Letter: Russian civil war: not just red and white

Submitted by Matthew on 6 December, 2017 - 11:50 Author: Len Glover

Numerous commentators on the Russian Revolution also make comment and offer analyses of the civil war that followed. In his reply to Eric Lee (Solidarity 455) Paul Vernadsky mentions how “...the Bolsheviks fought a civil war against the White generals and the imperialist powers”.

I have no disagreement with what Paul Vernadsky has written (and I note it was a short letter not a full-length article), but it is necessary to add more detail. The Russian civil war that followed the revolution was a very complicated often confusing affair.

The armies of the imperial powers never really posed a military threat to the Bolsheiviks. France sent only 600 troops, the USA 11,000 (in far-away Vladivostock). The largest contingent from Europe was the Greek army (23,000) which occupied Odessa and parts of the Crimea. Howeve,r they withdrew after only three months. The other really large contingent was the Japanese (70,000) who were mainly interesting in pursuing territorial claims in the Far East. The Americans, for their part, spent most of their time keeping an eye on them.

For some reason it is difficult to find a figure for the number of British troops on Russian soil. The British suffered losses of 359 troops which suggest that either they engaged in very little actual fighting or they were not that numerous. The armies of intervention and their allies were seriously hampered by the appalling lack of communications, the British forces often had to resort to sending telegrams to London which were then relayed back to Russia, a process that could take days. Time and time again attempts at co-ordination between the allies failed, giving the Red Army a major advantage. It is an amusing aside that British troops clashed with Bolsheviks more often in fiction that in actuality.

Vsevelod Pudovkin’s immensely enjoyable, but ridiculous, film Storm Over Asia (1929), depicts the leader of the pro-Bolshevik Mongolians leading the fight against a British interventionist army. There were never any British troops in Mongolia. In Mikhail Sholokov’s novel The Don Flows to the Sea, pro-Bolshevik Cossacks can always tell when their enemy (anti-Bolshevik Cossacks) are using British artillery because their accuracy is so much greater than with the clapped out junk usually deployed. However, in the real world there was probably only one major clash involving the British army and the Bolsheviks. The British navy played a role in the Baltic supporting anti-Bolshevik Estonian troops, and in the Black Sea they helped evacuate the beleaguered White forces at the endgame of the civil war. But that was about it.

This reluctance to use their military strength and technology most likely arose because of the Allies’ total distrust of the White generals, whom they regarded, quite correctly, as arrogant idiots, and, possibly, concern over the reliability of their own troops – would they fire on the Bolsheviks or not? The soldiers were also war-weary and British troops based in Murmansk and Archangel would not have greeted the Russian winter (temperatures often -20ºC) with much enthusiasm.

In fact the main threat to the Bolsheviks came not from Denekin or Kolchak’s demoralised, ill-equipped troops, or the Allies holed up in Archangel, Murmansk or Odessa.

The anarchist Nestor Makhno’s Black Army was a major obstacle in Ukraine, even though they were allied with the Bolsheviks at various times. The army of the Ukrainian nationalists under Symon Petlura fought the Bolsheviks (and Makhno, and the German army) In Siberia, along the Trans-Siberian railroad the 50,000 strong army of former Czech prisoners, made constant problems for the Bolsheviks. However, at least in the early period of the civil war, it was the so-called Green Army of the “Patriotic Socialists” which posed the greatest threat.

Their ranks were drawn mainly from the peasantry and what political direction they had tended to come from supporters and members of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and some Mensheviks. They almost defeated the Red Army in the Tambov region. The Green Army rarely gets a mention (however, have a look at Geoffrey Swain’s book The Russian Civil War). Maybe this is because the narrative of the civil war lends itself to neat dichotomies of “us” versus “them” and a straight “model” of Red versus White, Left versus Right served a propaganda purpose and has just been accepted over the years as the way to look at the civil war obscuring other oppositions and the complications that arise.

This is hard to unravel and I make no claims to be able to understand even a part of it. However, the generally accepted view of the Russian civil war as one fought between the Bolshevik Red Army on one side and the Whites and the imperial armies of intervention on the other is surely far too simplistic.