THE CLIMAX OF THE CIVIL WAR
Through the fall of 1918, Red forces pushed east toward the Ural Mountains to regain territory lost to the Czech Legion, but their offensive stalled in October, and the front stabilized west of the Urals. By spring 1919, Kolchak had prepared an offensive, one that he vaguely hoped would lead to Bolshevik collapse or enable him to link up with other centers of White resistance, an idea utterly incompatible with the enormous distances separating the White centers of power. The thinly spread Bolshevik forces were, however, initially incapable of stopping Kolchak, and his troops approached the Volga River by the end of April. Kolchak’s successes spurred further improvements in the discipline and training of the Red Army, despite the resentment that military order produced in lifelong revolutionaries. As Kolchak pushed west, however, his supply lines grew increasingly tenuous, his forces more stretched, and the inadequacy of his thinly populated base in Siberia more apparent. At the end of April 1919, a Red counteroffensive broke Kolchak’s lines and sent his forces into rapid retreat toward the Urals. The end of any immediate danger from Kolchak triggered a dispute within the Bolshevik high command over whether Red forces should continue pursuing Kolchak or be diverted to the south to defend against General Anton Denikin’s push north toward Moscow. The Red Army’s commander-in-chief, Ioakim Vatsetis, supported by Trotsky, controversially argued for the turn south until he was finally replaced by Sergei Kamenev in June.
Kolchak’s headlong flight and Bolshevik pursuit continued uninterrupted through the Urals into Siberia. With Kolchak’s regime collapsing, Czech soldiers arrested him in Irkutsk in January 1920. He was executed by local Bolsheviks the next month. The Reds’ triumphant march did not extend all the way to the Pacific. Japanese and American troops still occupied much of the Russian Far East. To prevent further conflict, the Bolsheviks engineered the creation in April 1920 of the Far Eastern Republic, a nominally independent buffer state. With final Japanese withdrawal from Siberia, the Far Eastern Republic was reabsorbed into Soviet Russia in 1922.
After the defeat of Kolchak’s push from the east in spring 1919, the Bolsheviks faced their greatest White threat with an offensive from the south by the Volunteer Army, under the command of Denikin and incorporating the remnants of the Don Cossacks. In May 1919 Denikin began a drive north toward Moscow. Devoid of the human or material resources needed to sustain an offensive over that distance, Denikin’s push was an enormous gamble. The skill and dedication of his officer-heavy army, however, let his troops get within 300 kilometers (190 miles) of Moscow by October 1919. Simultaneous with Denikin’s final push to Moscow, a much smaller White force under Nikolai Yudenich attacked east from the Baltic states toward Petrograd.
The Bolsheviks benefited from their central location and unified command, enabling them to transfer troops to threatened sectors through the rail network centered on Moscow, and using Bolshevik soldiers as elite troops to stiffen halfhearted peasant conscripts. Denikin and Yudenich both stalled short of victory, and were forced into increasingly desperate retreat. Denikin’s movement collapsed as the Allies who had been bankrolling it saw the Whites as a lost cause. Denikin was removed as head of the White movement in the south and replaced by Baron Peter Wrangel, who made a last stand in the Crimea. After a short respite provided by the Russo-Polish War in summer 1920, Wrangel’s Crimean stronghold was finally overrun in November 1920.
Though Wrangel’s defeat meant the end of organized White resistance, the Bolsheviks still faced a growing but fragmented peasant insurgency, provoked by conscription and particularly by ruthless seizures of peasant grain to feed Bolshevik cities and soldiers, which raged through 1921. This burgeoning Red-Green civil war was as brutal as the Red-White war; the Bolsheviks used poison gas on several occasions to clear forests of peasant insurgents. Only the advent of the peasant-friendly New Economic Policy in spring 1921, combined with massive military force, brought the large but uncoordinated peasant uprisings under control.
CIVIL WAR IN THE BORDERLANDS
The civil war in peripheral regions of the Russian Empire added ethnic and national issues to the social and political disputes raging within Russia proper. In Ukraine, for example, Ukrainian nationalists had established their own autonomous government, the Central Rada, in March 1917. This coexisted uneasily with the Provisional Government, as essential questions of central authority and regional autonomy remained unanswered, while social and economic disintegration accelerated. Two weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Central Rada proclaimed a new Ukrainian National Republic—socialist, ostensibly multiethnic, and loosely federated with Russia. The Bolsheviks denounced this as completely unacceptable, and Bolsheviks in Ukraine formed a rival government based in Kharkov. Backed by a hastily assembled Red Army, Ukrainian Bolsheviks seized Kiev in February 1918, forcing the Central Rada to flee west. The Central Rada was saved by German patronage; the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk provided German protection to the Ukrainian National Republic and a temporary respite from Bolshevik pressure. The Central Rada regained Kiev with German aid, but the German masters proved impatient. In April 1918, the Germans overthrew the Central Rada and replaced it with a more tractable hetmanate under the nominal control of the former tsarist general Pavlo Skoropadsky.
Skoropadsky’s acquiescence to German seizures of Ukrainian grain bred growing resistance. As a result of Germany’s defeat in November 1918 and the withdrawal of German troops, a new government, the Directory, seized power from Skoropadsky in December 1918 and reestablished the Ukrainian National Republic. The Directory remained in Kiev only briefly, as an invasion from Russian territory led by Ukrainian Bolsheviks seized the city again in February 1919. In this political chaos, as the Ukrainian countryside descended into total anarchy, the Bolsheviks managed to hang on to power in the cities until August 1919, when Denikin’s offensive from the south expelled them again. After Denikin’s defeat, Bolshevik forces pushed south into Ukraine in late 1919 and 1920, ending civil war with the systematic imposition of Bolshevik control.
Imperial Russia’s Baltic provinces followed a different pattern, but one still marked by civil conflict. Lithuanians under German occupation formed a National Council. In Latvia, partly occupied, the population grew increasingly polarized between nationalists and a growing number of Bolshevik sympathizers. In Estonia, the largely non-Estonian population of the cities grew increasingly radical over the course of 1917, sympathizing with the Bolsheviks. After Lenin’s takeover, Baltic Bolsheviks proved too weak to consolidate control in the short months before German forces expelled them at the beginning of 1918. Nationalist assemblies in all three Baltic states declared independence, symbolic gestures at best given the reality of German domination.
As in Ukraine, Germany’s defeat fundamentally altered the political balance. With German withdrawal, the Estonian and Latvian provisional governments scrambled to assemble armed forces to hold back an immediate Bolshevik invasion. Financial and material support from Britain and Finland to Estonia, and German military intervention in Latvia, enabled the expulsion of Bolshevik forces by spring 1919. In Lithuania, local forces did the same by late summer. All three established independent national republics.
In Central Asia, the pattern was quite different. Russian-dominated cities were surrounded by a nomadic and agrarian Muslim hinterland. The urban, industrial Russian population moved to support the Bolshevik takeover and established a Turkestan Soviet Republic centered in Tashkent. Contact with the Bolshevik heartland was, however, cut off for two years by the Orenburg Cossacks north of the Caspian Sea. The Turkestan republic waged a desperate struggle for survival in isolation against inchoate Muslim opposition, as well as local Whites and Cossacks. In autumn 1919 Kolchak’s defeat opened up a connection to Russia proper, and Red troops poured in to eradicate the local Cossack population and subordinate the Muslims to Soviet control.
The legacy of the civil war was enormous. Loss of life from combat, repression, starvation, and disease totaled perhaps seven to eight million, far more than Russia lost during World War I. Russian cities emptied, as recent immigrants from the countryside returned to their villages in search of food, and men were conscripted into the warring armies. Much of Russia’s landowning and professional class simply fled the country to escape the Bolsheviks’ new order. The Bolsheviks created a new government at the same time they fought a war, creating a centralized and authoritarian structure far removed from socialism’s democratic ideals. Continuing Bolshevik mistrust of the peasantry and of the outside world marked the 1920s and 1930s, and aided Joseph Stalin’s rise to power.
Lincoln, W. Bruce. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. New York, 1989.
Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War. Boston, 1987.
Swain, Geoffrey. The Origins of the Russian Civil War. London, 1996.