In 1917 Lenin and the Bolsheviks, known as the Communists or Reds, had seized control over Petrograd and Moscow quite easily. However, they controlled only part of Russia and many groups opposed them. The Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and supporters of the Tsar said they had no right to rule. Collectively, these opponents became known as the Whites. The Whites were opposed to the Reds for two main reasons: they seized the land, property and factories of the well off and they attacked religious beliefs. By the end of 1918 civil war had broken out in Russia between the Whites and the Reds.
The Whites were supported from abroad by the Allies; Britain, France, the USA and Japan. The Allies opposed Lenin in retaliation for his Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany in March 1918. They had also lost capital and property as the Reds refused to repay loans which had been made to the Tsar’s government, and had nationalized foreign owned businesses’ in Russia without compensation. Yet, despite a large number of anti-Bolshevik groups within Russia, who were backed by the most powerful countries in the world, the Bolsheviks did eventually win the Russian Civil War. But why?
Fresh from seizing control of Russia from the hands of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks’ next step was to safeguard their fragile grip on the reigns of power. Lenin negotiated peace with Germany and therefore an end to Russia’s role in World War I. He could not, however, avoid a civil war in Russia. The Bolsheviks were made to fight for control of the country. The Russian Civil War raged from 1918 until the start of 1921. During this time, the Bolsheviks faced massive opposition to their rule in the form of the White Armies, led by former officers of the Tsarist state, and also from intervention by the forces of foreign countries.
The Bolsheviks were surrounded, often outnumbered by their opponents, and had no experienced military commanders. At times, their situation seemed hopeless. Yet, by the start of 1921, the Bolsheviks had defeated their enemies and gained a complete victory. The establishment of Communism in Russia went ahead unchallenged During the Civil War, the Bolsheviks had a number of key advantages over their opponents. The Bolsheviks were extremely fortunate in the quality of their leadership, particularly in Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin had led the Bolsheviks to victory in the October Revolution.
Throughout the Civil War, Lein provided the energy and drive needed to inspire success. At all times, he had very definite aims and objectives and a sense of purpose about what he believed was best for Russia. His leadership was never challenged. Trotsky became Commissar for War in the Bolshevik government. A brilliant organiser and improviser, Trotsky created the Red Army from the Red Guards (the Bolshevik workers militias) and from the remnants of the old Tsarist army. Trotsky imposed a very tough system of discipline and control over the Red Army.
Officers found guilty of cowardice or treachery were executed. However, men who showed initiative and courage were promoted rapidly. At times of crisis, Trotsky readily assumed personal command of areas under threat, inspiring and encouraging the troops to greater efforts, and to eventual victory. In 1918, at the start of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks controlled the key central area of Russia – between Petrograd and Moscow. This gave them a number of key advantages. Most of Russia’s railways were in this area. This made communication between the various battlefronts much easier.
Trotsky was able to move troops and supplies rapidly to areas under attack. As Commissar for War, he was able to visit the battlefronts in an armoured train, and to take personal command. The large population of the major cities in this central area was a key resource for the Bolsheviks. The cities provided fresh recruitment for the Red Army. Furthermore, much of Russia’s industry and raw materials was located in this area. This made it possible for the Bolsheviks to keep their troops supplied and equipped with weapons, ammunition and supplies.
Under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks displayed total ruthlessness in making sure that they did not face rebellion and revolt in the areas they controled. The Constituent Assembly, this had been organised by the Provisional Government, to draw up a constitution for Russia. In the election, the majority of delegates came from another revolutionary party, the Social Revolutionaries. Fearing opposition to their plans, when the Constituent Assembly attempted to meet, the Bolsheviks simply had it closed down. Other Parties, once the Civil War had started, the Bolsheviks banned the other political parties and arrested their leaders.
Newspapers, the Bolsheviks closed down newspapers which opposed them. The Checka, finally, the Cheka was created; the Bolshevik Secret Police. The Cheka hunted down and arrested anyone who was suspected of opposing the Bolsheviks. It is easy to argue that 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; and they had the active support of foreign countries, which intervened in the Civil War on their behalf.
However, as the Civil War developed, the White Armies began to face major problems and difficulties in organising their campaigns. Against the drive and ruthless energy of the Bolsheviks, their campaigns faltered and they faced defeat and failure. By the end of 1920, the Bolsheviks were close to achieving total victory. There are several reasons for the failure of the White forces. No one person was in charge of the White forces. Whereas the Bolsheviks had Lenin, the Whites had several rival people, such as Yudenich, Wrangel, Kolchak, Denikin, vying for control.
They were all ambitious men and each was determined to take control of Russia for himself. As a result, there was virtually no co-operation between the various White Armies – they fought independently, making it easier for the Red Army to defeat them individually. The sheer size of Russia worked against the White Armies. They had to move their forces and supplies over huge distances, making it difficult to maintain effective control. The lack of effective railways was an added complication to the existing communication dificulties between them.
The Bolsheviks were fighting for a very definite cause – the establishment and survival of a Communist Russia. The Whites, however, had problems motivating their troops and building up support. Why should soldiers face death simply to make Kolchak or Yudenich master of Russia? As time passed, more and more soldiers deserted from the White Armies. The government set up by the Whites in areas they controlled soon became corrupt and inefficient. For example, medical supplies sent by foreign countries often ended up being sold on the black market rather than being used to help the soldiers.
White Army forces often behaved with great brutality and cruelty in areas they controlled. Towns were burned, property destroyed or stolen, peasant farmers’ crops and livestock taken by force – if people objected, they faced torture and execution. Inevitably, the Whites became hated and feared because of this. Inevitably, Bolshevik propaganda homed in on this. Given the choice between the Bolsheviks or the Whites, it was hardly surprising that Bolshevik support increased dramatically. And the Bolsheviks easily won the war and took over Russia.