The Russian civil war, which started in 1918, was both a regular and a partisan war. At least four groups can be identified: the communists, who propagated their fighting as a ‘‘people’s war’’; the ‘‘Whites,’’ or counterrevolutionary forces; the nationalists, like the army of the Ukrainian directorate; and predominantly the ‘‘Greens,’’ a loose conglomerate of peasant insurgencies especially in southern Ukraine, the lower Volga area, and western Siberia. Most famous was the partisan army of Nestor Makhno (1889–1934) in southeastern Ukraine, which over the years fought on different sides. The Russian civil war was characterized by utmost violence, killings of ideological enemies, excessive reprisals, and the murder of POWs (prisoners of war). It generated among the prevailing communist forces a tradition of partisan warfare, which was systematized by the military theoretician Mikhail Frunze (1885–1925) and laid down in the ‘‘Instruction on Partisan Warfare’’ from 1933. But during the 1930s, when the Soviet doctrine of the offensive took over, partisan warfare was no longer considered a model for the Red Army.
After the German attack on the Soviet Union, Stalin on 3 July 1941 called for the establishment of a partisan movement in the occupied Soviet territories, later even for a general people’s war (vsenarodnaya borba). Preparations for partisan warfare had been stopped during the mid- 1930s because it was not expected that Soviet territory would be a battlefield; so it took some time to raise a considerable partisan force. Early groups in 1941 consisted of Red Army stragglers. The Soviet secret police, the NKVD (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or People’s Commissariat for the Interior), started to install larger partisan units, as the regional Communist Party organizations prepared for underground work on impending occupation. Attacks on occupation institutions started in August 1941 in Byelorussia, then extended to the Bryansk area and the eastern frontier of Latvia. The German occupation power— Wehrmacht (German army), SS (Schutzstaffel), and police—from the outset used extreme violence to terrorize the population and deter from partisan activity or support. The Germans succeeded in destroying partisan units in eastern Ukraine and on the Crimean Peninsula until the turn of the year 1941/42.
The year 1942 saw the establishment of an integrated partisan movement with a central staff. The movement constantly attacked rear lines and units of the army group center, especially in Byelorussia and central Russia, and from autumn 1942 also in northeastern Ukraine. German forces, in southern Russia together with Hungarian units, organized combined antipartisan raids, encircling partisan areas. These operations were accompanied by extreme violence against locals—whole villages were burned, and inhabitants murdered or deported. The antipartisan raids were only partly successful in the military sense. The Soviet partisan movement continued to expand; statistics on its personnel strength vary considerably, as German veterans and Soviet historians tended to inflate the numbers. Reasonable estimates are at 100,000 active partisans in 1942, and a maximum of 280,000 in summer of 1944. All in all, between 400,000 and 500,000 citizens supposedly fought against the occupation, not counting a ‘‘partisan reserve’’ supporting the armed fighters. In Byelorussia, the center of Soviet partisan warfare, Germans lost 6,000–7,000 dead, while they exterminated 300,000–350,000 inhabitants and partisans. The partisans themselves were only partly affected by German raids after 1941. It is estimated that only 20 percent of the partisans in Byelorussia died during the war. In sum, several tens of thousands of soldiers of the German army and their indigenous auxiliaries were killed by partisans, while almost half a million civilians died during antipartisan warfare.
The historical image of the Soviet partisan movement has changed considerably since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its military effectiveness is considered as of limited value, restricted to the ‘‘rail war,’’ the two major combined attacks against railways in the German rear during the summers of 1943 and 1944. The Soviet partisans were more effective in keeping up Stalinist rule in the areas under German occupation. Until the end of 1942, partisans killed thousands of real or alleged collaborators, often including their families. They stripped the local population of all agricultural goods and endangered them by provoking German reprisals. A large part of the Soviet partisan units were integrated into the Red Army or NKVD troops in 1944. The anticommunist groups in the territories annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939– 1940 represent a specific case of partisans. Parts of these, in the Baltics and in western Ukraine, chose a tactical alliance with the German occupation in 1941–1942, but most of them turned against the Germans in 1943–1944 after realizing that the new occupier did not intend to create independent states in these areas. Especially in Latvia, Lithuania, and in western Ukraine, those groups fought both German occupation and the Soviet underground, despite some limited tactical negotiations with German authorities in 1944.