The Russian Civil War: 1918-1920

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia, toppling the crumbling Provisional Government and replacing it with their own interim administration. They shared power with the left-wing breakaway faction of the Socialist Revolutionaries (the SRs), the party of the farmers, and thus claimed to represent both the industrial proletariat as well as the peasantry. Yet their place in government was not secure. Socialist moderates, including the Mensheviks and right-wing SRs, refused to recognize the Bolshevik regime, even though the Second Congress of the Soviets had sanctioned it. Moreover, the time for the long-promised Russian Constituent Assembly had come, and although the Bolsheviks dominated the soviets throughout Russia, they did not expect to win a majority in a national poll. The elections went ahead just three weeks after the Bolshevik seizure of power, with over 40 million votes cast under equal suffrage with secret ballots, the first of its kind in Russian history (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 145). As predicted, the SRs achieved a majority, with the Bolsheviks coming in second with a quarter of the votes. In the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, Lenin reacted by claiming that a soviet republic transcended a bourgeois assembly as a “higher form of democracy,” and in light of the ongoing class struggle unfolding from the revolutions, the candidates chosen to stand in the election did not truly represent the will of the people (1917a). The Constituent Assembly met for one day in January 1918, electing Chernov, the former SR minister of agriculture under Kerensky, as its president. The following day, the Bolsheviks dispersed the new legislature by force. In truth, indignation about the fate of the assembly limited itself to its moderate members. When moderate socialists later attempted to use the incident as a rallying cry in their civil war against the Bolsheviks, they found that most peasants knew nothing about it.

For anyone who paid attention to the pronouncements of the Bolsheviks, the rejection of electoral politics came as no great shock. Most considered themselves revolutionaries, not politicians, and their mission was to construct a socialist society, not compromise and accept half-measures with those who did not have the stomach to demolish the status quo. Like Robespierre and the Jacobins, they recognized that virtue without force behind it is powerless; they therefore needed to use force to pursue their aims and overcome the class enemies. They founded the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle with Counterrevolution and Sabotage, commonly shortened to Cheka, under the direction of the Polish Bolshevik Felix Dzerzhinsky. In his memoirs, the revolutionary Victor Serge (2012) criticized the creation of the Cheka, explaining that reactionary threats made the Bolsheviks “lose their heads” and that even Dzerzhinky considered the group “half-rotten” due to “psychological perversion.” Many of its members had been humiliated and tortured by the Imperial government, and thus were prone to paranoia and violence (p. 94). Initially a set of small squads tasked with internal security, the Cheka combated the looting and rioting that had understandably broken out during the revolution. Intended as an extension of popular power, its relative independence from other institutions contributed to its subsequent growth in power and autonomy, leading to the unchecked activities that would make the Cheka so feared during the civil war.

Before discussing the civil war, however, we should explore how the Bolsheviks ended Russian involvement in the world war started in part by the tsar. Shortly after taking power, the Bolsheviks issued the Decree on Peace, calling for immediate peace without annexations or reparations (Lenin 1917b). This of course did not appeal to Russia’s enemies, but politically it showed the Bolsheviks were serious about seeking the peace, unlike their predecessors. Following a preliminary armistice, Lenin later proposed a separate peace with Germany and the Central Powers, but met with stiff opposition from most of his party. Most still assumed that revolutions would erupt throughout Europe, having witnessed Bolshevik success, and that Russia could conclude peace with fellow socialist governments. When this did not transpire, some militant Bolsheviks like Bukharin called for a “partisan war” not involving opposing formal armies but instead with guerilla fighters waging a battle of attrition against the enemy governments (Hosking 1985, pp. 60-61). Lenin, however, claimed that the revolution needed temporary “breathing space.” Trotsky, heading the peace negotiations as commissar for foreign relations, remained true to his theory of permanent revolution, opposed Lenin and broke off the bargaining. As the Germans advanced on Petrograd, however, most Bolsheviks shifted to Lenin’s position, and in early 1918, negotiations resumed. The resulting Treaty of Brest-Livotsk saw Russia cede the Baltic territories and the entire Ukraine to German occupation. This proved too much for the Left SRs, who quit the Bolshevik government in protest. This left the Bolsheviks alone against their foes.

The Czechoslovak Legion was a small unit within the Imperial Russian Army composed of Czech and Slovak volunteers who hoped that their valor and sacrifice in World War I would earn their homeland its independence from the Austrian Empire. When they ended Russian participation in the war, the Bolsheviks permitted the Legion to join their compatriots fighting in France, as the Legion wanted to continue the war. Unfortunately, sending the Legion through Russo-German lines was not an option, so the Legion had to travel along the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, Russia’s main Pacific port, where it would sail across the ocean to Western Europe via the United States. In May 1918, in a town just east of the Urals, an incident involving Legion soldiers and Austrian-Hungarian POWs led to the Legion taking control of a Russian city and firing on Bolshevik forces. Whether Britain and France pressured the Legion to take up arms against the Bolsheviks is unclear, as is whether the Bolsheviks faced similar pressure from the Central Powers to disarm the Legion. What is apparent is that once the Legion started the conflict, the Allies capitalized on the opportunity to re-open an Eastern Front with Germany and at the same time bring down the Bolsheviks in Russia (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 46-49). At any rate, the Legion used control of the telegraph system to obtain effective control over the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the main form of transportation in Siberia. After turning over most of their western territory to the Germans, the Bolsheviks now saw their enemies also controlled most of Russia east of the Ural Mountains.

Meanwhile, in southwestern Russia along the Don River, a hodgepodge of liberal democrats, disillusioned SRs and Imperial military officers rallied together, loosely united by their hostility toward the Bolsheviks. The “Whites” to the Bolshevik “Reds,” they formed a Volunteer Army under the leadership of General Mikhail Alekseyev, formerly the tsar’s chief of staff, as well as Lazr Kornilov, Anton Denikin, Sergey Markov, and other former high-ranking officers of the Imperial Army. Their experience made them a formidable fighting force, but their disparate ideologies and identities translated to a slow mobilization, and they initially only numbered several thousand strong. Bolshevik militias sent to crush them drove them south toward Kuban, and the Whites made an “ice march” over the frozen steppe. They attempted to take the city of Krasnodar, the capital of a new soviet republic in the north Caucasus, but failed, with Kornilov killed by artillery (ibid., pp. 20-21). Nevertheless, southwest Russia remained under the control of the Whites, leaving the Bolsheviks concentrated in the central region of European Russia. However, since this region was the most populous and the most industrialized, they retained important advantages in terms of recruitment and resources to supply their troops.

The Bolsheviks’ main fighting force, the Red Army, originally operated according to the model set by the Red Guards militia, with no ranks and officers chosen by elected committees. While suitable perhaps for guerilla war, this structure could not withstand the German offensives that had occurred between the Brest-Livotsk treaty negotiations (Hosking 1985, pp. 66-67). In early 1918, the Bolsheviks appointed Trotsky as the new head of the Red Army, qualified as he was from his time covering wars as a journalist and his experience as chair of the Petrograd Soviet’s military committee. Controversially, he reinstated several traditional military practices, such as conscription, the death penalty for desertion and the appointment of officers, including those from the former Imperial Army. He used political commissars to ensure these officers remained loyal to the revolution and to keep the regular soldiers passionate about their cause (Kort 2006, pp. 128-129). As one might assume, some of these tsarist officers defected to the Whites in the course of the civil war, but the majority remained faithful. Many historians highlight the practice of holding officers’ families hostage, but the Bolsheviks typically did not have to resort to violence. Most officers acted according to pragmatism, realizing that whatever their feelings about socialism, the Bolsheviks controlled the state, and the state supplied them with food, shelter and other needs (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 60-61). When the Reds gained the upper hand as the war progressed, what began as a dispassionate allegiance of convenience normalized with the absence of any real alternative. Trotsky of course faced no small amount of criticism from some of his fellow Bolsheviks for his changes, but he cited the centralism at the center of Leninist doctrine as justification, and mostly concerned himself with directly intervening on the front lines when needed. Traveling in an armored train, he would give speeches to demoralized or deserting troops, inspiring the Red Army to keep up the fight.

Fight they did, as events snowballed throughout 1918. Emboldened by the Czechoslovak rebellion, some Socialist Revolutionary politicians set up rival governments in western Siberia, in the cities of Samara and Omsk. They called for the re-establishment of the Constituent Assembly, but in many other ways, their policies were just as radical as the Bolsheviks. For most of 1917, they had cooperated with the Bolsheviks in government, and their political beliefs revolved around land redistribution and other programs popular with the peasants. This association drove a wedge between the SRs and the tsarist troops upon which they depended to conduct the civil war. By the fall, these tsarist officers and Cossacks led a coup that installed Admiral Alexander Kolchak as their “supreme ruler” with Allied support (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 151). The ousted SRs fled Russia, effectively ending their relevance in the revolution. The Whites had no time for socialists of any stripe, and in many cases, actively attempted to undo the land reforms implemented by socialist politicians and the peasantry. They also earned the enmity of various nationalists with their promises of restoring an absolute empire with political power and cultural control once more centered around Russia. Their close ties to the Allies provided them with valuable equipment and supplies, but it also gave credence to Bolshevik charges that the Whites were the puppets of imperial powers (Kort 2006, pp. 125-126). The Whites’ scattered dispersion along the Russian periphery and their relative scarcity compared to the Reds hindered them the most, but their total distaste for politics and neglect for the popular mood, even when they came the closest to possibly winning the war, certainly did not do them any favors.

In the beginning of 1919, Kolchak joined forces with Yevgeny Miller, a tsarist officer who had declared himself Governor-General of Northern Russia, based in the northwest city of Arkhangelsk. This offensive stalled, and by the end of the summer, an overextended Kolchak retreated to Siberia and Miller, abandoned by British troops sent to assist him, faced the Red Army alone. In the Baltic region, General Nikolai Yudenich, also with British aid, came close to taking Petrograd in the fall, but in the end could not overcome the city’s defenders. At the same time, Anton Denikin led the Volunteer Army up from the Caucasus, conquering much of southern Russia and the Ukraine, and came within two hundred miles of Moscow. He spread out his forces too much, however, and moved too fast, losing control over his advance. These factors helped contribute to his defeat by a largely improvised Bolshevik counterattack (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 202-207). As 1920 dawned, the Whites were defeated and in disarray. The Czechoslovak Legion, having missed the end of World War I, turned Admiral Kolchak over to the Bolsheviks and purchased passage out of Russia with what remained of Kulchak’s treasury. The Reds executed Kulchak, ending the White threat from Siberia. Yudenich’s subordinates arrested him after he was caught trying to embezzle military funds before escaping. His British benefactors arranged his release. Meanwhile, Denikin fled to Europe, living out the rest of his life as an émigré, a common fate for many other White survivors.

Despite the White downfall, war persisted into the next year. In the spring of 1920, Polish nationalists under Marshal Josef Pilsudski attacked the western Ukraine and seized Kiev in May. The invasion had both offensive and defensive aims: to expand “Greater Poland” along its eastern border and to prevent preemptively a reassertion of the Russian yoke over the Poles by creating a sort of “buffer zone.” The Red Army, under the ex-tsarist commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky, led a counterattack, securing victory after victory. Soon what had started as a reaction to Polish aggression transformed into a Bolshevik plan to bring the Poles socialism by force. This entailed beating the defeated Polish forces west in the hopes that the coming of the Red Army would spark a socialist revolution in Poland, causing the long-awaited domino effect of other such revolutions through Western Europe. However, this turned out to be a serious miscalculation. Much as the Whites had been driven too far too fast by their dreams of taking important Russian cities, the Red Army push to Warsaw stalled along the Vistula River and the Bolsheviks had to seek an unfavorable peace with Pilsudski in 1921 (ibid., pp. 257-260). In the meantime, Denikin’s successor, Pyotr Wrangel, briefly set up a White proto-government in the Crimea. Upon reaching peace with Poland, the Red Army crushed Wrangel’s forces, sending him and his followers scrambling across the Black Sea. The civil war was finally over.

Both the Reds and Whites engaged in political violence between 1918 and 1920. Unlike with the Bolsheviks, however, the Whites resorted to brutality out of instinct rather than from ideology. Kolchak himself wrote that many Whites had “no conscience, no sense of honor or duty, only a cynical spirit of competition and money-grabbing” (Hosking 1985, p. 66). With the exception of Wrangel, none of the White leaders showed any interest in administration, and even if they had, most did not hide their hatred for Russian intellectuals, the majority being socialists, thus ensuring the character of the White forces was all military and no ministers. The Whites fed themselves by looting, which itself was not remarkable given the country’s depletion from years of world war and then civil war. In the Ukraine, however, the Whites added a layer of anti-Semitism to their raiding, carrying out pogroms against the Jews there. White propaganda fueled this hatred, depicting Bolsheviks and Jews as synonymous, with special emphasis given to Trotsky’s Jewish heritage (Figes 1996, pp. 676-677). This echoed in many ways themes later witnessed in Nazi propaganda, when Hitler justified the persecution of the Jews as a response to Bolshevism and the “threat” of socialism. According to documents released from the Russian archives, over 150,000 Jews died due to the White pogroms, with the wounded bringing the number closer to 300,000 (ibid., p. 679).

Figes describes the cruelty:

In the town of Fastov the Cossacks hung their victims from the ceiling, releasing them just before they choked to death: if their relatives, who watched this in terror, could not pay up the money they had demanded, the Cossacks repeated the operation. The Cossacks cut off limbs and noses with their sabers and ripped out babies from their mothers’ wombs. They set light to Jewish houses and forced those who tried to escape to turn back into the fire. In some places, such as Chernobyl, the Jews were herded into the synagogue, which was then burned down with them inside. In others, such as Cherkass, they gang-raped hundreds of pre-teen girls. (p. 678)

Two arguments frequently arise to justify or at least excuse the “White Terror.” The first is that the generals did not directly order it, while the second argues that the historical moment required callousness. To the first point, research shows that under Denikin the death penalty was in effect not just for Bolshevik party members, but also for anyone who had participated in workers’ councils or collaborated in the 1917 revolution (Bortnevski 1993, p. 363). This could be interpreted to mean even regular Russians “guilty” of voting for delegates to represent them, or as we have seen from White propaganda, Jews with no actual connection to politics whatsoever. Additionally, even if the White officers had not commanded the Jewish pogroms, they also did not do much to prevent them from occurring, which they could have done easily, given the highly regimented and even authoritarian nature of the various White regimes. Documentation exists of White generals ordering pogroms, but none where those generals stepped in to stop the raping and murder. As to the second rationalization, individuals of all nationalities from all time periods have used “war is hell” to justify all assortments of war crimes, and if we reject this excuse in the present when it is employed to hand-wave the shooting of civilians or the desecration of corpses, why should we accept it in regards to White abuses?

The “Red Terror,” too, was neither mere indulgence nor a collective hardening of the heart to the civil war. In reality, it was an eruption from below by the those downtrodden and dispossessed by feudalism and early capitalism, a social leveling that drew upon the traditions of peasant communes and a enduring mistrust of the propertied classes. Those that argue that terror is a necessary ingredient of Bolshevism suggest that socialism created the mass terror from whole cloth, but it did not. The “Red Terror” had its origins in the social order that fell apart in 1917. In just the 20th century alone, the Russian state had starved the masses, driven them to exhaustion in the factories, and sent them east and west to die in wars that had to do more with imperial pride than national security. It did so while also denying them political inclusion on the basis they were too ignorant, too wild and too primal to make the “right” decisions. What is remarkable about the “Red Terror” is not that it happened, but that it was so long in coming, when one considers both the relative size and strength of the masses to their masters, as well as the great lengths the Russian state went to impose its will over the working classes. Granted, the Bolsheviks provided the people with the institutions of the “Terror” – the secret police, the people’s courts, the seizure of private property – but the terror itself came from tensions of inequality and repression as old Russia itself. Whereas the anti-Semites among the Whites tormented and slaughtered the Jews for imagined roles in fictional conspiracies, the punishments, however savage, meted out to the Russian upper class had its roots in genuine mistreatment and subjugation. Men and women, quite free of any communist coercion, named their daughters “Terrora” to celebrate what they viewed as an overdue reckoning (Figes 1996, pp. 522-525).

This is not to say that the Bolsheviks played no part in fomenting political violence; on the contrary, it had been a central component of their political program for many years. As Trotsky (1920) put it, the “Terror” was a “direct continuation” of the armed uprising of late 1917, the revolution removed from theoretical tracts and applied to the real world. Their isolation and extreme position on the political spectrum also left the Bolsheviks with an onus to prove themselves true to their words, not just to bolster their integrity, but also to discredit and destroy their rivals on the left as well as the right. They had been clear about their intentions from the beginning. Lenin, upon hearing in late 1917 that Kamenev had endorsed abolishing the death penalty, asked: “How can you make a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself?” (Figes 1996, p. 630). With the slogan, “Loot the looters!” he heartened the impoverished to take the property of the upper classes by force. Data from the Russian archives also supports the theory that the execution of the deposed tsar and the imperial family came from a direct order from Lenin rather than, as has been speculated, a spontaneous decision by local party members (ibid., pp. 635-639). Just as an “innocent tyrant” is an oxymoron, Lenin and most Bolsheviks believed that a class war without political violence was a contradiction in terms. For a new society to emerge, the old one had to die.

Of course, not all of the Bolshevik bloodletting came from politics; some of it was indeed about survival. In July 19, Left SR rebels showed their dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Brest-Livotsk by assassinating the German ambassador in a bid to restart the conflict. When the Cheka demanded the assassins turn themselves in, the Left SRs briefly took control of Moscow before being defeated, the ringleaders imprisoned. In the autumn of that year, a Socialist Revolutionary named Fania Kaplan attempted to assassinate Lenin outside a Moscow factory, seriously wounding him. On the same day, another anti-Bolshevik socialist killed the head of the Chekists in Petrograd (Mawdsley 1987, p. 80). These attacks came from the Bolsheviks’ erstwhile allies; one can only imagine what would have befallen them had the Whites been successful in capturing Petrograd or Moscow. Regardless, most of the political prisoners placed in monasteries-turned-concentration camps were not enemy combatants, but merely class enemies. Inmates in Cheka jails could be anyone, from politicians to professors, from priests to dissident peasants, even children. In some cases, they were Bolsheviks themselves, denounced in trivial quarrels by friends and strangers (Figes 1996, pp. 642-643). The “Terror” was not a systematic process operating with military precision for a military objective; it was, as is to be expected given its social origins and the anarchy of the civil war, often disordered and indiscriminate, driven by dogmatic goals as by the concerns of war.

The exact number of people killed in the “Red Terror” remains unknown. The Cheka officially claimed it executed 6,300 people across 20 provinces during the civil war (Mawdsley 1987, p. 83). Figes (1996) puts the figure at “several hundred thousand” if one includes those who died in the prisons along with those killed in anti-Bolshevik revolts (p. 649). Precise figures are impossible because for most of the “Terror” no one held the Cheka to account. In early 1919, it was brought under the Commissariat of Justice, but in reality, it remained answerable only to those on the Bolshevik central committee, where Lenin actively protected it. Some high-ranking Bolsheviks like Bukharin and Kamenev frequently criticized the Cheka for its unrestrained behavior, and the Russian writer Maxim Gorky was perhaps the most prolific and outspoken opponent of the “Terror.” To these censures and reproaches, Lenin remained adamant that the mistakes of the Cheka, whatever they might be, were worth it to preserve the welfare of the workers’ state. “What injustice,” Lenin wrote sarcastically. “A few days, or even weeks, in jail for intellectuals in order to prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of workers and peasants!” (ibid., pp. 678-679).

Understanding the “Red Terror” is easy; judging it is hard. Knowing even a little about what the poor and vulnerable endured through most of Russian history makes even the excesses against the elite plausible. Yet is it acceptable? To the modern liberal mind, it is generally not. The notion of believing in any political doctrine fully, even one based in scientific rigor as Marxism claims to be, is alien to the average 21st century mind. That one might use such a doctrine to justify killing political opponents or class enemies is even more inconceivable. From youth we learn to treat politics as being about concessions and rough calculations, so that “the perfect is not the enemy of the good.” For the Bolsheviks and their followers, they demanded nothing less than perfection, the establishment of the world’s first truly socialist society, with the prior edifice ripped away to its very foundation. They were so committed to the enterprise they not only took power by force, but also endeavored to use that power even when fenced in by their enemies with prospects of their survival dubious. They remained true to their intentions when other actors would likely have bent or even broken for the sake of saving their own skin. Mawdsley (1987) argues that the short-term stability brought by the “Terror” did not outweigh the long-term costs later used against the Bolsheviks, stating that the “Terror” played a large part in Western antagonism toward the Soviet Union. This is doubtful, given what we know about the opposition of the West to any anti-capitalist government, peaceful or otherwise, around the world. Moreover, this sort of pragmatic calculus adopts the modern perspective the Bolsheviks did not share. For them their long-term concern was not propriety or foreign relationships, but instead following through on the revolutionary activity that had seen them in and out of prisons and exile for most of their adult lives. They had endured beatings, torture and years away from loved ones in the name of an ideal, one they could only realize by tearing apart the very system that had persecuted them for so long and perpetuated injustice everywhere. Recent history proves that being kind and trusting to those who profit from plunder and state-sanctioned rule-breaking does not bode well; protecting the corrupt elites is arguably just as cruel to the masses as permitting the masses to exact bloody revenge on those same elites. Granted, in a truly faultless system, the elites would not repress the working classes, or vice versa. An important thing to note is that decision-makers behind the “Terror” believed such a world was possible and claimed to be working towards it, while the decision-makers of today say such a world is fantasy and that exploitation and alienation is the unpleasant but natural state of man under capitalism. There is no perfect world, liberals say, just one better than all the others. The Bolsheviks, for all their sins, believed otherwise.

Works Cited

1. Bortnevski, Viktor. 1993. “White Administration and White Terror (The Denikin Period).” Russian Review, 52(3), pp. 354-366.
2. Figes, Orlando. 1996. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
3. Hosking, Geoffrey. 1985. The First Social Society: A History of the Soviet Union From Within. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
4. Kort, Michael. 2006. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, Sixth Edition. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
5. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917a. Theses On The Constituent Assembly. Retrieved from
6. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917b. Report on Peace. Retrieved from
7. MacKenzie, David and Michael W. Curran. 1997. Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
8. Mawdsley, Evan. 1987. The Russian Civil War. Boston, MA: Allen & Unwin.
9. Serge, Victor (2012). Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Trans. Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis. New York, NY: New York Review Books.
10. Trotsky, Leon (1920). Terrorism and Communism. Retrieved from


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