The Russian Civil War: The Bloody Rise of the USSR

The Bolshevik Revolution ushered in a century of communist rule, but the brutal Russian Civil War awaited the fledgling USSR.

Jun 24, 2022By Ilyas Benabdeljalil, MA Int'l Relations, BA Political Science
photo of russian civil war

 

In early 1917, Russia was suffering from a major social and economic crisis. The ongoing World War I took a heavy toll on Petrograd. Nicholas II’s forces were stuck in a stalemate against the Central Powers in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic Region. Moreover, the economic damage of the conflict reached unprecedented heights. Famine ravaged the lower classes, and support for the war diminished in all categories of society, including the army. The Duma Assembly raised significant concerns regarding the situation of the country to the Tsar. The latter’s answer was to dismiss the Body, unleashing a series of events that would lead to the downfall of the Empire and the Russian Civil War.

 

Before the Russian Civil War: The February Revolution & the Provisional Government

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Ministers of the Russian Provisional Government, 1917, via alphahistory.com

 

Following the dismissal of the Duma, the February Revolution erupted in every major Russian city. Common soldiers left in reserves joined the protestors, and by the 2nd March, Tsar Nicholas II was completely isolated and abdicated the throne. Centuries of hereditary rule were over.

 

As national institutions fell into chaos, Prince Georgy Lvov formed a provisional government but failed to establish a central rule. On the front, soldiers openly questioned officers’ authority, and at home, various political factions took control of numerous towns and regions with the help of local garrisons. Local autonomous forms of government emerged in Ukraine, Belarus, Crimea, Kuban, and the Caucasus. An anarchist movement led by Nestor Makhno took control in Southern Ukraine, near the modern-day Donbas region. In the meantime, various socialist factions progressively gained ground in Moscow and Petrograd.

 

By July 1917, Prince Lvov was replaced by the socialist Menshevik leader Alexander Kerensky, who managed to save the fragile state from a communist Bolshevik takeover by Vladimir Lenin. The latter, freshly returned from exile, was fast to reorganize his forces for another attempt.

 

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On the front, the situation was deteriorating at an alarming speed. The Provisional Government attempted a final operation to break the German advance, but to no avail. This failure disheartened any who believed in Kerensky’s ability to rule, and by October 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the government.

 

As soon as Lenin declared the establishment of communist rule, various pro-war factions in the army, republicans, anti-Bolshevik socialists, and monarchists voiced their refusal of the regime change. They gathered under the banner of the White Army. In addition, various minorities of the disintegrated Russian Empire declared independence. Finally, anarchists and other minor political movements took up arms. Thus, the Russian Civil War began.

 

Early Anti-Bolshevik Resistance

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A mob of supporters of the October Revolution, 1917, from the Library of Congress via National Geographic

 

Anti-Bolshevik movements took action as soon as the communist Red Guard established dominion over institutional buildings in Petrograd and Moscow. Alexander Kerensky, fleeing the communist forces, failed to storm the capital by force with loyal troops. In the aftermath, he fled the country into exile.

 

Republicans and Monarchists quickly organized a resistance force in Novocherkassk in Southern Russia. Their main force consisted of regular soldiers, considerable Don and Siberian Cossack troops, and a volunteer army. General Lavr Kornilov was appointed as leader of these forces. As soon as December 1917, they occupied most of the Russian Caucasus and the southeast.

 

Local minorities took the opportunity of the growing unrest to declare their independence. In the Asian Steppe, Muslim elites formed the Kokand autonomous government. In Kyiv, the Ukrainian National Republic was declared and immediately fell into chaos as various political factions fought for power. Finally, pro-independence protests erupted in the Baltic, Southern Caucasus, and Finland.

 

By January 1918, the Bolsheviks barely controlled the area between Petrograd and Moscow, which was made the capital of the new regime. To their south and east, they faced a growing White Army, and to their north, Finland and the Baltic were on the verge of breaking away from Russian rule.

 

The Peace of Brest-Litovsk & the Split of Russian Territories

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Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, from Bulgarian Archive State Agency via euronews.com

 

Lenin opened negotiations with the Central Powers as soon as he rose to power. However, he was confronted with extravagant demands. In order to get some leverage, the Red Army prepared resistance to the Central Power’s advance in Ukraine, which was easily dismantled by Germany and local Ukrainian forces in February 1918. Having no other option, Moscow signed the Treaty of Brest-Lutovsk in March, relinquishing all claims on Finland, the Baltic, Belarus, and Ukraine. As a result of this treaty, countless Russians found themselves in foreign countries.

 

The Central Powers’ victory was short-lived. All of the conquered territory was boiling with nationalist and anarchist rebellions. Heavy fighting between German forces, Ukrainian nationalists, and anarchists led by Nestor Makhno tied Berlin’s hand in the east, while the western front was under heavy pressure from Allied offensives.

 

In order to avoid total depletion, Germany had to allow the independence of Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, in addition to relinquishing control of Belarus to local authorities in Minsk. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Berlin found itself locked in the local fighting for power.

 

In order to focus on the White Armies in the South and the East, Lenin recognized the independence of Finland and the Baltic States while local sympathies toward communism allowed the Bolsheviks to occupy Belarus. This strategic situation allowed Moscow to turn its gaze on the White Army, which gathered a strong force in the south under General Kornilov and in the east under Admiral Alexander Kolchak.

 

Early Clashes Between Reds & Whites

 

As soon as the peace treaty with the Central Powers was concluded, the Red Army launched a major offensive south towards Kuban and Rostov. Despite limited success, the communist forces managed to kill General Kornilov. He was succeeded to general command by the talented Anton Denikin.

 

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Leon Trotsky, head of the Red Army, addresses troops, via emersonkent.com

 

With the help of Ottoman, German, and local Cossack forces, Denikin managed to repeal and decisively defeat the Red Army during the Second Kuban Campaign. By October 1918, the White Army effectively controlled all of southern Russia and the Caucasus.

 

On the eastern front, combined efforts of the Czechoslovak Legion and the White Army led to the expulsion of Red forces from Siberia and the Far East. By July 1918, Yekaterinburg fell to the White Army right after the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, who were residing there.

 

These setbacks encouraged anti-Bolshevik movements in Moscow and Saint Petersburg to rebel against Lenin. However, the communist authorities vigorously cracked down on all dissent and created a secret police known as the Cheka. What followed was the Red Terror, a brutal repression campaign against all opposition.

 

On the frontlines, Mensheviks, Socialists, Republicans, and local armed farmers organized local militias and managed to occupy Kazan, Samara, and Saratov. By September 1918, these forces, alongside Siberian troops and local anti-communist movements gathered in Ufa to form the “All-Russian Provisional Government.” However, lack of coordination in the ranks of the newly-established body allowed the Red Army to retake most of the lost territory.

 

By October, the White Army retreated to inner Siberia. One month later, Admiral Alexander Kolchak led a swift coup d’état and took over the Provisional Government, proclaiming himself “Supreme Ruler of Russia.” Under his leadership, White forces fought the Bolsheviks to a stalemate.

 

1919 began with the opening of a new front north of Petrograd by White General Nikolaï Yudenich. The Bolsheviks were on the brink of total collapse, but major events were about to turn the tide.

 

Foreign Interventions & the Red Counter-Attack 

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Admiral Kolchak decorating his troops, 1919, via Smithsonian Magazine

 

The end of World War I allowed the Allied Powers to send much-needed support to the White Army. As soon as January 1919, General Yudenich gathered strong support for the White cause in Estonia. With the support of Estonia and Britain, he managed to occupy the outskirts of Petrograd, effectively besieging the city.

 

Leon Trotsky, Soviet Minister of War, took direct command of the resistance of the northern capital. By the end of the year, the White Army was pushed back to Estonia, which concluded with the Treaty of Tartu with Moscow. In order to support anti-Bolshevik war efforts, British and American troops occupied the Arctic cities of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk but had to withdraw by the beginning of 1920 due to a strong winter. The Bolsheviks decisively won the northern front.

 

With the support of France, Admiral Kolchak launched a major offensive on Bolshevik-controlled Siberia in March 1919. Under his command, the White Armies managed to occupy Ufa and pushed all the way towards Central Russia before being stopped by Bolshevik General Mikhail Tukhachevsky. The latter launched a strong counter-attack and regained all of the lost territory by June, forcing Kolchak to retreat further east.

 

In November 1919, the Red Army captured Omsk. This event would lead to the collapse of Admiral Kolchak’s government; Kolchak himself was captured shortly after and executed in early 1920. Backed by Japanese troops, the remainder of the White Forces in Siberia gathered in the Baikal Region under the command of the Cossack Chieftain Grigory Semyonov.

 

The Battle for Ukraine in the Russian Civil War

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General Pyotr Wrangel, 1921, via hoover.org

 

In 1919, the Red Army managed to push back opposition forces in every front. The south of Russia was no different, as the White Army was not able to capitalize on the previous year’s successes. Local nationalist forces, continuous raids of Makhno’s Anarchist Black Army, and internal factionalism between Cossacks and regular troops eventually led to the complete stagnation of Denikin’s Army.

 

As soon as January 1919, communist leader Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko decisively defeated Cossack forces in Ukraine and occupied Kyiv. This setback pushed Denikin to take direct command of the army. The White General managed to block communist progress in the Donbas for a few months, while General Pyotr Wrangel, nicknamed the “Black Baron,” won a total victory over the Red Army in the Northern Caucasus. By April, the Bolsheviks were pushed out of southern and eastern Ukraine, and in June, the White Army occupied Tsaritsyn (modern-day Volgograd).

 

But as the tide on the Siberian front turned in the favor of the Red Army, communist authorities directed the bulk of their forces to the south. Denikin managed to score some successes in Ukraine, as he pushed the Bolshevik forces from Kyiv in August and occupied Kursk one month later. However, he ended up extending the White Army to an unbearable degree, which the Bolsheviks used to their advantage.

 

In November, the Red Army scored a decisive victory in the outskirts of Voronezh. This single battle allowed the Red Army to occupy the Don River and thus split Denikin from Wrangel. In the next few months, the Black Army of Nestor Makhno sided with the Bolsheviks. This alliance inflicted major defeats on the Whites.

 

By December 1919, the White Army was barely still holding into Odessa, Crimea, and Rostov.

 

The Rise and Fall of the Red and Black Alliance

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Nestor Makhno among his men, 1919, via libcom.org

 

On the eve of 1920, the Red Army’s domination seemed unchallenged. The New Year saw the total victory of the Bolsheviks against anti-revolutionary forces on every front.

 

With the help of local forces, the communists managed to defeat the White Army in Central Asia. The last resistance to Bolshevik rule was limited to Eastern Siberia, Crimea, and remote territories.

 

As early as February, Denikin attempted an evacuation from Rostov towards Crimea. While most of his troops managed to cross, 20,000 soldiers were caught and slaughtered by the Red Army. In the aftermath, Denikin stepped down from command and relinquished power to General Pyotr Wrangel.

 

The latter attempted to push into Ukraine but was beaten back by anarchist and communist forces. A few months later, Wrangel made another attempt, taking advantage of Bolshevik defeats against Poland in the Polish-Soviet War. But the guerilla tactics, cavalry, and the infamous Tachanka tactic of Nestor Makhno, which consisted of a mobile unit moved by horses with heavy machine guns on wagons, pushed the Black Baron back once more.

 

In November 1920, a joint operation between Reds and Blacks dislodged Wrangel from Crimea. The White Army was completely defeated on the southern front.

 

As the Black Baron was fleeing into exile, the Bolsheviks turned against their Black allies. Using the pretence of a joint conference, the Reds managed to arrest and execute most of Makhno’s commanders. The leader himself escaped and organized a resistance movement against Moscow in the Ukrainian Steppe.

 

Final Stages of the Russian Civil War 

 

Following the evacuation of Wrangel’s army from Crimea, the Bolsheviks had only a few remaining enemies. In the Far East, White Generals stubbornly resisted communist progress. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, anarchists proved to be stiff opponents to the Red Army.

 

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Vladimir Lenin, from the Hulton Archives via biography.com

 

Nestor Makhno led a strong campaign against Bolshevik forces in Ukraine. Moscow’s betrayal of the agreements made with the Blacks sent a clear alarm signal to all political leftist movements: the communists aimed to rule on their own.

 

As the anarchists scored some successes, sympathy towards Makhno grew throughout Bolshevik-controlled Russia. In March 1921, soldiers and civilians rose in open rebellion against Bolshevik rule in the city of Kronstadt on Kotlin Island, a few kilometers away from Petrograd, and in countryside areas.

 

Moscow responded by intensifying its brutality. The Kronstadt Uprising and all peasant rebellions were suppressed in extremely bloody manners. As for Makhno, his party continued to clash with communist forces until August 1921. Isolated, having lost most of his men and chased from town to town by a more numerous and better-armed force, the Black Army had no other choice than to evacuate towards Romania. This was the end of anarchist resistance to communist rule.

 

After the capture and execution of Admiral Kolchak, White Forces under the command of General Semyonov resisted Red progress near Chita with the help of Japanese troops. But as Tokyo withdrew from the war, the remaining resistance in the region collapsed, and anti-Bolshevik forces evacuated toward China.

 

The soldiers that refused to leave Russia attempted to establish a resistance to the Red Army in the Priamur Region. But the fall of Vladivostok in October 1922 and the surrender of the remaining White Generals a few months later effectively ended hostilities in the Far East. The Russian Civil War was over.

 

In its immediate aftermath, in December 1922, Bolshevik leaders from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Central Asia, and the Caucasus proclaimed the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A new page of history was about to begin.



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By Ilyas BenabdeljalilMA Int'l Relations, BA Political ScienceIlyas holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations. He studied economy, sociology, public policy, and history and worked as a researcher for think tanks and consulting firms. It is his strong passion for political and military history that brought him to TheCollector. Nowadays, he is preparing for a PhD program in International Cooperation and Public Policy.