The Whites were still seen as the righteous Russians by the Allies. The Allies were keenly aware that the Whites were pledged to continue the war against the Central Powers. Most Whites – especially those of a more conservative mindset – were primarily Russian nationalists. They were aghast at the treacherous and shameful manner in which the Bolsheviks had breezily signed away half of European Russia to the foe.
The Allies pledged their support to the Whites not only because they saw that the Whites said they were committed to the Allied cause but also because the Bolsheviks represented a revolutionary force that threatened the very fabric of society in every Allied country.
Huge numbers of weapons and copious amounts of ammunition had been landed by Allies – the United Kingdom chief among them – in the northern Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel. These armaments had been delivered to Russia in the earlier years to enable her to fight against the Central Powers. Owing to the chaotic state of the Russian transport network very few of these weapons had made it to arms dumps behind the Russian front line. The Allies were nervous that these great quantities of arms would fall into the wrong hands. A Red Army armed to the teeth rampaging west was a nightmare that haunted many a chancellery across Europe.
The Allies sent men to secure these arms – to put them into the hands of the Whites where they could and, where they could not, either repatriate or destroy them. In August 1918 the first British troops landed in the Russian Arctic.
British, French, Serb, Japanese, American, Australian, Canadian, Indian and Italian troops landed in Russia to support the Whites. The Japanese controlled the Russian Far East. It was an excellent chance for them to consolidate their grip on this zone as Russia was embroiled in internecine warfare. The Indian troops – minions of the Britannic Empire – were used in the Caucasus. Some South Africans also volunteered for the White side. The Reds who had – correctly – been painted as anti-nationalists then claimed that they were Russian patriots. The Reds said they were defending Russia against a host of foreign enemies. They accused the Whites of being hirelings of the invaders – selling out to foreign capital who had exploited Russia for so long. The capitalist powers were determined to protect their investments in Russia. The Bolsheviks had repudiated the debt run up by the previous regimes. Russia’s main creditor had been France. France herself had run up unimaginably huge debts during the Great War – owing $3 000 000 000 to the United States alone. France could not bear to see these debts abandoned. This was a touch hypocritical. After the French Revolution in the 18th century the new French Government had repudiated the debts of l’ancien regime. In time this had been accepted by everyone else. Why was revolutionary Russia not entitled to do the same thing?
The contribution of the foreign interventionists should not be exaggerated. Only about 150 000 foreign soldiers entered Russia at the time – besides the Poles. The benefit the foreign interventionists gave to the Whites was that they were well-disciplined and well-armed. There was a psychological advantage of having the world behind them. The British Army in Russia were ordered to simply train the Whites and not to engage in any fighting themselves. However, the British soldier did do some fighting. The contribution of a handful of British tanks was decisive at a number of battles since the Red Army had no tanks of their own.
Many prisoners from what we now called the Czech Republic and Slovakia had been taken by the Russian Army during the Great War. The Allies had formed Czech legions in France, Serbia and elsewhere. The Czech legions had included a sprinkling of Slovaks. The aim was to defeat the Central Powers and thereby enable a new nation forged from Slovaks and Czechs to be formed. Slovak and Czech prisoners in Russia were set free when they agreed to form a Czech Legion to fight against the Central Powers. Now that Russia was out of the war the Czech Legion was a powerful force. However, the Czech Legion wished to avoid entanglement in internal Russian controversies and to just get home. In October 1918 Czechoslovakia had been proclaimed as an independent nation. It was impossible for the Czech Legion to avoid becoming drawn into domestic disputes in Russian politics. The Reds would not let the Czech Legion out as they saw the Czech Legion as a tool of the British and French. Czechia was very industrialised and had a sizeable socialist and trades union movement. The Bolsheviks saw the Czech lands as being ripe for revolution. The Czech Legion was a bourgeois nationalist force. Therefore the Czechs were thrust into the arms of the Whites. The Czech Legion was highly united unlike most White Forces. The Czech Legion controlled much of the Trans-Siberian Railway. They fought very effectively on the White side.
As much of Russia was starving there were few ways to get enough food. For a young man one obvious meal ticket was to join an army – either side in the Civil War. The armies made feeding their men the priority – much more than feeding the civilian population.
The Reds held many cards. They controlled the capital, Petrograd, as well as the second largest city – Moscow. This was a psychological advantage as well as lending a spurious credibility to their claim to be the rightful government of the country. They were strong in a number of other cities in the centre of west Russia. These were the centre of industry. They therefore we able to manufacture weapons. The area under their control was geographically contiguous. They were able to communicate with each other and sent men from a quiet sector to a beleaguered front.
The Bolsheviks immediately stated their belief in the total equality of women. This won over many feminists who otherwise had their doubts about the Bolsheviks. They allowed women to rise to any position and to serve in the Red Army even as combat troops. It is true that, in extremis, Kerensky had allowed a few hundred women to enlist in the Russian Army before the October Revolution. However, this was very much the exception and the Reds made far greater use of womanpower than the Whites.
In March 1918 the Reds tracked down Grand Duke Mikhail, the Tsar’s only living brother, and assassinated him.
It must be stressed that the Whites were a very broad church but a very fractious one. The Whites included far left groups such as the SRs as well as ultra-conservatives who wished to restore the Tsar with full powers. For some outright reactionaries the rot had set in 1905 if not in 1861 with the abolition of serfdom. There was of course every shade of opinion in between. It was the right wing Whites who tended to get the publicity. This was because they had better contacts with Allied governments, predominated in the ranks of the naval and army officers and also because the Reds chose to emphasise the monocled aristocratic reactionary as the standard image of a White.
Defeat the Reds and what then? Restore the Tsar? As a figurehead or with full powers? Many Whites were utterly opposed to the restoration. After the death of Nikolai the Last there were a number of distant relatives of his whose rival claims had to be assessed. The issue of restoration receded. This was fortunate for the Whites as many ordinary Russians, especially urban workers, now loathed the Romanovs. The Reds insisted that the Whites were hellbent on bringing back full-blown Tsarism as prior to 1905. Despite claims to the contrary the Whites never adopted restoring Tsarism as a policy. This was for several reasons. Many Whites were SRs and therefore totally against Tsarism. Even then those who wanted a Tsar only wanted a constitutional monarchy. Which Romanov candidate had the best claim to the Throne? That was an open question. The issue of restoration was much too divisive among the Whites. All but the most blinkered reactionaries saw that the Romanovs were so unpopular that espousal of restoration would be a gift to the Reds. Despite never adopting bringing back the Tsar in any form as a policy the reactionary mannerisms of many White officers gave people every impression that the Whites were restorationists. Many White officers insisted on gold braided uniforms and court etiquette. They wasted time debating such pressing issues as whether to adopt spelling reform. Of course they elected to stick with the more antiquated form of spelling. Everything about them indicated conservatism.
A much bigger issue than the fate of the Romanovs was the one bread and butter issue for majority of Russians – land. Would peasants who had been able to seize property be allowed to keep a hold of it? The Whites still said no. Moderate Whites – SRs – wanted land reform but only after the Civil War and to be conducted in an orderly and equitable fashion. Some Whites were landowners who refused to consider land reform. They wished to reverse the land reform that had already taken place. Millions of peasants who might otherwise have been neutral and sometimes pro-White therefore had a take in ensuring White defeat. Discussing it years later with a former comrade Kerensky said that this policy of delaying land reform had been his cardinal error. ”If we had done it would be in Moscow now”. He meant that had he recognised the land reform that had already taken place the Whites would have won. Of course a few irredeemable reactionary Whites would have alienated by such a stance but that would have been more than balanced by the peasants it would have won over. Whites sometimes hanged trades unionists – again sending people into the arms of the Reds. White crimes against Jews meant that Jews had little option but to join the Reds for protection.
Because the Reds were militantly anti-religious those who were religiously inclined were naturally driven into the arms of the Whites. The Russian Orthodox Church was seen by the Reds as a form of reactionary psychological warfare on the peasantry and the proletariat. Churches were converted to other purposes by the Red authorities such as grain stores and museums of atheism. Monasteries and convents were raided and even razed to the ground. Priceless works of art were vandalised. Lenin was totally against religion but said that religion must not be persecuted. It must be allowed to shrivel up and die of its own accord when exposed to reason and mass education. However, Lenin’s acolytes took a more pro-active approach as we have seen. Orthodox priests and monks were very often murdered by Reds and nuns ravished.
Were the Whites to bring back Russian Orthodoxy as the state religion? For the reactionaries the answer was a resounding yes. For the SRs the answer was very definitely no. There can be little doubt that for many peasants who might otherwise have been pro-Red religion was a motivating force in making them resist the Reds.
Because the Whites were divided politically as well as geographically they did not work together well. The mistrusted each other and had radically different visions of how Russia should look after the defeat of the Reds. Had the Whites won there may well have been a second civil war between different factions of Whites. The Whites found it difficult to communicate. There were very few radios back then. A radio in those days was as large as a full size fridge is now. Moreover, there were extremely few telephones in Russia at the time. Telegraph lines often ran through Red territory so they were liable to be cut. Communication was often by rider as the postal service had long since broken down. Moreover, the railways were chiefly in Red hands. The railwaymen were mostly Reds as well as most rail junctions and train repair workshops being in Red hands. The Whites found it very difficult to co-ordinate attacks. The Reds were fighting on many fronts but so were the Whites.
Who was the Red leader? Any Red could answer that in a trice. Lenin. Without a doubt – unchallenged, supreme and dictatorial. It was Lenin. Soon his image was everywhere. Who was head of the Red Army? It was Trotsky, the People’s Commissar for War. He travelled Russia in his armoured train giving rousing speeches. Despite his lack of military experience he put mettle into his men. His savage discipline was effectual. He was canny enough to see that the Red Army needed experienced senior officers. The common soldiers and even the NCOs were mostly totally illiterate. The experienced officers of significant rank were mostly aristocrats and Tsarists. Some of these men saw the Reds as the ones defending Russia against a host of invaders. Brusilov offered his services to the Reds on this basis. Mikhail Tukhachevsky was another who did so. Other Tsarists officers who joined up were suspected of wishing to defect to the Whites the first chance they got. Did Trotsky actually trust his natural enemies? Of course not. He took the precaution of making their family members hostages. If such men deserted their children were shot. It was no idle threat. The Reds were no snobs and happily promoted rankers who showed promise of leadership potential. Marshall Gheorghi Zhukov – son of a furrier – was one such private to be promoted.
Who was the White leader? Admiral Kolchak. No, General Denikin. No, General Kornilov. No, General Wrangel. No Tsar Nicholas II. No, Alexandr Kerensky. Get the point? The Whites had no universally acknowledged leader. One’s leader depended on which sector of the front one was and to which faction one belonged. Nikolai II had been in Provisional Government custody until the October Revolution when he was seized by the Reds. They took him to Yekaterinburg, a small city in the Ural Mountains. He was accompanied by his family and a few retainers.
The Reds made considerable gains in early 1918, building on their impetus from the October Revolution. Their agreement to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk set back their popularity. Moreover, this was when Allied troops began to arrive.
In southern Russia the Volunteer Army was raised which was a White group. The Cossacks on the Don joined the Whites in great numbers. They had a free wheeling lifestyle and a personal devotion to the Tsar. This made them inimical to the Reds.
In the summer of 1918 the Reds were being pressed hard. It was increasingly obvious that the Central Powers were living on borrowed time. American troops were disembarking in France at the rate of 1 000 per day. The Allies would then be able to throw all their men against the Reds.
On the other hand the Reds had spread their message far and wide. The ceasefire on the Eastern Front had allowed Red propagandists to disseminate propaganda to Central Powers troops. Germany and Austria-Hungary both had large socialists movements before the war. Men who were once apolitical, non-socialist or even socialist went home committed Communists. Central Powers prisoners who had spent some years in Russia sometimes learnt Russian and were converted to Communism. A case in point is one Josip Broz. He was half Slovene and half Croat – a subject of Austria-Hungary. Such Prisoners of War were released sometimes and often escaped in the turmoil of the Russian Civil War. Communist notions caught on among the demoralised Central Powers troops. In the British and French Armies Communist ideas made small but significant inroads. In western Europe there was not such a sharp distinction between the moderate and extreme left. Parliamentary socialists in the UK tended to openly sympathise with the Reds despite the brutality of the Reds towards parliamentary socialists in Russia.
In July 1918 the Romanovs in Yekaterinburg were becoming a headache for the Reds. They were held at Ipatiev House – it was named after the engineer who built it. Ominously the Reds dubbed it ”the house of special purpose.” The Whites with the aid of the Czech Legion made a major advance towards Yekaterinburg. It seemed sure that the town would fall to the Whites. The Reds did not want the divided Whites to have a figure to rally around. Yakov Sverdlov in Moscow sent an order that the Romanovs be liquidated. In the middle of the night of 17/18 July 1918 the Romanovs were awoken and brought to the basement. They were told there was rioting in the town. They were lined up by a wall and told a photo was to be taken. Then a Latvian Red read aloud an order addressing the former Tsar as Nikolai Aleksandrovitch. It was announced that the Tsar and his family were to be immediately shot to death. The Tsar shouted ”oh my god!” and he, his wife, his five children and a couple of servants were all shot dead by several gunmen. There were diamonds sewn into the bodices of the Romanov daughters. These may have shielded them from the first few bullets but then a coupe de grace was administered. The bodies were dipped into acid and thrown into the Four Brothers Mine.
Rumours surfaced within days that a daughter had not died in the shooting. Most accounts say that this was Grand Duchess Anastasia. Her name means ”resurrection.” It was not until the 1990s that this claim was comprehensively proved to be bogus. A number of pretenders came forward. The most notorious was Fransziska Schankowska, a Polish factory worker of almost the same age as Anastasia.
Lenin approved of the slayings and had a hand in ordering it. Trotksy was not aware of it until after it occurred. However, he recorded his approbation in print. One should bear in mind that the Tsarevitch was 12 when his father was overthrown. Whatever guilt one attaches to Nikolai II no blame can attach to his son. The Tsarevitch was 13 at the time of his death. The Tsar’s servants were guilty of nothing. These are the best known cases and these examples are far from isolated. Total disregard for humanity was to be the norm for the Red Army. Trotsky praised the killings as necessary to demonstrate that there could be no going back to l’ancien regime.
The Reds announced that the Tsar had been shot but that his family were being kept safe. This helped to give rise to those false stories that one of his daughters did not die on that occasion. It was not for several months that the Bolsheviks announced that the rest of the Tsar’s family had also been shot dead.
The Whites when they took the town initiated an investigation. They found the bodies and reinterred them beside a road.
Yekaterinaburg was later renamed Sverdlovsk in honour of Yakov Sverdlov as he ordered the killings. It was held to be a glorious revolutionary act. Sverdlov died in 1919. He was Jewish though a disbeliever in all religions. His ancestry was used to exacerbate anti-Semitism. There was significant anti-Semitism among the Whites who made much of the fact that there were many Jews among the Red leadership. A number of White Guard units carried out atrocities against Jews. A lesser number of Reds did so too. It may seem illogical for Reds to do so as the head of the Red Army was a Jew. However, anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained in Russia. Many Reds may have believed that the claim the Trotsky was Jew was a White smear.
Both sides used conscription and requistioned food, horses and other supplies. Trotsky ordered that hostages be taken and shot if villagers who had been conscripted deserted.
Many peasants said – a plague on both your houses. They tried to organise militias to resist both sides who seemed to be no more than robber bands who mouthed some incomprehensible slogans. Politics was something for urbanites. What did it matter who reigned to people in a remote village.
The war was especially savage with torture and the killing of prisoners being commonplace. The Cheka conducted an enormous campaign of terror. Leather uniformed Chekists paraded the streets carrying banner reading ”Long live the Red Terror.”
In October 1918 mutinies and revolts swept Germany and Austria-Hungary. The red flag was hoisted in many cities. Lenin thought the hour of Communism had dawned. This was it. Communism would sweep the world! Goodbye capitalism! Down with national chauvinism.
In November the armistice between Germany and the Allies was signed. It seemed the Great War was over – seemed. It could begin again if Germany did not sign the treaty the Allies prepared for her. Would the Allies, as some feared, send all their men against the Reds? The only thing to do was to pre-empt this. World revolution! There were Communist uprising in Germany, Finland and Hungary. There were strikes in the UK – tanks were brought onto the streets of Glasgow and a soviet was formed in Limerick in Ireland. There were many protests in India and a horrendous massacre at Amritsar in India in April. In northern Italy several cities were temporarily controlled by Communists.
Public opinion in the Allied countries was very war weary. Many leftists had some sympathy for the Reds. Dockers in the UK refused to load ships that were sending men to crush the Reds. The Reds were gaining the upper hand. The US decided to end the Polar Bear Expedition. The US Army was also withdrawn from Russia. The UK also pulled her troops out of Russia. One by one so did other Allied countries. They had trouble at home and a wish to make economies. Allied troops were being affected by Red propaganda. The Allied troops were there to fight the Central Powers not the Reds – they wanted to go home. They might mutiny.
In 1919 The Whites had made some considerable gains. A Civil War in Finland had resulted in White victory. The Finnish Whites were perilously close to Petrograd. They were commanded by a Finn who had formerly been an officer in the Tsarist Army – Marshall Carl Mannerheim. Lenin remarked that if the Finns chose to march on Petrograd then farewell to any hope of Red victory. The Royal Navy controlled the Baltic and could easily ferry the White Finns across the Gulf of Finland too. In the event Marshall Mannerheim chose to keep his country out of the Russian Civil War so far as possible.
Poland had come back into being after having disappeared since 1772. There had been a very brief reappearance under Napoleon. Marshall Josef Pilsudski ruled Poland. He looked back to the 17th century when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ruled everything from the Baltic to the Black Sea. He wished to re-create Poland’s halcyon days. With Russia in the throes of a horrific civil war opportunities did not come much better than this. Belarus – the Ukraine as far as the Dnieper and even Russia as far east as Smolensk had all been Polish once. On to the Dnieper! In 1919 Pilsudski sent the newly formed Polish Army east to conquer as much as they could. France actively supported Poland providing weapons and military advisers. At first the Poles made rapid headway through war-torn Russia and reached Kiev. But the Poles had overextended themselves. Their supply lines were very long and vulnerable. The Red Army fought back. The Green Army, a Ukrainian independence movement, also fought against the Poles. The Black Army – an anarchist group in the Ukraine – disliked the Polish regime too. The Polish Army was driven back as fast as it had advanced. The Red Army pressed its advantage and closed on Warsaw. Lenin rubbed his hands gleefully. At last the revolution could move west. Surely the Polish labouring classes would welcome the Red Army as liberators and overthrow the reactionary militarists Pilsudski. However, Lenin’s ideology had blinded him to the reality. Very few Poles heeded the call to revolution. The Miracle of the Vistula was the battle where the Poles, at the eleventh hour, defeated the Red Army and sent them packing. The Red Army fled back to what we call the middle of the Ukraine. In 1921 the Treaty of Riga concluded the Russo-Polish War.
By 1920 all foreign soldiers had left. The Whites were clearly losing the war. General Wrangel evacuated his men from the Black Sea before its ports fell to the Red Army. Wrangel’s men and their womenfolk moved first to Turkey. Oh humiliation of humiliations. To seek asylum from the former enemy. As the Whites were boarding ships the Red Air Force flew over the town. They bombed it – with leaflets. The leaflets asked the Whites to stay. The war was over. Let bygones be bygones. All was forgiven. The Red Army gave its word of honour that the Whites who stayed behind would not be punished in any way. They would be allowed to join the Red Army and to build a bright future for Russians of all views. The promise of no vengeance was made in the strongest possible terms. A small number of Whites were persuaded. They decided to stay, to trust the Reds. The civil war was all but finished and it was time to work together for the good of Russia.
Those Whites who chose to remain behind soon found out that they had been very foolish indeed. The Cheka got to work on them torturing them horribly. They Whites were sent to labour camps or in most cases executed. That was what the Red Army’s word of honour meant.
Whites who fled moved to France, Germany, the UK, the United States, Serbia and China.
By March 1921 the Reds were clearly winning the war. Red Navy sailors who had put up with a lot for the cause felt that it was time to voice their complaints and no longer keep quiet for the sake of unity. The sailors on Kronstadt Island had been some of the most vociferous Bolsheviks. Kronstadt is an island just off Petrograd. The sailors demanded freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, no more forced labour, more equal rations, an end to party control of workers’ councils, the release of all socialist political prisoners and peasants to be allowed to farm as they wished.
The Communist leadership had no intention of yielding to these demands. Trotsky organised an attack on Kronstadt. Crucially the Kronstadt sailors had not waited until the ice melted. If they had the Communist leadership would have been hard pushed to find enough ships to take on the Kronstadt sailors. As it was loyal units of the Red Army could attack across the solid ice. After several days of hard fighting Kronstadt was stormed. Thousands of mutineers were sent to slave labour camps and thousands of others were executed. The Communist leaders would have no truck with any notion of democracy or pluralism.
Fighting slowed in 1922. In 1923 the last remnants of White resistance were snuffed out.