Following the success of the revolution
the Communists decided to make a peace with Germany at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk,
ratified on March 6 1918. Despite re-organising the old army into the "Workers'
and Peasants' Red Army" in January 1918, when the Germans began an advance
into Russia in February the chaotic and undisciplined state of the army
was such that a negotiated peace was the only option.
This treaty galvanised a number of anti-Communist groups both inside
and outside Russia into action against the new regime, Winston Churchill
declaring that Bolshevism must be "strangled in its cradle".
The war was fought between the "Reds", the communists and revolutionaries,
and the "Whites" - the monarchists, reactionaries, democrats and conservatives
who opposed the Russian Revolution.
The military war was fought across three main fronts - the eastern,
the southern and the northwestern. It can also be roughly split into three
The first period lasted from the Revolution until the Armistice. The
conflict began with dissenting Russian groups, the main force was the newly
formed Volunteer Army in the Don region which was joined later by the Czech-Slovak
Legion in Siberia. In the east there were also two anti-Bolshevich administrations,
Komuch in Samara and the nationalist Siberian government centred in Omsk.
Most of the fighting in this first period was sporadic, involving only
small groups amid a fluid and rapidly shifting strategic scene. The main
antagonists were the Czech-Slovaks and the pro-Bolshevik Latvians.
The second period of the war was the key stage, it lasted only from
March to November 1919. At first the White armies advancing from the south
(Denikin), the northwest (Iudenich) and the east (Kolchak) were successful,
forcing the new Red Army back and advancing on Moscow. However under Trotsky
the Red Army was reformed and pushed back Kolchak's forces from June and
the armies of Denikin and Iudenich from October. The fighting power of
Kolchak and Denikin was broken almost simultaneously in mid-November.
The final period of the conflict was the extended defeat of the White
forces in the Crimea. Wrangel had gathered the remnants of the armies of
Denikin and they had fortified their positions in the Crimea. With the
Red Army fighting in Poland from April 1920 the Whites held their positions
until that struggle was over. When the full force of the Red Army was turned
on them they were soon overwhelmed, the remaining troops being evacuated
to Constantinople in November 1920.
Britain, France and USA all intervened in the civil war. After the Allies
defeated Germany in November 1918, they continued their intervention in
the war against the communists, in the interests of averting what they
feared might become a world socialist revolution. Lenin was surprised by
the outbreak of the Civil War and initially under-estimated the extent
of the forces that rose against his new country, early successes in the
Don region made him over-confident.
The initial group that stood against the Communists from the start were
mainly counter-revolutionary generals and local Cossack armies that had
declared their loyalty to the Provisional Government—prominent
were Kaledin (Don Cossacks), Dutov (Orenburg Cossacks), and Semenov (Baikal
Cossacks). In November General Alekseev, the old tsarist Commander-in-Chief,
began to organise a Volunteer Army in Novocherkassk, he was joined in December
by Kornilov, Denikin and a number of others, aided by Kaledin they took
Rostov in December. However the Cossacks were unwilling to fight, and when
the Soviet counter-offensive began in January under Antonov-Ovseenko the
Cossacks quickly deserted Kaledin, who committed suicide. Antonov's forces
quickly recovered Rostov and by the end of March 1918 the Don Soviet Republic
was declared. The Volunteer Army was evacuated in February and escaped
to the Kuban where they joined with the Kuban Cossacks to mount an abortive
assault on Ekaterinodar, Kornilov was killed on April 13 and command passed
to Denikin who retreated back to the Don. The Soviets had succeeded in
alienating the local population and the Volunteer Army had many new recruits.
It was not until the spring of 1918 that the Mensheviks and SRs joined
the armed struggle, initially they had been opposed to the armed overthrow
of the Bolsheviks but the peace treaty and the establishment of some harsh
dictatorial measures changed their outlook. Potentially they could have
been a serious threat as they had a degree of popular support and the authority
of their election victory on the Constituent Assembly in 1918. The new
problem for them was the need for armed support. An early attempt by the
SRs to recruit Latvian troops in July 1918 was an disaster. Fortunately
the Czecho-Slovak legion proved to be a more reliable group to aid the
The Czecho-Slovak legion had been part of the tsarist army and by October
1917 numbered around 30,000 men, mostly ex-prisoners and deserters from
the Austro-Hungarian army, encouraged by Tomas Masaryk the legion was renamed
the Czecho-Slovak Army Corps and hoped to continue fighting the Germans.
An agreement with the Soviet government to pass by sea through Vladivostok
collapsed over an attempt to, largely, disarm the Corps and in June 1918
the force rebelled while they were in Cheliabinsk. Within a month the Czecho-Slovaks
controlled much of western Siberia, and parts of the Volga and Urals regions.
By August they had extended their control even further, cutting off Siberia
(and its precious grain supplies) from the rest of Russia.
The Mensheviks and SRs supported peasant action against the Soviet control
of food supplies. In May 1918 with the support of the Czecho-Slovaks they
took Samara and Saratov, establishing the Committee of Members of the Constituent
Assembly (Komuch). By July the authority of Komuch extended over much of
the area controlled by the Czecho-Slovaks. They intended to resume anti-German
operations and began to form their own People's Army, they also implemented
a socialist reform programme but without the unpopular economic changes
the Soviets were pursuing. However Komuch was an dictatorship and they
could be as ruthless as the Soviets they deplored.
There were also conservative and nationalist 'governments' being formed
by the Bashkirs, the Kirghiz and the Turkic-Tatar as well as a Siberian
Regional Government in Omsk. In September 1918 all the non-Soviet governments
met in Ufa and agreed to form a new Russian Provisional Government in Omsk,
headed by a Directory of five, three SRs (Avksentiev, Boldyrev and Zenzinov)
and two Kadets (Vinogradov and Volgogodskii). The new government quickly
came under the influence of the Siberian Regional Government and their
new War Minister, Rear-Admiral Kolchak. On November 18 a coup d'etat established
Kolchak as dictator. The members of the Directory were arrested and Kolchak
promoted himself to admiral and proclaimed himself 'Supreme Ruler'. To
the Soviets this change of control was a military problem but a political
victory—confirming its opponents as reactionaries. Kolchak, as
the Soviets feared, initially proved himself an able commander. Following
a reorganisation of the People's Army his forces captured Perm and extended
their control into Soviet territory.
In Soviet territory following the Fifth Congress of Soviets in July
two Left SRs assassinated the German ambassador in Moscow, Count Mirbach
in an attempt to provoke the Germans into renewing hostilities. Other Left
SRs captured a number of prominent Bolsheviks and attempted to rouse Red
Army troops against the regime. The Soviets managed to put down local risings
organised by the SRs (and Anarchists) and Lenin personally apologised to
the Germans for the assassination, although German reprisals were unlikely
due to the state of the Western Front. There were mass arrests of Left
SRs and following two further terrorist acts on August 30, the assassination
of the Chairman of the Petrograd Cheka and the wounding of Lenin in another
attempt, the Red Terror was unleashed—the Mensheviks and SRs
were expelled from the Soviets and anyone suspected of counter-revolutionary
activity could be imprisoned or executed without trial.
Following their poor display against the Germans the Red Army had been
re-reorganised under the new Supreme Military Council, headed by Leon Trotsky—the
many different units were homogenized and former army officers were brought
back into the army as 'military specialists'. In May 1918 with the number
of soldiers static at 450,000 compulsory conscription was reintroduced.
Followed by a purge of army commanders in July, with the purpose of not
introducing Communists but of bringing back capable military officers.
In September a resolution was passed directing the whole of Soviet Russia
towards military measures, Trotsky was appointed head of a new Revolutionary
Military council of the Republic, with wide-ranging powers.