Charge the enemy, hungry folk!
Cry out the vengeance of the people!
"Forward forward forward forward forward!"
Technically, the second Russian Revolution of 1917, but generally remembered through Pop-Cultural Osmosis, propaganda, and even actual historical monographs, as the Russian Revolution, an event which literally changed the world overnight and decisively shaped the 20th Century.
The Great October Revolution (which is how the Bolsheviks called it back when they were still a thing) was in and of itself, a bloodless seizure of power and state authorities. However the responses to the event, and the context surrounding it, sparked a very bloody Civil War of 1917-21, between the communist 'Reds' and the anti-communist, reactionary and monarchical 'Whites'. In addition to them there were factions such as village-communitariannote , nationalist 'Greens', Poland, and don't forget the anarchist Blacks, the Central Powers (chiefly Germany), the Entente, the Baltic and Caucasian separatists, etc. — who were either allied with the Whites, the Reds, or in-between at various times.
The Russian Civil War resulted in c.2 million military and c.8 million civilian dead (contrasting the Russian Empire's WWI death-count of 2 million military dead and 3 million captured as POW). It ended with Bolshevik-Soviet victory and the conversion of the Russian Empire into the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics. However, the Civil War was an overall strategic victory for the Entente Cordiale in that the October-inspired revolutionary wave was contained and prevented from expanding westwards.
Prelude — OK, who runs this place?
Since the abolition of serfdom in 1860 by Tsar Alexander II, the Russian Empire underwent a very complex period of reform-revolt-reaction grappling over such issues as the fact that it was simultaneously an European great power and a backward state that had belatedly escaped feudalism, and belatedly started industrialization and that until 1905, it had no political parties, no centrally elected parliament; still functioning as an ancient autocracy at the dawn of the 20th Century. The arrival of industrialization in Russia in the 1890s brought out the divided contradictory aspects of the society forward. It made the already rich, (the landowning, civil-bureaucrat, aristocrats and intelligentsia), richer but brought no great improvement to the vast majority of the peasant class. The abolition of serfdom which granted peasants the right of movement and travel in theory was in practice delayed in execution so as to better allow the former serfowning classes time and room to absorb their losses and gain compensation for the end of their dependence on unfree labour. By the 1890s, the peasants moved belatedly to the cities and became the nascent working-classes but found themselves working for multi-national corporations and other state-owned enterprises that perpetuated the exploitation for cheap labour at a time when the working-classes in Western Europe had made significant gains. Many of these peasants were children, grandchildren of former serfs, and in some cases old hands who were teenagers at the time the Tsar "liberated" them. They were naturally upset and angry that reforms were too little, too late, inadequate and in nearly every case, Moving the Goalposts so that they still remained far apart from any kind of real improvement in wages and opportunity. The demands of these workers moved from economic complaints to political complaints, and they proved adept at building institutions, namely autonomous, self-appointed working councils (called Soviet) that worked as a kind of trade-union and city commune. The two major Soviets, were the Moscow and the Petrograd one, while smaller soviets co-existing with village councils called Zemstvos also existed alongside it.
Meanwhile Russia's intelligentsia, (a bunch of philosophers, intellectuals, thinkers, writers, artists, working professionals), were divided on how to proceed and bring changes to Russia. By 1880-1890, many of them had come under the influence of Karl Marx after earlier attempts at reform and revolution (including populist Western Terrorists and nihilists) had failed. This group more or less agreed among themselves that Russia needed Capitalism, then Socialism, and then after similar world revolution in other nations, arrive at pure communism and the withering of the state. But for the time being, everyone, including Vladimir Lenin was focused on Step 1. The arrival of industrialization and the attendant development of an industrial working class who despite coming from the peasantry but were more literate and skilled than the peasantry, proved, in their eyes, that Marx's model for the development of capitalism and working-class consciousness was valid. The first Marxist party, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, was formed in 1898, illegally because the Tsar forbade the formation of such political parties. The underground nature of the party meant that members were by nature driven to secrecy, paranoia, suspicion and always wary of being persecuted from above, a mentality that needless to say, endured well after the party and ideology came into power. The underground party worked with the working-class who were in fact a minority in Russia in proportion to the peasants, but the openness of the Marxists and their scientific-political explanations appealed to workers as was their willingness to welcome workers into their party and offer them promotion, which appealed to the desire for upward mobility and respect felt by many of them.
The political situation changed, however, when the Revolution of 1905, inspired by defeat in the Russo-Japanese War broke out. In response to that revolution, Tsar Nicholas II supported the creation of the Duma, and introduced liberal reforms, suggesting, to some, that Russia could be changed internally without revolution. This sparked a drive towards liberalism modified the initial enthusiasm for Marxism, since after all their attraction to communism was the path to modernization and they all wanted an industrial and capitalist revolution as Phase 1, and that seems to be happening without the revolution actually taking power. This cooling of enthusiasm, either real or exaggerated, led the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party to split on this issue, leading to the formation of two factions — the Bolsheviks (aka Majority Party, so named by Lenin), and Mensheviks (the Minority Part, also named by Lenin). The Bolsheviks despite their chosen name was in fact a small party of committed radicals led by Lenin driven by singleminded discipline and total committment, while the Mensheviks were in fact a larger, more diverse and consensus-driven group. Lenin believed that the split was important because large groups tended to disagree and break over tiny disagreements which handicapped a cohesive policy, while smaller groups were flexible, united, and effective. In the eyes of his critics, he was an overreaching manipulative conspirator with a god complex who believed that he and he alone had the answers for Russia's future.
After 1905, political parties, and even unions, were legalized, but the Tsarist Autocracy did not dismantle the Police State machinery which it had used before then. As such, even though they now had legal status, many politicians on either spectrum, and of course workers active in the state, could be arrested on flimsy charges and could count on limited legal protection. As such many of the radical Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin, were expatriates at this time and out of Russia. The Duma, while marking as a devolution to Constitutional Monarchy in the eyes of hopeful liberals, in fact, became an organ to reinforce it, with the Tsar arbitrarily firing and dismissing ministers, rewriting the constitution to take away voting rights, and more or less making the old nobility the main voice in this institution. The workers movement faced setbacks politically, but, thanks to an expansion of industry as a result of foreign loans in 1906, the working-class also expanded in number, and the party organization with the largest active working-class support remained the Bolsheviks which, despite its leadership in exile and emigration, remained strong and committed. A 1914 Strike in Petrograd organized by the Bolsheviks proved the strength of their organization.
Conventional thinking among Russian conservatives and reactionaries had always been that a drive to war, with its attendant rally-around-the-fact effect and forced patriotism, could dial away calls for revolution or reform. This was the logic that underpinned the drive to the Crimean War, and the Russo-Japanese War. In both those instances, it failed, mainly due to military defeat, and it actually led to the reforms it was trying to prevent (the end of serfdom and a tentative and halting rise in constitutionalism in 1905). But nonetheless, come 1914, Russia, joined England and France as part of the Entente Cordiale. One of the many reasons for the entry into conflict was to dial away revolution. After all, third time's the charm, right? It very well may have worked, had the military not faced a series of defeats resulting in the war becoming increasingly unpopular. Lenin and his Bolsheviks had opposed the war from the beginning, seeing it as an imperialist war, which made him a pariah and a minority among the Russian Left because even other leftists had supported the war out of both patriotism and the threat of Imperial Germany's territorial ambitions. Yet when the war became unpopular, it only increased his legitimacy, in a "Told you so" manner, that Lenin never failed to capitalize on.
The February Revolution
As you can tell, it was a big mistake for Emperor Nicholas II to enter WWI. The administration of the Empire was corrupt, the army badly equipped, the people angry and several revolutionary parties were organizing against the government. The corrupt intendants were making money by stealing from army shipments, the soldiers were freezing in trenches, dying, and becoming even angrier at the Emperor and his government, while the dissipated nobles and the unscrupulous merchants were still living luxurious lives — this all angered people further. And the shit hit the fan. Strikes, mutinies, mass fraggings of officers and peasant revolts broke out. Several high-ranking generals and public officials forced the Tsar to abdicate. That is how the Provisional Government came into power. They were going to elect the Constituent Assembly that was intended to decide the fate of post-Imperial Russia. They forced the Tsar to Abdicate the Thronenote in March 1917 (the 'February Revolution'; by the Julian calendar the Empire still used it was late February), the post of 'Emperor' remained empty, the government being taken over by an unconstitutional government formed of representatives from the Parliament or 'Duma' (which had been an advisory body without any real power). This was the Provisional Government, which was only supposed to stick around until a Constituent Assembly could be elected. But in the meantime, they were in the middle of war, and so they operated as Emergency Authority, and more importantly, they refused to get out of the war.
From the start, the Provisional Government proved itself not to be particularly good at governing Russia. In order to govern, they needed consensus from multiple factions which was becoming impossible. The Provisional government represented the elites, and were not elected but more or less claimed succession from the collapse of the State Duma, and were little more than a cabinet of the more "liberal" members of the Duma. The Provisional Government's administrative capabilities were subpar. It had no means of maintaining order in the countryside; the old Tsarist police force, which had been the main law enforcement in rural Russia, had been disbanded. The army was made up mostly of peasants who would not want to enforce the law on their fellow peasants, and in any case, their numbers were insufficient to deal with the populations of entire provinces. Nicolas's preferred bodies of legislative representation — the aristocracy — had been stripped of all class superiority and power almost immediately after the Government was formed. Despite this, the Government was committed to protecting the aristocrats' legal rights as citizens, and so it convened local committees which were meant to keep the established order in the countryside for the time being. However, these committees were soon transformed into peasant assemblies which served the village rather than the government. Many villages even declared themselves "autonomous republics" and started passing their own laws, and you may laugh but there was really nothing stopping them from doing this. Almost inevitably, entire peasant villages stormed the estates of their local aristocrats, destroyed most of their private property (including agricultural equipment which could later have been used to make the harvest easier) and forced them to give up their land for communal use. In some cases, villages even fought skirmishes with other villages over control of the aristocrats' land. By spring of 1917, this rural form of the revolution was beyond government control. In the industrial cities, things were no better. The workers of the major cities had taken the success of the Revolution as their cue to demonstrate for more rights. When the government stepped in to mediate labor disputes, it only succeeded in gumming the works; the workers, encouraged by small early victories would make higher demands, which would be refused by the government, leading the worker to accuse the government to be Sell-Out, while the employers believed the new government by its nature was biased towards the workers, and were becoming frustrated with the government's inability to end the disputes. In short, the Provisional Government was trapped in a Golden Mean Fallacy of choosing a middle ground that did not in fact exist.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Lenin spent the entire war years in Zurich, alongside other Bolsheviks, and even some Mensheviks, getting increasingly cranky and ornery about missing out on the fun in Russia. The Bolshevik party in Moscow and Petrograd were run by cadres and they remained functioning and operational without their leader, a testament if nothing else, to Lenin's skills as an organizer. Most of the leadership were in exile either in Europe or in jail in Siberia. Lenin eventually decided to make a daring political risk. He negotiated with the German government for help in going into Russia. The train from Zurich had to pass through Germany to reach Petrograd's Finland Station. Making this choice risked compromising him politically as a German agent and collaboratornote . But this was not unique to him. Other leaders, including Mensheviks made a similar bargain, only the latter did so a month later, with far less publicity and far less shamelessness. The Germans agreed to let Lenin pass through in a sealed train, either because they thought it could weaken Russia and hasten their victory, or that they didn't actually believe Lenin or the other Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to be a significant enough of a threat. Before Lenin's arrival, various socialist parties agreed to tentatively support the Provisional Government, and there was initial tension between Lenin and other Bolshevik arrivals and the party cadres, after all the latter were the ones in the trenches while their leaders were cooling their heels in Zurich and other hidey-holes. But Lenin's influence and charisma was undeniable, and moreover the Bolsheviks were rapidly Becoming the Boast and living up to their name. At the start of the February Revolution, they were a party of 24,000. By April, that number became 100,000. By October, 350,000. Their numbers and organization grew while that of their opponents stagnated. Lenin also put forth a platform for taking power, known as the April Theses, and in this he outlined the slogans of "Peace, Land, Bread" and "All power to the Soviets".note
The Provisional Government also made the error of failing to clarify their position on the war, which was supremely unpopular. They prolonged the involvement and many of the soldiers were from the same class sympathetic to the growing and developing Bolshevik party. In June, Kerensky encouraged an offensive in Galicia, which became an utter disaster with 200,000 casualties. The Provisional Government was repeating the mistake of the Tsar's, diverting issues with military adventurism, and then facing blowback when they failed to win in battle. This setback led to the July Days protest which was a spontaneous protest that even Lenin Didn't See That Coming, but it provoked a crackdown by the government on the Bolsheviks and sent Lenin into exile again. This damaged their credibility on the Left because they violated their own mandate of granting immunity to political parties and gatherings. On the right, the Provisional Government, faced a military coup by General Lavr Kornilov, who tried to call dibs on power shortly before the Bolsheviks. Fearing a military coup, a spontaneous protest broke out in Petrograd helped by defection and desertion from Kornilov's own contingent. Contrary to popular belief, the Bolsheviks were not involved in this (though they claimed credit letter) but this uprising more or less proved that the people were starting to come around to Lenin's way of thinking, i.e. armed uprising, self-government, and that the government in charge was untrustworthy weak and nonradical alternatives would not work. Lenin by nature disliked populist and spontaneous uprisings feeling that it quickly failed to consolidate and coordinate an organized program and policy, and insisted on leadership by professional revolutionaries. The failure of earlier events and the suppression of the same in Western nations that he had observed in his long years out of Russia, and likewise the 1905 and February 1917 Revolution had seemingly vindicated his views to his fellow revolutionaries. They decided that should the day come when he and his friends get a chance at power, they would not let go of it.
The October Revolution was launched at the same time as the Second Congress of the Soviets. Lenin dithered a bit on a return from exile even after the call for arrest on him was rescinded. He snuck back in just a bit before the 24-25 October coup. Some Bolsheviks were hesitant about seizing power since the Bolsheviks had legally become a popular party and making gains in representation, and to them taking power directly risked alienating their colleagues, provoking civil war and preventing any consolidation. But Lenin and others felt that this was their one chance, and memories of previous setbacks/reversals/betrayals made them harden themselves to cross their rubicon and so the October Revolution came to pass. It was almost entirely anticlimactic despite Soviet propaganda and later recreations. It was bloodless, and it involved Bolsheviks cadres slowly slipping in, taking over major organs of administration and infrastructure overnight and having their claims of power accepted immediately, at which point they immediately started work. The only real drama was the famous siege at the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Government dithered before finally stepping out and quietly leaving.
The real drama began with the Congress of Soviets at Petrograd. The Bolsheviks uses the soviets as an organ for legitimizing their takeover. The problem is that the Bolsheviks counted 300 out of 670 delegates in the Soviets, which included many other revolutionary parties. There were Bolsheviks, but also Mensheviks who claimed the mantle of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP (b) and RSDLP (m) respectively), the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR), and many other smaller parties. The left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left SRs) were nominal allies of the Bolsheviks, but the other revolutionary parties were satisfied with the February revolution (except for the anarchists, but they were not really a party of course) and well represented in the Provisional Government. The October Revolution was launched by the Bolsheviks, in alliance with the anarchists and Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who were quite surprised when on 26 October, they received an announcement that the government would now be run by the Sovnarkom (Council of People's Commissars) Council of People's Commissars, which was exclusively Bolshevik in membership, with Lenin as head of government, and Trotsky as People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs.
The elections to the Constituent Assembly was scheduled before the October coup, and the Bolsheviks let it proceed as planned in November 1917. The Bolsheviks won 24% of the popular vote, while the SR won 40%. The Bolsheviks claimed support from the cities, the armed forces and the navy where they had an absolute majority, while the SR claimed support from the peasants in the countryside. In either case, the Bolsheviks did not devolve or give over control of the government, or obey the democratic will of the people. The Bolsheviks claimed they were the party of revolution and the working class, and the vanguard leadership of the proletariat. When the Constituent Assembly actually met for the first time in Petrograd the Bolsheviks of the Petrograd Soviet ordered groups of armed soldiers, sailors, and workers loyal to them to arrest all the delegates and imprison the Provisional Government. That done, the Petrograd Soviet then sent word to all the Soviets in Russia that they, the Soviets, were now Russia's new form of government.
The Bolsheviks never claimed to support any form of democratic norms. In the constitution they ruminated over in the short time before 1918, voting rights were restricted to the working class and their peasant allies, and denied to intelligentsia, the middle-classes, and backward pesaants; a retributive inversion of the disenfranchisement experienced by the working classes in the decades before the Revolution.
Lenin's general approach and strategy as a revolutionary and Marxist theorist was internationalist. Marxism and Communism was seen at the time, as a philosophy and objective body of knowledge for bringing about modernization, equality and worldwide peace and prosperity. Many young men and women had been internationalist in The Gay '90s and The Edwardian Era. When World War I broke out, their dismay and disillusionment about nationalism, and the capital classes, was only reinforced and confirmed to the point of fanaticism. The outbreak of the war had discredited in their eyes, conventional liberalism and social democrats (many of whom had willingly supported the war in their respective nations). The only thing that could redeem the war, in Lenin's eyes, was a millennial belief that it should be followed by a new revolution and society that would prevent war, check capitalism, redistribute wealth and likewise end bourgeois nationalism by a world revolution in multiple nations out of solidarity with working men in other nations. For Lenin, a revolution breaking out in Russia had the potential to detonate revolutions in other nations, triggering a revolutionary wave a la Revolutions of 1848.
This explained his foreign policy, such as tasking Trotsky to accept the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, so as to fulfill his campaign promise of pulling Russia out of the imperialist World War I. This treaty was incredibly punitive on Russia and very generous to Imperial Germany and the unilateral withdrawal aggravated England, France and other powers, who were already angered by the seizure of a radical organization to the government of an European great power. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers, surrendered the Baltic States (Lithuania, Lativa, Estonia) along with Ukraine (with none of these not-yet-countries consulted). This outraged not only nationalists there (who were not happy with the territory granted to them in the treaty) but also other socialists and former Tsarist officers who had sacrificed much in the war fighting Germany. It also upset many in Russians who had no love for the Germans and, and indeed terrorist attacks were launched in response, leading to the assassination of the German ambassador Wilhelm von Mirbach by a SR. Incidents such as these only ended second-guessed among the Bolsheviks about their seizure of dictatorship and clampdown on rival parties. In Lenin's eyes, the treaty was merely borrowed time and breathing room since he was sure that a Revolution would soon break out in Germany. And in his defense it did, but it would take till November 1918 for that to happen. But in the meantime, the opposition was making its moves.
The Russian Civil War broke out in the summer of 1918, when a White Army led by General Yudenich moved against the Bolsheviks at Petrograd. In response to this, Lenin insisted that the capital shift back to Moscow, for the first time in more than 200 years, which was easier to defend than the European capital. The Bolsheviks had several advantages against its opponents, strong discipline, party command, greater popular support in the main cities of Moscow and Petrograd, the latter being most crucial since it allowed them seize two of Russia's oldest cities and properly mobilize and defend the same. The White Army which was formed of monarchists, tsarists, Right SR, a few Mensheviks and other Liberals had never shown any real skill in the years in office they had to themselves to actually build and run a government between 1905-1917. It was especially difficult to conjure said skills in the bases they made for themselves in the peasant regions, in Siberia and other parts of Russia where they had to start from scratch and found it harder to mobilize when the existing railways were already centered around the now Bolshevik-controlled capitals. The Whites could not mobilize and co-ordinate themselves centrally in the manner that the Bolsheviks could do so. This despite the fact the Bolsheviks had to start the Civil War with the bottom deck of cards.
Upon taking control, the Soviets demobilized the Imperial Russian army and disbanded the soldiers, upon confirming the treaty with Germany. When the Civil War broke out, this earlier order had been implemented too well and too quickly to be countermanded, so Leon Trotsky was given the task to build a brand new army from scratch. The army was composed initially with the urban militia of Red Guards, and party cadres, and then expanded to include conscripts from the working classes. From the very beginning, Lenin and Trotsky wanted a professional army that could win, so to that end they brought in Former Regime Personnel albeit only to a small extentnote . Where the Red Guards and other revolutionary organizations were elected and organized autonomously, Trotsky insisted the Red Army run on proper ranks and chain-of-command. The Red Army rapidly expanded to include other aspects of civilian administration, becoming in time the biggest and most competent bureaucracy of the new government, bolstered by the formation of the secret police with the acronym CHEKA. The CHEKA was headed by "Iron" Felix Dzerzhinsky. Its initial task was to clampdown on banditry and looting that broke out after the October Revolution, during the civil war, it expanded to serving as state police, given extraordinary powers to conduct summary executions, imprisonment without a trial and other terror tactics. In April CHEKA gunmen raided numerous anarchist centers in Moscow and Petrograd, with dozens killed, hundreds arrested. Increasingly the Bolsheviks squelched all opposition by force. Even dissidents within the Bolsheviks, such as Nikolai Bukharin, denounced such acts.
The economy were reorganized under a policy known to history as War Communism. Rapid nationalization of businesses, seizures of lands and state appropriation of all existing resources. It led in time to runaway inflation and brought the economy to a standstill until Lenin offset it with NEP in The Soviet Twenties. The seizures of land and redistribution of the same worked politically however in that it won Bolsheviks peasant support for their cause. The White Army in the regions they governed tended to support the interest of the old landowners and as such vetoed any claims for peasant ownership or support. Both the Whites and the Reds had constituencies that were minorities; the old Tsarist, Militarist Regime and Liberal intelligentsia in the case of the former, and the urban working classes and Left intelligentsia in the case of the latter, and they key group that could tip the balance were the peasants, who swung to the Bolsheviks on the issues of land, even if they didn't especially like them, what with their grain requisitioning and their invasive and radical reorganization of village communities they had no idea of beyond some Marxist theory formulated in exile or in some faraway city like Moscow or Petrograd that few peasants had ever seen; and their brandishing of the same state secret police that the old Tsarist government wielded.
Between 1917 and 1922, the Entente nation-states — France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Romania, Serbia, the United Kingdom, the United States and new nation-states like Finland and Poland, which had both just gained independence from Russia — scrounged up a few thousand troops to 'intervene' in the civil war, resulting in a fairly unpopular technically-an-invasion of what came to be known as the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic), kind of but not officially on behalf of the White Army. This was ostensibly done to secure lost matériel at Russian ports, the Russian ports themselves, rescue separated Entente forces and citizens, and hopefully sort out the whole mess in such a way that the Eastern Front could be re-opened against Germany (Germany, incidentally, even after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk still kept a couple of hundred thousand troops camped right across their shiny new border from Soviet Russia). Their actual effect upon the war was nil, but it ended messily for everyone and much more importantly confirmed suspicions about the Western and Eastern capitalist states (such as Japan) among the Reds and the uncomfortably-frequently-invaded-feeling Russian peasantry as a whole, the latter actually cutting back slightly on their bad habit of shooting Reds on sight. This only reinforced the Bolsheviks' popularity as they now claimed to have defended the Fatherland against foreign invaders, which has historically always won the loyalty of the Russian peasantry to any new state seeking legitimacy. This situation repeated itself in the next 'western' invasion, Operation Barbarossa, which was far bigger in scale and several times more violent than the Russian Civil War.
The unified, fanatical Reds eventually smashed the loose White military states, at first with the help of the Left SRs and the Revolutionary Insurrection Army from Ukraine (or the Maknovist movement, after its leader Nestor Makhno). It was also known as the Black Army since they were anarchist, in contrast to the Red and White Armies. Local groups attempted to fight off all sides, dubbed the "Green" Army, although they were never unified. Additionally was the Blue Army, peasants who fought the Reds in the Tambov Rebellion. Some historians have determined that the Black Army saved the entire war from the Whites at several points, such as stopping Deniken from taking Petrograd. However, they were betrayed three separate times by the Bolsheviks and defeated finally when they could turn their full force onto them. Makhno fled to exile in France. After the Whites were defeated in the fall of 1921, one last revolt occurred at Kronstadt, with mutinous sailors (the same ones who rose up in February 1917, not, as the Bolsheviks claimed, reactionary replacements) calling for free soviets, civil liberties and worker self-management again, as with the factory committees the Bolsheviks smashed. They were massacred by the Red Army under Trotsky. At the same time strikes were occurring in Moscow and Petrograd, also brutally put down. By 1924, all Russia along with most shards of the Empire (with the exception of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland, who managed to stay independent) were under Bolshevik control. Not everything went quiet; Greens, Separatists and White stragglers continued to fight guerrilla wars in remote areas of the country and along borders. Turkestan (modern post-Soviet Central Asia) was one particular hotbed of guerrilla warfare that resisted pacification well into the Stalinist years; the borders with China and the Baltic States were another, used by the White Emigre remnant unions to sneak terrorists into Soviet Russia.
The real decisive moment for the Civil War from the point of view of the allies was the Polish-Soviet War. The setback and counter of the Red Army at the Battle of Warsaw halted Leninist "World Revolution" in its tracks. This extension was done in the hopes to aid the German Revolution that had broken out in November 1918. The reversal halted them in their tracks and more or less contained the Revolution to the Russian Empire and did not extend further. Lenin's grand strategy failed on its crucial assumption of a revolution taking root in an advanced nation, and in the History of the Cold War and well after, it would never truly happen again, albeit the threat and power, and prestige of the October Revolution was enough to make it a constant threat until the end of Cold War.
The Civil War-era Russia was a popular setting for later Soviet action movies - just as the Chinese Civil War has become the most popular setting for Chinese action movies. These movies were very similar to American Westerns: just take a Western, replace the Injuns or Mexicans with Basmaches (Muslim anti-Bolshevik fighters in Central Asia), the Blue with the Red and the Gray with the White, the prairies with the deserts of Turkestan or steppes of Ukraine, the Peacemakers with Nagant Gas-Seals and Mauser Broomhandles, the Winchesters with Mosin-Nagant rifles, the Gatlings with Maxims, the horses... well, let the horses be horses, and you'll get an Ostern (or "Eastern", as they are known in Russia proper). The most popular Osterns were White Sun of the Desert, about a former Red Army Soldier turned gunslinger who travelled homewards through Basmach-infested Turkestan deserts, At Home Amongst The Strangers, A Stranger Amongst Friends in which a framed CHEKA agent must infiltrate a band of marauders and retrieve several millions in gold, and The Elusive Avengers, about four young guns opposing the anarchist bandit ataman Burnash and his gang. The concept itself became popular enough to be recognized in a parody where Winchester and Colt as they are coexists with a kolkhoz.note
Tropes present in depictions of the Great October Socialist Revolution (its official name in the USSR) and Russian Civil War in fiction:
- Apocalypse How: A Regional Societal Collapse.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: You better believe it. Very common in Soviet films about the subject and more or less not something they had to fabricate.
- Angry Mob Song: The "Worker's Marseillaise".
- Ax-Crazy: Ungern-Sternberg. Also Rosalia Zemlyachka, a female Red Commissar and Real Life example of The Baroness. Even Stalin left her alone, mainly because he couldn't find anyone brave/suicidal enough to try and arrest her.
- Badass Bookworm: For a guy with no previous military training, Lev Bronstein, AKA Leon Trotsky, proved to be a remarkably skilled military commander, leading the ragtag Red Army to victory at a time when everybody wanted the Bolsheviks dead.
- The reason the seat of government was moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow was because the Bolshevik leadership feared it would fall into Tsarist hands. In fact, when an approaching White army besieged it, they considered the city as good as lost and planned a general evacuation. Trotsky, however, personally took charge of organizing the defence - and managed to break the siege (a feat later replicated by his archenemy in Moscow against the Nazis. Not So Different?)
- Badass Longcoat: That was pretty much the dress code for the era, with all those greatcoats.
- Ballistic Discount: The Red "military communism" was essentially an entire economy using Ballistic Discount instead of money. Redistribution of wealth at gunpoint.
- The Chessmaster: Whether you think he was a hero or not, you must admit that Lenin was one hell of a smartass.
- Crazy Awesome: Nestor Makhno and his anarchist Black Army.
- Though if you read a bit more about them, it's entirely possible to have doubts about their awesomeness. They were still Crazy Awesome, but with very heavy emphasis upon the crazy.
- You have to remember that most of that stuff was written about them by people who had a good reason to make them look bad, however. It all comes down to whether you trust the anarchists or their enemies. For example, the Bolsheviks spread the rumor that the anarchists had their own secret police, which they did not. It also doesn't help that the stuff written by them or those with good reason to make them look good also portrays them as something of The Horde on the lighter end of the scale.
- Though if you read a bit more about them, it's entirely possible to have doubts about their awesomeness. They were still Crazy Awesome, but with very heavy emphasis upon the crazy.
- Despair Event Horizon: The Imperial army and Russia as a whole went through this in February 1917, leading to the revolution.
- Former Regime Personnel: Some former regime officers joined the Red side (reason could be My Country, Right or Wrong, political conviction or simple luck). Most were forced into service, often with their families taken hostage as incentive. They often had to prove their devotion to the Revolution, their unity with their underlings and generally whatever the unit council (soviet) wanted them to prove. A commissar who could override the commander's orders and had to execute his commander in case of (suspected) treason didn't make things easier. This trope is more specific to stories concerning the Red Navy than to stories concerning Red Army. A Determinator old-school Captain who endures this treatment by his crew and later leads them to the victory is almost a must in such stories.
- Gentleman and a Scholar: Most of the intelligentsia during the era. Also, Gentleman and a Scholar turned Officer and a Gentleman was the "hat" of the Alexeiev's elite regiment of the White army.
- Glorious Mother Russia: In non-Soviet media.
- Grey and Gray Morality: Like all revolutions it is usually seen as this.
- Hell-Bent for Leather: The Bolsheviks. They used the leather jackets originally made for WWI pilots and drivers which also suited the climate moreover.
- Trotsky's bodyguards even had red leather longcoats.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Usually depends on the political orientation of the author:
"In point of truth I see no marked difference between the two protagonists of the benevolent system of the dictatorship except that Leon Trotsky is no longer in power to enforce its blessings, and Josef Stalin is."
- Lenin. Especially during the 1930s and 1940s, Lenin was seen, especially among the Western left, as one of the great figures of history and a heroic revolutionary against capitalism. His atrocities and incompetence as a ruler, which lead to the Cheka, the Red Terror, the Hanging Order, and the De-Cossackization policies he pursued in the Soviet Southwest were, and to some extent still are glossed over, even in anti-Communist fiction.
- The House of Romanov. Hardly known for religiosity during their lives (though they were in fact very devout in private), but their violent deaths at the hands of Godless communists made them the object of much veneration in the Russian Orthodox Church. The entire family was canonized by the Orthodox Church in exile in 1981 and by the whole Orthodox Church in 2000.
- In the West, any romanticization of the Romanovs tends to be focused specifically on Anastasia, their youngest daughter, due to the long-standing (and now debunked) rumors that she survived the Revolution somehow. Granted, the real Anastasia never did anything particularly bad other than being related to the wrong person (she was all of seventeen when the Bolsheviks murdered her, after all), but she would be just another member of the royal family if not for the survival rumors. And, to a certain extent, it may be said that it's not Anastasia herself who is receiving the upgrade so much as it's Anna Anderson who is getting upgraded from "Anastasia imposter" to "real Anastasia".
- Also, Stalin later re-wrote history and gave himself this treatment.
- Especially in the West, Trotsky gets this treatment as a result of his opposition to Stalin (combined with the fact that he was a brilliant journalist and a one-man propaganda machine). Trotsky became the poster-boy for the anti-Stalinist Left who condemned Stalin's atrocities and totalitarian regime. Even many non-Socialists thought that Trotsky represented the "democratic", "non-violent" Communist movement. But his behavior in the Civil War was pretty appalling (even given how bad the other sides could be) and he actually agreed with a lot more of what Stalin did than many seemed to realize, opposing him less out of any moral differences and more due to the belief that he was a front-man for an oligarchy of Bolshevik "Rightists" (and the whole "trying to kill me and my family" thing). He was also not as competent a politician as he is remembered and he made a lot of foolish mistakes and tended to make enemies easily. Emma Goldman, the famous American anarchist, wrote a brilliant hit-piece regarding his massacre of the Kronstadt Rebellion, "Leon Trotsky Protests Too Much":
- Nestor Makhno often gets the same treatment as Trotsky, usually with more justification - however, he also placed his cronies in charge of the new anarchist communes as mayors and factory bosses, and bloody reprisals against class traitors and the upper classes. Makhno is admittedly difficult to place, since many of his admirers were illiterate peasants, his followers were quickly rounded up and shot by the Bolsheviks, and many outrageous lies circulated about him in his own lifetime.
- Despite his dubious record as "Supreme Ruler of Russia," Admiral Alexander Kolchak (head of White forces in Siberia) has become something of a hero in post-Soviet Russia, receiving statuary tributes in St. Petersburg and Irkutsk and a laudatory biopic. Admittedly he had a more impressive pre-Revolutionary career, including time as a polar explorer and decorated military service. Many white generals are given this treatment.
- The Kolchak cult notably fails to gain a foothold in rural and small-town Siberia, where people still remember the Kolchakist atrocities as way worse than anything the Bolsheviks could cough up. Some of these included mass floggings with rods, burning or shelling villages suspected of hiding partisans to the ground, shooting every adult male they could find and blowing up precious water stations.
- Historical Villain Upgrade:
- Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, etc. from 1894 to 1917. His portrayal in media may be as a tyrant with blood stained hands, or as an ineffective ruler out of touch with the situation of his empire. To be fair, his regime like wasn't blameless in many ways but there was naturally some shades of gray, and some would argue that he was scapegoated for the policies of his predecessors who were stronger rulers than him.
- Officers who joined with the Whites. Some were heroes of World War I and the Russo-Japanese War, but became vilified because of the side they took in the Civil War. In general, the WWI Russian Army is widely seen as an incompetent, badly-led, rabble who could barely amount to anything. What people forget, is the degree to which they - including the Officer Corps - were badly served by their domestic civilian leadership. The disorganized rabble of popular imagination is also the same force that utterly smashed the Austro-Hungarian armies in the Brusilov Offensive, nearly forcing them out the war, and winning perhaps the most decisive engagement of the entire war and certainly the Triple Entente's greatest victory.
- Leon Davidovich Trotsky. One of the leaders of the Great October Revolution, President of the Petrograd Soviet in October-November 1917, People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs from November 1917 to March 1918. He was a major figure in the Civil War being People's Commissar for Army and Navy Affairs. But he became part of an opposition faction against Joseph Stalin in the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), which was renamed the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in 1925. He was expelled from the party in October 1927, and then exiled in February 1929. Many crimes and conspiracies against the Soviet government were linked to him in the 1930s, true or not, and in histories of the 1917 Revolution/Civil War, his role became downplayed or erased. However, see his entry under Historical Hero Upgrade above.
- Iconic Outfit: Lenin's newsboy cap and suit, Feliks Dzerzhinsky's cavalry greatcoat.
- I Have Your Wife: The Bolsheviks made most former Imperial officers (that's the ones who weren't in the White army) work for them by taking their families hostage.
- Insistent Terminology: The Red Army had "commanders", not officers. "Officer" was a loaded word implying nobility and conviction to the Tsarist cause. Until 1930s Red Army technically had no military ranks (such as sergeant, lieutenant, colonel...), and commanders were addressed by their positions: "platoon commander", "regiment commander", etc.note Often leading to Acronym and Abbreviation Overload.
- A Lighter Shade of Grey: The Bolsheviks seized power in October and won the Civil War since they had a program that answered for many people that had been oppressed for centuries by the czarist regime (peasants, workers and oppressed nations such as Tartars, Ukranians, Finns, Poles, etc.). Contrast with the White Army (composed of Mensheviks, liberals, capitalists, royalists, anarchists and foreign armies), which could only decide (and for a short period of time) who would be their supreme commander. Their lack for a political and economic alternative gave the Bolsheviks the upper hand.
- Loads And Loads Of Factions: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, other revolutionary leftists, anarchists, democrats, monarchists, ethnic nationalists, foreign interventionists from the Entente Cordiale and Central Powers, those just trying to fight their way out... Did we forget anyone.?
- The Greens, local militias attempting to protect their villages from the marauding forces of both sides, along with bandits.
- Maybe the Czech Legion? Usually lumped in with the foreign interventionists, but the Czechs were stranded in Russia after having been taken prisoner while serving with the Austro-Hungarian Army and recruited into the scheme to organize them as a military unit to support the Entente. They never got to fight the Germans and Austro-Hungarians because of the Revolution, but they had to fight their way out of Russia, by marching EAST! Eventually, they would be picked up by the Entente at Vladivostok and had to sail halfway around the world to get back home.
- Nationalists of various nations formerly part of the Russian Empire Fighting for a Homeland. Some (Finland and Poland) succeeded. Others (Armenians, Ukrainians, and Georgians) did not.
- Memetic Mutation: One predating the Internet! Vasily Chapayev, a Red division commander who ended up as a popular Russian folk joke character and repeatedly featured in bad Soviet films after a 1934 film about him became a hit.
- Montages: Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was a pioneer of the development and use of the montage editing and montage was used prominently in some Soviet films of the 1920s.
- The Mutiny: It happens in revolutions.
- Officer and a Gentleman: A stereotypical White Guard. Except in earlier Soviet fiction, where they were portrayed as either evil or ineffectual, alcoholic and decadent.
- The Political Officer: Trope Codifier with the Commissars usually showing in fiction as out of touch, incompetent bureaucrats who harass the military brass. Not all political officers were like this though-some were fairly competent and effective.
- The Remnant: Baron Wrangel's Crimean White remnant. Merkulov's Far Eastern White remnant. General Pepelyaev's last campaign is this IN SPADES. Nestor Makhno's Anarchists. The "Greens".
- The Revolution Will Not Be Civilised: A country-wide, state-sponsored persecution of the rich classes (i.e. capitalists, nobility, aristocrats, officers) including wealth expropriation, forced labour, and execution. In most cases, the Bolsheviks didn't even need to incite the workers, peasants, and soldiers because the masses were eager to get back at the landowning class; in the soldiers' case, the nobility had sent them to the slaughter in World War One, so why couldn't they slaughter the nobility?Of course it wasn't just limited to upper class persons.It easily degenerated into mass slaughter of anyone even remotely suspected of not being loyal.Eventually peasants and workers were murdered on a scale far worse than anything seen during the tsarist era.
- Considering how hated the rich tend to be, it's odd their total repression in the years between 1917-1930 in Soviet Russia isn't more well known.
- The execution of the royal family (not just Tsar Nicholas, his wife, and his children, but most of the Romanovs) is probably the best known example of this trope during the war. It not only enraged the Whites, but pretty much cemented the Bolsheviks as a legitimate threat in the eyes of the Entente and most of the world as well.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: Thanks to Battleship Potemkin and Eisenstein's October, likewise Warren Beatty's Reds, the most famous depictions of these events are fairly positive and sympathetic to the Revolution's initial goals and ideals and more or less do tend to side with the victorious Reds over the other factions.
- Rivals Team UP / Enemy Mine: After the Bolsheviks seized power, the reactionaries (capitalists, liberals, kadets, and even Mensheviks), the Central Powers (chiefly Germany) and the Entente decided to attack the Soviet state and create the White Army.
- Likewise, the Anarchists teamed up with the Bolsheviks at times to fight back the Whites.
- Red, White AND Black armies all hated the Ukrainian separatists led by Simon Petlyura with a passion and sometimes ganged up on them.
- Because it would be too simple otherwise, the Poles sided with Petlyura against the Reds and Blacks, despite being fresh out of a fight with a different faction of Ukrainian nationalists.
- State Sec: the CHEKA.
- Typecasting: 1920s Soviet films on the subject have characters whose appearance often identifies an archetype. Only capitalists wear top hats.
- We ARE Struggling Together: The various revolutionary factions who formed the White Movement; the only thing that they agreed on was that they weren't Reds. The Reds were capable of allying with the most effective non-Red factions (such as the Black Army) to annihilate the Whites, then turned on the Blacks when the Whites were gone.
- There were numerous cases where the Whites and their nominal allies actually came to blows. This was particularly prevalent in Siberia, where General Semenov's Cossacks frequently attacked Allied troops guarding the Trans-Siberian Railway. The region's American commander, William S. Graves, stopped supplying arms to Semenov when he realized they were being used to kill his own troops.
- There was a case when Reds and Whites acted together against Ukrainian nationalist leader Petlyura.
- Would Hurt a Child: The execution of the Romanovs did not spare the children, all were murdered in cold blood, and yes that included Anastasia, who in sentimental royalist fiction survives the events somehow. The Soviet at Yekaterinaburg cited the arrival of an oncoming White army as justifications for killing the family, since a single royal heir would give them legitimacy. There is still debate among historians if this was ordered by Lenin or merely condoned by him after-the-fact.
Depictions in Fiction
- And Quiet Flows the Don
- Reds, a Warren Beatty epic about left-wing journalist John Reed, starring Beatty, Diane Keaton, and Jack Nicholson
- White Sun of the Desert
- The Elusive Avengers
- Doctor Zhivago
- Nicholas and Alexandra
- At Home Among Strangers
- Sergei Eisenstein's October
- Knight Without Armour
- A number of American films from the silent and early sound era used the Russian Revolution as a backdrop for Melodramas. The most common plot seems to involve an Inter-Class Romance being opposed by both the aristocracy and the Bolsheviks. In general, they make the Russian Revolution come off as a newer version of the French one.
- It occurs (off-screen, obviously) during the second series of Downton Abbey. Rebellious socialist Tom Branson sings its praises and insists the revolutionaries won't kill the Tsar's children. In a later episode, he becomes somewhat disillusioned with Soviet Russia when he finds out that they did kill the Tsar's family. The subject indirectly returns in the fifth series, with a subplot involving exiled Russian aristocrats living in Britain and in poverty.
- The fifth adventure in Pathfinder's Adventure Path "Reign of Winter" takes the PCs to a Siberian prison camp, where they must battle White Army soldiers, vampires, battle tanks driven by pickled brains and a resurrected Rasputin to save his mother, Baba Yaga.
- In The Last American Vampire, Henry participates in vampire Rasputin's assassination, along with Nikola Tesla. One Romanov, Alexei, survives, having been made a vampire by Rasputin some time before.
- Histeria! did an episode on the Russian Revolution, following the "Lenin and Trotsky were good, Stalin was bad" school of historiography. Actually, much of the episode was dedicated to Sergei Eisenstein and the cinema innovations of The Battleship Potemkin.
- Robert Bolt's play State of Revolution, which depicted Lenin and his inner circle from the failed 1905 revolution through Lenin's death and Stalin's assumption of power. Bolt, an ex-socialist, sympathizes with the Revolution's ideals but criticizes Lenin's brutality in achieving them, followed by Stalin's perceived subversion of them.
- Commissar is about a female commissar of a Red Army cavalry unit who gets pregnant during the Russian Civil War.
- Assassin's Creed: Subject Four and Assassin's Creed Chronicles: Russia follow Nikolai Orelov, a master Assassin during the Revolution.
- Battlefield 1 showcases the Russian Civil War in its In the Name of the Tsar expansion.