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The Russian Civil War was a multi-party war in the former Russian Empire, following the double revolutions of 1917. The two largest factions of the conflict were the Red Army, representing Marxist socialism, and the White Movement, composed of an alchemy of ideas ranging from monarchism to democracy to military dictatorship. Rival socialists and politically unaffiliated Green Armies fought both sides. Foreign nations also played a role in the war, as the German Empire and the Allies intervened against the Reds.
The war ended in an invasion of the Russian heartland by Lieutenant General Anton Denikin's forces, culminating in the capture of Moscow and the unconditional surrender of the Bolshevik government and the establishment of a British-style constitutional monarchy with the czar serving only a symbolic role.
Many independence movements sprung up in the wake of the dissolution of Imperial Russia and the fighting of the war. Armenia, Poland, Finland, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Siberia, Livonia, and Lithuania established themselves as sovereign countries after years under Russian control.
The Double Revolution of 1917
By the beginning of 1917, the Russian Empire was teetering on the verge of collapse. The country’s mismanaged involvement in the Great War led to large amounts of land falling into the possession of Germany. The disastrous war effort had taken its toll on the country’s frail economy.
On March 8, 1917, disgruntled people in the capital city of Petrograd took to the streets to demand food and fuel. The local reserve troops were called in to put down the riots, but would join the strikers instead. The Duma, seeing that the imperial government had lost all credibility, formed the Russian Provisional Government (RPG).
Czar Nicholas II attempted to return to Petrograd by train, but was stopped at Pskov by striking railroad workers. The Duma and numerous high-ranking military officers requested that Nicholas abdicate, to which the czar complied on March 15.
Grasping for a victory on the Eastern front, the German High Command shipped Bolshevik leader Vladimir I. Lenin to Petrograd aboard a sealed train. The Bolshevik Party rapidly gained momentum and attempted to seize power in July. The police swiftly put down the uprising. Lenin fled to Finland, but other party officials such as Leon Trotsky were incarcerated. Aleksandr Kerensky became Prime Minister and ordered the arrest of Lenin.
General Lavr Kornilov, seeing the RPG as weak in light of the July Days, attempted a coup d’état. Kerensky, out of desperation, released numerous Bolsheviks from prison and armed them in an effort to stop Kornilov.
Now with weapons, the Bolsheviks could make their move. On November 6, they seized control of key positions around Petrograd: bridges, train stations, power plants, banks, the Peter-Paul Fortress, the cruiser Aurora, and the like. This culminated in a putsch against the RPG’s seat at the Winter Palace. In the early hours of November 7, the government had been dissolved. Kerensky, meanwhile, had fled the city in a car provided by the American embassy.
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and early rebellions.
Among the first groups to resist the new Bolshevik state were the Cossacks. During the Battle of Pulkovo, seven hundred under the command of Piotr Krasnov participated in the fight, but were beaten by the superior forces of the Red Guard.
An armistice between Germany and the RSFSR was signed on December 16, 1917. Lenin’s enemies attributed this to the accusation of the Bolshevik leader being a German spy. Huge portions of the former empire were ceded to the Central Powers, infuriating Russian conservatives. Leon Trotsky refused to sign it, holding on to a position of "No war, no peace".
In response, the Germans launched Operation Faustschlag on February 18, 1918 and met little resistance from the Russians. This pushed the Bolsheviks to bow to Germany’s conditions, as the Red Guard was still too disorganized to stop the invasion. The peace treaty, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, was ratified on March 6. The surrender prompted many nationalists to join the White movement.
Birth of the White MovementInitially, the White movement began as reaction against the Bolshevik revolution. At that time, the counter revolution had no clear goals apart from the removal of Lenin from power. After three days of debate at the Livadia Palace, the White leaders reached a compromise on how to operate. The guidelines called for a Western-style elected republic with a czar serving only as a figurehead. While the move won over a number of officers, Aleksandr Kolchak rejected the terms and began his own war effort against the Bolsheviks in the Far East. The Western officers allowed him to do so as a means to occupy the enemy in Siberia and wear down the "traitor".
It was also agreed, after heated debate, that the greater evil to them was the Bolsheviks instead of the Central Powers. As a result, a non-aggression treaty was signed with Prussian commander Max Hoffman, promising not to attack the Germans when the fighting was renewed. This would allow for Miller to travel into the newly-formed Baltic countries across German occupation zones, as they had allowed Lenin after the February Revolution.
When Operation Faustschlag was underway, the Whites pinned the blame for the continued fighting on Trotsky's stance of "no war, no peace", cited as being contrary to their stated goals of peace with Germany. Multitudes of people from Crimea and Taurida, feeling the same way, threw their hats in with the Whites.
Germany gave autonomy to Crimea during the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as a slap in the face to Trotsky's rejection of earlier peace terms.
More accusations of Bolshevik lies came from a network of spies operating in newly-formed Finland. Their clandestine reconnaissance revealed that the Bolsheviks had persuaded the Finns to join the revolution in the autumn of 1917. Furthermore, it was revealed that in January 1918, Lenin had sent a train with munitions to aid Finnish Communists: 15,000 rifles, thirty machine guns, two million cartridges, ten field guns, six wagon-loads of artillery shells, and two armored cars. The resulting Finnish Civil War was just another tool for the Whites to use against the Bolsheviks: Lenin's demands for peace were dwarfed by the man's desire for an expanding revolution. The presence of over 50,000 Soviet Red Guards in Finland contributed to this train of thought.
A new armyThe first groups to resist the new government were the Cossacks. Piotr Krasnov of the Don and Grigoriy Semenov of Siberia were among them. By December of 1917, a small force under the command of the ailing general Mikhail Alekseyev and Lavr Kornilov began to develop near Tsaritsyn. By the end of the year, what as then known as the "White Volunteer Army" had occupied the city of Rostov-on-Don.
The growing threat of anti-Communist sentiment caused the Bolshevik government to create the Cheka, headed by Felix Dzerdzhinsky, and to reorganize the Red Guards into the "Workers and Peasants' Red Army" on December 20, 1917 and February 14, 1918, respectively. Trotsky, now Commissar of War, would oversee operations. It became clear that the newly-formed Red Army lacked military experience. To compensate for this, he drafted former imperial personnel, who were forced to abandon their anti-Bolshevik stances in light of the War Commissar's threats against their families.
Kornilov's Ice March
After minor skirmishes in 1917, open conflict became broader in 1918. Despite Brest-Litovsk, the Germans continued to occupy cities in neutral Ukraine. Kaiser Wilhelm II, distrustful of Lenin's government sought to create a German hegemony in the region. On February 18, the Red Army occupied Kiev, but surrendered it to Germany on March 3. Rostov would also change hands from White to Red on February 24 and back to German on April 8. The Germans continued to occupy Ukrainian cities throughout the month and into April. As per the agreement with the White forces, they stayed out of Crimea. The Reds would occupy a number of Cossack villages in the Kuban during this time. Kornilov's men captured dozens of officers from the 39th Division during a battle at Lezhanka. He court-martialed them and would only pardon the captives if they joined the White movement.
The Red seizure of Rostov and Taganrog compelled Piotr Krasnov to consolidate his forces, numbering 11,000 strong, with Kornilov's. Initially, the Don were skeptical about openly supporting the Whites, but the recent Bolshevik occupation forced the decision.
After the fall of Rostov, Kornilov, joined by began the march south across the frozen steppe lands. The soldiers, carrying one rifle each, and hauling some field artillery, were accompanied by a long trail of civilians, the middle-classes of Rostov, fearful of Bolshevik reprisals. Anton Denikin, Kornilov's second-in-command, later recalled, "We went from the dark night of spiritual slavery to unknown wandering-in search of the bluebird." The bluebird was a traditional symbol of hope in Russian fairy tales and legend. The march continued day and night, sometimes in a long single-file through the deep snow, avoiding the railways and hostile population centres. Those who could not endure the ordeal, the sick and the wounded, were simply left behind, many shooting themselves rather than risk falling captive to the enemy.
The Kuban Cossacks were more willing to join the Volunteer Army than the ones in the Don. In Nezamaevskaya, the Whites gained one hundred forty recruits; two hundred ten in Ploskaya; five hundred in Vyselok; thirty-eight in Sadovy.
The dreadnought Svobodnaya Rossiya (formerly the Empress Catherine the Great) and aging warships Georgiy Pobedonosets, Sinop, and Borets za Svobodu (formerly the Potemkin) were acquired by the Whites for use against the Red stronghold at Novorossiysk on March 27. Caught off guard by the surprise attack on the port, the Novorossiysk surrendered. Ninety-one of the city’s defenders would defect to the Volunteer Army.
To the South, Yudenich landed at Novorossiysk with eight hundred volunteers from Crimea. A pair of Mark I tanks (both female), ten 18-pounder field guns, and eleven Maxim machine guns were brought with them by barge. The British, after the collapse of Constantinople the previous summer, began shipping materiel to support ex-Prime Minister Kerensky’s war effort to the Ukraine, but most of the shipping was hindered not only because of the Bolshevik coup but hit-and-run attacks by the Bulgarians in the Black Sea. With German forces being present in Ukraine, the Royal Navy blockaded the Dardenelles and Strait of Gibraltar, preventing German and Austrian ships from sending aid to any troops.
Some skirmishes occurred on the advance eastward. Defections to Yudenich’s forces occurred, though not frequently.
Kornilov, meanwhile, received intelligence that the city of Ekaterinodar was held by the Bolsheviks. Initially, there were 9,000 men in the unit versus the estimated 18,000 in the city. Having faced tough odds on the way south, Kornilov made a gamble to attack the city on April 1. For the first two days, the Kornilov unit was able to inflict heavy damage to the Red garrison but the defenders eventually pushed the Whites to the town limits.
On April 3, Yudenich reached Ekaterinodar. The siege had evolved into a pincer attack, with the larger Kornilov group in the north and northeast and the smaller Yudenich to the southwest. The Mark I’s were able to break through the western defenses. After a day of brutal street fighting, the Ekaterinodar garrison surrendered. Many Red regulars fled southeast to Maikop.
The Caucasus, Winter-Spring
News of Ekaterinodar spread southward. The newly-formed Republic of Transcaucasia had begun building its fledgling military. Pro-Communist influence was relatively weak in the region. An attempt by local Reds to seize Baku was put down on by local militia on April 20.
At the same time, the Yudenich forces pushed further south toward Sochi.
Kornilov, meanwhile, pushed toward the Caspian. Krasnov's Cossacks routed the Reds at Stavropol and captured much-needed munitions. By mid-May, Kornilov's division met the Transcaucasian army at Petrovsk Port, where they defeated the remaining Bolshevik rebels in the region.
Transcaucasia would break up into Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia on May 26.
The Don, Spring
After the capture of Rostov, things didn't go well for the Reds. Cells of Cossacks left behind prior to the Ice March began forming guerrilla bands. Kornilov, from his headquarters at Ekaterinodar, began an incursion of the region.
Generals Yevgdniy Miller and Vasily Boldyrev advanced from the Ukraine to support the invasion via the Donbass. The Bolshevik garrison at Novocherkassk was taken after ten hours of fighting on April 28. The Whites advanced eastward to Volgodonsk. Supplies were shipped to the front through neutral Rostov.
The Bolshevik government was at a loss as to how to deal with the Whites. Shipping ammunition and troops through the neutral zones had been allowed by the non-aggression pact on the proviso that no fighting occurred there. Any attempt to disrupt this by the Reds would be seen as an act of war against the Germans. Having already been humiliated into the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, fighting them again was out of the question.
The Czech LegionAbout 30,000 soldiers who fought for the Austrian army were captured by the Russians in the Great War. Ex-Provisional Government Prime Minister Kerensky released them from prison, armed them and wished them a safe trip home.
The goal of the Czech Legion was independence from the Austrian Empire. They wanted to get to the Western Front of the conflict to aid the Allies. The problem was that there was no way for the Czechs to get there due to the lines of the Eastern Theater.
In March 1918, the Bolshevik party approved the evacuation. Some of their ranks, on the other hand, were concerned about an armed non-Russian group so deep in their territory. Despite staying out of Russian politics, the Czechs knew how to fight.
They were accused of being counter revolutionaries and Trotsky ordered them to disband and surrender their arms on May 29.
The Czechs refused the order. Skirmishes, most notably at Chelyabinsk, would occur over the course of June.
The Czechs took control of the Trans-Siberian Railway and joined forces with the Right Social Revolutionaries in Samara on June 7.
The Tsaritsyn Campaign
After the fall of Ekaterinodar and the subsequent securing of the Caucasus, the White Army laid its sights on Tsaritsyn, up the Volga River. Skirmishes would occur from village to village as the line pushed northward.
After Yudenich took Elitsa, Kornilov and Krasnov closed in on Tsaritsyn. Bolgyrev and Miller advanced from the west and surrounded the city.
A daring attack by an armored train resulted in the death of Commissar of Nationalities Joseph Stalin. Afterward, the Reds, desperate for a retreat, abandoned their heavy weapons and swam across the Volga. Some went to Volzhsky and others went toward Astrakhan.
The exit of Russia from the Great War was worrisome to the Allies. German troops were gradually being sent to the Western Front to re-enforce their lines. Troublesome still was German presence in Finland toward the end of the civil war in that country.
Large amounts of Allied war materiel were still sitting in the Russian ports in the North. If the Germans didn't attempt to capture the Petrograd-Murmansk Railroad, as some predicted would be their move, the Bolsheviks would try to claim them. Other concerns regarded the potential destruction of the Czechoslovak Legions and the threat of Bolshevism, the nature of which worried many Allied governments.
British and American troops landed at Murmansk on June 23, 1918. The operation proved to be less than successful due to apathetic locals and bad roads.
Though brief, the Reds had become convinced that the Allies were the masterminds behind the counterrevolution.
Left SR Uprising
The Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets commenced on July 4, 1918. The left Social Revolutionaries who had previously participated in the Bolshevik government were expelled for raising disagreements about the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the death penalty, and the suppression of political parties.
Defeated at the Congress, the Left SRs pursued their aim of sabotaging the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and dragging Soviet Russia back into war with Germany by using their positions within the Cheka to assassinate the German Ambassador in Moscow, Count Wilhelm von Mirbach, on July 6, 1918. The Leadership of the Left SRs incorrectly believed this assassination would lead to a widespread popular uprising in support of their aims. They claimed to be leading an uprising against peace with Germany and not necessarily against the Bolsheviks and Soviet power.
The Left SR revolt, led by Dmitry Popov, was ultimately crushed by pro-Bolshevik Chekists by 2:00 PM on July 7. Lenin personally apologized to the Germans for the assassination. Mass arrests of Socialist-Revolutionaries followed.
The result of the Left SR Uprising was the suppression of the Left SRs, the last major independent party other than the Bolsheviks, leaving the Bolsheviks as the only party in government.
After his falling out with the Western Whites at the Yalta Symposium, Kolchak fled east to Siberia.
In the wake of the Czech Legion's seizure of Chelyabinsk, the Bolshevik garrisons on Omsk and Petropavlovsk were overthrown. The Provisional Government of Autonomous Siberia (or the Siberian Federation, as it was later known) was formed at Omsk, with Kolchak as its leader.
The Czechs, with some cooperation from Mensheviks in the area, also took control of Saratov and Samara and implemented a social democracy in the region.
In mid-July, with the Czech Legion advancing on Ekaterinburg, the deposed Nicholas II, several servants, and his wife and children were shot in the basement of Ipatiev House by the Ekaterinburg Cheka. The town was liberated a week after the killings, with house-to-house fighting.
Starting the Baltic Theater
After Tsaritsyn, the high command of the Whites entertained plans of a campaign against Petrograd. The lot fell upon Wrangel to oversee operations in the Baltic. It was hoped that Wrangel, being a Baltic German by birth, would help sway the states to the Whites' side. Currently, Lithuania and Livonia had broken away from Russia and were figuratively surrounded by the interests of Germany, Poland, and the RSFSR. Poland had lost the region to Russia in 1791 and were aiming to reclaim it. Meanwhile, Germany wanted to hold onto their claims and the Bolshevik government wanted to absorb the states into the RSFSR. Lithuania, at that time, was pushing toward independence.
The Baltic states held sympathies to the White movement and agreed that they were the legitimate governors of Russia. They agreed to supply Wrangel's unit with troops and materiel. In that same region, the West Russian Volunteer Army was in operation. This faction was not part of the main White Movement, it was created by the Germans to promote their interests in the region. However, some supporters from the Belorussian National Army and from the Ukrainians would join with Wrangel after he arrived in Riga on August 2. There, he met with Lieutenant General Aleksandr Rodzianko and Prince Anatoly Lieven.
Though the Reds were greater in number, the Belorussian, Livonian and Lithuanian volunteers had better experience and equipment. By the start of September, Wrangel's headquarters had been moved to Pskov.
As the summer dragged on, the Allied commitment to the White Movement grew. The victories at Ekaterinodar and Tsaritsyn showed the outside world that it was possible for the anti-Communists to win. Combined with the situation involving the Czech Legion and the fact that the Great War was still being fought, the Allies began to show more open support for the Whites.
In late July, the British and French began sending men and supplies to the Caucasus.
British and Japanese forces had been present in Siberia since April and would be joined by the Americans under William S. Graves in July-August. The Canadians would also land here.
On August 2, American and French troops arrived at Sevastopol, while the British sent a naval detachment under the command of Rear-Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair to the Baltic Coast. Sinclair would give supplies to friendlies in the Livonian ports, including ten tanks.
Italy, Greece, China, Serbia, Romania, and Poland also sent contigents.
The Red Terror
Following the Red Army's defeats at Ekaterinodar and Tsaritsyn, Trotsky began to implement harsher standards on his subordinates. Retreat was extremely discouraged and "barriers" were placed behind the units he didn't trust. Furthermore, if a unit withdrew without authorization, one out of every ten soldiers would be shot for insubordination.
Such measures had mixed results. While some Reds in the Russian heartland were still committed to the war effort in spite of the failures in the Caucasus and at Tsaritsyn, the ranks in Siberia were heavily demoralized. Ufa had fallen to Kolchak on August 12 and Kornilov was eyeing Saratov. Meanwhile, Yudenich followed up the victory at Tsaritsyn by dislodging its former defenders from Volzhsky and encircling Astrakhan.
Lenin was very wary of the Whites' advances, but still held firm to his belief that Europe was on the cusp of a greater socialist revolution.
On August 30, with the Baltic Front still in its infancy, Lenin gave a speech at a Moscow factory called the Hammer and Sickle. As he left, a woman called Fanya Kaplan fired three bullets at the Bolshevik leader. One bullet penetrated his coat, but still missed the body. The other two made contact: hitting Lenin in the clavicle and in the left shoulder.
He was taken to his quarters at the Kremlin. He refused to seek help from a hospital for fear of conspirators. The doctors were unsuccessful in treating him, but in spite of the severity of his wounds, Lenin lived.
Kaplan was arrested by the Cheka, interrogated, and executed on September 3.
While recovering from his wounds, Lenin instructed: "It is necessary – secretly and urgently to prepare the terror". Even before the assassinations, Lenin had sent telegrams "to introduce mass terror" in Nizhny Novgorod in response to a suspected civilian uprising there, and to "crush" landowners in Penza, who resisted sometimes violently, the requisitioning of their grain by military detachments:
The kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity ... You must make examples of these people.
1: Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers.
2: Publish their names.
3: Seize all their grain.
4: Single out the hostages per my instructions in yesterday's telegram.
Do all this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble, and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks and that we will continue to do so.
P.S. Find tougher people.Casualties within the first two months totaled between 10,000 and 15,000. Anyone who dared speak out against Lenin's government would be put down without remorse. Scores of peasants and clergy were brutalized and sent to prison camps. Needless to say, news of Bolshevik atrocities reached the White territories and were spread abroad.