The Russian Civil War (1918-1921)

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the Russian Civil War and the events which caused war to break out between the Red Army and White Army in the years following World War I.

Russian Civil War, 1918-1921

Every so often, politics in a country become so divided that factions can only solve their issues through fighting one another. In the United States, the Civil War was fought between the northern states and southern states largely over the issues of slavery and state sovereignty. In England, the 17th-century Civil War was fought between the King and those who wanted greater rights for parliament. In Russia, the civil war was fought between the Red Army and the White Army - essentially between Russians who espoused communism and those who did not.


For centuries, prior to the civil war, Russia had been ruled by czars. Essentially kings or emperors, the czars of Russia had total say over political, fiscal, and military affairs in the state. Those who had power in the Russian government did so at the czar's leisure. Even in 1900, when many European states had incorporated some form of constitutional monarchy, or at least incorporated a few democratic bodies and principles, Russia remained a firmly authoritarian state.

The Russian people in the early 20th century suffered under considerable hardship. Still a largely agricultural society relative to the rest of Europe, Russia experienced several bad harvests and droughts, which made life hard for the majority of Russians.

Things were made worse by the actions of Czar Nikolai II. Totally out of touch with his people, Nikolai handled several situations poorly during his reign. In 1905, Nikolai ordered troops to confront a protest of 150,000 Russians in St. Petersburg who were clamoring for better working conditions and political change that would help the Russian people. The troops fired on the crowd, killing several hundred protestors. Russia was also humiliated militarily. After being embarrassed in a conflict with Japan in 1904-1906, Nikolai took personal command of Russian forces during World War I. With little actual military experience, Nikolai blundered away thousands of Russian lives.

Nikolai II
Nikolai II


Before the end of the war, the Russian people and the military had had enough of Nikolai's rule. In March 1917, a group of striking workers in St. Petersburg joined a local army garrison and overthrew Nikolai's government, forcing the czar to abdicate. In his place, the Duma, Russia's previously weak national assembly, took power. The Duma was largely made up of landowners and aristocrats - many who were of the same class as the Czar. This did not sit well with many revolutionaries, and peasant and worker uprisings swept across Russia throughout 1917.

At first, these groups were spread across the ideological spectrum, including numerous sects of communists, socialists, anarchists, and more moderate groups as well. In October, the most popular of these groups, the extreme communist group named the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, organized a general uprising and overthrew the Duma in St. Petersburg. The Bolshevik government immediately withdrew from World War I, ceding large portions of Russian territory to Germany in the process.

Vladimir Lenin at a Bolshevik rally
Lenin at rally

Civil War

It was a good thing they chose to withdraw from World War I, too; the Bolsheviks needed all the military help they could get at home in Russia to maintain their position of power. After the Bolsheviks ended Russia's involvement in WWI, the army broke along ideological lines. Many soldiers joined the army of the Bolsheviks, the Red Army. Most of the army's officers and many troops formed the White Army to oppose Lenin's communist regime. To make matters worse for the Bolsheviks, the White Army had support from foreign armies, such as Great Britain and the United States, whose leaders opposed communism.

At the beginning of the conflict, the White Army controlled most of Russia and also had a far larger army. But this army lacked the superb organization of the Red Army. The Red Army was organized by Leon Trotsky, Lenin's right-hand man. Trotsky whipped thousands of workers into a trained army in a matter of months. Furthermore, while the Red Army controlled a much smaller portion of Russia, they controlled Russia's two most important industrial cities - Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky

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