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The Russian Civil War (Гражданская война в России, Grazhdanskaya voyna v Rossii; November 1917 — October 1921) was a conflict that engulfed the former territories of the Russian Empire following the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Lasting from November 1917 to October 1921, the conflict saw the defeat of the Bolsheviks, resulting in the purges of Communists and the establishment of the Russian Democratic Republic.
The first year saw gains by the Bolsheviks. However, the Whites unified into a provisional, centralized government, and combined their armies into the Russian National Army in 1918. The Bolsheviks began losing ground, especially after numerous new countries (such as Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, and others) as well pro-German armies entered the war.
World War I
The European continent was vastly changed by the First World War. The Central Powers were defeated, though the Russian Empire was in no good state as well. The German and Austro-Hungarian invasion of the Empire was fairly successful (more so for the Germans), and the Germans got the Bolshevik revolutionaries of Vladimir Lenin to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which essentially gave up all of Russia's Eastern European territories. Several independent states were formed from them already, including Ukraine and Belarus. It was a blow to the Russian patriots and nationalists, something which later caused many of them to go on the side of the White army.
The first Russian Revolution occurred in 1905, in which Tsar Nicholas II was forced to transform the Russian Empire from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. However, that ultimately proved to not be enough. The people's anger at the monarchy, House Romanov, built up, and as a result of poor leadership and heavy Russian losses during World War I, the second revolution (February Revolution) began. In Petrograd, thousands of people joined into the unorganized protest, lasting about a week. It saw the overthrow of the Imperial government, the Tsar, and the establishment of the Russian Republic; as a joint socialist and democratic institution. It shared power with the Petrograd Soviet, in an agreement called the Dual Power.
However, later another revolution occurred, the October Revolution. It saw the Bolsheviks overthrow the provisional Russian Republic, due to being discontent with it. They used an armed wing called the Red Guard, later organized into the Red Army. It mainly took place in Petrograd, though soon afterwards, Soviet power began to spread to other nearby cities. That caused the outbreak of the Russian Civil War, in November 1917.
The Bolsheviks were initially a minor group in Petrograd, but had spread and expanded their influence before and during the war. The military wing of the Bolsheviks, initially called the "Red Guard", was reformed into the Red Army by Leon Trotsky. It was comprised of nearly three million personnel at it's height, however, it still was smaller than the opposing Russian National Army. The Red Army often recruited by threatening to kill the families of young men, forcing them to join their ranks. This was not very successful, as it only caused outrage and the creation of "Green armies", bands of peasants who were initially against both sides, but eventually joined the White movement in 1918. The Bolsheviks conquered the central regions of Russia early on, from the collapsing provisional government, which provided almost no resistance.
The White movement was composed of several factions, which were mostly unified after 1918, with the formation of the Provisional All-Russian Government and the National Army. The Green armies, bands of peasants who initially did not support either side, were also mostly unified in 1918 by the National Army and the new government. After that unification, the "White movement" term came to be used to collectively refer to the anti-Bolshevik forces, rather than specifically the main Russian monarchist/nationalist forces facing them. Their numbers peaked at some three and a half million around 1919, and the majority of the Russian population supported them, due to the fact that they had the advantage for most of the war and did not commit as many atrocities as the Bolsheviks (though some crimes were, in fact, committed by White forces).
What were largely an instrumental force of the White armies were Cossacks. The Siberian, Kuban and Don Cossacks did much of the early fighting, and were some of the earliest opposers to Bolshevik rule. The Don Cossacks, under Pyotr Krasnov, proclaimed the Don Republic, in 1918, though it was soon consolidated into the Provisional Government. Same occurred with the Kuban People's Republic, though it lasted a bit longer before being fully integrated into the Provisional All-Russian Government. Cossacks continued to play a large role in the White movement throughout the war, and Cossack General Anton Denikin commanded the forces on the Southern Front during the war. He later became the Prime Minister of the new government established at the end of the war, taking the post in 1946 but dying shortly afterwards in 1947. Pyotr Krasnov also played a role in the post-war Russia, holding a senior rank in the National Army.
Geography and chronology
The military operations during the civil war in European Russia were divided among the Southern Front, which was under command of General Denikin, Northwestern Front, under General Nikolai Yudenich, Eastern Front, under Admiral Alexander Kolchak, and the Western Front, under joint command of General Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz of Belarus and several other foreign officers. Additional forces also provided help for the White Army, such as German forces, like the West Volunteer Army, and the national armies of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and several other countries. Belarus contributed the most, deploying more than 48,000 troops to fight for the White forces.
The war was split into three periods. The first, 1917—1918, saw the organization and consolidation of power of the White Army. The Provisional All-Russian Government was founded with the Conference of Tsaritsyn, a meeting of some 300 influential Russians in the southern city of Tsaritsyn. They outlined a basic manifesto, known as the Tsaritsyn Manifesto, which stated the goals of the new provisional government; by extent, all White forces. The White Army made some advances in the first period of fighting, taking control of most of the south. Also in the first period, most of Central Asia fell under control of the Whites as well. Two Bolshevik overthrow attempts were repulsed, largely by native population, as there were many Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Tajiks in the White—aligned Turkestan Committee; so the people felt more represented by them.
Initial anti-Bolshevik uprisings
In October 1917, after the beginning of Lenin's revolution, an attempt was made to regain power by the provisional government of the Russian Republic. Alexander Kerensky gathered an army of about 700 supporters, south of Petrograd, in Pskov. They consisted of some soldiers, civilians, and young military school cadets. Kerensky appointed Pyotr Krasnov, a Don Cossack, to lead his forces. They rallied and captured the former residence of the House of Romanov, the imperial family. However, they were then defeated by the Red Guard at Pulkovo. Alexander Kerensky fled south, with several supporters, including Krasnov.
Around the country, among the first groups to resist were the Cossacks. The Don Cossacks of Aleksei Kaledin and the Siberian Cossacks of Grigory Semenov were among them. Leading Tsarist officers were also among the first to resist. Among them, there was Mikhail Alekseyev, who was the chief of staff of the Imperial Army during World War I. He began to organize a volunteer army near Tsaritsyn, a city on the Volga river. The general was also joined by Lavr Kornilov, Anton Denikin, and other former officers of the Tsarist government. At the beginning of December, Cossack units advanced from Tsaritsyn and captured Rostov. A second offensive was in the planning. Kerensky and some 300 other influential Russians made their way to Tsaritsyn during that time, for a conference called for by what remained of the provisional government.
Having stated in the November 1917 “Declaration of Rights of Nations of Russia” that any nation under imperial Russian rule should be immediately given the power of self-determination, the Bolsheviks had begun to usurp the power of the Provisional Government in the territories of Central Asia soon after the establishment of the Turkestan Committee in Tashkent. The committee was formed mostly of Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks, along with some White Russian settlers. The Bolsheviks attempted to take control of Tashkent in 2 September 1917, but were mostly arrested. The native population had support for the White—aligned Turkestan Committee, as it was mostly composed of natives of the region. The second Bolshevik attempt to take control was repulsed, with some minor skirmishes occurring throughout the area. The Central Asian territories were, for the time being, under firm White control.
Peace with Central Powers
The Bolsheviks decided to immediately make peace with the German Empire and the Central Powers, as they had promised the Russian people before the Revolution. Vladimir Lenin's political enemies attributed that decision to his sponsorship by the foreign office of Wilhelm II, German Emperor, offered to Lenin in hope that, with a revolution, Russia would withdraw from World War I. That suspicion was bolstered by the German Foreign Ministry's sponsorship of Lenin's return to Petrograd. However, after the military fiasco of the summer offensive (June 1917) by the Russian Provisional Government, and in particular after the failed summer offensive of the Provisional Government had devastated the structure of the Russian Army, it became crucial that Lenin realize the promised peace. Even before the failed summer offensive the Russian population was very skeptical about the continuation of the war. Western socialists had promptly arrived from France and from the UK to convince the Russians to continue the fight but could not change the new pacifist mood of Russia.
On 16 December 1917, an armistice was signed between Russia and the Central Powers in Brest-Litovsk and peace talks began. As a condition for peace, the proposed treaty by the Central Powers conceded huge portions of the former Russian Empire to the German Empire and the Ottoman Empire, greatly upsetting nationalists and conservatives. Leon Trotsky, representing the Bolsheviks, refused at first to sign the treaty while continuing to observe a unilateral cease fire, following the policy of "No war, no peace".
In view of this, on 18 February 1918, the Germans began Operation Faustschlag on the Eastern Front, encountering virtually no resistance in a campaign that lasted eleven days. Signing a formal peace treaty was the only option in the eyes of the Bolsheviks because the Russian army was demobilized, and the newly formed Red Guard was incapable of stopping the advance. They also understood that the impending counterrevolutionary resistance was more dangerous than the concessions of the treaty, which Lenin viewed as temporary in the light of aspirations for a world revolution. The Soviets acceded to a peace treaty, and the formal agreement, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, was ratified on 6 March. The Soviets viewed the treaty as merely a necessary and expedient means to end the war. Therefore, they ceded large amounts of territory to the German Empire. This prompted many nationalists to join the a White movement.
Centralization of White movement
By early 1918, the White forces and their allies had made advances into more Bolshevik-controlled territory. General Anton Denikin's forces, with Generla Pyotr Wrangel's additional troops, were preparing to attack the city of Voronezh. In nearby Tsaritsyn, the Conference had begun, on January 8. Some 300 influential Russians and other advisors had convened there, and wrote up the Tsaritsyn Manifesto. It proclaimed the creation of the Provisional All—Russian Government, as an interim government for Russia during the conflict. It also unified all military forces of the country into the Russian National Army, under joint command of Denikin and Admiral Alexander Kolchak. They were also the commanders of the forces on the Southern and Eastern Fronts, respectively.
At the same time, the self-proclaimed Don Republic and Kuban People's Republic, led by Pyotr Krasnov and Alexander Filimonov, respectively, were dissolved and consolidated into the Provisional Government. This was with the consent of the nations' governments, who believed it was in their best interest to do so, while the Bolshevik threat still was serious. A large Cossack force from both countries was sent to the front, to aid the newly formed National Army. The Green armies, bands of countrymen who were initially against both sides, had also been united under the National Army (for the most part). The military units was organized into the Southern, Eastern, and Northwestern Fronts. A Western Front existed, but it was maintained by allied forces.
Various countries had recognized the Provisional Government as the legitimate government of Russia. The former German buffer states "Belarusian People's Republic", "Ukrainian State", "Duchy of Latvia", "Kingdom of Lithuania", "Azerbaijan Democratic Republic", "Democratic Republic of Georgia", and Democratic Republic of Armenia" were among the first to recognize the government. Germany and several Western countries soon followed. Belarus and Ukraine, as well as Germany, offered to send troops to aid the Russian National Army. This was accepted, and by January 21, the Western Front was formed. The Germans sent in their regular army, as well as the West Russian Volunteer Army, with the secret objective of securing territories for the Germans. This objective was not completed to any extent, however. The Belarusian National Army contributed the most troops, some 45,000.
Southern, Western Russia, and Caucasus 1918
Denikin's forces, with Wrangel's troops, and some 40,000 Ukrainians and Belarusians, began the siege on Voronezh on February 1. The National Army performed a pincer movement, with a spearhead led by General Lavr Kornilov's forces. Though Kornilov himself was killed, it was successful, surrounding the Red Army defenders in Voronezh. The city fell to the combined strength of the White forces on February 27. The commander of the forces there, Joseph Stalin, committed suicide rather than be captured. The White troops scored their first major victory. They also finished off any remaining Bolshevik forces throughout that region, and prepared for a general offensive to the north; a drive to Moscow.
In the Caucasus, the newly formed Democratic Republics of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan had began amassing defense forces to fight off the Bolsheviks. The Communist revolutionaries had little presence in those regions, however, they tried to take Baku. The attacks were repulsed, and a force of about 8000 men under command of Cossack General Pyotr Krasnov arrived to help. It had recently put down several Bolshevik uprisings in Stavropol and Grozny, being combat hardened. Krasnov and his forces aided the Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani militias in putting down the Bolshevik remnants. Afterwards, in early June 1918, Krasnov and his forces returned to the north, to aid the campaign of General Denikin.
The chief of staff of Denikin, Mikhail Alekseyev, died of a heart attack in October. He was replaced with Krasnov by Denikin, as they prepared for the drive to the north.
Eastern Russia and Siberia 1918
The Revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion broke out in May 1918, and the legionaries took control of Chelyabinsk in June. Simultaneously, Russian officers' organisations overthrew the Bolsheviks in Petropavlovsk and in Omsk. Within a month the Whites controlled most of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Lake Baikal to the Ural regions. During the summer, Bolshevik power in Siberia was eliminated. The Provisional Government of Autonomous Siberia formed in Omsk, though it was annexed as a part of the Provisional All-Russian government later in June. By the end of July, the Whites had extended their gains westwards, capturing Ekaterinburg on 26 July 1918. Shortly before the fall of Yekaterinburg on 17 July 1918, the former Tsar and his family were executed by the Ural Soviet to prevent them falling into the hands of the Whites.
The Mensheviks supported peasants fighting against Soviet control of food supplies. In May 1918, with the support of the Czechoslovak Legion, they took Samara and Saratov, establishing the "Volga Governate of the Provisional All-Russian Government", or the "Komuch". By July, the authority of the Komuch extended over much of the area controlled by the Czechoslovak Legion. pursued an ambivalent social policy, combining democratic and even socialist measures, such as the institution of an eight-hour working day, with "restorative" actions, such as returning both factories and land to their former owners. After the fall of Kazan, Vladimir Lenin called for the dispatch of Petrograd workers to the Kazan Front: "We must send down the maximum number of Petrograd workers: (1) a few dozen 'leaders' like Kayurov; (2) a few thousand militants 'from the ranks'".
In late May 1918, former navy Admiral Alexander Kolchak arrived at the east, which was established as the "Eastern Front". He took command of the unified forces of the governate, which were integrated into the National Army.
After a series of reverses at the front, War Commissar Leon Trotsky instituted increasingly harsh measures in order to prevent unauthorized withdrawals, desertions, or mutinies in the Red Army. In the field, the Cheka special investigations forces, termed the Special Punitive Department of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combat of Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, or Special Punitive Brigades, followed the Red Army, conducting field tribunals and summary executions of soldiers and officers who deserted, retreated from their positions, or failed to display sufficient offensive zeal. Trotsky extended the use of the death penalty to the occasional political commissar whose detachment retreated or broke in the face of the enemy. In August, frustrated at continued reports of Red Army troops breaking under fire, Trotsky authorized the formation of barrier troops stationed behind unreliable Red Army units, with orders to shoot anyone withdrawing from the battle-line without authorization.
This simply caused more demoralization among Red ranks, who were already losing morale from defeats in the south. More defections occurred, especially on the Eastern Front (which revolutionaries referred to as the "Kazan Front"). In June 1918, Komuch, the Autonomous Siberia, and other local anti-Soviet governments met in Ufa and agreed to join the new Provisional All-Russian Government in Tsaritsyn, and had two ambassadors sent to Tsaritsyn to represent them, (Nikolai Avksentiev and Vladimir Zenzinov). By the fall of 1918, Anti-Bolshevik White Forces in the east included the unified National Army's eastern district, and insurgent Cossack units of Orenburg, Ural, Siberia, Semirechye, Baikal, Amur, and Ussuri Cossacks, nominally under the orders of Admiral A. Kolchak, appointed by the Provisional Duma of the government in Tsaritsyn.
On the Volga, Colonel Kappel's White detachment captured Kazan 7 August, and repulsed the Reds counter-offensive against the city on 8 September 1918. On the 11th, Simbirsk was attacked by the Red Army, and on 8 October, Samara. Both attacks failed, due to poor organization. Vladimir Boldyrev, appointed as Commander-in-chief, Eastern Front, by Trotsky, earlier, was shot by his orders for failing to take Kazan, Samada and Simbirsk. By mid-December 1918, White armies in the east had an offensive to the city of Perm. Perm was taken on 24 December, after a short siege. A division of the Red Army surrendered, and defected to Vladimir Kappel's forces.
Central Asia 1918
Around May 1918, the Red Army attempted to gain control of Central Asia, from the pro-White government. It was made up of natives, like Uzbeks and Kazakhs, and thus had the support of the local population. Several attempted attacks on Tashkent and Ashgabat resulted in a failure, and the Red Army fled into the countryside. Ethnic Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen divisions of the Russian National Army engaged the Red Army in guerrilla warfare well into 1919, mainly in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. They were successful, and by April 1919, the last of the Bolshevik presence in the region was eliminated. The Central Asian regions remained under control of the White government for the rest of the war, and were among the few regions of the former Russian Empire that did not gain independence.
Left SR Uprising
In July, two Left SR and Cheka employees, Yakov Blymukin and Andreyev, assassinated the German ambassador, Count Mirbach. In Moscow Left SR uprising was put down by the Bolsheviks, using the Cheka military detachments. Lenin personally apologised to the Germans for the assassination. Mass arrests of Socialist-Revolutionaries followed.
Western Russia 1918
In mid 1918, a front was created in Western Russia, on it's border with Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Livonia (Latvia and Estonia). All four nations were former buffer states of the German Empire. They did not collapse with the rest of the Empire, and had evolved into fully independent states. All four supported the White movement, and had agreed with the provisional government (which they recognized as the legitimate government of Russia) to aid them with troops on the western frontier of Russia, to put pressure on the Bolshevik holdings in central Russia. However, they were clearly instructed not to march on Moscow. The Germans had earlier formed the West Russian Volunteer Army, which was actually fighting for German interests. The other countries deployed several thousands of troops to fight on the front, such as from the Belarusian National Army and Ukrainian State Guard.
The force had taken cities like Belgorod and Pskov, temporarily occupying them until the Russian National Army could arrive. They had several successes in combat against the Bolsheviks. Though the revolutionaries were typically superior in numbers, the Belarusians, Ukrainians, Livonians, and Lithuanians had better equipment and training (provided by the Germans). Those forces were under overall command of Belarusian officer General Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz, an experienced commander of the Russian Imperial Army. His tactic was to maintain a small, but heavily defended, front, holding key cities, like Pskov and Belgorod, until White forces could arrive and relieve them.
Livonia and Northwestern Front 1919
The United Baltic Duchy, commonly called Livonia, modern Latvia and Estonia, did not collapse following the German defeat, like other buffer states of Germany. They evolved greatly, with Latvians and Estonians sharing high ranking government posts, creating a unified government of the two peoples. It later became noted by historians of a good example of cooperation and coexistence among different ethnicities. In January 1919, the Red Army attempted an offensive into it, only to be repulsed by the Livonian Army. Livonia was aided by the White troops of the Northwestern Front, led by General Nikolai Yudenich. Later, an attempted uprising by the Red Latvian Riflemen in Riga, the Duchy's capitol, was put down; in May 1919. It was with the help of the Baltische Landeswehr, a Baltic German army. Later, it turned out to be treasonous, attempting an insurrection in the Duchy. It was defeated by the Livonian Army in late 1919.
Using bases in Livonian territory, General Yudenich planned to use a pincer attack against Petrograd. The city was guarded by some 230,000 poorly armed and generally untrained workers. Yudenich's main army, about 800,000 strong, would be split up: a force of 300,000 would invade from the north, while 200,000, transferred by boat to Tallinn, would attack from camps in Livonia. The forces would push through Petrograd and take over the city, from the north and southwest. The plan worked out well, with the Petrograd Soviet conscripting some extra 300,000 workers to fight off the whites. However, the new draftees had poor weapons (sometimes none) and did nothing to slow the advance of Yudenich's army. On May 11th, the White troops reached the southern bank of Neva River, which ran through the middle of the city. The city continued to hold out, as the remaining Red Army troops regrouped at the banks of the river, from which they held out, supplying each other by crossing the river in small boats.
The White movement did have a navy, though, which sent two destroyers down the river, and destroyed many of the Red Army defenses and ships. On May 18th, most of the Red Army positions were captured, though they kept fighting, led by Leon Trotsky. On May 26th, after going through building by building, the Russian National Army found Trotsky's headquarters. He committed suicide with most of his staff, though Major Maksim Purkayev chose to defect, later becoming an important general in the National Army. On June 2nd, the city was considered to be fully captured and under the Russian National Army's control. Vladimir Lenin was saddened by the death of Trotsky, and appointed Mikhail Frunze to take his place as the people's commissar of the army.
In the East, Kolchak's forces advanced to the north and west, from Ufa and Saratov, taken earlier in 1918. They proceeded to take several other cities, such as Ulyanovsk. The Red Army offensive began completely collapsing in the face of increasing National Army pressure.