You are on page 1of 5


In 1918 Russia was engulfed in a conict that caused more bloodshed than the whole of the First World War. The country emerged, brutalised and starved into Communist rule and would remain dominated by the party for the following seventy years.

Red Advantages: Organisation, politics and railways.

By Nick Shepley

When the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 they did not have the support of the entire country, the much more popular Socialist Revolutionary Party won elections in November but Lenin ignored the result. The new workers government set up by the Bolsheviks was passionately hated by the old aristocracy who had been persecuted, humiliated and murdered by the regime and it's secret police, the Cheka. They were motivated by revenge and a desire to undo the revolution. In March 1918 Lenin ordered his Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Leon Trotsky, to sign

a treaty with Germany, withdrawing Russia from World War One. Germany annexed the Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic States. For many Russian patriots this was the nal outrage and armies formed to destroy the Bolsheviks. Key Question: By 1921 however the Bolsheviks, or Reds, were victorious and their control over the country enormously strengthened. How had they managed this? 1) Heartlands: The Bolsheviks controlled the centre of Russia, where the majority of industry, resources and people could be found. Their

enemies operated at the very edge of this heartland and found it far harder to control huge expanses of wilderness. 2) Propaganda: As seasoned revolutionaries, Lenin, Trotsky and others in the party understood the power of making their arguments to the people. They persuaded the Russian people that their policies would be benecial, and presented the White Armies as being unpatriotic and agents of the hated former Tsar.


Red Advantages: Trotsky, Terror and Hunger

3) Leadership: Leon Trotsky, as Commissar for Military Affairs, was a remarkable war leader considering he had never had a military career. He understood strategy well, but also used immense brutality, executing men who retreated in battle and threatening the families of former Tsarist generals until they agreed to lead the new Bolshevik armies. 4) Trains: Germany had been able to beat Russia in World War One partly due to her skilful use of trains to move troops from front to front. Trotsky was aware of this and made sure that the Bolsheviks controlled the train network in Russia. Being able to get fresh troops to the front line in order to reinforce it against the enemy was a vital part of Bolshevik strategy. Trotsky had his own personalised train with a printing press to distribute revolutionary propaganda. 5) Tactics: Another trick that the Bolsheviks learned from the Germans was that of coordinating forces. The White Armies were easy to pick off one by one when the Bolsheviks made sure that their armies worked together. 6) Brutality: Lenin introduced a policy called War Communism which forced farmers to hand over their grain to supply the army

'We got victory in the Civil War, the price was we ruined the country.
Leon Trotsky

with. Lenin's goal was not only to feed the Red Army but to destroy the class of supposed 'hoarders' he was sure existed, who he believed were holding on to their grain to sell it for higher prices. His policies, designed to wipe out the last elements of capitalism in Russia, eventually led to a huge famine in which some ve million peasants died.

Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky


The White Armies Why were they so incapable of winning?

By Nick Shepley

1) No Policies: It was very difcult for the White Armies to have much support as they didn't really have much to offer the peasants, who made up 80 per cent of the population. They made no promises at all about allowing peasants to keep the land they had seized in the revolution, and treated them with the same contempt that they had when they were the peasant's landlords. 2) No Men: The Whites Armies were made up largely of ofcers, their men either returned to their peasant villages or went to join the Red Army. This meant that the White Armies were often smaller and there were fewer men in White units who were happy to be led by others. Often there were disputes over strategy and too many skilled military thinkers had too much input. 3) No Strategy: As well as old aristocrats, the White forces were made up of Cossacks, Ukrainian Nationalists and Socialist Revolutionaries. All parties hated and mistrusted each other and often refused to cooperate with each other, which gave the Reds a huge advantage and weakened the White cause. It became hard for Russians to know what the White cause actually was, they simply demonstrated what they were opposed to, not what they believed. 4) No Support: By 1920 it was clear that the tide was turning against the Whites, they had failed to convince the majority of the people to support them

Ivan Denikin, anti Bolshevik general, committed to defeating the revolution, but unable to coordinate his forces with other armies.

and this led Britain, France and America to withdraw aid and troops from Russia, abandoning the Whites to their fate. 5) No Money: The majority of the nances of the White Armies came from abroad, and the Bolsheviks had been clever enough to capture the gold reserves of the former Tsarist regime. This meant that by 1921 the White cause was bankrupt and there was nothing left to pay White soldiers with. Unlike many Bolsheviks, who were motivated by idealism, there was nothing other than meagre wages and intimidation to force Whites to ght, and when wages dried up, men deserted in huge numbers.

Foreign intervention Why were there foreign armies helping the whites?
The First World War: After signing the Treaty Of Brest Litovsk, the Germans freed up hundreds of thousands of troops to throw against the allies on the Western Front. It became essential to get Russia back in the war or take the pressure of the western allies and the only way to do this was to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Ideology: The British, Americans and French were capitalist powers and had all experienced unrest from their workers in the past few decades, they

How did Australian soldiers come to be in Arkangelsk in 1919? These men were part of a British Expeditionary force, rst designed to get Russia back into the war on the British side, and then to crush Communism.

feared the spread of Communism across Europe and knew that Lenin intended to export his revolution around the world. Winston Churchill said that Communism ought to be 'strangled in it's cradle'. Japan, also an anti communist power invaded Siberia, keen to destroy the new regime and annex territory. Loans: Tsarist Russia had been receiving huge war loans from Britain, America and France and none of these three powers could afford to allow her to default. Lenin announced that Russia would not repay any loan to the west and this provided a powerful motivation to put a new government in power that would honour its debts.

Right: Nestor Makhno, anarchist and leader in the Green movement, a pivotal gure in the Russian Revolution, but one rarely discussed. Why might this be? You might want to investigate Makhno a little bit and see exactly what his importance was. Below: Peasants starving under Bolshevik policies. Why was Lenin so quick to inict such suering on his own people?

Anarchy in the Ukraine! The peasants fight back.

There is another force in the Russian Civil War that often gets overlooked, described by some historians as the 'Greens'. In reality they were peasant ghters, often opposed to both the Reds and Whites and treated equally badly by both sides. To think of them as a regular army or a political force is misleading, they were a loosely afliated group of guerrilla bands, normally motivated by protecting their homes and families and farms from both the communists and their enemies. The peasants were anarchists and didn't believe any government had a right to rule their small communities. Many peasants had not read or learned about the political ideas of anarchism, it was simply a way of life and a set of values they had adopted over many centuries. The Russian Revolution had given them a huge opportunity to nally be free from the forces that kept them poor and oppressed. They had seized land in 1917 and did not want to give it up, many were determined to ght the Bolsheviks when Lenin introduced war communism and began to hint at the collectivisation of the land. They began to see the Bolsheviks true colours during the period of war communism, when forced requisitions of even seed grain left villages to starve and peasants found hoarding even crusts of bread were executed on the spot Their biggest uprising in 1921, the Antonov Revolt, made Lenin fear he would lose control over the entire country. It took all the Red Army's efforts and the use of aircraft and poison gas to defeat them.

Was that useful? I hope it was, Ive tried to condense everything Ive done in the classroom to give students the bare essentials that they need to know on the Russian Civil War. You can explore modern history further at a website dedicated to the 20th Century, with ebooks, podcasts and resources for all your needs.