Russian Civil War

Emperor Nicholas II shovelling snow in the park at Tsarskoe Selo, Russia, where he and the royal family were interned, 1917. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As World War I dragged on, the Russian people grew angry at the Czar and his repressive government.  In March of 1917, the Russian people rose up in revolt.  Czar Nicholas II abdicated the throne, and a power struggle between moderate socialists and a group of hard-core revolutionary communists called the Bolsheviks began. The moderates won, formed a provisional government, and promised to continue fighting the war.  Their reign, however, was destined to be brief.

The Bolsheviks promised they would make peace with Germany if they were in power.  They gave Germans hope that Russia would drop out of the war.  This would allow Germany to concentrate all their troops against the British and French on the Western Front.  So the Germans came up with a plan to help the Bolsheviks.

The leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin, was living in Switzerland in exile.  The Germans allowed him to travel through Germany to Russia on a special train they arranged for him.  Back in Russia, Lenin joined in an open campaign with other leaders, including Leon Trotsky, to overturn the moderate government.

The Russian army was badly demoralized.  The Bolsheviks recruited many soldiers to their cause.  When Germany launched an attack in July 1917, thousands of Russian soldiers deserted their posts.  The Bolsheviks grew more powerful.  In October 1917, they seized power.  The country they founded would eventually be called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the Soviet Union.

Lenin quickly made peace with the Central Powers.   Many Russians, however, were unhappy with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and before long civil war broke out.  Forces loyal to the Czar, known as the White Russians, fought against the communist Red Army.  Russia, which had entered World War I as a troubled but powerful state, fell into chaos.

The Allies were deeply concerned by these events.  They wanted Russia back in the fight, and they wanted to stop the spread of communism.  England and France decided to send troops to Russia to intervene in the civil war and restore the eastern front.  They convinced President Woodrow Wilson to include American Soldiers in the plan.


Allied forces deployed to the Murmansk-Archangel region of Northern Russia and to Siberia.  Their mission was to keep stockpiles of military supplies and strategic locations from falling into

Bolshevik hands and to support anti-Bolshevik forces.

The Northern Russian force contained about 5,000 American troops under British command.  The force suffered heavy casualties while guarding supplies and communication lines before withdrawing in June 1919.

The Siberian force fought in support of the White Russian forces.  They also took steps to stop the Japanese from taking advantage of the chaos in Russia to seize new territory.  Fighting continued in the region until April 1920.

Together, these two forces suffered about 500 combat casualties.  Compared to the devastation in France, these actions went almost unnoticed in the West.  The Soviets, however, resented the intervention.  They never forgot that England, France, and the United States tried to stop the communist revolution.  They remained suspicious of American intentions until the Soviet government collapsed in 1991.

In 1919, White Russian forces launched a series of offensives against the Red Army.  At first, the operations were successful.  One White Russian force reached the outskirts of Petrograd (later re-named Leningrad and now known as St. Petersburg). Another advanced to within 250 miles of Moscow.


First of May Celebration, Petrograd 1917. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Red Army, however, had several advantages.  The communists controlled the most heavily populated regions of the country.  By 1921, the Red Army numbered nearly 5 million and outnumbered the Whites Russians twenty to one.

The Red Army also had Leon Trotsky as their commander.  Both armies used strict discipline to maintain order.  The Whites Russians, however, relied on heavy-handed brutality.  Trotsky, on the other hand, ran an efficient and effective terror campaign within the ranks of the Red Army.  He used Political Commissars to oversee the troops to ensure loyalty.  The Red Army had shorter lines of communication and shorter supply routes than the White Russians.  The Reds also formed an alliance with the anarchists, known as Black Russians.

By the end of 1920, the White Russians were losing.  The Red Army pushed them out of Russia into Siberia.  As the civil war continued in the Far East, the Red Army broke their agreement with the Black Russians.  They began killing anarchists and anarchist sympathizers throughout Russia.

The Red Army swept east, wiping out the remains of the White Russian forces.  In October 1922, the Red Army seized the eastern port of Vladivostok and the Russian Civil War came to an end.  In the following years, the Red Army continued to fight to suppress numerous revolts against Bolshevik rule.

By the time the Communists cemented their control over the country, millions had died fighting.  Many more people died at the hands of the Cheka (Soviet secret police) or during the famines and epidemics that followed.  The Soviets memory of the Allied intervention laid the foundation for an atmosphere of fear and distrust that eventually dominated the relationship between the Soviet Union and the Western powers.

Adapted from:

Chapter 17 World War I: The First Three Years Extracted from American Military History, Army Historical Series, Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army.  American Military History Vol II.  The United States Army in a Global Era, 1917-2003. Richard W. Stewart, General Editor, Center of Military History, United States Army: Washington, D.C., 2005.

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