Soon after buying peace with Germany, the Soviet state found itself under attack from other quarters. By the spring of 1918, elements dissatisfied with the radical policies of the communists (as the Bolsheviks started calling themselves) established centers of resistance in southern and Siberian Russia. Beginning in April 1918, anticommunist forces, called the Whites and often led by former officers of the tsarist army, began to clash with the Red Army, which Trotsky, named commissar of war in the Soviet government, organized to defend the new state. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The bloody civil war between "Whites" and "Reds" broke out in early 1918 after Lenin issued the order to confiscate all property of landowners and capitalists. In September 1918, the Cheka began a systematic campaign of arrests, torture and execution. Those who opposed the Communists were called "Whites." The Whites often fought from strongholds in the southern and eastern parts of Russia

The Russian Civil War was a "horrendously destructive conflagration." Many estates were burned to the ground and their furnishings were looted. In some ways it wasn't really a civil war. It was more like a series of small regional wars with Russia that overlapped with a series of international wars that cropped up on Russia's unstable periphery.

Whites Versus Reds

The "Reds" refers to the Communists (Bolsheviks) and their supporters under Lenin and Trotsky. They was made up of Trotsky's Workers' and Peasants' Red Army supported by peasants and revolutionaries. They were better organized than the Whites and controlled the heart of Russia and most of its industries and communication facilities.

The White armies were various noncommunist military forces that attempted to overthrow the Bolshevik regime during the Russian Civil War (1918-21). They were led by former officers of the tsar such as Admiral Alexander Kolchak. Operating with no unified command, no clear political goal, and no supplies from the Russian heartland, they were defeated piecemeal by the Red Army.

The Whites were a diverse group that lacked unity. Its members included tsarist loyalists, aristocrats and property owners, Social Revolutionaries who opposed the Brest-Litovsky treaties and other of anti-Communist forces. The Whites were not unified but they were supported by counties in Europe and the United States. They possessed most of land in Russia and fought hard to keep in from being confiscated. The Whites also enlisted the help of the Cossacks, Finnish partisans, and European and Japanese troops.

On the situation in Siberia and the Russian Far East, Jason Goodwin wrote in New York Times, “The atmosphere was apocalyptic, right down to the cheapness of human life. Millions had died on the Western front. Russian nobles were fleeing with their jewels to China. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was being read by everyone from the imprisoned czarina downward. Engines plated with steel and equipped with weapons ripped from the gunboats on the Siberian lakes rammed back and forth along the trans-Siberian railway line, dragging behind them mobile towns of czarists, with opulent dining cars, theater cars, printing shops, brothels — and torture chambers. Prisoners were packed into waterless cars and left to die in sidings. The Whites simply ran amok. Pirates in command of these dreadnoughts of the steppe, but incapable of winning hearts and minds, they spent as much time hunting out Bolshevik spies — and torturing and killing the locals — as they did fighting the Reds. [Source: Jason Goodwin, New York Times, February 20, 2009.

Fighting Reds Versus Whites Civil War

Most of the fighting between the Reds and Whites occurred in White strongholds: 1) in the south were the tsarist and Cossacks were centered; 2) in the Ukraine, where German were ousted in 1918 and the Poles were advancing; 3) around Omsk Siberia, where the Red Army battles a White army supported by 40,000 Czech prisoners of war; 4) the Baltic provinces and Finland which mounted successful wars of independence.

At first it appeared as if Whites would win. They had more money and foreign support. Soon after fighting broke out they seized control of northern Siberia. The White armies enjoyed varying degrees of support from the Allied Powers. Desiring to defeat Germany in any way possible, Britain, France, and the United States landed troops in Russia and provided logistical support to the Whites, whom the Allies trusted would resume Russia's struggle against Germany after overthrowing the communist regime. After the Allies defeated Germany in November 1918, they opted to continue their intervention in the Russian Civil War against the communists, in the interests of averting what they feared might become a world socialist revolution. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Cossacks were notorious for constantly changing sides. Some stated as Whites and then became Reds. “Quietly Flows the Don”, a novel by Nobel-prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov, describes a Communist Cossack who changed sides. The Bolshevik heroine Anka Pulemyotchits—Anka the Machine Gunner as she was popularly known—was famous for mowing down rows of White Army soldiers in the civil war.♦

Russians versus Americans in the Russian Civil War

In 1918, about 8,500 American, British and French troops landed in northern Russia to fight on the side of the Whites. They seized Murmansk and later Archangel while the Japanese occupied Russian's Far East ports. The American unit, the 85th Division, was made up largely of World War I veterans from Wisconsin and Michigan. They were under British command and fought a few battles against the Reds. This was the only time that American and Russian soldiers shot at one other.

One American sergeant who part in the effort said, "We were ordered to burn a small village where the enemy could do effective sniping. Women opened fire on us, and we had to advance without firing upon them. We took 14 enemy prisoners and killed two. Then we burned the village. My heart ached to have the women fall down at my feet and grab my legs and kiss my hand and beg me not to do it. But orders are orders.”

The foreigners weren't into the fight. They were reports of mutinies and desecrations. By June 1919, they had all been shipped home. Most people in the West have forgotten about the incident but most Soviet were drilled that this was an example of America as an imperialist aggressor. "The cold war was right then and there," wrote one historian.

Regional Struggles During the Russian Civil War

During the Civil War, the Soviet regime also had to deal with struggles for independence in regions that it had given up under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (which the regime immediately repudiated after Germany's defeat by the Allies in November 1918). By force of arms, the communists established Soviet republics in Belorussia (January 1919), Ukraine (March 1919), Azerbaijan (April 1920), Armenia (November 1920), and Georgia (March 1921), but they were unable to take back the Baltic region, where the independent states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been founded shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In December 1917, the Soviet government recognized the independence of Finland as a gesture of support to the Finnish Reds. However, that strategy failed when Finland became a parliamentary republic in 1918. Poland, reborn after World War I, fought a successful war with Soviet Russia from April 1920 to March 1921 over the location of the frontier between the two states. *

During its struggle for survival, the Soviet state relied heavily on the prospect that revolution would spread to other European industrialized countries. To coordinate the socialist movement under Soviet auspices, Lenin founded the Communist International (Comintern) in March 1919. Although no successful socialist revolutions occurred elsewhere immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Comintern provided the communist leadership with the means for later control of foreign communist parties.

Polish-Soviet War

The Communists believed in spreading their revolution beyond their borders and making the entire world a Communist state. In some cases, istead of mobilizing their energies to improve the lives of ordinary Russians, Lenin directed his armies to focus on Europe in hope of sparking a world revolution.

In 1918, after the end of World War I, the liberated armies of Poland invaded White Russia. The Soviets assembled nearly a million men and dispatched them towards Berlin for "worldwide conflagration." The conflict became known as the Polish-Soviet War, and was regarded as the first stage of campaign to unify Europe under Communist.

The Red Army was stopped by the Poles at the Battle of Warsaw in August 1920. It was the Red Army's only unavenged defeat. Stalin, who was the commissar at the Polish front, was blamed by Trotsky for the defeat. Stalin never forgot the humiliation and exacted his revenge 20 and 25 years later.

War Communism

Lenin developed a harsh policy of "War Communism" that mobilized the entire country in an effort to win the war and is credited with helped the Red win the Russian Civil War. Key elements of policy was extensive control of all military and government institution and pro-war propaganda that invaded all sectors of society.

The Communist also attempted to create a classless society by exiling and executing "class enemies." The effort did create more equality but it also got rid of the most talented leaders and managers and productivity in agriculture and industry declined to levels that caused famine and near economic collapse.

To firm up thei hold on power, the Communist Party was resurrected under the banner of "Democratic Centralism," giving more power to the people at the top. A Politburo was created to make decisions and a secretary was appointed to make sure that only those with sufficient loyalty to the party advanced. These changes endured after the war was over.

Repression During the Russian Civil War

During the Civil War, the communist regime took increasingly repressive measures against its domestic opponents. The constitution of 1918 deprived members of the former "exploiting classes" — nobles, priests, and capitalists — of civil rights. Landowners and capitalists, who were subjected to all kinds of "indignities and persecutions." In September 1918, the Cheka began a systematic campaign of arrests, torture and execution.

Left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries, formerly partners of the Bolsheviks, became targets for persecution during what came to be known as the Red Terror, which followed an attempt on Lenin's life in August 1918 and lasted into 1920. In those desperate times, both Reds and Whites committed atrocities and murdered and executed without trial large numbers of suspected enemies. The party also took measures to ensure greater discipline among its members by tightening its organization and creating specialized administrative organs.

Many Whites were executed or escaped to life of exile. In the 1920s and 30s many Russian nobles fled to China on the Trans-Siberian railroad, and many of them supported themselves on the jewels that brought with them. Some of them lived in lavish villas but most were poor.

End of the Russian Civil War

Despite their lack of weapons and resources, the Reds prevailed and defeated the "Whites." The war formally ended in November 1920, when most of foreigners left but fighting continued for years afterwards.

Key elements of the Red victory were strong military and political leadership; effective propaganda; evolving popular attitudes; the caliber, numbers and morale of the fighting men; logistics; and the impact of geographical factors.

Although in 1919 Soviet Russia had shrunk to the size of sixteenth-century Muscovy, the Red Army had the advantage of defending the heartland with Moscow at its center. The White armies, divided geographically and without a clearly defined cause, went down to defeat one by one. Hopes of restoring the monarchy ended effectively when communists executed the imperial family in July 1918. The Allied governments, lacking support for intervention from their nations' war-weary citizenry, withdrew most of their forces by 1920. The last foreign troops departed Siberia in 1922, leaving the Soviet state unchallenged from abroad. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Execution of Nicholas II and His Family

On July, 17, 1918, during this reign of terror of the Russian Civil War, former-tsar Nicholas II, his wife, five children (the 13-year-old Alexis, 22-year-old Olga, 19-year-old Maria and 17-year-old Anastasia)the family physician, the cook, maid, and valet were shot to death by a Red Army firing squad in the cellar of the house they were staying at in Yekaterinburg.

Nicholas and his family where killed during the Russian civil war. It is thought the Bolsheviks figured that Nicholas and his family gave the Whites figureheads to rally around and they were better of dead.

Even though the death orders were signed Yakov Sverdlov, the assassination was personally ordered by Lenin, who wanted to get them out of sight and out of mind. Trotsky suggested a trial. Lenin nixed the idea, deciding something had to be done about the Romanovs before White troops approached Yekaterinburg. Trotsky later wrote: "The decision was not only expedient but necessary. The severity of he punishment showed everyone that we would continue to fight on mercilessly, stopping at nothing."

Nicholas Romanovich Romanov, the great-great grandson of Nicholas II, told Newsweek in 1999, "There was certain logic" to the murder of the tsar "from the Bolshevik point if view. Reaction [to the revolution] was still strong, they were being attacked from all sides, so destroying the tsar, as a symbolic figurehead, committed all those who participated in the revolution to an irreversible course...But how they did it was a different. They murdered the family and tried to cover up the fate of the family and pretend it was a local decision." One conspiracy theory claims the massacre was a "ritual Jewish-Masonice murder."

Books: “The Romanovs: The Final Chapter” by Robert K. Massie (Random House, 1995); “The Fall of the Romanovs” by Mark D. Steinberg and Vladimir Khrustalëv (Yale, 1995);

See Separate Article on END OF NICHOLAS II

Russian Economy During the Civil War Period

During the Russian Civil War period, the communist regime sought to exert control through a series of drastic measures under the banner of war communism. To coordinate what remained of Russia's economic resources after years of war, in 1918 the government nationalized industry and subordinated it to central administrations in Moscow. Rejecting workers' control of factories as inefficient, the regime brought in expert managers to run the factories and organized and directed the factory workers as in a military mobilization. To feed the urban population, the Soviet government requisitioned quantities of grain from the peasantry. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Red and White Civil War left Russia on the verge of economic collapse. Money was worthless, factories were shut down and farms were abandoned. By the early 1920s, leather shoes was prohibitively expensive and many people wrapped their feet in burlap and string.

The results of war communism were unsatisfactory. Industrial production continued to fall. Workers received wages in kind because inflation had made the ruble practically worthless. In the countryside, peasants rebelled against payments in valueless currency by curtailing or consuming their agricultural production. In late 1920, strikes broke out in the industrial centers, and peasant uprisings sprang up across the land as famine ravaged the countryside. *

To the Soviet government, however, the most disquieting manifestation of dissatisfaction with war communism was the rebellion in March 1921 of sailors at the naval base at Kronshtadt (near Petrograd), which had earlier won renown as a bastion of the Bolshevik Revolution. Although Trotsky and the Red Army succeeded in putting down the mutiny, it signaled to the party leadership that war communism had to end. The harsh economic policies of the Civil War period, however, would have a profound influence on the future development of the country. *

Famines in 1919, 1920 and 1921

A famine and typhus epidemic in 1919 killed thousands. Bodies were piled up like firewood in cemeteries and disgruntled workers carried signs that read, "Down with Lenin and horseflesh. Give us the tsar and pork." In 1920 and 1921 there was another famine that affected nearly 27 million people. It was brought about by a drought and the failure of the Communist economy to adequately distribute food. The famine was particularly acute in the Volga region, where starving peasant reportedly resorted to cannibalism. A major international aid efforts was led by Herbert Hoover.

Describing the Famine of 1920-21, American journalist Philip Gibbs wrote: "After four days in that train we came to Kazan which...was the head of the richest grain-growing district of the Volga valley. Now there was no grain because it had been burnt in its seed time by a terrible drought, leaving the peasants without food because their reserves had been taken up to feed the Red Army.

"Here in the old tsarist day nobles had built villas and laid out fine gardens for their pleasure in the summer months. Now those houses were filled with refugees from famine, dying of hunger and disease, and across the snow came small children, hand in hand, who had walked a long way from starving villages where their parents were already dead. Like frozen birds many of them died in the snow.

“There were forty homes here for abandoned or wandering children. I want to a number of them and they were all alike in general character. In bare rooms children were naked and huddled together like little monkeys for warmth. There was no warmth as there was no fuel." Their clothes had been burnt because of the lice which spread typhus among them. There were no clothes to replace ragged old sheepskins.”

Disease and Death During the Famine 1920-21

Gibbs wrote: "We went to hospitals and they were dreadful. Because there was no fuel the patients stricken with typhus, dysentery and all kinds of diseases, lay together in unventilated wards. Many of the beds had been burnt for fuel, and most of the inmates lay on bare boards.

"We went into some...villages and saw tragic things. There was no food in the marketplaces and money was useless...[Horses] were dead and their skeletons lay on the roads, their flesh having been eaten. The villages were quiet as death. No one stirred, though now and again we saw faces in the widows—pallid faces with dark eyes staring at us."

In timber houses "Russian families were hibernating waiting for death. In some of them they had no food of any kind...In other houses they were still keeping themselves alive by a kind of brownish powder made of leaves ground up and mixed with the husks of grain. Others were eating some stuff which looked like lead. It was a clay of some kind, dug from a hillside...and had some nutritive quality, though for young children it was harmful, making their stomachs swell. Everywhere went in these villages peasant women, weeping quietly, showed us there naked children with distended stomachs."

Kronstadt Mutiny of 1921

In late February, 1921, a wave of strikes led by workers protesting food shortages and poor working conditions closed down factories in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The Communist government responded by imposing martial law and using loyalist troops to force the workers back to their jobs. Reports of strike-busting brutality and rumors of massacres reached Kronstadt, a naval base and fortress situated on an island several miles off the coat of Petrograd. Navymen sent to Petrograd to investigate witnessed factories surrounded by troops. One officer said: "one might have thought that these were not factories but the forced labor prisons of tsarist times." Radical and anarchist sailors were enraged by the reports. They asked what was the point of having a proletariat revolution if workers were going to treated in this fashion. They blamed the Communists who seized control of the government and outlawed all other political groups.

On March 1, 1921, some 15,000 sailors and workers gathered in Anchor Square on Kronstadt and issued a manifesto that demanded the Communist government hold elections open to all parties, provide land for peasants and end forced labor and the confiscation of peasant's crops. The following day a 14-member committee was elected to govern Kronstadt and lead a mutiny against the Communists.

Book: “Kronstadt, 1921 “by Paul Avrich (Princeton University Press, 1970)

Crushing the Kronstadt Mutiny of 1921

Lenin sent troops and secret police to Kronstadt to crush the mutineers and Trotsky developed a propaganda campaign that portrayed the rebels as counter-revolutionaries and "White Guard mutineers. The first assault by Communist forces were turned back by the mutineers. Several days later a larger force of 50,000 men attacked at night and captured Kronstadt. Some 8,000 mutineers escaped across the ice to Finland, while 2,000 were captured.

The suppression is the uprising was followed up by mass executions, deportations and repressions. Many of the captured mutineers were executed. One eyewitness wrote: "Thousands of sailors and workers lie dead in the street. Summary executions of prisoners and hostages continue." Survivors were sent to Siberian concentration camps and 13 purported leaders, chosen for the upper class backgrounds, were tried and sentenced to death.

The Kronstadt Mutiny revealed the hypocrisies within the Communist government and their betrayal of the workers that brought them the power. Economic reforms similar to those demanded by the mutineers were passed in Lenin's New Economic Policy but the political changes they called for were not implemented. The Kronstadt Mutiny has also had a special place in Soviet history because the rebellion was led not by White Russians or counter-revolutions but by sailors and soldiers who were committed to Socialism.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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