The White Army

After the overthrow of the Provisional Government on 7th November, 1917, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets met and handed over power to the Soviet Council of People's Commissars. Vladimir Lenin was elected chairman and other appointments included leading Bolsheviks such as Leon Trotsky (Foreign Affairs) Alexei Rykov (Internal Affairs), Anatoli Lunacharsky (Education) and Joseph Stalin (Nationalities).

Alexander Kerensky, who had managed to escape arrest, assembled loyal troops from the Northern Front. Led by General Krasnov, the Cossacks were defeated by Bolshevik forces at Pulkova. By December, 1917, central Russia and Siberia was under the control of Lenin's government.

General Lavr Kornilov now organized a Volunteer Army and in January 1918 his forces numbered 3,000 men. Over the next few months other groups who opposed the Bolshevik government joined the struggle. Eventually these soldiers became known as the Whites.

Those that joined the White Army included the Cadets, who wished to continue the war against the Central Powers. Some Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries that were opposed to the dictatorial powers of the new regime also joined the resistance. Others who joined included landowners who had lost their estates, factory owners who had their property nationalized, devout members of the Russian Orthodox Church who objected to the government's atheism and royalists who wanted to restore the monarchy.

The White Army initially had success in the Ukraine where the Bolsheviks were unpopular. The main resistance came from Nestor Makhno, the leader of an Anarchist army in the area. Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, led the Red Army and gradually pro-Bolsheviks took control of the Ukraine. By February, 1918, the Whites held no major areas in Russia.

The main threat to the Bolsheviks was the German Army that was advancing towards Petrograd. On 3rd March, 1918, Vladimir Lenin ordered his team of negotiators to sign the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. This resulted in the Russians having to surrendering the Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic provinces, the Caucasus and Poland.

This decision increased the hostility inside Russia towards the Bolsheviks. In May, 1918, the Czechoslovak Corps revolted after being badly treated by local Red Guards. Over the next four months the Czech Legion took a vast area of land east of the Volga. The White Army also won battles at Simbirsk and Kazan.

Vladimir Lenin appointed Leon Trotsky as commissar of war and was sent to rally the Red Army in the Volga. Trotsky proved to be an outstanding military commander and Kazan and Simbirsk were recaptured in September, 1918. The following month he took Samara but the White Army did make progress in the south when General Anton Denikin took control of the Kuban region and General Peter Wrangel began to advance up the Volga.

The main threat to the Bolshevik government came from General Nikolai Yudenich. In October, 1918, he captured Gatchina, only 50 kilometres from Petrograd. Leon Trotsky arrived to direct the defence of the capital. Red Guard units were established amongst industrial workers and the rail network was used to bring troops from Moscow. Outnumbered, Yudenich ordered his men to retreat and headed for Estonia.

Admiral Alexander Kolchak also set up an anit-Bolshevik military dictatorship at Omsk in eastern Siberia. To help the White Army, troops from Britain, France, Japan and the United States were sent into Russia. By December, 1918, there were 200,000 foreign soldiers supporting the anti-Bolshevik forces.

The Red Army continued to grow and now had over 500,000 soldiers in its ranks. This included over 40,000 officers who had served under Nicholas II. This was an unpopular decision with many Bolsheviks who feared that given the opportunity, they would betray their own troops. Trotsky tried to overcome this problem by imposing a strict system of punishment for those who were judged to be disloyal.

In March, 1919, Alexander Kolchak captured Ufa and was posing a threat to Kazan and Samara. Led by Mikhail Frunze and the Red Army fought back and in November, 1919, they entered Omsk. Kolchak fled eastwards but he was caught by the Czechs who handed him over to the Bolsheviks. Kolchak was shot by firing squad on 7th February, 1920.

General Mikhail Frunze went on to clear Turkestan of all anti-Bolshevik forces. General Anton Denikin and his army withdrew to the Crimea. He made a brief stand at Rostov before again retreating to Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. In April, 1920, he decided to leave Russia and was replaced by General Peter Wrangel.

In June, Wrangel's forces broke out of the Crimea but he was unable to make much impression against General Mikhail Frunze and the Red Army and in November the remaining members of the White Army left Russia.

Primary Sources

(1) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)

The White disaster was the result of two cardinal errors: their failure to have the intelligence and courage to carry out agrarian reform in the territories they wrested from the Revolution, and their reinstatement everywhere of the ancient trinity of generals, high clergy, and landlords.