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The Russian Civil War

Modern History (Year 12) - Bolsheviks in Power

Ben Whitten

Overview of Red and White Armies

Reasons for the Civil War

The Russian Civil War, which lasted from 1918 to 1922, was fought between the Bolshevik government, led by Vladimir Lenin, and various anti-Bolshevik forces, including monarchists, capitalists, and other socialist factions. The war was sparked by a number of factors, including:

  1. Ideological differences: The Bolsheviks and their opponents had fundamentally different ideas about how Russia should be governed and what kind of society it should be.

  2. Economic issues: Russia's economy was in shambles after years of war and revolution, and the Bolsheviks' policies, such as War Communism, further exacerbated these issues.

  3. Nationalism: The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended Russia's involvement in World War I, resulted in the loss of significant territory and resources, which sparked resentment and nationalism among various ethnic groups.

  4. Foreign intervention: The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk prompted Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War, with British, French, American and Japanese forces entering Russia in 1918 and staying put until 1922.

  5. Political opposition: The Bolsheviks faced significant political opposition from various groups and parties, many of which were banned or suppressed by the regime, which led to a growing resistance movement.

Events of the Civil War

The Russian Civil War was a multi-party war that lasted from 1918 to 1922. It was fought between the Bolshevik Red Army, led by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the White Army, which was composed of various anti-communist forces. The war was sparked by the overthrow of the Tsarist government in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the subsequent power struggle between the Bolsheviks and their opponents. The main events of the war include:

  • The outbreak of the war in 1918, with the Bolsheviks taking control of major cities such as Moscow and Petrograd, and the White Army forming in opposition to the Bolsheviks.

  • The war spreading to the countryside, where the Bolsheviks struggled to gain control of the rural population.

  • The intervention of foreign powers, including the United States, Great Britain, France and Japan, who supported the White Army with money, weapons and troops.

  • The Bolsheviks consolidating their power and forming the Red Army, which gradually gained the upper hand in the war.

  • The White Army suffering a series of defeats and losing control of major cities, including Moscow and Petrograd.

  • The final defeat of the White Army in 1922, and the establishment of the Soviet Union under the rule of the Communist Party.

The Russian Civil War resulted in the deaths of millions of people and the displacement of many more. It also resulted in the Bolshevik's victory which led to the establishment of the Soviet Union, a single-party communist state that lasted until its collapse in 1991.

Reasons for Bolshevik Victory

The Strengths of the Red Army

When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, it was only a matter of time before opposition to their regime reared its head. Let’s break down the strengths of the Red Army in the Civil War:

Military Reforms

In 1918, the Bolsheviks developed the Red Army: a fighting force that was crucial to their success against the Whites. Trotsky was appointed Commissar for War and implemented several military reforms, including:

  • Strict discipline.

  • A rigid hierarchy of command. The abolition of rank and title in the military was thrown out the window and Trotsky made use of ex-Tsarist officers to bring structure and expertise to the Red Army.

  • Mass conscription. The Red Army swelled to five million by the end of 1920.

  • Political commissars attached to military units. They spread Bolshevik ideology within individual military units to keep revolutionary fervour running high.

Sense of Purpose

The Bolshevik campaign was backed up by a sense of purpose and determination that fostered unity within the army and between the Russian people. The Bolsheviks used foreign intervention to their advantage, painting themselves as defenders of Russian independence in the face of European imperialism. Importantly, this gave the Red Army a tangible goal to work towards, improving its military strategy and performance.

Strength of the Bolshevik Party

The Bolshevik Party also played its cards right during the Civil War. They:

  • Kept the peasants onside by initially allowing land seizures to continue.

  • Centralised the Party to strengthen control.

  • Used the Cheka to suppress all opposition.

  • Introduced War Communism to tighten control over the economy.

Geographical Advantages

Russia’s such a big country that geography is pretty much guaranteed to factor into most events in its history. The Civil War is no different! While the White Army gained vast amounts of territory, the Reds maintained control of the most important parts of Russia. They secured access to most of the country’s:

  • Railways (for transportation and supply lines).

  • Industries and raw materials (for important resources).

  • Large cities (for troops).


Propaganda played a crucial role in the Russian Civil War, with the Bolsheviks using it to promote their cause and discredit the White Army. Trotsky headed up a powerful propaganda machine that produced newspapers, leaflets, posters, and films to rally support for the Red Army. This enlistment poster asking "have you volunteered?" is an example of how the Red Army used visual media to recruit soldiers.

The Strengths of the Red Army

The Red Army had several strengths that contributed to their success in the Civil War, including:

  • Military Reforms: Trotsky implemented strict discipline, a rigid hierarchy of command, mass conscription, and political commissars attached to military units to bring structure and expertise to the Red Army.

  • Sense of Purpose: The Bolshevik campaign was backed by a sense of purpose and determination that fostered unity within the army and between the Russian people.

  • Strength of the Bolshevik Party: The Bolsheviks kept the peasants onside, centralised the Party, used the Cheka to suppress opposition, and introduced War Communism to tighten control over the economy.

  • Geographical Advantages: The Red Army controlled access to most of Russia's railways, industries, raw materials, and large cities.

  • Propaganda: The Red Army used a powerful propaganda machine to promote their campaign and discredit the White Army.

The Failures of the White Army

The White Army faced several failures that contributed to their defeat in the Civil War, including:

  • Poor Leadership: The White Army was led by different generals in different parts of Russia, hindering communication and coordination. Plus, many of the generals were selfish and ambitious.

  • Low Morale: White Army leaders were competitive and brutal, ransacking villages and turning many peasants against them. They lacked the unity and determination of the Red Army and were stuck in the past.

  • Foreign Intervention was Ineffective: The White Army had pinned a lot of hope on foreign intervention, but these forces had a limited impact on the conflict and rarely fought the Reds. When WWI ended in 1918, most Allied forces didn’t have the troops, resources or incentive to continue the war.

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