Russian Civil War

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The Russian Civil War was a civil war for the fate of Russia fought primarily between the Reds - led by the Soviet government, the Bolsheviks, the Left SRs and other communist parties and allied with the Makhnovshchina until 1920 - and the Whites - a coalition of counterrevolutionary forces led by its de facto leader Alexander Kolchak, and supported by the Entente, military intervention from over 14 nations, the German Empire and at times by the Menshevik, Kadet and S.R parties - Other forces include the Greens and the Blacks, who fought both reds and whites. Bourgeois historians don't agree on a date the war broke out, the Bolsheviks and later Soviet historiography considered the conflict to have escalated into a civil war in autumn 1918 [1]. By October 1922 the war was mostly over.

Following the October Revolution, counterrevolutionary generals organized revolts in the Don, the Kuban and Orenburg, while the newly formed Volunteer Army marched in Southern Ukraine. Various self-proclaimed governments appeared in Kiev (the Central Rada), Tbilisi (the Transcaucasian Commissariat), Minsk (the Byelorussian Rada) and Kokand (the Kokand Autonomy) and announced their non-recognition of the soviet councils. Many of these attempts were defeated by detachments of Red guards commanded by Antonov-Ovseenko. Romanian troops occupied Bessarabia in November but were driven back in February. White forces proved to be weak during this period, and by March 1918 most internal opposition to the government had been defeated. Counterrevolutionary groups were left in retreat and scattered through parts of Transcaucasia, the Northern Caucasus, the Don, the Urals, and Kazakhstan.

The German-Austrian invasion in February 1918 and its consequent support to the Whites complicated the situation for Soviet Russia, reopening the fight in several areas. Peace negotiations broke down and, as the armistice was expiring, the German army launched an offensive that occupied most of Eastern Europe, establishing client states and helping defeat revolutionaries in Finland and the Baltics, while the Ottomans marched into Transcaucasia. Tsarist officers fled to German-occupied territory, which became a recruiting ground for White forces. German client states were established in Poland, Ukraine, Finland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Hostility from the Central powers continued in Russia until their surrender in the war, as German troops occupied the Don, Crimea and Georgia, and the Ottomans occupied Turkestan.

In May 1918, civil war broke out when the Czechoslovak Legion attacked the Soviet government and hostile allied troops begun assaulting Russia. The Soviets lost the Trans-Siberian Railway, effectively losing control of Siberia and the Far East. Initially, Entente troops had landed on Russia under the promise of support against a possible German invasion. Following the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, the allies abandoned all pretense of helping the soviets and openly begun supporting the Whites. The allied intervention seized Archangel, Omsk, Murmansk, Samara, Vladivostok, and other ports, and helped prop up counterrevolutionary governments, like the Siberian government at Omsk and the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly at Samara. Interventionists reached Transcaucasia, where they executed the soviet government of Baku, and propped up governments in Azerbaijan and Armenia. As the allied intervention progressed, the White offensive grew in power and more fronts opened up. Admiral Alexander Kolchak, recognized by the allies as "Supreme Ruler of Russia", advanced in Siberia with the support of the Czechoslovak Legion, Anton Denikin from Ukraine towards Moscow, Nikolai Yudenich from the Baltics towards Petrograd, and British and White Finnish forces attacked the northeast towards East Karelia, Petsamo and Viena.

At the start of 1919, Soviet Russia had been reduced to the size of medieval Muscovy, was surrounded by enemies at all fronts and suffered a naval blockade that prevented it from trading and receiving aid. Faced with harsh conditions, the Soviet government established War Communism and begun to mobilize all its resources for war. The Red army grew in power and was able to repel the White offensives. By early 1920, the Reds had scored strong victories over the Whites. In November 1919, Yudenich had been defeated and forced to flee the country, and in January 1920, Kolchak abdicated after being defeated. The Czechoslovak Legion, now cornered by the Reds, agreed to hand over Kolchak in return for a safe passage to Vladivostok. In March 1920, Denikin delegated his power to P.N. Wrangel and fled Russia. A month later the Polish army marched into Soviet territory, occupying Ukraine and prompting the Soviet-Polish war. The Reds launched a counteroffensive that repelled the invasion and drove the Poles out of Ukraine, forcing Pilsudski to retreat to Warsaw, where Tukhachesvky's Western Front was caught by a counterattack and suffered an unexpected defeat. Shortly after, an armistice was signed and 6 months later the treaty of Riga put an end to the Polish front.

In November 1920, the Reds came out victorious with the collapse of Wrangel and the last remaining Whites surrendered or fled the country. Resistance continued by remnants of Kolchak's armies and Japanese troops in Siberia. By 1922, almost all important military activity had ceased, but fighting continued in some areas until 1926, the allied blockade was lifted in 1920.


First signs of counterrevolution (1917)

Kerensky and Krasnov march on Petrograd

"I deem it necessary to inform you that Bolshevism is disintegrating; it is isolated and no longer exists as an organised force even in Petrograd." - Alexander Kerensky[2]

Immediately after the October Revolution took place in Petrograd, Alexander Kerensky attempted to retake the capital with the aid of monarchist general Petyr Krasnov and a cossack detachment from the 3rd Cavalry Corps. On the night of October 27, the counterrevolutionaries took Gatchina and used it as headquarters to march on Petrograd with the intent of overthrowing the new Soviet government and restoring Kerensky to power[3]. On October 28, Tsarskoe Selo was taken and the cossacks were left 20 kilometers from the capital.

The defense of Petrograd was led by Nicholai Podvoisky, Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee and Leon Trotsky, Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet[4] The Military Revolutionary Committee rushed to muster a force capable of defending the city. Imperial officer and Left SR Muraviev was appointed to command the military force and Colonel P.B. Valden was appointed to command the artillery.[5] While Kerensky's troops rested at Tsarskoe Selo on October 29, the Junkers mutiny took place in Petrograd.

On October 30, Kerensky's troops met with intense artillery fire from the heights of Pulkov and were decisively defeated. They retreated to Gatchina and surrendered on October 31 without resistance. General Krasnov was turned in by his own men, but Kerensky fled in disgrace. Krasnov was released on parole under the promise of ceasing his counterrevolutionary activity. He broke his word almost immediately and went on to join the Whites in Ukraine.

Trotsky announced the victory from the battlefield:

"The night of October 30th to 31st will go down in history. The attempt of Kerensky to move counter-revolutionary troops against the capital of the Revolution has been decisively repulsed. Kerensky is retreating, we are advancing. The soldiers, sailors and workers of Petrograd have shown that they can and will with arms in their hands enforce the will and authority of the democracy..."[6]

Junkers' Mutiny
Junkers' Mutiny
DateOctober 29, 1917
Result Soviet victory. Mutiny suppressed

Soviet government

Petrograd Soviet
Committee for the Salvation of the Homeland and Revolution
Commanders and leaders
Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee

Georgy Polkovnikov

Alexander Kerensky

Vladimir Purishkevich

Abram Gotz
Units involved

Red Guards

Petrograd garrison
Military cadets and officers
Unknown 350[7]
Casualties and losses
200 combatants wounded or killed on both sides[8]

As Kerensky's march on Petrograd took place, October 29 saw a failed Junker mutiny instigated by the "Committee for the Salvation of the Homeland and the Revolution", an anti-bolshevik organization formed by S.R and Menshevik members.[9] Its military commander Georgy Polkovnikov led the mutiny. In coordination with Kerensky's effort, military cadets from multiple colleges seized the central telephone exchange and aimed to take control of the city.[10] Their initial success crumbled as they met with resistance from the Red Guards. The junker schools surrendered, but the telephone exchange held out for a few more hours, as Antonov-Ovseenko had been taken hostage there.[11] Reed describes the situation during the revolt:

"All day long in every quarter of the city there were skirmishes between yunkers and Red Guards, battles between armoured cars… Volleys, single shots and the shrill chatter of machine-guns could be heard, far and near. The iron shutters of the shops were drawn, but business still went on. Even the moving-picture shows, all outside lights dark, played to crowded houses. The street-cars ran. The telephones were all working; when you called Central, shooting could be plainly heard over the wire. Smolny was cut off, but the Duma and the Committee for Salvation were in constant communication with all the yunker schools and with Kerensky at Tsarskoye."[12]

First White Terror in Moscow

Counterrevolution in Southern Russia

Semenov and Ungern in the Far East

Romanian intervention in Bessarabia

Dowbór-Muśnicki uprising

Central Powers occupation and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918)

Soviet-German negotiations break down

Operation Faustschlag

German intervention in Ukraine

German intervention in Belarus

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed

German intervention in Finland

German intervention in Crimea

German intervention in the Baltics

German intervention in Georgia

Czechoslovak revolt and Allied intervention: start of civil war (1918)

Revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion

Allied intervention in Northern Russia

Allied intervention in the Far East

Allied intervention in Southern Russia

Allied intervention in Transcaspia

Admiral Kolchak in Siberia

End of German occupation

Treaty of Versailles

The White Offensives (1918-19)

Volunteer Army in Ukraine

Kolchak's Spring Offensive

Czechoslovak and Whites in the Urals

Yudenich and Von der Goltz in the Baltics

Yudenichs drive on Petrograd

Soviet Hungary's collapse

Reds fight back (1919-20)

Kolchak's collapse in the East

Czechoslovak Legion surrenders

Denikin's drive on Moscow

Makhno and the Black Army

Denikin's downfall

Evacuation of allied intervention

Allied blockade lifted

Polish-Soviet front (1920)

Polish invasion of Ukraine

Wrangel's offensive

Soviet offensive against Poland

Battle of Warsaw

Polish counterattack and armistice

Wrangel's collapse

Treaty of Riga and aftermath

Red victory and aftermath (1920-26)

Bukhara Uprising (1920)

Soviet intervention in Azerbaijan (1920)

Japanese intervention withdraws (1920)

Ataman Semenov's defeat (1920)

Soviet intervention in Georgia (1920)

Makhno's defeat (1921)

Baron Ungern's defeat (1921)

Enver Pasha's defeat (1922)

Priamurye government collapses (1922)

Yakut revolt (1923)

Japan evacuates Sakhalin (1925)

End of the Turkestan Front (1926)

Red Terror

The Red Terror was the Bolshevik campaign of political repression that followed their rise to power during the Russian Civil War, lasting throughout it. Lenin and Trotsky are occasionally painted as "bloodthirsty killers" for having organized and led it, though as the latter pointed out, such a period of terror was brutal though necessary to secure revolutionary gains, a sentiment which was understood even by the Jacobins of the French Revolution.[13] The White counterpart of the Red Terror was the White Terror, which was at least as deadly, though arguably more than what the Bolsheviks had done despite having controlled less population in the war:

The total figures of executions, published in 1921, were as follows. In the first half of 1918 [before the Red Terror] they were 22, in the second half some 6,300, and for the three years 1918-20 (for all Russia) 12,733. When it is remembered that in Rostov alone about 25,000 workers were shot by the Whites upon occupying the city, not to speak of many other towns, the Red terror will fall into rather more just perspective.

— Andrew Rothstein,, A History of the U.S.S.R.[14]

Though estimates of the total death count by Bolsheviks vary widely, as they do for Whites, their tolls are generally comparable and contradict the notion of Bolshevik leaders being particularly bloody beyond what may be expected in such a revolution. The figures from the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution are also comparable if adjusted for population size,[15] and possibly eclipse Bolshevik figures when counting fatalities beyond official death sentences.[16]


  1. Lenin, Vladimir. "New Times and Old Mistakes in a New Guise", Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol 33
  2. Gorky, Maxim. The History of the Civil War in the USSR Vol. II, 1946, p. 375
  3. Deutscher, Isaac. The Prophet Armed, 1954, p. 345
  4. Reed, John. Ten Days that Shook the World, 1919, p. 233
  5. Deutscher 1954, p. 347
  6. Reed 1919, p. 270
  7. Serge, Victor. Year One of the Russian Revolution, 1972, p. 87
  8. Rabinowich, Alexander. The Bolsheviks in Power, 2007, p. 24
  9. Gorky 1946 p. 355
  10. Rabinowich 2007, p. 24
  11. Reed 1919, p. 252
  12. Reed 1919, p. 249
  13. Terrorism and Communism, Chapter 4: Terrorism
  14. A History of the U.S.S.R, Andrew Rothstein, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1951. p. 106.
  15. The Terror in the French Revolution, Marisa Linton, Kingston University
  16. Reign of Terror, Britannica