. Now their Red Army and Cheka could focus on hunting down and eliminating the remaining traces of White Support. It took until 1922 for Japan to pull their troops out of the Far East. Between seven and ten million had died from war, disease, and famine. All sides committed great atrocities.


The failure of the Whites in the civil war was caused in large part by their failure to unite, although because of Russia’s vast geography it’s hard to see how they ever could have provided a united front. They were also outnumbered and out supplied by the Red Army, which had better communications. It’s also believed that the failure of the Whites to adopt a program of policies that would have appealed to the peasants or the nationalists stopped them from gaining any mass support.

This failure allowed the Bolsheviks to establish themselves as rulers of the new, communist USSR, which would directly and substantially affect European history for decades. The Reds were by no means popular, but they were more popular than the conservative Whites thanks to land reform; by no means an effective government, but more effective than the Whites. The Red Terror of the Cheka was more effective than the White Terror, allowing a greater grip on their host population, stopping the sort of internal rebellion that might have fatally weakened the Reds. They outnumbered and outproduced their opponent's thanks to holding the core of Russia, and could defeat their enemies piecemeal. The Russian economy was massively damaged, leading to Lenin’s pragmatic retreat into the market forces of the New Economic Policy. Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were accepted as an independent.

The Bolsheviks have consolidated their power, with the party expanding, dissidents being quelled and institutions taking shape. Quite what effect the war had on the Bolsheviks, who started with a loose grip on Russia with little established, and ended firmly in charge, is debated. For many, the war happened so early in the lifespan of the Bolshevik’s rule that it had a massive effect, leading to the party’s willingness to coerce by violence, use highly centralized policies, dictatorship, and ‘summary justice’. A third of the Communist party (the old Bolshevik party) members who joined in 1917; 20 had fought in the war and gave the party an overall feeling of military command and unquestioned obedience to orders. The Reds were also able to tap into the Tsarist mindset to dominate.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Russian Civil War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Russian Civil War. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Russian Civil War." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).