By Eric Vandenbroeck
The Russian revolutions created a dilemma that the Paris Peace Conference of 1919/20 could never resolve. James Headlam-Morley (1863-1929), a British expert in Paris, observed: "In the discussions everything inevitably leads up to Russia. Then there is a discursive discussion; it is agreed that the point at issue cannot be determined until the general policy on Russia has been settled; having agreed on this, instead of settling it, they pass on to some other subject." (James Headlam-Morley: A Memoir of the Paris Peace Conference 1919, London 1972, pp. 7f.) After an abortive attempt to assemble the warring factions for negotiations on the Prinkipo Islands in the Sea of Marmara, the peace conference dismissed one-sixth of the earth’s surface in Articles 292 and 293 of the Treaty of Versailles. Only later, and with great reluctance, did other states acknowledge the existence of the Soviet Union and the new Baltic nations.
In Europe thousands of miles of new frontiers came into existence. As far east as Germany’s boundaries with Poland the peacemakers could decide. Beyond that, deprived of any reliable means of enforcing their will, the new map depended more upon the outcome of wars and armed struggles – as the Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson (1864-1922), observed, "The root of evil is that the Paris writ does not run."(Margaret MacMillan, Peacemakers. The Paris Conference of 1919 and its attempt to end war, London 2001, p.7.)
As explained in Jonathan D. Smeles new book The ‘Russian’ Civil Wars, 1916-1926: Ten Years that Shook the World, what is commonly known as the ‘Russian Civil War’ was, in fact, a whole series of overlapping and mutually reinforcing conflicts: a rapidly escalating struggle between the armed forces of Lenin’s Bolshevik government and its ‘counter-revolutionary’ opponents; the attempts by several regions on the western border of the former Russian Empire to break away entirely from Petrograd’s rule; and peasant insurgencies, triggered by the Communists’ forced requisitions of desperately needed foodstuffs. These three distinct but interconnected conflicts were further complicated by outside forces: until their defeat in November 1918, the Central Powers had controlled vast swathes of land on the western periphery of the former Romanov Empire, while the Western Allies had sent troops – some 180,000 men by late 1919 – to various entry points such as Murmansk, Archangelsk (Arkhangelsk), Vladivostok and Odessa shortly after Lenin’s decision to withdraw Russia from the war in October 1917. Although initially intended to prevent the Central Powers from taking control of strategically vital places, the purpose of the Allied intervention soon included military aid for the loose confederation of anti-communist forces known as the ‘Whites’ in their struggle against the ‘Red’ Bolsheviks.
Within the complex amalgam of violent actors in the post-revolutionary territories of the former Russian Empire, two groups in particular stood out in sheer size: the Red Army – initially composed of scattered groups of soldiers and sailors from the old dissolved army, workers’ militias and recently released former Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war – and its much more diverse ‘White’ adversaries. While, at least in theory, the Bolshevik forces strove to realize the proletarian utopia set out in the writings of Marx and Lenin, their opponents were highly heterogeneous in political outlook. What they had in common was that they were fiercely anti-Bolshevik or ‘anti-Red’. Yet, being anti-Bolshevik was something that applied to fundamentally different groups, from monarchists to nationalists. Equally opposed to Lenin’s rule were the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who resented the Bolshevik coup that had disempowered them.
Mutual mistrust and rivalry between these groups prevented them from forming a coherent movement under a nationwide unified military command. As a result, various leaders acted largely independently from each other: Admiral Alexander Kolchak in the east; General Nikolay Yudenich and Colonel Pavel Bermondt-Avalov in the north-west; General Anton Denikin in the North Caucasus and the Don region; General Pyotr Wrangel in the Crimea; warlords or ‘Atamans’ like Grigory Semenov or Roman von Ungern-Sternberg in Siberia and southern Russia.
The armed conflict between Whites and Reds was further complicated by the involvement of other local actors as chaos and lawlessness in the countryside led to the emergence of a large ‘Green’ peasant self-defence movement. In Ukraine, one of the most brutally embattled territories during the civil war, Nestor Makhno, a peasant anarchist, who had only been released from a tsarist prison in 1917, commanded sizable troops that clashed repeatedly with both White and Red armies.
The scale and intensity of the Russian Civil War that ultimately killed well over three million people would have been difficult to predict in the first weeks after the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in Petrograd, Moscow and other major Russian towns and cities in the autumn of 1917. To be sure, the Bolsheviks were well aware that large pockets of potential resistance existed throughout the former Romanov Empire. Areas opposed to Lenin’s rule from the start included Mogilev in Belarus to the south-west (where the imperial army’s headquarters was based), the Cossack regions of eastern and southern Russia, and significant parts of the German-occupied western borderlands – notably Ukraine and the Baltic region – where the forces of Bolshevism encountered strong opposition from national independence movements. Yet initially, as Trotsky’s troops spread out to establish their rule over the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and the Cossack regions, they only encountered sporadic and largely uncoordinated resistance, prompting Lenin to call the first months after the revolution a ‘triumphal march’ of Bolshevism.
During this period Lenin clearly benefited from having taken Russia out of the war. However humiliating and costly the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk may have been for Russia, it allowed Lenin’s party, which renamed itself the Communist Party in late 1917, to focus its energies and resources on fighting domestic enemies instead of continuing a deeply unpopular war. While Lenin moved the capital from Petrograd to the less exposed city of Moscow in early 1918, Trotsky, the new War Commissar, concentrated on organizing the Red Army as an efficient military fighting force, recruiting former tsarist officers to train and command a growing number of peasant conscripts.
Both men were aware, however, that their opponents were numerous and increasingly determined to challenge Bolshevik rule with violence. Lacking broad popular support and surrounded by a host of real and imagined enemies, the Bolsheviks quickly resorted to terror in order to suppress a wide range of opponents: Whites (and their foreign backers), moderate socialists or anarchists unwilling to submit to Bolshevik rule, the bourgeoisie, and the more nebulous ‘kulaks’ (wealthy peasants), ‘marauders’, ‘speculators’, ‘hoarders’, ‘black marketeers’ and ‘saboteurs’ were from now on declared ‘enemies of the people’.
The Bolsheviks’ prime instrument of terror was the ‘All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage’ – better known by its Russian acronym, ‘Cheka’. It was inaugurated by Lenin on 20 December 1917, with the Polish-born revolutionary Felix Dzerzhinsky as its first head. Dzerzhinsky, like many of those who worked for the Cheka, had spent more than half his life in prisons and labour camps that were run as a brutal regime by the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police. During his imprisonment Dzerzhinsky had been beaten so severely by his captors that he was left with a permanently disfigured jaw and mouth. Some ten months after his release in the wake of the February Revolution of 1917, Dzerzhinsky and his ideologically driven fellow Chekists were to start emulating their former captors, exacting a terrible vengeance for their own ill-treatment.
As Lenin introduced a large number of decrees for the nationalization of the economy, the enforced requisitioning of resources, and the banning of any kind of organized opposition, the new state required an instrument like the Cheka for the policing and surveillance of the population. The Bolshevik fear that the revolution might be swept aside by its internal enemies – not because they had committed terror but because they had not committed enough of it – became an almost obsessive leitmotif. As early as January 1918, two months after seizing power, Lenin complained that the Bolsheviks were being too easy on their class enemies. ‘If we are guilty of anything,’ he argued, ‘then it is of the fact that we are being too humane, too decent, with regard to representatives of the bourgeois-imperialist world, monstrous in their betrayal.’
Such sentiments were further reinforced when, in the summer of 1918, the new regime was threatened by an ultimately unsuccessful uprising organized by Socialist Revolutionaries in Moscow and central Russia, and a series of assassination attempts against leading Bolsheviks. First, a young military cadet, Leonid Kannegisser, infuriated by the violent treatment of some tsarist officers by the Bolsheviks, fatally shot Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Petrograd Cheka, on 17 August; the assassin was later executed. On 30 August, Fanya Kaplan, a former anarchist who now supported the Socialist Revolutionaries, fired shots at Lenin as he was leaving a gathering of workers in Moscow. Two of the bullets struck Lenin, nearly killing him. Kaplan, who had spent eleven years in a Siberian labour camp under the tsarist regime for participation in a terrorist act in Kiev in 1906, was executed on 3 September.
The assassination attempts spurred the Bolsheviks into action and marked the beginning of an intensified wave of ‘Red Terror’. Within a week of Kaplan’s attempt on Lenin’s life, the Petrograd Cheka shot 512 hostages, many of them former high-ranking tsarist officials. In Kronstadt, Bolsheviks killed 400 hostages in one night. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that the use of terror was merely reactive or irrational. Instead, the Bolsheviks used terror in a strategic way. It served a dual purpose on the path towards the realization of a Communist utopia: terror permitted ‘surgical operations’ against perceived class enemies while also being a deterrent to potential enemies.
As the Red Terror intensified, more and more people were recruited into the ranks of the Cheka. Over the coming years its numbers grew at a remarkable rate, from 2,000 in mid-1918 to some 140,000 by the end of the civil war. An additional 100,000 frontier troops supported the Cheka in suppressing ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities. Although not as efficient and well organized as its successor organization, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), the Cheka quickly established a wide-ranging network of local offices throughout the country, targeting just about anybody suspected of economically or politically sabotaging Bolshevik rule. Violence escalated further when, in the spring and early summer of 1918, the Bolsheviks deliberately extended the class war to the countryside. After years of war-induced food-supply crises that had triggered the Russian Revolution in the first place, the Bolshevik government, in May 1918, took the decisive step of establishing a far-reaching monopoly on food distribution. Committees of poor peasants were put in charge of requisitioning agricultural surpluses from ‘wealthier’ peasants. Lenin publicly called for a ‘crusade’ for bread, announcing a ‘merciless and terroristic struggle and war’ against those ‘concealing grain surpluses’. Military food brigades and requisitioning squads, composed of militant Bolsheviks, workers and demobilized soldiers – nearly 300,000 men by 1920 – tried to enforce the new order, with only limited success.
Lenin’s forced requisitions at gunpoint led to an immediate escalation of extreme violence. Villagers who dared to oppose the requisitions were severely punished. The military food brigades threatened them with death, took families hostage, imposed heavy fines, searched houses, and did not hesitate to burn the villages of those who hid part of the harvest.
Refusal to cooperate was met with brutal suppression. Following peasant resistance against requisitions in the Penza region in August 1918, for example, Lenin ordered his local followers to ‘mercilessly suppress’ those in charge:The interests of the entire revolution require this, because now ‘the last decisive battle’ with the kulaks is underway everywhere. One must give an example. 1. Hang (hang without fail, so the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2. Publish their names. 3. Take from them all the grain. 4. Designate hostages … Do it in such a way that … the people will see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucker kulaks.
Inevitably, those living in the countryside rose up to resist the requisitions. Resistance took different forms, from the deliberate hiding of part of the harvest to open armed revolt. The Bolshevik response ensured that violent opposition from villagers facing the threat of starvation simply increased. Desperate for scarce grain to feed their families and outraged by the Bolsheviks’ attempts to deprive them of their livelihood, peasant insurrectionists often used very expressive – or symbolically charged – forms of violence that conveyed clear messages to their opponents. Bolshevik commissars who tried to requisition grain from infuriated peasants were publicly disemboweled and their stomachs filled with grain to visibly mark them as thieves of foodstuffs. Older forms of execution or punishment for theft, such as quartering or the severing of limbs, were revived. As peasants were short of ammunition, they often used knives or farm instruments normally needed for working the fields – to kill their prisoners. In other cases, members of requisitioning squads had Bolshevik symbols such as hammers and sickles cut into their foreheads. Others were branded with crosses or crucified to impose a Christian identity on the openly atheistic Bolsheviks. ‘In Tambov province,’ Maxim Gorky (still a supporter of Lenin) noted, ‘Communists were nailed with railway spikes by their left hand and left foot to trees a metre above the soil, and [the peasants] watched the torments of these deliberately oddly crucified people.’
The Bolsheviks responded in kind and there were no limits to creative ways of torturing, maiming or killing those deemed to be in opposition to Lenin’s decrees. It is estimated that some 250,000 people were killed in these ‘bread wars’, as the Red Army and the Cheka increasingly turned wartime practices – including the aerial bombing of villages and the use of poison gas – against their own population.
Just as Lenin was beginning to export the terror to the countryside, the Bolshevik hold on power was challenged by yet another actor in the civil war: in May 1918 the Czechoslovak Legion revolted. The Legion had originally been formed from Czechs and Slovaks working in Russia before 1914, men who were keen to fight against the Habsburg monarchy. The Legion grew substantially as its ranks were swelled by deserters or prisoners of war from the Austro-Hungarian Army until it reached an overall strength of two self-contained divisions with a total of 40,000 well-trained and heavily armed men. After the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the majority of its units tried to leave Russia via the Siberian port of Vladivostok. Their aim was to board ships and join the Allied forces in France in order to continue their fight for an independent Czechoslovakia. Initially, the Soviet government had agreed to let them leave the country, but the legionnaires, who had to cross the entire country along the Trans-Siberian railway to get to Vladivostok, increasingly suspected that the Bolsheviks might hand them over to the Germans and Austrians if they refused to fight with the Red Army. They also clashed violently with recently released Hungarian prisoners of war, some 30,000 of whom were indeed joining the Red Army. In May, prompted by fears that they were about to be disarmed by the Soviet authorities, and probably encouraged by the Western Allies, the legionnaires mounted a mutiny along the railway system from the Volga river to the Russian Far East. Their strategy was as simple as it was effective. Aware that in a country the size of Russia the railway lines were militarily critical to moving men and material, they took over the trains, seizing control of one train station after another.
The Bolshevik leaders in Moscow were alarmed and told their local supporters that all Czechs were to be taken from their trains and drafted into the Red Army or labour battalions. Czech soldiers, who controlled the railway station at Chelyabinsk, intercepted this telegram, as well as a further message two days later in which Trotsky himself called for the immediate disarmament of the Czechs and Slovaks. Those who resisted were to be ‘shot on the spot’.
Instead of surrendering to the Bolsheviks, the legionnaires decided to resist. Within a climate of generally escalating violence, they quickly adjusted. As one Czech veteran remembered from his days as a legionnaire: ‘We chased the Russians from their posts. The order was: no pardon, no prisoners … And we pounced on them like beasts. We used bayonets and knives. We sliced their necks as if they were baby geese.’ Although boasting about the brutal handling of Bolsheviks became a widespread phenomenon among former legionnaires in the 1920s and 1930s, there can be little doubt about the existence of extensive atrocities committed during their revolt. There are several well-documented cases of public executions at the hands of legionnaires, notably of captured Bolsheviks or German or Hungarian volunteers for the Red Army. Their sacking of the town of Samara in south-western Russia in June 1918, for example, was accompanied by public mass hangings and the burning alive of captured Red Army soldiers.
The mutiny of the Czechoslovak Legion acted as a stimulus for other anti-Bolshevik movements, whose resistance until then had been confined to sporadic local skirmishes. Now they rose and swiftly took control of the central Volga region and Siberia, and set up their own government in Samara on the eastern banks of the Volga. The ‘Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly’, or Komuch, as it was called, was dominated by the Socialist Revolutionaries. As they had won the elections for the Russian Constituent Assembly before it was dissolved by Lenin, they felt themselves to be the only legitimate government of Russia.
By the summer of 1918 rumors spread that anti-Bolshevik forces were advancing on the Red stronghold of Yekaterinburg in the Urals where the tsar and his family had been held captive for several months. Although Lenin had not yet taken a firm decision on the future of the royal family, the mere possibility of the tsar being freed and handed over to royalist forces made the very existence of Nicholas II a liability for the Bolshevik cause.
After receiving authorization from Moscow on 16 July 1918, a group of Bolsheviks under the leadership of Yekaterinburg’s deputy head of the Cheka, Yakov Yurovsky, woke up the royal family and their closest servants in the early-morning hours of 17 July. Nicholas, Alexandra, their five children and four members of their entourage were then led downstairs to an empty room in the basement where Yurovsky, surrounded by a group of armed men, announced that the royal family had been sentenced to death. Yurovsky then pointed his revolver at the tsar and fired. The other family members and their servants were shot and bayoneted until every last one was dead. After the killings, the executioners used explosives to destroy the bodies before dousing them with acid and burning the remains.
The killing of the royal family was greeted with horror in the West and among the Whites, and it did little to improve the Bolsheviks’ position. In fact, there were clear indications that Bolshevik power was dwindling in the summer of 1918. In August, Komuch forces, supported by the Czechoslovak Legion, took the city of Kazan, 800 kilometers from Moscow. With Russia’s western borderlands still under German control, its Caucasian territories claimed by the Ottomans, with Allied intervention troops landed in Murmansk and Archangelsk, and wide swathes of the south and east under the command of various anti-Communist forces and warlords, the Bolsheviks’ future seemed highly uncertain.
But the Bolsheviks prevailed. Trotsky was able to rally the still-developing Red Army through a combination of logistical brilliance, revolutionary rhetoric, and draconian punishment for anyone unwilling to engage the enemy. As General Gordon-Finlayson, a British commander at Archangelsk in 1918– 19, reported to the General Staff in London, Trotsky had succeeded in turning the Red Army into a serious fighting force: ‘There appears to be an impression in Great Britain that the Bolshevik forces are represented by a great rabble of men armed with sticks, stones and revolvers who rush about foaming at the mouth in search of blood and who are easily turned and broken by a few well-directed rifle shots.’ Instead, Finlayson found the Red Army to be ‘well-equipped, organized and fairly well trained …’ – in short, a force perfectly capable of facing up to its opponents. His assessment proved accurate. A Bolshevik counter-attack stopped their opponents’ advance up the Volga. Kazan was retaken in September 1918, prompting a retreat of the Legion and Komuch forces across the Ural Mountains.
However, resistance continued in other parts of the country, notably in the North Caucasus. In the floodplains of the Don, one of the historical settlement areas of the Cossacks, the Germans had supported the consolidation of an anti-Bolshevik government in 1918. Further south, in the lands of Kuban Cossacks, an even more dangerous Russian nationalist force was beginning to take shape: the Volunteer Army, heavily dominated by former tsarist officers. General Mikhail Alekseev, the political figurehead, had been Chief of Staff to Nicholas II from 1915 to 1917, and General Kornilov, the former Supreme Commander-in-Chief, was the Volunteer Army’s first military leader until he died attempting to capture the Kuban capital of Ekaterinodar from Red forces in early 1918. Kornilov was succeeded by yet another tsarist officer, General Anton Denikin. Over the course of the summer in 1918, protected from Soviet attacks from the north by the presence of German forces in Ukraine, the Volunteers were able to consolidate their position in the Kuban.
The situation in the late summer and early autumn of 1918 – at the end of the first year of the civil war – was thus bewilderingly complex. Lenin’s forces now controlled north-central European Russia as far east as the Ural Mountains. However, in the western and southern borderlands, in Finland, the former Baltic provinces, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and the Caucasus, the Red Army faced stiff opposition from national independence movements, local warlords and other anti-Bolshevik forces. To the east, an anti-Bolshevik government under the Allied supported Admiral Kolchak, former commander of the Imperial Black Sea Fleet, overthrew the Komuch, dominated by Socialist Revolutionaries, in November 1918. With backing from the Allies who were hoping for a more unified White movement, Kolchak was installed as ‘Supreme Leader’. From his main base in the city of Omsk in south-western Siberia, he now commanded all anti-Bolshevik forces between the Volga and Lake Baikal.
The Central Powers’ defeat that November radically changed the situation, notably in Russia’s western borderlands where the hasty withdrawal of German and Austro-Hungarian troops left a vast power vacuum within which all actors in the civil war sought to capitalize. For much of 1919 and 1920 the western borderlands experienced a three-way struggle involving the Bolsheviks, the Whites, and a host of nationalist movements whose claim to independence was rejected by both Whites and Reds. The situation was further complicated by the presence of Allied intervention troops.
The Allied troops’ impact on the outcome of the civil war was limited,however. They were not actively involved in any of the major battles and much of the material aid they provided to the Whites was wasted through inefficiency and corruption. Petty officials behind the lines took the uniforms intended for the soldiers; their wives and daughters wore British nurses’ skirts. While Denikin’s trucks and tanks seized up in the cold, anti-freeze was sold in the bars as a substitute for liquor.
What the intervention did achieve, however, was to convince Lenin and the Bolsheviks that they were threatened by an international conspiracy to end their rule, strengthening the perception that this was an existential war against a host of internal and external enemies in which all means were permitted to achieve victory. The Allied intervention also reinforced the tendency, present from the February Revolution of 1917 onwards, to view the unfolding events through the prism of the French Revolution of 1789. If Kerensky, the head of the deposed Provisional Government, had been encouraged by the French to view himself as a Russian Danton who could channel the energies of the revolution into the war effort against Germany, the Bolsheviks perceived themselves as the far more radical Jacobins and the Cossack regions as the modern-day equivalent of the Vendée, the centre of royalist opposition to the French Revolution.
Even before October 1917, Lenin had repeatedly referred to Jacobinism as a historical inspiration. Responding to critics who accused the Bolsheviks of being modern-day ‘Jacobins’, he wrote in July 1917: Bourgeois historians see Jacobinism as a fall. Proletarian historians see Jacobinism as one of the highest peaks in the emancipation struggle of an oppressed class … It is natural for the bourgeoisie to hate Jacobinism. It is natural for the petty bourgeoisie to dread it. The class-conscious workers and working people generally put their trust in the transfer of power to the revolutionary, oppressed class, for that is the essence of Jacobinism, the only way out of the present crisis, and the only remedy for economic dislocation and the war.
Learning the lessons of the past meant that Lenin and the Bolsheviks could not allow for another ‘Thermidor’ – the coup of 27 July 1794 during which Maximilien Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety were toppled, resulting in the execution of the Jacobin leadership and their replacement first by the conservative Directory, then by the rule of Napoleon. In order to prevent such a scenario from repeating itself in Russia, more terror – not less – was required.
As a result of such reasoning and further food shortages, the civil war became ever more brutal the longer it lasted. The constantly shifting fortunes of war, in which entire regions were subjected to repeatedly changing regimes, triggered a never-ending cycle of retaliatory violence in which neither the Whites nor their Red opponents did anything to restrain their troops. On the contrary: local warlords and generals often encouraged the further escalation of brutality, as the example of one particularly notorious White general, the above mentioned Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, demonstrates. Born in 1882 into an old German-Baltic family from Reval (Tallinn), Ungern-Sternberg had first risen to dubious fame during the Great War when, as a member of a Cossack regiment during the Russian invasion of eastern Prussia, he earned a reputation as a brave but reckless and mentally unstable officer.
A fanatical anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semite, Ungern-Sternberg joined the White forces in Siberia during the civil war and gained notoriety for mindless brutality, having his men slaughter captured Bolshevik commissars and ‘suspicious’ civilians in a variety of barbarous ways, including skinning them alive. After the defeat and execution of Admiral Kolchak at the hands of the Bolsheviks in February 1920, Ungern-Sternberg formally came under the command of Ataman Grigory Semenov, although in reality he operated independently for most of the time. Commanding a multi-ethnic cavalry division composed of predominantly non-Russian troops and including Tatars, Mongols, Chinese and Japanese troops, Ungern-Sternberg moved across the border into Mongolia in the summer of 1920 where he conquered Chinese-occupied Urga (Ulan Bator) in February 1921. Although initially welcomed by the local population for reconstituting Mongolian autonomy, Ungern-Sternberg and his men acted so barbarously that the general mood towards them swiftly changed.
As a former officer in Ungern-Sternberg’s division recalled, the conquest of Urga had been accompanied by unprecedented atrocities during which the men particularly ‘turned on the Jews who were tortured to death. The humiliation of the women was terrible: I saw one officer walking into a house with a razor blade and recommending a girl to kill herself before his men could descend on her. She thanked him under tears and slit her own throat … The nightmare continued for three days and nights.’
Ungern-Sternberg’s rule of terror in Urga was brutal but short-lived. In August 1921, when he ordered a strategic withdrawal to western Mongolia in the face of advancing Bolshevik troops, his officers, who had lost confidence in him, rebelled. Arrested by his own men, the ‘White Baron’ was handed over to the Red Army, put on trial by the Bolsheviks in Novonikolajevsk, and swiftly executed by a firing squad.
Although extreme in his savagery, Ungern-Sternberg was by no means unique in his views or actions. Anti-Semitic pogroms in particular were a common feature in many of the territories affected by the civil war, notably in the towns and shtetls of the western borderlands. Fanned by the comparatively strong Jewish representation in the Communist leadership, anti-Bolshevik movements were quick to stigmatize the October Revolution as the result of a Jewish conspiracy. Admiral Kolchak, for example, provided his troops with a pamphlet programmatically entitled ‘The Jews have killed the Tsar’, a suggestion that echoed and reinforced a well-established narrative at the heart of traditional Christian anti-Semitism: that the Jews had been responsible for Jesus’s death, thus establishing a tradition of murderous treachery that could be traced throughout the centuries and into the present.
The idea of a Jewish conspiracy at the heart of the revolution became central to the Whites’ propaganda as they tried to orchestrate resistance against the Bolsheviks who otherwise had much more appealing promises (‘ land, bread, liberation’) to offer new recruits. The anti-Judeo-Bolshevik card gave the Whites at least something popular with which to identify and it quickly led to outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence throughout the former Romanov Empire. In Kaunas and other Lithuanian towns, and in Latvia, Jews were harassed by counter-revolutionary forces who associated them with the short-lived Bolshevik dictatorship in Riga. In western Russia and Ukraine, the situation was even worse as Jews became one of the primary victim groups of anti-Bolshevism. Between June and December 1918 alone some 100,000 Jews were murdered, notably, but by no means exclusively, by members of General Denikin’s Volunteer Army. Ukrainian and Polish nationalist forces and various peasant armies, agitated by rumors about Jews aiding the enemy or hoarding food, also participated in the slaughter of Jews, usually in alcohol-fuelled pogroms of which well over a thousand were recorded in the region between late 1918 and 1920. In the Galician capital of Lemberg (Lwów), once the fourth-largest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now claimed by Polish and Ukrainian nationalists for their emerging states, a terrible pogrom occurred in late November 1918 once Polish troops had chased out their Ukrainian adversaries.
Under the pretext of searching for snipers aiding the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops, Polish soldiers cordoned off the city’s Jewish quarter before entering it in small units armed with guns and knives. Violence escalated swiftly as the soldiers moved through the quarter, killing men of military age. In the three-day pogrom, seventy-three inhabitants of the quarter were murdered and hundreds more injured, while shops were ransacked and buildings set on fire.
To be sure, the Ukrainians did not treat Jews any better – on the contrary. In February 1919, for example, Cossacks fighting for the Ukrainian National Republic carried out a particularly well-documented pogrom in Proskurov, during which 2,000 Jews were murdered. Following a victorious battle with Bolshevik troops, the Cossacks’ commander, Ataman Semosenko exclaimed, according to one of his officers, ‘that the worst enemies of the Ukrainian people and of the Cossacks were the Jews, who must all be exterminated to save Ukraine and their own lives’.
The following day Semosenko’s men descended on the local Jewish population: They used not only sabres, but also bayonets. Firearms were only used in the few cases where their victims made attempts to escape … The house of Krotchak was visited by eight men, who began breaking all the window panes. Five men entered the house while three remained outside. Those in the house seized the old man Krotchak by his beard, dragged him to the window of the kitchen and threw him out of the window to the other three who killed him. Then they killed the old woman and her two daughters. A young girl who was visiting in the house was dragged by her long hair into another room, then thrown out of the window into the street and there killed. After that the Cossacks re-entered the house and inflicted several wounds on a boy aged 13, who became deaf in consequence. His elder brother received nine wounds in his stomach and in his side, having first been placed on his mother’s dead body.
The massacre was only called off after a local representative of the Kiev government intervened, but it resumed a few days later in the nearby town of Felshtin where eyewitnesses reported that 100 people were murdered. Joseph Aptman, a restaurant owner, recalled: ‘Nearly all the girls were assaulted and then done to death – cut up by sabres. Blood was flowing in the streets … In the house of Monich Brenman there was a Galician Jew and his wife. They were taken outside the house, the woman was stripped and was forced to dance stark naked, after that four bandits assaulted her in the presence of the husband who was made to look on; after that they both were cut up into pieces …’
Over time the alleged inseparability of Bolshevism and Jews became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lenin’s language of emancipation and the Bolsheviks’ public denunciations of anti-Semitism and pogroms suggested an ethnic and religious ‘color-blindness’ that naturally appealed to many Jews, as it did to other ethnic minorities within the empire, such as Georgians, Armenians, Latvians and Poles. Of all these groups, however, Jews responded to the Bolshevik call for support in proportionately the largest numbers, joining the ranks of the Red Army, the Cheka and the party in significant numbers. This did not, however, prevent Red Army units from themselves occasionally participating in anti-Semitic pogroms.
Despite the particular prominence of Jews among the victims of the civil war, the conflict affected people of all ages, social groups and both sexes, prompting a raw struggle for survival and never-ending cycles of retaliatory violence. Neither the Whites nor the Reds could claim a decisive victory by the spring of 1919.The temporary stalemate only ended when, in the spring and summer of that year, White forces launched major offensives against the Red Army with the aim of uniting their widely dispersed troops. In the north, in early March, Kolchak’s armies started to advance from Siberia towards Archangelsk, with a second offensive towards the Ural Mountains. In the south, meanwhile, Denikin’s ‘Armed Forces of South Russia’ launched an offensive towards Moscow that summer. By mid-April, Kolchak had succeeded in linking up with a small and beleaguered advance guard in Archangelsk, while his other armies had pushed the Bolsheviks back out of 300,000 square kilometres of territory. Ultimately, however, Kolchak failed to score a decisive victory and to break the stubborn resistance of the Red Army. By mid-summer his armies were thrown back beyond the Urals. During their long retreat east along the Trans-Siberian railway lines Kolchak’s troops suffered enormous casualties caused by cold weather, typhus and constant attacks by partisans. His men responded to the reversal in military fortunes and the hostile conditions of the retreat by using even more violence. As they moved eastwards, Kolchak ordered prisoners to be shot, hanged, or buried alive. In the Yekaterinburg region alone Kolchak’s men executed an estimated 25,000 people. This final outburst of anti-Bolshevik violence in the north could not, however, conceal that Kolchak and his armies were doomed. Kolchak’s capital, Omsk, fell in November 1919. Kolchak himself retreated east to Irkutsk, where he was eventually arrested, put on trial and shot.
Matters were not much better for the Whites in the south. In the summer and autumn of 1919, Denikin’s ‘Armed Forces of South Russia’, composed of the Volunteer Army and strong Cossack troops, had been able to advance as far north as Orel, some 400 kilometres from Moscow, only to be repelled by the Red Army. The failure of the Orel offensive was followed by the collapse of Denikin’s forces between November 1919 and January 1920, amid political conflict between the Volunteer Army and the Cossacks.
By the beginning of 1920 it was increasingly clear that the Red Army was winning the civil war. When the remnants of the Volunteer Army found temporary refuge in the Crimean Peninsula, Denikin was replaced by General Pyotr Wrangel, a tsarist career officer with Baltic German family roots who had commanded various cavalry units during the Great War. The Whites’ Crimean refuge was easily defensible, the only land access being the narrow isthmus of Perekop, but the Whites were increasingly weak in numbers and lacked sufficient military resources. International support was also waning. The British, who had come to view a White defeat as inevitable, refused to provide any further assistance. The French, who had landed their own troops alongside Greek and Polish contingents in the Black Sea ports of Odessa and Sevastopol in December 1918, only to pull them out the following April amid the threat of mutinies, had no appetite to get involved again. The Red Army, by contrast, was able to increase its troops on the southern front after the Russo-Polish War of 1919– 21 had come to an end. Eventually, in late 1921, the Red Army broke the last resistance on the Crimea.
Wrangel’s defeat effectively ended the Russian Civil War, even if localized peasant resistance continued until 1922. The reasons for the Red victory were many, but perhaps most important was the fact that the Bolsheviks came to be seen by many as the lesser of two evils, offering a somewhat more compelling and coherent vision of the future than their White adversaries, who could barely agree on any policy aims other than terminating Bolshevik rule. To be sure, the Red Army, too, had huge problems with maintaining discipline and suffered from mass desertions. Yet they always controlled the core of the Russian war economy around Petrograd and Moscow, while their heterogeneous opponents were widely dispersed around the periphery and often divided spatially as well as politically.
Whatever the decisive reason for the Bolshevik victory, Lenin’s eventual triumph came at a staggeringly high price for the country. After two revolutions and seven uninterrupted years of armed conflict, Russia in 1921 lay in ruins. In addition to its 1.7 million dead from the First World War, over three million people had perished in the civil war, while the great famine of 1921– 2 alone, sparked by years of fighting and back-to-back droughts in the preceding years, killed some two million people through starvation. Overall, as a result of civil war, expulsions, immigration and famine, the population in the territories that formally became the Soviet Union in 1922 had declined by a total of some ten million people, from about 142 million in 1917 to 132 million in 1922.
For those who survived, the future seemed bleak, as Russia’s economy had virtually collapsed during the years of war and civil conflict. Already by 1920 industrial production had fallen by some 80 per cent compared to 1914, while only 60 per cent of pre-war agricultural land remained cultivated. Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced in 1921 to end the peasant rebellions and put the war-torn country back on its feet, came too late for most people. In the cities severe food shortages caused mass starvation. Hunger was omnipresent, especially affecting children and older people. Intellectuals, too, whose irregular incomes had been further devalued by rampant inflation, were highly vulnerable. A report of the American Relief Administration of 1923 suggested that the entire Russian intelligentsia was threatened with extinction through starvation: Death was now more in evidence than life. Before my eyes died Feodor Batiushkov, the famous professor of philology, poisoned from eating uneatable filthy cabbage. Another one to die from hunger was S. Bengerov, professor of history and literature, he who gave to the Russian people entire editions of Shakespeare, of Schiller and of Pushkin … At the same period the philosopher V. V. Rosanov succumbed to starvation in Moscow. Before this death the latter roamed the streets in search of cigarette ends with which to appease his hunger …
By the end of the civil war Russia was completely devastated. Millions of men and women had died as a consequence of war and famine, and an estimated seven million orphaned children were homeless, begging on the streets and selling their bodies to survive. A good measure of the widespread desperation in Russia at the time were the huge numbers of refugees, a total of 2.5 million of whom had left the former Russian imperial territories by 1922. While a total of 7.7 million people had already been displaced during the Great War, notably (though not exclusively) in eastern Europe, the civil war triggered a new wave of refugees who roamed the devastated landscapes of eastern Europe in search of safety and a better life. By July 1921 550,000 former Russian subjects had fled to Poland. A further 55,000 – including the family of Isaiah Berlin, who was to become one of the leading political thinkers of the twentieth century – had arrived in the Baltic States by 1922, but soon moved further westwards.
Desirable European destinations for Russian refugees included London, Prague and Nice. But the largest number of refugees, among them the political leaders of emigrant communities, made their way to Germany, which, despite the recently lost war, offered better economic prospects than most other central European countries. They numbered 560,000 by the autumn of 1920. Berlin – notably the districts of Schöneberg, Wilmersdorf and Charlottenburg (which then acquired its nickname ‘Charlottengrad’) – became a major centre of settlement for Russia’s exiled community, which had created some seventy-two Russian publishing houses in the German capital by 1922.
While most of the refugees from the western borderlands tried to get to western Europe, the city of Harbin in Manchuria became a major destination for exiled Russians from Siberia, who set up theaters and a music school that was to train, among others, the future Hollywood star Yul Brynner. In addition, there were between 120,000 and 150,000 White Russian survivors of the final battles in the Crimea and their families, who were herded together in camps near Constantinople and Gallipoli. As many of the refugee camps were quickly overcrowded, the Allies had little choice but to keep thousands of the emaciated Russian refugees interned on ships in the Sea of Marmara. ‘The ship Wladimir that was meant to carry 600 passengers currently has more than 7,000 people aboard!’ one member of the International Red Cross reported from Constantinople. ‘Most of them live on the open deck, others in the hold, where they are suffocating.’
In recognition of the scale of this human tragedy, the League of Nations eventually created a High Commission for Refugees in 1921, with the legendary Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, as its first head. Nansen had qualified himself for the job not so much because of his widely reported polar expeditions of the mid-1890s, but through his experience in repatriating prisoners of war after 1918. His most historically significant achievement, however, was a legal document created in 1922 in response to the Russian refugee crisis: the Nansen Passport, which made it possible for stateless people to circulate and settle abroad under the patronage of the League of Nations and the High Commission for Refugees.
While the future fortunes of the more than two million civil war refugees from Russia differed hugely, depending on circumstances and luck, many of them were – unsurprisingly – united in their staunchly anti-Bolshevik views. Berlin in particular became a hotbed for anti-Bolshevik Russian exile propaganda. Supported in their views by ethnic German refugees from the Baltics, Russian exiles wasted no time spreading horror stories about Lenin’s Bolshevik movement, thus injecting new energy into the emerging far Right in Germany and further afield.
As a result the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent civil war across the former imperial territories quickly interacted with revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements further afield, either as a beacon of hope for those longing for violent socio-economic and political change, or as the nightmarish vision of an imminent takeover by the politicized masses. The ‘specter of Communism’, which Marx and Engels had identified in Europe in the spring of 1848 in their Communist Manifesto, was, in reality, something that was felt much more keenly by everyone in Europe after 1917. Prior to 1914, Marxist-inspired revolutionary violence had been confined to underground movements of the extreme left, which carried out individual assassinations against crowned heads. The Bolshevik Revolution changed everything. For the first time since 1789, a revolutionary movement had taken over a state.
Conservative and liberal politicians in the West, even Social Democrats, reacted with horror to events in Russia, though tellingly, newspaper reports tended to focus on the Red Terror while largely ignoring the atrocities committed by their ‘White’ opponents. Many of the stories came, of course, from Russian émigrés, who had lost everything and were therefore inclined to portray Bolshevik rule in the bleakest possible way. They found a receptive audience in western and central Europe, where – after a brief moment of shock and apathy on the part of Conservative parties in the autumn of 1918 – anti-Communist movements were gaining momentum, as politicians and businessmen feared that something akin to the Russian Revolution might be repeated in their own countries.