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1917 - 1920: the Russian Civil War

20 August 2019

1919, Siberia: White Army leader Admiral Kolchak (seated) observing manoeuvres – and behind him General Alfred Knox, head of the British Mission to Russia.

After the October Revolution, soldiers from 15 countries invaded Russia in an attempt to destroy the Soviet Union, but it emerged victorious.

The October Revolution of 1917 triumphed decisively in Russia, in rapid fashion and relatively painlessly. That it did so was largely due to soviet power structures which welded together groups of industrial workers in huge factories.

But anti-popular forces were soon conspiring to overturn the new era. Ultimately imperialist meddling in the Russian Revolution saw soldiers from 15 countries invade to combat the revolution.

First to respond in November 1917 were the nationalist generals of the tsarist era who left the reach of the revolutionary Petrograd government. They moved away from central Russia’s urban centres to the more conservative Don Cossack region 600 miles away in south-east Russia where the Cossacks survived as professional warriors.

At first helpless amid the very rapid spread of soviet revolution across the Great Russian parts of the old Empire, these counter-revolutionaries bode their time amassing so-called “White” armies (as opposed to the Red of the soviets), blessed as a holy endeavour by the leaders of the Orthodox Church.

The Orenburg Cossack Host (army), based close to the Ural Mountains saw the first uprising. But detachments of armed revolutionary workers were despatched from cities supporting the revolution. They travelled huge distances by railway to overwhelm this rebellion at the end of January 1918. Some of the poorer Cossacks joined with the workers, eventually becoming part of the Red Army.


By December 1917 the Petrograd Revolutionary government had also mobilised armed worker detachments against the Don Cossacks – the Don, Kuban and Terek Hosts.

Military tactics were forged in the crucible of this large theatre of operations, about the size of France. These soviet military forces comprised revolutionised troops deserting the Caucasus front of the world war, detachments of workers and miners from the Donbas area, Tsaritsyn revolutionaries and other units sent by the Petrograd government.

By March the Cossack forces were overwhelmed in the Don region and a Don Soviet Republic was set up. It only survived until May, when the Cossacks were able to ride back alongside German-Austrian forces advancing in the ongoing world war.

The area of the Kuban Host, where Cossacks were a minority of the population, became Soviet in March 1918. Elsewhere General Kornilov’s White troops fled across the steppes; in April they were defeated by soviet troops.

By mid-February 1918, nearly all of the enormous Russian empire was under soviet control, except for Bessarabia (now part of Moldova), the Transcaucasus region and Finland. The revolution extended beyond its main political strength in central Russia to nearly the entire periphery as well. An enthusiasm among the people for the Soviet programme led to this change.

The First World War was still running. The new government issued a Decree on Peace the day after the soviets took power. That decree was vital in gaining support within Russia for the October Revolution and for the establishment of soviet power.

But throughout 1917-1918 the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary were still fighting on Russian soil on the eastern front.


On 2 December 1917 (15 December New Style) an armistice was signed between Russia and the Central Powers, though it took more months to finalise a peace treaty at the town of Brest-Litovsk. In the negotiations the new revolutionary government recklessly adopted a utopian policy of “Neither War nor Peace” in response to the harsh terms that the Central Powers wanted to impose. These demanded Russia give up Poland, Lithuania and western Latvia.

On 28 January 1918 (10 February New Style) at Brest-Litovsk, Trotsky unilaterally declared that Socialist Russia was ending the war. He was People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs and the leading advocate of this empty rhetoric, which nearly brought about disaster for the revolution.

Eight days later the German generals resumed the war rolling eastwards over the empty trenches. Within five days Lenin intervened and the government sent a new delegation to Brest-Litovsk to accept the Central Power terms and sign a peace treaty.

There was a vast loss of territory, though none of it was in the core area, known as Great Russia. Accepting its position of weakness, the revolution now concentrated on securing what it held. The capital was transferred from Petrograd (later Leningrad, and now St Petersburg) to Moscow, where it was less exposed to attack.

The Brest-Litovsk Treaty had ended the right of the Soviet government to intervene in south Russia and the Ukraine. The German-Austrian forces pushed into these areas from March to May 1918, overturned soviet power and restored Cossack dominance in the Don region.

The Central Powers were then under renewed assault on the western front. They concentrated everything on that theatre of war and were no longer a threat to the Russian revolution.

British involvement

Instead the Allied forces of Britain and France became the threat. They moved into north Russia after Brest-Litovsk and sent an Allied presence to Murmansk and to Vladivostok. They supported the Don Cossacks, the Volunteer (White) Army and other counter-revolutionary forces.

This early interference in the Russian revolution was only the beginning. Eventually troops from 15 fought in Russia against the revolution. Allied troops were sent to eastern Siberia and Japanese and British marines went to Vladivostok in April 1918.

‘Allied troops landed at Archangel, on the White Sea, in support of the White Army.’

In August 1918 Allied troops landed at Archangel, on the White Sea, in support of the White Army there. This British-led force expanded to include US, Canadian and French troops. British warships operated against the Bolshevik Baltic fleet.

The biggest danger was the Czechoslovak Corps numbering 40,000 men scattered over 4,900 square miles of Trans-Siberia. The Czechs had fought since 1914 alongside their “brother Slavs” in Russia against the German-dominated empires.

These Czechs were not involved in the Russian Revolution yet were unable to return to their homeland, then ruled by Austria-Hungary. Initially in 1918 they declared they wanted to leave Russia. However, at the end of May 1918 they revolted against soviet power.

The Czechs blocked the vital Trans-Siberian railway system and encouraged the White Army in Siberia and peasant opposition on the Volga. In the summer of 1918 the heaviest fighting took place in the Central Volga region.

By spring 1918 the old Imperial Army had largely dissolved. But the revolution found itself too reliant on the unstinting loyalty of the Latvian Riflemen in the face of more rebellions. It decided to appoint the Latvian leader Vatsetis to build a Red Army. Lenin wrote, “No revolution is worth anything unless it can defend itself”.

Red Army

The revolutionary government created a Red Army with centralised control and Russia was divided into six military districts. The scale of the enemy incursions meant the days of a volunteer army and elected commanders were put to one side in favour of mass conscription and a system of commanding officers and military commissars working in tandem.

In the spring of 1918 the Red Army had 300,000 soldiers. By the end of 1918 its strength had grown to 700,000; in early 1920 it was 3 million; by the end of 1920 roughly 5 million were in the army. Supplying this big force was not a problem as the revolution controlled central Russia where the arsenals and war material were stored.

The central zone of Russia stayed in Soviet control throughout the Civil War, though White counter-revolutionaries bounced back in the periphery where revolutionary forces were politically weaker and where outside forces chose to intrude.

Red Army commanders did rise from the ranks of workers and peasants, though many former tsarist generals and officers also joined. In 1920 half of all Communist Party members were in the army.

During the world war, the British establishment justified Allied Intervention inside Russia on the need to beat the Central Powers. But Allied victory over Germany in November 1918 did not lead to withdrawal. Instead it increased hostility to soviet power.

When the war ended, significant sections of the British people questioned why British soldiers were still fighting and dying in Russia. A nationwide “Hands Off Russia” campaign started in January 1919.

‘When the war ended, people questioned why British soldiers were still fighting and dying in Russia…’

Famously, in May 1920 London dockers stopped loading a ship, the SS Jolly George, when they discovered it was carrying munitions bound for Poland, widely perceived to be Britain’s indirect means of supporting counter-revolution in Russia.

The second phase of the civil war lasted from January to November 1919. At first the White forces advanced on three fronts: Denikin from the south, Kolchak from the east and Yudenich from the northwest, forcing the Red Army back.

In July 1919 the Red Army suffered another reverse after a mass defection of units in the Crimea to the anarchist Black Army, enabling anarchist forces to consolidate power in Ukraine.


The Red Army was then reformed and concluded the first of two military alliances with the anarchists. In June the Red Army first checked Kolchak's advance. After a series of engagements, assisted by a Black Army offensive against White supply lines, the Red Army defeated Denikin's and Yudenich's armies in October and November.

In the spring of 1920 newly independent Poland, supported by the Allies, attacked the Soviet Union. The revolutionary government had to send troops that had been occupied elsewhere. By October 1920 an armistice was signed. Poland withdrew a number of territorial claims but retained the areas of western Ukraine and western Byelorussia.

The third phase of the war was the extended siege of the last White forces in the Crimea. General Wrangel had gathered the remnants of Denikin’sarmies, occupying much of the Crimea. The Black Army, commanded by Makhno, rebuffed Wrangel’s attempted invasion of southern Ukraine.

Pursued into the Crimea by Makhno’s troops, Wrangel went over to the defensive. After an abortive move north against the Red Army, Wrangel’stroops were forced south by Red Army and Black Army forces. Wrangel and the remains of his army were evacuated to Constantinople in November 1920.

American troops in Valdivostok 1918
American Troops in Vladivostok, 1918.

In September and October 1919 the British military force evacuated Archangel and Murmansk. By the spring of 1920 the British and most other Allied military contingents left Russia altogether. In November 1920 Soviet troops liberated all of the southern Ukraine and all of Crimea from White forces and the major battles of the civil war were ended. Only the Japanese invading force remained, finally withdrawing in 1925 according to the terms of a treaty with the Soviet Union.

The revolution successfully defended itself and won through for many reasons. Primarily this was because working people were not prepared to give way to the White and imperialist armies. Despite enormous privations they fought on to triumph.


The fact that the revolution kept control of the Russian heartland throughout the civil war had a decisive impact. This area had the largest chunk of population of the old empire and was mostly Great Russian in nationality. It contained most of the war industry and the leading establishments and stores of the old army and navy.

Military reorganisation in 1918 and the creation of new mass armies took advantage of large reserves of manpower, far greater than were available to the invading imperialist armies. These Red armies became a powerful factor by 1919, and an overriding one by 1920.

The revolutionary state controlled a vast territory and could give up ground without being seriously threatened. The White armies were seen as wanting the restoration of the old order and upholding the privileges of the wealthy.

Even after the breakaways forced by the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, at the end of the civil war more than four-fifths of the former subjects of the Tsarist empire were citizens of the Soviet federation; a notable achievement. The Allies’ military support for the Whites left a legacy of suspicion that lingered for decades in the Soviet Union.

A shorter version of this article was published in Workers September/October 2019 edition.