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    March 24, 2017

    History of Russia: "Reds vs Whites - The people who lost"

    Fort Russ, March 24th, 2017
    Translation and preface by Tatzhit

    A famous quote - “those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it” - still rings true today. However, the understanding of history, especially Russian history, is often clouded by bias; propaganda for political gain is unfortunately an omnipresent feature of modern historic studies.
    As another famous quote goes, “'He who controls the past controls the future”.

    Thus, I present this article about the Russian Civil War - the one conflict that has in many ways shaped the entire subsequent history of Russia. It is by no means free of bias; I’m afraid impartial sources are nigh-impossible to find on a question such as this. Rather, the article below presents some alternative answers, and makes one consider a different viewpoint on the successes of the Bolsheviks and the failures of their opponents.

    And, while history probably won’t repeat itself exactly, many of the lessons we can learn from political upheavals of the early 20th century are still valid in the 21st, as well.

    [propaganda poster of the White Movement]
    Red vs Whites: The people who lost everything
    By Evgeniy Belash / Igor Nikolaev

    At the beginning of the Russian Civil War, Whites (“capitalists”, “monarchists”, “nobles”, “democrats” - ed.) had overwhelming superiority by almost every measure, and it seemed obvious that the Bolsheviks were doomed. Nevertheless, the Reds eventually emerged victorious. Among the huge number of reasons that led to this, several key ones stand out.

    Time of chaos

    "... I point out three reasons for the failure of the White movement:
    1) insufficient and delayed help of Western Allies, only motivated by their selfish considerations
    2) gradual increase of reactionary elements within the movement, and
    3) as a consequence of №2, the rejection of the White cause by the broad popular masses…
    P. Miliukov (former Foreign Minister - ed.).
    “Report on the White movement” for "Latest news" newspaper of Paris.
    August 6, 1924

    First, let's point out that the definitions of "Red" and "White" are largely arbitrary, as it always is in the description of the civil unrest.

    War is chaos, and civil war is chaos cubed. Even now, after nearly a century, the question of "Who were the good guys, after all?" remains largely unresolved.

    At the time, the collapse of Russian Empire was perceived as the end of the world, everything was full of unpredictability and uncertainty. The color of someone’s banners, declared convictions - all of these existed only "for the moment”, and in any case did not guarantee anything. Political parties and personal beliefs changed with surprising ease, and it was not considered something abnormal or shameful. Revolutionaries who spent many years as urban guerillas - for example, the Social Revolutionary party - became ministers of the new bourgeois government and were branded as counter-revolutionaries by their former colleagues. The Bolshevik armies and even secret police were, in a large part, created by the experienced cadres of the Tsarist regime - including nobles, famous officers, graduates of the Academy of the General Staff [1]. People were tossed from one extreme to another in their struggle for survival.
    Or the "extremes" themselves showed up on their doorstep - in the form of the famous quote: "The Whites come and rob, then the Reds come and rob, so where can a poor peasant go?". Both individuals and whole military units regularly changed sides. The prisoners of war could be released on their word of honor in a most courtly fashion, slaughtered in various savage ways, or recruited into the victor’s army.

    The orderly, harmonious division of "these guys are Red, these ones are White, these are Green, and those are morally unstable and undecided" has developed only some years later. Therefore, you should always remember that when it comes to discussing sides in a civil conflict, we are talking not about orderly military formations, but “centers of power". Rallying points for a huge number of groups, amongst an unceasing conflict of everyone against everyone else.

    But why did the so-called “Red” center of power eventually win? Why did "gentlemen" lose to "comrades"?

    The question of "Red Terror"

    "Red Terror" (massacres of political opponents - ed.) is often used as an ultima ratio, the main instrument of the Bolsheviks, which has allegedly allowed them to subjugate the whole country. This is not true. Terror has always walked hand in hand with internal turmoil - it follows from the “knife fight in a closet” nature of civil war, where the opponents have everything to lose and nowhere to retreat.

    Moreover, all sides in such a war can not avoid using organized terror as a necessary tactic. It has already been said that, initially, the “centers of power” were small groups among the sea of ​​anarchic freemen and apolitical peasant masses. For example, the White General Mikhail Drozdovsky brought about two thousand men with him from Romania. Mikhail Alekseev and Lavr Kornilov started with approximately the same number of volunteers. Most people simply did not want to fight, including a very significant part of the officers[1]. In Kiev, it was common to see officers working as waiters, in uniform and with medals - "to get more tips".

    [Drozdovsky’s 2nd cavalry regiment]

    In order to win, all participants needed an army (that is, recruits) and food. Food for the cities (military production and transport), for the armies, for the rations of valuable specialists and commanders.
    Recruits and bread could only be taken from the villages, from the peasants - who were not willing to give either of those up for free, but there was nothing to pay them with. This lead to food requisitions and forced mobilizations, which were also used by Whites and Reds equally eagerly (and even before them, by the Provisional Government). As a consequence - peasant protests, uprisings, and the need to suppress the discontent by the most brutal methods.

    Overall, the infamous and terrible "Red Terror" was not a decisive and innovative tactic, nor one that even particularly stands out against the background of omnipresent atrocities of the Russian Civil War. Mass punishments and executions were used by all sides, and it wasn’t terror that brought victory to the Bolsheviks.

    But what then?
    The authors believe that the whole variety of factors can be distilled into three main points:
    • Unity of command.
    • Organization.
    • Ideology.

    Let us discuss these points one by one.

    1. Unity of command.

    It should be noted that the Bolsheviks (or, more broadly, "Socialist-Revolutionaries" in general) were already used to working in an environment of instability and chaos. A situation where there are enemies on all sides, their own side is infiltrated by agents of the secret police and various scum, and everything has gone all 'Game of Thrones' - that was normal for them, their usual working environment. Since the beginning of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks continued to do what they did before, only from a more favorable position of being one of the main players. They were highly skilled at maneuvering under conditions of complete confusion and constantly changing loyalties. On the other hand, their opponents were a lot less skilled at making and betraying new alliances as situation demanded. Therefore, at the peak of the conflict, the somewhat unified (and at least theoretically commanded by one structure) Red forces were opposed by many individual White groups, each with its own war plans and overall strategy.

    Actually, this discord and lack of long-term strategy cost the Whites their chance to secure victory as early as 1918. The Western Allies desperately needed the Russian front against the Germans, and were willing to provide all sorts of aid to preserve some semblance of it. The Bolsheviks at the time were very weak and disorganized, and the Allied military assistance could be demanded in return for only partially delivered Tsarist military orders. But … instead the Whites chose to simply deal with the Germans and bargain with them for ammo - thus forever tarnishing their reputation in the eyes of the Entente.

    The Germans soon lost WWI and disappeared. The Bolsheviks steadily created a regular army instead of disorganized militia detachments, tried to establish military industry. And by 1919, the Allies had already won WWI and did not want to continue fighting in some faraway country for unclear goals - the foreign expeditionary forces started packing up and going home.

    Whites could not negotiate with any of the now-independent border countries (Finland, Latvia, Caucasus republics, etc - ed.). That meant their borders remained unsecured and unfriendly. And, as if that was not enough, each White leader was also unable to deal with various “anarchist” or independent leaders in their own rear, which sprung up everywhere. Kolchak had ataman Semenov, Denikin had the Kuban leaders Kalabukhov and Mamontov, Wrangel had Orlov’s movement in Crimea, Yudenich had Bermondt-Avalov, and so on.
    So, even though the Bolsheviks seemed surrounded by enemies and doomed, they were able to concentrate on critical areas, transferring at least some resources along the internal transport lines. Individually, each White general could repeatedly beat the enemy on his part of the front - and the Reds acknowledged those defeats - but these setbacks never came together into an orchestrated knockout combo. The Bolsheviks remained standing after every painful blow, regained their strength and hit back.

    In 1918, Kornilov besieges Ekaterinodar, but the other White groups have already left the area. Then, as the Volunteer army is bogged down in the fighting in North Caucasus, Krasnov advances with his Cossacks as far as Tsaritsyn, where they finally lose to the Reds. In 1919, thanks to foreign aid (discussed below), Donbass falls, Tsaritsyn is finally taken - but Kolchak in Siberia has already been defeated. In the fall, Yudenich advances on St. Petersburg in the north, has an excellent chance to take it - but by then, Denikin in the south of Russia is already defeated and retreats. Wrangell, with excellent aircraft and tanks, sallies in 1920 out of the Crimea, the Whites are successful at first - but the Poles have already signed peace with the Reds. And so on. [It would be funny, if it wasn’t such a terrifying waste of life.]

    The Whites were fully aware of the seriousness of this problem, and even attempted to solve it by electing a leader (Kolchak) and trying to coordinate their actions. But it was too little, too late. And no real coordination was ever achieved.

    "White movement did not win because there was no White dictatorship. Its emergence was prevented by centrifugal forces brought about by the revolution, and all the people still associated with the revolution and still clinging to some revolutionary ideas... Against the Red dictatorship, the Whites also needed a "concentration of power"...
    N. Lvov. "White movement", 1924.

    2. Organization - "Wars are won at the supply depots"

    As discussed above, for a long time the Whites enjoyed clear superiority on the battlefield. It was so palpable, that to this day it is the pride of the supporters of the White movement. Therefore, all sorts of conspiracy theories need to be invented to explain why those brilliant victories all turned to naught, chief among them the legend about the monstrous and unparalleled "Red Terror".

    And the real answer is really simple and, alas, shameful – the Whites won tactical victories, but lost the main battle - at their own supply depots and factories.

    N. Aster writes to V. Pepelyaev. Novorossiysk, 16/29 January 1920:
    "None of the [White] governments ... managed to create a flexible and powerful government apparatus, able to quickly and dexterously adapt, take action and force others to work. The Bolsheviks also failed to persuade a lot of people, also did not become a national idea, but they were infinitely ahead of us in the speed of their actions, energy, mobility and the ability to coerce. We - with our outdated techniques, old mentality, the inherited vices of the military and civil bureaucracy, with the medieval official hierarchy - could never keep up with them ... "

    In the spring of 1919, Denikin's artillery commander could only allocate two hundred shells a day … Per howitzer? No, for the entire army.

    Britain, France and other powers, despite being later accused by the defeated Whites, provided considerable and even great amounts of military aid. Just Denikin, in the same year 1919, received from the British: 74 tanks, 150 planes, hundreds of cars and dozens of tractors, more than five hundred cannons, including 6-8-inch heavy howitzers, thousands of machine guns, more than two hundred thousand rifles, hundreds of millions of rounds of ammunition and two million artillery shells (which amounts to 5.500 a day, every day… not considering what he got from other sources - ed.)... These are very decent numbers for the time, even on the scale of just-concluded WWI - they could be readily used to describe the situation on a large sector of frontline during, say, the battle of Ypres or the Somme. And in the context of a civil war, where everyone was under-equipped and ragged - it was a fabulous amount. This armada, concentrated in several organized "fists", would pierce the Red frontlines like hot knives through butter.

    [A squad of tanks of the [White] Assault Brigade before leaving for the front]

    However, that wealth of military supplies and hardware never assembled into organized battlegroups. Moreover, the vast majority of it never reached the frontline troops at all. There was a complete failure of supply and logistics. And cargo (ammunition, food, uniforms, vehicles, ...) was either stolen or left to rot somewhere along the supply chain.
    Brand new British howitzers were broken by untrained White crews within weeks, a fact repeatedly noted by confused and frustrated British advisers. In 1920s Wrangel, according to the Red observations, also could not afford to use more than 20 rounds per gun per day of battle. Some guns were even moved to the rear for lack of shells.

    On all the fronts, ragged soldiers and equally ragged officers of the White armies fought desperately against Bolshevism, often without food and ammunition. And in the rear...

    Looking at these swarms of scoundrels, their diamond-covered ladies, these perfumed youths, I felt only one thing. I prayed - "Lord, send the Bolsheviks here, for a week or so, so that at least in the Cheka basements these animals would realize what they have done.”
    Ivan Nazhivin, Russian writer and emigrant

    Lack of coordination and inability to organize logistics and fiscal discipline led to the fact that military victories of the White movement disappeared into thin air. White forces chronically failed to capitalize on their military successes, while at the same time slowly and irreversibly losing their fighting qualities. The White armies at the beginning and at the end of the Russian Civil War were essentially the same - only more ragged and disheartened. But the Red Army was rapidly evolving…

    "Yesterday we held a public lecture by colonel Kotomin, who deserted from the Red Army; those present did not understand the bitterness of the lecturer, who pointed out that the Bolshevik army has much more order and discipline than we do, and made a huge riot, even attempting to beat up the colonel, one of the most devoted workers of our national Center. They were especially offended when K. said that it is impossible to see a drunken officer giving orders in the Red Army, because he would be immediately shot by any commissar or communist."
    Baron Budberg

    Budberg somewhat idealized the picture, but the overall assessment is correct. Many others described the same thing. The nascent Red Army was making progress - yes, it suffered defeats and losses, but rose and kept going, learning valuable lessons. Even on the tactical level, the White advances would often eventually grind to a halt against dogged resistance by the Reds - and that happened in many places around the country, from Ekaterinodar to Yakut settlements. On the other hand, if the White frontlines were broken - their fronts collapsed for hundreds of kilometers, and often never recovered.

    In summer 1918, during the Taman offensive, hastily put together Red forces numbered 27,000 infantry and 3,500 cavalry - with only 15 cannons, and at best 5-10 rifle rounds for each fighter. No food, horse feed, baggage trains or field kitchens.

    Red Army in 1918. By Boris Yefimov

    During Kahovka operation in fall of 1920, just one Red Army Assault Brigade of 5,500 soldiers already had a battery of six-inch howitzers, two batteries of light cannon, two armored car detachments (and a detachment of tanks, which did not take part in battle), more than 180 machine-guns, flamethrower teams, etc. Not to mention the soldiers themselves were very different - disciplined, trained and fully equipped.

    Red Army in 1921. By Boris Yefimov

    Red cavalry of Budyonny and Dumenko even forced the enemy to copy their successful tactics. Whites mostly "shone" when they could do a human wave infantry attack, and relegated the cavalry to flanking maneuvers.
    When the White remnants under Wrangel finally began to resemble a modern, technological army (due to foreign supply and training), it was much too late.

    The Reds were led by experienced ex-Tsarist officers such as Kamenev and Vatsetis, the soldiers who rose "through the ranks", like Dumenko and Budyonny, and even gifted political leaders such as Frunze.
    And Whites, despite having so many options, didn’t always pick the best ones. Among all the experienced officers and professionals, one of Kolchak’s armies was commanded … by a former paramedic. Denikin’s decisive attack on Moscow was lead by May-Majewski, whose drinking binges were legendary even by White Army standards. And Grishin-Almazov, a very talented Major-General, was used as a courier between Kolchak and Denikin, which led to his capture and suicide.

    And almost every part of the White Movement showed widespread contempt for all other parts.

    3. Ideology - "Vote with your rifle!"

    What was the place of common, ordinary citizens within the Russian Civil War? To paraphrase one of today's researchers, for them it was an enormous, multi-year democratic election, where the people voted with their rifles. People could not choose the time and place where the great and terrible historic events found them, but they did have some choice - however limited - on who to side with. Or, at least, whom to like.

    [Red propaganda poster. “What did they fight for, what do we fight for”]

    As we said above, the opposing factions needed recruits and food. Both could be obtained by force, but not always and not everywhere, and at the cost of getting new enemies and problems. In the end, the winner in such a conflict is not determined by tactical brilliance at the frontlines or cruelty in the rear. Instead, the faction that wins is the one that can offer a real way out for the vast apolitical masses that are insanely tired of hopeless and protracted apocalypse. The faction that can keep attracting new supporters, retain the loyalty of their allies, make the enemies question their ideology.
    The Bolsheviks managed to do this. Their opponents did not [2].

    "Why did the Reds fight? They wanted to beat the Whites and, on the foundation of this victory, to build a new, communist state.
    Why did the Whites fight? They wanted to beat the Reds. And then? And then - nothing, because it was obvious to everyone that the ancien régime was completely dismantled, and there was no going back to the way things were before.
    For the Reds, victory a path forward; for the Whites, it was an end of the road, with nothing ahead. "
    Von Raupach. "The reasons for the failure of the White movement"

    Ideology is difficult to measure exactly, but it has very real impact in the war. In a country where most of the population could barely spell their own name, it was extremely important to be able to clearly explain what are you fighting and dying for. The Reds could do it. The Whites failed to even decide amongst themselves what do they fight for. On the contrary, they consciously agreed to leave ideology "for after the war". Even amongst the Whites, the alliance between the bourgeois, the officers, the Cossacks and the "revolutionary democrats" was considered unnatural [and temporary] - so how could they convince the popular masses?

    "... We gave a huge bloodletting to sickness-stricken Russia ... Even if we managed to seize power from the Soviets, we would not be able to save anything. Something new must come, something hitherto unknown - only then we can hope for a slow recovery. Neither the Bolsheviks nor us will stay for long, and that’s for the best! "
    A. Lampe. From "Diary". 1920

    Tale of the losers

    In essence, our abridged notes detail the weaknesses of the Whites, and to a much lesser degree - advantages of the Reds. This is no accident. In any civil war, all factions demonstrate incredible, normally unimaginable levels of chaos and disorganization. Naturally, the Bolsheviks and their allies were no exception. But the Whites set an absolute record on what would now be called "epic fails".
    In fact, Reds didn’t do anything special to win the war. They did more or less the same things they did before it started - fought to seize power and solved problems that arose along the path to their version of the future.
    The outcome of the confrontation was determined by White losses, failure on all levels - from ideology, to tactical coordination, to organizing supply for their armies.

    The irony here is that most Whites did not support the tsarist regime, and many even took an active part in overthrowing it. They knew the diseases of the old system perfectly well, and openly criticized them. However, they ended up repeating all the major mistakes that lead the previous government to its doom. Only they repeated them in more severe, even grotesque forms.

    As an epilogue, I would like to quote the words that were originally written about the civil war in England, but apply equally well to the great and terrible events that shook Russia  almost a hundred years ago …

    "They say that these people were carried by a whirlwind of events, but that’s not true. They were not “carried”, there were no unexplained forces and invisible hands. It’s just that, whenever they found themselves faced with a choice, they did the right thing -  from their point of view, at the time… And in the end, this chain of individually “good” decisions lead them into very dark places. And, having stumbled around in the darkness, the survivors finally emerged on the other side and stared at horror at the corpse-littered paths behind them. Many have gone through it, but blessed are those who understood their enemies, and forgave them."
    A.V. Tomsinov "Blind children of Kronos."

    Budberg A. “Diary of a White Guard”
    Gul R.B. “Ice March (with Kornilov)”.
    Drozdovsky M.G. “Diary” - Berlin: Otto Kirchner and Ko, 1923.
    Zaitsev A.A. 1918. Essays on the history of the Russian Civil War. Paris 1934.
    Kakurin N.E., Vatsetis I.I. “Civil War” 1918-1921
    Kakurin N.E. How the Revolution fought. 1917-1918
    Kovtiukh E.I. "Iron Stream" from the military point of view. Moscow 1935
    Kornatovsky N.A. Fighting for Red Petrograd.
    Essays of E.I. Dostovalov
    Reden. “Through the Hell of the Russian revolution. Memoirs of a naval cadet.” 1914-1919
    Uilmson Huddleston. “Farewell to the Don river - the civil war in Russia in the diaries of a British officer.”
    Eugene Durnev’s blog - various informative materials, including some research of Red and White terror in Tambov and Siberia.

    Translator’s notes:
    [1] It is worth pointing out that Tsarist army officers serving in the Red Army wasn’t abnormal or in any way rare; the popular idea that Reds were an “army of peasants and common soldiers” and Whites were “an army of officers” is a later oversimplification.

    Modern historians conclude that maybe 40% of former Tsarist officers joined the Whites, 30% joined the Reds, and the rest fled the country. In fact, over 80% of high-ranking commanders in the Red Army were former cadre officers of the Russian Empire.

    [2] This situation, where the previous ideology has failed, and its supporters have nothing new to offer, is extremely common in political and internal conflicts around the world. One could argue that the failure of democratic-globalist establishment in 2016 US elections follows the exact same model - despite the control of mass media and extensive support of elites and special interests, they had no viable message to broadcast and nothing to offer to population at large.

    [3] Oh, and one last thing – this excellent poem about the White Movement, sung by Vysotski and translated by Kneller.

    Debris remaining from the crown...

    Remaining from the crown
    With no state, no throne around,
    There is no country left to govern -
    All is damned!

    And we,
    Chased to holes like hunted game,
    Caught like thieves to face the blame,
    There’s only blood and shame

    For us

    It’s impossible to find,
    With whom to split, with whom to bind,
    Who’s with us and whom to mind,
    Where to go, where to unwind -
    we can’t tell!

    Where’s spirit? Where’s honor? Where’s guilt?
    Who are friends and who are strangers,
    How did we neglect this danger,
    Do we wish to cast this land
    To hell?!

    And shame -
    On all of those who value rest
    On those, whose conscience is a pest,
    Who cannot choose in all this mess
    To kill.

    To arms!..Like a bull into the fray,
    Like a hawk after a prey,
    Inviting ravens all to stay
    For the meal.

    Hey you! Where’s the strength that lit your face?
    Where’s the pride with which we’ve gazed?
    To rest today - it’s a disgrace!
    Grip the rifle in your hand
    and go!

    An end, To all. An end.
    All is broken, all seems brittle,
    We are left with just a little, -
    Fire at one’s temple

    or the foe.

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