We refer to it as the Russian Civil War, but that’s because human beings like to fall back on a simple, blanket description for anything beyond their ken. I’m not sure it’s possible for any modern observer to fully understand the multi-layered, propaganda-stained collection of armed conflicts that ranged across the former Russian Empire between late 1917 and the middle of 1921. I’ve talked about some its details during the last eighteen months, and made an attempt to give those details regional as well as global context – but I wouldn’t call it a fully committed or entirely successful attempt, and that’s not really good enough.
For one thing, this stuff matters. The giant political shake-up across Eastern Europe and much of Asia made a real difference to the futures of Russia and all the states around it, and the emergence of an established Soviet Union at its conclusion has shaped global geopolitics ever since. Secondly, this stuff has been propagandized up the wazoo for a hundred years. The conflict’s actual course and consequences have been redesigned over and again to suit whatever agenda the USSR, China, the West or any of the interest groups under their umbrellas happened to be pursuing at any given moment. The fog of this particular war, largely impenetrable at the time, has been thickening rather than dissipating. If you want a third good reason for some basic overview, consider how even a modicum of relevant information, dispassionately presented, can help expose the unwitting prejudices long-term exposure to propaganda creates in all of us. So here goes.
In broad military terms, the Russian Civil War is portrayed as the conflict between ‘Reds’, supporters of the Bolshevik regime in Moscow (which replaced Petrograd as the capital on 5 March, 1918), and ‘Whites’, a disparate collection of forces and interests united only in opposition to the new regime. Various Red forces under the strategic command of Lenin’s government – though often tactically autonomous, primarily committed to regional goals or both – fought conventional military campaigns against White forces that ranged from regional militias concerned with local issues or nationalist causes to large, essentially Russian armies committed to restoring traditional power structures across the entire former Russian Empire.
The latter received varying levels of military and economic support from foreign powers opposed to Bolshevism, but those powers also intervened directly in the conflict. Britain sent a small army to the to the far northwest of the Russian Empire (23 June, 1918: Britain Invades Russia!) and a smaller force to its Black Sea coasts (8 December, 1918: Britannia’s B-Team), while Japanese and US troops were landed in the far east (12, January, 1918: Port in a Storm [Pt.1]). The ‘Czech Legion’, a more or less coherent force of up to 100,000 Eastern Front veterans spread out along the trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, was also under French military control, at least formally, and constituted a major threat to the Soviet regime in the months immediately after the October Revolution (31 May, 1918: Fame and Fortune).
The conventional, big-picture war between Lenin’s state and White counter-revolutionaries was fought on three main battlefronts: in the northwest, southwest and east of the former empire. In the northwest, General Yudenich (best known for his wartime successes against the Ottoman Empire on the Caucasian Front), emerged from hiding to take command of White Russian forces in early 1919. Based in Helsinki (where Finnish White forces, with German help, had won their civil war against Red forces by the summer of 1918), he met with Allied officials at Stockholm in March 1919 and obtained limited support for formation of a volunteer army to attack into Russia. By September, after consolidating White elements in Finland and Estonia, he had raised some 17,000 troops and 53 guns as the Northwestern Army for an attack towards Petrograd (along with six tanks provided by the British and crewed by British volunteers, the only Allied ground troops involved in the campaign).
The attack opened in early October 1919, and reached the lightly defended Petrograd suburbs by 19 October, but its failure to secure the railway to Moscow allowed the Bolsheviks to send large-scale reinforcements west, and Yudenich was forced back into Estonia by the end of November.
Estonian nationalist forces had successfully quashed a Red Army invasion the previous February, and the country’s Constituent Assembly was already in negotiations with Moscow to secure formal independence from Russia. Though Yudenich himself appears to have been in favour of independence for the former Russian Empire’s northwestern satellites, official White Army policy was against it, so the Estonian regime disarmed and interned the Northwestern Army, effectively ending the campaign. Estonia concluded an armistice with the Bolsheviks on 3 January 1920, and Yudenich was arrested in the act of fleeing the country on 28 January.
Further south, in the northern Caucasus, a White Russian ‘Volunteer Army’ had been formed in November 1917 under General Kornilov, who had fled there after the failure of his revolt in Petrograd (14 September, 1917: You And Whose Army?). Allied with regional Cossack leaders – purely on the basis of shared opposition to Bolshevism – Kornilov responded to Red Army occupation of Rostov by advancing south into the newly created (and very temporary) North Caucasian Soviet Republic. He attacked its capital, Ekaterinadar (modern Krasnadar) in April 1918, but the attack failed and he was killed. The advance of Red forces from the north compelled the Volunteer Army’s new commander, General Denikin, to lead a gruelling northeasterly retreat, known as the Ice March, that took it back to the Cossack heartland around the Don and brought what is known as the First Kuban Campaign to an end.
Denikin’s 9,000 troops and some 3,000 Cossack horsemen launched the Second Kuban Campaign in June 1918, and by November they had taken nominal control of the entire region between the Black and Caspian seas, enabling support from the French through the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Expansion followed, so that a combination of volunteer recruitment and forced conscription brought the Volunteer Army’s overall strength up to around 100,000 troops by the end of 1918. By that time General Plyakov’s Army of the Don – a secondary White force formed in April 1918 to face any Bolshevik threat from the north – mustered about 10,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry. This amounted to an enormous numerical advantage over Bolshevik forces in southern Russia, which were scattered across the region and preoccupied with establishing control over civilian populations.
The future looked very promising for Denikin’s armies during the first half of 1919. In January, the various armed groups fighting Bolshevism in the region – including smaller armies in the Crimea, the Caucasus and Turkestan – were theoretically placed under his command as the Armed Forces of South Russia (AFSR), and during the spring his main force advanced north almost unopposed. By the start of July, the AFSR’s total strength was estimated at more than 100,000 infantry and 55,000 cavalry, supported by 19 aircraft (and by Black Sea naval units), and it had reached a line some 250km north of Rostov.
On 3 July, in Tsaritsyn (since renamed Stalingrad and Volgograd), Denikin officially proclaimed the AFSR’s advance on Moscow, and for the next four weeks it made patchy progress towards the target, slowed and in places stopped by Red Army reinforcements that reached to the front during the second half of the month. By early August, Soviet counterattacks had halted White armies on the eastern half of the front, but the Volunteer Army continued to advance north and west against relatively feeble opposition.
Denikin accepted immediate failure in the east on 11 August, when he redirected the Volunteer Army into an attack towards Kiev, intending to straighten his line and open links with anti-Bolshevik forces in Poland before resuming the march on Moscow. The strength of the Red Army’s southern front, commanded by General Yegoryev, had meanwhile risen to around 150,000 infantry and 24,000 cavalry, and it launched a major counterattack against the AFSR’s eastern positions on 14 August – but the numbers masked severe operational instability. To the west, the entire Red Army position in the Ukraine collapsed on 18 August, and the eastern offensive had turned into retreat by mid-September.
Denikin’s plans for Moscow had been delayed, but as his armies converged on Moscow during late September, taking Kursk on 21 September, he looked set to reach the capital sooner rather than later, a view shared by Lenin’s government, which made preparations to go underground. But the AFSR’s lines were becoming stretched beyond practical limits. Forced to divert part of his army to counter an uprising in the Ukraine by an anarchist army which, like the Estonians further north, preferred Bolshevik promises of independence to White armies best on restoration of the Empire, Denikin was left with little more than a poorly-supplied skeleton force to cover a broad front. The Bolsheviks meanwhile signed an armistice with similarly anti-imperial Polish nationalists, freeing troops to defend Moscow, and the re-mobilised, reinforced Red Army Southern Front launched a much more effective counteroffensive in the area around Orel and Kursk on 11 October.
Denikin was still advancing slowly towards Moscow, and took Orel on 13 November, but the Red Army attack had struck to his west and was diverted against his flank. After a week of fierce, often chaotic fighting, Red forces recaptured Orel on 20 October, and spent the next three weeks successfully blocking or repelling AFSR attempts to advance all along the line. By mid-November, exhausted White troops were retreating everywhere, and Kursk was recaptured on 18 November.
That was the turning point for Denikin. While the Bolsheviks renounced their agreement with the Ukrainian anarchists and retook the country, the Volunteer Army spent the following winter in retreat all the way to the Black Sea, its last units leaving Novorossiysk for the Crimea on 20 March 1920. Denikin resigned in April, and command passed to Crimean c-in-c General Wrangel, but the military war in southern Russia came to an effective end when dwindling popular and Allied support persuaded Wrangel to evacuate the Crimea in November.
The third major front of the Russian Civil War was contested in the east. A combination of local White forces, the Czech Legion and Allied troops landed at Vladivostok had all but wiped out Bolshevik influence in the Russian far east and Siberia by June 1918. At that point the Czech Legion was in control of the trans-Siberian railway and local risings had overthrown Bolshevik authorities in Omsk, where an All-Russian Provisional Government was formed in September in an attempt to unite left- and right-wing elements opposed to the Bolsheviks. Never able to agree on anything, it was replaced in November by a coup that installed Rear-Admiral Kolchak – a much-admired Black Sea naval commander brought to Omsk and sponsored by the British – as the regime’s leader with dictatorial powers .
Apparently a reluctant dictator, Kolchak was eventually accepted on all fronts as supreme commander of White forces – not least because his regime enjoyed widespread foreign recognition and smooth supply lines, especially for Japanese and US aid through Vladivostok. Taking the title Supreme Ruler and promoting himself to full admiral, he allowed extreme right-wing elements to pass laws persecuting anyone remotely liberal or left-wing within his fiefdom, was noisily opposed to all independence movements and, as a lifelong seaman, left most of the ground campaign that followed to military advisors. His politics alienated potential allies on the ground, most notably the Czech Legion, which ceased hostilities against the Bolsheviks from October 1918 – but he was nevertheless generally recognised as the figurehead of the anti-Bolshevik cause in Russia.
Kolchak’s collection of anti-Bolshevik forces had moved west as far as Perm by the end of 1918 (11 November, 1918: Peace Off), and his armies launched a major westward offensive in March 1919, at which point he was regarded in Moscow as the main threat to the regime’s survival. Red armies fell back, so that White forces had moved a further 200km west by mid-April, but as manpower and supplies dwindled with over-extension of their lines they were losing momentum all the time.
A Soviet counteroffensive, commanded by rising star General Tuchachevsky, began in mid-April and gradually halted the White advance. With reinforcements reaching the front all the time, the Red Army outnumbered White forces by July, retook Ekaterinburg on 15 July and won a key battle at Chelyabinsk ten days later, forcing Kolchak to withdraw east beyond the River Tobol. A White counteroffensive at the Tobol failed in September, and the next Russian offensive, launched on 14 October, drove Kolchak’s armies into full and permanent retreat.
The Red Army retook Omsk on 14 November, and chased retreating forces along the trans-Siberian railway. After thousands of White soldiers and camp followers had died of exposure, the remnant of Kolchak’s armies found refuge east of Irkutsk, in territory being policed by the Japanese Army, and the Red Army was ordered not to risk conflict with Japan by continuing the pursuit. Kolchak himself was taken by members of the Czech Legion while travelling to Irkutsk by train, and handed over on 14 January 1920 to the left-wing regime that had taken power in the city. A Bolshevik military committee took control of Irkutsk six days later, and Kolchak was executed on 7 February, though his death wasn’t announced until the Red Army finally arrived a month later.
Command of remaining White troops east of Irkutsk passed to General Semonyev, but after Japanese withdrawal from the region his small Far Eastern Army fled to China in November 1920. Full Japanese withdrawal from Russia was a slow, reluctant process, and the last White stronghold in Russia didn’t fall until October 1922, when the Red Army’s capture of Vladivostok completed Soviet reclamation of the Russian far east.
So that was an outline of the strictly military dimension to the Russian Civil War, a chaotic but in many ways old-fashioned series of campaigns that ended once and for all the prospect of imperial revival across the Tsar’s former territories. I haven’t the space or time to discuss the conflict’s other dimensions in detail – and I’m not sure it can be done with less than book – but they are fundamental to any understanding of the Soviet Union’s birth pangs and subsequent development.
Broadly speaking (of course), Lenin’s regime and the Red Army were dealing, not only with White counter-revolutionaries and their overseas supporters, but with a plethora of nationalist movements for independence or autonomy, many of them armed and receiving foreign backing. Soviet authorities also fought a chaotic and constant plague of peasant uprisings throughout the former empire, involving outbreaks of violence by ‘Green’ forces (or sometimes mobs) one way or another opposed to Bolshevik taxes and/or institutions, and that struggle continued until the middle of 1921. Both were wars in themselves, but intricately linked at the centre by the strategic and tactical imperatives driving Soviet military strategy and dispositions, as guided by Leon Trotsky.
I hope to give Trotsky his due, one way and another, during the next few months, but it is fair to say that Bolshevik survival under those circumstances was a fairly astonishing triumph, albeit one achieved at the cost of institutionalising terror as a government tool, devaluing international law to the point of irrelevance and turning propaganda into the basic language of state. The other apparent cost to the infant Soviet Union at the end of the Civil War was the loss of Russia’s former satellites to independence, but most were recaptured, in defiance of signed treaties, once their overseas support dwindled with post-War pacifism and economic stresses in Britain, France and the USA.
Through the haze created by a century of heavy propaganda, it seems fairly clear that Bolshevik triumph owed a lot to Given the half-baked nature of overseas support and the widespread unpopularity of their leaders’ aims, the defeat of White forces on all three main battlefronts seems far less surprising, and it almost goes without saying that peasant uprisings were never in any way sufficiently organised or supplied to do more than short-term, local damage to central government ambitions. I realise this has been a bit of an old-school history slog, but like I said earlier this stuff matters and is largely lost in the mist of heritage ignorance. Knowing some basic details can’t do anyone any harm.