204: The Russian Civil War Pt. 4


With the Russian Civil War heating up, one the strongest White armies would arise in Siberia, and it would march West.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 204. Patreon Caleb; Monthly Paypal Donation person whose name I cannot find. Last episode we discussed a little about the Whites and the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. Today we are going to talk about one of the White leaders which those Allied interventions would attempt to assist. That leader would be named Kolchak, Admiral Kolchak, or Supreme Ruler Kolchak, and he would rise to power in Siberia in the middle of 1918. Over the course of late 1918 and early 1919 he would build up his forces and then in March 1919 he would launch his attack. This attack would see his forces of the Siberian Army advance hundreds of kilometers, and advance that came to an end near the Volga river. This would be the short lived high water mark for Kolchak’s army, and within months his army would disintegrate and he would find himself on the run. The second half of this episode we will discuss one of the most famous, or infamous, events of the entire Russian Civil War, the Terrors. As the war raged back and forth across Russia both sides, Red and White, would commit some truly monstrous atrocities. Across the country thousands of people would be killed, innocent and guilty alike, due to their political or religious beliefs, their ethnicity, or even just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

An unexpected, but critical group, in the Civil War was a group of Czech, Slovak, and other Eastern European soldiers who became part of a unit known as the Czech legion. The roots of the Czech legion was during the First World War, when the Russian allowed groups of Czech soldiers to form their own unit within the Russian army. This unit would then later incorporate Czech Prisoners of War with the goal of helping the allies win the war, they fought for the Russians, against their Austro-Hungarian home in the hopes that after the war was over they would get their own country. This possibility rallied a good number of Czechs to the cause, but then the Revolutions happened. After the February revolution the Czechs were still on reasonably good terms with the Provisional government, they continued to fight as part of the Russian army just like before, but then the Bolsheviks took over. With the Bolshevik’s intending to remove Russia from the war by whatever means necessary the members of the Czech legion were suddenly in a very delicate position. The former Czech prisoners of war did not want to go back home, they would have been severely punished, maybe killed, for joining the Russian army. With a simple return home not and option, they wanted to keep fighting for Czech independence, and so they negotiated with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, with the help of the Czech statesman Tomas Masaryk. The deal that was reached would allow the Czechs to leave Russia, but since Russia was at peace with Germany and Austria-Hungary the Czechs would have to go east. This meant traversing all of Russia, through Siberia, and all the way to Vladivostok where the Allies promised they would have shipping available to transport the Czechs to Western Europe. There was hope that if this happened fast enough the Czechs could even be available for fighting on the Western front, but then a funny thing happened in Eastern Russia, the Czechs kind of ended up starting the Civil War in Siberia. As the Czechs moved east they faced growing resistance from the Bolshevik forces along the way, mostly due to the commanders not wanting to let the Czechs past without extracting a price, mostly in supplies and guns, which the Czechs did not want to give up. Eventually, after some ill advised choices by some Red commanders at some railway depots, and some overreactions from the Czechs, things got very violent. Suddenly the Czechs were fighting their way through Russia, and in doing so they were removing many Red garrisons along the way, Red garrisons which represented the only Bolshevik forces in Siberia. Bolshevik support had never been strong in Siberia, during the November 1917 elections they had received less than 20% of the vote east of the Urals. So when the Czechs came through and started knocking off Red garrisons along the Trans Siberian railway, anti-Bolshevik groups would use the opportunity to assert control. The Czechs did not really cause these counter-revolutionary forces to act in the ways that they did, but they provided an environment that allowed it to happen. In The “Russian” Civil War, 1916-1926: Ten Years That Shook the World author Jonathan D. Smele would describe the effects of the Czech Legion like this “the revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion instead provided a nourishing environment in which the already planted seeds of domestic counter-revolution might germinate.” The areas where the Czech legion would have the greatest effect would be the exact same areas that would be the base of power for the eventual rise of Admiral Kolchak.

Kolchak would not be the first leader of the anti-Bolshevik forces in Siberia, that would instead be the Directory of Omsk. The Directory was led by five individuals which represented all of the various groups in Siberia that wanted to resist a Bolshevik seizure of power. These parties were from both the left and right edges of the political spectrum and they would come together to form the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly, or the Komuch, in June 1918. It was a coalition group, as I mentioned, and it would always claim to represent the interests and ideals of the original revolution, the February revolution. While the various groups agreed on this goal, they would never form a strong connection, especially the SRs and the right wing military leaders. The internal squabbling that would develop meant that it would just take the right set of circumstances for one group to take control, and perhaps name a single person as the sole leader of the Komuch.

At the height of their power the Komuch controlled huge swaths of Siberia and areas east of the Urals. The Committee was initially dominated by SRs, and this meant that it enjoyed a large amount of support from the peasants, which made up of the vast majority of the population of the region. This would be one of the other times that a truly socialist group would be the ones leading an anti-Bolshevik government. They bolstered this support with a very aggressive land policy, something that many other White groups would not commit to. Under this policy the peasants were given permanent ownership of the land that they worked, which helped solidify their support for the Komuch. Beyond the land policy the Komuch was a big on ideas, but not able to put many of their policies into place. They would also run into problems that were inherent to the geography in which they were based. Essentially, the population that they counted on for support was very spread out, and it also proved to be quite averse to volunteering for military service. This is evident by the meager numbers of men that volunteers for service in the Komuch army, which they called the People’s army. The issue was that, in 1918, many peasants, and especially those closest to the Communist controlled territories, saw little reason to fight against them. During this early period, before the Communists really began requisitioning heavily from the peasants, the agrarian policies between the Communists and Komuch were roughly the same. Under both governments the peasants got the land that their former landlords had owned, and they had relative autonomy. This lack of ability to secure not just support but passionate support from these groups would be the Komuch’s downfall.

That downfall would herald the coming of Admiral Aleksandr Vasilevich Kolchak. Before the war Kolchak was known as an innovative thinker in the Russian Navy and during the war he had been the Commander of the Russian Black Seas fleet. In September 1918 he would take control of the Komuch and create the Provisional Siberian Government. This was accomplished by the removal of the SRs from the Komuch, which removing a large portion of the representation from the left. This was done by the leaders on the right, and when it was done they would name Kolchak their leader. There were two important reasons that Kolchak was the one that was named as the leader of the Provisional Siberian Government. The first was that it was believed that he had much better connections with the Allies than any other person in the region, since he had recently returned from a visit to the United States. He used this fact to convince others that he could help arrange support from the Allies. He would initially proclaim that he supported the return of the Constituent Assembly, although his messaging on that topic would become a bit muddier as time went on. In November 1918 he would fully take control, giving himself the title of Supreme Ruler, and during this time he was able to gain the support of the British and French. Their power in Siberia was not very great, except for the fact that the Czechs listened to them and rarely did anything that was flatly against their wishes. It would be the support from the Allies, and the desire to stay in their favor, that would drive many of his actions. Through these actions he would find himself designated as the Allies’ choice to lead the White movement in all of Russia. They went so far as to get Denikin, who was in reality in a much stronger position in Southern Russia, to agree to take orders from Kolchak. The second important reason that Kolchak was chosen to lead the Provisional Siberian Government was because he was there. In the middle of Siberia in 1918 there were few Russians that had held notable public office. Most of the military leaders were with Kornilov and Denikin in Southern Russia, or were still trapped in Communist controlled areas, which was the fate of many political leaders. Just being in the right place at the right time was important, and in that regard Kolchak came up aces. Kolchak did have some good qualities though, by all accounts he was very personally brave, although perhaps a bit skittish. He would also be completely unwilling to give up the concept of an undivided, reunited Russia, as we discussed in previous episodes. This meant that he would turn away many other groups within Russia that may have leant his government their support. He would also have many of the same problems as other White leaders, namely the complete inability to create an sustain a meaningful civilian government.

During this time in power Kolchak would slowly amass a force that was, at least on paper, the strongest available to any White commander during the entirety of the Civil War. This strength stood at 110,000 men, no small number given the demographic difficulties that Kolchak was working under. The area that he ruled contained 12 million people, which seems like a lot, but they were scattered over a vast distance. This made it a challenge to concentrate his army, and to exert the power necessarily to ensure that conscription was carried out. In reality that area where Kolchak’s power was strong enough to enforce conscription contained only about 8 million. Just as a comparison the Communists, who controlled the central and northern areas of Russia, had a population of 60 million from which to draw their conscripts. There were also problems within the army that made it very challenging to actually utilize the 110,000 man theoretical strength of the army. First of all there was the requirement to garrison many of the areas under Kolchak’s control, to maintain that control. Second, there was very little experience among the officers and men of the army, with many of the soldiers being conscripts who were getting their first taste of the military. third, there were almost certainly too many officers for the number of men that were in the front line units. All of this meant that the actual number of combat effective troops which could be concentrated in one area for an attack was only, at most, 40,000.

Kolchak planned to use this force to attack in the spring of 1919. This attack would be launched at this time because Kolchak believed that it was necessary to show some kind of progress, and to prove that progress through victory. This progress was required to ensure the continued support from the Allies, which had up to that point pour supplies and money into Kolchak’s army and government with very little to show for it. The attack was planned to begin as early as possible in the Spring of 1919, as soon as the weather would allow, which put the date in March. Much has been made of the fact that this attack was launched just a few months before Denikin would make a similar attack from the south. It is most likely that the leaders of the Siberian Army, as Kolchak’s forces were called, did not wait for Denikin because they did not believe that the assistance of Denikin was necessary. They drastically underestimated the strength of the Red Army at this time and it would be their undoing. The offensive would begin on March 4th, and it would begin with triumphant successes. The attack was launched on the entire front, with the heaviest fighting occurring in the center. The attacks in the center had one goal, push to Moscow. Throughout all of March and into April the Siberian Army’s forces continued forward, it was not always easy. In many areas the winter snows were still present, but this only slowed and did not stop the advance. By the middle of April they had advanced hundreds of kilometers and had captured a staggering 180,000 square miles of territory. At that moment things were looking great for the Siberian Army.

But very soon, it all fell apart. The core of the problem was that the Siberian Army had drastically overextended itself. With the constant desire to push forward the army soon found itself far from its supply lines, and stranded with the Red Army getting stronger every day. During late April and early May thousands of Red Army troops moved onto the front, and then they counter attacked. From May until July the counter attack pushed forward, pushing the White forces back in front of them. As was so often the case, the Siberian Army, which had been relatively cohesive during the advance soon began to fall apart as the defeats continued. By June 9th the Red Army captured Ufa, the place where the offensive had first began, and it would be just one of many places to fall to the Red Army. There were many attempts by the Siberian commanders to halt the disintegration of the army, but all of them were to no avail. The Red Army, seeing that the enemy was in shambles, continued to pour more and more men into the fighting, 10s of thousands would arrive just during the last few weeks of July. With the army rapidly falling apart, the political leadership in Siberia began to crumble. On October 7th the Provisional Siberian Government would dissolve, and Kolchak would be on the run.

The defeat of the Siberian Army represented an important victory for the Red Army both in the defeat of one of the Communist’s enemies, but also in displaying how far the Red Army had come since the end of the Revolution. In just a year it had gone from a disorganized militia to a reasonably fearsome fighting force, and in that transformation it owed much to Trotsky and the officers from the old Tsarist army that had been admitted back into the army during 1918. The Red Army had also been able to use all of the squabbles of 1918, which in hindsight were just small meeting engagements, as a learning experience. This gave the commanders and men of the army some real experience in real fighting, and prepared them for the much more dangerous clashes of 1919 and 1920. With Kolchak and the Siberian Army in disarray they had removed one of the largest enemies to the state, and they had captured large swaths of territory which brought many important areas like in the Urals back into Communist hands.

For the rest of 1919 Kolchak would be on the run. The Red Army advance would continue throughout August, September, and October, and they arrived in Omsk, the capital of Kolchak’s government in November. They could have arrived sooner, but the army could only move so fast. Their rate of advance was limited by how quickly the Red Army units could move forward, resistance had completely evaporated. Kolchak and what remained of his forces broke up, some heading into Irkutsk and some continuing along the Trans-Siberian railway toward Vladivostok. On January 4th, 1920 Kolchak would resign as the head of the government that he had created, losing he far too grandiose title of Supreme Ruler. Seeing no other way forward he would turn himself into the Czechs and hoped that they would protect him. The Czechs agreed to take him in and then move him on his way east to Vladivostok, but in February they would trade him away to a Red Army unit which was blocking their path and on February 7th, Kolchak would be killed. The removal of Kolchak from the board allowed the Red Army to put far more focus on other areas of fighting, like Southern and Western Russia and to divert strength to the rising internal disturbances led by Green peasant forces.

One way in which both the Reds and the Whites dealt with peasant disturbances, or other issues related to those within the territory that they controlled, was through acts of terror. During the entirety of the First World War, the Revolutions, and then the Civil War there were almost continuous acts of violence against civilians in Russia. These happened for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they were ordered by local commanders or just perpetrated by the men of the various armies and armed groups that roamed the countryside. There was another type of atrocity which would take center stage during the Civil War, and these would be the Terrors. That is capital T Terrors, and these are delineated from the more random violence because they were specific politically motivated acts of terror designed to bring fear into enemies, assert dominance, and assure control. Both the Communist leaders and the various leaders of the Whites would order these terrors. It is often a challenge to determine when random acts of terror ended and when organized Terror began, or who did what first, or why. Both the Whites and the Reds claimed that the other side was the reason for the Terrors, with the Reds claiming that the Whites were seeding counter-revolutionaries into their midst, and the Whites claiming much the same thing. In their actions both sides would certainly be influenced by the acts of the other, but they were also influenced by their shared history, the history of Russia. Russia under the Czars had a long history of imprisonment and violence against political dissidents and the Socialists and Bolsheviks had been on the receiving end of much of that violence in the years before and after the 1905 revolution. The Reds would use this prior treatment as part of the justification for their actions, blaming the violence done by the old bourgeoisie. What is known is that the first organized Red Terror was orders on September 4th, 1918. It was on this day that the Soviets were told that they should arrest any known White supporters, any leaders of the SRs, and members of the old upper classes.

The order to begin these actions was prompted by an attempted assassination of Lenin. On August 31 Lenin had been shot and wounded by a member of the SRs outside of a factory in Moscow and this would be the catalyst for the first Red terror. At first it would come in the form of mass arrests, although any who resisted that arrest would be shot on the spot. While all of the Soviets were asked to join in the rounding up of counter-revolutionaries, it would always be the Cheka that were best known for their actions in this regard. The Cheka, or the “Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle with Counter-Revolution and Sabotage” was the political police, with wide powers to act against any possible counter-revolutionary threat. It would be led by Felix Dzerzhinsky, and they would quickly become the most feared group in Russia during the Civil War. One of Dzerzhinsky’s deputies, Latis, would make the purpose for the Red terror very clear by stating “We are not waging war against individual persons. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. During the investigation, do not look for evidence that the accused acted in deed or word against Soviet power. The first questions that you ought to put are: To what class does he belong? What is his origin? What is his education or profession? And it is these questions that ought to determine the fate of the accused. In this lies the significance and essence of the Red Terror.” While the terrors may have started as acts of violence against a specific class of people they were soon expanded. Any actions that a person could take that was against the will of the Communist party could get them arrested, private trading, resisting the requisitioning of food, protesting workers, all were targets. And while the terror began with mass arrests, it most certainly would not end with just mass arrests.

Mass executions would occur many times during the Terrors. For example in early September it was announced by the government that 500 counter-revolutionaries had been killed in Petrograd. It is very possible that the actual number of victims was quite a bit higher. This was not an uncommon occurrence throughout Communist controlled Russia. In total tens of thousands of executions would take place all over the country, with thousands more arrested. The Peter and Paul fortress was used as a massive jail and interrogating area. The tortures that were used were horrific, and ones that I will not go into detail here. In the countryside peasants were often arrested for any form of resistance to food requisitioning. If a peasant was arrested for this reason it was very likely that their lands would also be confiscated by the state, meaning that even if they survived their imprisonment they would have no life to return to. The situation was much worse in areas that had openly resisted Communist take over or areas with large non-Russian populations. In the Don and Kuban the Cossacks were often targeted specifically so that their land could be confiscated and redistributed to peasants known to the loyal to Moscow. In the Ukraine food was mercilessly confiscated, resulting in famines and suffering among the peasant classes.

These terrors would later be considered a bit of history that was to be avoided by Soviet historians, and often it would later be claimed that they were the work of Communist extremists. However, there is a lengthy paper trail of support for these actions right up to the top of the Communist leadership. There were some called from within the party to reduce the violence perpetrated by the Cheka, but they would never really be heeded. The Cheka had the support of Trotsky, Stalin, and most importantly Lenin. For example, on August 11th Lenin would send instructions to the Communist leaders in Penza stating that the best way to end a kulak uprising, kulak in this context could mean anything from large land owners to peasants who had recently gotten the land from land redistribution, was to “Hang (hang without fail, so the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, blood suckers … Take from them all the grain … Designate hostages … Do it in such a way that for hundreds of versts around, the people will see, tremble, know … Telegraph receipt and implementation.” I bring up that specific quote from Lenin not to blame the terrors on Lenin, but to point out that there were no Clean Communists among the upper echelons of the party at this time. They all knew about the terrors and the mass murders that were done in the name of the Party, they allowed it, and even supported it.

The structure of the White terrors is a bit more confusing, if only because the White movement as a whole was far less organized. there was no central and authoritarian party leadership, or a Cheka equivalent that centralized the execution of the Terror. Even without this centralized driving body the structure of the White Terror was much the same, especially as their territory expanded and contracted. Entire villages were burned to the ground and everyone inside the village would either be killed or conscripted into the army, peasants were executed seemingly at random. In other areas hostages would be taken in the hopes of assuring the good behavior of those that remained behind. In most cases the murders were done due to the overall distrust between the White units and the people within the village or city. This distrust could be caused by any number of reasons, maybe the areas was known to have supported the Reds, maybe they resisted the requisitioning of supplies, maybe they were the wrong ethnicity, maybe they were Jewish. All of these and many more could trigger the violence, which always seemed to boil right under surface. Much like on the Red side these acts of violence were well known among the upper echelons of White leadership, whoever that may have been at a given time. There are few recorded cases of any White officer or leader stopping these acts of mass violence. There was a long history of them desperately trying to conceal the acts from the Allies though, being concerned that if the scale of the violence became common knowledge in the West support for the Whites would quickly evaporate.

It is almost impossible to know how many people were killed by the combined Red and White Terrors. Even if you leave out some of the later acts of politically motivated violence, like those in the Ukraine and Southern Russian that resulted in widespread famine, which we will discuss in a later episode, the number was still very high. Estimates are all over the place, and any number that is given is purely and estimate and should be taken with a huge grain of salt. The chaos of the Civil War and the efforts of both sides to shroud the scale of their actions means the real number will never be known. I have seen numbers of between 100,000 and 300,000 people killed and an even wider variance on the number of arrested and tortured. Regardless of the actual number though, the scale of death and suffering makes for a sad story.