The Russian civil warthat startedin 1917 was the climactic end to a tumultuous period within the Russian empire’s history, in which the Tsar was deposed, the first communist state in the world was established and theFirstWorldWar was hammering Russia harder than most. The Russian revolution, andmore specifically the October revolt in 1917,was the last phase in not only the takeover of the Russian state but in theBolshevik takeover of power. The fact that this one party had managed to take power in the Russian soviets against all other parties,includingthe right-wing Tsarists,wouldprovidethe political backdrop for the Russian civil war. It was the final battle in what had been years of fighting for ultimate control of Russia. The factors that decided the civil war werecentredaround the Whites (anti-Bolsheviks) more than they were the Reds (Bolsheviks). Thesefactors were the Whites own weaknesses, foreign intervention, unpopularity before the war,as well asTrotsky’s leadershipof the Reds. Historians such as Pipes credit the White Army as being better, butsuggests that theyfailed due to its internal weakness, whereas Watts claims that the intervention,while initially being helpful,became a significant hindrance. This article will illustrate how the civil war began in thefavourof theWhites,but through thepreviously establishedfactors, it brought what should have been their victory to a trembling downfall.
The White Army’s weaknesses were the most significant factor in the Whites losing the civil war. At the start of the civil war, the White Army was much bigger than the Reds,althoughexact numbers for the sizes of the two armies are hard toestablish. However,it is known thatthe Red Army was solely made up off Bolsheviksand,asthere were 40,000 members of the party,it can be estimated that theyhadaround that number of soldiers fighting for them against the Whites,whoconsisted ofevery other party, paramilitary or political force within Russia. This mixed nature of theWhiteswouldeventuallybecometheir main downfall. The broad banner of former Tsarists,progressives,and other socialist parties like theKadetsand Mensheviks meant there were deep ideological and personal divisions between their own men and the commanders. Generals often didnot trust each other, refusing to fight alongside each other and often withheld military information like strategy andenemymovements fromone anotherdue to concerns about where their loyalties truly lay. One division which proved very difficult for the White Army leaders to deal with were between the monarchists and the Don Cossacks. The Don Cossackswereonly interested in protecting their region so when the Whites under GeneralDenikintook the Don region from the Bolsheviks in the South, a large contingent of the Cossacks refused to fight any further. This is very significant as lacking a common ideology meant there was a serious lack of purpose.The only thing uniting them was the hatred of the Bolsheviks, whichledto the question: what happens when the Bolsheviks are nomore?This pointis perfectlysummed up by AntonDenikin,DeputySupremeLeader of the White Army,when he said, “I can do nothing with my army, I’m glad when it carries out my combat orders”. The White Army also had an image problem;the Bolsheviks, no matter what they did,wouldbedoing it for the people as they wereasocialist party opposed to the oppression of the Tsar. However, the same could not be saidfor the Whites.Many peasants refused to support the White Army,seeing them as fighting to return the Tsar to power–abelief which was emphasized by forcefully removing peasants from their landsto gain suppliesduring the civil war. A particular leader in the White Army came to embody the ideology of autocracy:his name wasKolchakand he was awarded the position of “SupremeLeader”of the Whites. After this, he believed it would be in their best interests to unite the people underonecommon belief which was areturn to the monarchy. However, he did this by rounding up thousands of his own socialists and having them imprisoned,many of whom were subsequentlyexecuted. This, along withshowing utter disdain for the peasants who made up a large majority of the army,did nothelp the Whitesat a time when it was trying to cultivate popular support, causing desertion to skyrocket. The historian Figes cites this as a key reasonas towhy theWhites lost saying, “Whites made no real effort to develop policies to appeal to peasants or minorities.”
Foreign intervention is another key reason which surprisingly led to the downfall of theWhites,in part due to their own mismanagement. After the revolution,severalwestern European monarchies,includingGreat Britain,werebecoming increasingly concerned with the rise of socialism and what it could mean for their own countries,as it encouraged the overthrow off the government infavourof popular rule.TheRussiancivil war was a way for the foreign powers to side with the Whites and stop the Bolshevik takeover in its tracks,hoping to kill the socialists and communists’ ideologies across the world. Britain got involved in the conflict soon after it arose with influential people like Winston Churchill calling for land troops to be sent to Russia to fight with the Whites. However, as the civil war started while the rest of Europe was still deeply entrenched in theFirstWorldWar,there was little to no support from parliament or the general publicwho considered this war less of a threat to them. TheBritish government did, however, send £100m worth of supplies to the White Army,viewing it as an important cause and a necessary pricetostop Lenin and the Reds.Thisshouldhave and could haveworked in theWhitesfavour.However,severemismanaging of the money,such asthe right-wing sects using it to continue to live theirpreviously glamourous lifestyles,fed into the ideathatthe Whites did not care about the working classes. Instead,it ended upworkingas excellent propaganda for Trotsky to use against them.Several countries, includingthe USA, France,and Japan,did take further stepsthan Britain hadand got more involved in the conflictbysending soldiers to help the Whites with fighting forces and tactics, taking part in small skirmishes. However, this intervention was halfhearted anddid notso much have the intention of stopping the Bolsheviks as it did to secure materials and set up spheres of influence in Russia to the benefit of themselves.Once again,this shows how what should have helped the Whites turned very quickly against them. Not only were their allies not helping them,but through apropaganda campaign the Reds were able to paint the entire White Army as foreign invaders who came to Russia to steal the land from the peasants. This furtherleadto a decrease of support for the White cause.The historian Lynch describes how allied interventionand the White Army’s reliance of foreign aidbecame subject to Red propaganda, with little chance for the Whites tocapitalize on their own propaganda opportunitiesdueto the equally violent tactics employed by both factions.Intervention truly became worthless to the Whites when the British started opening communications with the Reds as they already knew who the victors were.
One factor thatwas notthe Whites own doing but was still a significant reason to why the Whites lost the war was Trotsky’s leadership. In 1918,Lenin made Trotsky the commissar for war when the reds were on the “point of disintegration”. Through his impressiveorganisationalskills, Trotsky was able to shape up what had been a mix of sailors and peasants into a strong military force. He introduced a strict discipline to the army and a hierarchy as he considered these to be essential if they were to succeed. Through these policies, he introduced the deathpenalty,which was used with great effectiveness, sometimesevenusing it against minor offences to show to his men that he was not afraid to use his power to create discipline. In Trotsky’s quest to restore some order into the Reds he brought backthousands ofTsarist officerstotrain his men and introduced the hierarchy of a ranking system into the military. This decision was highly controversial at the time with many prominent Bolsheviks including Stalin demanding Trotsky’s removal from the party, although this didnot happen as Trotsky had the backing of Lenin. In order to keep his men in line and help secure his own place, Trotsky abducted some of theTsarist officers’ families toensure order, alongwith attaching a political commissar to each unit to keep in line with the Bolshevik ideology. Through this leadership, Trotsky had an army capable of fighting the Whites, although it did cause division within the Bolsheviks as they were splitas towhether ruling through fear was a good thingor not. Hence,this reasonisless significant to the Whites downfall in the long run. HistorianVolkongonovdoes notbelieve that Trotsky was overall important to the cause as he wasnot a military man and believed major decisions were taken by others. Trotsky knew the value of symbolism when running a military campaign, as he knew that the morale of the men was of utmost importance, deeming it imperativeto win battles in key places that were not strategically important but were symbolically important. As the White Army approached Petrograd, he viewed it as essential to save the city saying they must save the home of the revolution even after Lenin ordered their retreat. But through his brilliant oratory skills he rallied his men in Petrograd to fight the Whites in a battle in which the Reds won. Despite Trotsky appealing to many of his men through his speaking abilities and his highly held belief in maintaining morale, desertions rose to over 4 million by 1921 and there was a full-scale mutiny by tsarists officers leading many to think that this brilliance by Trotsky was simply a myth,perhaps perpetrated by Trotskyists after the war.The historianEnglesteinhas agreedwith this,stating that“the role of a single personality… cannot explain how the Bolsheviks came out on top”.
The White’sweaknesses and disunity are clearly the most significant reason for the Bolshevik victory in the civil war. From refusing to fight with one another to the sheer disunity between them, the White Army soon after its creation became one of the most dysfunctional armies in modern history.Foreign intervention became one of many examples of how the war could have been won as even with limited support the Whites had the numbers,the experience and the backing to win,but through mismanagement lost themselves the war. Trotsky did show how the Reds could fight and win the war, but one man,no matter how brilliant,could have won against theWhites had they demonstrated their true capabilities.This article illustrates how it was the Whites who lost the warandnot that theReds won it, through what amounts to be sheer incompetence.
Written by Finlay Cormack
Corin, ChrisandFiehn, Terry.Russia under Tsarism and communism 1881-1953.London:Hodder Education, 2011.
Ullman,James,Henry,Anglo-SovietRelations,1917-1921,Volume 2:Britainand the RussianCivilWar.NewJersey: PrincetonUniversityPress,2019.
Lincoln,Bruce, W.,RedVictory:AHistory of theRussianCivilWar.NewYork:Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Last of the Czars – 01 – Nicky and Alix. Directed by Mark Anderson. DiscoveryChannel,1996.
CrashCourse,“Russian Revolution and Civil War: Crash Course European History #35.”YouTube, YouTube, 13 Feb. 2020, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6KR4cLLVzQ.
Why did the Whites lose the Russian Civil War? ›
In short, the Bolsheviks were able to win the Russian Civil War because the Whites failed to secure the support of the different national groups, key foreign powers, and the peasantry, while Bolsheviks enjoyed much more authority within Russia and were therefore able to assert their power over the Whites.What did the Whites do in the Russian Civil War? ›
The White armies (also known as the 'White Guards' or 'Whites') were counter-revolutionary groups that participated in the Russian Civil War. These White armies fought against the Bolshevik Red Army for control of Russia.Who won the Russian Civil War Red or white? ›
The Red Army eventually battered Wrangel's forces, whose rearguards held out long enough to ensure the evacuation of 150,000 soldiers and civilians by sea from Crimea. This ended the Russian Civil War in November 1920.What was the White Russian Red Russian war? ›
The Russian Civil War was a civil war fought from 7 November 1917 to 16 June 1922 between several groups in Russia. The main fighting was between the Red Army and the White Army. The Red Army was a communist, Bolshevik group. The White Army was Anti-Communist and included many former Tsar Loyalists.How did the Reds defeat the Whites? ›
Not only were their allies not helping them, but through a propaganda campaign the Reds were able to paint the entire White Army as foreign invaders who came to Russia to steal the land from the peasants. This further lead to a decrease of support for the White cause.Who eventually won the Russian Civil War? ›
On November 7, 1917, members of the Bolshevik political party seized power in the capital of Russia, Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). This conflict, ultimately, led to a Bolshevik victory in the Russian civil war that followed, and the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922.Who led the Whites in the Civil War? ›
They were led by Generals Yudenich and Denikin and Admiral Kolchak.What happened to the White Russians? ›
Most white émigrés left Russia from 1917 to 1920 (estimates vary between 900,000 and 2 million), although some managed to leave during the 1920s and 1930s or were expelled by the Soviet government (such as, for example, Pitirim Sorokin and Ivan Ilyin).Who assisted the Whites in the Russian civil war? ›
13,000 Americans (in the Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok regions) 11,500 Estonians in northwestern Russia. 2,500 Italians in the Arkhangelsk region and Siberia. 1,300 Italians in the Murmansk region.Did Russia ever lost a war? ›
Russia has been defeated in war on several occasions in the modern era.
What did the White Army want? ›
The White Army had the stated aim to keep law and order in Russia as the Tsar's army before the civil war and the revolution of Russia. They worked to remove Soviet organizations and functionaries in White-controlled territory. Overall, the White Army was nationalistic and rejected ethnic particularism and separatism.Why did Russia choose red white and blue? ›
At the times of Alexander III of Russia the official interpretation was as follows: the white color symbolizes nobility and frankness; the blue for faithfulness, honesty, impeccability, and chastity; and the red for courage, generosity, and love.Why is it called White Russian? ›
The White Russian isn't Russian in any meaningful way and has only the merest connection to the land of Bolsheviks and tzars. The name is a variant of the Black Russian, which in turn was created by a Belgian bartender in honor of the American ambassador to Luxembourg.What does the dude call a White Russian? ›
The white Russian saw a surge in popularity after the 1998 release of the film The Big Lebowski. Throughout the movie, it appears as the beverage of choice for the protagonist, Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski. On a number of occasions he refers to the drink as a "Caucasian".What was the difference between the red and White Army Russia? ›
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.What were the White Army weaknesses? ›
White Army weaknesses
Low moral- their lack of a clear aim or plan was less enticing than the Bolshevik cause- the establishment and survival of the revolution and a communist Russia. Many feared that foreign intervention would bring an end to Russian independence in the event of White victory.
The Red Army defeated the White Armed Forces of South Russia in Ukraine and the army led by Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak in Siberia in 1919. The remains of the White forces commanded by Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel were beaten in Crimea and evacuated in late 1920.Who won the war between the red and White Army? ›
The White Army represented a large group of loosely allied forces, including monarchists, capitalists and supporters of democratic socialism. On July 16, 1918, the Romanovs were executed by the Bolsheviks. The Russian Civil War ended in 1923 with Lenin's Red Army claiming victory and establishing the Soviet Union.Did Russia help America in the Civil War? ›
During the American Civil War, Russia supported the Union, largely because it believed that the U.S. served as a counterbalance to its geopolitical rival, the United Kingdom. In 1863, the Russian Navy's Baltic and Pacific fleets wintered in the American ports of New York and San Francisco, respectively.Who won the entire civil war? ›
After four bloody years of conflict, the United States defeated the Confederate States. In the end, the states that were in rebellion were readmitted to the United States, and the institution of slavery was abolished nation-wide.
Why did the US intervene in the Russian Civil War? ›
The United States took a limited role in the international force that intervened in the Russian Civil War. The stated purpose of the intervention was to ensure that Russian arms did not fall into German hands and to provide the means for trapped Allied troops to escape.Were Bolsheviks red or white? ›
The Civil War was a result of the emergence of opposition against the Bolsheviks after November 1917. These groups included monarchists, militarists, and, for a short time, foreign nations. Collectively, they were known as the Whites while the Bolsheviks were known as the Reds.Why was it called the White Army? ›
An umbrella term for the various counter‐revolutionary armies that fought the Bolshevik Red Army in the Russian Civil War. The name 'Whites' has been used to describe those loyal to a monarchy, ever since the French Revolution (1789), when monarchist forces adopted the white flag of the Bourbon dynasty as their symbol.Where were the White Russians from? ›
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the term “White Russian” described ethnic Russians living in the area between Russia and Poland (today this includes Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia and Moldova).Has the US ever fought Russia in a war? ›
Although Russia and the United States never came into direct military conflict they would fight proxy wars around the periphery. Russia was instrumental in helping Vietnam defeat the US.Who were known as whites in Russia? ›
During 1918 and 1919, the 'greens' (socialist revolutionaries) and the 'whites' (pro-Tsarists) controlled most of the Russian empire. They were backed by French, American, British and Japanese troops who were opposed to the growth of socialism in Russia.How many Russians have left Russia? ›
In this third wave alone, nearly 300,000 Russian citizens had left Russia before 27 September, with that number approaching 400,000 by 4 October. An upper estimate is for 700,000 Russians to have fled conscription since it was announced.How many soldiers did the Whites have in the Russian Civil War? ›
|Country||Russian State, South Russia|
|Size||Overall: ~1,023,000 (May 1919) In combat units: ~4,000 (December 1917) ~683,000 (June 1919) ~300,000 (December 1919) ~100,000 (Summer 1920) ~8,000 (September 1922) ~1,000 (1923)|
|Garrison/HQ||former Russian Empire Outer Mongolia (1920–21) China Persia|
|Born||9 February 1887 Budayka, Kazan Governorate, Russian Empire (now part of Cheboksary in Chuvash Republic)|
|Died||5 September 1919 (aged 32) Ural Oblast, Russian SFSR (now West Kazakhstan Province)|
|Known for||Red Army commander during the Russian Civil War|
Churchill did powerfully support aiding the White Russians. He was also mindful how far the Allies could go. He also favored a firm decision. When he realized they would not go far enough, he urged disengagement.
How could the White Army have won the Russian Civil War? ›
The White Armies appeared to have a number of advantages in the Civil War: Their leaders were experienced military commanders. They controlled huge areas of Russia. They had the Bolsheviks surrounded.Who were the Whites during the Russian Civil War? ›
The Civil War was a result of the emergence of opposition against the Bolsheviks after November 1917. These groups included monarchists, militarists, and, for a short time, foreign nations. Collectively, they were known as the Whites while the Bolsheviks were known as the Reds.Who supported the Whites in the Russian civil war? ›
The Whites had backing from Great Britain, France, the U.S., and Japan, while the Reds possessed internal support which proved much more effective. The Red Army defeated the White Armed Forces of South Russia in Ukraine and the army led by Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak in Siberia in 1919.What is White Russia called now? ›
Belarus, country of eastern Europe. Until it became independent in 1991, Belarus, formerly known as Belorussia or White Russia, was the smallest of the three Slavic republics included in the Soviet Union (the larger two being Russia and Ukraine).Why are white Russians called white? ›
History. The traditional cocktail known as a black Russian, which first appeared in 1949, becomes a white Russian with the addition of cream. Neither drink has any known Russian origin, but both are so-named due to vodka being the primary ingredient. It is unclear which drink preceded the other.Why do they call them white Russians? ›
More specifically, it meant those who fought against the Soviet Red Army in the Russian Civil War (1918 to 1921). This usage derived from the royalist opponents of the French Revolution, known as the “Whites” because they adopted the white flag of the French Bourbon dynasty.Who created the White Army? ›
General Lavr Kornilov now organized a Volunteer Army and in January 1918 his forces numbered 3,000 men. Over the next few months other groups who opposed the Bolshevik government joined the struggle. Eventually these soldiers became known as the Whites.