The Russian Civil War: An Inadequate Introduction


Death of a Commissar, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1928

In preparation for My Secret Project, I’ve been rereading the small collection of books I have on the Russian Civil War. June was spent working through the two general histories I own: Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War, and W. Bruce Lincoln’s Red Victory. They both date from the late 1980s, so they don’t include any archival information released after the fall, but they’re good solid overviews of the conflict. (For the record, Mawdsley is more focused on the comings and goings of the actual conflict, while Lincoln discusses the state of Russian/Soviet society during the war.) Earlier in the year I also read the first volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biographic trilogy on Stalin, which honestly reads more like a general account of Russia’s revolutionary period told through the lens of Stalin himself than a conventional biography.

Why the Russian civil war, you may ask? What’s so fascinating about this war in particular? I don’t quite have an answer yet, but maybe explaining some of the basics will clarify things.

Part of the fascination I have for this war lies in the fact that it’s a rather tricky war to nail down. In broad outline, the Russian Civil War can be described as the series of conflicts that erupted in the former Russian Empire between the Bolsheviks (the “Reds”) and just about everyone else (with the former tsarist military and their Cossack allies as the “Whites”) in the wake of the October Revolution of 1917. Just picking start and end dates is a challenge; depending on who you read, the war started the day after October or with the beginnings of organized White resistance in southern Russia during the winter, and it ended either with the collapse of the final White stronghold in the Crimea in 1920 or with the reintegration of the Caucasian nations into the RSFSR in 1921. Civil wars are notoriously messy affairs both for their participants and for historians, and the Russian one is particularly slippery simply because there is so much going on. Alongside the typical interpretation of communists versus monarchists, the war was also a struggle for the Russian heartland, Marxist though it was, to halt the process of nationalist disintegration that was occurring in all the multinational empires in the wake of the First World War. Some nations separated from the empire through force of arms (Finland, Poland), some gained it through treaties (the Baltic states, in a way), some tried to maintain a weak independence that ultimately failed once the Bolsheviks were no longer distracted (the Caucasus, eastern Siberia), and some places just became rolling amphitheaters of war (the Ukraine). There was also what Stephen Kotkin described as the hidden war between the peasantry, who wanted land and to sell their produce as they saw fit, and the Bolsheviks, who had their own particular ideas as to how agriculture should operate. Despite the heavy hand of Bolshevik grain requisition, the conflict between the two only flared up after the “end” of the war in the early 1920s, but the violence then was widespread enough to prompt Lenin to dial back on centralization and offer the “New Economic Policy” as a palliative. With all these simultaneous conflicts at play, expanding your definition of the war to encompass an entire decade actually seems pretty reasonable.

It’s only slightly easier to figure out who was who and who was fighting who. The one constant, of course, were the Bolsheviks. They held the great majority of European Russia for the entire war, and as such enjoyed control of the capitals of Moscow and Petrograd, most of the Russian population, and the lion’s share of the country’s industry, even if they could barely feed and man it at the best of times. Men and women who’d spent their lives as professional revolutionaries suddenly found themselves the heads of ministries, charged with both winning the war and rebuilding the nation according to socialist principles, whatever those were. The process was marked with mismanagement and wishful thinking, leavened with bloody repression. (Seriously, I think you can quote every senior Bolshevik official as having uttered some variation of “take him out back and have him shot” at some point during the war.) And yet, in spite of it all, they were the ones who prevailed. They were the ones who rebuilt Russia into the Soviet Union and charted a new destiny for their nation. A number of Western sources seem to attribute their success to little more than dumb luck, which has never seemed a fair assessment to me. There was certainly a lot of luck, but there were also leaders who could synthesize ideological dictates with the needs of war and government, a party that could organize and educate people to march in the same direction, and the promise of a better tomorrow.

It also helped that the Reds had the Whites for their main opponents, who had none of these advantages. The major centers of anti-Bolshevik resistance cluster around the peripheries of the former Russian empire, with the major fronts in the south, the Baltics, and Siberia. Aside from the Komuch government of Samara, which folded in late 1918, they eventually became conservative military dictatorships. They generally had better soldiers than the Reds, and thanks to the Western powers they were better equipped, but all of them had fundamental problems that could not be resolved on the battlefield. There was no unified command for the anti-Bolshevik forces; each front operated independently, allowing the Reds to defeat them in turn. They had the goal of marching to Moscow from half a continent away, while all the Reds had to do was hold what they had. None of the fronts were ever particularly unified. The largest concentration of White forces were in the south, but command was split between General Denikin’s Volunteer Army and Peter Krasnov’s Don Cossacks, both men quite uninterested in compromise. General Yudenich relied on the goodwill of the Baltic nations for his safety, and Admiral Kolchak was in Siberia, a mess of Whites, socialists, bandits and foreign armies where the only way to move the front was to cling to the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Finally, none of them seemed to offer much to the peoples of the former Russian Empire beyond turning the clock back before 1917. At their best they reestablished and enforced tsarist laws; at worst they looted and, particularly in southern Russia and the Ukraine, indulged themselves with pogroms. The only major leader to actually try to develop a viable post-revolutionary government was Denekin’s successor Peter Wrangel, but by then it was 1920 and far too late. In spite of all that the Soviets did, I can’t help but think that with the Whites, Russia would have endured most of the same ills, but few of the benefits.

And on top of all that, there’s the whole issue of foreign intervention. Traditional Soviet historiography has described the appearance of Allied expeditionary forces in Russia as part of a master plan to strangle the new socialist state in its crib, while Western historians dismiss it as an embarrassment that accomplished nothing. Certainly the interventions were badly thought out. The only country that came to Russia with a plan was Japan, which had a plan to convert parts of eastern Siberia into colonies that kept them involved into the 1920s. For most everyone else, they were panic reactions to some threat or another, and quite a number of WWI veterans milled around wondering why the hell they couldn’t be demobilized, while the generals and politicos schemed and mismanaged things. The only foreign power that came close to ending communist rule were the Germans, who could range at will in European Russia following the disintegration of the Russian army in the wake of the revolution. However, they ceased to be a factor on November 11, 1918, and nobody else ever came close.

Honestly, I’m not doing this war any justice with this post. Libraries have been filled discussing this war. I haven’t even started touching the cultural response to the war, of how the Soviet Union imagined and discussed the war over its history. I’ve got a few books here and there, and both Mosfilm and Lenfilm have some of their film catalogues on Youtube (remember kids, intellectual property laws are a bourgeois affectation), but even as someone who failed to learn Russian in university I could spend a lifetime digging through all this. Still, if I find a good story, I’ll share it with you guys.

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2 Responses to The Russian Civil War: An Inadequate Introduction

  1. Matt says:

    Very interesting. I knew pretty much none of this. Good luck with your Secret Project.


    • Alasdair says:

      Well thank you! And yeah, it is a war that isn’t discussed much over here, partially because the Western powers that intervened didn’t really cover themselves in glory. Canada even sent a few thousand soldiers to Vladivostok during the conflict; they spent most of their time wondering the hell they couldn’t go home already.


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