The Russian Revolution of 1917
consisted of two revolutions, first in February, which overthrew the imperial
Tsarist Government. The second one, in October, between the Reds and the
Whites, which placed the Reds (Bolsheviks) in power. As result, Russia was
removed from the war and its traditional monarchy was replaced to turn it into
the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics.
The Whites’ weakness and lack of
cohesiveness was a key reason for the Reds winning the Russian Civil War, but
it was the leadership of the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky that ultimately
brought the Red’s victory.
The White Army seemed to have a
number of advantages in the Civil War, having control over huge areas of Russia
and having experienced military leaders could’ve given them leverage, but as
the Civil War advanced, they started to face complications in their campaign.
For example, while the Reds had Lenin as their leader, the Whites had no
cohesive leadership and did not share the same belief, method or political goal.
In addition, they operated on different geographical areas, with Denikin and
then Wrangel being concentrated in the south, while Admiral Kolchak was in the
north-east and Yudenich in the west. Furthermore, the aforementioned leaders
all wanted glory for themselves and often ended up competing against each other1
in order to take control of Russia for personal gains. As a result, there was
almost no cooperation between the many White Armies. They fought independently
which made it easier for the Red Army to defeat them one by one.
Whites failed to gain support in the areas that they did control, behaving with
great cruelty, doing things like looting shops and houses, as well as being
drunk most of the time. Their treatment of indigenous people was terrible and because
most of the land was agricultural, these people would have been peasants – which
Lenin had promised land to and because of the known re-establishment of the old
order that the Whites wanted to impose, it did not warm them (or their ideas)
to the peasants, therefore making them naturally gravitate towards the
Bolsheviks. Their corruption and disruptive lifestyle also played a huge role,
since at some point, the heavy consumption of vodka and cocaine became a
routine, with people declaring that the White Army was characterized by
“ignorance and incompetence.” Their Russian nationalism also worked against
them at home, with General Denikin denying that Ukraine was an actual place, describing
it as “Little Russia” which caused the different national groups not wanting to
support the Whites. Their corruption and brutality meant that Whites also
became hated and feared, as they burned towns, destroyed or stole people’s
property, as well as taking their crops and livestock by force and if any
civilians objected, they were to face torture and execution.
Allies also failed to provide the help the Whites needed. Few Allied troops
were sent to Russia and none of them participated in the battles. Their
campaign suffered a massive setback when the Allies withdrew from Russia after
November 11th of 1918. After World War One, the Allies distanced
themselves from their relationships with the White leaders, especially after some
reports that reached London mentioned the terrible things that the Whites had done
to innocent civilians, this caused the British Government not being able to
afford to be associated with these actions. The British Prime Minister at the
time, David Lloyd George, was so unwilling to fund the Whites that he declared
he’d rather see “Russia Bolshevik than Britain bankrupt.”2
In addition, their military official attached to the Whites became so
disillusioned with them, that he grew indifferent to the White fate, stating
that the cause was not “worth the life of one British soldier.”
Under Lenin’s leadership, the
Bolsheviks displayed total ruthlessness in making sure that no rebellion or
revolt was caused in their controlled areas. One of their tactics was to eliminate
all other political parties and arrest their leaders, replacing the Constituent
Assembly by a one-party state that worked through a hierarchy of soviets, all
under Bolshevik control, this happened because the Constituent Assembly was
organized by the Provisional Government to draw up a constitution for Russia.
However, when it was elected, the majority of delegates happened to be Social
Revolutionaries. As a result, the Bolsheviks, fearing opposition of their
plans, closed the Assembly.
Cheka, their secret police led by Felix Dzerzhinsky operated on a 24-hour basis
and it was the result of an attempt to kill Lenin in 1918. This failed
assassination attempt on Lenin was used as justification for the secret police
and army to hunt down and arrest anyone who was suspected of opposition towards
the Reds, having over 100,000 executions of political opponents by the end of
the war. There was no clear government body that could hold back the Cheka, and
if anyone was brave enough to argue against it, would be executed on the base
of being “enemies of the state” or “enemies of the revolution”. It operated on
its own accord, investigated and arrested whoever it chose, and therefore
answered to no one.
mentioned before, all rival political parties were banned and thanks to the
Cheka secret police, any opposing voice was silenced, as Lenin was prepared to
commit the “most heinous crimes,” including “confiscation, expulsion from
domicile, deprivation of ration cards, publications of lists of enemies of the
people, etc.”3 as
well as using techniques of torture and psychological torment used by Cheka
agents. Other examples included public gestures such as Lenin’s famous order to
the Penza Cheka to hang at least a hundred men, saying “and make sure that the
hanging takes place in full view of the people.” Therefore, creating a law
based on exhibition and fear.
Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership
played a key role on the Red’s victory, with Lenin providing energy and drive
to inspire success, while Trotsky helped with the organization and charisma. Lenin’s
role was somewhat more low-key, as he stayed in Moscow most of the time instead
of visiting battle fronts like Trotsky did, but he had strong strategies and
implemented the “Red Terror”, which lasted from September to October of 1918, and
it dealt with anyone who was suspected of counter-revolutionary activities,
with 10,000 to 15,000 people being executed by the Cheka during this period4.
He also implemented the “War Communism” which
was the name of the economic system that Lenin introduced, from 1918 to 1921,
to fight the economic problems brought on by the civil war. One of the first procedures
of the system was to nationalize the land, as well as banks and shipping, with
foreign trade being declared a state monopoly. Lenin stressed how important it
was for the workers to show discipline as well as being hardworking if the
revolution was to survive. Despite War Communism being a failure, within the
cities, people were convinced that their leaders were right and that their
failings were because of the Whites and internationalism capitalists. And if
any strikes were to happen, Lenin made sure to have anyone arrested quickly,
which further ensured his important role as a leader.
was a brilliant organizer, reorganizing the Red Army out of the Red Guards and what
was left of the old Tsarist army, he was able to increase the number of regular
troops available to the Bolsheviks from 550,000 to 5.5 million, managing to
eventually outnumber the Whites by ten to one5.
He was also an inspirational figure, going
from front to front in his famous armored train to encourage the troops.
Despite being untrained in military matters, Trotsky was a natural leader of
the people. He had simple beliefs, imposing a very tough system of discipline
over the Red Army, which meant that if a Red commander was successful in
combat, then they were rewarded, usually in form of promotion. Yet, if a
commander failed and survived or was found guilty of cowardice or treason, he
paid the price by being executed. Trotsky was also willing to use ex-Tsarist
officers, a decision that was questioned by many, but he insisted they would
bring the military expertise that the Red Army lacked. In addition, Trotsky
managed to successfully inspire and encourage troops to try harder and bring
victory, as he travelled in an armoured train to the front lines to show his
Bolsheviks had a clear and systematic philosophy; their propaganda helped them
gain support from the people, as they told them that their living conditions
would improve and that wealth would be distributed equally. Trotsky’s train was
filled with equipment to produce posters and leaflets, other trains also had
cinemas where propaganda films were shown. Speeches, newspapers, and leaflets often
told the people that, through the Soviets, they were in charge of Russia, as
the Bolsheviks portrayed themselves as a patriotic party that wanted to defend
Russia from imperialists, spreading the fear that Russia would be taken over by
foreign countries and sucked into their empires, which was particularly
effective seeing as the Whites had the support from Britain, France, and USA,
gaining the distrusts of the people.
In conclusion, despite the Whites’
weakness being a key reason for the Reds winning the Russian Civil War, it was
the leadership of the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky and their strategies
that ultimately brought the Red’s victory.
1 C N
Trueman. “The Russian Civil War.” historylearningsite.co.uk. The
History Learning Site. Last modified May 22, 2015. Accessed November 18, 2017.
Peter. “Why Did the Bolsheviks Win the Russian Civil War? Peter Anderson
Compares the Tactics and Resources of the Two Sides.” History Review, September 2002. Accessed November 18, 2017.
Arno J. The Furies: Violence and Terror
in the French and Russian Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2000. Accessed November 20, 2017. https://www.questiaschool.com/read/103273882/the-furies-violence-and-terror-in-the-french-and.
4 C N
Trueman. “The Red Terror.” The History Learning Site. Last modified
May 22, 2015. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/modern-world-history-1918-to-1980/russia-1900-to-1939/the-red-terror/.
5 Stephen J. Lee,
Lenin and Revolutionary Russia, Questions and Analysis in History (London:
Routledge, 2003), 97, http://www.questiaschool.com/read/126052297/lenin-and-revolutionary-russia.