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The Russian Civil War

Key Facts & Summary

  • The Russia Civil War was a multi-party civil war that took place in the former Russian Empire immediately after the two Russian Revolutions of 1917.
  • The two largest combatant groups were the Red Army, fighting for the Bolshevik form of socialism led by Vladimir Lenin, and the loosely allied forces known as the White Army, which included diverse interests favoring political monarchism, economic capitalism and alternative forms of socialism.
  • Rival militant socialists and non-ideological Green armies fought against both the Bolsheviks and the White Army.
  • Eight foreign nations intervened against the Red Army, notably the former Allied military forces from the World War and the pro-German armies.
  • The Red Army eventually came out victorious in 1919, defeating the White Forces of South Russia in Ukraine and the army led by Admiral Alexander Kolchak to the east in Siberia.
  • The remains of the White Army were commanded by Pyotr Wrangel, they were defeated in Crimea and evacuated in 1920.
  • Lesser battles continued on the periphery for two more years, and minor skirmishes with the remnants of the White forces in the Far East continued well into 1923.
  • In a sense, the war ended in 1923 due to the Bolsheviks assured control of the new Soviet Union. Armed resistance in Central Asia was not completely crushed until 1934.
  • The casualties of this war combined with famines, were outstanding. Between 7 to 12 million deaths, mostly civilians. Many pro-independence movements emerged after the break-up of the Russian Empire and fought in the war.
  • Several parts of the former Russian Empire were established as sovereign states: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. They suffered their own civil wars and wars of independence.
  • The rest of the former Russian Empire was consolidated into the Soviet Union.


In 1894, Nicholas II became the ruler of the Russian Empire. The general population, meaning the workers and peasants, lived in poverty and hardship while the aristocracy dwelled in luxury. Russia by this point had a long history of struggles against the injustices of the system until a revolution in 1905 forced the Tsar to allow the creation of a national assembly.

This national assembly had limited power however, and the compromise was barely tolerated by both the Tsar and the reformers. The outbreak of World War I plunged the divided empire into a fresh crisis in 1914, with the country suffering a series of defeats on the front while at home, food shortages and economic chaos swept across the land. The Tsar was the army’s commander and was thus held responsible for the crisis while also standing in the way of reform. The people started to fear that the Tsar’s wife, Empress Alexandra, who was of German ethnicity, could have been supporting Germany. This coupled with the fact that the imperial family was now acquainted with Grigory Rasputin, a man veiled by a cloak of controversy and mystery, made the Russian population anxious. Rasputin was murdered by Russian aristocrats to end his influence over the Tsar.

In 1917 in what became known as the February Revolution, thousands of women marched on the then capital, Petrograd, to mark the International Women’s Day, and to protest over bread shortages. The following day, students and workers joined them while carrying placards that read “Down with the Tsar.” Even the troops that were supposed to put down the disorder mutinied and joined the protestors.

This led to a wave of Tsarist officials being arrested, prisons and police station attacks and the emblems of Tsarist rule smashed and burned. The Tsar abdicated and as a result, a Russian Provisional Government was established thus leading to a situation of dual power. The government was now led by Socialist Revolutionary Party politician Alexander Kerensky. Once the Tsar abdicated, Vladimir Lenin came back from his exile and promoted the overthrow of the government. Kerensky was unable to solve the pressing issues of the country. Many people wanted an end to the war, but the government refused. In September 1917 a failed coup by General Lavr Kornilov led to a surge in support for the Bolshevik party.

The Bolshevik’s ended the dual power by suppressing the Provisional Government in late October, on the eve of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Kerensky was forced to flee. This would be known as the second revolution of 1917.

Russian Civil War

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks spread out quickly throughout Russia. They used the volunteer-based Red Guards as their main military force. Leon Trosky, the People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs, reorganized the Red Guards into a Workers’ and Peasants’’ Red Army in order to create a more effective fighting force. The chaos and disorder meant that there was little resistance to this so called “triumphant march of Soviet Power.” – (Mawdsley, 14-18 online)

With the Imperial army disintegrating, and the aristocracy fleeing from the capital, the Tsarist officers were integrated into the new Red Army. Sometimes their families were taken as hostages to ensure loyalty. The majority of the Red Army divisional and corps commanders consisted now of ex-Tsarist officers. Vladimir Lenin actually believed that he had already won by 1918, but he soon faced the real opposition.

Lenin gained much support upon issuing three decrees. The first promised an end to the war, the second abolished private land ownership and allowed peasants to divide land amongst them, and the third decree introduced the minimum wage for the workers. He also brought in universal health care and education, increased the rights of women alongside accepting Finland’s declaration of independence. The Bolsheviks announced that there would be free and fair elections the next month, but they lost these elections. Due to this, Lenin ordered his troops to shut down the elected assembly and thus he gained power. Moscow was now declared the new capital.

The counter forces

The forces of the Central Powers advanced in the spring of 1918 into Russia territory. They occupied the western part of the empire. After negotiations, Trotsky and a team of delegates managed to secure a very humiliating peace treaty with the Central Powers. It became known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and occurred in March 1918. The treaty was signed between the new Bolshevik government and the German Empire, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire to end Russia’s participation in World War I. Russia ceded hegemony over the Baltic States to Germany, the province of Kars Oblast to the Ottoman Empire and recognized the independence of Ukraine.

Even though Germany gained these territories, they would give them up in the Treaty of Versailles. Many Russians were in a sense happy because of this new peace, while the Czechoslovakian legion saw this as a betrayal. They fought for Russia in World War I for Czechoslovakia’s independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and thus they revolted. The famous Czech Legion, made up of around 55.000 former Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war, mutinied and turned on the Bolsheviks. This resulted in the Bolsheviks power demise in most of Eastern Russia leading to the beginning of the Russian Civil War in earnest.

The Allies decided to intervene, sending armed forces comprised of British, French, American, Japanese, Serbian, Italian and Polish troops into the country, in the far north around the town of Arkhangelsk and in the east in Vladivostok in support of the Whites.

The forces of the counter-revolution, led by former Tsarist generals, began to organize with the allies help. A couple of battles took place in 1918, especially in the south and the east, and particularly along the railway lines. The intervention of the Allies was mostly to reopen the Eastern Front against Germany. The Allies supported the opponents of the Bolsheviks because they were worried of a possible Russo-German alliance and of communist revolutionary ideas spreading throughout their own lands.

As the year ended and 1919 began the civil war entered a new intense phase when the Allies defeated the Central Powers.

White vs Red

The Whites were initially very successful against the Bolsheviks but their progress was soon staled. They weren’t unified, they were compromised of nationalists, tsarists, liberals, conservatives and some were supported by the allied powers. Many were fighting for their own independence and not to restore the Russian Empire. The White generals were usually incompetent. Alexander Kolchak struggled to keep his men sober, insulted his allies and executed thousands of people that led to many more turning to the Bolshevik cause.

Probably the greatest achievement of Alexander Kolchak was to capture Yekaterinburg, the city in which the former Russian emperor was held. This however also ended in very badly as it prompted the Bolsheviks to execute the royal family, for they feared that they would end up in the hands of the Whites. The execution took place on July 17th 1918. The reds comprised of communists, socialists and anarchists had the advantage of territory, regardless of previous losses. The territory under their control was much more compact and had greater levels of industrialization such as infrastructure, lines of communication, raw materials and a larger population. In order to maintain control the Bolsheviks began what is called The Red Terror.

Many dissidents were sent to work camps, protesters were shot and Trotsky held the families of general’s hostage to ensure their loyalty. As the battles progressed it soon became clear that the Bolsheviks were winning. The Allies withdrew their support and troops from Russia and the Czechoslovakian legion returned to their home which was by then independent. The Whites continued to lose battles and now without the help of foreign forces, their fate was sealed.

Following the disastrous Novorossiysk evacuation, Denikin stepped down and the military council elected Wrangel as the new Commander-in-Chief of the White Army. He was able to restore order to the dispirited troops and reshape an army that could fight as a regular force again.

However, Wrangel was soon defeated by the Red Army and the Black Army. After he retreated from Crimea, the Red Army turned against its former ally, the Black Army. The Red Army attacks on the anarchist forces and their sympathizers increased in ferocity throughout 1921. In Siberia, Admiral Kolchak’s army had disintegrated. He himself gave up command after the loss of Omsk.

General Grigory Semyonov was now the new leader of the White Army. Kolchak was arrested by the Czechoslovak Corps as he now traveled without the army’s protection. He was later killed, the remnants of his followers joined with that of Semyonov and with the help of the Japanese, they were able to hold the city of Chita. However, the Japanese pulled out their troops and Semyonov wasn’t able to hold against the advancing Red Army. This marked the end of the White forces.

The Polish Resistance

The collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires meant that many peoples in Eastern Europe were looking to establish their own nations and borders. The Polish led by Jozef Pilsudski wanted to expand the newly independent Poland at the cost of Russia, at the same time the Bolsheviks sought to spread communism to their neighbors and reconquer territories.

The Bolsheviks wanted to profit from the turmoil’s in Germany and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the sense that they wanted to establish communist governments there. In 1919 the Polish invaded Ukraine and the Bolsheviks counter-attacked forcing them back to Warsaw, but the Polish stood their ground and thus maintained their independence and stopped the Bolsheviks from entering Germany. A series of borders were established, Ukraine and Belarus became socialist republics in other words, Russian puppet states. For now, the spread of communism in Eastern Europe was momentarily halted and the Bolsheviks turned their attention back home, to secure their position.


Lenin went on to fix Russia’s economy by implementing the New Economic Policy, allowing farmers to keep some of their surplus crops allowing for some of them to get wealthy. This was a tactic to prevent further revolts. In 1922 Russia and it’s puppet states agreed to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Lenin gradually became unwell until he died in 1924. Trotsky and Joseph Stalin were the only people who could replace him. Stalin at this point was a commander of the Red Army when it invaded Poland and by the time of Lenin’s death, he was the general secretary, the highest political post in the U.S.S.R.

Trotsky and to a certain extent Lenin, believed that a Communist Germany was necessary for the survival of the U.S.S.R while Stalin believed that Communism wasn’t strong enough in the U.S.S.R in order to be exported. Stalin in the end came out victorious in the struggle for power and exiled Trotsky in 1929. Trotsky was later assassinated in 1940. Stalin tightened his grip on the Soviet Union by using purges, assassinations and a secret police named the N.K.V.D.


[1.] Allworth, Edward (1967). Central Asia: A Century of Russian Rule. New York: Columbia University Press.
[2.] Bullock, David (2008). The Russian Civil War 1918–22. Oxford: Osprey Publishing
[3.] Calder, Kenneth J. (1976). Britain and the Origins of the New Europe 1914-1918. International Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[4.] Chamberlin, William Henry (1987). The Russian Revolution, Volume II: 1918-1921: From the Civil War to the Consolidation of Power. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
[5.] Daniels, Robert V. (1993). A Documentary History of Communism in Russia: From Lenin to Gorbachev. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England
[6.] Figes, Orlando (1997). A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Viking.
[7.] Gellately, Robert (2007). Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. New York: Knopf.
[8.] Grebenkin, I.N. “The Disintegration of the Russian Army in 1917: Factors and Actors in the Process.” Russian Studies in History 56.3 (2017): 172-187.
[9.] Krivosheev, G. F. (1997). Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century. London: Greenhill Books.

Image source:

[1.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_II_of_Russia#/media/File:%D0%98%D0%BC%D0%BF%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%BE%D1%80_%D0%9D%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%B9_II.jpg
[2.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Rasputin_listovka.jpg
[3.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c6/Red_army_in_moscow.jpg
[4.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c6/Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-71043-0003%2C_Wladimir_Iljitsch_Lenin.jpg
[5.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Russian_civil_war_in_the_west.svg
[6.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/Колчак%2C_Нокс_и_английские_офицеры_восточного_фронта.jpg
[7.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0e/Uniformes_%28koltchak%29_001.jpg
[8.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/46/Evpatoria_red_terror_corpses_at_sea_coast.jpg
[9.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a9/Wrangel_after_worship_Tsaritsyn_1919.jpg
[10.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Kolchak1919troops.jpg
[11.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B3zef_Pi%C5%82sudski#/media/File:Jozef_Pilsudski1.jpg