The Russian Civil War was a multiparty conflict for control of the Russian Empire.
The war was fought between the Bolshevik Red Army and the White Army, a loose alliance of anti-Bolshevik forces. Many foreign armies fought against the Red Army, especially the Allies and the pro-German armies.
The war was initially very bad for the Reds. The Whites took possession of all of Siberia, Ukraine, the southeast and the west and northwest. In several countries that declared their independence, such as Finland, minor civil wars occurred between Reds and Whites. Petrograd was captured from the north and west, while Admiral Denikin and Kolchak threatened Moscow and Tsaritsyn.
At one point, the Poles took Kyiv. In 1919, the Red Army defeated the White Forces of southern Russia in Ukraine and the army led by Alexander Kolchak in Siberia. The remnants of the White forces led by Pyotr Wrangel were defeated in the Crimea in 1920 and evacuated. Several independent countries — Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland — emerged from the war.
The October Revolution had brought the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership to power in 1917. They only enjoyed the support of about 25% of the population but managed to seize power through vigorous action.
However, from former tsarist armies, the White armies began to form: anti-Communist forces, led by Tsarist generals. Monarchists, liberals, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Cossacks, and the nobility joined the White forces.
The White Army mainly fought against the Red Army of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. Besides these two great armies, there were several independent armies of anarchists and ethnic minorities. Allied troops assisted the Whites.
Beginning of the Civil War
On November 20, 1917 (o.s.), the Don Cossacks led by Alexei Kaledin declared themselves independent. Due to the Bolshevik forces’ advance towards the Don Cossacks’ capital, Kaledin allied with the Volunteer Army of Kornilov, Alexeyev, and Denikin to fight against the Bolsheviks.
After a six-day battle, the Don Cossacks and the White Army managed to capture Rostov-on-Don. The Don area was overrun with refugees from the Bolshevik north. Among the first 3,000 members of the Volunteer Army were only a few dozen soldiers. The rest had all been officers or NCOs in the tsarist army.
Kornilov and the other White Army leaders did not want to restore the monarchy officially but demanded the Constituent Assembly’s convening. Kornilov disliked the liberal cadets, while Alexeyev wanted to cooperate with the liberals. Kaledin’s Cossack troops fell apart. On February 8, the Bolsheviks captured the city of Taganrog, and Kaledin shot himself. On February 23, the Bolsheviks had captured the Don Cossack capital.
After the Bolsheviks conquered Rostov-on-Don, 4,000 men of the White Army led by Kornilov moved to the Kuban across the frozen steppes. Behind the army came a long procession of civilians. This tour came to be known as the Ice March. People who were sick, weak, or injured were left behind. Most of the wounded civilians shot themselves to avoid capture by the Bolsheviks. To obtain food, villages were ransacked by the Whites.
The biggest act of terror during the Ice March was in Lezjanka, where 60 farmers were murdered. On March 23, 1918, Kornilov’s troops were supported by 3,000 Kubanko bags. Together they attacked Ekaterinodar on April 10 with their combined force of 7,000 men.
In the battle, Kornilov was killed when a grenade hit his headquarters. Denikin took command and ordered a retreat to the Don. The White Army under Denikin’s command returned to the Don area with four thousand men, where they had left ten weeks earlier.
In the meantime, the Don area villages had fallen victim to food claims, and hundreds of hostages had been murdered by the Bolsheviks. Several villages set up militias to resist the Bolsheviks.
At the end of April 1918, the militias united to form an army of 10,000 horse riders led by General Pyotr Krasnov. In mid-June, Krasnov’s army had about 40,000 men. Krasnov became an ally of the Volunteer Army. The White Army was divided along political lines, with monarchists, liberals, Mensheviks, and Social Revolutionaries in their ranks.
There was also a big difference of opinion between, on the one hand, the Russian centralists versus Cossacks, who strived for independence. The White Army generals wanted to reverse the expropriations of the big landowners by the peasants, which meant that the peasants gave little support to the Whites.
At the end of May 1918, the Bolsheviks came into conflict with the Czech Legion. The Czech Legion was founded by Czech nationalists who were in Russia to fight in World War I on the Russians’ side to liberate the Czech Republic from the oppression of Austria-Hungary. In 1917 the legion had about 35,000 men.
The Bolsheviks signed the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty; the Czech Legion decided to continue the war. They wanted to go to France via Vladivostok and the United States.
They used the Trans-Siberian Railway for this with the permission of the Bolsheviks. On March 14, some Czechs were arrested in the Urals after fighting with Hungarian prisoners of war. Trotsky ordered to shoot every armed Czech on the trail.
This led to fighting between the Czechs and the Bolsheviks. The Czech Legion captured Novo-Nikolayevsk on May 26, Penza on May 28, Tomsk on May 31, and Vladivostok on June 6, Omsk.
The victory of the Communists
One by one, the opponents of the Reds were defeated. Arkhangelsk fell into the Reds’ hands without a fight, after the British had left and the defending White army had disintegrated.
The Reds advanced in Siberia, where the Czechs bought their free retreat to Vladivostok with a secret treasure from the Tsar and Admiral Kolchak’s handover.
The Americans had already withdrawn. In 1922 the Japanese had to follow this example. Yoedenich’s troops were driven from Petrograd. Denikin and Wrangel were driven back to the Crimea with the French, where the last Whites finally surrendered.
The Poles were driven back to Warsaw, after which they still gained independence and a very spacious area (the Reds wanted to have their hands free). Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were abandoned, but Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkestan were again brought firmly under Russian rule. In 1921 the war had already been won by the Reds, but the Japanese did not leave Siberia until 1922, and the internal unrest was not completely suppressed until 1924.
The war was fought very brutally on both sides. The Whites murdered about 100,000 Jews in organized pogroms. General Wrangel had Red officers executed to persuade their soldiers to join his armies, while General Kolchak had an entire Red Army murdered in Omsk.
White Cossacks dragged Red prisoners across the ground on lassos and cooked awkward guerrillas in locomotives’ boilers. The Reds wiped out entire villages and founded the brutal secret police Okhrana de Cheka, which killed thousands of people — in retaliation or as a warning.
The Cheka became the Stalinist NKVD and the Cold War era KGB. Modern Russian President Vladimir Putin; ironically an anti-Communist, began his career as a KGB agent.
Priests were impaled, and White officers were caged with rats tied to their bodies, which were then heated, causing the rats to eat their way out through the bodies. Complainers were unceremoniously put against the wall. The tsar and his family were murdered, presumably at the personal orders of Lenin. One of the biggest massacres was committed by the Tashkent Soviet, which killed more than 10,000 soldiers and — above all — civilians after the capture of Kokand.
The citizens were the victims of the War. The Red and White terror claimed millions of lives. Famines and diseases also broke out.
As if the Reds and Whites’ citizens had not enough to fear, they also had to fear each other: looting, murder, robberies, and even cannibalism were reported. It is estimated that between 1918 and 1923, some 15 million Russians lost their lives.