Russian Civil War

The Russian Civil War marked the consolidation of Bolshevik power against an array of anti-Communist groups that were never able to unite politically or coordinate their military forces.

Summary of Event

Any revolution that suddenly topples a long-standing regime is likely to face continued resistance from remnants of the “old order.” Opposition can be centered among embittered émigrés who flee to distant havens of refuge, or it can take the form of open counterrevolution. When Vladimir Ilich Lenin and his Bolshevik followers staged their successful coup in November, 1917 (October according to the Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time), October Revolution (1917) the new Soviet government encountered both types of residual opposition. Many anti-Bolshevik Russians sensed the seriousness of Bolshevik aims and fled the country for Paris, New York, and other Western cities, where they continued to oppose the Bolshevik regime. By far the most serious threat to the Bolshevik Revolution was a series of armed uprisings that shook the edges of Soviet Russia from 1918 through 1921. These uprisings, collectively known as the Russian Civil War, for a time posed a serious threat to the infant Soviet state. Lenin’s eventual victory ensured the triumph of the Communist experiment in Russia. Russian Civil War (1918-1921)
Bolsheviks;Russian Civil War
[kw]Russian Civil War (1918-1921)
[kw]Civil War, Russian (1918-1921)
[kw]War, Russian Civil (1918-1921)
Russian Civil War (1918-1921)
Bolsheviks;Russian Civil War
[g]Russia;1918-1921: Russian Civil War[04450]
[c]Government and politics;1918-1921: Russian Civil War[04450]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1918-1921: Russian Civil War[04450]
Chaykovsky, Nikolay Vasilyevich
Denikin, Anton Ivanovich
Kolchak, Aleksandr
Kornilov, Lavr Georgiyevich
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
[p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Russian Civil War
Makhno, Nestor
Trotsky, Leon
Wrangel, Pyotr Nikolayevich
Yudenich, Nikolay Nikolayevich

The White (anti-Bolshevik) movement included, at one time or another, several politically incompatible groups: patriotic socialists, liberals, and military officers who rejected Lenin’s separate peace with Germany and his suppression of the Constituent Assembly; national minorities seeking independence from Russia; reactionaries who wished to revive the autocracy and restore all land seized by the peasants to its former owners; and peasants who, although fearing the return of the nobles whose lands they had usurped, resented the forcible confiscation of grain by armed Bolshevik detachments sent to collect food for the cities. These disparate groups, moreover, were not concentrated in a single area, but widely scattered across the vast Russian empire.

White forces in southern Russia centered in a volunteer army augmented by Cossack forces. Led in succession by Generals Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov, Anton Ivanovich Denikin, and Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel from 1918 through 1920, the volunteer army attempted to simultaneously maintain both an anti-Soviet and anti-German campaign. Politically, the campaign aimed for restoration of an assembly form of government featuring traditional political parties. The southern movement, however, was hampered by a lack of cohesion in its daily operations, which would lead to ultimate defeat.

Siberia proved to be another important center of White activity. Here fighting erupted in 1918 between Soviet troops and the famous Czechoslovak Legion, which had been recruited from captured Austro-Hungarian soldiers to fight for the Allies against the Central Powers. The legion was on its way through Siberia for eventual crossing into North America and from there to the western front in Europe when frictions with the Soviets erupted into violence. The legion, comprising some thirty-five thousand troops, abandoned plans to leave Russia and effectively sealed off the Siberian east, creating a zone where anti-Soviet movements might flourish. Ultimately, the Siberian White movement was led by Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak.

Smaller White movements were based in seaports on the White and Baltic Seas. Northern anti-Soviet movements, led by Nikolay Vasilyevich Chaykovsky, relied heavily on British troops brought in as part of the Allied intervention. So did the White forces in Estonia, where the White movement was under the control of General Nikolay Nikolayevich Yudenich. The first year of the civil war was characterized by savage partisan warfare between small, mobile units. Unable to hold captured territory by leaving behind an army of occupation, these units frequently resorted to terror to pacify the population. By the fall of 1918, both Reds (Soviets) and Whites had managed to form regular armies. Although independent partisan units still operated and both sides continued to use terror, the decisive engagements of 1919 and 1920 were fought by these better organized armies along more clearly defined fronts.

At first, these White forces, peripheral though they were, scored some impressive victories. Indeed, for a time in 1919, they threatened the Soviet regime. In the south, General Denikin scored key victories, notably his capture of Kiev in September, 1919. By November, however, the Red Army (Soviet) launched a resounding counteroffensive that drove the remnants of the volunteer army into the Crimea, whence under Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel they were later evacuated in disarray. In Siberia, Admiral Alexsandr Kolchak began an offensive against key sites near the Volga River. Kolchak rode a wave of military successes through March, 1919, but with the Volga threatened, the Red Army repelled his forces through the month of April. Attempts by northern Whites based in Archangel to link up with Kolchak’s troops failed, as did two attacks by Yudenich’s forces against Petrograd. By the winter of 1919-1920, impressive White campaigns ceased.

The anti-Soviet revolt was also joined by forces from Russia’s minority nationalities, particularly in the Ukraine and the Caucasus, where fierce nationalist pride motivated many to use the civil war as a backdrop for national independence. The national minorities, however, were unwilling to cooperate with the White generals, who wanted to keep the Russian empire intact. Of great importance in the Ukrainian movement was the peasant leader Nestor Makhno, an avowed anarchist who was not aligned with either side. By 1920, the Soviets had crushed the Ukrainian independence movement and established control over most of the Caucasus.

Another aspect of the civil war had more diplomatic than military impact. This was the famous intervention of the Allied armed forces of Great Britain, France, the United States, and Japan in Russia in 1918. Japan, in landing its forces at Vladivostok, had definite territorial aims, a stance that did not characterize the other interventionist powers. British, French, and American troops were sent to Vladivostok, Odessa, and Archangel, but seldom played a direct combat role. Instead, these Western forces acted as suppliers of arms, aid, and advice to the White forces to help them fight both Germany and the Bolsheviks. By 1919, with the end of World War I, the Allied forces were withdrawn, as the rationale of restoring Russia to the Triple Entente no longer mattered.

By 1920, the Russian Civil War was nearing completion with Soviet victory. The volunteer army had been chased out of the Crimea, evacuated via Istanbul to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (as Yugoslavia was then known), ending all southern resistance. In Siberia, the tired and demoralized Czechoslovak Legion, which had buttressed the eastern White forces, quit the field and handed Kolchak over to the Soviets, who promptly executed the admiral in February, 1920. With Allied forces gone, the civil uprising was over.


Several factors explain how the fledgling Soviet state won the civil war. The Soviet forces had the advantage of defending interior lines, whereas the Whites were fighting the offensive from the periphery of Russia. Transportation and communications had been difficult even before the destruction Russia had suffered because of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. It proved exceedingly difficult for the Whites to fight a united war, given their disparate locations and lack of political unity. Leon Trotsky, who was made commissar of war by the Lenin government in March, 1918, quickly abandoned many Bolshevik concepts of a people’s army that had held sway since 1917. Discipline of a strict type was restored, as was the practice of conscription. Trotsky recruited several thousand czarist officers who out of patriotism were willing to help the Bolsheviks defend Russia. The Red Army did not have to defend far-flung points such as those held by the Whites. The Bolsheviks controlled a larger population than the Whites, and they had most of the defense industries. The Red Army therefore enjoyed a decisive edge in manpower resources and armaments, and its rear was not threatened by rebellious national minorities. In addition, the Red Army, quite unlike the Whites, had a unified outlook and program that lifted members’ morale as the war continued. Finally, although the peasants frequently rebelled against Bolshevik grain requisitions, they were even more fearful of a White victory and return of the nobility. Lenin’s government, under a program of “War Communism,” War Communism thus obtained the necessary sacrifices from the Soviet populace to secure victory. Russian Civil War (1918-1921)
Bolsheviks;Russian Civil War

Further Reading

  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. An interpretive essay of the years 1917-1938.
  • Kennan, George F. Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961. Written by a distinguished scholar and diplomat, this book is a good starting point for studying the causes and consequences of Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War.
  • Lincoln, W. Bruce. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1999. A vivid narrative addressed to a general audience that captures the violence and brutality of the civil war.
  • Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987. A balanced survey, particularly strong on military aspects of the civil war.
  • Pipes, Richard. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. New York: Vintage, 1995. This book addresses cultural and religious affairs, the non-Russian nationalities, and Soviet attempts to export the Bolshevik Revolution.
  • Swain, Geoffrey. The Origins of the Russian Civil War. London: Longman, 1996. Concentrating on events in 1918, this study emphasizes foreign intervention and the desires of the peasants, who were caught between the Reds and the Whites.
  • Volkogonov, Dmitri. Lenin: A New Biography. Translated and edited by Harold Shukman. New York: Free Press, 1994. Written by a former Soviet general who became highly critical of the Soviet system created by the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War.

October Manifesto

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Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution

Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution

Lenin Announces the New Economic Policy