White Defeat in the Russian Civil War

The Red versus White struggle was decided on the battlefield, but the outcome of civil wars also depends on the contenders’ ability, through politics and propaganda, to convince people to fight for them (or at least not to raise arms against them). In this field, governance, the Whites were a spectacular failure. Consequently, no matter how successful their main military thrusts were, when the tide turned and advances morphed into retreats, the Whites had nothing to fall back on. Hence the precipitous collapse of the AFSR, the North-West Army, and Kolchak’s Russian Army.

This is not to say that the Whites did not try to compete with the Bolsheviks on the political plane—however much their background in the Russian military tended to incline them to regard “politics” as a dirty word (a feeling amplified by the disasters of 1917). Both Kolchak and Denikin actually elaborated political programs in 1919 that might—despite the generally held perceptions of the Whites as “reactionaries”—broadly be described as “liberal.” They repeatedly committed themselves to resuscitating local governments, to respecting the right of the non-Russian peoples to self-determination, to respecting the rights of trade unions, and to radical land reform, and vowed that, upon victory in the civil war, they would summon a new national assembly to determine the future constitution of the Russian state. Kolchak, whose Omsk government was more stable, rooted, and fully developed than the rather nebulous and peripatetic Special Council that advised Denikin, tended to take the lead in such matters, but both the main White military camps had phalanxes of Kadet auxiliaries to add flesh to the bones of their declarations on politics and to staff their press agencies, advisory councils, and bureaus of propaganda. Moreover, there is little doubt that both Denikin and Kolchak held genuinely progressive views on a range of issues, including the necessity of radical land reform in Russia—the key issue of the previous century—and that both were entirely sincere in their protestations that they had no personal desire to hang on to political power for a moment longer than it would take to drive Lenin from the Kremlin. Also, although the document that established the Kolchak dictatorship (“The Statute on the Provisional Structure of State Power in Russia”) made no provision for its termination, the admiral put on public record, in a speech at Ekaterinburg in February 1919, for example, a solemn pledge that he would not retain power “for a single day longer than the interests of the country demand,” and asserted that “in the future the only admissible form of government in Russia will be a democratic one.” And these declarations reaped some rewards: in May 1919, for example, the Big Four at Paris were sufficiently impressed with Kolchak’s democratic credentials that they would consider recognizing his regime as the government of all Russia.

However well-drafted or well-intentioned, though, there was always something flimsy, half-baked, and unconvincing about White politics; and a lingering sense prevailed that neither Denikin nor Kolchak was much interested in the details of the political concerns that had been agitating Russia since—and, indeed, long before—February 1917. Moreover, however egalitarian were the personal beliefs and intentions of the major White leaders, who were far from the clichéd caricatures of prince-nez-adorned, sadistic fops of Bolshevik propaganda, this could not disperse the stench of restorationism that suffused their camps, which were heavily populated with the former elite of the Russian Empire. British officers with the mission in South Russia, for example, who had been invited to a banquet held by the local branch of the Union of Landowners at Novocherkassk, soon sensed that they were among “a hot-bed of monarchists” and were deeply embarrassed when one of the guests (a cousin of Nicholas Romanov) ordered the orchestra to play “God Save the Tsar,” the old imperial anthem (which had been banned since the February Revolution).

Consequently, although Denikin’s land laws and labor legislation might have promised fair treatment to peasants and workers, the populace of territory occupied by the AFSR invariably felt the whip and wrath of returning landlords and factory bosses, who had been driven out by the wide-scale seizures of private property that had accompanied the spread of Soviet power in 1917–1918 and now sought revenge and recompense. The same rule applied in the east, as Kolchak’s forces advanced from Siberia (where large, landed estates were almost unknown) across the Urals to the Volga region (beyond which they became general)—despite the fact that Kolchak himself was clearly committed to a progressive land reform resembling that assayed in Russia in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution and that Omsk’s Ministry of Agriculture was teeming with former associates of the reforming prime minister of those days, P. A. Stolypin. Most telling of all was that Kolchak’s “Decree on Land” was not issued until April 1919, when his army’s move toward European Russia necessitated such action. Similarly, on the second great issue of the day—national self-determination—Kolchak also remained silent until the spring of 1919, when the focus of Paris on the Whites’ intentions prompted action—or at least more promises.

A variety of explanations might be adduced for such prevarication. A generous reading of White policy would emphasize that the movement was genuinely committed to a stance of non-predetermination—one that, disinterestedly, inhibited (even forbade) the introduction of significant reforms during the armed struggle; such acts, according to the doctrine, which was routinely espoused by the Whites, would have to await the decisions of a new constituent assembly, once the Bolsheviks had been defeated. A less generous exposition of the “White idea” could cite cynical distortions and maskings of their true aims by the Whites, in order to secure peasant recruits to man their armies and Allied weapons to equip them, while attempting to hoodwink any too-trusting members of the national minorities into accepting that promises of self-determination emanating from Omsk and Ekaterinodar were real.

The Whites’ evasive and contradictory stance on the nationalities question was particularly damaging to their cause (given that, especially in South Russia and the northwest, they tended to be operating from bases in lands where Russians were in a minority and non-Russians were using the postimperial and post–world war hiatus to fashion their independence. Thus, Denikin would occasionally sing the praises of self-determination, yet more often espouse the cause of a “Russia, One and Indivisible,” while engaging in a prolonged border war (the “Sochi conflict”) with the Democratic Republic of Georgia, and also directly insulting the Ukrainians by referring to that land by the condescending tsarist-era term “Little Russia.” He would also offer up such alarming suggestions regarding the proper delineation of a new Polish–Russian border, in the wake of the establishment of the Second Polish Republic at the world war’s end, that Warsaw would call a halt to his army’s operations in the spring of 1919 and then enter into secret peace talks with Moscow that would facilitate the redeployment of 40,000 men from the Red Army’s Western Front to its “Southern Front, Against Denikin” in the autumn of that year. Another instructive example was the case of Daghestan and its neighbors in the Caucasus, who had united in an autonomous Mountain Republic. This regime had initially been dissolved by the Bolshevik-dominated Terek Soviet Republic at Vladikavkaz in the spring of 1918, but had reestablished itself as Soviet power crumbled in the North Caucasus later that year. It then had repulsed a new Soviet offensive in April 1919, only to find that, when Denikin’s forces subsequently occupied the North Caucasus and then Daghestan, it had to flee again—this time from the Whites.

In Siberia, Kolchak had less immediate concerns with the non-Russian nationalities, who were not present in sufficient numbers within his realm to cause harm (although the desertion from his front line around Ufa, in February 1919, of 6,500 Bashkir forces, who had despaired of their treatment by the Whites, left a big hole in the front line). However, as supreme ruler his pronouncements on the issue had national and international consequences, and here it was revealing that Kolchak should choose the case of Finland, which was already independent and certainly unrecoverable, to dig in his heels: when General Mannerheim, in July 1919, offered a deal whereby his 100,000-strong army would capture Petrograd for the Whites in return for some not inconsiderable but hardly outrageous conditions (recognition of Finnish independence, the secession to Finland of Pechenga, self-determination for Karelia, free navigation through Lake Ladoga for Finnish merchant vessels, etc.), Kolchak refused to agree. His advisor, George Guins, would plead with him that “the prime aim must be the defeat of the Bolsheviks and only second the putting back together of Russia,” but the admiral would not recognize the logic of such an approach. For Kolchak, Russia could not be saved from the Bolsheviks if it was in pieces, because Russia in pieces was not Russia.

So, both generous and cynical approaches to White politics have elements of truth to them. Over and above such considerations, however, it has to be conceded that—for what they regarded as the purest of motives—the White leaders distained all politics; their contempt for what they, as officers, regarded as an unwholesome and ungentlemanly pursuit was at least honest, if misguided, and was certainly reinforced by the depressing experience of 1917, when all Russia seemed to have turned into a vast, endless, clamorous, and pointless political meeting.

The Whites’ distaste for politics, and especially class-based politics, knitted perfectly with the claim of their Kadet allies to be, as a party, “above class” and “above politics” (although, again, a cynic might point out that the Kadets were calculating here that there was no strong bourgeois class in Russia that might support their liberal platform) and with that party’s historical tendency to place nation above all else. Moreover, the particular circumstances of post–world war Europe at the moment, over the winter of 1918–1919, that the White movement reached maturity, strongly reinforced this predilection. The White leaders were all too well aware that although there were ranks of irreconcilable anti-Bolsheviks in and around the governments in London, Paris, and Washington, there were many Allied politicians who did not fear the Soviet government, or who hoped to use Russia’s discomfort to their own countries’ advantage, or who were genuinely overwhelmed by war-weariness. In these circumstances, the end of the world war might not prove advantageous: consequently, a Kolchak supporter in the Russian Far East, for example, recorded his impressions of the sight of British Tommies celebrating the armistice as “not particularly joyous,” as civil wars waged on in Russia; the admiral’s secretary, the aforementioned Guins, would reflect that the collapse of Germany had been “fatal to the anti-Bolshevik struggle”; and one of his generals would bluntly assert that, from 11 November 1918 onward, “Kolchak had no Allies.” Consequently, if Kolchak and his supporters were to win what they desired above all else—the admittance of Russia to the family of Allied “victor nations,” a seat at the forthcoming peace conference, and the opportunity to ensure that their country was properly rewarded for the very considerable part it had played in the world war—the lesson was clear. A few days after having assumed the mantle of “supreme ruler” in November 1918, Kolchak spelled out that lesson:

The day is dawning when the inexorable course of events will demand victory of us; upon this victory or defeat will depend our life or death, our success or failure, our freedom or ignoble slavery. The hour of the great international peace conference is now near and if, by that hour, we are not victorious then we will lose our right to a vote at the conference of victor nations and our freedom will be decided upon without us.

Kolchak’s calculations were correct. In November–December 1918, nothing was done by the Allies to dissuade Romania from snatching formerly Russian Bessarabia from its German occupiers. Then, at meetings on 12–19 January 1919 in Paris, the Council of Ten decided that no Russian representatives would be afforded a seat among them. Days later, in accordance with a scheme devised by Lloyd George and Robert Borden, the prime minister of Canada, an invitation was sent out by radio (from a transmitter atop the Eiffel Tower) suggesting that all warring parties in “Russia” should meet at a separate peace conference at Prinkipo, off Constantinople, in the Sea of Marmara. When informed of the latter, Kolchak was aghast and spluttered, “Good God! Can you believe it? An invitation to peace with the Bolsheviks!” Had he been told some weeks later, in early March 1919, that a senior American diplomat, William C. Bullitt, was at that moment being entertained in Moscow, was parlaying in a semi-official manner with Lenin, and was offering very generous terms to end the intervention, Kolchak’s language might have been less temperate. Then, in April, news broke of a scheme approved in Paris for supplying food relief and medicine to the peoples of Russia, including those in the Soviet zone. Kolchak’s precise response to news of this initiative of Fridtjof Nansen is unrecorded, but he probably found himself in unusual accord with Trotsky, who, surveying the scene on 13 April 1919, commented, “We have before us a case of betrayal of the minor brigands by the major ones.”

In the light of all this, it seems sensible to conclude that analyses of the Whites’ defeat in the civil wars that focus on their tardy, half-hearted, and haphazard attempts to win political support are—however accurate such a portrayal—ultimately misguided. “All for the Army,” as the mantra went at Omsk, was probably a reasonable response to the circumstances of the time. The price to be paid, however, in terms of popular support and the concomitant ability to absorb and bounce back from military defeats, was revealed in the manner in which all four of the major White fronts disintegrated once their advances had been turned.