This article is part of theHistory of Russia series.
Russian Civil War
|Table of contents
The Russian Civil War
Following the success of the revolution the Communists decided to make a peace with Germany at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, ratified on March 6 1918. Despite re-organising the old army into the "Workers' and Peasants' Red Army" in January 1918, when the Germans began an advance into Russia in February the chaotic and undisciplined state of the army was such that a negotiated peace was the only option.
This treaty galvanised a number of anti-Communist groups both inside and outside Russia into action against the new regime, Winston Churchill declaring that Bolshevism must be "strangled in its cradle".
The war was fought mainly between the "Reds", the communists and revolutionaries, and the "Whites - the monarchists, reactionaries, democrats and conservatives who opposed the Russian Revolution. There were also foreign elements involved supporting the Whites in their fight against Bolshevism. There was also a collection of proscribed moderate socialists who fought against both sides, or on occasion with the "Reds" against the "Whites". This group was known as the "Greens.
The military 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-Bolshevich 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. The main antagonists were the Czecho-Slovaks and the pro-Bolshevik Latvians.
The second period of the war was the key stage, it lasted only from March to November 1919. At first the White armies advancing from the south (Denikin), the northwest (Yudenich) and the east (Kolchak) were successful, forcing the new Red Army back and advancing on Moscow. However under Trotsky the Red Army was reformed and pushed back Kolchak's forces from June and the armies of Denikin and Iudenich from October. The fighting power of Kolchak and Denikin was broken almost simultaneously in mid-November.
The final period of the conflict was the extended defeat of the White forces in the Crimea. Wrangel had gathered the remnants of the armies of Denikin and they had fortified their positions in the Crimea. With the Red Army fighting in Poland in Polish-Soviet war since 1919 (or even earlier) the Whites held their positions until that struggle was over. When the full force of the Red Army was turned on them they were soon overwhelmed, the remaining troops being evacuated to Constantinople in November 1920.
Britain, France and the United States all intervened in the civil war. After the Allies defeated Germany in November 1918, they continued their intervention in the war against the communists, in the interests of averting what they feared might become a world socialist revolution. Lenin was surprised by the outbreak of the Civil War and initially under-estimated the extent of the forces that rose against his new country, early successes in the Don region made him over-confident.
The initial group that stood against the Communists from the start were mainly counter-revolutionary generals and local Cossack armies that had declared their loyalty to the Provisional Government; prominent were Kaledin (Don Cossacks), Dutov (Orenburg Cossacks), and Semenov (Baikal Cossacks). In November General Alekseev, the old tsarist Commander-in-Chief, began to organise a Volunteer Army in Novocherkassk, he was joined in December by 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 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. The Soviets had succeeded in alienating the local population and the Volunteer Army had many new recruits.
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 a degree of popular support and the authority of their election victory on the Constituent Assembly in 1918. The new problem for them was the need for armed support. An early attempt by the SRs to recruit Latvian troops in July 1918 was an disaster. Fortunately the Czecho-Slovak legion proved to be a more reliable group to aid the "democratic counter-revolution".
The Czecho-Slovak legion had been part of the tsarist army and by October 1917 numbered around 30,000 men, mostly ex-prisoners of war and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army, encouraged by Tomas 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 in June 1918 the force rebelled while they were in Cheliabinsk. Within a month the Czecho-Slovaks controlled much of western Siberia, and parts of the Volga and Urals regions. By August they had extended their control even further, cutting off Siberia (and its precious grain supplies) from the rest of Russia.
The Mensheviks and SRs supported peasant action against the 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 (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. However Komuch was a dictatorship and they could be as ruthless as the Soviets they deplored.
There were also conservative and nationalist "governments" being formed by the Bashkirs, the Kirghiz and the Turkic-Tatar as well as a Siberian Regional Government in Omsk. In September 1918 all the non-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 Kolchak. On November 18 a coup d'etat 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—confirming its opponents as reactionaries. Kolchak, as the Soviets feared, 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 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 risings organised by the SRs (and Anarchists) and 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 and the wounding of Lenin in another attempt, the Red Terror was unleashed—the Mensheviks and SRs were expelled from the Soviets and anyone suspected of counter-revolutionary activity could be imprisoned or executed without trial.
Following their poor display against the Germans the Red Army had been re-reorganised under the new Supreme Military Council, headed by Leon Trotsky—the many different units were homogenized and former army officers were brought back into the army as "military specialists". In May 1918 with the number of soldiers static at 450,000 compulsory conscription was reintroduced. Followed by a purge of army commanders in July, with the purpose of not introducing Communists but of bringing back capable military officers. In September a resolution was passed directing the whole of Soviet Russia towards military measures, Trotsky was appointed head of a new Revolutionary Military council of the Republic, with wide-ranging powers.