The Russian Civil War (1917–1920) was a multi-party war that occurred within the former Russian Empire after the Russian provisional government was overthrown by the Soviets, under the domination of the Bolshevik party. Soviet forces first assumed power in Petrograd and subsequently gained control across vast swathes of Russia.
The principal fighting occurred between the Bolshevik Red Army, often in temporary alliance with other pro-revolutionary leftist groups, and the forces of the White Army, which consisted of the "Armed Forces of Southern Russia" under the leadership of General Lavr Kornilov, the "Siberian Army” of Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak in Siberia, and the "Northwestern Army" in the Baltics under General Nikolai Yudenich. Many foreign armies fought against the Red Army, notably the Entente Forces prior to their 1919 withdrawal (which did not include Japan) and the German forces, albeit often indirectly, long before their official recognition of the White Provisional Government in June 1919, as well as many foreign volunteers who fought on both sides of the Russian Civil War. Other nationalist and regional political groups also participated in the war, including the Cossack nationalist armies, and warlords such as Roman von Ungern-Sternberg.
- 1 1917
- 2 1918
- 3 1919
- 4 1920
The high hopes felt across Russia following the February Revolution had diminished to almost nothing by the closing weeks of 1917. The Provisional Government’s ineffectual policies and weak authority in the face of the Petrograd Soviet had left the capital paralyzed with incessant street fighting and political turmoil. An attempted ‘March on Petrograd’ by General Lavr Kornilov in August had demonstrated the army’s willingness to restore order, but President Alexander Kerensky had instead made the disastrous mistake of freeing the Bolsheviks to ‘protect’ the city.
While Kornilov and his co-conspirators agreed to be disarmed for the sake of avoiding civil war, Kerensky had hastened it. The Bolsheviks, now freed and armed by Kerensky’s own degree, violated the terms of dual-power and toppled the Provisional Government, forcing Kerensky and his supporters to flee Petrograd. A hasty attempt by General Pyotr Krasnov to retake Petrograd with his Don Cossacks proved unsuccessful. Soviets across Russia followed Petrograd’s example and seized power on behalf of the Revolution. The Russian Republic had fallen, and Soviet Russia stood triumphant.
Opposition to Soviet power arose immediately, but sporadically. In the south, Don Cossack Ataman Alexei Kaledin declared the independence of the Don Republic with the help of the recently-returned Krasnov, and the Don’s declaration was soon joined by the Kuban Cossacks. White Russian officers, the recently freed Kornilov among them, soon flocked to the safe haven of Novocherkassk.
The Railway War and the Ice March
The Bolsheviks, largely unconcerned with the minimal amount of resistance they had encountered after seizing power, turned their attention to arranging the promised peace with Germany. While an armistice was signed in December of 1917, the Bolsheviks’ vacillation led to the greatly-annoyed Germans repudiating peace and launching a full-scale offensive, the so called Operation Faustschlag ("Operation Fist Punch").
Within 11 days, German and Austro-Hungarian troops had advanced 242 kilometres into Russia, with scarcely a shot fired by the ‘defending’ Red Guards. Humiliated and now threatened by the German advance, the Bolsheviks relocated to Moscow and agreed to the even harsher terms now dictated by the Central Powers.
The unprecedented demands of Brest-Litovsk not only crippled Russia, but galvanized opposition to the Bolsheviks. In the south, the legendary “Ice March” of the Whites across the Kuban steppe succeeded in seizing Yekaterinodar, with Kornilov narrowly escaping death from an artillery shell. Despite an enormous numerical advantage, the Red Guards not only failed to halt the Whites, but lost their stronghold at Rostov-on-Don shortly thereafter in a wave of defections. With the conclusion of Brest-Litovsk in March, the Entente transferred their support to the Volunteer Army, in the vain hope of regaining an Eastern Front.
Revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion
Under the terms of Brest-Litovsk, the Red Army was forced to disarm the Czechoslovak Legion, which had been attempting to reach Archangelsk. Incensed, the Czechoslovaks not only refused, but fought back when the Red Guards attempted to use force.
Galvanized by the Legions’ uprising, White officers and SRs rose up and toppled Soviets across Siberia. By August of 1918, Siberia and the Far East had largely been cleared of Bolsheviks, though the Whites’ success was marred by the execution of the Romanovs in Yekaterinburg. The White forces at this point were an eclectic mixture of Czechoslovaks, Cossacks, Vladimir Kappel’s officers, and anti-Bolshevik leftist peasant rebels. These forces, in-turn, were divided in loyalty between the "Constituent Assembly" (KOMUCH) in Samara and the "Provisional Siberian Government" in Omsk. In an attempt to bring unity, the various White governments agreed to host a conference in November, with Omsk chosen as the location due its distance from the front.
Ukraine and the Southern Front
Of the successor states, Ukraine was not only the largest, but also led by the fervently anti-Bolshevik Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky. With the April rebellion of the Ukrainian “Sich Rifleman” and “Blue Coats” crushed by pro-Skoropadsky forces and White Russian officers, the Hetman petitioned the Germans for support in anticipation of war against the Reds. The Germans, eager to shore up their eastern flank without garrisoning it with large amounts of their own soldiers, agreed.
Skoropadsky’s forces, now laden-down with German equipment and advisors, marched eastward in July alongside the “Special Corps” of White officers under the command of Baron Pyotr Wrangel. Bolshevik forces in the Donbass were swept aside, and units of the Hetmanate and Volunteer Army had linked up by August.
Though the White Russians were enraged by the dismemberment of Russia at the hands of Germany, the ever-diminishing amount of support provided by the faltering Entente led to a bitter realization of the necessity for German help.
Despite furious protestations from Generals Denikin and Alekseev, Kornilov reluctantly agreed to cease contact with the Entente in return for German support. The hitherto separate Don and Volunteer Armies were formally united as the “Armed Forces of Southern Russia” (AFSR).
Left SR Uprisings
While Lenin had managed to convince a considerable number of SRs and Mensheviks to split from their respective parties and join with the Bolsheviks following their seizure of power, the relationship was not an amicable one. The increasingly repressive and one-sided policies being adopted by the Bolsheviks had begun to alienate their allies, in spite of their holding several key posts in the government and Cheka. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March had proven to be the last straw for many SRs especially, and plots soon formed which aimed to topple the Bolsheviks.
The Left SRs' assassination of the German ambassador, Count Wilhelm von Mirbach, on July 6th failed to rally popular support for a re-opening of hostilities with Germany. Indeed, it backfired spectacularly, as Lenin ordered the Left SR leadership to be put under armed guard pending the discovery of Mirbach's assassins. Meanwhile, nearly 3,000 SRs rallied behind the Chekist Dmitry Popov, who ordered the Cheka headquarters, telegraph, and telephone offices seized in order to disseminate news of the 'overthrow' of the Bolsheviks.
Hopes of a popular uprising once again proved unfounded, and Red Latvian riflemen swiftly crushed Popov's forces and executed the bulk of the conspirators. Ironically, it was only in distant Kazan that the call for an SR revolt was heeded, as Mikhail Muravyov, commander of the Eastern Front, convinced 5,000 of his soldiers to cease fighting the Czechs in Kazan in order to march on Simbirsk.
While Muravyov and his troops managed to seize Simbirsk, they were defeated a week later by his successor to the post of commander of the Eastern Front, Ioakim Vatsetis. Nevertheless, Muravyov and thousands of his surviving supporters dispersed into the countryside to continue the fight as partisans.
The Assassination of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Eager to reassure workers of the Bolshevik's power following the chaos of the Left SR revolt, Lenin gave a stirring speech to the assembled workers of the "Hammer and Sickle" factory in Moscow on August 30th. While leaving the building, Lenin was called to by a member of the audience. In the midst of turning to respond, Lenin was shot three times with a revolver by Fanya Kaplin, a committed Left SR.
Though the first bullet passed through Lenin's jacket without causing any harm, the other two pierced his lungs and remained lodged. Fanya was immediately attacked by the crowd and arrested, while Lenin was rushed to the Kremlin, which he refused to leave for fear of further attacks. While the doctors called to attend Lenin did their best, the damage was too extensive, and the leader and idol of the Russian Revolution died two days later.
Though the matter of succession was resolved swiftly with the ascension of Lev Kamenev as chairman of the SOVNARKOM, the loss of Lenin was a crippling blow to the spirit and image of the Bolsheviks. The vengeful Cheka, now granted far greater power in the wake of Lenin's death, launched a merciless campaign of oppression to root out any and all remaining threats to the Revolution.
Kolchak and the Provisional Government
The Entente, panicking at the loss of the Southern Front’s support, pressured the Siberian Government’s minister of war, Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, to seize control. Matters were further complicated by the start of the Congress of Omsk between delegates of the KOMUCH and Omsk governments, ostensibly aimed at uniting the divided White forces. Kolchak was deeply hesitant, and it took a coup launched in his name in November by Cossack forces for him to reluctantly agree to the position of dictator.
Immediately, protests of SRs and Kadets broke out opposing Kolchak. The Admiral-Dictator hovered on the verge of ordering his opponents jailed, but was stopped by the timely arrival of a key Right SR figure from the west. Boris Savinkov, fresh from organizing anti-Bolshevik rebellions in Central Russia, pleaded with Kolchak to reconsider, and at the very least agree to the SRs program for agrarian reforms.
Kolchak, well aware of the bluster behind his British support, agreed to reconvene the Directorate and acknowledge the SRs’ program, on the condition of Kolchak remaining supreme commander in military affairs, and Pyotr Vologodsky continuing to serve as president. These concessions not only salvaged the relationship with the socialist-leaning Czechoslovaks, but also greatly diminished the threat of SR partisans, many of whom were willing to fight Kolchak as ferociously as they did the Bolsheviks.
The 3rd Battle of Tsaritsyn
The vital city of Tsaritsyn, which had repelled two prior assaults by Krasnov’s Don Army, stood as the centerpiece of the Reds’ southern defences at the dawn of 1919. It fell to Wrangel and Denikin’s newly-dubbed “Caucasian Army” to capture the city, while Kornilov defended the northern Don oblast from a renewed Red offensive.
Unlike Krasnov earlier, Wrangel’s forces were well-equipped not only with German artillery, but also a small squadron of three A7VU tanks. The Red defenders, utterly dumbfounded by the metallic monsters trundling towards them, panicked and fled despite the brutal efforts by their commander, Georgian Bolshevik Ioseb 'Stalin' Dzhugashvili, to reform the lines. Tsaritsyn fell within a matter of days, and with it control over the southern Volga.
Simultaneously, Kornilov had stabilized the north after a decisive victory at Kharkov alongside Ukrainian troops, which had pre-emptively halted a potentially devastating counter-offensive by Red commander Alexander Yegorov. Denikin proposed an immediate march northward to Moscow, a move which Wrangel immediately dismissed as a foolhardy disaster. With Ukrainian and White forces increasingly tied-down by the Red-backed “Black Army” of Nestor Makhno, supplylines would be cripplingly vulnerable. Furthermore, an agreement needed to be reached between the two White governments of the South and Siberia, in theinterests of a united front both politically and militarily.
Kornilov, after deliberation short enough to offend Denikin, agreed to Wrangel’s proposal.
The Northwestern Offensive
In the aftermath of Brest-Litovsk, the Baltics had been torn apart by fighting between Red, Whites, nationalists, and Germans. However, by early 1919, the “United Baltic Duchy” had been more or less entirely secured thanks to the efforts not only of Rudiger von der Goltz’s Baltische Landeswehr, but also the Russians under Generals Nikolai Yudenich and Pavel Bermondt-Avalov, as well as the dashing Prince Anatoly Lieven.
The “Northwestern Army,” now almost fully-armed, equipped, and even clothed by the Germans, went forth with its sights set on Petrograd. This May offensive was accompanied by the mobilization of Polish and White Ruthenian troops, who were tasked by the Germans to retake the territory seized by the Reds as “punishment” for the betrayal of Brest-Litovsk, while also shoring up Yudenich’s southern flank. Initial progress was very successful, with the greatly-drained Bolshevik garrisons in Yamburg and Gatchina falling to Yudenich and Lieven in a matter of days. Further to the south, Bermondt-Avalov seized Pskov with the help of Ruthenian troops under Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz. A rapid but uncoordinated flood of Red reinforcements helped slow the White advance, but these bungled counter-offensives were defeated one after another.
By the first days of June, the Northwestern Army had fought its way inch-by-bloody-inch through the Petrograd suburbs and had effectively put the city under siege. Only the critical Petrograd-Moscow rail line remained to connect the two Bolshevik capitals to one another. June was also the month which saw German’s official recognition of the Provisional All-Russian Government as the diplomatic government of the Russian nation.
The Volga Campaign
AFSR units began their Volga offensive roughly in coordination with Yudenich, who kept in touch with Kornilov via the Germans. Spearheaded by Wrangel’s Caucasian Army, White forces swiftly captured Saratov in April. Red reinforcements led by Trotsky himself halted the White advance at Samara, but at the cost of abandoning their own offensive that had been battering Kolchak’s forces.
Though the defence of Samara delayed the Whites for months and caused appalling casualties, Red reserves were also heavily depleted. When the Siberian counter-offensive came in late July, the Bolshevik garrisons in Ufa and Yekaterinburg were powerless to stop it. Trotsky, realizing he was on the verge of being encircled, withdrew to Simbirsk.
The meeting of Southern and Siberian Whites in Samara was a moment of jubilation, and it continues to stand as a pivotal image of the Civil War on par with the Ice March, Tsaritsyn, and eventual capture of Moscow and Petrograd.
The Ufa Congress
Eager to sort out the political spectre haunting the two White governments, delegates of the various anti-Bolshevik factions gathered in recently-recaptured Ufa in April 1919. The Siberian SRs and Kadets remained adamant supporters of the Entente, an opinion which Kolchak shared at least outwardly. Furthermore, Kolchak was feted as a candidate of compromise, and his prior agreements with the SRs seemed to strengthen his case. On the other hand, many Southern Whites remained wary towards the SR policies adopted by the Siberians. Kornilov, courtesy of a military record which Kolchak had no hopes of matching, boasted the adoration of much of the White Russian officers and soldiery.
After a week of fierce debate, it was ultimately decided that the two governments would unite under Aleksandr Kolchak as the 'Supreme Ruler of Russia' with Sergei Sazonov as his prime minister, while keeping the name of the Provisional All-Russian Government. Kornilov and Kolchak were recognized as commanders of their respective fronts, followed shortly thereafter by Yudenich, and even Evgeni Miller’s almost non-existent "Northern Army" in Archangelsk. Most importantly, however, the Congress agreed to de facto cut contact with the Allies in order to appease the Germans.
Nevertheless, despite his gentlemanly concession to Kolchak's electoral victory, Kornilov and his cohorts nursed a bitter disappointment for what they saw as another retreat into a democratic system that had damned Russia.
The Vice Closes
Though fierce fighting would continue in the following months over Simbirsk and Kazan, the Bolsheviks were well on the road to defeat. The fall of the Volga had almost entirely severed Red access to Russia’s breadbasket, and the already dwindling supply of food trickled to nothing.
The intensification of War Communism backfired spectacularly in the countryside, and retreating Red troops found themselves fighting bands of ‘Green’ rebels more often than Whites. Mass starvation led not only to flight from the cities, but an epidemic of defections.
In the north, Petrograd remained besieged and starving. Hopes were rekindled, however, by a message proclaiming the approach of a relief column led by none other than Leon Trotsky. Unfortunately for the besieged Reds, Yudenich's troops had seized control of the last remaining rail lines leading into Petrograd less than a day prior. Grigory Zinoviev, acting commander of Bolshevik forces in Petrograd, ordered a desperate breakthrough attempt to smash the White lines and open a route for Trotsky.
Kronstadt and the Fall of Petrograd
To Zinoviev's horror, the Kronstadt Garrison refused its order to march. The strongly anarchist Kronstadt sailors, led by Stepan Patrichenko, had become disillusioned by War Communism and Bolshevik supremacy, and demanded a plethora of concessions before returning to the front. Zinoviev agreed to meet Patrichenko on the battleship Petropavlovsk, but discussions rapidly broke down and the two parties separated, Zinoviev to deal with the disaster his breakthrough attempt had become, and Patrichenko to fortify Kronstadt.
Deprived of the key Kronstadt sailors, the Red 'breakout' proved a dismal failure. Trotsky's troops had won some initial victories, but the Whites' overwhelming advantage in firepower and morale won out. The Red relief column disintegrated, with Trotsky himself seemingly disappearing off the face of the earth after rushing back to rally the troops. Zinoviev, already well aware of Trotsky's rout, agreed to surrender the city to Yudenich even before hearing news of the Finnish intervention mere hours later.
Yudenich's troops entered Petrograd with great fanfare, and soon discovered to their annoyance that Kronstadt had refused Zinoviev's orders to surrender. Lacking the thick ice necessary to storm the fortress by foot, the Whites conceded to simply bombarding the island into oblivion. Two ensuing attempts to land on the island were beaten back with heavy losses, but a third managed to successfully storm it, and no quarter was given to the defenders. Petrichenko was among the few who managed to escape, and he would remain a fugitive for several years until his arrest in 1921.
The Siege of Moscow
The remnants of the Red Army gathered to defend Moscow under the command of Mikhail Tukhachevsky. Grossly outnumbered and outgunned by Kornilov to the south and west, Kolchak to the east, and Yudenich to the north, the Reds vowed to die fighting on the 2nd anniversary of the October Revolution.
The Red defenders, led by Yegorov and Tukhachevsky, were not idle, and kilometres of trench lines had been dug and manned by the remnants of the Red Army and recently-drafted workers militias. Vowing to bleed the Whites dry, the Red defenders had likewise attempted to turn the city itself into a prepared killing zone.
For all their zeal, however, the half-starved and ill-equipped Reds suffered greatly in the face of repeated White shock assaults supported by German-supplied tanks and heavy guns. Both sides would suffer heavy losses as fighting stretched from late November into the new year. Inexorably, the Reds frontline was pushed back, until only the city itself remained.
Unfortunately for Tukhachevsky and Yegorov, the plan to bleed the Whites dry in the streets failed to materialize. Crippling shortages of food, clothing, and fuel led not only to food riots among the city's inhabitants, but also relentless attrition and desertion for its defenders. By the second week of January, Red morale and fighting strength had all but collapsed. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Bolsheviks reluctantly begged for a ceasefire.
On January 22nd, the triumphant General Kornilov entered the Kremlin alongside General Wrangel to accept the Bolsheviks' surrender. Lev Kamenev, accompanied by the dejected Tukhachevky and Yegorov, signed the document that formally marked Soviet Russia's dissolution. Beyond Moscow, pockets of Red army resistance would survive for months, with the last Red ‘general,’ Antonov-Ovseyenko, capitulating in June after a brief battle over Archangelsk.
The Treaty of Minsk
Though the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had been signed by the Bolsheviks, the Whites had little choice but to re-ratify it. With none of the White generals willing to besmirch their individual honour, it was unanimously decided that a troika of Russian political leaders would sign together. Kolchak, as Supreme Ruler, was the formal head of the trio, while his two companions were his acting Prime Minister Sazonov, and finally Alexander Kerensky, whose status as the last pre-Civil War head of state gave the delegation a connection to the prior regime.
Despite the protests of several German generals and politicians who had been involved in the Russian Intervention, the German terms remained as unflinchingly brutal as earlier. With heavy hearts, the Russian delegation signed their names to the treaty. Russia lay broken and humiliated after six years of war, but it was, at long last, at peace.