The Russian Civil War (1917–1923) was a multi-party war that occurred within the former Russian Empire after the Russian provisional government collapsed and the Bolshevik party assumed power in Petrograd (St. Petersburg).
The principal fighting occurred between the Bolshevik Red Army and the White Army, the loosely-allied anti-Bolshevik forces. Many foreign armies warred against the Red Army, notably the Allied Forces, yet many volunteer foreigners fought in both sides of the Russian Civil War, including nationalist and regional political groups such as the Ukrainian nationalist Green Army, the Ukrainian anarchist Black Army and Black Guards, and warlords such as Ungern von Sternberg. These forces sometimes fought the Reds and the Whites, sometimes sided with one or the other, and sometimes changed sides. Moreover, these warring factions spilled their war from Russia to Persia and Mongolia; the Russian borders, themselves, were unclear in the cases of new states that split from Russia after the revolution.
The most intense fighting took place from 1918 to 1920. In Soviet historiography the end of the Civil War is dated to October 25, 1922 when the Red Army occupied Vladivostok, previously held by the Provisional Priamur Government. The last enclave of the White Forces was the Ayano-Maysky District on the Pacific coast, where General Anatoly Pepelyayev did not capitulate until June 17, 1923.
The Bolsheviks decided to immediately make peace with the German Empire and the Central Powers, as they had promised the Russian people prior to the Revolution. Vladimir Lenin's political enemies attributed this decision to his sponsorship by the foreign office of William II, German Emperor, offered by the latter in hopes that with a revolution, Russia would withdraw from World War I. This suspicion was bolstered by the German Foreign Ministry's sponsorship of Lenin's return to Petrograd.
On 2 December 1917 an armistice was signed between Russia and the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk and peace talks began. As a condition for peace, the proposed treaty by the Central Powers conceded huge portions of the former Russian Empire to Imperial Germany and the Ottoman Empire, greatly upsetting nationalists and conservatives. Leon Trotsky, representing the Bolsheviks, refused at first to sign the treaty while continuing to observe a unilateral cease fire, following the policy of "No war, no peace".
In view of this, on 18 February 1918, the Germans began an all out advance on the Eastern Front, encountering virtually no resistance in a campaign which lasted eleven days. Signing a formal peace treaty was the only option in the eyes of the Bolsheviks, because the Russian army was demobilized and the newly formed Red Guard were incapable of stopping the advance. They also understood that the impending counterrevolutionary resistance was more dangerous than the concessions of the treaty, which Lenin viewed as temporary in the light of aspirations for a world revolution. The Soviets acceded to a peace treaty and the formal agreement, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, was ratified on March 6, 1918. The Soviets viewed the treaty as merely a necessary and expedient means to end the war. Therefore they ceded large amounts of territory to the German Empire, which created several short lived satellite buffer states within its sphere of influence in Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Following the defeat of Germany in World War I, the Soviets eventually recovered some of the territories they gave up, though some of these countries remained independent until the onset of WW II.
In the wake of the October Revolution, the old Russian army had been demobilized and the volunteer based Red Guard was the Bolsheviks' main military arm. In January, Trotsky headed its reorganization into the "Workers' and Peasants' Red Army," in order to create a more professional fighting force. He instituted a forceful conscription program, frequently resorting to repressive tactics, and used former Tsarist officers as "military specialists".
In the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks constituted a minority of the vote and dissolved it. In general, they had support primarily in the Saint Petersburg and Moscow Soviets and some other industrial regions.
While resistance to the Red Guard began on the very next day after the Bolshevik uprising, the Brest-Litovsk treaty and the political ban became a catalyst for the formation of anti-Bolshevik groups both inside and outside Russia, pushing them into action against the new regime.
A loose confederation of anti-Bolshevik forces aligned against the Communist government, including land-owners, republicans, conservatives, middle-class citizens, reactionaries, pro-monarchists, liberals, army generals, non-Bolshevik socialists who still had grievances and democratic reformists, voluntarily united only in their opposition to Bolshevik rule. Their military forces, bolstered by foreign influence and led by General Yudenich, Admiral Kolchak and General Denikin, became known as the White movement (sometimes referred to as the "White Army"), and they controlled significant parts of the former Russian empire for most of the war.
A Ukrainian nationalist movement known as the Green Army was active in the Ukraine in the early part of the war. More significant was the emergence of a anarchist political and military movement known as the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine or the Anarchist Black Army led by Nestor Makhno. The Black Army, which counted numerous Jews and Ukrainian peasants in its ranks, played a key part in halting General Denikin's White Army offensive towards Moscow during 1919, later ejecting Cossack forces from the Crimea.
The Western Allies, also expressed their dismay at the Bolsheviks, upset at (1) the withdrawal of Russia from the war effort, (2) worried about a possible Russo-German alliance, and perhaps most importantly (3) galvanised by the prospect of the Bolsheviks making good their threats to assume no responsibility for, and so default on, Imperial Russia's massive foreign loans the legal notion of Odious debt being then unknown. Winston Churchill declared that Bolshevism must be "strangled in its cradle". In addition, there was a concern, shared by many Central Powers as well, that the socialist revolutionary ideas would spread to the West. Hence, many of these countries expressed their support for the Whites, including the provision of troops and supplies.
The majority of the fighting ended in 1920 with the defeat of General Pyotr Wrangel in the Crimea, but a notable resistance in certain areas continued until 1922 (e.g, Kronstadt Uprising, Tambov Rebellion, and the final resistance of the White movement in the Far East).
The Soviet historiography traditionally referred to the conflict as the "Civil War and Military Intervention of 1917–1922". This term also encompassed the Polish-Soviet War, resistance in Ukraine, as well as Basmachi resistance and foreign intervention in Central Asia in its definition.
In the European part of Russia the war was fought across three main fronts; the eastern, the southern and the north-western. It can also be roughly split into the following periods.
The first period lasted from the Revolution until the Armistice. Already on the date of the Revolution, Cossack General Kaledin refused to recognize it and assumed full governmental authority in the Don region, where the Volunteer Army began amassing support. The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk also resulted in direct Allied intervention in Russia and the arming of military forces opposed to the Bolshevik government. There were also many German commanders who offered support against the Bolsheviks, fearing a confrontation with them was impending as well.
Most of the fighting in this first period was sporadic, involving only small groups amid a fluid and rapidly shifting strategic scene. Among the antagonists were the Czechoslovaks, known as the Czechoslovak Legion or "White Czechs", the Poles of the Polish 5th Rifle Division and the pro-Bolshevik Red Latvian riflemen.
The second period of the war was the key stage, which lasted from January to November 1919. At first the White armies' advances from the south (under Denikin), the east (under Kolchak) and the northwest (under Yudenich) were successful, pushing back the new Red Army on all three fronts. But Leon Trotsky reformed the Red Army and pushed back Kolchak's forces (in June) and Denikin's and Yudenich's armies (in October). The fighting power of all the White armies was broken almost simultaneously in mid-November.
The third period of the war was the extended siege of the last White forces in the Crimea. Wrangel had gathered the remnants of the armies of Denikin, and they had fortified their positions in the Crimea. They held these positions until the Red Army returned from Poland where they had been fighting the Polish-Soviet war. When the full force of the Red Army was turned on them the Whites were soon overwhelmed, and the remaining troops were evacuated to Constantinople in November 1920.
The last period of 1921–1923 is characterized by two main courses of events. The first was the escalation of peasant uprisings. The uprisings started already in 1918, but they were fueled by the demobilization of the Red Army after their defeat of the major forces of the White Movement. The second is the resistance of the White remnants in Eastern Siberia (Transbaikalia, Yakutia) and Russian Far East. In Soviet historiography the end of the Civil War is dated by October 25, 1922, the day of the take over of Vladivostok, however some hostilities continued later as well.
The initial groups that fought against the Communists were local Cossack armies that had declared their loyalty to the Provisional Government. Prominent among them were Kaledin of the Don Cossacks and Semenov of the Siberian Cossacks. In November, General Alekseev, the old Tsarist Commander-in-Chief, began to organize a Volunteer Army (Добровольческая Армия, Dobrovolcheskaya Armiya) in Novocherkassk. He was joined in December by Kornilov. These forces fought against the Bolshevik army all across the Ukraine. The Cossacks took Rostov in December 1917.
Rostov was captured by the Soviets from the Don Cossacks on 23 February 1918. The day before, the Volunteer Army embarked on the epic Ice March to the Kuban, where they joined with the Kuban Cossacks to mount an abortive assault on Ekaterinodar. General Kornilov was killed in the fighting on April 13, Operational command passed to General Denikin who spent the next few months rebuilding his army. In October, General Alekseev died of a heart attack and General Denikin was (in theory at least) now the top political leader for the White armies in Southern Russia.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which pulled Russia out of the war and gave Germany control over vast stretches of western Russia, came as a shock to the Allies. The British and the French had supported Russia on a massive scale with war materials and money. After the treaty, it looked like much of that material would fall into the hands of the Germans. Under this pretext began allied intervention in the Russian Civil War with the United Kingdom and France sending troops into Russian ports. There were violent confrontations with troops loyal to the Bolsheviks.
It was not until spring, 1918 that the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, as well as some of the Mensheviks joined the armed struggle against the Bolsheviks. Initially, they had been opposed to civil war, but the Brest-Litovsk treaty and the establishment of harsh dictatorial measures changed their position. The Socialist-Revolutionaries could well have been a serious threat, for they had some popular support and the authority of their election victory on the Russian Constituent Assembly in 1918, but they needed an army. An early attempt by the Socialist-Revolutionary Party to recruit Latvian troops in July 1918 was a failure. The Czechoslovak Legion proved to be a more reliable group in aid of their "democratic counter-revolution".
The Czech Legion had been part of the Russian army and numbered around 30,000 by October 1917. Most were former prisoners of war and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian Army. Encouraged by Tomáš Masaryk, the legion was renamed the Czechoslovak Army Corps and hoped to continue fighting the Germans. An agreement with the new Bolshevik government to pass by sea through Vladivostok (so they could unite with the Czechoslovak legions in France) collapsed over an attempt to disarm the Corps. Instead their soldiers disarmed the Bolshevik forces in June 1918 at Cheliabinsk. Within a month the Czechoslovak Legion controlled most of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Lake Baikal to the Ural Mountains regions. By August they had extended their control even farther, taking over Ekaterinburg on July 26, 1918. Shortly before the fall of Ekaterinburg (on July 17, 1918), the former Tsar and his family had been executed by the Ural Soviet to prevent them falling into the hands of the Whites.
The Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries supported peasant fighting against Soviet control of food supplies. In May 1918, with the support of the Czechoslovak Legion, they took Samara and Saratov, establishing the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly (Комуч, Komuch). By July the authority of Komuch extended over much of the area controlled by the Czechoslovak Legion. The Komuch pursued an ambivalent social policy, combining democratic and even socialist measures, such as the institution of an eight-hour working day, with "restorative" actions, such as returning both factories and land to their former owners.
There were also conservative and nationalist "governments" being formed by the Bashkirs, the Kyrgyz and the Tatars (see Idel-Ural State) as well as a Siberian Regional Government in Omsk. In September 1918, all the anti-Soviet governments met in Ufa and agreed to form a new Russian Provisional Government in Omsk, headed by a Directory of five: three Socialist-Revolutionaries (Avksentiev, Boldyrev and Zenzinov) and two Kadets, (V. A. Vinogradov and P. V. Vologodskii).
However, the new government quickly came under the influence of the new War Minister, Rear-Admiral Kolchak. On November 18, a coup d'état established Kolchak as dictator. The members of the Directory were arrested and Kolchak proclaimed the "Supreme Ruler of Russia". Kolchak was apolitical and not involved in the coup. He proved to be ineffective as both a political and military leader (his training being all in naval warfare). Kolchak also did not get along with the leaders of Czechoslovak Legion, the strongest military force in the area.
To the Soviets, the emergence of Admiral Kolchak was a political victory because it confirmed their opponents as anti-democratic reactionaries. Following a reorganisation of the People's Army, Kolchak's forces captured Perm and Ufa in December 1918. But this was to be the high water-mark for his army.
In July, two left Socialist-Revolutionaries and Cheka employees, Blyumkin and Andreyev, assassinated the German ambassador, Count Mirbach, in Moscow, in an attempt to provoke the Germans into renewing hostilities. Other left Socialist-Revolutionaries attempted to rouse Red Army troops against the regime. The Soviets managed to put down these local uprisings, and Lenin personally apologised to the Germans for the assassination. There were mass arrests of Socialist-Revolutionaries. Following two further terrorist acts on August 30 — these were the assassination of the Chairman of the Petrograd Cheka, Uritsky, and the wounding of Lenin -- the "Red Terror" was unleashed in response. Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries were expelled from the Soviets and anyone suspected of counter-revolutionary activity could be imprisoned or executed without trial.
The stage was now set for the key year of the Civil War. The Bolshevik government was firmly in control of the core of Russia, from Petrograd through Moscow and south to Tsaritsyn (now Volgograd). Against this government in the east, Admiral Kolchak had a small army and had some control over the Trans-Siberian Railroad. In the south Cossack armies controlled much of the Don and the Ukraine. In the Caucasus, General Denikin had established an army. In the newly independent country of Estonia General Yudenich was organizing an army. Estonia was overtly hostile to the Bolsheviks and had been fighting with them since November 1918. The French occupied Odessa. The British occupied Murmansk. The British and the United States occupied Arkhangelsk and the Japanese occupied Vladivostok.
The Cossacks had been unable to organize and capitalize on their successes at the end of 1917. By 1919, they were beginning to run short of supplies. Consequently, when the Soviet counter-offensive began in January 1919 under the Bolshevik leader Antonov-Ovseenko, the Cossack forces rapidly fell apart. The Red Army captured Kiev on February 3, 1919 and ten days later, with his army in chaos, General Kaledin committed suicide.
While the war was going on in Ukraine, Trotsky sent another army against Kolchak's forces. This army, lead by the capable commander Tukhachevsky, recaptured Ekaterinburg on January 27, 1919 and continued to push along the Trans-Siberian railroad. Both sides had victories and losses, but by the middle of summer the Red army was larger than the White army and had managed to recapture territory previously lost. With the retreat of Kolchak's White Army, Great Britain and the United States pulled their troops out of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk before the onset of winter trapped their forces in port. On November 14, 1919, the Red Army captured Omsk. Admiral Kolchak lost control of his government shortly after this defeat; White Army forces in Siberia essentially ceased to exist by December.
Although Great Britain had withdrawn its own troops from the theater, it continued to give significant military aid (money, weapons, food, ammunition, and some military advisors) to the White armies during 1919, especially to General Yudenich. Despite large quantities of aid given to White commanders by Allied nations, many White commanders felt that the aid that was given was insufficient. Yudenich in particular complained that he was receiving insufficient support. The First World War had greatly influenced the tactical thinking of many commanders on both sides of the Civil War, causing some commanders to ask for greater numbers of guns and heavy artillery than were needed when engaged in a mobile campaign over the Russian steppes. However, when attacking large urban areas held by Red Army troops with populations largely sympathetic to the Bolshevik government, the reality was that it would take more heavy guns, troops, and/or time to beseige a city than were available to White Army forces.
In the early summer, the Caucasus Army (now under operational command of General Wrangel) attacked north, trying to relieve the pressure on Kolchak's army or even link up with it. Wrangel's troops managed to capture Tsaritsyn on June 17, 1919. Trotsky responded to this threat by sending Tukhachevsky with a new army against Wrangel's troops. The Caucasus army of Wrangel, faced with superior numbers, retreated south, leaving Tsaritsyn to the Bolsheviks.
Later in the summer, another Cossack force called the Don Army under the command of Cossack General Mamontov attacked into Ukraine. The Red army, stretched thin by fighting on all fronts, was forced out of Kiev on September 2, 1919. Mamontov's Don Army continued north towards Voronezh but there they were defeated by Tukhachevsky's army on October 24. Tukhachevsky's army then turned towards yet another threat, the rebuilt Volunteer Army of General Denikin. Denikin's forces constituted a real threat, and for a time threatened to reach Moscow. However, a timely intervention by the Ukrainian Anarchist Black Army led by Nestor Makhno seized several key railroad lines, cities, and munition depots along the White Army's lines of supply, defeating several White infantry regiments along the way. Alarmed by events in their homeland, Ukrainian White commanders soon forced General Denikin to shift his offensive and many of his troops to the southern front. Deprived of food, ammunition, artillery, and fresh reinforcements, Denikin's army was decisively defeated in a series of battles in October and November 1919. The Red Army recaptured Kiev on December 17 and the defeated Cossacks fled back towards the Black Sea.
While the White Armies were being routed in the center and the east, they had succeeded in driving Nestor Makhno's anarchist Black Army (formally known as the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine) out of part of southern Ukraine and the Crimea. Despite this setback, Moscow was loathe to aid Makhno and the Black Army, and refused to provide arms to anarchist forces in the Ukraine. Trotsky openly discussed the hope that the two armies would destroy each other. He also ordered the withdrawal of some Red Army units from their existing positions, allowing White Cossack forces to re-enter and occupy portions of Crimea and the southern Ukraine.
In the meantime, the Red Army turned to deal with a new threat. This one came from White Army General Yudenich, who had spent the spring and summer organizing a small army in Estonia, with British support. In October 1919 he tried to capture Petrograd in a sudden assault with a force of around 20,000 men. The attack was well-executed, using night attacks and lightning cavalry maneuvers to turn the flanks of the defending Red army. Yudenich also had six British tanks that caused panic whenever they appeared. By October 19, 1919 Yudenich's troops had reached the outskirts of Petrograd. Some members of Bolshevik central committee in Moscow were willing to give up Petrograd, but Trotsky refused to accept the loss of the city and personally organized its defenses. In desperation, he armed all available workers, men and women, ordering the transfer of military forces from Moscow. Within a few weeks the Red army defending Petrograd had tripled in size and outnumbered Yudenich three to one. At this point Yudenich, short of supplies, decided to call off the siege of the city, withdrawing his army across the border to Estonia. Upon his return, his army was disarmed by order of the Estonian government, fearful of reprisals by Moscow and its Red Army War Commissar, which turned out to be well-founded. However, the Bolshevik forces pursuing Yudenich were beaten back by the Estonian army. Following the Treaty of Tartu most of Yudenich's soldiers went into exile.
The victories by the Bolsheviks over Mamontov's Cossack army at Voronezh, Yudenich at Petrograd, and Kolchak at Omsk — transformed the war. After a long struggle, the Red Army had finally triumphed over its internal enemies on the right; it now turned on its allies on the left.
The Czechoslovak Legion had no real interest in fighting in the Russian Civil War. They wanted to fight the German army, but with the end of World War I, that desire died. Uninspired by Kolchak (and not, in turn, trusted by him) they spent most of 1919 moving their troops east and having them shipped, boat by boat, back to Europe. They were aided in this effort by U.S. military units, under the command of General William S. Graves, who took control over the eastern end of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The Czechoslovak Legion managed to evacuate all their forces out from Vladivostok (as had been their original plan in 1918). They were gone by April 1920 which is when the U.S. troops also left Siberia.
Most of the White Armies were evacuated by British ships during the winter-spring of 1920. General Wrangel was the only holdout; his army remained an organized force in the Crimea throughout the summer of 1920. After Moscow's Bolshevik government signed a military and political alliance with Nestor Makhno and the Ukrainian anarchists, the Black Army attacked and defeated several regiments of Wrangel's troops in southern Ukraine, forcing them to retreat before they could capture that year's grain harvest to supply his troops. Stymied in his efforts to consolidate his hold in the Ukraine, General Wrangel then attacked north in an attempt to take advantage of recent Red Army defeats at the close of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920. This offensive eventually halted by the Red Army, and Wrangel and his troops were forced to retreat to Crimea in November 1920, pursued by Red Army forces. He was evacuated by the British on November 14, 1920 amidst horrific scenes of desperation and cruelty. Tens of thousands of Russians tried to escape from the Red Army, but were unable to find transport on the overcrowded British ships.
The Japanese, who had plans to annex the Amur Krai of Eastern Siberia, finally pulled their troops out as the Bolshevik forces gradually asserted control over all of Siberia. On 25 October 1922 Vladivostok fell to the Red Army and the Provisional Priamur Government was extinguished. General Anatoly Pepelyayev continued armed resistance in the Ayano-Maysky District until June 1923. The regions of Kamchatka and Northern Sakhalin remained under Japanese occupation until their treaty with Soviet Union in 1925, when their forces were finally withdrawn.
Another one to two million people, known as the White emigres, fled Russia - many with General Wrangel, some through the Far East, others fled west into the newly independent Baltic countries. These émigrés included a large part of the educated and skilled population of Russia.
The Russian economy was devastated by the war, with factories and bridges destroyed, cattle and raw materials pillaged, mines flooded, and machines damaged. The industrial production value descended to one seventh of the value of 1913, and agriculture to one third. According to Pravda, "The workers of the towns and some of the villages choke in the throes of hunger. The railways barely crawl. The houses are crumbling. The towns are full of refuse. Epidemics spread and death strikes -- industry is ruined."
It is estimated that the total output of mines and factories in 1921 had fallen to 20 percent of the pre-World War level, and many crucial items experienced an even more drastic decline. For example, cotton production fell to five percent, and iron to two percent of pre-war levels.
War Communism saved the Soviet government during the Civil War, but much of the Russian economy had ground to a standstill. The peasants responded to requisitions by refusing to till the land. By 1921, cultivated land had shrunk to 62 percent of the pre-war area, and the harvest yield was only about 37 percent of normal. The number of horses declined from 35 million in 1916 to 24 million in 1920, and cattle from 58 to 37 million. The exchange rate with the U.S. dollar declined from two rubles in 1914 to 1,200 in 1920.
With the end of the war, the Communist Party no longer faced an acute military threat to its existence and power. However, the perceived threat of another intervention, combined with the failure of socialism in other countries, most notably the German Revolution, contributed to the continued militarization of Soviet society. Although Russia experienced extremely rapid economic growth in the 1930s, the combined effect of World War I and the Civil War left a lasting scar in Russian society, and had permanent effects on the development of the Soviet Union .
Short lived states: