Tatyana Shvetsova

      Map:     The Penguin Atlas of World History / 1995







By the end of 1920 the Civil war in Russia was practically won by the Red Army. There were but individual hotspots putting up a resistance to the Soviet power on the outskirts of Russia.

So, why did Soviet power win and how can we explain the defeat of its numerous enemies?

Doctor of History, Professor of Murmansk Pedagogical Institute Alexei Voronin insists that ‘the Bolsheviks won not so much due to their own strength, but rather due to the weakness of their enemies’. 

“Almost every war changes the social setup of the warring sides, bringing it closer to the military-socialist type,” Alexei Voronin elaborates. “In such a society the degree of the authorities’ interference in the life of its citizens is unlimited. This society is characterized by total centralization, ruling out the very existence of private property. The entire organization of such a society, right down to the psychological portrait of its members is oriented to war and is permeated with militarism. In other words, war creates the most conducive conditions for ‘socialization of society’. Yet, the question is: who and how makes use of these conditions. Do they accept these conditions out of forced necessity, or do they regard them as an imperative precondition for exercising their policy?

Obviously, the Bolsheviks, if we can say so, coincide maximally with the conditions of the war period. They felt perfectly at ease in the conditions of war – something that quite possibly serves as one of the reasons for their ultimate success. 

As for their enemies, quite the opposite, they tended to find oppressive those ‘military-socialist’ measures they were also forced to apply. In other words, they conducted the same policy less consistently, with less austerity, and as a result – to less effect.



The success of the Bolsheviks was achieved in conditions of approximate equality of the opposing sides in many respects, first and foremost – the military. So, it is important to understand where exactly lies the reason for their victory. One could, in all likelihood, define it in the following way: the Bolsheviks scored a victory not so much due to their own strength, as due to the weakness of their enemies.

The Civil war of 1917 – 1921 was a de facto implementation of a radical alternative. This alternative was victorious because the solutions to outstanding contradictions in the life of Russian society, offered by the conservatives and liberals, were deficient. It was the failures of the conservatives and liberals that predetermined the success of the Bolsheviks.”

Doctor of History Professor Olshtynsky believes that, “the main factor that determined the victory of the Bolsheviks was the union of workers and peasants that supported the Soviet power. The second reason lies in the ideals of national-liberation, pursued by the Civil war. The fusion of counterrevolution and foreign intervention turned the actions of Soviet authorities into a struggle for Russia’s independence from foreign oppression. This was conducive to forming a military-political union of the Soviet Republics in the course of the Civil war, and became a vitally important factor in favor of the Soviets.

The third reason can be found in the extremely well-organized and welded leading political force of Soviet power – the party of Bolsheviks. It was through its efforts the many-million–strong, battle-worthy Red Army was founded. The Soviet state managed to transform the country into one cohesive military camp, where all of society’s forces were mobilized for armed struggle. 

Finally – a factor that contributed to victory was the support of the International working class. The workers’ movement “Hands off Soviet Russia” and the upsurge of the revolutionary movement in the armies of the foreign intervention forced the Entente to withdraw its armed forces from Russia. Revolutions in Europe were a tremendous moral support for struggling Soviet Russia, allowing the annulment of the extortionate Brest Peace accords with Germany, and distracting significant forces of the foreign intervention.”

Vladimir Lenin announced after the victory in the Civil war:

“Nobody will ever conquer a people whose workers and peasants in  their majority have experienced, seen and felt that they are …fighting for a cause, victory in which will enable their children to avail themselves of all  the boons of culture, the fruit of man’s labour.”

He also said: “Firstly, we won over from the Entente its workers and peasants; secondly, we have enlisted the neutrality of those small peoples, who are its slaves; thirdly, we have started attracting to our side in the countries of the Entente their educated petite bourgeoisie…This is our third large victory. It became a victory not only on a Russian, but on an international-historical scale.”

A historian from the town of Saratov, an expert in the sphere of conflictology, Assistant Professor at the Civil Service Academy of the Volga district, Anton Posadsky, is convinced: “…most decisive was the fact that in the case of the Bolsheviks the scale of their actions was quite different from that of the ‘whites’. For the ‘reds’ the whole of Russia was their resource, their bridgehead. The bolshevist elite thought in terms of world revolution, which was almost a reality. The ‘whites’ were attempting to revive Russia by turning the country back to the realm of its own national interests. Moreover, these interests were comprehended quite differently by various trends of the ‘white’ movement. Such an approach forced them, for example, to take upon their shoulders the burden of contradictions from the past life, and this hampered the ‘whites’ from selecting one clear-cut course of action…

The ‘whites’ didn’t dare to uncompromisingly destroy what was theirs, so dear to them. The ‘reds’ were stronger in their instrumental approach to what was formally their own country. They succeeded in finding the most painful spots in the system and making use of them, never tormented by any moral doubts or historical considerations.”

Historian Sergey Sbortsev from the capital of Byelorussia Minsk says:

“The main reason for the victory of the Bolsheviks lies in the fact the ‘white’ movement couldn’t find broad support inside the country. It placed its bet with the privileged classes and failed to enlist the support of the broad sections of the working population by gaining their interest with their economic program. The Bolsheviks, quite the opposite, could fall back on the greatest support of the population, particularly the poorest sections of it. The tactical strength of the Bolsheviks lay in the fact they spoke on behalf of the people - something that came to play a decisive role and brought them in their victory in the Civil war.”

Politologist of left-wing views Sergey Kara-Murza insists that the Bolsheviks won because: “…the turned out to be the only political force, that could save Russia from historical nonentity…”

One of the factors that was conducive to bringing about the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil war was the significant number of professional military exerts from the former Czarist army that went over to their side. Making a note of this, well-known Russian publicist Vadim Kozhinov cited information published by the magazine ‘Voprosy Istorii’ (or ‘History Issues’). It was said there that “the overall number of cadre officers, who participated in the Civil war within the ranks of the Red Army was double the number that took part in the war action of the side of the ‘whites’. Commenting this data, the publicist reflects: “…one should first and foremost realize that whilst serving within the ranks of the Red Army (at times occupying high and most responsible posts), these officers and generals never became ‘red’ themselves. There was but the occasional Bolshevik party member among them. The Revolutionary military Council of the Republic noted in 1918 that “the higher the rank, the less communists one could find among them”.

All this testifies to the fact that the Russian officers and generals who ‘opted for the Red Army’, were thus choosing the lesser of the two evils. These were people who, quite obviously, were well-familiar with their colleagues in military service from the White Guards. They could see that standing at its head were ‘unrepentant children of the February revolution’. While the February revolution was a destructive force for the Russian state and, first and foremost, for the army.”

As for the reasons why the ‘whites’ suffered a defeat, there are quite a lot of them. There is the obvious egotism of the higher social circles, the treachery of the ‘allies’ in the Entente, who favored the Bolsheviks. British Premiere Lloyd George openly admitted in his memoirs that the allies “had done everything possible to support the Bolsheviks”. They acknowledged that the Bolsheviks were de facto the ruling force on the territory of the former Russian Empire. They certainly had no intention of lifting a finger to help topple the Bolsheviks. All the “allies” needed while World War One was still raging was for the Bolsheviks not to destroy the “White Guard” officers who were prepared to fight alongside the Entente against Germany. This is why right up until the end of the war, when the German monarchy was crushed, the Entente, albeit grudgingly, aided the ‘whites’. However, the moment the war ended with the victory of the Entente, the latter speedily launched negotiations with the Bolsheviks.

Well-known Russian publicist and historian Mikhail Nazarov wrote: “The white movement didn’t score a victory primarily because it relied on force of weapons, and underestimated the spiritual reasons for the Russian catastrophe…”

And the main reason for this catastrophe, writes Mikhail Nazarov, was a rejection of God and the Orthodox Faith. To substantiate this opinion he quotes from the memoirs of a participant of the White movement baron Meller-Zakomelsky:

“…We realized too late that socialism-communism was a religious phenomenon, and victory over it was possible only through a religious upsurge of the Christian Faith. Humbly deploring our infirmity, in utter compassion and repentance, in love for our errant brethren, we shall seek the true road to recovery. It is not a sword forged in hatred and vengeance, but the Cross - Christ’s pure token – that will lend us the strength needed for victory.”

Only in emigration, writes Mikhail Nazarov, did the White idea acquire completeness – after its proponents realized their own mistakes and assessed the world alignment of forces. On a political level this became a denunciation of the united global front of destroyers of the Orthodox Russia. On this front the communist-Bolsheviks and the liberals, who had masterminded the February revolution, were enemies only outwardly. In essence, though, they were allies, since both forces sought to destroy the Orthodox Russian state. The difference between them lay only in WHAT STATE EXACTLY EACH OF THEM SOUGHT TO BUILD IN PLACE OF THE DESTROYED ORTHODOX RUSSIAN EMPIRE.

The outcome of the Civil war was terrifying, indeed. In the words of historian Oleg Platonov: “…the overall number of casualties in the war comprised no less than 18,7 million people…

Out of this number we should single out those who died of starvation, illness, epidemics, or were forced to flee from Russia to foreign lands.

In the years of the Civil war some 20 to 25 million people suffered in epidemics. The typhus epidemic claimed the greatest number of victims.

As for those who died of starvation, the number is estimated at 10,1 million. It was the large cities that suffered the most. Thus, in the years of the Civil war the population of Petrograd was reduced over threefold. 

A direct outcome of the Civil war was the vast stream of emigration. Some 2 million people left Russia. Significant Russian colonies emerged in many large towns of the world. But these are only the results of the external emigration. No less than 10 million Russian people found themselves as if outside Russia as a result of the country’s partition and its altered borders. Thus, without changing their place of residence, 91 thousand residents of Russia suddenly found themselves citizens of Estonia, while 15 thousand Russians were now citizens of Finland

It was the Russian population that suffered the most in the Civil war. Its quota in the overall population of the Soviet Russia dropped by three percent. The country had lost the crème de la crème of the Russian nation, its golden gene pool. Representatives of the national elite were either totally wiped out or forced to flee abroad. The entire Russian national and intellectual infrastructure was destroyed. Thus, around 40 percent of the Russian professorate and doctors had died.”

However, Russia was weakened and stunned not by human losses alone. The bolshevist regime had squandered the national heritage, amassed by many generations of Russian people – for example, a greater part of the Gold Reserve of the country. As Trotsky later admitted, “…we plundered Russia to gain victory over the ‘whites’.”

In the words of Byelorussian historian Sergey Sbortsev, “the losses that the people of Russia incurred in the fratricidal war were to have far-reaching consequences for all of our subsequent history. The system of power that saved the country in the period of the Civil war later transformed into a dictatorship…

The Civil war with its red and white terror became a tragedy for all peoples living in Russia without exception. The dissociation of political forces on the question of how the country should develop further resulted in numerous losses and the establishment of command-administrative methods of governing the country.”

Doctor of History, Professor of Murmansk Pedagogical Institute Alexei Voronin wrote: “The political success of the Bolsheviks turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Political effectiveness resulted in economic ineffectiveness. This, in turn, questioned the political victory itself. Objective requirements for the advance of the economy came into obvious conflict with the aims pursued by the communists. Quite naturally, this cast doubt on the possibility of their retaining power. This threat manifested itself in the anti-Soviet and antibolshevist protests that were widespread across all of Russia in the spring of 1921. Practically all stratum of society expressed their lack of confidence in the Bolsheviks. Finally, this forced them to reappraise the foundations of the policy they espoused. Thus, a dramatic about-face at least in their economic policy became unavoidable.”


Copyright © 2006 The Voice of Russia

Originally published at        http://www.vor.ru/English/homeland/home_034.html     01/30/2006