Why the Reds Won the Russian Civil War

Sunday, 7 November 1920, was the third anniversary of the October Revolution. The evening before, Lenin had spoken to a large meeting in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. ‘Today,’ he said, ‘we can celebrate our victory.’ Had the Bolsheviks been told on the night of the Petrograd rising ‘that, three years later what is would be, that we would have this victory of ours, nobody, not even the most incurable optimist would have believed it.’ (Lenin’s memory failed him here; in October 1917 many Bolsheviks had expected victory not just in Russia but across all of Europe, and in a very short period.) Pravda, on the 7th, had banner headlines:

For three years the Republic of Soviets has lived and fought, holding in its hands both the hammer and the rifle.

For three years, hungry and cold, in fierce struggle, the worker has gone from victory to victory.

He has waited for the time when his last enemies have perished, when the shackles on the hands of his foreign brothers have been broken.

Forward again! No shrugging of the mighty shoulders. The hour of world victory is near.

That night the Red forces began the main attack on Vrangel’s army at Perekop. A week later, on the 15th, Frunze sent a jubilant signal from the Crimea: ‘Today our units entered Sevastopol. With powerful blows the Red regiments have finally crushed the south Russian counter-revolution. The tortured country now has the chance to begin to heal the wounds inflicted by the imperialist and civil wars.’ There was a parade of army cadets in Red Square on the 16th, but no great celebration. Soviet Russia’s economic problems were nearing their winter crisis, and this was no time for relaxation. Nevertheless, the last large, organized, anti-Bolshevik force had been driven from Soviet soil. The terrible struggle was over. Soviet power, established three years earlier, was secure. Bolshevism had won.

Was Red victory based on the political and economic policies of the Soviet government? Without doubt the Bolsheviks’ early promises were a basic reason why they were able to seize and consolidate power in 1917–1918; their programme of Soviet power, peace, land reform, and workers’ control was widely popular. But those promises could not be kept. Economic life suffered greatly in the aftermath of the Revolution and the World War. Factories closed, towns starved. The Bolsheviks faced in 1918 a big challenge even within the working class. Urban conditions remained dreadful throughout the Civil War, as Aleksandra Kollontai pointed out in March 1921: ‘To our shame, in the heart of the republic, in Moscow itself, working people are still living in filthy, overcrowded and unhygienic quarters, one visit to which makes one think that there has been no revolution at all.’

Nor were peasants, the great majority of the population, satisfied. Once the gentry’s land had been taken there was nothing else to offer them. And given the movement from the towns, the small size of the nobility, and the large amount of land that had been rented prior to 1917, the peasants had access to little more land than they had before. Instead the state had to take the peasants’ produce for the towns and their sons for the Red Army. It has been argued that Bolshevik agrarian and food-supply policies had a worse effect than did Civil War fighting, since it was the provinces in the Soviet rear that suffered the worst decline in farm production. A frank (and secret) Soviet report of conditions in 1921 in Tambov, a typical rural province, made clear the dissatisfaction of the peasants: ‘what sort of Workers’ and Peasants’ regime is it that we have [?]’ they were asking themselves, ‘the regime in fact is that of the workers, over the peasants.’

Nor were the Bolshevisks able to create the kind of mass democracy that they had promised in 1917. The same Tambov report showed great weaknesses even after three years of continuous Soviet rule, and spoke of the ‘Military-Administrative character of the Soviet Regime’; ‘the peasantry, in their majority, have become accustomed to regarding the Soviet regime as something extraneous to themselves, something that issues only commands’. ‘Our party,’ it concluded, ‘has put down no firm roots in the countryside.’ By December 1919 Lenin had seen that power had to come first, mass support second: ‘The proletariat must first overthrow the bourgeoisie and win for itself state power, and then use that state power, that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as an instrument of its class for the purpose of winning the sympathy of the majority of the working people.’

Lenin once said that the underlying reason for ‘such an historical miracle,’ why a ‘weak, exhausted and backward country was able to defeat the most powerful countries in the world’ was ‘centralization, discipline, and unparalleled self-sacrifice.’ But if Bolshevik success was not explained solely by popular policies it was also not explained solely by some remarkable political efficiency, going back to the Leninist tradition of the elite vanguard party. Economic and military steps were not carried out across Soviet Russia under strict control from Moscow. The Civil War will be much better understood once objective regional studies have been written, but even now it is clear that given the size of ‘Sovdepia’ and the low quality of communications there could be no all-powerful economic and political centre; and a great deal of the success of the armies depended on their own efforts as they advanced into the food-rich periphery; the Polish campaign of 1920 was the exception that proved the rule.

The Soviet victory, then, must be seen as a mixture of several elements. The popularity of the Bolsheviks’ economic programmes was limited after the winter of 1917–1918, and they had not created a real mass democracy. (Indeed, one of the strengths of the Soviet regime was that it often knew better than to pursue unrealistic policies when they did not work.) Nor was the Soviet state highly efficient. Nevertheless, the popularity of Bolshevik programmes and the effectiveness of their administration was acceptable – relative to that of their opponents. The effect of Red Terror is harder to assess. Even some Bolshevik leaders felt that terror was counterproductive, but on balance it must be seen as an additional factor leading to victory. It contained the worst effects of the dangerous economic policies and prevented a successful ‘internal’ revolt. Red Terror ensured that no one, as Lenin feared they might, thought the Bolsheviks ‘old women.’

The Bolsheviks kept control of the Red heartland throughout the Civil War, with the result that they outnumbered their opponents. The core territory of Sovdepia was the largest chunk of the population of the old empire, it was mostly Great Russian in nationality, it contained most of the war industry, most establishments and stores of the old army and navy. Gaining and keeping control of this heartland in 1917–1918 was the decisive achievement of the Civil War. Moscow was the symbol of the heartland. Lebedev, one of the SR leaders of the little Komuch-Czechoslovak force that took Kazan in 1918, dreamed of a further advance on Moscow: ‘all her resources of people, of war, of finance would now be in our hands.’ ‘In Moscow we would get masses of troops, there we would get the whole brain of our country, all her soul, all that is talented in Russia.’

In fact it was the Bolsheviks who held the Aladdin’s cave throughout the Civil War, and their enemies could only dream of its treasures – after Lebedev Kolchak, and after Kolchak Denikin. Moscow too was the centre of communications which enabled the embattled Reds to defeat their isolated enemies one by one. (‘The ancient capital,’ as Churchill put it, ‘lay at the centre of a web of railroads . . . and in the midst a spider! Vain hope to crush the spider by the advance of lines of encircling flies!’ The Reds fought from this base in the winter after their revolution, and in the campaigns of 1918 and 1919. By the time of the 1920 campaign the Reds had an overwhelming numerical superiority. All that could have destroyed them was internal decay, and they were able to avoid the most serious internal crises until after their victory on the battlefront. The main campaigns were conventional military ones, and that is where their reserves of manpower gave them an enormous advantage.

They also controlled a vast territory and could give up ground without being seriously threatened. When Lenin in April 1920 listed four conditions facilitating victory, one of them was ‘the possibility of holding out during a comparatively long civil war, partly thanks to the gigantic size of the country and to the bad means of communication’ (the other factors were the Bolshevik peace policy, imperialist disunity, and peasant revolution). Trotsky made the same point: ‘if we are alive today as an independent revolutionary country . . . this is due to our expanses.’

Red strategy probably should not be made too much of as a cause of victory. The Polish campaign was the most complex in military terms, but Pilsudski said he would not contradict those who described it as ‘a kind of children’s scuffle, a mere brawl, unworthy to be considered in the light of the high theories of the military art.’ ‘We defeated our enemies,’ Trotsky admitted, ‘but it cost us the greatest losses. We took too long over every battle, every war, every campaign.’ On the whole the Reds simply responded to one attack after another. Their one great adventure, the advance to the west and the southwest in the winter of 1918–1919, possibly prevented the defeat of the Don Cossacks and certainly exposed the Soviet zone to attacks from the east and southeast. One vital decision of mid-1919, to pursue Kolchak beyond the Urals, was largely made despite the opinion of Main Commander-in-Chief Vatsetis. The planned southern offensive of the late summer of 1919, with the main blow coming down the Volga and through the Don Host Territory, made strategic sense, but proved impossible to execute. In the destruction of Denikin in the winter of 1919–1920 the Reds overlooked the importance of the Crimea, Vrangel’s future base. The final strategic counteroffensive against Poland in the summer of 1920 was clearly pushed too far. This patchy record was only partly due to the short-comings of the Soviet high command; the size of the country and the disruption of the railway system also made it extremely difficult to follow a more ‘polished’ strategy.

Nevertheless, the form that the Red victory took was a military one. However much the Russian struggle may have depicted – and in fact was – a war between classes, it was fought out by armies. Ultimately, Soviet victory owed much to the raising of a mass army commanded by former officers, equipped from Imperial stocks, and manned by peasant conscripts. The acceptance of military reorganization in 1918, under the pressure of the Volga campaign, prepared the Reds for the greater onslaught. Even then, they only won because their forces were so much larger than those of their enemies. Of course, it was terribly important that the Reds were fighting for a cause and had a big propaganda apparatus, but the Whites themselves showed that a remarkable military effort could be created in Russia without an attractivce ideology – beyond the supposed restoration of order.

It must never be forgotten that for the Bolshevik leaders the international dimension was extremely important. ‘We have always known,’ Lenin said in his third anniversary speech on 6 November 1920, that ‘until the revolution takes place in all states . . . our victory will be only half a victory, or perhaps less.’ E. H. Carr argued that ‘World revolution . . . was in fact imposed on the regime, not so much by doctrinal orthodoxy, as by the desperate plight of the civil war’; ‘World revolution’ was for Carr the diplomatic counterpart of economic ‘war communism’; both came not from doctrine but from the war emergency. The parallel is clever, but the analysis is wrong in both cases. The stress on world revolution in 1919–1920 had little to do with the Civil War; the causes were Bolshevik utopianism and central European turmoil.

World revolution became subordinate to other strands of Soviet policy in the 1920s. This was not because the war emergency had ended, but because events had proved it to be just a dream. The basic assumptions had been wrong: Europe was not on the brink of revolution in 1919. Only in backward Russia could radicals take control. Neither the Komintern nor the Red Army gave Moscow a means of forcing the pace. The revolution could spread only by example, and the Soviet example was – on balance – negative. Karl Kautsky, the leading spokesman of western European Marxist orthodoxy, condemned the ‘Stenka Razin socialism,’ ‘barrack socialism,’ the ‘Tartar socialism’ of Moscow; ‘Bolshevism has, up to the present, triumphed in Russia, but Socialism has already suffered a defeat.’ In other countries moderate leaders and mass opinion were alienated by political repression, terror, and economic chaos; and they were shocked by the Civil War. The Bolsheviks dreamed of turning World War into civil war; in the end only Russia suffered this fate.

Foreign policy was a crucial factor in the Red victory, but not in the way the Bolsheviks originally intended. The greatest single stroke, the event that more than anything else kept the Bolsheviks in power, was the separate peace that unfolded between 25 October 1917 and 3 March 1918. This was in many ways, as the Bolshevik Left realized, a rejection of full-blooded internationalist principles. It also had the negative effect of leading to anti-Bolshevik intervention by the Allies and deepening the economic crisis. But it did allow consolidation of the Bolshevik heartland in 1918, and that made victory possible in 1919 and 1920. After 1918 internationalism had the secondary benefit of maintaining Russian morale by putting forward the myth of the imminent European revolution.

Lenin’s role in the Red victory was not as universal as Soviet historians now maintain. As Trotsky pointed out, he took little consistent part in military decision-making at an operational level; he never visited the front and very seldom consulted the high command. Stalin’s estimate of 1946 seems about right: ‘In the Civil War Lenin urged us, then young comrades from the CC, “Study military affairs thoroughly”. As far as he was concerned, he told us openly, it was too late to study military affairs.’ Nor was Lenin’s political judgment an unalloyed success. He was profoundly wrong about issues that were most basic to his beliefs. He was wrong about the ability of the masses to run the state and the economy, his basic economic policies were untenable (some of them were tested almost to the point of destruction in the winter of 1920–1921), and he was wrong about the likelihood of European revolution. On the other hand his leadership during the October Revolution and the Brest negotiations was of central importance, and he also established a personal control over the party and the state which prevented (after March 1918) internal instability. He was sometimes prepared, too, to back off when he met obstacles – as in the use of the regular army and in some aspects of peasant policy.

The historian looking at Trotsky’s Civil War career must beware of two myths. The first is the Soviet view dominant ever since his disgrace in the late 1920s that he played no beneficial role in the Civil War. (‘History,’ Comrade Stalin in fact pointed out, ‘shows that . . . Kolchak and Denikin were beaten by our troops in spite of Trotsky’s plans.’) The second might be called the ‘Trotskyist’ myth that exaggerates his importance. The truth lies in between the two, but given the state of Western historiography it is perhaps the second myth that deserves the most attention. Trotsky was, of course, the second best-known Soviet leader. But his career in 1917–1920 was marked by spectacular failures. He made major mistakes in foreign policy in early 1918 and in economic policy in 1920. Even his career in the Red Army had the bitterness of the summer of 1919. Trotsky’s vital step was to support the creation of a regular army against much party opposition. He also played an important agitational role, his famous headquarters train covered 65,000 miles, and all this was something that Lenin, as their comrade Lunacharsky pointed out, could not have done. The fighting men needed a figurehead to rally around, and Trotsky played his part effectively.

At the same time the other important leaders of the Civil War should not be lost sight of. Sverdlov, who died in early 1919, helped organize the state and the party, and Rykov, disgraced in the 1930s, was the man in charge of the war economy. Smilga, another future oppositionist, was the chief political organizer of the Red Army. Something should be said for Stalin, too, who had a most active career in the Civil War; if he had been killed in 1920 he would certainly be remembered as one of the great activists of the war. And outside the party probably no one was as important as two former Tsarist colonels, Vatsetis and Kamenev.