The Russian Civil War was to tear Russia apart for three years – between 1918 and 1921. The civil war occurred because after November 1917, many groups had formed that opposed Lenin’s Bolsheviks. These groups included monarchists, militarists, and, for a short time, foreign nations. Collectively, they were known as the Whites while the Bolsheviks were known as the Reds.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had shown to many how weak the Bolsheviks actually were. Lenin had called for peace at any price and the Germans had exacted very severe terms – something that was held against them at Versailles in 1919.
At the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks only effectively controlled Petrograd, Moscow and the territory between both cities. With the fall of Nicholas II, many parts of the Russian empire took the opportunity to declare their independence. Finland did so in March 1918 – and collapsed into a civil war itself. The Whites, led by Mannerheim, were helped by the Germans – Luderndorff even contemplated putting a German prince in power in Finland once the Whites had won. With German help, the Finnish Whites pushed back the Finnish-Russo border and Petrograd was almost within artillery range.
Within Russia itself, those who opposed the Bolsheviks looked to the western powers for help. For their own benefit, the western powers wanted to re-establish an Eastern Front so that the German Army would be split once again, thus relieving the problems being experienced on the Western Front.
In the south of Russia, the resistance to the Bolsheviks was led by Kornilov. He based himself in Rostov to start with. Many former officers, who had survived the war, went to join him.
Socialist Revolutionaries, who had been members of the dispersed Constituent Assembly, grouped in the Lower Volga under the leadership of Chernov. A Socialist Revolutionary group had established an autonomous regime just east of Omsk which claimed to govern the whole of Siberia. They also seized the vital eastern city of Vladivostok.
The monarchist, Colonel Semenov, also established his own autonomous government in Trans-Baikalia where he ruled like a war lord. Semenov was also to cause the Bolsheviks many problems.
In Manchuria, General Horvat, who had been the tsar’s military-governor of the region, established another conservative government.
Czech prisoners-of-war, who had joined the Russian army after being captured from the Austrian army, joined the ranks of Kerensky, and it was these men who won Kerensky’s initial successes in the civil war. Knwon as the Czech Legion, they fought the Germans as a separate unit under the leadership of Masaryk until Brest-Litovsk ended that fighting. Trotsky gave them his agreement that they had his permission to travel through Russia to the Western Front so that they could continue their campaign against the Germans. The one proviso was that the Czechs had to leave their weapons behind. As soon as the first units of the Czechs surrendered their weapons, the Red Guards shot them. This was to prove a costly error as it was obvious that the other men could not trust what Trotsky had promised. The Czech Legion was made up of seasoned soldiers with plenty of fighting experience. They captured the strategic city of Simbirsk and between May 1918 and August 1918, captured so much territory that they controlled the Trans-Siberian railway from Simbirsk to Vladivostok. The Czechs were to prove a serious problem to Trotsky – as the Communist military commander in the civil war. His task of defeating the Whites was made a great deal more difficult by the Czechs – if he had kept his word and let them move freely out of Russia, this problem would not have occurred. The Politburo blamed this solely on Trotsky – and the man who led the critics was Joseph Stalin.
The success of the Czech Legion may well have sealed the fate of the royal family. They had been sent by Kerensky to Tobolsk in Siberia where they were under house arrest. As the Czechs had the power to threaten Tobolsk, they were brought back to Ekateringburg. However, in the early stages of the civil war, the Whites threatened this city. While the royal family was alive, they could inspire the Whites. Therefore, Lenin ordered their execution. This was carried out on July 16th, 1918.
To add to Trotsky’s problems, the British seized Murmansk and Archangel in the north and set up governments led by Socialist Revolutionaries.
A further thorn in Trotsky’s side was Admiral Kolchak, the former Lord High Admiral. He had established relations with the Allies in an attempt to establish a united Eastern Front. In September 1918, an organisation called the Directory was established in Ufa. This was a combination of various groups whose sole aim was to defeat the Communists. It was made up of groups that also had few things in common with one another. On November 18th, 1918, the Socialist Revolutionaries were pushed out of the Ufa Directorate by former tsarist officers who placed Kolchak at their head. Kolchak’s ‘government’ was recognised by the Czechs and the Allies. The Ufa Directorate was financed by the Czechs who had raided Russia's gold reserves that were stored at Kazan. Kolchak persuaded the Czechs that the gold could be well used for the common cause – the removal of the Bolsheviks.
In early 1919, Kolchak and the forces he had grouped around him, went on the offensive. They took the city of Perm and advanced to the Volga. Kolchak could have marched on Moscow from the Volga but for some reason he did not. The British were advancing from Archangel in the north. A two-pronged attack against the Bolsheviks may well have been successful – but it never materialised. The British were to shortly pull out of Russia – and the Whites probably lost their best opportunity to defeat the Bolsheviks.
Why did the Reds win the civil war in Russia against all the odds?
Much credit must go to Trotsky who, despite the criticism aimed at him over the Czech Legion issue, was a brilliant War Commissar. Untrained in military matters, Trotsky seemed to be a natural leader of men. His beliefs were simple. If a Red commander was successful in combat, they were promoted. If a commander failed and survived, he paid the price. Trotsky was willing to use ex-tsarist officers as he knew that they had the military experience the Red Army lacked. Ironically, though this was a successful policy, it was later held against him in his battle with Stalin for control of the party after Lenin’s death.
Trotsky also knew that the first time the Red Army lost a major battle, it would spell the end of the revolution and all that the Bolsheviks had fought for. He visited the Red Army at the front in his legendary armoured train to instill into them this very simple fact.
Men flocked to join the Red Army - not necessarily because they believed in what the Reds stood for but because Lenin had ordered that supplies of food went first to soldiers – what was left went to those who lived in the cities.
Lenin also imposed an iron grip on territory under the control of the Bolsheviks. The party had a secret police unit (called the Cheka, which was to change its title to the NKVD) which was ruthless in hunting out possible opponents to Lenin. In many areas of Russia, where the Bolsheviks had control, the NKVD was judge, jury and executioner. Its power was massively extended after August 30th, 1918. On this day the Socialist Revolutionary Kaplin shot and wounded Lenin.
Trotsky was also not fighting a cohesive unit. The Whites were made up of many groups – groups that hated each other as much as they hated the Reds. With no cohesiveness to them, the Whites were on the whole a hopelessly uncoordinated group that fell out with each other. Though on a map of Russia, it looked as if the Reds were being attacked from all sides, such attacks were disunited and dislocated. The fact that so many groups existed, meant that no one person could be appointed to act as their sole commander. With no unified leadership, the Whites were much weakened.
The Whites also had an appalling reputation regarding their treatment of the indigenous people of any area they controlled. As much of this land was agricultural, these people would have been peasants – the people Lenin had promised land to. Some of the Whites were known to want to turn the clock back to the ‘old days’ – such an attitude did not endear them to the peasants. The re-establishment of the old order would have maintained a lifestyle none of the peasants would have wanted. In this sense, the peasants, though in White territory, were the natural supporters of the Bolsheviks.
The Whites also suffered a massive blow to their campaign when the Allies withdrew from Russia after November 11th 1918. With the end of World War One, the Allies were much cooler in their dealings with the White leaders. Reports reached London that the Whites had committed many atrocities on innocent civilians – and the government could not afford to be associated with such things. The senior British observer attached to Kolchak wrote to Lloyd George that Kolchak was a “disinterested patriot”. In May 1919, Britain refused to recognise Kolchak and France did the same in May. The Red Army drove Kolchak and his rapidly disintegrating forces back to Siberia where he surrendered to the Communists. He died in their custody.
White forces in the south of Russia were evacuated from the Crimea from November 1920 on.
After success against forces in Russia itself, Trotsky then faced a challenge from Poland. Granted her independence in 1918, Poland invaded the Ukraine in 1920. However, the Polish army was not able to defeat Trotsky’s Red Army and it broke through the Poles lines and advanced on Warsaw. Jozef Pilsudski, Poland’s commander-in-chief, led a counter-attack against the Red Army and Lenin decided to cut his losses and agreed to the Treaty of Riga on March 18th 1921. As a result of this treaty, about 10 million Ukranians and White Russians were put under Polish rule. The Treaty of Riga brought to an end the Russian Civil War. Within Russia, the Communist government under Lenin was now secure.