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The Soviet Union was one of the world’s two super powers during the second half of the twentieth century. The idea that almost everyone has is that the Soviet state was founded in the year 1917, which was the year of the Bolshevik revolution; the truth is that the state has risen only after the end of the civil war in which the Bolsheviks were the ultimate victorious side.
After the establishment of Lenin’s government in 1917, opposition members, especially those who had military positions under the Tsar regime, started to appear. General Alexeyev, who was the imperial chief of staff under the Tsar, started creating an anti-Bolshevik army immediately after the revolution. Soon after that, other leading tsarist military officials joined that group; those included Kornilov, Denikin, and many others. General Lavr Kornilov, who was the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army under the Tsar, created an army of volunteers that reached approximately three thousand men in 1918, and that army was the core of what later became the White Army that fought against the Reds (the Bolsheviks).
Even if the White Army managed to control certain regions, for limited periods of time, such as the Ukraine, the Kuban region, Omsk, and Gatchina, and even though it succeeded in winning some battles, such as those at Simbirsk and Kazan, their ultimate fate was defeat. The Red Army prevailed and the Soviet state was finally established.
WHY THE BOLSHEVIKS WON
Many historians and researchers studied the Russian civil war, and the reasons for the defeat of the Whites they all agreed on were not always identical.
According to Lee, the reason of victory laid in the effective handling of the war by the Bolsheviks themselves
[The Bolsheviks were] outflanked to the east by Socialist Revolutionary regimes and surrounded by White military offensives. Yet this widespread opposition and apparently vulnerable position both worked in the favour of the Bolsheviks, making it possible for them to secure eventual victory. What made this certain was the effectiveness of their own diplomacy, organisation and military strategy (80)
Some other researcher, however, contend that the Reds won the war not because of their exceptional and ingenious handling of the war, but because of reasons related to the mishandling of the war, and its various phases and stages, by the White army and its military chiefs.
What must be stated here is that while the Red army was a unified military force under one Bolshevik (communist) leadership, the White army was composed of different groups which had different political views and, most importantly, which did not agree on what concerned the future they wanted for the new Russian state.
As explained by Treadgold, the various components of the White army did not have a common efficient war strategy.
The Whites had lacked coordination, and were plagued by personal rivalries among their leaders. They denounced Bolshevism, but affirmed nothing. Denikin and Kolchak were moderates, who lacked effective political or economic programs. Their slogan: ‘A united and indivisible Russia’ alienated national minorities, and played into Bolshevik hands. White generals made military blunders, but their political mistakes and disunity proved decisive. (Western New England College)
The national minorities formed another factor that the Whites did not succeed in convincing. In fact, those minorities feared the Whites because of their constant call for a united Russia and felt threatened by them, and this was another positive element for the Reds.
The above mentioned point of view is presented also by Phillips. He states that the main objective of the various groups that formed the White forces was to stop the victories of the Bolshevik revolution and to put an end to Lenin’s ambitions of creating a new Russian government and, ultimately, a new face for the Russian state. And even though all the fractions of the Whites agreed on that final goal, they did not agree on practically anything else. The Whites did not succeed in presenting a clear vision of what should come after the desired defeat of the Bolsheviks.
The Whites were an amalgam of different groups united only by their desire to get rid of the Bolsheviks. On what was to replace the communist regime they were deeply divided. Some wanted a return to the Tsarist regime; others a democratic republic. There was little in common between the Tsarist groups and socialist groups like the Mensheviks. The aims of the national minorities were more limited and often at odds with the White leaders. The slogan ‘Russia One and Indivisible’ did little to keep the minorities fighting for the Whites. (Philips 42)
Another factor that worked in the favour of the Reds was the foreign aid that the Whites were receiving. This gave the chance to the Bolsheviks to present their case against the opposition stating that they were tools in the hands of external powers that wanted to interfere in the future of Russia both politically and economically. Treadgold states that
Allied intervention was of dubious value: foreign arms and supplies aided the Whites, but were insufficient to insure victory and let the Reds pose as defenders of Mother Russia. Bolshevik propaganda portrayed White generals (wrongly) as reactionary tools of Western imperialism, and (more correctly) as aiming to restore the landlords. (Western New England College)
For what concerns the foreign powers, it must be noted that their abandonment of the Whites when the Reds began winning some of the battles was crucial in determining the outcome of that conflict. This was an enormous drawback for the White army that found itself alone and weak. Habeck confirms that the division of the groups that the White army was formed of was certainly an important element, but it was not the only one. The author states that the Allied forces were always offering assistance to the Whites, but they stopped it when the Whites needed it the most.
When they were successful on the battlefield, the Allied powers (Britain, France, and the United States) provided critical military assistance, but as the Whites began to lose, the aid disappeared, consigning the Whites to their fate. The fluid nature of the civil war also meant that the Whites never created permanent institutions. Matters were not helped by the officers’ reluctance to involve themselves in political matters, leaving chaos and banditry to reign in much of their territory. (Habeck 1665)
This abandonment of the Whites, according to Philips, was the result of the Versailles treaty of 1919. The author suggests that “the Allied leaders may have had no taste for communism but neither did they desire to carry on fighting.” It is also known that “the Whites did receive money and military equipment from the Allies although not enough to have an impact on the course of the war” (43).
The pure military strategies and realities were not the only direct reason why the Bolsheviks won the war; another aspect was the method in which the Whites conducted their various issues and their personal lifestyle affairs. Corruption was one of the factors; another one was the total dependence on vodka and cocaine among the White soldiers. This even reached a more serious level when an official of the White army stated that his army was composed of members who were ignorant and incompetent (Anderson 22).
The nature of the civil war was, just as any war, cruel and brutal, the White army was responsible for many crimes: “White troops were allowed to commit atrocities during the war, such as pogroms against the Jews who lived in White-occupied lands” (Habeck 1665)
The last of the reasons that led the Bolsheviks to victory is purely economic; they were in control of the most important industrial and manufacturing plants in the country, while the Whites simply had far less and, as mentioned earlier, were dependent on foreign aids and on outside help to keep their campaign alive.
Laver summarises the reasons by stating that the Reds had many advantages; such as the unified leadership of the communists under Lenin, the skills of Trotsky, and the control of industrial centres which were highly populated areas. The Whites, on the other hand, were divided, they lacked a common strategy, and they did not have popular support. Not to mention the ineffectiveness of the limited foreign support that they received (76-77).
Lee, Stephen J. Lenin and Revolutionary Russia. London, UK: Routledge, 2003.
Treadgold, Donald W. Twentieth Century Russia. 1987. The Russian Civil War. Western New England College. 2000. 21 October 2006. <http://mars.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/russia/lectures/28civilwar.html>.
Philips, Steve. Lenin and the Russian Revolution. London, UK: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2000.
Habeck, Mary R. “White Army.” Encyclopedia of Russian History. Ed. James Millar. New York, NY: Macmillan Reference-Thomson/Gale, 2004.
Anderson, Peter. “Why did the Bolsheviks Win the Russian Civil War?” History Review 43 (2002): 22 – 27
Laver, John. The Modernisation of Russia 1856-1985. Oxford, UK: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2002.
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