The Russian Civil War


      James Graham


      Maps:     The Penguin Atlas of World History / 1995








The Brest-Litovsk peace agreement between Germany and Communist Russia galvanized significant portions of Russia's population to violently oppose the Bolshevik government. The White armies evolved out of this opposition and became the principal threat to the Bolshevik regime. They were however only one dimension of the Civil War as other groups and nations played important roles. The defeat of the Whites was caused primarily by their failure to enlist mass support for their cause. Geography, internal division and patriotism also contributed to their defeat.

The Whites fought on a variety of fronts against the Reds with the most important being the East, South and North Western. The principal leader for each was Admiral Kolchak, General Denikin and General Iudenich respectively. Kolchak was nominally head of the movement mainly because the allies recognized him as such. In practice the White armies were completely independent. It was also the allies namely Britain, France, Japan and the United States which lent the most support to the Whites. It was this support that allowed the Whites to become the dominant opposition to the Communists. All three armies were reasonably cohesive groups with a clear command and control structure with total numbers peaking at over 250,000 troops. It was this organized nature that made them the Reds most dangerous adversaries. Contributed to this were the White's underlying political motives for fighting. These were to restore the Provisional Government and to return Russia to the old order of the conservative ruling class. The Whites were by far the largest, most organized and best supported organization committed to the overthrow of the Bolsheviks.




Admiral Alexander Kolchak

General Anton Denikin

General Nikolai Iudenich




Peasant armies or Greens as they became known fought both sides in the Civil War. The White and Red armies required a large amount of conscripts and supplies for their campaigns. The easiest source for these was from rural Russia but conscription and grain requisitions badly alienated the peasants under their control. Many peasants and villages were pushed towards starvation and responded by killing the requisition squads and other officials. These outbreaks of violence quickly spread into outward rebellions with repressive measures against rebelling villages merely acting to spread the disturbances. There were 344 peasant revolts by mid 1919 and by 1920 the revolts had become widespread. These armies sometimes up to a thousand strong disrupted the supply lines and resource base's of both sides but failed to unite into a cohesive national force. Throughout the Civil War large areas of the two sides territory were engulfed by hundreds of distinct peasant revolts.




No less than eleven countries attacked Russia during the Civil War. On the whole these countries did not coordinate their activities and followed localized objectives. The Czechoslovak legion of ex prisoners of war started the Civil War in Siberia with their Railway War. Instead of allowing themselves to be disarmed the legion conquered a large stretch of territory along the Trans-Siberian railway, an area that became the basis of Kolchak's government in the East. The Czechs lost interest after World War One and minimized their role in the fighting. Britain and France invaded both Murmansk and Archangel and set up a weak White government in the North. Japan and to a lesser extent the United States and Canada invaded Russia in the Pacific. The Japanese also set up a White government under Grigorii Semenov and occupied Vladivostok until October 1922. While the allies did intervene in the Civil War they did so for their own interests and to nurture the White opposition.

Many parts of the former Tsarist Empire attempted to gain independence during the Civil War. The three Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all successfully gained independence, as did Finland and Poland. None could escape the Civil War with all a playing a part. Poland for example waged war against Soviet Russia from 1920-21 over where to draw the border between the two nations. Other border disputes occurred and many of the new State gave limited support to either the Reds or more commonly the Whites. Estonia became embroiled in the North Western battle with both Reds and Whites violating its territory. The independently minded parts of the old Russian Empire could not avoid becoming entangled in the Civil War.

While undeniably a political movement the White leaders were all military men who disliked politics and thus largely ignored it. This meant that they could organize an effective military but not an effective civil administration. Without which the regime could not sustain the armies at the fronts. Central to this was the failure to mobilize the local populations in the areas the Whites controlled. Right and centre-right parties predominated in the White governments and these parties never had much popular support in Russia. Together with the generals they ruled out any form of land reform.




The average peasant preferred the Soviet program of peace, land reform and worker control as the lesser of the two evils. With these sentiments it is little wonder four out of five peasants forcibly conscripted deserted the White cause many to the Reds. While the Red army lost four million men up to 1921 their population base allowed them to replace these losses more easily than the Whites could. Under such conditions the Whites relied heavily on terror to administer local regions. The result being the Green revolts which drew precious White troops from the front. The Whites failure to agree to land reform lost them the mass support they so desperately required.

Control of the heartland of Russia gave the Reds many advantages. They controlled the largest chunk of the population and most of the war industry. The Red Army outnumbered the White armies by ten to one. Furthermore its population was ethnically homogenous containing mostly Great Russians. The Whites on the other hand gained a large amount of their support from ethnic minorities. Support was often given in the hope of gaining some form of independence in the future. White leaders however believed in a "Russia, one and indivisible." This created much internal bickering in the White organization with ethnic groups like the Cossacks often refusing to fight. Moscow and Petrograd also stayed in Red hands for the entire Civil War. The symbolic importance of this fact is summed up by Lebedev one of the White leaders in Siberia "In Moscow we would get the whole brain of our country, all her soul, all that is talented in Russia." The Soviet government had many initial advantages over the White forces.

Geography also aided the Reds and hindered the Whites. The three main White armies were all located at opposite ends of Russia. There was a 10,500 kilometers voyage between Denikin's and Kolchak's armies. This distance made communication extremely difficult something the Reds with control of the existing communications networks had an advantage in. The large size of Russia also gave the Reds strategic depth. When under attack on one front they could safely give ground until troops were transferred from other fronts to repel the attack. Geographically Russia was unsuited to the attacking White armies.

The Civil War was fought between the Reds and the Whites with many other factions, groups and nations involved. Considering the enormous difficulties the Whites faced it should not be asked why they lost the Civil War. The question is why they did so well for so long against an enemy technically superior in almost all aspects.


Russian Civil War Bibliography

Benvenuti, Francesco, 'The Red Army' in Edward Acton, Vladmir Cherniaev and William Rosenberg, eds, Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution 1914-1921, London, 1997, pp. 403-416.

Carr, Edward, The Russian Revolution: From Lenin to Stalin (1917-1929), London, 1970.

Figes, Orlando, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, London, 1996.

Mawdsley, Evan, 'The Civil War: The Military Campaigns' in Edward Acton, Vladmir Cherniaev and William Rosenberg, eds, Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution 1914-1921, London, 1997, pp. 93-106.

Mawdsley, Evan, The Russian Civil War, Boston, 1987.

Mawdsley, Evan, 'The White Armies' in Edward Acton, Vladmir Cherniaev and William Rosenberg, eds, Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution 1914-1921, London, 1997, pp. 468-481.

Pipes, Richard, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, New York, 1996.

Service, Robert, The Russian Revolution 1900-1927, 3rd edn, London, 1999.

Westwood, J.N. Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History 1812-1992, 4th edn, Oxford, 1993.

White, James, The Russian Revolution 1917-1921: A Short History, London, 1994. Wood, Alan, 'The Revolution and Civil War in Siberia' in Edward Acton, Vladmir Cherniaev and William Rosenberg, eds, Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution 1914-1921, London, 1997, pp. 706-719.