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The Russian Civil War

After the overthrow of the Provisional Government on 7th November, 1917, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets met and handed over power to the Soviet Council of People's Commissars. Vladimir Lenin was elected chairman and other appointments included leading Bolsheviks such as Leon Trotsky (Foreign Affairs) Alexei Rykov (Internal Affairs), Anatoli Lunacharsky (Education) and Joseph Stalin (Nationalities).

Alexander Kerensky, who had managed to escape arrest, assembled loyal troops from the Northern Front. Led by General Krasnov, the Cossacks were defeated by Bolshevik forces at Pulkova. By December, 1917, central Russia and Siberia was under the control of Lenin's government.

General Lavr Kornilov now organized a Volunteer Army and in January 1918 his forces numbered 3,000 men. Over the next few months other groups who opposed the Bolshevik government joined the struggle. Eventually these soldiers became known as the Whites.

Those that joined the White Army included the Cadets, who wished to continue the war against the Central Powers. Some Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries that were opposed to the dictatorial powers of the new regime also joined the resistance. Others who joined included landowners who had lost their estates, factory owners who had their property nationalized, devout members of the Russian Orthodox Church who objected to the government's atheism and royalists who wanted to restore the monarchy.

The White Army initially had success in the Ukraine where the Bolsheviks were unpopular. The main resistance came from Nestor Makhno, the leader of an Anarchist army in the area. Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, led the Red Army and gradually pro-Bolsheviks took control of the Ukraine. By February, 1918, the Whites held no major areas in Russia.

The main threat to the Bolsheviks was the German Army that was advancing towards Petrograd. On 3rd March, 1918, Vladimir Lenin ordered his team of negotiators to sign the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. This resulted in the Russians having to surrendering the Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic provinces, the Caucasus and Poland.


 

This decision increased the hostility inside Russia towards the Bolsheviks. In May, 1918, the Czechoslovak Corps revolted after being badly treated by local Red Guards. Over the next four months the Czech Legion took a vast area of land east of the Volga. The White Army also won battles at Simbirsk and Kazan.

Vladimir Lenin appointed Leon Trotsky as commissar of war and was sent to rally the Red Army in the Volga. Trotsky proved to be an outstanding military commander and Kazan and Simbirsk were recaptured in September, 1918. The following month he took Samara but the White Army did make progress in the south when General Anton Denikin took control of the Kuban region and General Peter Wrangel began to advance up the Volga.

The main threat to the Bolshevik government came from General Nikolai Yudenich. In October, 1918, he captured Gatchina, only 50 kilometres from Petrograd. Leon Trotsky arrived to direct the defence of the capital. Red Guard units were established amongst industrial workers and the rail network was used to bring troops from Moscow. Outnumbered, Yudenich ordered his men to retreat and headed for Estonia.

Admiral Alexander Kolchak also set up an anit-Bolshevik military dictatorship at Omsk in eastern Siberia. To help the White Army, troops from Britain, France, Japan and the United States were sent into Russia. By December, 1918, there were 200,000 foreign soldiers supporting the anti-Bolshevik forces.

The Red Army continued to grow and now had over 500,000 soldiers in its ranks. This included over 40,000 officers who had served under Nicholas II. This was an unpopular decision with many Bolsheviks who feared that given the opportunity, they would betray their own troops. Trotsky tried to overcome this problem by imposing a strict system of punishment for those who were judged to be disloyal.

 



Photograph of Red Army soldier about to be
executed by members of the White Army.

 

In March, 1919, Alexander Kolchak captured Ufa and was posing a threat to Kazan and Samara. Led by Mikhail Frunze and the Red Army fought back and in November, 1919, they entered Omsk. Kolchak fled eastwards but he was caught by the Czechs who handed him over to the Bolsheviks. Kolchak was shot by firing squad on 7th February, 1920.

General Mikhail Frunze went on to clear Turkestan of all anti-Bolshevik forces. General Anton Denikin and his army withdrew to the Crimea. He made a brief stand at Rostov before again retreating to Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. Faced by troops led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Denikin was forced to leave Russia in April, 1920.

General Peter Wrangel now took control of the White Army in the Crimea but he was unable to make much impression against General Mikhail Frunze and the Red Army and in November the remaining members of his army left Russia.

About 800,000 soldiers were killed during the three year Civil War. It has estimated that another 8 million died as from starvation and disease as result of the war.

 

 

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Forum Debates

Hungary and Fascism

 


(1) David Shub had been a member of the Social Democratic Party in Russia. He wrote about the Russian Civil War while living in exile in the USA.

In the Don Region, Generals Alexeyev and Kornilov, former commanders in chief of the Russian Army, organized a White Army. In January 1918 their forces numbered 3,000 men. To crush this force, the Bolsheviks sent an army of 10,000. Since the peasant population of the region was not in sympathy with the programme of the generals, their troops were forced to retreat to the steppes. General Kornilov himself was killed in action.

Two months later the remnants of the volunteer army, numbering only about one thousand men, organized a new offensive and this time found recruits among the Cossacks. In June their number increased to 12,000; in July to 30,000. By October 1918 this Army swelled to 100,00 and occupied a front of two hundred miles, under the command of General Denikin.

 

(2) In his book Six Weeks in Russia, Arthur Ransome argued strongly against an Allied invasion of Russia.

Unwin published Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 and sold enormous quantities of it at the lowest possible price. No one could read the plain statements of fact without feeling that the Russian war could not be justified, if only because the people in the book, from Lenin downwards, were quite obviously human beings and not the fantastic bogies that the Interventionists pretended. The little book makes no claim to knowledge of politics or economics, but it does give a clear picture of what Moscow was like in those days of starvation, high hope and unwanted war.

 

(3) In November, 1918, General Peter Wrangel was fighting with General Anton Denikin in the Kuban area.

In the course of the last few months my command had received considerable reinforcements. In spite of heavy losses, its strength was almost normal. We were well supplied with artillery, technical equipment, telephones, telegraphs, and so on, which we had taken from the enemy. When the Reds had succeeded in making themselves masters of the Kuban district they had recourse to conscription there. Now these forced recruits were deserting en masse, and coming over to us to defend their homes. They were good fighters, but once their own village was cleared of Reds, many of them left the ranks to cultivate their land once more.

 

(4) Felix Dzerzhinsky, interviewed in Novaia Zhizn (14th July, 1918)

We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal's own confession.

 

(5) Leaflet issued by the Bolsheviks in Mourmansk in 1919.

For the first time in history the working people have got control of their country. The workers of all countries are striving to achieve this object. We in Russia have succeeded. We have thrown off the rule of the Tsar, of landlords, and of capitalists. But we have still tremendous difficulties to overcome. We cannot build a new society in a day. We deserve to be left alone. We ask you, are you going to crash us? To help give Russia back to the landlords, the capitalists and Tsar?

 

(6) Leon Trotsky, order issued to the Red Army during the Civil War.

I give warning that if any unit retreats without orders, the first to be shot down will be the commissary of the unit, and next the commander. Brave and gallant soldiers will be appointed in their places. Cowards, dastards and traitors will not escape the bullet. This I solemnly promise in the presence of the entire Red Army.

 

(7) Letter by General Peter Wrangel that was sent to General Anton Denikin on 9th December, 1919.

The continual advance has reduced the Army's effective force. The rear has become too vast. Disorganization is all the greater because of the re-equipment system which Supreme Headquarters have adopted; they have turned over this duty to the troops and take no share in it themselves.

The war is becoming to some a means of growing rich; re-equipment has degenerated into pillage and peculation. Each unit strives to secure as much as possible for itself, and seizes everything that comes to hand. What cannot be used on the spot is sent back to the interior and sold at a profit. The rolling-stock belonging to the troops has taken on enormous dimensions - some regiments have two hundred carriages in their wake. A considerable number of troops have retreated to the interior, and many officers are away on prolonged missions, busy selling and exchanging loot.

The Army is absolutely demoralized, and is fast becoming a collection of tradesmen and profiteers. All those employed on re-equipment work - that is to say, nearly all the officers - have enormous sums of money in their possession; as a result, there has been an outbreak of debauchery, gambling and wild orgies.

 

(8) Morgan Philips Price, My Three Revolutions (1969)

The Red Terror now began. I shall never forget one of the Isvestia articles for Saturday, September 7th. There was no mistaking its meaning. It was proposed to take hostages from the former officers of the Tsar's army, from the Cadets and from the families of the Moscow and Petrograd middle-classes and to shoot ten for every Communist who fell to the White terror. Shortly after a decree was issued by the Central Soviet Executive ordering all officers of the old army within territories of the Republic to report on a certain day at certain places. A panic resulted among the Moscow middle-classes, as I could see from conversations which I overheard at the Tolstoy's house. Some of the visitors counselled submission to the decree, while others swore resistance to the last. The reason given by the Bolshevik leaders for the Red terror was that conspirators could only be convinced that the Soviet Republic was powerful enough to be respected if it was able to punish its enemies, but nothing would convince these enemies except the fear of death, as all were persuaded that the Soviet Republic was falling. Given these circumstances, it is difficult to see what weapon the Communists could have used to get their will respected.

All civilized restraints had gone on both sides and this was civil war of the worst kind to the bitter end. Both the Reds and Whites were in the throes of a struggle in which physical force was the only deciding factor. The Whites felt that they were saving Russia from the tyranny of a minority and were intending, if victorious, to restore the social order they had always known, tempered with what they vaguely called 'Western Democracy'. The Reds knew they were a minority facing another minority with a majority of waverers and undecided neutrals who would be influenced by the fortunes of the struggle. They felt that they stood for a nobler, higher order of society than that which they had overthrown. It was, therefore, a question which of these two minorities had the strongest moral conviction, which of them had the most courage and belief in themselves. The impression that I now have looking back on these days is that the Bolsheviks won through partly at least because the Whites had prejudiced their cause by calling in the aid of the foreigner.

Needless to say, the terror produced deplorable excesses on both sides. I was horrified and even dared to protest about it to people I was in contact with in the Foreign Office. Of the officers in the Tsarist army who reported in Petrograd, five hundred were seized and executed without trial. A large number of them were innocent men who were simply sacrificed to strike terror into the heart of the Whites. Similar horrors and murders of Reds took place in the territory occupied by Krasnov's Cossacks. It is useless to dwell upon all this which is now history, but it is necessary to record and emphasize the fact that foreign assistance to the Russian Whites was the principal cause of the intense bitterness of the struggle which made excesses on a large scale on both sides inevitable. Now for the first time since the Bolsheviks seized power was blood really running in Russia. I can testify from my experiences till then that there had been little loss of life but now the casualties in the civil war began on a big scale.

 

(9) After the Civil War, the leader of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky wrote about the threats that the White Army had posed to the Soviet government in 1919.

In June 1919 an important fort called 'Krasnaya Gorka' in the Gulf of Finland, was captured by a detachment of Whites. A few days later it was recaptured by a force of Red marines. Then it was discovered that the chef of the staff of the Seventh army, Colonel Lundkvist, was transmitting all information to the Whites. There were other conspirators working hand-in-glove with him. This shook the army to its very core.

In July General Yudenich was made Commander-in-Chief of the North-Western army of the Whites, and was recognized by Kolchak as his representative. In August, with the aid of England and Estonia, the Russian 'north-western government' was established. The English navy in the Gulf of Finland promised Yudenich its support. Yudenich's offensive was timed for a moment when we were desperately pressed on the other fronts. Denikin had occupied Orel and was threatening Tula, the munitions-manufacturing centre.




(10) Colonel Drozdovsky, diary entry (22nd March, 1918)

We arrived at Vladimirovka about 5.00 p.m. Having surrounded the village we placed the platoon in position, cut off the ford with machine-guns, fired a couple of volleys in the direction of the village, and everybody there took cover. Then the mounted platoon entered the village, met the Bolshevik committee, and put the members to death. After the executions, the houses of the culprits were burned and the whole male population under forty-five whipped soundly, the whipping being done by the old men. Then the population was ordered to deliver without pay the best cattle, pigs, fowl, forage, and bread for the whole detachment, as well as the best horses.

 

(11) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)

On 7th October Yudenich captured Gatchina, about twenty-five miles from Petrograd. Two days later his advance forces entered Ligovo, on the city's outskirts, about nine miles away.

There were no trains and no fuel for evacuation, and scarcely a few dozen cars. We had sent the children of known militants off to the Urals; they were travelling there now in the first snows, from one famished village to the next, not knowing where to halt.

We arranged new identities for ourselves, trying to "change our faces". It was relatively easy for those with beards, who only had to shave, but as for the others.

I no longer slept at the Astoria, whose ground floor was lined with sandbags and machine-guns against a siege; I spent my nights with the Communist troops in the outer defences.

 

(12) A biography of Mikhail Frunze was included in the The Granat Encyclopaedia of the Russian Revolution (1924).

After the Yaroslav rebellion, Frunze was appointed Commissar for the Yaroslav Military District. From there he was transferred to the Urals Front and under his command the Southern Army Group of the Eastern Front inflicted a decisive defeat on Kolchak's troops. Following this, he was put in charge of the whole Eastern Front and directed the operations to sweep the Whites out of Turkestan.

During the revolution in Bukhara in August which overthrew the Emir's forces out of the Bukharan Republic with detachments of the Red Army. In September 1920 he ordered an offensive against Wrangel on the Southern Front. After the seizure of the Crimea and the elimination of Wrangel's forces, he became commander of all troops in the Crimea and the Ukraine, and the representative of the Revolutionary Military Council there. Under his leadership the Petlyura and Makhno rebellions were crushed.

 

(13) Brian Horrocks, a British soldier, wrote about his experiences frighting with the White Army in his autobiography, A Full Life (1960)

During my time in Germany I had lived for many months with one other British officer in a room with fifty Russian officers. So I had perforce to learn Russian. When, therefore, the War Office called for volunteers who knew the language to go to Russia to help the White armies in their struggle against the Bolsheviks, I immediately applied and was ordered to Siberia. Instead of returning to my regiment for some elementary instruction in military matters and for some much-needed discipline, I set off on what promised to be a far more exciting venture.

The Red armies after seizing power in Moscow and Petrograd had overrun most of Siberia. During the winter of 1918-19 the Whites, under command of Admiral Koltchak, had driven them back into Russia proper. Apparently this success had been achieved mainly by the Czechs. After the revolution thousands of Czechs had come to Siberia and, realizing that their only chance of survival lay in a cohesive effort, they had formed themselves into a corps under command of a Czech general called Gaida. With the exception of a few battalions formed from Russian officer cadet training units, plus one division of Poles, these Czechs were the only reliable troops at Koltchak's disposal. Now, very naturally, they wanted to go home, and it was our task to train and equip White Russian forces raised in Siberia to take their place on the front.

We were warned that the White Russian officers and intelligentsia resented both our help and our
presence in their country. One wise old British colonel said even in those early days, " I believe we shall rue this business for many years. It is always unwise to intervene in the domestic affairs of any country. In my opinion the Reds are bound to win and our present policy will cause bitterness between us for a long time to come."

How right he was: there are many people today who trace the present international impasse back to that fatal year of 1919. This was well above my head: the whole project sounded most exciting and that was all I cared about.



(14) General Peter Wrangel, statement issued to the White Army (19th October, 1920)

The Polish Army which has been fighting side by side with us against the common enemy of liberty and order has just laid down its arms and signed a preliminary peace with the oppressors and traitors who designate themselves the Soviet Government of Russia. We are now alone in the struggle which will decide the fate not only of our country but of the whole of humanity. Let us strive to free our native land from the yoke of these Red scum who recognize neither God nor country, who bring confusion and shame in their wake. By delivering Russia over to pillage and ruin, these infidels hope to start a world-wide conflagration.

 

(15) General Peter Wrangel, statement issued to the people of Russia (29th October, 1920)

People of Russia! Alone in its struggle against the oppressor, the Russian Army has been maintaining an unequal contest in its defence of the last strip of Russian territory on which law and truth hold sway. Conscious of my responsibility, I have tried to anticipate every possible contingency from the very beginning.

I now order the evacuation and embarkation at the Crimean ports of all those who are following the Russian Army.

I have done everything that human strength can do to fulfill my duty to the Army and the population. We cannot foretell our future fate. We have no other territory than the Crimea. We have no money. Frankly as always, I warn you all of what awaits you. May God grant us strength and wisdom to endure this period of Russian misery, and to survive it.

 

(16) Albert Rhys Williams, Through the Russian Revolution (1923)

For four years the Communists have had control of Russia. What are the fruits of their stewardship? "Repression, tyranny, violence," cry the enemies. "They have abolished free speech, free press, free assembly. They have imposed drastic military conscription and compulsory labour. They have been incompetent in government, inefficient in industry. They have subordinated the Soviets to the Communist Party. They have lowered their Communist ideals, changed and shifted their program and compromised with the capitalists."

Some of these charges are exaggerated. Many can be explained away. Friends of the Soviet grieve over them. Their enemies have summoned the world to shudder and protest against them.

When I am tempted to join the wailers and the mud-slingers my mind goes back to the tremendous obstacles it confronted. In the first place the Soviet faced the same conditions that had overwhelmed the Tsar and Kerensky governments, i.e., the dislocation of industry, the paralysis of transport, the hunger and misery of the masses.

In the second place the Soviet had to cope with a hundred new obstacles - desertion of the intelligentsia, strike of the old officials, sabotage of the technicians, excommunication by the church, the blockade by the Allies. It was cut off from the grain fields of the Ukraine, the oil fields of Baku, the coal mines of the Don, the cotton of Turkestan - fuel and food reserves were gone.

 

(17) In 1924 Alice Hamilton spent a month in the Soviet Union. She wrote a letter to her family about her views on the new communist government (10th November, 1924)

Russia is such a strange mixture. I can't generalize about it, because one thing contradicts another. On the one hand there is the cruelty, even now, to the counter-revolutionaries, but then it is not fair to dwell on that because both sides were cruel, the Bolsheviks more so only because they came out on top. Everyone here assumes that if the Whites had won they would have exterminated the Reds so far as they could catch them. And I have been told by Whites that in the matter of brutality, of killing prisoners, and hostages, of torturing and the rest, there was nothing to choose between the two, only that one woman who was a Red Cross nurse under both sides, said that she blamed the Whites more, because they were the highest in the land and one expected more of them than of the lowest.

 


 

 

 
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