Civil War, 1918-1921 | The Russian Revolution of 1917

During the months following Brest-Litovsk, disorder in the countryside as a result of requisitioning and class warfare was swelled by the outbreak of open civil strife. During the war a legion of Czechs resident in the country and of deserters from the Habsburg armies had been formed inside Russia.

When Russia withdrew from the war, the Czech nationalist leader, Thomas G. Masaryk (1850-1937), wanted to have the Czech corps sent to the French front. Czech, Soviet, and Allied representatives therefore decided to transport the Czech corps to Vladivostok, from which they could sail to France. As the Czechs gathered, the communists became suspicious of their intentions and ordered them to disarm. The Czechs then took control of the Siberian railroad.

When the Soviet government tried to take reprisals against the Czechs, who numbered fewer than thirty-five thousand men, the Czechs seized several towns in western Siberia. The local soviets were unprepared, and the SRs were sympathetic to the Czechs. Local anti-Bolshevik armies quickly came into being. In July, in fear that the Whites would rescue the former czar and his family, in exile in Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, the leader of the local soviet, encouraged by Lenin, executed Nicholas II, his wife, his son, his four daughters, his doctor, his servants, and his dog.

Shortly before the executions the Allies had decided to intervene in Russia on behalf of the opponents of Bolshevism. The withdrawal of Russia from the war had been a heavy blow to the Allies, and they now hoped to protect the vast amounts of war supplies still at Vladivostok and Archangel. They also wished to create a new second front against the Germans in the East.

The Czechs overthrew the local soviet in Vladivostok in June 1918, and by early August, British, French, Japanese and American forces had landed. The Americans occupied Vladivostok to safeguard railroad communications in the rear of the Czechs. Of the Allies, only the Japanese had long-range territorial ambitions in the area. In effect, the Bolshevik regime had now been displaced in Siberia. The SRs disbanded the soviets and reestablished the zemstvos. Soon there were three anti- Red governments in three different Siberian centers. In August 1918 a small British and American force landed at Archangel.

Then on August 30 an SR assassin killed the chief of the Petrograd Cheka, and Lenin, who was in Moscow, was shot twice. The Bolshevik leadership feared a general counterrevolution in which any doctor might be involved, so the seriously wounded Lenin was taken directly to his apartment rather than to a hospital. The woman who allegedly had attempted to kill him was shot without a trial, and since responsibility for her act was never proven, rumors multiplied. Blaming the bourgeoisie, the Moscow Cheka shot six hundred people. Cheka retaliation elsewhere was massive.

The regime now sped up its military preparations. As minister of war, Trotsky imposed conscription, and by a mixture of appeals to patriotism and threats of reprisals against their families secured the services of about fifty thousand czarist officers. The Red Army, which was Trotsky’s creation, grew to more than 3 million strong by 1920. Its recapture of Kazan and Samara on the Volga in the autumn of 1918 temporarily turned the tide in the crisis that seemed about to engulf the Soviet state.

The German collapse on the western front in November 1918 permitted the Bolsheviks to repudiate the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and move back into parts of the Ukraine, where they faced the opposition of local forces. Elsewhere, the opposition consisted of three main armies. An army of Whites moved from Rostov-on-Don south across the Caucasus and received French and British aid. Other forces in western Siberia overthrew the SR regime in Omsk, where their commander, Admiral Alexander Kolchak (1874-1920), became a virtual dictator. Yet another army, including many former members of the German forces, operated in the Baltic region and threatened Petrograd from the west.

In the spring of 1919 the Reds defeated Kolchak, and by winter took Omsk. Though the Reds also reconquered the Ukraine, mutinies in their own forces prevented them from consolidating their victories. In the summer of 1919 the White army took Kiev and struck north, advancing to within 250 miles of Moscow itself. A second army advanced to the suburbs of Petrograd. but by the end of 1919 the Reds were able to defeat the White threat, though one White general. Baron Peter Wrangel (1878-1928), retained an army in the Crimea in 1920. Trotsky now called for the militarization of labor to reconstruct the ravaged country.

After the defeat of the Whites, the Reds had to face a new war with the Poles in 1920, led by General Josef Pilsudski (1867-1935). Pilsudski wanted to reestablish the Polish frontier as it existed in 1772, the year of the first partition. His immediate objective in 1920 was to drive the Bolsheviks out of the Ukraine and associate the Ukraine with Poland in a common but federally organized state. Beyond that he intended to bring White Russia, Lithuania, and Latvia into the federation also. The effect on Soviet power in the loss of mineral resources and coastlines would have been substantial, which is why the Western powers now swung around in support of Pilsudski’s enterprise.

Although after an initial retreat the Red Army nearly took Warsaw, it failed to do so. Eager to finish off the remnant of the Whites and persuaded that there was no hope for a communist regime in Poland, the Reds now concluded peace in October 1920. The Poles obtained much of White Russia and the western Ukraine. This area was not inhabited by Poles but had been controlled by Poland down to the eighteenth-century partitions. It lay far to the east of the “Curzon line,” an ethnic frontier that had been proposed by the British foreign minister, Lord Curzon (1859-1925), during the Versailles negoti- ations and that Pilsudski had rejected.

The final line, established at Riga in 1921, bisected Byelorussia and the Ukraine roughly where the Uniate (or church of Eastern rites that recognized papal authority) and Orthodox churches met. The size of the ethnic minorities transferred to Poland under this treaty, combined with their mistreatment by the government in Warsaw, was a principal factor making Poland ungovernable in the interwar years, except by military dictatorship.

The Reds now turned on Baron Wrangel, who had marched northward from the Crimea and had established a moderate regime in the territory he occupied. He was forced to evacuate, assisted by a French fleet, in November 1920. The White movement was virtually over. Many circumstances accounted for the Whites’ failure and the Reds’ victory.

The Whites could not unite on any political program beyond the overthrow of the Reds, for they were deeply divided ideologically. Their numbers included everyone from czarists to SRs, and they disagreed so violently on the proper course for Russia to follow that they could agree only to postpone discussion of these critical problems. Their own regimes were often repressive, so that they did not build local followings, and their troops were at times undisciplined.

Moreover, although their movement was located on the geographical periphery of Russia—in Siberia, the Crimea, the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Baltic— the Whites never reached an understanding with the non-Russian minorities who lived in these regions.

Most important, the Whites could not command the support of the peasantry. Instead of guaranteeing the results of the land division already carried out with Bolshevik approval, the Whites often restored the landlords in areas they temporarily controlled. The peasantry grew sick of both sides. Food production was curtailed, and atrocities were frequent. Moreover, the Whites simply did not command as much military strength as did the Reds, who outnumbered them and who had inherited much of the equipment manufactured for the czarist armies.

Holding the central position, the Reds had a unified and skillful command, which could use the railroad network to shift troops rapidly. The Whites, moving in from the periphery, were divided into at least four main groups and were denied effective use of the railroads. Finally, the intervention of the Allies on the side of the Whites was ineffectual and amateurish. It probably harmed the White cause, since the Reds could speak as the national defenders and could portray the Whites as the hirelings of foreigners. Without the “capitalist” and White threats on the periphery, the center might not have rallied behind Lenin.

The struggle for power in Russia in no sense ended with the civil war. Famine was raging, and class hatreds were exploited on an unparalleled scale. Industry was producing at only an eighth of its prewar output, agricultural output had fallen by 30 percent, and distribution was breaking down. The new regime was losing support. But by early 1921 all major nations in the West were undergoing intense political change as the postwar effort to absorb returning troops, to restore prewar conditions in the victorious nations, and to live with defeat in others created widespread instability.

In the nineteenth century the Russian population had grown nearly 200 percent, changing the Russian countryside from being underpopulated to being over- populated. While emigration to Siberia had carried off 5 million people between 1870 and 1914 and another 3 million had gone to the New World, much of the surplus peasantry had been taken into the towns.

Thus Russia had acquired that demographic group essential to the modern state and to its revolution: an urban proletariat. This group existed only in certain centers in Siberia or on the periphery, but it was powerful within the area where Lenin had built his authority. While the World War had cost Russia nearly 4 million, and 14 million more had died from disease and malnutrition during the revolution and the civil war, which produced a severe birth deficit in the 1920s, Russia continued to grow.

Having put down a serious rebellion of the naval forces at Kronstadt in March 1921, Lenin left a nation on its way toward unity, with a population that despite revolution, war, and famine had regained its prewar levels, and with the expectation of an international communist revolution. Ill from the end of 1921, the man who had reinterpreted Marx tried to prepare his successor. Lenin died in January 1924. By then much of the West was aware that the peacemaking at Versailles had not brought security to Europe, and that the Russian Revolution and its aftermath had assured continued instability for much of the world.

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