Why Did the Bolsheviks Win the Russian Civil War? Peter Anderson Compares the Tactics and Resources of the Two Sides. (Talking Points)

By Anderson, Peter | History Review, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Why Did the Bolsheviks Win the Russian Civil War? Peter Anderson Compares the Tactics and Resources of the Two Sides. (Talking Points)


Anderson, Peter, History Review


Reds versus Whites: an Overview

At one point during the Civil War, Leon Trotsky, the leader of the Communist Red Army, became so amused by the black market trading of weapons by his opponents, the Whites, that he sent a letter to his enemies thanking them for their help in supplying the Red Army.

The story speaks volumes about the failures of the corrupt White forces, for whom the heavy consumption of vodka and cocaine became commonplace. The dissolute lifestyle did not help White tactics: even a White minister of war declared that the White Army was characterised by `ignorance and incompetence'. This contempt seemed to rub off on those who, in theory, were supporting the Whites. The British military official attached to the White forces became so disillusioned that he grew indifferent to the White fate and stated the cause was not `worth the life of one British soldier'. The British prime minister, David Lloyd George, became so unwilling to fund the Whites that he declared he would rather see `Russia Bolshevik than Britain bankrupt'. In any case the degree of attention that Lloyd George was prepared to devote to the issue must be subject to question, as he was to mistake the town of Kharkov for what he believed to be the name of a White general. Perhaps the biggest failure of the Whites was to ignore the demands for land of the peasantry, who made up 80 per cent of the population. As one of Kolchak's generals complained, the Whites failed to `give the peasant the bird in the hand; they were even afraid to promise him the bird in the bush'.

The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, in the Land Decree of October 1917, recognised the land seizures carried out by the peasants. Lenin came to be known as the `Tsar Deliverer' by the peasants in remembrance of this act. The Land Decree was typical of the greater political skill of the Bolsheviks. When the Reds realised that they were losing the support of the peasants, they were able to adjust their policies to retain the co-operation of the rural community. In addition, when all else failed, they proved ruthless in their repression of peasant revolts. The Bolsheviks' more thorough control of the peasants enabled them to create a stronger army and permitted the development of more powerful tactics.

The contrast in political skill was plain to see in other areas too. While the Whites were failing to win the full support of foreign powers, they also found that their Russian nationalism worked against them at home. The White leader General Denikin denied that there was such a place as the Ukraine, which he described as `Little Russia' and found that, as a result, the different national groups were reluctant to support the Whites. Ironically, the ostensibly antinationalist Bolsheviks were presented with an opportunity to exploit nationalism as a result of the limited White alliance with the foreign powers by organising patriotic parades where effigies of the British foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, were burned. The Bolsheviks also succeeded in developing a more effective policy towards the different national groups within Russia. Lenin stated his belief that the Reds should `find a common language with the Ukrainian peasant'.

In short, the Bolsheviks were able to win the Russian Civil War because the Whites failed to secure the support of the different national groups, key foreign powers, and the peasantry, while Bolsheviks enjoyed much more authority within Russia and were therefore able to assert their power over the Whites.

Nationalities

The Whites' failure to gain the support of different national groups fatally undermined their campaign. A clear example is ludenich's assault on Petrograd. The Finns refused the Whites' General ludenich the right to attack Petrograd by the direct route through Finland because his commander, Kolchak, refused to recognise Finnish independence. The Finns had a well-led army of 100,000 trained men and not to be able to call on these forces was a crucial failure--all the more so since the attack on Petrograd was launched at the time of Denikin's furthest advance in October 1919, and it is doubtful whether the Bolsheviks would have been able to resist a joint attack with the Finns. …

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