The Russian Civil War: the White’s War to Lose

The Russian civil war that started in 1917 was the climactic end to a tumultuous period within the Russian empire’s history, in which the Tsar was deposed, the first communist state in the world was established and the First World War was hammering Russia harder than most. The Russian revolution, and more specifically the October revolt in 1917, was the last phase in not only the takeover of the Russian state but in the Bolshevik takeover of power. The fact that this one party had managed to take power in the Russian soviets against all other parties, including the right-wing Tsarists, would provide the political backdrop for the Russian civil war. It was the final battle in what had been years of fighting for ultimate control of Russia. The factors that decided the civil war were centred around the Whites (anti-Bolsheviks) more than they were the Reds (Bolsheviks). These factors were the Whites own weaknesses, foreign intervention, unpopularity before the war, as well as Trotsky’s leadership of the Reds. Historians such as Pipes credit the White Army as being better, but suggests that they failed due to its internal weakness, whereas Watts claims that the intervention, while initially being helpful, became a significant hindrance. This article will illustrate how the civil war began in the favour of the Whites, but through the previously established factors, it brought what should have been their victory to a trembling downfall. 

The White Army’s weaknesses were the most significant factor in the Whites losing the civil war. At the start of the civil war, the White Army was much bigger than the Reds, although exact numbers for the sizes of the two armies are hard to establish. However, it is known that the Red Army was solely made up off Bolsheviks and, as there were 40,000 members of the party, it can be estimated that they had around that number of soldiers fighting for them against the Whites, who consisted of every other party, paramilitary or political force within Russia. This mixed nature of the Whites would eventually become their main downfall. The broad banner of former Tsarists, progressives, and other socialist parties like the Kadets and Mensheviks meant there were deep ideological and personal divisions between their own men and the commanders. Generals often did not trust each other, refusing to fight alongside each other and often withheld military information like strategy and enemy movements from one another due to concerns about where their loyalties truly lay. One division which proved very difficult for the White Army leaders to deal with were between the monarchists and the Don Cossacks. The Don Cossacks were only interested in protecting their region so when the Whites under General Denikin took the Don region from the Bolsheviks in the South, a large contingent of the Cossacks refused to fight any further. This is very significant as lacking a common ideology meant there was a serious lack of purpose. The only thing uniting them was the hatred of the Bolsheviks, which led to the question: what happens when the Bolsheviks are no more? This point is perfectly summed up by Anton Denikin, Deputy Supreme Leader of the White Army, when he said, “I can do nothing with my army, I’m glad when it carries out my combat orders”. The White Army also had an image problem; the Bolsheviks, no matter what they did, would be doing it for the people as they were a socialist party opposed to the oppression of the Tsar. However, the same could not be said for the Whites. Many peasants refused to support the White Army, seeing them as fighting to return the Tsar to power – a belief which was emphasized by forcefully removing peasants from their lands to gain supplies during the civil war. A particular leader in the White Army came to embody the ideology of autocracy: his name was Kolchak and he was awarded the position of “Supreme Leader” of the Whites. After this, he believed it would be in their best interests to unite the people under one common belief which was a return to the monarchy. However, he did this by rounding up thousands of his own socialists and having them imprisoned, many of whom were subsequently executed. This, along with showing utter disdain for the peasants who made up a large majority of the army, did not help the Whites at a time when it was trying to cultivate popular support, causing desertion to skyrocket. The historian Figes cites this as a key reason as to why the Whites lost saying, “Whites made no real effort to develop policies to appeal to peasants or minorities.” 

Foreign intervention is another key reason which surprisingly led to the downfall of the Whites, in part due to their own mismanagement. After the revolution, several western European monarchies, including Great Britain, were becoming increasingly concerned with the rise of socialism and what it could mean for their own countries, as it encouraged the overthrow off the government in favour of popular rule. The Russian civil war was a way for the foreign powers to side with the Whites and stop the Bolshevik takeover in its tracks, hoping to kill the socialists and communists’ ideologies across the world. Britain got involved in the conflict soon after it arose with influential people like Winston Churchill calling for land troops to be sent to Russia to fight with the Whites. However, as the civil war started while the rest of Europe was still deeply entrenched in the First World War, there was little to no support from parliament or the general public who considered this war less of a threat to them. The British government did, however, send £100m worth of supplies to the White Army, viewing it as an important cause and a necessary price to stop Lenin and the Reds. This should have and could have worked in the Whites favour. However, severe mismanaging of the money, such as the right-wing sects using it to continue to live their previously glamourous lifestyles, fed into the idea that the Whites did not care about the working classes. Instead, it ended up working as excellent propaganda for Trotsky to use against them. Several countries, including the USA, France, and Japan, did take further steps than Britain had and got more involved in the conflict by sending soldiers to help the Whites with fighting forces and tactics, taking part in small skirmishes. However, this intervention was halfhearted and did not so much have the intention of stopping the Bolsheviks as it did to secure materials and set up spheres of influence in Russia to the benefit of themselves. Once again, this shows how what should have helped the Whites turned very quickly against them. Not only were their allies not helping them, but through a propaganda campaign the Reds were able to paint the entire White Army as foreign invaders who came to Russia to steal the land from the peasants. This further lead to a decrease of support for the White cause. The historian Lynch describes how allied intervention and the White Army’s reliance of foreign aid became subject to Red propaganda, with little chance for the Whites to capitalize on their own propaganda opportunities due to the equally violent tactics employed by both factions. Intervention truly became worthless to the Whites when the British started opening communications with the Reds as they already knew who the victors were. 

One factor that was not the Whites own doing but was still a significant reason to why the Whites lost the war was Trotsky’s leadership. In 1918, Lenin made Trotsky the commissar for war when the reds were on the “point of disintegration”. Through his impressive organisational skills, Trotsky was able to shape up what had been a mix of sailors and peasants into a strong military force. He introduced a strict discipline to the army and a hierarchy as he considered these to be essential if they were to succeed. Through these policies, he introduced the death penalty, which was used with great effectiveness, sometimes even using it against minor offences to show to his men that he was not afraid to use his power to create discipline. In Trotsky’s quest to restore some order into the Reds he brought back thousands of Tsarist officers to train his men and introduced the hierarchy of a ranking system into the military. This decision was highly controversial at the time with many prominent Bolsheviks including Stalin demanding Trotsky’s removal from the party, although this did not happen as Trotsky had the backing of Lenin. In order to keep his men in line and help secure his own place, Trotsky abducted some of the Tsarist officers’ families to ensure order, along with attaching a political commissar to each unit to keep in line with the Bolshevik ideology. Through this leadership, Trotsky had an army capable of fighting the Whites, although it did cause division within the Bolsheviks as they were split as to whether ruling through fear was a good thing or not. Hence, this reason is less significant to the Whites downfall in the long run. Historian Volkongonov does not believe that Trotsky was overall important to the cause as he was not a military man and believed major decisions were taken by others. Trotsky knew the value of symbolism when running a military campaign, as he knew that the morale of the men was of utmost importance, deeming it imperative to win battles in key places that were not strategically important but were symbolically important. As the White Army approached Petrograd, he viewed it as essential to save the city saying they must save the home of the revolution even after Lenin ordered their retreat. But through his brilliant oratory skills he rallied his men in Petrograd to fight the Whites in a battle in which the Reds won. Despite Trotsky appealing to many of his men through his speaking abilities and his highly held belief in maintaining morale, desertions rose to over 4 million by 1921 and there was a full-scale mutiny by tsarists officers leading many to think that this brilliance by Trotsky was simply a myth, perhaps perpetrated by Trotskyists after the war. The historian Englestein has agreed with this, stating that “the role of a single personality… cannot explain how the Bolsheviks came out on top”. 

The White’s weaknesses and disunity are clearly the most significant reason for the Bolshevik victory in the civil war. From refusing to fight with one another to the sheer disunity between them, the White Army soon after its creation became one of the most dysfunctional armies in modern history. Foreign intervention became one of many examples of how the war could have been won as even with limited support the Whites had the numbers, the experience and the backing to win, but through mismanagement lost themselves the war. Trotsky did show how the Reds could fight and win the war, but one man, no matter how brilliant, could have won against the Whites had they demonstrated their true capabilities. This article illustrates how it was the Whites who lost the war and not that the Reds won it, through what amounts to be sheer incompetence. 

Written by Finlay Cormack


Corin, Chris and Fiehn, Terry. Russia under Tsarism and communism 1881-1953. London: Hodder Education, 2011. 

Ullman, James, Henry, Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1917-1921, Volume 2: Britain and the Russian Civil War. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2019. 

Lincoln, Bruce, W., Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. 

Last of the Czars – 01 – Nicky and Alix. Directed by Mark Anderson. Discovery Channel, 1996. 

CrashCourse, “Russian Revolution and Civil War: Crash Course European History #35.” YouTube, YouTube, 13 Feb. 2020,  

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