During the 1800s, Russia wished to be an imperial power like Britain, France, and other European nations. However, it faced many weaknesses due to its ungovernable size, economic struggles, and poor leadership. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was a surprising defeat for Russia at the hands of an Asian nation, which most Westerners had discounted as backward. Russia’s humiliation sparked a revolution that prompted some reforms from its royal leader, Tsar Nicholas II. A decade later brought World War I and such devastation that a last revolution was launched. However, the revolution itself was only the first step–Russia would have to suffer through a brutal civil war before it became the Soviet Union. Here’s a look at the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War.
Setting the Stage: The Communist Manifesto
Life was hard for most people in Europe during the early 1800s. Income and social inequality were significant, political rights were few, and small aristocracies ruled over the masses. German political philosopher Karl Marx, along with his colleague Friedrich Engels, wrote a pamphlet criticizing capitalism for exploiting workers. This Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, argued that the government should control the means of production to prevent the exploitation of labor.
Marx believed that capitalism was the natural evolution of feudalism, which had existed in Europe hundreds of years earlier. In Russia, millions of serfs had lived as feudal peasants until 1861, and Marx argued that only evolution toward socialism, and eventually communism, would make them prosperous, equal citizens. He believed that industrialized societies like Britain and the United States would eventually undergo socialist revolutions that saw the proletariat, or working class, rise up and overthrow the capitalists. A new society where workers governed themselves and owned the means of production would be created.
Setting the Stage: Russian Revolution of 1905
Like its European cohorts, Russia was an imperial power in the late 1800s and sought to control territory beyond its borders. Northeastern Asia, particularly the Manchuria region of China and the Korean peninsula, was a desirable area of control for Russia due to its rich resources and close geographic proximity. Unfortunately for Russia, Japan also desired this territory, leading to conflict between the two growing powers. In February 1904, Japan surprised Russia with an attack on Port Arthur–a Russian naval base–in Manchuria, sparking the Russo-Japanese War.
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Russia’s unexpectedly poor performance in the war, coupled with economic woes, resulted in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Protests quickly spread throughout Russia following the initial violent repression of demonstrations. International news was made by the famous Potemkin Mutiny, in which poorly-treated Russian sailors seized control of the ship Potemkin and sailed it to Odessa, Ukraine. Sympathy for the mutineers prompted widespread unrest in Odessa, which descended into riots by July 29, 1905. Other Russian naval ships joined the mutiny in early July after being dispatched to the Black Sea to force the surrender of the Potemkin. By late 1905, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to adopt some pro-democratic reforms, resulting in the Russian Constitution of 1906. This created a bicameral legislature that would share power with the Tsar.
World War I & Russia
Despite the new constitution, the Tsar still held most executive power in Russia. Since the 1890s, Russia had become part of a system of alliances with France and Britain to counteract the growing power of a newly-unified Germany. The idea was that Russia would be able to attack Germany from the east while Britain and France attacked from the west, forcing a quick end to any conflict in central Europe. Serbia was also an ally of Russia, and when the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914 sparked a war between German ally Austria-Hungary and Serbia, Russia became officially embroiled in World War I.
The war did not go well for Russia. Germany itself was part of a system of alliances, bringing Russia into conflict with the Ottoman Empire as well as Germany and adjacent Austria-Hungary. Russia had the weakest per-capita economy of the European powers and had faced an economic recession after the Russo-Japanese War and Revolution of 1905, from which it had only recently begun recovering. Although it performed well against the armies of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, it suffered at the hands of the more modern German military. By 1917, the high material demands of the War, which had bogged down into a stalemate on both the Western Front in France and the Eastern Front in eastern Europe, were again hurting the Russian economy.
Abdication of Tsar Nicholas II
Poor performance in the War beginning in 1915 reflected poorly on Tsar Nicholas II, who was the commander-in-chief of Russia’s large, but less modern, military. By March 1917, other military leaders convinced Nicholas to abdicate the throne to calm growing unrest in major cities. The Tsar’s family was placed under house arrest, and a Provisional Government took control of Russia. Composed mostly of elites, the Provisional Government chose to continue Russia’s participation in World War I.
Germany noticed the growing civil unrest in Russia and decided to send radical Russian exile Vladimir Lenin, along with several other exiles, back to Russia via train. If these exiles returned to encourage revolution, Russia might be unable to carry on the war. In April 1917, Lenin traveled back to Russia from Zurich, Switzerland, arriving in Russian-controlled Finland. Quickly, he received a warm welcome from Russian soldiers and peasants and promised to end the war. He took up residence in Petrograd, Russia, which would later be renamed Leningrad.
1917: The Bolshevik Revolution
On November 7, 1917, Lenin’s new Bolshevik Party seized power in Petrograd, which was Russia’s capital at the time. Due to a difference between calendar systems, this became known as the October Revolution. Suffering from the war, a majority of the city’s industrial workers and peasants sided with the Bolsheviks, who promised to abolish private property and disburse food and resources from Russia’s unpopular nobles among the common people. Rampant food shortages made the Bolshevik slogan “Peace, Land, and Bread” especially popular.
The Provisional Government, widely seen as ineffective, was immediately overthrown. The Bolsheviks replaced it with their own and began implementing socialist ideals like minimum wage, labor-hour, and criminal justice reforms. In December, the new Bolshevik government signed an armistice with the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The rapid Bolshevik Revolution, also known as the Russian Revolution and Communist Revolution, resulted in Russia’s official departure from World War I the following spring.
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
In March 1918, a peace treaty was finalized between Germany and Russia’s new Bolshevik government. The treaty gave Germany significant amounts of Russian territory but bought Vladimir Lenin’s fledgling government some breathing room to build a new society. However, it upset Russia’s allies in the War–Britain, France, and the United States. Russia’s “separate peace” was criticized as giving Germany an opportunity to increase its war efforts on the Western Front, which it quickly did. Mere weeks after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was finalized, Germany launched the Spring Offensive in France.
Russia’s harsh peace created political rifts among the Bolsheviks. When World War I ended that November, Russia was not given its territory back from Germany. This intensified geopolitical tensions between Russia’s new communist leaders and the West. Russia did not participate in the Treaty of Versailles and was not invited to join the new League of Nations. As land taken from Russia began to form new republics after World War I, the international body–which supported this formation–was viewed with hostility by the communists.
Russian Civil War Begins: Reds vs. Whites
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed by Russia’s new communist leaders…but these leaders only fully controlled the cities of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and Moscow. Russia’s vast size meant many opponents of the new Bolsheviks had time and space to plan resistance. Some parts of Imperial Russia declared independence, such as Finland. The Bolsheviks, or communists, looked to crush these independence movements and exert their control over all of Russia. They became known as “the Reds.”
The communists were split in 1918, with Mensheviks serving as a more moderate faction of socialists than the Bolsheviks. This split likely encouraged the resistance of anti-communists, who struck on July 5, 1918. However, initial successful strikes against the Bolshevik government by anti-communists were uncoordinated. The Bolsheviks successfully counterattacked and eliminated many “White” (anti-communist) opponents, including executing the royal family of Tsar Nicholas II on July 17. The divided country fell into a full-scale civil war.
Foreign Intervention in Russian Civil War
With World War I still ongoing, the descent of Russia into chaos alarmed the remaining Allied powers. Britain and the United States were alarmed by communism but especially wanted to prevent Germany from taking advantage of Russia’s instability. Ideally, Allied aid would let the Whites defeat the Reds and end the civil war, preventing the possibility of Germany rushing in and seizing the resources of a failed state. Unfortunately for the Whites, Allied aid was not unified and was distributed across many distant ports. Much of it was defensive in nature, either intended to prevent German seizure or to keep Germany wary of moving all of its troops to the Western front.
Ultimately, various Allied nations, including Britain and the United States, contributed far too few troops to provide meaningful military assistance to the Whites. Diplomatic limitations prevented most American and British forces from engaging in active warfare against the Reds, especially since many of the Reds had been allies during World War I. The US Army 339th Regiment, nicknamed the “Polar Bears,” ended up fighting heated battles against the Reds in late 1918 and early 1919. Later, American troops remained in Siberia (northeastern Russia) to prevent Japan, with much larger armies in the area, from seizing the region. In January 1920, US president Woodrow Wilson finally ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Russia.
End of the Russian Civil War: Red Victory
White forces advanced in 1918 and 1919, coming close to retaking major Russian cities like Petrograd and Moscow. However, they failed to retake these population centers, leaving the Reds able to raise much larger armies. Although the Whites were often competently led and even well-supplied, they were not ideologically unified, resulting in them being less effective than the highly-motivated and ideologically united Reds. The Reds formed a single powerful faction, while the Whites were composed of many different groups that could lose motivation to continue active fighting.
In November 1920, the Reds won the Russian Civil War in Europe by defeating the unified White leader, Piotr Wrangel. Wrangel, emboldened by Red Russian defeats in their attempts to spread into Poland and Ukraine earlier in the fall, held out hope for a White victory even as the British urged him to negotiate with the Reds for an end to the fighting. Despite the advantage of Western heavy weapons, including tanks, Wrangel’s forces were defeated by Red numerical advantage: the Reds outnumbered the Whites five-to-one on the battlefield. On November 13, Wrangel evacuated his forces and a few civilians to Turkey. Two years later, the final White forces in far east Russia, in the city of Vladivostok, surrendered.
Aftermath of the Russian Civil War: Creation of USSR
The victory of the Reds in the Russian Civil War resulted in the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), with soviet referring to “workers’ councils.” The USSR was colloquially known as the Soviet Union, and its formal establishment date was December 30, 1922. In the early 1920s, the USSR was economically devastated from years of warfare, beginning with World War I and including the Russian Civil War. Quickly, the USSR utilized central planning to organize economic production and industrialize rapidly. Under Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union developed a strict top-down leadership policy with little room for local political independence.
Lenin’s death in 1924 resulted in the rise of Joseph Stalin as his iron-fisted successor. By the late 1920s, Stalin was the undisputed leader of the USSR. His dictatorial rule between the late 1920s and his death in 1953 has influenced most of the West’s view of the Soviet Union, with popular imagery including intense militarism, massive factories, and drab living conditions. However, the perceived radicalism of communism during the Russian Civil War waned in the West during the early 1930s, and the USSR was both invited into the League of Nations and re-established diplomatic relations with the United States. Later, the two nations would find themselves locked into a tense Cold War between 1946 and 1989 as both superpowers attempted to spread their desired culture and form of government to other nations.