205: The Russian Civil War Pt. 5


In 1919 the White forces in Russia would reach their point of greatest strength, and then they would fall apart.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 205. Thank Jean-Luc for support on Patreon. Also revamped the website. If you like the show take a few seconds to review the podcast on iTunes, or if you don’t listen on iTunes just spread the word, helps the podcast find new listeners, and for new listeners to find the podcast. This is our fifth episode, and penultimate episode on the Russian Civil War. To summarize this episode I will just say that the Whites would lose the civil war in 1919, it is really that simple. In the early spring of that year they would be at the height of their strength, with Kolchak preparing to attack out of Siberia and Denikin building his strength in the Ukraine. Another White Army that we have not discussed, under General Yudenitch, would also be preparing to attack out of Estonia and toward Petrograd. In October of 1919, even after the defeat of Kolchak and the Siberian Army, the White caused appeared to be close to victory. Yudenitch was fighting in the very suburbs of Petrograd, and Denikin was pushing into Orel and Voronezh on his way to Moscow. By the end of the year, the White cause would be in tatters, by February 1920 Kolchak would be dead, in the south Denikin would evacuate what was left of his army to the Crimea and then resign, and Yudenitch’s forces would be interned in Estonia, which was at peace with Communist Russia. This rise and this dramatic fall will be our story for today. We will follow the preparations by Denikin in the Ukraine and by Yudenitch in Estonia as they launched what would be the last great White offensives.

In southern Russia the White movement was controlled by the military. They therefore framed their tasks and their goals in military terms, this caused them to generally neglect the political dimension of the conflict. It also caused them to put too much emphasis on the army, which was fine in the beginning when the White forces were made up of ideologically motivated individuals, generally of a military background, who had joined the White cause due to their strong belief that the Communists must be defeated. AS the White armies expanded, and began to rely heavily on conscription to form their armies, the ideological make up of their armies began to change. The White movement became more and more dependent on the areas in which they were based, and from which they drew their manpower. We discussed how this altered the White armies in the Cossack lands last episode, and now we need to discuss how it changed the situation in the Ukraine.

Even before the Civil War the Ukraine was a heavily contested area, due to the resources that it would provide the group that controlled it. These resources were primarily wheat and other foodstuffs, with the Ukraine being a critical source of this food for the rest of Russia. After the Provisional Government came to power Ukraine, like several other places within the Russian Empire, was able to achieve a level of autonomy. Then, after the October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power it was able to become fully independent. They were able to accomplish this due to the assistance they received from the Germans, who hoped to control the area and use that control to exploit the Ukrainian countryside to exact food that could be exported back to a starving Germany. The number one truth for each of the groups that would control Ukraine during this period, from the Provisional Government, to Ukrainian Nationalists, the Communists, the Germans, and later the Whites is that they found that the Ukraine was an easy territory to conquer, but one that was almost impossible to control. When the Germans arrived they installed a new government under General Skoropadiskii, who was a strong supporter of all of the various anti-Bolshevik groups in Ukraine. However, very few people in Ukraine supported him. He was kept in power almost entirely through the German support that he received, but the Germans would soon leave due to the armistice that was signed in the West. Their retreat would cause the Ukrainian nationalists to turn to the Whites in hope of receiving support against the Communists. Attempting to arrange this support would then run into the sort of classic problem for nationalist groups in Russia in their relations with the Whites. What, precisely, would the future arrangement be between an independent Ukrainian government and the Whites, even if they worked together and were victorious? These questions would not be the only problems faced by a Ukrainian nationalist government, there were two other issues that they would have to overcome if they wanted to if they wanted to be able to withstand pressure from both the Reds and the Whites. The first problem was that the areas that the Ukrainians controlled were generally not the ones that would support a central nationalist governments especially one that had cooperated with the Germans. There was a tinge upon the nationalist governments that the Germans had supported during their period of occupation, with many claiming that they were simply German puppets, which was not really incorrect. The second problem that would be faced was that the peasants were greater supporters of anarchism here than in other areas of Russia. Before the revolutions they had been more prosperous than was typical in Russia and they rejected both the Communist land reforms and the support that the Whites gave to the old landlords. They would therefore not support any government that supported either group, or was supported by the Germans, and this put the Ukrainian government in a very tight spot because it was not strong enough to survive during the Civil War period without allies. The results were almost inevitable, Ukraine would become a battlefield.

Almost as soon as the Germans began to retreat, the Reds would move in. As they would do in many areas when they captured the territory they brought them under Communist control by instituting many of the economic reforms that the government in Moscow was hoping to implement around the country. These reforms were very unpopular among the peasants in Ukraine and in the spring of 1919 their rejection of the reforms would result in a revolt against Red rule. At the same time that this revolt was launched Denikin and his White forces were growing in strength, and they were able to advance into the Ukraine and capture some cities. Denikin would then face the same problems that the Germans and Communists had faced. Denikin also did not believed that Ukrainian Nationalism was a strong movement, believing instead that it only existed at all due to German actions. This caused him to disregard as an important force in Ukrainian society, and by ignoring it he lost any possibility of support in the countryside. his army would be able to move in and control some of the cities, and some of the rail lines that connected them, and they could project force anywhere around Ukraine at need, but they would never truly control the country. Instead, most of the country would descend into anarchism. Then in the late summer of 1919 an anarchist leader would rise in the form of Nestor Makhno. He believed very strongly in the theoretical anarchism, capital A anarchism, and that the only path forward was the abolition of the state. During the late summer and early autumn of 1919 he would build an army out of the peasants that reached 50,000 at its peak. This was a very unfortunate development for Denikin, who was at that point trying to launch an attack out of of Ukraine and into Communists controlled areas. Eventually, after the Whites were defeated, the Red Army moved in and the anarchists did not have much of a chance.

Before we shift away from the Ukraine we have to discuss the sad state of affairs in Ukraine as it related to the Jews who lived there. Numbers are hard to nail down, but it is pretty clear that the the events in Ukraine during the Russian Civil war would represent one of the greatest atrocities against Jews that had ever happened up to that point in history. They were attacked by all of the armies that moved through the territory. The Reds, Whites, Anarchists, and Germans all played a role in the killing. The White Army would be the primary culprit, due to the rabid anti-semitism that ran through the ranks of the White leaders. They believed that all of the Jews were against them, and that they had caused the rise of Bolshevism in the first place. They would also be used as a convenient scapegoat by the White leaders, with the Whites blaming them for many of Russia’s pre-revolutionary problems and for many White defeats. With such a viewpoint in the upper echelons of White leadership, the results on the ground were almost inevitable. Military units moved through the countryside killing Jews wherever they were found, large cities, tiny villages, it did not matter where they lived. In the end 10s of thousands would die, and countless others would be terrorized and assaulted.

Before the Whites would move into Ukraine, in 1918 they would find themselves in a very touch and go situation in the Kuban. If you remember, the last time we discussed Denikin and his Volunteer army they had attempted to assault Ekaterinodar, and had failed. This prevented them from capturing the city as a base for their future operations and it also left Denikin with a decision to make, to attack back towards Ekaterinodar once again, or to advance north to attempt to capture Tsaritsyn on the Volga. Denikin believed that there was only one real option, and that was Ekaterinodar. He had under his command thousands of Kuban Cossacks, who he had promised a liberation campaign of their homeland. If he tried to instead advance out of Kuban, it is likely that many of them would not have followed. With his mind made up on June 22nd Denikin led the Volunteer army back into the heart of Kuban and toward Ekaterinodar. They had more soldiers now, with recruitment and volunteers bringing their numbers up to 9,000. Unlike in the previous attack this would be enough to capture the city, even though they faced Red Army troops that were many times their own number. The capture of the city was a critical development for the Whites because it gave them a secure base of operation and a political center from which to work. It would provide a jumping off point for their 1919 attacks.

Early 1919 would be a period of growth and consolidation for the Volunteer Army. During the spring the army would continue to grow,and it would also successfully turn aside several Communist attacks into the Don Region. The army was also able to make their triumphant return into the Don region and there they received the support of the Cossacks who had grown in strength during 1918. This allowed them to begin pushing forward in July 1919, into the Ukraine. It would be around this time that Denikin would begin to rely heavily on conscription to bolster the ranks of his armies. This meant that far more Cossacks were brought into the army, just due to the geographic areas that Denikin could conscript men from. It also meant that the ideological make up of the White army would change. When the army was much smaller, built around a cadre of Tsarist officers who had abandoned the Reds for the Whites they brought with them a certain set of goals and a specific world view. As the percentage of conscripts in the army grew, and eventually became the vast majority, they did not necessary share those game goals and world view. One specific example for the army in 1919 would be that the Cossacks were driven by a desire for their own autonomy, and so when they were asked to attack outside of their home regions they were generally less motivated. All of this meant that the Whites would be dealing with the same massive desertion levels that the Reds had also been trying to get a handle on after implementing conscription and they would be just as unsuccessful.

While Denikin was building up the army, he would also be forced to enter the political arena. Denikin controlled an area populated by 40 million people, and it was some of the economically valuable land in all of Russia. However, he would be unable, much like Kolchak, to create any real civilian government to control this area. The greater the territory grew the harder it was to control, with White policies towards nationalist groups not assisting in the tasks at all. This would be the period where anarchist groups like those in Ukraine would greatly hinder the ability of the Whites to create a stable government from which to administer their territory. With so many problems, and no easy solutions, Denikin did what I feel many military commanders would do, he decided to attack.

This attack, as announced on July 3, 1919 had one goal, the capture of Moscow. All of the strength of the Volunteer army would be put into the attack, with four different groups all attacking toward Moscow from slightly different positions. There was not much planning beyond that, each of the four generals just needed to continue attacking and pushing forward until they reached the objective. The hope was that, if Moscow could be captured and the Communist leaders overthrown then Denikin and the Whites would be able to re-stabilize and regain control. Honestly, it was a pipedream, but they felt that they had to try something. With the benefit of hindsight we know that this would be the best chance for the Whites because the Red Army was only getting stronger. The attack, when it started, would initially be a success. The initial advances went very smoothly and by mid October they had captured Orel, just 250 miles, or 400 kilometers from Moscow. Unfortunately this would represent the offensive’s high water mark. The Red Army raced 100,000 fresh soldiers to meet the White attack, and eventually the weight of numbers slowed and then halted the attack. The Volunteer army was simply too small for the task put before them, and their lines were overextended and their supply line was stretched beyond the breaking point. By early November, just a few weeks after it was captured, they were pushed out of Orel, and then Voronezh. IN a situation that mirrored the collapse of the Siberian army, as soon as the Volunteer Army suffered its first major defeat it began to fall apart. The retreat was rapid, and there was really nothing that Denikin or anybody else could do to slow the collapse.

By January 1920 Denikin’s forces had lost all of the territory that they had gained in 1919 and they were back in the Don region. With such a catastrophic turn around on the military front, the political situation also began to deteriorate. The Cossacks and White leaders, who had worked quite well together during the time of expansion and victories, began to turn on each other. The Cossacks demanded more decision making power, Denikin refused. Denikin was forced to alter his political positions, with very leftist talking points like more aggressive land reform and greater power to constituent assemblies, becoming his stated policy. All of these promises were too little, and too late. During February the fighting would continue. In some areas the Whites would actually do okay, specifically on the Western side of their territory near Rostov. However, in the east they experienced a catastrophic collapse. There the Red troops were led by General Budennyi, the great Soviet cavalry commander who would play an important role in the drive on Warsaw later in the year. The collapse of the eastern front was so rapid that the Whites were left with only one option, complete evacuation. The only hope was to hold the Kuban river for as long as possible but unfortunately the Red army would soon pass this barrier. They were also able to cut off the Taman peninsula, which prevented the Whites from using the overland evacuation route. With the only other option being evacuation by sea, and with the lack of shipping available to the Whites, most of the civilians and the military stores would have to be left behind. Everything, and everyone, that could be evacuated would have to move through the port of Novorossick. The Red leaders understood what was happened and immediately pushed for the city, capturing it on March 26th there they would capture 22,000 soldiers who were still waiting to be evacuated. The Volunteer army would arrive in Crimea with just 40,000 troops, few supplies, and little hope.

During the early months of 1920 the White movement, which had previously been relatively united under Denikin’s leadership, began to fracture. Denikin had always led a large coalition of individuals with a wide range of political beliefs, and as the White defeated mounted these differences became a larger problem. Critical at this stage were the conservative elements, with no small number of monarchists in their ranks, who disagreed with Denikin’s continual slide towards leftist policies. This group would coalesce around one of the Denikin’s generals, General Wrangel. The disagreements between the two generals would mount during the late winter of 1920. On April 3 Denikin, who was by this point a broken man, would resign from his position, saying “I am broken spiritually and I am physically ill. The army lost faith in its leader and I lost faith in the army.” With Deninkin removed from the leadership position the only person with enough support was Wrangel, and he would soon take command. Soon after Wrangel was elevated to his new position, in a situation that looked incredibly bleak with just a faction of the White forces and supplies having been successfully evacuated to Crimean, the White movement in Southern Russia was given a reprieve. For this reprieve they could thank the Poles, who had chosen this time, with the Red Army distracted in Southern Russia, to invade from the West. This gave Wrangel some breathing space. The Red Army chose to focus on the Polish threat instead of invading the Crimea, but they still hoped that the White army would fall apart on its own.

Wrangel quickly tried to bolster his forces, and by June he was able to increase the number of fighting troops under his command. He would also put in place some land reform policies that solidified his support among at least the richer peasants and landowners, although the bulk of the countryside still disapproved. Many peasants who were not happy with his policies believed that the Whites would soon be defeated and that they would expect a better set of terms from the Communists. Wrangel also hoped to try and get more foreign support for the White Cause, and the French were relatively receptive to the idea, hoping that Wrangel would be able to pull Red forces away from the Poles who the French very strongly supported. The British were by this point already firmly of the opinion that giving further support to the Whites was folly, and instead the West should work toward reforming their relations with Russia, even a Russian under Communist control.

With foreign support wavering, Wrangel knew that he had to find some way to expand his economic base and to get some money. He was able to double the territory under his control in June, with a quick attack that brought some agricultural land under White control, which they were able to tax heavily. However, after this success the situation would once again deteriorate. Wrangel would launch an attack into the Kuban, to try and re-establish a foothold in Cossack lands, an attack which would fail. After this failure Wrangel was forced, by the defeat of the REd Army at the gates of Warsaw, to try again, this time by moving into Ukraine. He felt forced to do this because he knew that if the Polish-Soviet war ended the Red army would focus on him, and so if he was going to do anything he had to do it soon. His long range goal was to meet up with the Polish forces who were attacking into Ukraine and then convince them to keep fighting all the way to Moscow. This last offensive would turn into a disaster. Soon the Red Army would rush in more troops, and the Whites would once again be forced to retreat. Within days the Whites would be pushed back into Crimean and then on November 12th Wrangel would order the evacuation. 126 ships would evacuate 145,693 soldiers and civilians, all that was left of the White cause. Some would return to Russia in later years, others would disperse around the world. Wrangel would die in Brussels in 1928.

While the largest attacks launched by the Whites during the Civil War would be carried out by Denikin and Kolchak, there would be one other attack that would actually come far closer, as the crow flies, to capturing a Communist city. This would be the attack launched by General Yudenitch out of Estonia. After the Bolsheviks had taken power they moved against the Baltic countries, which Estonia was included in. In Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia the Red Army would attack and then encounter problems combatting the combination of strong nationalist movements, Swedish and Finnish volunteers, and masses of German military equipment left behind by their retreat. Even in the areas where the initial Red attack were successful, they often only resulted in a deeply unpopular Communist government with little real power. These initial failures made the Baltic countries a safe haven, much like the Cossack lands in the south, for anti-Bolshevik elements. In Estonia White forces would rally around General Yudenich, who had commanded the Russian Army in the Caucasus during the war. It would be in that theater that the Russian army had some of its greatest successes. By early summer 1919 he would have a force of several thousand troops, and it would use these troops to launch an attack to coincide with Denikin’s drive toward Moscow.

Yudenich would always been outnumbered by the Red troops that he was attacking into. This was due to the fact that he chose to attack Petrograd, the very heart of the Revolution. To capture the city he would command 18,000 troops, but he would be assaulting at least 25,000 Red Army troops. He would launch the attack earlier than he hoped due to Denikin’s attack, but also due to peace negotiations that had started between the Communists and the Estonians which would have resulted in some very awkward situations between the Whites and Estonians. He hoped that a few advantages that his army possessed would bring them to a quick victory. His first advantage was that his army was quite experienced, with a very high percentage of the officers and men being veterans of wartime service. He also hoped that the Red Army was focused on the south. The attack would begin on October 12, 1919 and the initial attacks, just like similar White efforts in other theaters, were a success. At first the advances were rapid, and then later they slowed and eventually came to a halt just 12 miles from the center of Petrograd.

The key to the successful defense by the Red forces was the arrival of Trotsky and the measures taken by the Communist party in Petrograd to prepare. Preparations were made to defend the city street by street if necessary and the ranks of the party were opened to all who wanted to join and then fight. the theory behind this action was that anybody who joined the party at that point, and there would be over 14,000 of them were true communists. This was because if they joined and then the Whites took the city they would be, at the very least arrested. However, a desperate civilian defense of the city, with the likelihood of vicious street fighting did not prove to be necessary. Yudenich’s forces were never able to cut all of the railways into the city, with the most critical one, which joined the city with Moscow, remaining open and allowing the 7th Red Army to be brought into the city and to man the defenses in front of the White advance. After Yudenich’s forces were stopped they very rapidly began to retreat, eventually moving back into Estonia. The Estonians were no longer fighting the Communists and therefore decided, instead of welcoming Yudenich back into the country, that they would disarm and intern his entire army. And that, somewhat anti-climactically, was the end of Yudenich’s attack, which came just 12 miles from the center of Petrograd, but no closer.

Another area that we need to cover today is the Caucasus region. In this area, much like in the Baltic countries, nationalist groups would succeed in the creation of multiple new nation states after the revolutions, states that would, at least for a time, remain independent. The three countries in the region were Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia and unlike the Baltic countries, these three areas would not be quickly assaulted by the Communists because they were shielded by the Whites. With the Volunteer Army in control of the southern areas of Russia the Caucasus were much more concerned with White encroachment, from which they depended on the protection of the British, than they were about Communist attacks. The relatively small threat from the Communists allowed the three countries, who did not have large or strong armies, to survive for longer than they otherwise would have. In such a situation it would have been best to all join together, to pool their resources against their larger neighbors, but this proved to be impossible. The three countries just had too much history, and too much antagonism. There were a few attempts to form some kind of federation, but in the end none of them would prove to be workable arrangements. In fact, there would be fighting during 1919 and 1920 which would continue right up until the point where the Red Army arrived. With Denikin defeated in 1920, the advance of the Red Army into the region was almost inevitable. During 1920 they would invade all of the countries, with Azerbaijan being the first, with the city of Baku in particular being seen as the greatest prize in the region. The city and its surroundings had produced half of the worlds oil before the first world war, and such resources were important for a Communist Russia that was short on money and trade goods. After the fall of Azerbaijan Armenia was next, the country was already under attack by Turkish forces from the new Turkish National Council led by Ataturk and the Armenians would surrender to the Russians, believing them to be the lesser of two evils. The Georgian government, which was led by a group of Mensheviks, would last longer than the others, and would for a short time be on relatively good terms with the Communists. These friendly relations would evaporate when the Communists supported a Communist uprising in Tbilisi. When this group then took control of the government they invited the Red Army into the country. There would be more resistance in Georgia than in the other countries, with fighting over Tbilisi lasting for over a week, but in the end they could not prevent the Communist take over. With the end of resistance in the Caucasus, the Baltics, Siberia and Southern Russia, it was time for the Communists to turn their attention to the internal problems that they were having in controlling their country, problems and solutions that we will discuss next episode.