The Russian Civil War

by James Graham

The Brest-Litovsk peace agreement between Germany and Communist Russia galvanized significant portions of Russia's population to violently oppose the Bolshevik government. The White armies evolved out of this opposition and became the principal threat to the Bolshevik regime. They were however only one dimension of the Civil War as other groups and nations played important roles. The defeat of the Whites was caused primarily by their failure to enlist mass support for their cause. Geography, internal division and patriotism also contributed to their defeat.


The Whites fought on a variety of fronts against the Reds with the most important being the East, South and North Western. The principal leader for each was Admiral Kolchak, General Denikin and General Iudenich respectively. Kolchak was nominally head of the movement mainly because the allies recognised him as such. In practice the White armies were completely independent. It was also the allies namely Britain, France, Japan and the United States which lent the most support to the Whites. It was this support that allowed the Whites to become the dominant opposition to the Communists. All three armies were reasonably cohesive groups with a clear command and control structure with total numbers peaking at over 250,000 troops. It was this organised nature that made them the Reds most dangerous adversaries. Contributed to this were the White's underlying political motives for fighting. These were to restore the Provisional Government and to return Russia to the old order of the conservative ruling class. The Whites were by far the largest, most organised and best supported organisation committed to the overthrow of the Bolsheviks.

Peasant armies or Greens as they became known fought both sides in the Civil War. The White and Red armies required a large amount of conscripts and supplies for their campaigns. The easiest source for these was from rural Russia but conscription and grain requisitions badly alienated the peasants under their control. Many peasants and villages were pushed towards starvation and responded by killing the requisition squads and other officials. These outbreaks of violence quickly spread into outward rebellions with repressive measures against rebelling villages merely acting to spread the disturbances. There were 344 peasant revolts by mid 1919 and by 1920 the revolts had become widespread. These armies sometimes up to a thousand strong disrupted the supply lines and resource base's of both sides but failed to unite into a cohesive national force. Throughout the Civil War large areas of the two sides territory were engulfed by hundreds of distinct peasant revolts.

No less than eleven countries attacked Russia during the Civil War. On the whole these countries did not coordinate their activities and followed localised objectives. The Czechoslovak legion of ex prisoners of war started the Civil War in Siberia with their Railway War. Instead of allowing themselves to be disarmed the legion conquered a large stretch of territory along the Trans-Siberian railway, an area that became the basis of Kolchak's government in the East. The Czechs lost interest after World War One and minimised their role in the fighting. Britain and France invaded both Murmansk and Archangel and set up a weak White government in the North. Japan and to a lesser extent the United States and Canada invaded Russia in the Pacific. The Japanese also set up a White government under Grigorii Semenov and occupied Vladivostok until October 1922. While the allies did intervene in the Civil War they did so for their own interests and to nurture the White opposition.

Many parts of the former Tsarist Empire attempted to gain independence during the Civil War. The three Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all successfully gained independence, as did Finland and Poland. None could escape the Civil War with all a playing a part. Poland for example waged war against Soviet Russia from 1920-21 over where to draw the border between the two nations. Other border disputes occurred and many of the new State gave limited support to either the Reds or more commonly the Whites. Estonia became embroiled in the North Western battle with both Reds and Whites violating its territory. The independently minded parts of the old Russian Empire could not avoid becoming entangled in the Civil War.

The Russian Civil War

The Russian Civil War (Part 2)
The Russian Civil War (Bibliography)