History of Russia: “Reds vs Whites – The people who lost”

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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

Original Article 

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
http://www.ageod-forum.com

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
http://www.ageod-forum.com

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.

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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.”

References:

Budberg A. “Diary of a
White Guard”

Gul R.B. “Ice March
(with Kornilov)”. http://militera.lib.ru/memo/russian/gul_rb/index.html

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

http://feb-web.ru/feb/rosarc/ra6/ra6-637-.htm

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
http://eugend.livejournal.com – 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.

https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Список_генералов_Русской_императорской_армии_на_службе_в_РККА

https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Военспец#.D0.A0.D0.B5.D0.B2.D0.BE.D0.BB.D1.8E.D1.86.D0.B8.D1.8F_.D0.B8_.D0.B3.D1.80.D0.B0.D0.B6.D0.B4.D0.B0.D0.BD.D1.81.D0.BA.D0.B0.D1.8F_.D0.B2.D0.BE.D0.B9.D0.BD.D0.B0

[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…

Debris

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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