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Civil War

For Russia, the Civil War was the climax of a disastrous era begun by World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Spurred by popular support gained by Vladimir Lenin's slogan "All power to the soviets!" and his opposition to continuing to fight World War I, the Bolsheviks seized power in the Russian capital, Petrograd, in October 1917. The Bolsheviks overthrew the failing Provisional Government with minimal violence, but the aftermath sparked a ferocious conflict. [Text continues at bottom of page]

Headed by Lenin, the Sovnarkom (Council of People's Commissars) declared itself the defender of the exploited against their oppressors, the capitalists and aristocratic landowners.

Its initial proclamations acknowledged peasants' seizure of aristocrats' land and called for the immediate end of World War I. Hoping to claim a share of their village's land, the Russian Empire's soldiers deserted in droves to return home. Rejecting the Bolshevik peace appeal, the Germans advanced to secure food needed for their wavering home front. Rejecting proposals to declare revolutionary war against them, Lenin called for peace on any terms, which he achieved in March 1918 in a punitive treaty narrowly ratified by Sovnarkom. Lenin considered the treaty concessions irrelevant because Germany appeared ripe for a revolution promising to install a friendly socialist government, but the small uprisings there in 1919 failed.

In early 1918, the fighting inside Russia intensified. Sovnarkom could rally only a few thousand trained troops, supplemented by worker militias. Skillfully organized by leading Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, the Red Army became an effective force comprised of workers and peasants led by co-opted former imperial officers, all supervised by reliable Bolshevik commissars. Revolutionary rhetoric elevated the status of laborers above that of former elites, who were denounced as class enemies, forced to communalize their lavish homes, work menial jobs, and live on starvation rations, indignities driving many to flee into exile or join anti--Bolsheviks forces. In 1918, high-profile assassinations and an attempt on Lenin's life unleashed the Red Terror. Sovnarkom empowered the Cheka, or secret police, to interrogate and imprison, exile, or execute individuals and members of groups, such as former elites, deemed hostile to the revolution. Anti--Bolshevik forces in turn summarily executed communists and workers. All sides committed atrocities against civilians. Pogroms struck Jewish communities in the empire's western borderlands, fueled by belief that Jews, who comprised a part of Bolshevik leadership in particular, were responsible for the revolution.

The Bolsheviks fought many enemies rather than a unified opposition. In addition to the three main fronts against uncoordinated White Armies led by former Tsarist officers, the Red Army also fought local nationalists and peasant anarchists. In the Northwest, the Germans and then White forces threatened Petrograd, the birthplace of the revolution. In the North Caucasus, modern-day Ukraine, and Crimea, the Red Army fought in succession against Germans, Whites, Ukrainian nationalists, and peasant anarchists. Along the Volga River and eastward along the Trans--Siberian Railway, revolutionary forces battled White armies and contingents of Czechoslovak former prisoners of war. The Germans had withdrawn in late 1918, but they were followed by the Entente powers, who sent small detachments to port cities in half-hearted opposition to the revolutionaries. By the end of 1919, the anti--Bolshevik forces were in retreat on all fronts. Yet the crisis continued. In 1920, the forces of newly independent Poland invaded, advancing as far as Kyiv. The Red Army's counterattack fueled hopes of spreading revolution abroad, but those hopes were dashed by defeat at the gates of Warsaw. Borderland conflicts in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Siberia continued. In 1920 and 1921, peasants south of Moscow rebelled, the country faced famine, and military units that had supported the Bolsheviks in 1917 rose against Sovnarkom, which they denounced as antidemocratic and centralizing.

Soviet Russia emerged from the civil war with government control over economic activity, a militarized society, routine mass surveillance, and a callousness toward individual human lives. Bolsheviks and their enemies alike claimed that the party operated as a strict hierarchy subject to iron discipline. In reality, Lenin navigated constant infighting, political disagreements, and, in regions far from Moscow, persistent localism. Although the common worldview and practices provided by Bolshevism helped unify its forces, Sovnarkom won the civil war because it controlled the country's major cities, industries, railway network, and population centers. What they won, however, was a shattered country whose people were reduced to bartering for scarce food. By 1921, industrial production had collapsed to 20 percent of the 1913 figure. In addition to the Russian Empire's millions of casualties in World War I, the civil war killed at least a million more. Harvests shrunk, causing malnutrition accompanied by a public health crisis from breakdowns in medical care and in sanitation that fueled cholera, influenza, and other pandemic diseases.  In 1921 and 1922, famine gripped the lower Volga, claiming several million victims despite foreign relief efforts. Confronted with economic collapse and rebellion, Lenin mixed repression with compromises designed to facilitate reconstruction. His New Economic Policy, or NEP, mixed state control with private initiative. However, party leaders kept in mind the violence and repression of the civil war and when the NEP faltered in 1928, Josef Stalin employed both to impose demands for grain and collectivized agriculture on the countryside for his project of crash industrialization. 

Suggested Reading and Resources

Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914--1921  (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Seventeen Moments of Soviet History, [1917] ( [1921] (