When did the war end?

With mul­ti­ple groups fight­ing and dis­ap­pear­ing, there is no de­fin­i­tive date

History of War - - ISSUE 56 -

The civil war’s end was far from clear-cut

The Rus­sian Civil War has gen­er­ated much de­bate over the decades: what groups did it in­volve, how many died, was it a con­tin­u­a­tion of World War I? And some more es­o­teric ques­tions, such as was it just one war? how­ever, two ques­tions are peren­nial – when did it be­gin and when did it end?

Be­fore con­sid­er­ing those dates, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that Rus­sia was a land­bound em­pire stretch­ing, in 1914, from War­saw to Vladi­vos­tok and from the Arc­tic Cir­cle to the Per­sian bor­der. Apart from the Rus­sians, the tsar’s sub­jects in­cluded Poles, Ge­or­gians, Uzbeks, Tad­jiks, Ukraini­ans, Finns and many other sub­jects with a mul­ti­tude of lan­guages, a va­ri­ety of reli­gions and vary­ing de­grees of na­tional iden­tity and aware­ness. Scat­tered across the vast­ness of the Siberian, Cen­tral Asian and Far East­ern prov­inces were in­creas­ing num­bers of Rus­sian set­tlers that were open­ing up these ter­ri­to­ries in a man­ner very sim­i­lar to the Amer­i­can West. Across this lay a swathe of po­lit­i­cal groups that were, to a de­gree, tol­er­ated by the tsarist regime.

In 1916 the army was granted the power to con­script Cen­tral Asian Mus­lims into labour bat­tal­ions. This step pro­voked a re­volt that, even though it was ruth­lessly and rapidly sup­pressed, smoul­dered on, with sev­eral se­ri­ous up­ris­ings that later led the Bol­she­viks to com­mit in­creas­ing num­bers of troops in or­der to con­trol the area. This upris­ing, which mor­phed into the Bas­machi War (be­ing the Tur­kic word for ‘raider’, used by the Red Army to de­scribe these groups) fiz­zled out in the mid1920s, and has been mooted as one po­ten­tial date for the be­gin­ning and end of the civil war.

How­ever, when the rev­o­lu­tion of March 1917 led to the ab­di­ca­tion of the tsar and left the throne empty many were at a loss as to what would hap­pen next – who now ran the em­pire? Vir­tu­ally blood­less, the March Rev­o­lu­tion ush­ered in the ‘lib­eral’ regime known as the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment that was to steer the em­pire through an un­de­fined pe­riod un­til an elected body, to be called the Con­stituent Assem­bly, was voted in by uni­ver­sal fran­chise. But from the be­gin­ning the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment had to share power with the

Soviet – a con­sid­er­ably more rad­i­cal, left-wing group that in­cluded Bol­she­viks and So­cial­ist Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who rep­re­sented the more mil­i­tant ten­dency in Rus­sian pol­i­tics.

Sovi­ets sprang up across the em­pire and ex­erted con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence over the po­lit­i­cally naive pop­u­la­tion. The key ar­eas over which the Soviet and the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment would clash were land own­er­ship re­form and end­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in WWI. As the months went by and the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment pre­var­i­cated the Soviet de­mands be­came more stri­dent.

An­other episode that is con­sid­ered as the be­gin­ning of the civil war is the wave of demon­stra­tions that broke out in Pet­ro­grad in mid-1917 (the ‘July Days’). Rapid, firm ac­tion by the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment led to the ar­rest of many known trou­ble­mak­ers and drove Lenin into hid­ing in Fin­land. The next po­ten­tial spark was the con­fu­sion of the so-called ‘Kornilov Af­fair’. Gen­eral Kornilov, com­man­der of the army, was ac­cused by Keren­sky, the ef­fec­tive leader of the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment, of planning to place him­self at the head of a re­ac­tionary mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. Luck­ily no blood was spilt but weapons were dis­trib­uted to the Pet­ro­grad work­ers for self-de­fence and were never re­turned.

When the Bol­she­viks and their as­so­ci­ates took power on Novem­ber 7/8 1917 Keren­sky fled Pet­ro­grad and, within a few days, at­tempted a counter-stroke backed by a force of Cossacks. At Pulkovo Heights, near Pet­ro­grad, Keren­sky en­coun­tered armed civil­ians (Red Guards), sol­diers and sailors. Some fight­ing took place, re­sult­ing in sev­eral hun­dred ca­su­al­ties. The Cossacks then ne­go­ti­ated an agree­ment and left for home, leav­ing Pet­ro­grad in Bol­she­vik hands.

An­other small-scale bat­tle took place in Ros­tov-on-don a month later, from 8-15 De­cem­ber, when troops, who would later form the nu­cleus of the Vol­un­teer Army, fought a bru­tal street bat­tle with Bol­she­viks at­tempt­ing to take con­trol of the city. The VA would soon grow into a con­sid­er­able mil­i­tary force.

Other events in 1918 could be con­sid­ered, such as the dis­so­lu­tion of the Con­stituent Assem­bly in Jan­uary or the Czech Le­gion’s re­fusal to obey the Soviet’s or­ders in May. Mem­bers of the dis­solved Con­stituent

Assem­bly re­grouped in Sa­mara and formed a tiny army that fought the Bol­she­viks un­til it merged with a sim­i­lar, more pow­er­ful group and cre­ated the Siberian Army later that year.

These are some of the po­ten­tial start dates, but what of the end? Sev­eral dates present them­selves but, as there was no ne­go­ti­ated peace, fight­ing to the end was the norm. By 1920 the ma­jor mil­i­tary ef­forts of the ‘White Guards’ (an um­brella term for any anti-bol­she­vik group) had all ended with the rout of the Siberian Army and its dis­so­lu­tion into var­i­ous par­ti­san groups (de­fined by the Bol­she­viks as ‘ban­dits’) and the evac­u­a­tion to Turkey of Wrangel’s Rus­sian Army from Crimea.

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1920, in the prov­ince of Tam­bov, peas­ants rose in protest against Bol­she­vik food col­lec­tion poli­cies and by the au­tumn there was up­wards of 40,000 or­gan­ised in­sur­gents. The re­volt was crushed by the Red Army in spring 1921.

But it was the Kronstadt Upris­ing of 7-17 March 1921 that shook the Krem­lin as the sailors at the Kronstadt naval base re­belled, de­mand­ing a freer, more egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety than the Bol­she­viks were pro­vid­ing. Again the ret­ri­bu­tion was ruth­less and thor­ough.


Ar­tillery in the Red Army dur­ing the Kronstadt Upris­ing in 1921, It is one pos­si­ble mo­ment when the civil war ended

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