The Russian Civil War
By Kent Bueche and Connor Pitman

The Russian Civil War was caused by the pre-WWI Czarist regime, Russia's involvement in WWI, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and Lenin himself, all of which led to the birth of the different factions competing in the war, the extensive social impacts on women, and the limited economic effects.

The long term problems that caused the Russian Civil War date back before and during World War I, where Tsar Nicholas II’s Government was confronted by a "vicious circle of economic problems: labor shortages, food shortages, increased demand for goods, an inadequate transport system, the disruption of foreign trade (due to the war) and the decline in Government revenue"¹. Nicholas II was unable to control the situation, and worsened it trying to make it better. He dismissed his Commander-in-Chief and took on the role himself. However, this "identified him directly with the failures of his forces, so that he bathed in their reflected failure"². At war, "Russia was even less prepared for the rigors of the Great War than the other European Powers. The general staff had anticipated a twelve-week campaign. There were no reserve officers, the artillery available was out of date. Communications and coordination problems abounded"³. Bread riots and strikes came as no surprise in March of 1917, and when a Cossack officer "ordered his men to fire on demonstrators...they refused, and turned on their officer"⁴. Many groups now opposed the Tsar, and wanted change. For the solders, three years of war had been enough. Inflation convinced white-collar workers convinced they did not want Tsar Nicholas, and even the wealthy had "reasons concerning shifts in power for deserting the Tsar"⁵. However, most revolutionary leaders like Lenin, Stalin, Radek, and Trotsky were all in exile, and a provisional government took over after Nicholas II abdicated. However, the new Government was "no more able to deal with the overwhelming problems than its predecessor had been"⁶.

When the leaders returned from exile, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government in the October (November) Revolution promising to end the hated and unpopular war in the West and bring "peace, bread and land" to the people of Russia⁷. To do this, Lenin sent Trotsky to Brest-Litovsk to arrange an armistice with Germany, with the orders to "accept peace at any price"⁸. Lenin wanted the war over quickly to focus on Bolshevism at home. Peace with Germany gave the Bolsheviks "breathing space and saved the Revolution"⁹. However, the Germans exacted very severe terms. Russia accepted, even though they had to surrender a third of their empire to Germany. (The Bolsheviks considered the treaty to be temporary anyway, because "they were convinced that the "inevitable... Revolution in Germany would soon come and...all comrades would renounce their gains ill gotten by war"¹⁰) The Treaty showed many just "how weak the Bolsheviks actually were", because when Russia tried to delay negotiations Germany's army began to march on Russia again, forcing them to sign the treaty¹¹. (Trotsky was delaying because he and the other Bolsheviks were convinced that a Revolution would happen in Germany). Outraged, the rightist anti-Leninist Russians now "took up arms" against the Bolsheviks, and even the Left Socialist Revolutionaries thereupon left the coalition they had with the Bolsheviks in protest¹². These two groups drew together as opponents of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks to form the Whites in the Russian Civil War. Also a short-term cause of the war was Lenin's insistence on "complete non-cooperation" with either the bourgeois class, the less radical side of the Communist party the Mensheviks, or the Left Social Revolutionaries¹³. This alienated the Bolsheviks and left them without a coalition and virtually ally-less during the Civil War.

The Russian Civil War, although often believed to be a two-party struggle, was actually fought by the czarist White Army, the communist Red Army, and the peasant Green Army. The White Army was comprised of the anti-communist, and largely czarist, groups in the Russian population¹⁴. This faction was opposed to the idea of a communist regime in Russia and drew support from other world powers, such as the United States, France, Italy, and the other Allies of World War One¹⁵. The second force, the Red Army, consisted of the Bolshevik population of Russia ¹⁶. The Red Army also drew considerable support from the peasantry, a group that represented approximately eighty percent of the population at the time of the war¹⁷. The final force, the Green Army, was a peasant resistance movement against the Bolsheviks¹⁸. The Greens were primarily motivated by the need for food¹⁹. Because of the dire need to feed the fighters, the Red Army formed “armed detachments to procure grain” from the peasants, causing widespread hunger, and consequently, the Green Army’s birth²⁰.

The main tactic of the Russian Civil War was to gain and retain the approval of the average Russian citizen. The Russian Civil War was won by the Red Army primarily due to their ability to gain the support of the large ethnic and peasant populations in Russia after the fall of the Czar²¹. The Red Army realized the importance of having widespread support for their efforts, resulting in the Land Decree. This stated that all land seizures made by the peasantry after the fall of the Czar were legitimate and would be recognized by the communist government²². Additionally, Lenin developed an effective policy towards the ethnic groups within Russia, at one time saying that the Reds should “find a common language with the Ukrainian peasant,” demonstrating his commitment to friendly domestic relations²³. The Red Army also exhibited greater control over the population through the use of the secret police, otherwise known as the Cheka. In contrast, the White Army’s fervent nationalism and disregard for peasant land claims drove a wedge between the struggling army and the general population²⁴. On top of this, the White Army had a horrible reputation for the widespread use of cocaine and vodka, further damaging relations with the general public²⁵. Because of the White Army’s inability to connect with the majority of the Russian populace, the Red Army, with the help of its diverse support network, was able to crush the Whites.

The Russian Civil War had profound effects on the social structure of Russia, particularly in the case of women’s roles. In Czarist Russia, women lacked many basic rights by today’s standards. The female population was barred from any sort of higher education, consequently excluding them from most professions²⁶. In contrast, the communist lifestyle accepted women, urging them to exercise their equality²⁷. As soon as 1926, Russians were celebrating International Communist Women’s Day, instructing women to “[emancipate] the backwards sections of women toilers from intellectual and economic bondage”²⁸. This radical change in the role of women is representative of the transitional period into a communist government and exemplifies the social implications of the Russian Civil War.

Despite the superficial differences between Czarist Russia’s economy and communist views on economics, the economic impacts on Russia were not as prodigious as the Red Army had hoped. Czarist Russia’s economy was government controlled, giving the czar control over all sorts of enterprises, including agriculture, mines, and factories²⁹. In addition, the Russian economy was centered around protectionism, monopolies, and heavy taxation³⁰. This form of economy is totalitarian and radically different than true communism. In the purely communist system however, “property (especially real property and the means of production) is held in common”³¹. Despite the true definition of communism, the Red Army’s Russia degenerated into a “giant totalitarian state”³². This process eventually rendered the USSR into a state-centered economic entity not unlike Czarist Russia³³. In this respect, the two economies were not as dissimilar as they would have been had the Reds developed a truer communist state.


1. Years of Change, Wolfson and Laver
2. Ibid
3. Ibid
4. Ibid
5. Ibid
6. Ibid
7. Smele, Jonathan. BBC, War and Revolution in Russia
8. History Learning Site
9. A History of the World in the 20th century, J.A.S Grenville
10. Years of Change, Wolfson and Laver
11. History Learning Site
12. BBC: War and Revolution in Russia
13. The History of Nations: Russia
14. “Russian Civil War”
15. Ibid
16. Smele, Jonathan. "War and Revolution in Russia 1914-1921."
17. Anderson, Peter. “Why Did the Bolsheviks Win the Russian Civil War?”
18. DuGarm, A. Delano. “Green Movement”
19. Ibid
20. Ibid
21. Anderson, Peter. “Why Did the Bolsheviks Win the Russian Civil War”
22. Ibid
23. Ibid
24. Ibid
25. Ibid
26. Balzer, Harley D. “An Improper Profession: Women, Gender, and Journalism in Late Imperial Russia”
27. Stalin, Joseph. “International Communist Women’s Day”
28. Ibid
29. “Czarist Origins of Communism, IV”
30. Ibid
31. “Communism”
32. Ibid
33. “Czarist Origins of Communism, IV”


Works Cited:

1) Anderson, Peter. “Why Did the Bolsheviks Win the Russian Civil War? Peter Anderson Compares the Tactics and Resources of the Two Sides.” History Review (2002): n. pag. Questia Online Library. Web. 13 Sept. 2009. <http://www.questia.com>.
2) Balzer, Harley D. “An Improper Profession: Women, Gender, and Journalism in Late Imperial Russia.” Journal of Social History 37 (2003): n. pag. Questia Online Library. Web. 24 Sept. 2009. <http://www.questia.com>.
3)“Communism.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2009. Questia Online Library. Web. 28 Sept. 2009. <http://www.questia.com>.
4)“Czarist Origins of Communism, IV.” George Mason University Department of Economics. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2009. <http://economics.gmu.edu/‌bcaplan/‌museum/‌czar4.htm>.
5) DuGarm, A. Delano. “Green Movement.” Encyclopedia of Russian History. 2003. 607-08. Print.
6) Grenville, J.A.S. “Chapter 13: War and Revolution in the East, 1917.” A History of the World in the 20th Century. 106-15. Print.
7) Lenin, Vladimir. “The Goals of the Bolshevik Revolution.” The History of Nations: Russia. Ed. Derek C. Maus. N.p.: Greenhaven Press, 2003. Print

8) “Russian Civil War.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online School Edition. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Sept. 2009. <http://school.eb.com>.
9) “Russian Civil War 1918-21.” History Learning Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2009. <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/‌russian_civil_war1.htm>.

10) Smele, Jonathan. “War and Revolution in Russia 1914-1921.” BBC History. N.p., 28 Apr. 2004. Web. 22 Sept. 2009. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/‌history/‌worldwars/‌wwone/‌eastern_front_print.html>.
11) Stalin, Joseph. “International Communist Women’s Day.” Memo. 7 Mar. 1926. Marxists Internet Archive. Web. 24 Sept. 2009. <http://www.marxists.org/‌reference/‌archive/‌stalin/‌works/‌1926/‌03/‌07.htm>.
12) Wolfson, Robert, and John Laver. “Russia and the USSR, 1914-45 : The Revolutionary Period.” Years of Change, Eruopean History 1890-1990. 233-45. Print.