Prof Rempel lecture: Russian Civil War

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The Russian Civil War

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


The Russian Civil War between the Bolsheviks (Reds) and their political opponents (Whites) did as much to create the USSR as the Revolution of 1917. Bolshevik objectives in November 1917 were unclear, but in the merciless civil strife between Reds and Whites were laid the foundations of the autocratic Soviet system. The Bolshevik Party was hardened and militarized, systematic terror began, extreme economic policies were adopted, and implacable hostility developed toward the West. The Civil war, though not wholly responsible for these, made Bolshevik policies much more draconian.




I. Consolidation of Bolshevik Power

After moving to Moscow early in 1918, Lenin's regime came under intense military and political pressure. As White forces approached, Lenin set up a ruthless emergency government, which sought to mobilize central Russia's total resources. "The republic is an armed camp," Nicholas Bukharin declared. "One must rule with iron when one cannot rule with law." Relatively democratic norms of party life in 1917 yielded to dictatorship, and local popular bodies were suppressed.

Lenin made major political and economic decisions and reconciled jealous subordinates. Wisely, he let Trotsky handle military affairs, confirmed his decisions, and defended the able war commissar against intrigues by Stalin and others. Jakob Sverdlov ran the party organization until his death in 1919 when Stalin assumed that role. The eighth Party Congress in 1919 created the first operating Politburo with five full members (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Kamenev, and N.M. Krestinsky) and three candidates (Bukharin, Zinoviev and M. Kalinin) constituting Bolshevism's general staff.

In January 1918, Lenin, proclaiming the Third Congress of Soviets the supreme power in Russia, had it draft a constitution. At the Congress some delegates advocated genuine separation of powers and autonomy for local soviets, but the successful Stalin-Sverdlov draft outlined, instead, a highly centralized political system, which concentrated all power in top government and party bodies.

The Constitution of 1918, disfranchising former "exploiters" (capitalists, priests, and nobles) and .depriving them of civil rights, supposedly guaranteed all democratic freedoms to the working class. Urban workers received weighted votes to counteract the peasantry's huge numerical superiority. Between congresses of Soviets, a 200-member Central Executive Committee was to exercise supreme power and appoint the executive, the Council of People's Commissars. A hierarchy of national, regional, provincial, district, and local soviets was to govern Soviet Russia. The Constitution, however, omitted mention of the Bolshevik Party, possessor of all real political power!

A. National Aspirations

As the Soviet regime consolidated political control over central Russia, long repressed national aspirations for independence disintegrated the former tsarist empire until Russia was reduced virtually to the boundaries of 1600. The Civil war, like the time of Troubles, brought political conflict, social turmoil, foreign intervention, and ultimate national Russian resurgence and reunification. Soviet accounts stress heroic Russian resistance in both instances to foreign aggression. The southern frontier-the "Wild Field"--again became a refuge for rebels against a shaky regime in Moscow, and western borderlands broke away to secure independence.

Anti-Communist Finns defeated Bolshevik-supported Red Finns to create an independent Finland, and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, assisted by German occupiers, declared independence and retained it until 1940. In the Ukraine a moderate General Secretariat signed a treaty with the Germans who occupied that region and set up a puppet regime under "Hetman" Skoropadski, opposed by Bolsheviks and many Ukrainian nationalists. In Belorussia an anti-Communist Hromada declared independence, but the national movement there was less developed and lacked a broad popular following. In the Caucasus a Transcaucasian Federative Republic existed briefly in 1918 before yielding to separate regimes in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan under foreign protection. In Central Asia Tashkent was an isolated Bolshevik fortress in a sea of disunited Moslems. The SRs created regimes in western Siberia and at Samara on the Volga, while Cossack areas of the Urals and the North Caucasus formed a Southeastern Union. Russia had almost dissolved.

To undermine the tsarist empire and Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks had used the slogan of national self-determination. However, as early as 1903, most Russian Social Democrats, preferring, like Marx, large, centralized states, had rejected federalism. Viewing nationalism as a capitalist by-product which would disappear under socialism, the Bolsheviks underestimated its power and attractiveness, though Lenin exploited national movements to bring his party into power. He advocated political self-determination in 1917 for every nation in the Russian Empire, but aimed to reunite them subsequently with a Russian socialist state. Grigorii Piatakov, a Bolshevik leader in the Ukraine, expressed the party's view bluntly:

On the whole we must not support the Ukrainians, because their movement is not convenient for the proletariat. Russia cannot exist without the Ukrainian sugar industry, and the same can be said in regard to coal (Donbass), cereals (the black earth belt), etc ....

Realizing that without the resources of the western borderlands Soviet Russia would not be major power, Lenin strove to reconcile advocacy of national self-determination with Soviet Russian unity. At his instruction Joseph Stalin formulated a Bolshevik doctrine of "proletarian self-determination" limited to "toilers," denying it to the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. National independence would be recognized only "upon the demand of the working population...," meaning in fact local Bolsheviks subject to control by Moscow.

B. Military Opposition

Opposition to Lenin's government began in November 1917 but at first was disorganized and ineffective. Many Russians believed that the Soviet regime would soon collapse, and an ideological gulf divided conservative military elements from moderates and socialists. In the Don region, General M.V. Alekseev, former imperial chief of staff, began organizing anti Bolshevik elements soon after November into the Volunteer Army, which became the finest White fighting force. Before the Bolsheviks seized Russian military headquarters at Mogilev, some leading tsarist generals (Kornilov, A. I. Denikin, and others) escaped and joined Alekseev.

The anti-Bolshevik White movement included socially and ideologically disparate elements lacking in unity and coordination. Former tsarist officers exercised military and often political leadership, and played a disproportionate role. Though some were of humble origin, their education and status separated them from a largely illiterate peasantry. White soldiers were mostly Cossacks, set apart from ordinary peasants by independent land holdings and proud traditions. Officers and Cossacks had little in common ideologically with Kadet and SR intellectuals except antipathy for Bolshevism.

C. Trotsky's Red Army

Facing this motley opposition was a Red Army, created in January 1918. At first an undisciplined volunteer force, after Trotsky became War Commissar in April, it became a regular army with conscription and severe discipline imposed by former imperial officers. Trotsky defended this risky and controversial policy as "building socialism with the bricks of capitalism." To get Red soldiers to obey their officers, he appointed political commissars whose families were often held hostage to insure the officers' loyalty. Trotsky raised uncertain Red Army morale by appearing in his famous armored train at critical points. In August 1918 at Sviiashsk near Kazan he rallied dispirited Red troops and helped turn the tide against the SRs. Soviet historians still give him no credit for this brilliant feat of inspiration and organization, which saved the regime.





II. Uprising of Czechoslovak Brigade


Full-scale civil war and Allied intervention followed an uprising in May 1918 of the Czechoslovak Brigade in Russia. The Czechs had joined the imperial Russian army during World War I and, surviving its collapse, remained perhaps the best organized military force in Russia. Wishing to go to the French front to fight for an independent Czechoslovakia, the Czechs quarreled with Soviet authorities. Then they seized the Trans-Siberian Railroad, cleared the reds from most of Siberia, and aided their white opponents.

The Allies, claim Soviet accounts, employed the Czechs to activate all enemies of Red power, and with the United States intervened militarily to overthrow the Soviet regime. Western accounts affirm that Allied intervention was to restore a Russian front against Germany. President Wilson allowed Untied States participation in the Allied expeditions to north Russian ports in the summer of 1918 only after the Allied command insisted it was the only way to win World War I. Such individual Allied leaders as Winston Churchill and Marshal Foch, however, did aim to destroy Bolshevism through intervention. The Soviet-Western controversy over its nature and purpose still rages.



A. White Generals

The Civil War, fought initially with small Russian forces of uncertain morale, grew in scope and bitterness. Villages and entire regions changed hands repeatedly in a fratricidal conflict in which both sides committed terrible atrocities. At first the main threat to the Soviet regime, came from the east. In August 1918, SR troops, encouraged by the Czechs' revolt, captured Kazan and the tsarist gold reserve, and formed SR regimes in Samara and in Omsk in western Siberia.

1. Kolchak and Yudenich

After the Red Army regained Kazan, the SRs in Omsk were ousted by Admiral A. Kolchak, who won Czech and later Allied support, for his conservative Siberian regime. Early in 1919, pledging to reconvene the Constituent Assembly, Kolchak moved westward toward Archangel and Murmansk, controlled by the Allies and the White Russian army of General E. Miller. By late summer, however, the Red Army had forced him back across the Urals. White ad Allied armies hemmed in the Bolsheviks on every side. In the west, General Yudenich, commanding a British-equipped White army in Estonia, advanced close to Petrograd in October 1919, but Trotsky rallied its defenders and Yudenich's army dissolved.

2. Denikin

The chief military threat came from the south. Early in the fall of 1919, General Denikin, commanding Don Cossacks and the elite Volunteer Army equipped with British tanks, reached Orel, 250 miles south of Moscow. Then numerically superior Red forces counterattacked and drove him back, and in March 1920 the British evacuated the remnants of his army from Novorossiisk.

The Bolsheviks gradually reasserted military and political control over the tsarist borderlands, except for Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states. In the west, they dissolved the Belorussian Rada and incorporated Belorussia. After the Central Powers withdrew from the Ukraine at the end of 1918, the Ukrainian nationalist Directory ousted their puppet, Hetman Skoropadski. Conservative and liberal nationalist elements competed with the Red Army for control of a Ukraine, which experienced incredible anarchy and turmoil. Early in 1919, the Red Army removed the Directory, but much of the Ukraine was conquered by Denikin's Whites. In 1920, Red forced restored the rule of Ukrainian communists now wholly subservient to Moscow, virtually ending the abortive Ukrainian struggle for independence.

Though the Allied powers recognized de factor independence of the three Caucasian republics early in 1920, Moscow's rapprochement with Turkish nationalists paved the way for Soviet incorporation of the Transcaucasus. That spring, the Red Army occupied Azerbaijan; in December unfortunate Armenia succumbed; and in March 1921 Red forces conquered Menshevik-controlled Georgia against strong resistance. In Central Asia, the Bolsheviks conquered the khanates of Khiva and Bukhara and set up several artificial client national states. Bands of mounted Basmachi guerrillas resisted Red rule in Turkestan until the mid-1920s. With most of the former Russian empire reunited forcibly with its Great Russian core, the way was prepared for creation of the Soviet Union.



B. Soviet-Polish War

By Then the allies, except for the Japanese in Vladivostok, had departed and White resistance had weakened, but a Soviet-Polish war prolonged Russia's agony. To reconstitute a Greater Poland, the forces of Marshal Joseph Pilsudski invaded the Ukraine and captured Kiev in May 1920. A Soviet counteroffensive carried General M.N. Tukhachevskii's Red Army to Warsaw's outskirts, and Lenin sought to communize Poland. The Poles, however, rallied, drove out the Red Army, and forced Soviet Russia to accept an armistice and later the unfavorable Treaty of Riga (March 1921).

Soviet preoccupation with Poland enabled Baron Peter Wrangel, Denikin's successor and the ablest White general, to consolidate control oft he Crimea. Wrangel employed capable Kadet leaders to carry through land reform, won peasant support, and occupied considerable areas to the north. After the Soviet-Polish armistice in October 1920, the Red Army smashed Wrangel's resistance, and forced the evacuation of some 150,000 Whites to Constantinople.




III. Reasons for Red Victory

The Whites had lacked coordination, and were plagued by personal rivalries among their leaders. They denounced Bolshevism, but affirmed nothing. Denikin and Kolchak were moderates, who lacked effective political or economic programs. Their slogan: "A united and indivisible Russia" alienated national minorities, and played into Bolshevik hands. White generals made military blunders, but their political mistakes and disunity proved decisive.

A. Allied intervention

Allied intervention was of dubious value: foreign arms and supplies aided the Whites, but were insufficient to insure victory and let the Reds pose as defenders of Mother Russia. Bolshevik propaganda portrayed White generals (wrongly) as reactionary tools of Western imperialism, and (more correctly) as aiming to restore the landlords. Conversely, the Reds possessed able leadership, a disciplined party, clever propaganda, and a flexible policy of national self-determination. The Red Army had central positions, better discipline, and numerical superiority. Retaining worker support in the central industrial region, the Bolsheviks won the Civil War as they had won power in 1917 with superior leadership, unity, and purpose.

B. Role of RussianWomen


Russian women, granted full civil, legal, and electoral equality in January 1918, by the new Bolshevik regime, played significant roles, some quite novel, during the Civil War. Their participation in medical services and combat was far broader than in World War I. In the Civil War, Russian women fought on every front, and with every weapon; the female machine-gunner made frequent appearances in early Soviet literature. From October 1919, women's activities were coordinated by Zhenotdel (Women's Department) of the Party's Central Committee, and by 1920 women were being conscripted for noncombatant service and held important positions in the Red Army's political departments. Inessa Armand, a close friend of Lenin, was Zhenotdel's first director. She, along with Alexandra Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's wife, were leaders of women's emancipation in early Soviet Russia. An estimated 74,000 women participated in the Russian Civil War, suffering casualties of about 1,800. Consolidation of Bolshevik Power National Aspirations Military Opposition Trotsky's Red Army Uprising of Czechoslovak Brigade White Generals Soviet-Polish War Reasons for Red Victory Allied intervention Role of Russian Women



Source: Donald W. Treadgold, Twentieth Century Russia, (Westview Press, 1987)



This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Background to Revolution
  1917 Revolutions
  Lenin's Russia
  Stalin's Russia 1927-39   
Stalin: Economics & Terror, 1927-41



casahistoria is recommended by:
BBC Radio 4 History Channel 4 History
BBC radio,
Channel 4 TV, UK Birmingham GRID for Learning, UK UK joint university database Argentina's national paper
SBC Education
Blue Ribbon HOT site, USA
SovLit, Harvard Univ, USA


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