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 appeared to have a
number of advantages in the Civil War, such as having control over huge areas
of Russia and having experienced military leaders, but as the Civil War
advanced, they started facing complications in their campaign. For example,
while the Reds had Lenin as their leader, the Whites had no cohesive leadership
and did not share a single ideology, methodology or political goal, as well as
operating 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. In addition, the aforementioned leaders all looked for
glory for themselves and often competed 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 take them down one by one.
Whites failed to gain support in the areas they controlled, as they behaved
with great brutality and cruelty, looting shops and houses, as well as often
being drunk. Their treatment of indigenous people was appalling and with much
of the land being agricultural, these people would have been peasants – people
Lenin had promised land to and some of the Whites were known to want to
re-establish the old order, which did not endear them to the peasants, in this
sense making them natural supporters of the Bolsheviks. Their corruption and
disruptive lifestyle also played a huge role, at some point, the heavy
consumption of vodka and cocaine became commonplace, 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, as he described it as “Little Russia” which
resulted in the different national groups being reluctant 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
had to face torture and execution.
Allies failed to provide the help the Whites needed. Few Allied troops were
sent to Russia and of these none participated in the battles. Their campaigned
suffered a massive blow when the Allies withdrew from Russia after November 11th
of 1918. After World War One, the Allies were much colder in their
relationships with the White leaders, especially after reports that reached
London mentioned the atrocities that the Whites had committed on innocent
civilians, therefore the British Government could not afford to be associated
with such things. 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
As well as their military official attached to the Whites becoming so
disillusioned 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 systematically
eliminate all political parties and to arrest their leaders, replacing the
Constituent Assembly by a one-party state that operated through a hierarchy of
soviets, all under Bolshevik control, this happened as a result of the
Constituent Assembly being 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. Therefore, the Bolsheviks,
fearing opposition of their plans, closed the Assembly.
Cheka, their secret police led by Felix Dzerzhinsky that operated on a 24-hour
basis, was the result of an attempt to kill Lenin in 1918. This failed
assassination attempt on Lenin was used as a rationale for the secret police
and army to hunt down and arrest anyone who was suspected of hostility towards
the Reds, having over 100,000 executions of political opponents by the end of
the war. There was no obvious government body that could hold back the Cheka,
as any who 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 outlawed 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 means 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
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 muted, as he remained in Moscow instead of visiting battle
fronts like Trotsky, 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 combat the economic problems brought on by the civil war. One of the first
measures of this system was the nationalization of land, as well as banks and
shipping, with foreign trade being declared a state monopoly. Lenin stressed
the importance of the workers showing discipline as well as a will to work hard
if the revolution was to survive. Despite War Communism being a failure, within
the cities, many were convinced that their leaders were rights and their
failings were due to the faults of the Whites and internationalism capitalists.
And if any strikes were to happen, Lenin was quick to have anyone arrested,
which further ensured his important role as a leader.
was a brilliant organizer, reorganizing the Red Army out of the Red Guards and
remnants 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,
moving from front to front in his famous armored train to encourage the troops.
Despite being untrained in military matters, Trotsky seemed to be a natural
leader of men. He had simple beliefs, imposing a very tough system of
discipline over the Red Army, if a Red commander was successful in combat, they
were promoted. If a commander failed and survived or was found guilty of cowardice
or treachery, he paid the price by being executed. Trotsky was also willing to
use ex-Tsarist officers, and although this decision was questioned, he insisted
they would bring the military expertise that the Red Army lacked. Trotsky
managed to successfully inspire and encourage troops to greater efforts and
victory, as he travelled in an armoured train to the front lines to show his
Bolsheviks had a clear and systematic ideology, their propaganda helped them
gain support of the people, as it told them that their living conditions would
improve and that wealth would be distributed more fairly. Trotsky’s train was
fitted with equipment to produce posters and leaflets, other trains also
contained cinemas were propaganda films were shown, speeches, newspapers, and
leaflets frequently told the people that, through the Soviets, they were in
charge of Russia, as the Bolsheviks portrayed themselves as a patriotic party
defending 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.
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. https://www.questiaschool.com/library/journal/1G1-95844160/why-did-the-bolsheviks-win-the-russian-civil-war.
Arno J. The Furies: Violence and Terror
in the French and Russian Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2000. Accessed November 20, 2017.
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.