The Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War

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The Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War

Nicholas II, Tsar and Romanov family

The beginnings of the revolution

In the space of a few days in February 1917, Tsarist Russia came to an end. The Romanov family, who had ruled Russia since the seventeenth century, was overthrown and the monarchy was no more.

There are several reasons why this happened:

Military defeats

World War I was a total disaster for Russia. The Russian army suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of Germany.

  • 1914 - The Russians actually invaded Eastern Germany with two large armies but they were totally routed by smaller German forces at the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes.

  • 1915 - Germany turned the full weight of its power against Russia and launched a series of offensives against the Russian army. The Russians were beaten and large areas of Russian territory were overrun.

  • 1916 - For a time, the Russians did win some victories against the Austrians and regained some territory. But then the German army attacked in support of their Austrian ally and, again, Russia suffered a heavy defeat.

The effort and cost of waging war meant terrible suffering for soldiers and civilians alike. Best estimates state that almost two million soldiers were killed, as were a similar number of civilians, during the course of the war. Morale during this time was at a very low ebb and soldiers and civilians alike were looking for someone to blame.


In 1915, Tsar Nicholas II took personal command of the army. He left St. Petersburg and moved to army headquarters in Russian Poland.

Nicholas II may have believed that, by taking charge, his army would be inspired and would fight with renewed vigor. Unfortunately, the Tsar knew little about the command and organization of large military forces, and the series of defeats and humiliations continued.

The organization of the Russian army deteriorated and there were massive shortages of ammunition, equipment, and medical supplies.

Nicholas II's decision to take charge meant that he was increasingly seen by the Russian people as having personal responsibility for the military disasters inflicted on Russia.


As the war continued, it became increasingly obvious that the quality and effectiveness of the government of the Russian Empire was under serious question.

The departure of Nicholas II to the front meant that the effective government of Russia now came under the control of the Tsarina Alexandra. In particular, she gained increasing influence over the appointment of ministers to the government. She was determined that no member of the imperial government should ever be in a sufficiently strong position to challenge the authority of her beloved husband.

As a result, members of the government tended to be increasingly weak and ineffective men who owed their positions not to their ability and effectiveness, but to winning favor with the Tsarina. This would have been bad enough with Russia at peace. With the onset of the war, it led inevitably to disaster for the monarchy and for Russia.


The bizarre career of Gregory Rasputin, and his influence over the imperial family is well known.

Rasputin was a very unorthodox monk from Siberia. Myths spread that Rasputin could perform amazing feats and miracles. He came to the attention of the royal family because their only son, the Tsarevitch Alexis, suffered from the blood disease, haemophilia. The Tsarina Alexandra became convinced that Rasputin could control the young boy's illness.

While there is still debate over the nature of his powers over the health of Alexis, it is very clear that his influence over the Tsarina was considerable: He advised the Tsarina on appointments to the government; he interfered in important decisions; he could do no wrong in the Tsarina's eyes - excuses were always made for his excessive, antisocial behavior.

To the Russian people, Rasputin symbolized everything that was wrong with imperial government. The court and the imperial family became objects of ridicule, to be despised. Rasputin's murder, at the end of 1916, came too late to undo the damage he had caused.

The February Revolution

From the start of the war, Russia's economic problems grew steadily worse. By the beginning of 1917, the country was facing virtual economic collapse.


Russian industry moved into crisis during the war. Vital raw materials from overseas could no longer reach Russia. The shortages of both raw materials and finished goods grew worse. The army faced major shortages of supplies and weapons.


Millions of peasant farmers were conscripted into the army. This led to a serious shortage of manpower on the farms and a corresponding fall in production. By 1916, there were serious shortages of food in the city shops and the price of even the most basic foods was rising steeply.


The underdeveloped Russian railway system now had to cope with the pressures of moving large quantities of troops and supplies to the battlefronts. This made it more difficult to keep the cities supplied with food.


By 1916, the value of the rouble had fallen substantially, leading to soaring prices. This made life increasingly difficult, particularly for poorer people.

A "hooligan movement"

In February 1917, rioting began in the capital city of Petrograd, formerly St. Petersburg, as crowds attacked bakeries in the desperate search for bread. In the following days, strikes and demonstrations took place and even soldiers began to join in the protests.

When informed of these events, Nicholas II dismissed it as a "hooligan movement" which would soon be over. Even as his regime met total collapse, the Tsar still showed his inability to face reality.

In his own capital city an independent Soviet of workers and soldiers was formed that rebelliously refused to acknowledge the authority of the Tsar.

Nicholas made an attempt to return from the war front to the capital and reclaim his authority but this met with total failure. Isolated and powerless without the support of his army, his reign as Tsar was over - the only option now was abdication.

Nicholas named his brother, the Grand Duke Michael, as his successor. Lacking the support of the people or the military, Michael refused the position. With that, the Romanov dynasty surrendered control of Russia. 

Events leading to the October Revolution

The Bolsheviks

The Bolsheviks were a revolutionary party, committed to the ideas of Karl Marx. They believed that the working classes would, at some point, liberate themselves from the economic and political control of the ruling classes. Once they had achieved this, a genuine socialist society based on equality could be established. In their view, this process was bound to take place, sooner or later.

The Bolsheviks were formed and led by the Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov - known simply as Lenin. Ruthless and single-minded, Lenin decided that the conditions in Russia in 1917 were ripe for revolution.

At the beginning of 1917, however, the Bolsheviks were still a minority organization within Russia. Most of their leaders, including Lenin, were in exile in Switzerland and the chances of the Bolsheviks ever attaining power in Russia seemed pretty remote.

At the time of the February Revolution, which overthrew the Tsar, the Bolsheviks were still relatively weak. Yet, by the end of the year, the Bolsheviks were the government of Russia. Clearly, important developments had taken place in the intervening months.

The Bolsheviks were given a strong boost by a number of factors:

The Provisional Government

As the name implied, the Provisional Government was meant to be a temporary affair. Following the fall of the Tsar, Russia needed a government to run things until proper elections could be held. These elections were delayed.

At the same time, the Provisional Government took major decisions, such as remaining in World War I and postponing land reforms, which greatly affected the Russian people. This made the Provisional Government increasingly unpopular and allowed Lenin to attack it for these reasons, and for the fact that it had never been elected to power.

The Soviets

After the February Revolution, the first Soviet appeared in Petrograd. Soon, other Soviets had been elected, in Moscow and other cities. The Soviets were basically councils, elected by workers, soldiers and sailors.

They were usually chaotic, rowdy, and disorganized but they were elected - unlike the Provisional Government. Lenin fastened on to this, and declared that the Soviets should actually rule Russia - "All Power to the Soviets!" became an extremely effective Bolshevik rallying cry. Of course, what Lenin actually meant was that the Soviets should rule Russia, with the Bolsheviks controlling them.

Economic problems

Economic difficulties had played a major role in Nicholas II's fall from power. The Provisional Government had very limited success in dealing with these problems. Prices went on rising, food was in short supply and the peasants' desire for control of more land was not met. Inevitably, the continuing economic crisis discredited the Provisional Government, and strengthened the appeal of the Bolsheviks.

The War

The Russian people wanted the war to come to an end. The country was exhausted and the people had had enough. Incredibly, the Provisional Government could not see this. They persisted in trying to continue with the military campaigns. A final, unsuccessful offensive against the Germans was attempted in June 1917 with the remaining loyal troops. The collapse of the army's morale continued, with desertion being encouraged by the Bolsheviks.

Bolshevik policies

As Bolshevik leader, Lenin had very clear objectives for what he wanted to achieve. First of all, the Bolsheviks had to gain control of the Petrograd Soviet. Then they would seize power in the name of the Soviet. This process would be repeated in other cities. It was due to Lenin's energy and drive that the Bolsheviks agreed on this course of action.

The first step was to increase Bolshevik support within the Soviets. Lenin developed Bolshevik policies in line with this aim in mind. The slogan "peace, bread and land" summarized Bolshevik policies at this time.


Lenin could see that the Russian people wanted an end to the war. The Bolsheviks were offering what they wanted.


Lenin claimed that the Bolsheviks could solve the food shortages - the Provisional Government had made them worse.


This was a shrewd move by Lenin. The Bolsheviks were a party of the cities and the industrial areas and they had very little support among the peasants. However, with the peasants being the vast majority of the population, Lenin could not risk them turning against the Bolsheviks. By offering them land, Lenin ensured that the peasants stayed neutral when the Bolsheviks made their bid for power.

Lenin was actively supported by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had superb skills of organization and improvisation. He created the Red Guards, a Bolshevik militia formed from armed factory workers, soldiers and sailors. Trotsky took charge of the detailed planning of the actual Bolshevik takeover at the end of October, to make sure that all the vital areas of Petrograd were effectively in Bolshevik hands.

Lenin's return

In April 1917, Lenin returned to Russia, with the assistance of the Germans. He at once took control and direction over the Bolsheviks and began to make preparations for seizing power.

The June offensive

This was the last gasp of the Russian Army in World War I. Enough troops were scraped together for an offensive but, almost inevitably, the result was a disastrous failure. The morale of the army declined further and there were huge increases in the level of desertions. The soldiers became more receptive to Bolshevik propaganda and the loyalty of a number of units to the Provisional Government was now uncertain.

The July days

Following the failure of the offensive in June, the Bolsheviks made an attempt to seize power in Petrograd in July. Here, Lenin made a serious misjudgement which could have led to disaster for the Bolsheviks. Only small numbers of soldiers and sailors actively supported the Bolsheviks and the uprising was suppressed by loyal troops. A number of Bolshevik leaders were arrested and Lenin fled to Finland.

The Kornilov revolt

In August 1917, a Russian General, Lavr Kornilov, made an attempt to seize power for himself. His army advanced on Petrograd, with the Provisional Government under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky, seemingly powerless to stop him. This gave an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to take the lead in the saving Petrograd from Kornilov.

The Red Guards, under Trotsky's direction, organized the defense of the city. Bolshevik agents infiltrated Kornilov's troops and encouraged them to desert. The Bolsheviks also organized strikes by railway workers which caused chaos to Kornilov's supplies and communications. Within a few days, Kornilov's attempt at seizing power was over.

Increased support for the Bolsheviks

An important result of the Kornilov Revolt was a big increase in support for the Bolsheviks. Their popularity increased as a direct result of their actions in defeating Kornilov and saving Petrograd from his troops. By September, the Bolsheviks had gained control of the Petrograd Soviet.

The October Revolution

Lenin was now convinced that the time was ripe for the Bolsheviks to seize power in the name of the Soviets:

The Provisional Government had been seriously weakened by its inaction during the Kornilov Revolt and it had little control over the army.

The Bolsheviks were now in control of the Petrograd Soviet and in a much stronger position to realize their goal of bringing about the revolution they desired.

In November 1917, a Russian Congress of Soviets was due to meet in Petrograd. By seizing power before then, the Bolsheviks could claim to be acting in the name of the Soviets. Delay would be dangerous.

In December, the Constituent Assembly would be elected - the first real and official Russian Parliament. Once it met, it could challenge the authority of the Soviets - and the power of the Bolsheviks. Also, Lenin was genuinely worried about another attempt at a military takeover, this time by a general who was more intelligent and better organised than Kornilov had been.

The seizure of power

The actual takeover of Petrograd was organised by Trotsky. On 24 October, units of the Red Guards took control of the city. Key buildings, power stations, railway and tram stations, important bridges were in Bolshevik hands. A large warship that was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, the "Aurora", steamed up the river Neva and trained its guns on the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Government was located.

On the night of the 25th/26th October, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government.

Lenin now proclaimed a new government of Russia, by the Soviets. The Congress of Soviets met and endorsed the action of the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik Revolution was now a fact.


Why did the Bolsheviks win the Russian Civil War?

Fresh from seizing control of Russia from the hands of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks' next step was to safeguard their fragile grip on the reigns of power.

Lenin negotiated peace with Germany and therefore an end to Russia's role in World War I. He could not, however, avoid a civil war in Russia. The Bolsheviks were made to fight for control of the country.

The Russian Civil War raged from 1918 until the start of 1921. During this time, the Bolsheviks faced massive opposition to their rule in the form of the White Armies, led by former officers of the Tsarist state, and also from intervention by the forces of foreign countries. The Bolsheviks were surrounded, often outnumbered by their opponents, and had no experienced military commanders. At times, their situation seemed hopeless.

Yet, by the start of 1921, the Bolsheviks had defeated their enemies and gained a complete victory. The establishment of Communism in Russia went ahead 

Bolshevik strengths

During the Civil War, the Bolsheviks had a number of key advantages over their opponents.


The Bolsheviks were extremely fortunate in the quality of their leadership, particularly in Lenin and Trotsky.

Lenin had led the Bolsheviks to victory in the October Revolution. Throughout the Civil War, Lenin provided the energy and drive needed to inspire success. At all times, he had very definite aims and objectives and a sense of purpose about what he believed was best for Russia. His leadership was never challenged.

The Red Army

Trotsky became Commissar for War in the Bolshevik government. A brilliant organiser and improviser, Trotsky created the Red Army from the Red Guards (the Bolshevik workers militias) and from the remnants of the old Tsarist army. Trotsky imposed a very tough system of discipline and control over the Red Army. Officers found guilty of cowardice or treachery were executed. However, men who showed initiative and courage were promoted rapidly.

At times of crisis, Trotsky readily assumed personal command of areas under threat, inspiring and encouraging the troops to greater efforts, and to eventual victory.


In the case of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, the quotation above is particularly applicable.

In 1918, at the start of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks controlled the key central area of Russia - between Petrograd and Moscow. This gave them a number of key advantages.

Most of Russia's railways were in this area. This made communication between the various battlefronts much easier. Trotsky was able to move troops and supplies rapidly to areas under attack. As Commissar for War, he was able to visit the battlefronts in an armoured train, and to take personal command.

The large population of the major cities in this central area was a key resource for the Bolsheviks. The cities provided fresh recruitment for the Red Army.

Furthermore, much of Russia's industry and raw materials was located in this area. This made it possible for the Bolsheviks to keep their troops supplied and equipped with weapons, ammunition and supplies.



Under Lenin's leadership, the Bolsheviks displayed total ruthlessness in making sure that they did not face rebellion and revolt in the areas they controlled.

  • The Constituent Assembly. This had been organised by the Provisional Government, to draw up a constitution for Russia. In the election, the majority of delegates came from another revolutionary party, the Social Revolutionaries. Fearing opposition to their plans, when the Constituent Assembly attempted to meet, the Bolsheviks simply had it closed down.

  • Other Parties. Once the Civil War had started, the Bolsheviks banned the other political parties and arrested their leaders.

  • Newspapers. The Bolsheviks closed down newspapers which opposed them.

  • The CHEKA. Finally, the CHEKA was created - the Bolshevik Secret Police. The CHEKA hunted down and arrested anyone who was suspected of opposing the Bolsheviks.


The Bolsheviks organized a highly effective propaganda campaign in the areas they controlled. Through speeches, newspapers, and leaflets, the people were continually told that they were now in charge of Russia, through the Soviets - life would be better, the wealth would be distributed more fairly. In addition, they were told that the White Armies and their leaders would destroy all the achievements of the Revolution, break up the Soviets and bring back the old system. In this way, support for the Bolsheviks was organized and built up successfully.

The White Armies

It is easy to argue that the White Armies appeared to have a number of advantages in the Civil War.

Their leaders were experienced military commanders; they controlled huge areas of Russia; they had the Bolsheviks surrounded; and they had the active support of foreign countries, which intervened in the Civil War on their behalf.

However, as the Civil War developed, the White Armies began to face major problems and difficulties in organizing their campaigns. Against the drive and ruthless energy of the Bolsheviks, their campaigns faltered and they faced defeat and failure. By the end of 1920, the Bolsheviks were close to achieving 

White Army weaknesses

There are several reasons for the failure of the White forces.

Divided leadership

No one person was in charge of the White forces. Whereas the Bolsheviks had Lenin, the Whites had several rival people, such as Yudenich, Wrangel, Kolchak, Denikin, vying for control. They were all ambitious men and each was determined to take control of Russia for himself.

As a result, there was virtually no co-operation between the various White Armies - they fought independently, making it easier for the Red Army to defeat them individually.


The sheer size of Russia worked against the White Armies. They had to move their forces and supplies over huge distances, making it difficult to maintain effective control. The lack of effective railways was an added complication to the existing communication difficulties between them.


The Bolsheviks were fighting for a very definite cause - the establishment and survival of a Communist Russia. The Whites, however, had problems motivating their troops and building up support. Why should soldiers face death simply to make Kolchak or Yudenich master of Russia? As time passed, more and more soldiers deserted from the White Armies.


The government set up by the Whites in areas they controlled soon became corrupt and inefficient. For example, medical supplies sent by foreign countries often ended up being sold on the black market rather than being used to help the soldiers.


White Army forces often behaved with great brutality and cruelty in areas they controlled. Towns were burned, property destroyed or stolen, peasant farmers' crops and livestock taken by force - if people objected, they faced torture and execution. Inevitably, the Whites became hated and feared because of this. Inevitably, Bolshevik propaganda homed in on this!

Given the choice between the Bolsheviks or the Whites, it was hardly surprising that Bolshevik support increased dramatically.

Bolshevik success

By the end of the Civil War in 1921 the Bolsheviks had succeeded in securing their grip on power in Russia.

The White Armies and the foreign powers fighting on Russian soil had been defeated. Just as importantly, rival political parties had been outlawed and, thanks to the CHEKA secret police, dissenting voices permanently silenced.

Another notable success for the CHEKA had come early in the Civil War. The Bolsheviks had captured Tsar Nicholas and his entire family in February 1917 shortly after the Tsar's abdication. On the 16th July, under the control of CHEKA, the Tsar and his family were executed by firing squad in the basement of a house in the Soviet-controlled city of Ekaterinburg. The Romanov era was most definitely over and the potential threat of a future monarchist uprising had been ended.

Lenin had achieved his ultimate goal of steering his small Bolshevik party to total control of Russia.

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