When did the war end?
With multiple groups fighting and disappearing, there is no definitive date
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.
“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”
Artillery in the Red Army during the Kronstadt Uprising in 1921, It is one possible moment when the civil war ended