In early November 1917, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party launched a coup against the Provisional Government of Russia. The October Revolution, as it became known, installed Lenin as the ruler of the world’s first communist state.
But Lenin’s communist regime faced opposition from various groups, including capitalists, those loyal to the former tsardom and European forces opposed to communism. These disparate groups united under the banner of the White Army, and soon Russia was embroiled in Civil War.
Ultimately, Lenin’s Red Army quelled the dissent and won the war, paving the way for the founding of the Soviet Union and the rise of communism around the globe.
Here are 10 facts about the Russian Civil War.
1. It stemmed from the Russian Revolution
After the February Revolution of 1917, a provisional government was formed in Russia, followed shortly after by the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Several months later, during the October Revolution, communist revolutionaries known as Bolsheviks revolted against the provisional government and installed Vladimir Lenin as the leader of the world’s first communist state.
Though Lenin made peace with Germany and withdrew Russia from World War One, the Bolsheviks faced opposition from counter-revolutionaries, those loyal to the former tsar and European forces hoping to stifle the spread of communism. Civil war engulfed Russia.
2. It was fought between the Red and White armies
Lenin’s Bolshevik forces were known as the Red Army, while their enemies became known as the White Army.
The Bolsheviks, crucially, held power over the central area of Russia between Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg) and Moscow. Their forces were made up of Russians committed to communism, hundreds of thousands of conscripted peasants and some former tsarist soldiers and officers who had, controversially, been enlisted by Leon Trotsky into the Red Army due to their military experience.
The White Armies, on the other hand, were made up of diverse forces, tentatively allied against the Bolsheviks. These forces included officers and armies loyal to the tsar, capitalists, regional counter-revolutionary groups and foreign forces hoping to stifle the spread of communism or simply put an end to the conflict.
3. The Bolsheviks executed thousands of political opponents
Lenin’s leadership of the Bolsheviks demonstrated a similar ruthlessness. To stamp out political opposition after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks banned all political parties and shut down any counter-revolutionary news outlets.
The Bolsheviks also introduced a fearsome secret police force known as the Cheka, which was used to quell dissent and to execute swathes of political opponents to the Bolshevik regime. This violent political suppression became known as the ‘Red terror’, which took place throughout the Russian Civil War and saw the execution of tens of thousands of suspected anti-Bolshevik sympathisers.
4. The Whites suffered from fractured leadership
The Whites possessed a number of advantages: their troops covered vast portions of Russia, they were led by experienced military officers and they had the fluctuating support of Allied European forces such as France and Britain.
But the Whites were at times fractured by the command of disparate leaders spread out across vast regions, with Admiral Kolchack in the northeast, Anton Denikin and later General Wrangel in the south and Nikolai Yudenich in the west. Though Denikin and Yudenich united under Kolchak’s authority, they struggled to coordinate their armies across great distances and frequently fought as independent units rather than a coherent whole.
5. Foreign intervention didn’t turn the tide of the war
After the October Revolution, the Whites were backed to varying degrees by Britain, France and the US. Allied support primarily came in the form of supplies and financial support rather than active troops, though some Allied troops did participate in the conflict (200,000 men or so).
Ultimately, foreign intervention in the conflict was inconclusive. When World War One ended, Germany was no longer perceived as a threat so Britain, France and the USA stopped supplying Russia. They themselves were also depleted by 1918 and less keen to inject resources into the foreign war, even despite their resistance to Lenin’s communist government.
By 1919, most foreign troops and backing had been withdrawn from Russia. But the Bolsheviks continued to publish propaganda against the Whites, suggesting foreign powers were encroaching into Russia.
6. Propaganda was a vital part of the Bolsheviks’ strategy
During the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks implemented an extensive propaganda campaign. To encourage enlistment, they printed posters undermining the cowardice of men not fighting.
By publishing leaflets, airing propaganda films and influencing the press, they turned public opinion against the Whites and consolidated their own power and the promise of communism.
7. The conflict played out across Siberia, Ukraine, Central Asia and the Far East
The Red Army acquired victory by toppling the disparate White forces on several fronts. In Ukraine in 1919, the Reds defeated the White Armed Forces of South Russia. Up in Siberia, Admiral Kolchak’s men were beaten in 1919.
The following year, in 1920, the Reds drove General Wrangel’s forces out of Crimea. Lesser battles and upheavals continued for years, as Whites and regional military groups pushed back against the Bolsheviks in Central Asia and the Far East.
8. The Romanovs were executed during the conflict
After the Bolshevik revolution, the former tsar Nicholas II and his family were exiled from St Petersburg, first to Tobolsk and later to Yekaterinburg.
In July 1918, Lenin and the Bolsheviks received word that the Czech Legion, an experienced military force who revolted against the Bolsheviks, was closing in on Yekaterinburg. Fearing the Czechs could capture the Romanovs and install them as the figureheads of an anti-Bolshevik movement, the Reds ordered the executions of Nicholas and his family.
On 16-17 July 1918, the Romanov family – Nicholas, his wife and his children – were taken into the basement of their exile home and shot or bayoneted to death.
9. The Bolsheviks won the war
Despite the breadth of resistance to the Bolshevik regime, the Reds ultimately won the Russian Civil War. By 1921, they had defeated most of their enemies, though sporadic fighting continued until 1923 in the Far East and even into the 1930s in Central Asia.
10. It’s thought that more than 9 million people died
The Russian Civil War is remembered as one of the costliest civil wars in history. Estimates vary, but some sources posit that around 10 million people were killed during the conflict, including roughly 1.5 million military personnel and 8 million civilians. These deaths were caused by armed conflict, political executions, disease and famine.