Russian Civil War

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Russian Civil War
Part of the
Russian Civil War montage.png

Clockwise from top left:
Date7 November 191716 June 1923[k][1]: 3, 230 [2]
(5 years, 7 months and 9 days)
Peace treaties
  • Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
    Signed 3 March 1918
    (3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days)
  • Treaty of Tartu (Russian–Estonian)

    Signed 2 February 1920
    (2 years, 2 months, 3 weeks and 5 days)
  • Soviet–Lithuanian Peace Treaty
    Signed 12 July 1920
    (2 years, 8 months and 5 days)
  • Treaty of Tartu (Russian–Finnish)

    Signed 14 October 1920
    (2 years, 11 months and 1 week)
  • Latvian–Soviet Peace Treaty
    Signed 11 August 1920
    (2 years, 9 months and 4 days)
  • Peace of Riga
    Signed 17 September 1921
    (3 years, 10 months, 1 week and 3 days)
  • Treaty of Kars
    Signed 13 October 1921
    (3 years, 10 months and 6 days)


Cessions to
Cessions to other nations

(after 1922)

(after 1921)

  • Supported by:
  • Mongolia
  • Persia



(until 1922)
Commanders and leaders
Vladimir Lenin
Leon Trotsky
Jukums Vācietis
Yakov Sverdlov
S. Kamenev
N. Podvoisky
Joseph Stalin
Y. Medvedev
Vilhelm Knorin
A. Krasnoshchyokov
Stepan Petrichenko
and others
Otani Kikuzo
Edmund Ironside
William S. Graves
Czechoslovakia Radola Gajda
Maurice Janin
and others
German Empire H. von Eichhorn 
Ottoman Empire Nuri Pasha
Jan Sierada
Pavlo Skoropadskyi
P. Bermondt-Avalov
and others

  • German Army
    ~547,000 (peak)
Casualties and losses

  • Czechoslovakia 13,000 killed
  • 6,500 killed
  • United Kingdom 938+ killed[10]
  • United States 596 killed
  • Romania 350 killed
  • Kingdom of Greece 179 killed
  • Poland ~250,000
  • 57,000 killed
  • 113,000 wounded
  • 50,000 POWs
  • Ukraine ~125,000
  • 15,000 killed
  • ~5,000
  • 3,500 killed
  • 1,650 executed/dead
  • Estonia 3,888 killed
  • Latvia 3,046 killed
  • Lithuania 1,444 killed[11]
  • Sweden 55 killed

  • German Empire 500 killed

7,000,000–12,000,000 total casualties, including
civilians and non-combatants

1–2 million refugees outside Russia

The Russian Civil War (Russian: Гражданская война в России, tr. Grazhdanskaya voyna v Rossii; 7 November 1917 — 16 June 1923)[1] was a multi-party civil war in the former Russian Empire sparked by the overthrowing of the monarchy and the new republican government's failure to maintain stability, as many factions vied to determine Russia's political future. It resulted in the formation of the RSFSR and later the Soviet Union in most of its territory. Its finale marked the end of the Russian Revolution, which was one of the key events of the 20th century.


Russian monarchy had been overthrown by the 1917 February Revolution, and Russia was in a state of political flux. A tense summer culminated in the Bolshevik-led October Revolution, overthrowing the Provisional Government of the new Russian Republic. Bolshevik rule was not universally accepted, and the country descended into civil war. The two largest combatants were the Red Army, fighting for the Bolshevik form of socialism led by Vladimir Lenin, and the loosely allied forces known as the White Army, which included diverse interests favouring political monarchism, capitalism and social democracy, each with democratic and anti-democratic variants. In addition, rival militant socialists, notably the Ukrainian anarchists of the Makhnovshchina and Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, were involved in conflict against the Bolsheviks. They, as well as non-ideological green armies, opposed the Bolsheviks, the Whites and the foreign interventionists.[12] Thirteen foreign nations intervened against the Red Army, notably the Allied intervention whose primary goal was re-establishing the Eastern Front. Three foreign nations of the Central Powers also intervened, rivaling the Allied intervention with the main goal of retaining the territory they had received in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

The Bolsheviks initially consolidated control over most of the former empire. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was an emergency peace with the

Russian State, establishing a de facto military dictatorship

In 1919, the White Army launched several attacks from the east in March, the south in July, and west in October. The advances were later checked by the Eastern Front counteroffensive, the Southern Front counteroffensive, and the defeat of the Northwestern Army. The White Movement also suffered greater losses after the Allies pulled back from northern and southern Russia. With the main base of the RSFSR secured, the Bolsheviks could now strike back, with a solid defensive position.

The armies under Kolchak were eventually forced on a

Yakutia in June 1923, but continued on in Central Asia and Khabarovsk Krai until 1934. There were an estimated 7 to 12 million casualties during the war, mostly civilians.[1]
: 287 



World War I

The Russian Empire fought in World War I from 1914 alongside France and the United Kingdom (Triple Entente) against Germany, Austria-Hungary and later the Ottoman Empire (Central Powers).

February Revolution

The February Revolution of 1917 resulted in the abdication of Nicholas II of Russia. As a result, the Russian Provisional Government was established, and soviets, elected councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants, were organized throughout the country, leading to a situation of dual power. Russia was proclaimed a republic in September of the same year.

October Revolution

The Provisional Government, led by Socialist Revolutionary Party politician Alexander Kerensky, was unable to solve the most pressing issues of the country, most importantly to end the war with the Central Powers. A failed military coup by General Lavr Kornilov in September 1917 led to a surge in support for the Bolshevik party, who gained majorities in the soviets, which until then had been controlled by the Socialist Revolutionaries. Promising an end to the war and "all power to the Soviets", the Bolsheviks then ended dual power by suppressing the Provisional Government in late October, on the eve of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, in what would be the second Revolution of 1917. Despite the Bolsheviks' seizure of power, they lost to the Socialist Revolutionary Party in the 1917 Russian Constituent Assembly election, and the Constituent Assembly was dissolved by the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks soon lost the support of other far-left allies such as the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries after their acceptance of the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk presented by Germany.[14]

Formation of the Red Army

From mid-1917 onwards, the

political commissars
to each unit of the Red Army to maintain morale and to ensure loyalty.

In June 1918, when it had become apparent that a revolutionary army composed solely of workers would not suffice, Trotsky instituted mandatory conscription of the rural peasantry into the Red Army.[16] The Bolsheviks overcame opposition of rural Russians to Red Army conscription units by taking hostages and shooting them when necessary in order to force compliance.[17] The forced conscription drive had mixed results, successfully creating a larger army than the Whites, but with members indifferent towards Marxist–Leninist ideology.[14]

The Red Army also utilized former Tsarist officers as "military specialists" (voenspetsy);[18] sometimes their families were taken hostage in order to ensure their loyalty.[19] At the start of the civil war, former Tsarist officers formed three-quarters of the Red Army officer-corps.[19] By its end, 83% of all Red Army divisional and corps commanders were ex-Tsarist soldiers.[18]

Anti-Bolshevik movement

While resistance to the Red Guards began on the very day after the Bolshevik uprising, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the instinct of one-party rule became a catalyst[20] for the formation of anti-Bolshevik groups both inside and outside Russia, pushing them into action against the new Soviet government.

A loose confederation of anti-Bolshevik forces aligned against the Communist government, including landowners,

pro-monarchists, liberals, army generals, non-Bolshevik socialists who still had grievances and democratic reformists voluntarily united only in their opposition to Bolshevik rule. Their military forces, bolstered by forced conscriptions and terror[21] as well as foreign influence, under the leadership of General Nikolai Yudenich, Admiral Alexander Kolchak and General Anton Denikin, became known as the White movement
(sometimes referred to as the "White Army") and controlled significant parts of the former Russian Empire for most of the war.

A Ukrainian nationalist movement was active in Ukraine during the war. More significant was the emergence of an anarchist political and military movement known as the Makhnovshchina, led by Nestor Makhno. The Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine, which counted numerous Jews and Ukrainian peasants in its ranks, played a key part in halting Denikin's White Army offensive towards Moscow during 1919, later ejecting White forces from Crimea.

The remoteness of the

Ural Region, Siberia and the Far East
was favorable for the anti-Bolshevik forces, and the Whites set up a number of organizations in the cities of those regions. Some of the military forces were set up on the basis of clandestine officers organizations in the cities.


, 1920

Allied intervention

The Western Allies armed and supported opponents of the Bolsheviks. They were worried about a possible Russo-German alliance, the prospect of the Bolsheviks making good on their threats to default on Imperial Russia's massive

Russia during World War I
on a massive scale with war materials.

After the treaty, it looked like much of that material would fall into the hands of the Germans. To meet that danger, the Allies intervened with Great Britain and France sending troops into Russian ports. There were violent clashes with the Bolsheviks. Britain intervened in support of the White forces to defeat the Bolsheviks and prevent the spread of communism across Europe.[23]

Buffer states

The German Empire created several short-lived

Belarusian People's Republic, and the Ukrainian State. Following Germany's Armistice in World War I in November 1918, the states were abolished.[25][26]

independence from Russia in December 1917 and established itself in the ensuing Finnish Civil War from January–May 1918.[27] The Second Polish Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia formed their own armies immediately after the abolition of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the start of the Soviet westward offensive in November 1918.[28]

Geography and chronology

In the European part of Russia the war was fought across three main fronts: the eastern, the southern and the northwestern. It can also be roughly split into the following periods.

The first period lasted from the Revolution until the Armistice. Already on the date of the Revolution,

Don region,[29] where the Volunteer Army
began amassing support. The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk also resulted in direct Allied intervention in Russia and the arming of military forces opposed to the Bolshevik government. There were also many German commanders who offered support against the Bolsheviks, fearing a confrontation with them was impending as well.

During the first period, the Bolsheviks took control of Central Asia out of the hands of the Provisional Government and White Army, setting up a base for the Communist Party in the Steppe and Turkestan, where nearly two million Russian settlers were located.[30]

Russian soldiers of the anti-Bolshevik Siberian Army
in 1919

Most of the fighting in the first period was sporadic, involved only small groups and had a fluid and rapidly-shifting strategic situation. Among the antagonists were the Czechoslovak Legion,

Red Latvian riflemen

The second period of the war lasted from January to November 1919. At first the White armies' advances from the south (under Denikin), the east (under Kolchak) and the northwest (under Yudenich) were successful, forcing the Red Army and its allies back on all three fronts. In July 1919 the Red Army suffered another reverse after a mass defection of units in the Crimea to the anarchist Insurgent Army under Nestor Makhno, enabling anarchist forces to consolidate power in Ukraine. Leon Trotsky soon reformed the Red Army, concluding the first of two military alliances with the anarchists. In June the Red Army first checked Kolchak's advance. After a series of engagements, assisted by an Insurgent Army offensive against White supply lines, the Red Army defeated Denikin's and Yudenich's armies in October and November.

The third period of the war was the extended siege of the last White forces in the

Wrangel had gathered the remnants of Denikin's armies, occupying much of the Crimea. An attempted invasion of southern Ukraine was rebuffed by the Insurgent Army under Makhno's command. Pursued into Crimea by Makhno's troops, Wrangel went over to the defensive in the Crimea. After an abortive move north against the Red Army, Wrangel's troops were forced south by Red Army and Insurgent Army forces; Wrangel and the remains of his army were evacuated to Constantinople
in November 1920.


October Revolution

In the October Revolution, the Bolshevik Party directed the Red Guard (armed groups of workers and Imperial army deserters) to seize control of Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) and immediately began the armed takeover of cities and villages throughout the former Russian Empire. In January 1918 the Bolsheviks dissolved the Russian Constituent Assembly and proclaimed the Soviets (workers' councils) as the new government of Russia.

Initial anti-Bolshevik uprisings

The first attempt to regain power from the Bolsheviks was made by the Kerensky-Krasnov uprising in October 1917. It was supported by the Junker Mutiny in Petrograd but was quickly put down by the Red Guard, notably including the Latvian Rifle Division.

The initial groups that fought against the Communists were local Cossack armies that had declared their loyalty to the Provisional Government. Kaledin of the

Mikhail Alekseev, the Tsar's Chief of Staff during the First World War, began to organize the Volunteer Army in Novocherkassk. Volunteers of the small army were mostly officers of the old Russian army, military cadets and students. In December 1917, Alekseev was joined by General Lavr Kornilov, Denikin and other Tsarist officers who had escaped from the jail, where they had been imprisoned following the abortive Kornilov affair just before the Revolution.[1]: 27  On 9 December, the Military Revolutionary Committee in Rostov rebelled, with the Bolsheviks controlling the city for five days until the Alekseev Organization supported Kaledin in recapturing the city. According to Peter Kenez, "The operation, begun on December 9, can be regarded as the beginning of the Civil War."[32]

Having stated in the November 1917 "

Kiev, where the Central Council of the Ukrainian People's Republic held power. With the help of the Kiev Arsenal Uprising, the Bolsheviks captured the city on 26 January.[1]
: 35 

Peace with the Central Powers

The Bolsheviks decided to immediately make peace with the Central Powers, as they had promised the Russian people before the Revolution.[39] Vladimir Lenin's political enemies attributed that decision to his sponsorship by the Foreign Office of Wilhelm II, German Emperor, offered to Lenin in hope that, with a revolution, Russia would withdraw from World War I. That suspicion was bolstered by the German Foreign Ministry's sponsorship of Lenin's return to Petrograd.[40] However, after the military fiasco of the summer offensive (June 1917) by the Russian Provisional Government had devastated the structure of the Russian Army, it became crucial that Lenin realize the promised peace.[41] Even before the failed summer offensive the Russian population was very skeptical about the continuation of the war. Western socialists had promptly arrived from France and from the UK to convince the Russians to continue the fight, but could not change the new pacifist mood of Russia.[42]

On 16 December 1917 an armistice was signed between Russia and the Central Powers in

nationalists and conservatives. Leon Trotsky, representing the Bolsheviks, refused at first to sign the treaty while continuing to observe a unilateral cease-fire, following the policy of "No war, no peace".[43]

Therefore, on 18 February 1918, the Germans began Operation Faustschlag on the Eastern Front, encountering virtually no resistance in a campaign that lasted 11 days.[43] Signing a formal peace treaty was the only option in the eyes of the Bolsheviks because the Russian Army was demobilized, and the newly formed Red Guard could not stop the advance. They also understood that the impending counterrevolutionary resistance was more dangerous than the concessions of the treaty, which Lenin viewed as temporary in the light of aspirations for a world revolution. The Soviets acceded to a peace treaty, and the formal agreement, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, was ratified on 3 March. The Soviets viewed the treaty as merely a necessary and expedient means to end the war.

Ukraine, South Russia, and Caucasus (1918)

February 1918 article from The New York Times showing a map of the Russian Imperial territories claimed by the Ukrainian People's Republic at the time, before the annexation of the Austro-Hungarian lands of the West Ukrainian People's Republic


Austrian Operation Faustschlag had by April 1918 removed the Bolsheviks from Ukraine.[44][45][46][47][48] The German and Austro-Hungarian victories in Ukraine were caused by the apathy of the locals and the inferior fighting skills of Bolsheviks troops to their Austro-Hungarian and German counterparts.[48]

Under Soviet pressure, the Volunteer Army embarked on the epic Ice March from Yekaterinodar to Kuban on 22 February 1918, where they joined with the Kuban Cossacks to mount an abortive assault on Yekaterinodar.[1]: 29  The Soviets recaptured Rostov on the next day.[1]: 29  Kornilov was killed in the fighting on 13 April, and Denikin took over command. Fighting off its pursuers without respite, the army succeeded in breaking its way through back towards the Don by May, where the Cossack uprising against the Bolsheviks had started.[32]: 115–118 

The Baku Soviet Commune was established on 13 April. Germany landed its Caucasus Expedition troops in

Left SR
allies were opposed to it, but on 25 July the majority of the Soviets voted to call in the British and the Bolsheviks resigned. The Baku Soviet Commune ended its existence and was replaced by the Central Caspian Dictatorship.

In June 1918 the Volunteer Army, numbering some 9,000 men, started its

Northern Caucasus.[32]
: 166–174, 182, 189–190 

On 8 October, Alekseev died. On 8 January 1919, Denikin became the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of South Russia, uniting the Volunteer Army with Pyotr Krasnov's Don Army. Pyotr Wrangel became Denikin's Chief of Staff.[32]: 195, 204, 267–270 

In December, three-fourths of the army was in the Northern Caucasus. That included three thousand of

Donets basin, and de Bode commanded two thousand in the Crimea.[49]

Eastern Russia, Siberia and the Far East (1918)

The revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion broke out in May 1918, and proceeded to occupy the

: 6–12, 91 

killed by Bolsheviks, 1918. Above them stand also members of the Czechoslovak Legion.