White Russian soldiers execute Bolshevik captives, January 1920.


Bolshevik Red Army crossing the Dnieper River, Russian Civil War.


White Army troops in Siberia, Russian Civil War.

After the pressures of World War I brought about the collapse of imperial Russia’s tsarist regime in March 1917, a weak Provisional Government proved unable to resolve the profound social and political divisions in Russian society. In November 1917 Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party capitalized on growing worker and soldier discontent and overthrew the Provisional Government. The Russian civil war was a bitter and devastating conflict to determine Russia’s future after the Bolshevik takeover. In simplest terms, the civil war from 1918 to 1920 pitted the Reds (Lenin’s communist Bolshevik party) against the Whites (those opposed to the Bolsheviks, particularly tsarist military officers). In reality, the war was a complex, many-sided struggle among political, social, and ethnic movements with roots extending before World War I and with fighting continuing into the early 1920s.


The tensions producing the Russian civil war date to the pre–World War I Russian Empire. Russian society was characterized not only by a deep divide between the tsar’s regime and the population, but also by suspicion and misunderstanding between elite, educated society on one side, and workers and peasants on the other. After the fall of Tsar Nicholas II, the Provisional Government could not heal Russian society’s deep fissures. Moderate and liberal parties, especially the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) initially dominating the new Provisional Government, were committed to democratic reform but not the socialist reorganization of society. Russian workers, peasants, and soldiers, on the other hand, grew increasingly radical over the course of 1917, and their support for more radical parties, particularly the Bolsheviks and the peasant-backed Socialist Revolutionaries (the SRs), grew accordingly.

Lenin’s seizure of power in November 1917 only added to the tensions in Russia, creating conflict among Russia’s socialist parties over whether the Bolsheviks would rule alone or, as many leftists hoped, as part of a multiparty left-wing coalition. In the immediate wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, efforts to broker a settlement between Lenin and other socialist parties, particularly by the influential Railway Workers’ Union, went nowhere. Lenin’s adamant refusal to share power, except for token collaboration with the left wing of the SR party (the Left SRs) made a political settlement impossible to achieve. At the same time, armed clashes began between the Bolsheviks and their right-wing opponents: the Bolshevik seizure of power in Moscow required several days of street fighting, and holding onto authority in Petrograd required a force of Red Guards, improvised worker militias, to hold off a desultory attempt to seize the city by Cossack troops under the command of General Peter Krasnov.

Impending elections to the Constituent Assembly, a constitutional convention to craft a new political order for Russia, prevented immediate civil war. The Bolsheviks’ rivals, particularly the SRs, expected that the elections would prove their popular support. The SRs received a clear plurality of the vote, comfortably more than the Bolsheviks, and with allied parties would hold a clear majority in the Constituent Assembly over the Bolsheviks and their Left SR allies. For just that reason, Lenin permitted the assembly to meet only a single time on 5 January 1918 before forcibly shutting it down and eliminating the possibility of reconciliation with other socialists.

While the anti-Bolshevik socialist parties pinned their hopes on the Constituent Assembly, conservatives and tsarist army officers organized armed resistance. The old tsarist army disintegrated, and many officers and military cadets fled south to Cossack territory on the Don River to organize a counterrevolutionary movement, believing the Cossacks to be natural supporters of Russia’s old order. Hastily organized Bolshevik forces under Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko invaded the Don at the end of November 1917, seizing the region’s major cities and driving a nascent anti-Bolshevik force of military officers and cadets, the Volunteer Army, south through the frozen steppe.

By February 1918, Lenin’s political situation appeared to be secure. The Constituent Assembly had been shut down without incident, and Bolshevik troops were clearing the Don of counter-revolutionaries. Unfortunately for Lenin, Russia’s unfinished war against Germany flared again in February 1918. Immediately after seizing power, Lenin had concluded a cease-fire with Germany. Negotiations for a final peace had gone nowhere, however, as German demands, particularly for an independent Ukraine under German domination, had proven unacceptable. After Leon Trotsky, veteran revolutionary and Lenin’s negotiator, declared “no war, no peace” in response to a German ultimatum, the Germans decided to take by force what the Bolsheviks would not give them. As the German army rapidly seized huge stretches of Russian territory, Lenin had no forces capable of offering more than token resistance and was compelled to accept the draconian terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed 3 March 1918, ceding enormous territories in the Baltics, Byelorussia, and Ukraine. In addition to providing shelter for national separatist movements in the Baltics and Ukraine, this surrender generated enormous opposition from a substantial number within the Bolshevik party, and more from the Bolsheviks’ Left SR allies, who withdrew from coalition with the Bolsheviks. In an attempt to restart the war with Germany, Left SRs assassinated the German ambassador in early July, and attempted to seize control of the city of Moscow. Bolshevik forces crushed this revolt, and the Menshevik and SR parties were expelled from Soviet organizations. After an assassination attempt on Lenin at the end of August 1918, the Bolsheviks unleashed a Red terror against all varieties of opposition, executing thousands of political enemies.

In May and June 1918, Bolshevik power was further shaken by an ill-advised effort to disarm the Czech Legion. The Czech Legion was a military unit composed of Czech and Slovak prisoners of war, released in order to fight against the Central Powers. When Russia left the war, the Czechs began a long journey across Siberia to the Pacific to reach Western Europe and continue the fight. While the legion stretched along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Trotsky’s effort to disarm them instead provoked the Czechs to seize control of the railway, removing much of Russia east of the Volga River from Bolshevik control in a few weeks, and giving a vital boost to anti-Bolshevik movements.

Though political violence had been common since the fall of the tsar, anti-Bolshevik forces became far more organized and coherent in the late spring and summer of 1918, while the Bolsheviks turned decisively away from improvised Red Guard forces, and began the construction of a new and strictly organized Red Army under Trotsky’s skilled and charismatic leadership. In order to find experienced commanders for his new Red Army, Trotsky forcibly conscripted tens of thousands of tsarist officers, the military specialists, to command Bolshevik forces over the objections of many in his own party.

By the summer of 1918, the two sides in the civil war were increasingly clear and defined. The Red side essentially consisted of the Bolshevik party and those under Bolshevik rule. The Bolsheviks did govern in concert with the Left SRs until the summer of 1918, and even later than that worked efficiently with small revolutionary parties and individual sympathizers at the local level. Nonetheless, the Bolsheviks’ lack of real partners gave them unity and hierarchy under Lenin’s dominant but never unquestioned leadership. Their movement enjoyed a coherence that the Whites never had.

The Whites, by contrast, had little to tie them together besides opposition to bolshevism. Dispersed around the edges of the empire, several separate White governments operated with little coordination between. Their peripheral position provoked tensions with non-Russian ethnic groups, who found their national aspirations at odds with the Whites’ commitment to a restored Russia. The SRs, claiming to represent Russia’s peasantry and seeking a revolutionary transformation of the countryside, had little in common with the former tsarist officers who came to dominate the White movement.

The two sides were in many ways alike. In practical terms, they were attempting to build states and fight a war using a peasant population at best ambivalent toward their aims. Both sides were able to draw upon a militarized population, trained for violence by forty years of universal conscription and the experience of total war. The alienation of Russia’s peasantry from both causes forced the Reds and Whites alike to conscript unwilling peasants into their armies, and produced massive levels of desertion. Both presided over economic disintegration, and turned to forcible requisition of grain from the peasantry to feed their cities and soldiers. Unwilling soldiers and hostile peasants meant that both employed mass violence and repression; White terror was retaliatory or the result of indiscipline, whereas Red terror was systematic and deliberate. Both sides emerged from the political culture of the Russian Empire and especially World War I: their instincts were authoritarian, centralizing, and committed to employing the state to control and transform Russian society and the Russian economy. In that sense, the Whites were not particularly conservative. Even leaving aside the large number of explicitly revolutionary parties and individuals in their heterogeneous movement, there was little sentiment among them for full restoration of the old regime, particularly the Romanov dynasty.

Amid growing chaos, increasing numbers of foreign troops intervened in Russia to back the Whites in their struggle against the Reds and in hopes of reopening a Russian front against the Germans and their immense occupied territory. Small contingents of Allied troops began landing in Russian ports in spring 1918 to secure war matériel accumulated from Allied deliveries over the course of the war. By late 1918, this had become a substantial Allied presence aimed at assisting the overthrow of the Bolsheviks, with British and American forces occupying Russia’s north-ernports, and American and Japanese in the Russian Far East.

Behind the Czech shield, and with increasing Allied aid, a host of governments sprang up in the Urals, Siberia, and Central Asia in 1918, united by nothing but opposition to the Bolsheviks. Several of the most significant met in Ufa in September 1918 to form a united Directory, with a capital at Omsk. Internecine tensions between revolutionary and conservative forces continued unabated, and in November 1918 a coup overthrew the Directory and installed Admiral Alexander Kolchak as dictator of a Siberian regime plagued throughout its brief existence by corruption, political intrigue, and incompetence.

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