The Russian Civil War

by: Katherine E. Ruiz-Díaz

За единую Россию! - плакат, художник

За единую Россию! (For a united Russia!)

The Russian Civil War tore Russia apart during a three-year period, from 1918 and 1921. The Civil War was a result of the emergence  of opposition against the Bolsheviks after November 1917. These groups included monarchists, militarists, and, for a short time, foreign nations. Collectively, they were known as the Whites while the Bolsheviks were known as the Reds. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had shown a certain weakness on behalf of the Bolsheviks. Lenin had called for peace at any price and the Germans had exacted very severe terms. At the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks only effectively controlled Petrograd, Moscow, and the territory between both cities. With the fall of Nicholas II, many parts of the Russian empire took the opportunity to declare their independence. Finland did so in March 1918, having its own civil war right after.

Within Russia, those who opposed the Bolsheviks looked for the West for help. In fact, there is scholarship that discusses the influence of the West in the Civil War. For their own benefit, the western powers wanted to re-establish an Eastern Front so that the German Army would be split once again, thus relieving the problems being experienced on the Western Front. In the south of Russia, resistance to the Bolsheviks was led by Kornilov, and joined by soldiers that had survived World War I. The Socialist Revolutionaries, who had been members of the dispersed Constituent Assembly, grouped in the Lower Volga under the leadership of Viktor Chernov. In addition, a Socialist Revolutionary group had established an autonomous regime just east of Omsk which claimed to govern the whole of Siberia. They also seized the eastern city of Vladivostok. Colonel Semenov, a monarchist, also established his own government in Trans-Baikalia. In Manchuria, General Horvat, who had been the tsar’s military-governor of the region, established another conservative government. While the royal family was alive, they were source of inspiration and encouragement to the Whites. Therefore, Lenin ordered their execution on July 16th, 1918. An upturn for the Bolsheviks came after World War I, when due to strategic reasons and the closing of one fighting front, the Whites lost the upper hand. Consequently, the Red Army had enough sequential victories to bring security for a Bolshevik government.

The purpose of this research guide is to explore the different aspects of the Russian Civil War, under the context of World War I and the multi-culturality that they inherited from the Russian Empire. Besides the politics of war, this page intends to show other factors, like economics and society that affected the outcome of the Civil War and –on a larger scale–the outcome of this newly form government. Furthermore, this guide aspires to show beyond a clash between two forces –one Bolshevik, one monarchist–, and to show the dimensionality and complexities of the period. As you go through this guide, you will find a collection of primary and secondary sources that may either agree, contradict each other, or just offer a different perspective on a historical event.


The Civil War: Background

In this segment, the intent is to provide background reading on the Civil War, as well as explore the origins of the conflict. Not only one must see alliances, but analyze the reason behind the different formations of different factions. This section includes books and articles, as well as compilations of primary sources. While most of the background information focuses on the achievements and final victory of the Red Army, other sections will focus on other players and other more specific aspects of the war.

The Russian Civil War

  • Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War. Pegasus, 2007.
  • The author offers a lucid, detailed account of the men and events that shaped twentieth century communist Russia. He draws upon a wide range of sources to recount the military course of the war, as well as the hardship the conflict brought to a country and its people—for the victory and the reconstruction of the state under the Soviet regime came at a painfully high economic and human price. This book can serves as a general source of background facts on the Civil War.

The Russian Civil War: Documents from the Soviet Archives (Book)

  • Butt, V. P., and A. B. Murphy, N. A. Myshov, G.R. Swain, ed. The Russian Civil War: Documents from the Soviet Archives. London: Longman, 1996.
  • In this compilation, the editors managed to compile correspondence between commanders that were finally accessible as the Soviet archives opened to the public. While it does not offer a narrative, the avid reader is able to draw his/her all conclusions from the different texts, which serve as a rich basis for research.

The Russian Civil War: Primary Sources (Book)

  • Murphy, A. B. The Russian Civil War: Primary Sources. London: Longman, 1996.
  • To go with the source about, Murphy brings together another collection of primary sources, both from Soviet archives and elsewhere, as above.

La guerre civile et l’économie de guerre origines du système soviétique (Article, Source in French)

  • Sapir, Jacques. “La guerre civile et l’économi de guerre origines du système soviétique,” Cahiers du monde russe 38 (1997), 9-28.
  • Place the two conflicts , World War I and the Civil War, in the double process of breaking the tsarist system and genesis of the Soviet system, and there still remains an important research theme to advance the understanding of what was the USSR. While significant work has already been done on the matter, the author attempts to take an approach other than purely historical in order to study the time period. His methodology consists of taking into account the notion of a war economy to try and understand the development of the Soviet system, given that a war economy is not only the economy of a country at war. In fact, in the twentieth century, a number of countries have attempted to conduct armed conflict by not applying to the economy and society mobilization that was the lot of able-bodied men. The war economy here refers to forms of economic and social mobilization that started up in 1914 . Sapir sees economics as largely instrumental in organizing the imagination and guide the thinking of economists, thinkers, and social reformers thereafter. In the particular case of the USSR , the article argues  that the dual experience of the war economy observed in Russia and Germany between 1914 and 1917 , and the mobilization implemented in the context of civil war, was instrumental in the establishment of a number of institutions of the Soviet system.

Rostov in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1920: The Key to Victory (Book)

  • Murphy, Brian. Rostov in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1920: The Key To Victory. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • These documents were collected from the archives in Rostov-on-Don, and this book makes them available for the first time in print. Both Reds and Whites realized Rostov’s vital strategic importance, and the city changed hands six times between 1917 and 1920. These newly published personal stories fill out the social background to its complex mix of classes and nationalities. They convey the daily experience of life in the streets, and the perils faced by either side when changing fortunes forced them to escape across the River Don.

Communists and the Red Cavalry: The Political Education of the Konarmiia in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20 (Article)

Civil War in South Russia, 1918 (Book) // Civil War in South Russia, 1919-1920 (Book)

  • Kenez, Peter. Civil War in South Russia, 1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
  • Kenez, Peter. Civil War in South Russia, 1919-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • In this two part series, Kenez recounts the events of the war in the Southern regions of Russia. The events’ importance lies in the variety of actors that played a role in the area: Europeans, Whites, and Reds. The book also serves as a good introduction to the


The White Armed Forces

The White Army (Book/Memoir)

  • Denikin, Anton I. The White Army. Translated by Catherine Zvegintzov. London: Academic International Press, 1973.
  • The author, General Anton I. Denikin, discusses the White Army military campaign, together with flaws on the campaigns and (mostly) victories. Following the October Revolution both Denikin and Kornilov escaped to Novocherkassk in Northern Caucasus and, with other Tsarist officers, formed the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army, initially commanded by Alekseev. When Kornilov was killed in 1918, the Volunteer Army came under Denikin’s command. In the face of a Communist counter-offensive he withdrew his forces back towards the Don area in what became known as the “Ice March.” This book was written as an emigré in France in 1930.

The White Russian Army in Exile, 1920-1941 (Book)

  • This book traces the fate of the soldiers of the White Armies who fled Russia at the end of the Russian Civil War. Even as the troops dispersed throughout the world, they continued to think of themselves as soldiers, kept their organization intact and in some cases even continued their military training. In this book, Robinson provides the reader a detailed outline of the activities of White military organizations in exile, especially the army of General P. N. Wrangel and its successor the Russkii Obsche-Voinskii Soiuz (ROVS), including their underground struggles against the Soviet Union, the humanitarian aid supplied to members, the ideological debates in which they participated, and efforts to collaborate with Germany in the Second World War. When placing the book in context of its historiography, it is one of the first books that forms a narrative about the aftermath of the Civil War according the Whites. In this way the book furthers understanding of the White movement, of Russian émigré military organizations, and of the history of the inter-war Russian emigration.

White Siberia: The Politics of Civil War (Book)

  • Pereira, N. White Siberia: The Politics of Civil War. McGill-Queen’s Press, 1996.
  • Pereira argues that the White counter-revolution failed in Siberia because of the political weakness of the anti-Soviet governments vying for power in the region and especially because of their policies toward the Siberian peasantry. He highlights similarities and differences among their constitutional programs and ideologies, paying particular attention to the Kolchak government as the chief anti-Bolshevik force in the region. Through his analysis of the conflict Pereira attempts to determine whether parliamentary democracy stood any real chance under the extraordinary circumstances or whether it was, as the Bolsheviks alleged, merely window-dressing hiding the real agenda of counter-revolution by military means and restoration of the ancien régime.


Greens and Others

Who Were the “Greens”? Rumor and Collective Identity in the Russian Civil War? (Article)

  • Landis, Erik C. “Who Were the ‘Greens’? Rumor and Collective Identity in the Russian Civil War.” The Russian Review 69 (2010), 30-46.
  • In this article, Landis revisits the term “greens” –used to label certain groups that did not recognize with the Red or the White Armies. The author intends to clarify the exact nature of the (what he calls) “so-called greens.” He argues that the term “Green” suggests that they –as a “historiographical phenomenon”– belong to a more generalized search for the popular will, when others were taking polarized positions during the time. With this article, Landis aims to break away with popular myths that came from either side of the conflict (with a position.)

The Origins of the Russian Civil War (Book)

  • Swain, Geoffrey. The Origins of the Russian Civil War. London: Longman, 1996.
  • This book offers an account of the first phase of the civil war that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd in 1917. Swain provides the reader with a picture of the extraordinarily complicated developments that initiated the armed conflict between the Bolsheviks and their opponents. The author focuses on the conflict between the Red Army and the Greens forces, ex-allies that ended as their enemies because of the suspicion, unwillingness to compromise, and deliberate isolationism of Lenin’s party. Swain’s fundamental argument is that throughout the Civil War the Bolsheviks considered their main opponents not to be the forces representing the old regime of tsarism, but the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), who represented a vision for a socialist Russia that was quite different from the Bolshevik one. Having decided that the SRs were their primary enemies, the Bolsheviks engaged themselves in a war from which they emerged as victors who were consciously isolated from all other groups throughout Russia’s entire political spectrum. Swain concludes that it was the Red-Green civil war, rather than the Red-White one, that determined the nature of the Soviet regime that would dominate Russia for the next seven decades. It may be relevant to note that the author’s research is based on both published materials and newly opened archives in the former Soviet Union.

Russian Anarchists and the Civil War (Article)

The Awareness Department of the Don Government in 1919 (Article, Source in Russian)

  • Yegorov, A. “The Awareness Department of the Don Government in 1919.” Vestnk 6 (2013), 103-7.
  • This article is devoted to the Department of Awareness of the Don Government and its activities during the Russian Civil War. The author describes the structure of the organization, its principal activities, and the reasons behind its closure. The author focuses on the political situation in Russia in 1919 and the importance of agitation during the disintegration of the old foundations of the state.


Foreign Influences and Expansion

The Civil War Extends

The Russian Civil War in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang), 1918-1921: A Little Known and Explored Front (Article)

  • Share, Michael. “The Russian Civil War in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang), 1918-1921: A Little Known and Explored Front.” Europe-Asia Studies 62 (2010), 389-420.
  • A very important yet little known front in the Russian Civil War existed in neighboring Xinjiang, a region in China’s northwest, that was at that time self-governing. In Xinjiang, Russian White Commanders and their troops gained sanctuary, financial assistance, food and shelter from Chinese provincial leaders, and then used those sanctuaries to launch operations against Soviet forces. However, by 1921, Red Army troops destroyed any remaining organized White forces, which then melted into the Chinese landscape. The ramifications of the Russian Civil War in Xinjiang had important impacts on the people of Xinjiang, and on Russia and China as well.

Vanguard of “Socialist Colonization”? The Krasnyi Vostok Expedition of 1920 (Article)

  • Argenbright, Robert. “Vanguard of ‘Socialist Colonization’? The Krasnyi Bostok expedition of 1920.” Central Asian Survey 30 (2011) 437-54.
  • During the Russian Civil War, special vehicles visited the vast country’s diverse regions as emissaries of central authority. The so-called ‘agitational’ vehicles carried out the functions of propaganda and agitation, ‘instruction’ (governance) and surveillance in the pursuit of two overarching, and sometimes contradictory, goals: state building and the radical transformation of society. The Krasnyi Vostok (Red East) expedition to Turkestan in 1920 was exceptional in the degree to which the train interfered in local governance regimes. The author presents how the Krasnyi Vostok activists concluded that “socialist colonization” was the essential task in Turkestan, and was seen as a potential weapon to win the war.
Foreign Aid and Intervention

    The Volunteer Army and Allied intervention in South Russia, 1917-1921: a study in the politics and diplomacy of the Russian Civil War (Book)

    The Great White Train: Typhus, Sanitation, and U.S. International Development during the Russian Civil War (Article)


    Society Throughout the Civil War

    Party, State, and Society in the Russian Civil War: Exploration in Social History (Book)

    • Koenker, Diane P.,  William G. Rosenberg and Ronald Grigory Suny. Party, State, and Society in the Russian Civil War: Exploration in Social History. Purdue: Indiana University Press, 1989.
    • A good introductory book on the role of politics on society, and vice versa.

    Arkhangel’sk, 1918: Regionalism and Populism in the Russian Civil War (Article)

    • Arkhangel’sk, in Northern Russia, was believed by the Whites to have to potential to serve as a bastion again the Red Army. In addition, they believed that the Socialist Revolutionaries had popular support. Nonetheless, when the cabinet fell they were surprised by the lack of such support. The author of this article intends to give explanation to the failure of this Northern opposition by examining regionalism in the area of Arkhangel’sk.

    Urbanization and Deurbanization in the Russian Revolution and the Civil War (Article)

    Le travail d’enquête des organisations juives sur les pogroms d’Ukraine, de Biélorussie et de Russie soviétique pendant la guerre civile (1918-1922) (Article, Source in French)

    • In this article, the authors present different Jewish organizations that organized during the Civil War in Ukraine (KOPE, OZE), Belorussia, and Soviet Russia (GARF) to bring to light the pogroms, very prominent in these areas.

    Woman and Violence in Artistic Discourse of the Russian Revolution and Civil War (1917–1922) (Article)

    • Eremeeva, Anna N., and Dan Healey. “Woman and Violence in Artistic Discourse of the Russian Revolution and Civil War.” Gender & History 16 (2004), 726-43.
    • This article examines visual and literary representations of violence against women produced during the period. The image of a woman suffering from violence is presented from different points of view in literary art works of the Revolution and Civil War time. It was created and circulated among Red and White camps mainly in accordance with the task of propaganda bodies. Among the object of violence there are allegoric women’s figures, symbolising Russia, revolution, freedom, well-known heroines from literature, historic personages and contemporary women – ordinary victims of civil confrontation and direct participants of the Revolution and war. Men or symbols traditionally personifying masculine origin were nearly always the perpetrators of violence, and the image of the female victim was exploited for the strong emotions it evoked. In most cases physical violence against women was treated as anomaly. But the control of the regime over the woman’s emotional sphere had become a standard everywhere.

    Hungry Moscow: Scarcity and Urban Society in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1921 (Book)

    • Borrero, Mauricio. Hungry Moscow: Scarcity and Urban Society in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1921. Bern: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.
    • Severe food shortages and unremitting hunger served as the background to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the civil war that followed. Hungry Moscow examines the impact of these food shortages on Moscow residents, focusing on the survival strategies they devised to overcome or minimize hunger. Also examined is the interplay between these short-term individual survival strategies and the formulation and development of long-term government book contributes to our understanding of important issues in early Soviet history, such as the relationship between central and local institutions, rationing, the growth of black markets, Bolshevik social policies, and the reordering of urban life during revolutionary times.

    Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution (1917-1921) (Book)

    • Figes, Orlando. Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution (1917-1921). London: Oxford University Press, 1979.
    • Often overlooked as a crucial factor in the Bolsheviks’ victory was the role of the peasantry. Here is an enthralling portrait of this poor but sizable population on the eve of the uprising; of the breakdown of state power in the countryside; and, most important, of the relationship between the serfs and the Bolsheviks during the civil war. An enlightening approach, illustrated with disturbing contemporary images. This is the first non-Soviet history of the Volga countryside during the Russian revolution and civil war of 1917-1921. The product of extensive study of numerous archival sources–many of them from central government archives, and previously considered highly secret–it reconstructs the revolutionary experience of the peasantry in the crucial Volga region, situated immediately behind the military fronts between the Reds and the Whites. Figes examines in detail the impact of the revolution on the villages. With the destruction of the old agrarian state, the task of reforming the social life of the countryside was left to the peasants, who set about reconstructing the order according to traditional peasant notions of social justice. The ability of the Bolsheviks to mobilize the peasantry is explained in terms of political and social developments at the village level during the civil war. The civil war, Figes argues, left a deep scar on the peasant economy and peasant-state relations, which influenced the entire development of the Soviet regime.

    Chapayev and Company: Films of the Russian Civil War (Article)

    • While these films were made later, this is an article that talks about the themes that came forth in the representation of the Civil War in Soviet film, especially with the Civil War hero Chapayev.

    Caffeinated Avant-Garde: Futurism During the Russian Civil War 1917-1921 (Article)

    • Glisic, Iva. “Caffeinated Avant-Garde: Futurism During the Russian Civil War 1917-1921.” Australian Journal of Politics and History 58 (2012) 353-66.
    • Scholarship on Russian Futurism often interprets this avant-garde movement as an essentially utopian project, unrealistic in its visions of future Soviet society and naïve in its comprehension of the Bolshevik political agenda. This article questions such interpretations by demonstrating that the activities of Russian Futurists during the Civil War period represented a measured response to what was a challenging contemporary socio-political reality. By examining the development of Futurist ideology through this period, considering first-handFuturist descriptions of dealing with the fledgling Soviet system, and recalling Slavoj Žižek’s interpretations of revolution and utopianism, a different image of the Futurist project emerges. Futurism, indeed, was a movement far more aware of the intricacies of its historical period than has previously been recognised.

    The Great War, the Russian Civil War, and the Invention of Big Science (Article)

    • Kojevnikov, Alexei. “The Great War, the Russian Civil War, and the Invention of Big Science.” Science in Context 15 (2002), 239-75.
    • The transformation in Russian science toward the Soviet model of research started even before the revolution of 1917. This article argues that such a revolutionary transformation was triggered by the crisis of World War I, in response to which Russian academics proposed radical changes in the goals and infrastructure of the country’s scientific effort. Their drafts envisioned the recognition of science as a profession separate from teaching, the creation of research institutes, and the turn toward practical, applied research linked to the military and industrial needs of the nation. The political revolution and especially the Bolshevik government that shared or appropriated many of the same views on science, helped these reforms materialize during the subsequent Civil War. By 1921, the foundation of a novel system of research and development became established.


    Propaganda of the Civil War

    Unlike other forms of art and expression, propaganda tends to be more directed by a specific groups that is or yearns to be in power. This section mostly contains the primary source itself: posters. The two articles point out how Reds and Whites used propaganda and mass mobilization as weapons of war.

    White Propaganda Efforts in the South during the Russian Civil War, 1918-19 (The Alekseev-Denikin Period) (Article)

    The Red Army and Mass Mobilization during the Russian Civil War 1918-1920 (Article)

    Views and Re-Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons (Website)

    Плакаты Давно.Ру (Website, Source in Russian)

    Bolsheviks – Russian Civil War – Propaganda Posters and Military Art (Website)

    • This collection can also serve as another source of more propaganda posters. Also includes military art of or depicting the Civil War.