201: The Russian Civil War Pt. 1


After the signing of the armistice on the Western front, the fighting continued around the world. Nowhere was that fighting more deadly than in Russia.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 201. Adam, Bobby, huge shoutout to ZacharyThis is the first episode of Season 6 of the podcast, which I am titling Aftermath. After the First World War ended on the Western Front on November 11th, 1918, and on other fronts at around that same time, Europe did not just suddenly go back to the relative peace of 1914. The war, and the strains that it placed upon the societies around Europe would result in fighting and conflict for over 5 more years. Over the next 30 episodes we will be discussing some of those conflicts. The first half of the episodes will focus on Russia and Eastern Europe as the Bolsheviks struggled to cement their power, and then looked beyond their own borders in their quest for an international revolution. Then we will discuss events in the Middle East, with the Greeks invading Anatolia and revolts against British rule in Egypt and Iraq. Then we shift focus to an area we have not discussed since 2016, Ireland, as a Civil War begins. Finally, we will end with several episodes on who else, but Germany. We will discuss the political developments in Germany after the war and the growing frustration of the French as they tried to get their reparations money. This would lead to the Ruhr Crisis in 1923, which is where our narrative will end. There will be one more Questions episode before the end of the year, so make sure to get your questions in, the email is historyofthegreatwar@outlook.com. As always, thank you for listening, and I hope you enjoy the next 30 episodes, we’re in the Endgame now.

The war would cause some amount of chaos in many of the countries of Europe, but nowhere would that chaos be as destructive or deadly as in the former Russian empire. Over the course of the four years between 1917 to 1921 the estimates vary for how many people were killed in Russia, deaths attributable to the Russian Revolutions and then the Civil War. Some number it as high as 10 million. That number includes far more than just combat casualties, and would include millions of civilian deaths due to economic disruption. We spent episodes in 2017 discussing the Russian Revolutions from February and October 1917, and while they ended with the Bolsheviks in power, the struggles within Russia were far from over at the end of 1917. The exact dates for what should be considered the Russian Civil War are a bit fuzzy, with many different dates given by many different historians depending on when they mark the transition from revolution to civil war, and then from civil war to just domestic disturbances. But what is known for certain is that during the period of 1917 to 1923 several different leaders, groups, and armies would all vie for power within the country. On one side would be the Bolsheviks, who would later refer to themselves as the Communists. This group would be led by men like Lenin and Trotsky and other revolutionaries who had played an important role in the October 1917 revolution. There most famous enemy would the Whites, led by old Tsarist Army officers, but the Bolsheviks, or the Red, would also struggles against armies known as the Blacks, or anarchists, and the Greens, which was made up of peasants. The who situation was confusing, and it defies an easy explanation as the fighting ebbed and flowed over hundreds and even thousands of miles of territory which had formerly been a part of the Russian Empire. Often histories simplify the story too much, casting the Reds as a ruthless blood-thirty set of conquerors, hell-bent on destroying the democratic Whites. The actually truth was that the Whites and the Reds, and every other group in Russia during this period, was as diverse as the people who lead them. They all had different goals and expectations, and they all tried to achieve them in different ways. They all believed that their path forward, be it Communism, Socialism, Democracy, or Monarchy was the best path forward for both themselves and for Russia, and they saw everybody else as the enemy of that future. This led to military clashes from the Baltics, to Ukraine, to the Caucuses, to Siberia, and pretty much every place in between. It led to drastic changes in the Bolshevik platform as they struggled to cope with the challenges placed before them by the war. And when it was over the Bolshevik or Communist platform was irrevocably changed in ways that the leaders in 1917 probably never could have imagined. Today we will look at the situation in Russia after the October Revolution had brought the Bolsheviks to power. In my opinion the Russian Civil War began at that moment, almost a soon as the Bolsheviks had taken control of the government in Petrograd. They would be taking control of a country wracked by four years of war, one that was still ongoing, and which had went very poorly. Over the next 5 episodes we will dig into the Communist government that was created early in the civil war, their clashes with the Whites who would become the greatest threat to a Communist future, and also discuss how that conflict spilled out into atrocities committed by both sides, often referred to as the Red and White Terrors, which would leave astonishing levels of suffering in their wake.

If you remember back almost 2 years ago, one of the biggest drivers of the Russian Revolution, both in February and October was food. To put it simply there was not enough food making it to the cities, and this caused all of the other problems caused by the war to be exacerbated. After the Bolsheviks came to power they could not just magically solve this problem, and in fact food shortages would continue, and in some ways they got worse. Due to the change in government, and the overall lack of support for the Bolsheviks in the countryside, the peasants who had the food lost faith in both the government and the paper money that they issued, and with paper money being the primary method of exchange between the cities and the countryside this made it challenging to import enough food. Theoretically, in a perfect Communist system, this exchange would have been handled by the government, but the power that the Bolsheviks could project in the early days after the revolution was highly focused in the cities, and was far less effective in the countryside. One of the reasons that the Bolsheviks had trouble extending support into the peasant areas was due to the specific power structures that were in place by October 1917. The February revolution had offered the peasants the opportunity to throw off their old landowning masters, this gave the peasants the feeling that for the first time maybe ever they controlled their own destiny. This meant that they were far less receptive to the Bolshevik message, which was so focused in the cities on the factory workers and soldiers taking the power back from their bourgeois overlords, the peasants felt like they had already done that, and they were doing well. To me these power projection problems make something pretty clear to me, the leaders of the Bolsheviks who took power in 1917 had a pretty good idea about the power dynamics in the cities, workers, factory owners, sailors, and officers. However the power dynamics in the rural areas of Russia were completely different, and they just did not have a great grasp on the, especially after the upheavals present during the February Revolution which broke down many of the existing power structures. This would put the Bolsheviks at a disadvantage in every topic that involved the peasants, including food to the cities and the mobilizing of the population of the countryside for the civil war. They were not completely lost and they very quickly began to play to their strengths. The Bolsheviks were a party that was created and molded by underground work, and so they used those skills and experience in the countryside. Just like before 1917 in the cities in the early stages of the civil war they found themselves in the minority in the rural areas and so they defaulted back to using secret intelligence networks and slowly building up their power. This would lay the groundwork for later years when they were strong enough to truly assert their power.

So how do we know about the Bolshevik support in the countryside, well there were elections in December 1917 that were held throughout the country, and they are often cited because these elections would be the last that would occur before the Civil War through the country into chaos. For a party that had just taken control of the government in Petrograd the Bolsheviks did not do fantastic. They only received between 20% and 35% of the total vote, with other parties receiving substantially more support, with height behind the SRs, or Social Revolutionaries, who got above 40%. There were three major political parties who took part in the elections, outside of the Bolsheviks, the SRs, the Mensheviks, and the primary non-socialist party the Constitutional Democrats, or as they were better known the Kadets. Each of these groups would be in a somewhat interesting position in the coming civil war. There was a very large rural and urban divide, with the Bolsheviks receiving almost all of the votes in large cities like Petrograd and Moscow and most of the rural vote going to the SRs and Mensheviks. This was a serious problem for the SRs due to the challenges that were involved in mobilizing the geographically diverse peasantry, a problem that would not be present in the cities. While they were opposition parties both the SRs and Mensheviks would work with the Bolsheviks for some time, however there would eventually be a falling out between the groups that we will dig into next episode. The Kadets on the other hand would quickly find themselves vilified by the Socialist groups. This was problematic for them because they were not really supported by the true forces of reaction either, because almost all of those coalesced around leaders who were hoping to bring back the monarchy. This made it challenging for the Kadets to generate a support base that was strong enough to stand on their own, and they would soon be absorbed into the growing White movement. Together these groups received more votes that the Bolsheviks and this led the Bolsheviks to allow the assembly to meet for just one day, at which point they dissolved the assembly with some help from a unit of armed sailors who surrounded the building in which the assembly met.

While the Bolsheviks were trying to work through their first political challenges within Russia they were also preparing for something much bigger. One of the stated goals of the Bolsheviks, right from the very beginning, was to spread their revolution beyond Russia and into the rest of the world. These efforts would begin with areas that were nearby, like Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and the Ukraine, with these countries seen as critical stepping stones toward further advances into Europe, with Germany being seen as the key to the entire world revolution. I think it is good to just briefly discuss the Bolshevik actions in some of these countries, even though most of them will make appearances in our later episodes. The Baltic countries, given their relative proximity to Petrograd were very important in Bolshevik decision making. Of the countries in this region, Estonia, Latvia, and I would include Lithuania in the list, the one that would have the most immediate impact on the early stages of the Civil War would be Latvia. In Latvia the radical left political groups had a strong base of support. In 1917 the Bolshevik party would receive over 70% of the total vote for the local parliament. This would result in the Bolsheviks receiving some crucial early support from Latvia, and none of that support was as critical to the overall success of the Revolution as the Latvian Rifles. The Latvian riflemen were a military unit, and by far the most effective unit in the Red Army for much of 1918. Unlike many military formations that were loyal to the Bolsheviks the Latvian rifles were organized and acted like an actual military form, and they had the training to back it up, unlike many other units which behaved, and performed, more like groups of revolutionaries who had been issued with rifles. The power of such a unit cannot be overstated in the chaotic conditions of 1918 while the Bolsheviks were trying to solidify their position in Petrograd. The Latvian Riflemen would be so well used during the year that when the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic needed their help to solidify its position in the newly Bolsheviks country they would be almost unable to render assistance.

Even closer to Petrograd was Finland. Finland had been a part of Russia since 1809 when it had been taken from Sweden. However, the Finns had always enjoyed some autonomy within the Russian Empire and this autonomy was important to them, and it kept them reasonably happy members of the Empire right until it ended. That did not mean that all Finns were happy to be Russians, and in the years leading up to the First World War there was a well developed and growing sense of Finnish nationalism, the disorder that the war then caused gave them further impetus to push for independence. After the February REvolution the Finns had come to terms with the Provisional Government, however the October Revolution saw the Center and Right wing parties in Finland take control of the country. During the October elections the Socialists lost their majority in the Finnish Parliament but it did not remove the power of those socialists within the country, setting the country on its way to civil war, a situation echoed in many other areas of the former Russian Empire. It would come at a time when the Bolsheviks in Moscow were ill prepared to assist the socialists in Finland, and it would not go well for the Finnish Reds. This would be the most high profile example of Red failure during these years. There would be other areas and other countries where the communist groups would attempt revolutions and they would fail, but in most of those areas they started at a position far weaker than the Finnish Socialists had. This will not be the last time we look at the fighting in Finland, and it will receive its own episodes later this year.

In many of these border conflicts the REd Army would be at least in some way involved. However, this involvement would not be realized until after the German surrender in November 1918. Before that time the German and Austrian armies still had a strong presence in the Baltics, the Ukraine, and many areas that were formerly Russian. However, the collapse of the German war effort which led to the armistice would open up a large power vacuum in the region which the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd saw as an opportunity. This led to the creation of an Army of the West, which would be formed soon after the German armistice was signed in the West. The goal of this new army was to quite literally march west and spread the Communist revolution as it went. In many cases, like in Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics the goal of these Army moves would not be necessarily to straight out conquer the territory and bring it back into Russia but instead to support local revolutionaries. They found that this support was frequently not enough though, and in hindsight it would often be actively harmful to the fledgling revolutionary movements. IN many of these areas there were local nationalist sentiments, and having the Red Army, which most people still saw as Russian, move into these areas caused some previous supporters of the revolution, or at least neutral parties, to move into whatever camp was against the Russian encroachments. There would be a similar problem experienced by the White movement in Russia in the following years, it being seen as a puppet of the foreign governments that were lending them support. The failures of the Bolsheviks in trying to put cooperative government in power in 1918 and 1919 caused them to re-example their future strategy in these countries, and in later years they would seek a more conciliatory path with whatever government was created in the territories, instead of pouring men and resources into trying to subdue the local governments that were often supported by the people.

We are going to spend the rest of the episode talking a bit about the formation and changes within the Red Army in the early years of the civil war. When it came to the Red Army the Bolsheviks had some problems, both conceptually and organizationally. The core of the conceptual problem was that one of the core tenants of Bolshevism was that the army was a weapon of the bourgeois against the proletariat. The more extreme Bolsheviks wanted the army completely destroyed, to be replaced by a militia system that preserved the Bolshevik tradition of democratically elected officers. When the Bolsheviks then came to power, they were soon confronted by enemies that had organized, trained, and equipped armies that were at least reasonably loyal to them. Against these enemies a loosely organized, purely voluntary, democratic system of militias was seen as a huge liability. The biggest problem was projecting power of the distances required for military campaigns in Russia, the men might be hundreds or even thousands of miles from home, and it was difficult to get enough pure volunteers that accepted these requirements. The Bolsheviks did have the Red Army, and over the early years of the Civil War it would slowly become more and more like the Imperialist army that it replaced. One of the first large shifts in that direction was the introduction of conscription. conscription was basically forced upon the Red Army because there were nowhere near enough volunteers to fill its ranks, especially as it was forced to rapidly expand to meet the demands of the Civil War. In April of 1918 compulsory military training was put in place for all workers and most of the peasantry, this training required them to be available to the army 12 hours a week and 8 weeks a year. Even this effort would be insufficient to meet the manpower needs of the Red Army, mostly due to the limited area that the Bolsheviks controlled in 1918 and 1919. They then took it a step further and instituted a policy of front line mobilizations where as the Red Army advanced into new territory it would draft up conscripts on the spot to refill its ranks. Everyone knew that this was less efficient and produced soldiers of poor quality, but on some level they just wanted the warm bodies. Trotsky would justify all of these moves by claiming that it was the only way for the revolution to survive in a world filled with capitalists who wanted nothing more than to crush them, saying “But the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of that class, because in all capitalist countries (and not only over here, in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts (by imperialism in some countries) that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard that has absorbed the revolutionary energy of the class. The whole is like an arrangement of cogwheels. Such is the basic mechanism of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and of the essentials of transition from capitalism to communism.” This change in the composition and recruitment of the Red Army is one, and maybe the clearest example of the Bolsheviks transitioning from revolutionaries to the leaders of a country that was struggling against both internal and external enemies.

It would not be the only change made to the army, or even the only change made in 1918. As I mentioned earlier one of these changes was the removal of the ability of units to elect their own officers. This had been a key part of the Red Army during the revolutionary period, and had been a key message sent by the Bolsheviks and other Socialists parties as they tried to gain support within the old Army. The problem was that the resulting officers were often found to be, less than ideal, and not just in the realm of military acumen but also in political reliability. This would result in the creation of the political commissars, which are a pretty famous feature of the Red Army. These men were the extension of the party into the army, and they were present in the army both to keep an eye on the military officers, but also to use the army and the men within it as a way to extend the reach of the Communist message. This was an important feature of the Red Army, it represented a way for the Bolsheviks to spread their messages to the masses that were being put into the army in greater and greater numbers, they were also a captive audience. This goal was assisted by the large number of Party members who would join the army in 1918, upwards of half of the total members of the Communist Party would at one time be in the army during the early Civil War, but this would make up just a small fraction of the total numbers of men that would be in the army, because the Red Army would have to massively increase in size during the conflict.

Over the course of the Civil War years, and especially between 1918 and 1920 the Red Army would expand massively. By August 1918 there would only be a few hundred thousand men in the army, but by 1920 there would be almost 3 million. Trying to scale a military force so rapidly the so quickly brought on a whole host of problems. Arming and supplying such a large number greatly strained the Russian economy, and without the army and equipment left behind by the Provisional government, most of which had been shipped in by the Western countries during the war, it may not have been possible. Another problem was the huge desertion rate among the new recruits a problem that was just as acute for the Whites as it was for the Reds. One of the reasons that the Red Army had to be aggressive with its recruitment and conscription is that a large percentage of all of the men that were brought into the army would slowly disappear over the course of a campaign. The desertion rate would decrease over time, and by 1920 it would be well within reason, but during 1918 and 1919 it would be an issue that would weigh down the Red Army.

It is impossible to discuss the Red Army during these early years without discussing the role that Trotsky would play in its creation and expansion. During the crucial years of the Civil War Trotsky would be the leader of the Red Army, and he would approach this task with his usual energy. He would institute many of the reforms that we have already discussed, but he would also be a very active leader of the army. With the very fluid nature of the fighting, with armies marching and retreating hundreds of kilometers at a time in some instances, Trotsky was known to rush from one area to another to try and bolster the morale and fighting spirit of the Red Army. He did this by racing around in a special train. I like this quote from William Henry Chamberlin, from his work The Russian Evolution 1917-1921. It is a very old books, so you have to take most of what is contained within it with a very large grain of salt, but he would say about Trotsky that “In that vast panorama of confusion and disorder the cometlike figure of Trotsky, storming up and down the Red lines, distributing new revolutionary military honors and orders for execution with equal prodigality, exhorting and denouncing, always organizing for victory, was certainly one of the decisive factors in finally bringing the whole Russian land under the red flag of the Soviets.” This constant moving from front to front was not all positive though because having an army leader that is constantly on the move made it difficult for him to properly lead the entire army and not just the piece being focused on at the time. This is one of the reason that army leader often stayed in one place, especially before the widespread use of wireless communication, it allowed them to establish and maintain communications networks with all of the leaders below them, when a leader was rushing around from front to front these communications networks were almost impossible to create and coordination was a real challenge. Even if he caused some issues for the army, no one should doubt the impact that Trotsky and his leadership had on the army, he certainly had a tendency to bolster the troops wherever he was.

Trotsky would play a role in many of the changes to the army, but one more that I want to mention today was led for and argued for by Trotsky, and it would be one of the most controversial, at least initially. The Bolsheviks had always argued against the old army, and most of this vitriol targeted the officer class. However, when Trotsky took over the Red Army he had an idea that could help some many of the problems that the Red Army had, especially the problems around leadership, he wanted to bring in the old tsarist officers into the new army. At first the more radical leaders of the Bolshevik party were angry at Trotsky for even suggesting such a move, he wanted to reinstate officers that represented the very thing that the Bolsheviks had fought so hard against, but eventually, and with the support of Lenin, Trotsky’s plan would be approved. Initially the offices would just be given the title of ‘military specialists’ but they were normal officers in all but name. By the end of 1918 almost 2/3 of the Red Army’s officer corps had formerly served in the old tsarist army, and this number would be even higher among the upper ranks of the officer corps. These men represented an important force within the new Army, and they made it a far more effective combat force. The loyalty of the officers was generally pretty good, there would certainly be some officers who would defect over to the Whites, especially Denikin’s Volunteer Army, but these movements would quickly dissipate partially due to the actions of the Western Allies, and specifically their intervention in the conflict, but that will be a topic for a later episode.