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Home > History > Large-scale state: Russia > The Russian Civil War


The Russian Civil War

Bolshevik strengths

During the Civil War, the Bolsheviks had a number of key advantages over their opponents.


The Bolsheviks were extremely fortunate in the quality of their leadership, particularly in Lenin and Trotsky.

Lenin had led the Bolsheviks to victory in the October Revolution. Throughout the Civil War, Lenin provided the energy and drive needed to inspire success. At all times, he had very definite aims and objectives and a sense of purpose about what he believed was best for Russia. His leadership was never challenged.

The Red Army

Trotsky became Commissar for War in the Bolshevik government. A brilliant organiser and improviser, Trotsky created the Red Army from the Red Guards (the Bolshevik workers militias) and from the remnants of the old Tsarist army. Trotsky imposed a very tough system of discipline and control over the Red Army. Officers found guilty of cowardice or treachery were executed. However, men who showed initiative and courage were promoted rapidly.

At times of crisis, Trotsky readily assumed personal command of areas under threat, inspiring and encouraging the troops to greater efforts, and to eventual victory.


The most important fact in History is Geography

In the case of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, the quotation above is particularly applicable.

In 1918, at the start of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks controlled the key central area of Russia - between Petrograd and Moscow. This gave them a number of key advantages.

Most of Russia's railways were in this area. This made communication between the various battlefronts much easier. Trotsky was able to move troops and supplies rapidly to areas under attack. As Commissar for War, he was able to visit the battlefronts in an armoured train, and to take personal command.

The large population of the major cities in this central area was a key resource for the Bolsheviks. The cities provided fresh recruitment for the Red Army.

Furthermore, much of Russia's industry and raw materials was located in this area. This made it possible for the Bolsheviks to keep their troops supplied and equipped with weapons, ammunition and supplies.



Under Lenin's leadership, the Bolsheviks displayed total ruthlessness in making sure that they did not face rebellion and revolt in the areas they controlled.

  • The Constituent Assembly. This had been organised by the Provisional Government, to draw up a constitution for Russia. In the election, the majority of delegates came from another revolutionary party, the Social Revolutionaries. Fearing opposition to their plans, when the Constituent Assembly attempted to meet, the Bolsheviks simply had it closed down.
  • Other Parties. Once the Civil War had started, the Bolsheviks banned the other political parties and arrested their leaders.
  • Newspapers. The Bolsheviks closed down newspapers which opposed them.
  • The CHEKA. Finally, the CHEKA was created - the Bolshevik Secret Police. The CHEKA hunted down and arrested anyone who was suspected of opposing the Bolsheviks.


The Bolsheviks organised a highly effective propaganda campaign in the areas they controlled. Through speeches, newspapers, and leaflets, the people were continually told that they were now in charge of Russia, through the Soviets - life would be better, the wealth would be distributed more fairly. In addition, they were told that the White Armies and their leaders would destroy all the achievements of the Revolution, break up the Soviets and bring back the old system. In this way, support for the Bolsheviks was organised and built up successfully.

The White Armies

It is easy to argue that the White Armies appeared to have a number of advantages in the Civil War.

Their leaders were experienced military commanders; they controlled huge areas of Russia; they had the Bolsheviks surrounded; and they had the active support of foreign countries, which intervened in the Civil War on their behalf.

However, as the Civil War developed, the White Armies began to face major problems and difficulties in organising their campaigns. Against the drive and ruthless energy of the Bolsheviks, their campaigns faltered and they faced defeat and failure. By the end of 1920, the Bolsheviks were close to achieving total victory.

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