Why the Bolsheviks’ Enemies Lost

Soldiers of the Don Army in 1919; a White infantry division in March 1920; soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Army; Leon Trotsky in 1918; hanging of workers in Yekaterinoslav (Dnipro) by the Austro-Hungarian Army, April 1918.

The Bolsheviks’ victory in the Russian Civil War, was also made possible by the weakness of their enemies. The parties of the Right had never commanded many followers, and the centre-right Kadet party was hardly in a better state. The educated minority who opposed the revolution became more and more aware of their isolation as time went by. Gorn, an official active in the Baltic, was probably typical:

It would be a mistake to think that Bolshevism was an alien element in Russia. Multi-million illiterate Russia nurtured it, she bore it and belched it forth from inside herself. The Russian intelligentsia was the thinnest film on the surface of the Russian muzhik [peasant] ocean.

G. K. Gins wrote something similar after the disaster of the Siberian Whites:

Our culture was a frail boat in the midst of a raging sea but we, the representatives of the intelligentsia, argued among ourselves on the boat and did not notice the elemental force coming at us. The ocean swallowed the boat, and us with it.

Paradoxically, the moderate agrarian socialists who tried to swim in the ‘muzhik ocean’ also drowned. This was partly a failure of will and organization, but it also came from a kind of peasant passivity, a passivity that was a key to the outcome of the Civil War. The secret Soviet Tambov report is useful here too. Even the kulaks, it noted,

the most cultured, the most politically developed stratum . . . do not, in general, show any capacity for raising their sights to thinking in terms of the state as a whole; their economic [mental outlook] has not carried them . . . very far beyond the outskirts of their villages or rural districts . . . without the guidance of the parties of the industrial bourgeoisie this movement can lead only to anarchical rioting and to bandit destruction.

The SRs were never able to mobilize peasant support, to defend the Constituent Assembly, to oppose the ‘commissarocracy,’ or to counter the pressure of the White generals.

Given the weakness of the anti-Bolshevik civilians, it is not surprising that the soldiers took over. They alone had effective force. ‘Kto palku vzial, tot i kapral,’ ‘He who has the stick is the corporal,’ summed up the power relationships in anti-Bolshevik Russia.

The Whites are sometimes said to have lost because petty rivalries blocked a common military strategy. It is true that their attacks were not coordinated, but this could not have been avoided. The difficulties of communication were immense. The four White fronts – south Russia, western Siberia, north Russia, the Baltic – were all far distant from one another; the two main fronts, Denikin’s and Kolchak’s, were separated by a 10,500-mile voyage around the Middle East and Asia, and then a 4000-mile rail trip across Siberia. The fate of General Grishin-Almazov, captured and executed while trying to take the ‘short’ route to Omsk across the Caspian Sea, showed the danger. Denikin and Kolchak never met one another and could not have done so during the Civil War. The various White armies simply launched their attacks as soon as they were ready. There were sound reasons for this. With each month the Red army became larger. The Allies would only give support if there were successful White advances. Civil War armies did better on the offensive. The one serious mistake of grand strategy was the failure of the Siberian and South Russian armies to link up – either in the summer of 1918 or the summer of 1919, and at the time there seemed good reasons for advancing in other directions. The failure of the Poles to march in 1919 was also critical, although this was outside White control.

The anti-Bolshevik democrats had a popular programme but few military resources. The White generals and colonels had better armies but made few promises to the population of their base territories and of the large captured regions. This was partly because the Whites’ social foundation was the property-owning minority (the tsenzovoe society). But it also came from their very dislike of politics. The White leaders were narrow conservative nationalists. Sakharov, one of Kolchak’s generals, summed up the White outlook in his 1919 appeal to the Urals population: ‘Our party is Holy Russia, our class is the whole Russian people.’ The Whites ignored parties and classes; they thought, moreover, in terms not of revolution or even of civil war, but of the likholet’e or smuta (time of troubles); the great smuta dated from the early 1600s. Denikin entitled his massive memoirs Sketches of the Russian Time of Troubles. One anti-Bolshevik Cossack politican, defending demands for autonomy against the disapproval of the White generals, had to insist, ‘This is not a smuta but a popular movement.’ But the Whites were even afraid of a popular movement.

The Whites feared the people; paradoxically, they counted on some vague popular upsurge to bring them victory. Sakharov again, talking about the late autumn of 1919, was typical. If the rear would give his poorly equipped army some support he would pursue the Reds back beyond the Urals.

And then the road to Moscow would be clear, then the whole people would come over to us and stand openly under the Admiral’s banner. The Bolsheviks and the other socialist filth would be destroyed – from the roots up – by the burning rage of the popular masses.

But the Whites, unlike the Reds, made little effort to mobilize the population in a political way, and their social and political programme was not one that bred spontaneous popular support. Sakharov proudly wrote that ‘the White movement was in essence the first manifestation of fascism’ (he was writing in Munich, nine months after Mussolini’s March on Rome). But this was distorted hindsight; the Whites lacked the mobilization skills and relatively wide social base of the Italian or German radical Right.

Linked to narrow political horizons was another vital drawback of White rule: arbitrary conduct by White authorities and a general lack of order. The source of this was the crude nature of White ‘politics’ and the lack of vital resources; civilian administrators, an enthusiastic population, and time. The Whites also failed properly to organize their armies. This may seem odd, given that the movement was dominated by military officers. But they actually lacked properly trained military specialists, especially in Siberia. The Cossacks gave them a major advantage in south Russia, but the Cossacks were jealous of their own autonomy and fought best within their ‘host territories.’ The Whites had only a small base of manpower and material compared to Sovdepia. And, as was the case with general administration, they had less time than the Reds to organize their forces.

The Whites, as Great Russian nationalists, were also opposed to any concessions to the minorities. They had no tolerance for ‘the sweet poisonous dreams of complete independence’ (Denikin’s words) of people such as the Ukrainians, the Belorussians, the Baltic and Transcaucasian minorities. Denikin was right when he said that his officers, Russian nationalists, would not have fought for the ‘Federated Republic.’ Although the Whites were prepared to accept some form of independence for Poland and possibility for Finland, they could not agree to all the territorial claims of the Warsaw and Helsinki governments. Polish action on the western border in 1919 might have made possible the capture of Moscow, while Finnish support would certainly have made Red Petrograd indefensible.

The Whites had little chance of winning. Certainly by 1920 Vrangel could only have won if there had been a catastrophic internal collapse on the Soviet side. But even Kolchak and Denikin faced, from the winter of 1918–1919, a struggle against great odds. The Bolsheviks had had a year to consolidate their position, they controlled most of the military resources of old Russia, they had more popular support, and their forces outnumbered those of the Whites by ten to one.

The ‘Russian’ Civil War was a three-cornered struggle. Russian revolutionaries fought Russian counterrevolutionaries, but the national minorities resisted both. The Civil War was about what would become of all the peoples of the Empire. (And it was an internal affair; the only fighting outside the old Empire was the 1920 Lvov campaign – in what had been Austrian Galicia – and the 1921 Mongolian expedition.) Those regions that broke away were among the ‘winners’ of the Civil War. They succeeded for various reasons. Finland and Poland won their own independence. Bessarabia, five Belorussian–Ukrainian provinces, and Kars Province had the pull of neighbouring states (Rumania, Poland, and Turkey). Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were helped by German and Allied forces. All benefited from the Red Army’s preoccupation with other fronts. But more than 80 per cent of the former subjects of the Tsar became citizens of the Soviet federation. Half of these people were not Great Russians. The multinational Russian Empire, the famous ‘prison of peoples,’ did not break up, a remarkable development in an age of nationalism.

Demographic, geographical, and cultural factors were involved. The Great Russians outnumbered each individual minority by fifteen to one or more (except in the case of the Ukrainians). Alliances that might have countered this – the Transcaucasian Federation, the cossacks and their southeastern allies, the Poles with the Ukrainians and Belorussians, Pan-Turkism – remained only theoretical projects. The central provinces, the Sovdepia heartland, were Russian-dominated. Even in the minority areas Russians often controlled the towns and transport. The trained military leaders were Russian, and the nature of Tsarism predetermined the minorities’ weakness, just as it predetermined the weakness of Russian political parties. The Petersburg-centreed Romanov autocracy had allowed little political or national activity. Even in areas where the minorities came to see themselves as distinct nations – and 1917 was a great awakener – they lacked the experience and the time to create an effective administration.

Bolshevik Moscow’s social revolution attracted the intelligentsia, workers, and peasants of the outlying regions. Bolshevik national policy, too, seemed better than the ‘Russia, One and Indivisible’ of the Whites, for whom cooperation with the ‘separatists’ was ruled out from the start. It is hard to understand Richard Pipes’s view that the Bolsheviks were ‘the least qualified of all the Russian parties (save for those of the extreme right) to solve the national problem.’ The Cossack politician who spoke of ‘Trotsky’s dreams of a Sovdepia, one, great, and indivisible’ was making a crude oversimplification. Bolshevik policy rejected Russian chauvinism, and the most enthusiastic ‘internationalists’ were reined in; the Bolsheviks granted self-government, however imperfect, to a number of peoples, and to the Ukraine, Belorussia, and other regions they even granted a form of independence. Moscow allowed wide cultural autonomy and encouraged a national awakening that would cause problems for itself in the 1920s. And it combined this with the maintenance of centralized institutions such as the party and the army and with the unifying idea of social revolution. This was just the right – possibly the only – formula for holding multinational ‘Russia’ together.

It was important that the Russian Bolsheviks had strong motives for holding the Empire together. Their leaders saw the nationalists as just a form of bourgeois rule. Their spetsy military commanders had simpler nationalist motives. For both, the defeat of ‘Russian’ counterrevolutionaries and Allied intervention demanded an advance into the borderlands. And there were broad continuities. Denikin put it as follows:

The state link of Russia with her borderlands was preordained by history, economics, markets, the railway system, the need for defendable frontiers, the psychology of Russian society, and the whole totality of the cultural-economic development of both sides and of mutual interests. The link would be restored, sooner or later, voluntarily – by treaty – or through compulsion – economic (tariff) war or an army offensive. And that would have been done by any Russia – ‘Red,’ ‘Pink,’ ‘White,’ or ‘Black’ – which did not want to suffocate inside the limits of those artificial boundaries which the World War and internal chaos had confined her to.

The link was something that the newly conscious, newly organized minorities could not tear apart.

Defeated with the Whites was foreign intervention. Bolshevik Civil War propaganda stressed Allied intervention, and later Soviet historians, following Stalin, reduced the Civil War to three ‘Entente Campaigns.’ An imperialist conspiracy fitted in with the Bolshevik world outlook; a foreign threat mobilized nationalist feeling; and the ‘Entente cannibals’ (Stalin’s phrase) gave a reason why the Civil War lasted so long. But Lenin had predicted on the eve of October 1917 that the Allies would not be a serious problem: ‘a combination of English, Japanese, and American imperialism against us is extremely difficult to realize, and is not at all dangerous to us, if only because of Russia’s geographical position’; there is much to be said for this analysis.

Contrary to what is often thought, the most important ‘intervention’ was not by the Allies but by the Central Powers. Up until November 1918 they held much of western and southern Russia. The ‘fourteen-power’ anti-Bolshevik Allied alliance that was featured in Soviet propaganda was a myth. The Americans were cool about intervention; the Japanese stayed on the Pacific coast. The French gave up an active role after the spring of 1919 Odessa shambles and concentrated on a cordon sanitaire of the border states. (Even then, neither the French nor the British did much to help the border state of Poland in 1920.) Few Allied troops were sent; none fought in the main battles. The western Allies neither created the Czechoslovak Corps nor planned its uprising. The Czechoslovaks did clear a rallying area, but they were few in number and fought only for six months. Their success was a symptom not of Allied manipulation but of Soviet impotence and unpopularity. It is true that Allied munitions and supplies made possible the furthest White advance, but this material only arrived in quantity in the summer of 1919; Kolchak’s spring offensive and Denikin’s conquest of a south Russian base area came earlier. Even the Allied blockade had little effect. Bolshevik Russia’s foreign trade possibilities were limited anyway (especially after the renunciation of foreign debts), and for most of 1919 Whites or nationalists held the major ports (Petrograd was the exception, but it had already become an economic wasteland).

Intervention was not a disaster for the Allies, if only because they committed so few resources to it. True, it did not defeat the Central Powers, save the anti-Bolsheviks, or deflect a Soviet onslaught on Central Europe (something the Red Army was hardly up to). The Reds were distracted from some of the border regions. Some White leaders resented the intrusions of the ‘dress-circle internatsional’, but Allied support was a major part of White propaganda. There is little evidence that intervention helped the Bolsheviks by making their cause a nationalist one. And if intervention lengthened the Russian crisis it did not create dictatorship and terror; they had deep enough roots in the soil of Imperial Russia.

The outcome of the Civil War has much to do with Russian history. Tsarist Russia contained elements of both backwardness and modernity. Russia’s peculiar state-sponsored modernization meant that there was a considerable working class (although small in per capita terms) and only a small middle class. The victory of extreme radicals during the Civil War had much to do with the very strength of the autocracy before 1917. Until less than ten years before the start of the World War there had been no legal political parties. The Tsarist state had never tolerated rival forces in the form of political parties or the national minorities, or even in the form of the army or the church. As a result there were no strong forces on hand to take over the country when the autocracy disappeared in February 1917.

The Bolsheviks were able to take over, in the October 1917 Revolution and the ‘Triumphal March of Soviet Power,’ because they followed the popular movement. The workers and Tsarist soldiers, with their particular discontents, helped carry the Bolsheviks to power – and then economic collapse and demobilization largely ended their political role. The Right was still shattered by the impact of the World War, the fall of the autocracy, and the impact of social revolution. After that there was no one to challenge the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ The reason the country did not just slide into anarchy with the October Revolution was, ironically, because of the state tradition that had been created under the autocracy. Modernization had progressed far enough to give a railway network that enabled the centre to regain control of the periphery, and meanwhile the Bolsheviks were able and willing to make use of much of the apolitical debris of the Tsarist state, including the army officer-corps and the civil service.