Painting the Country Red: Political Forces in Russia through the Revolution and the Civil War

In this essay, the political forces in Russia in 1917–1921 will be examined. Political force is a wide conception, and it can refer to a range of different groups and groupings from social classes to political institutions such as parliaments and governments, and from pressure groups to political parties. A political force articulates different needs and interests, which are located in the society. Political parties can be considered as most important political forces in modern society, representing different social classes, strata, and ethnic groups aggregating and articulating their interests. Therefore, in this essay the political parties will be highlighted.

The subject at hand will be studied as follows. First, the big picture in the background: the economic and political circumstances and the different support bases for different political forces will be briefly examined. Then, the change in interparty relations in particular and the broad chain of events in chronological order will be viewed.

Background for the October Revolution

In the time of the October revolution, Russian economy was in early stages of developing capitalist industry and the great bulk of the population worked in inefficient agriculture. The autocratic Russian state inhibited the growth of social and political institutions outside the state. Society remained weak and dependent on the state. The long and deep crisis that predated the war worsened during World War I, the revolution, and the civil war.[1]

The catastrophic economic and political conditions brought about the years of the World War caused, according to Viktor G. Bornevski[2], “a lapse in morality among the population and a decrease in the authority of the church.” The first of the revolutions of 1917 in February gave an additional powerful impulse to these forces. On the front, this resulted in a disintegration of the army; the increasing democratization resulted in a drop in military discipline, the mocking and taunting of officers, marauding, and mass desertions. On the home front, businesses were arbitrarily confiscated and estates were looted and burned. As Bornevski puts it, “the emerging base instincts of the mobs eventually unraveled the fabric of Russian society. The social aspects of this polarization affected morality and ethics as well.”

Russia was the least country in Europe to try to build Marxist socialism. Capitalism had only partially transformed the Russian economy, the working class was a pitiful minority of the population, and most Russians were peasants hostile to a political and economic order that privileged the cities and the industrial proletariat.[3] The leader and the main theorist of the Bolshevik party, Vladimir Ulyanov, or Lenin by his nom de guerre, thought differently. In 1899, he had published a detailed study of the development of capitalism in Russia[4].

The first of the two revolutions of 1917 began in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) in February. The revolution spread to Moscow and to the key naval base of Kronstadt. Socialist intellectuals established the Duma committee and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The pressure from the Soviet was for a republic, and on 3March 1917 the Tsarist autocracy had ended and was replaced by an administration dominated by liberals. There were four successive Provisional Governments in the seven months following the Tsar’s abdication. The Petrograd Soviet, at the same time joined by hundreds of Soviet that were formed across Russia, came to act in parallel to the administration, able to veto its decisions but unwilling to participate in the governments work.[5]

The February revolution did not bring prosperity to the workers. Between March and August 1917, 568 enterprises employing over 100,000 workers were closed, and the number increased each month. Unemployment grew and food supplies worsened. The circumstances made ‘masses’ more radical and the transformation of Russia into Soviet state soon to become reality. The Soviet state was not only a product of backwardness and civil war but also of Bolshevik ideology and political culture.[6] In April, in his theses Lenin insisted that the Bolsheviks should refuse to support the Provisional Government and should aim at making a socialist revolution[7]. Bolshevik influence in the cities grew. According to Kenez[8], the Provisional Government failed, because it attempted to administer the country on the basis of liberal and social democratic principles which proved irrelevant at a time of crisis.

On 25 October, the Petrograd Soviet and the Red Guards seized the control of Petrograd and disbanded the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace, the ministries, the post and telegraph buildings, and the printing presses of Russkaia volia.[9] The coup d’etat, that was needed to make the revolution, was made. In my view, the debate about the nature of the ‘October revolution’ is irrelevant – you need to control the state apparatus to make a social revolution. Therefore, a coup d’etat is prerequisite for a revolution.

The Support Bases of the Parties

Lenin described the support bases of the main political parties of Russia, in a propaganda pamphlet[10] published before the October revolution, as follows:

 To the Right of the Cadets

The feudalist landowners and the most backward sections of the bourgeoisie (Capitalists)

The Cadets

The bourgeoisie as a whole, that is, the capitalist class, and the landowners who have become bourgeois, i.e., who have become capitalists.

The Social-Democrats & the SRs (Social Revolutionaries)

Small proprietors, small and middle peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and that section of the workers which has come under the influence of the bourgeoisie.

The Bolsheviks

Class-conscious proletarians, wage-workers and the poor peasantry (semi-proletarians) standing close to them.

Even though the pamphlet in question is a propaganda pamphlet, it can be considered that there is a lot of truth in there. The moderate socialists traditionally looked to the “toiling people” as a whole for the foundation of their parties. Bolsheviks’ support base consisted mainly of workers and soldiers.[11] The Bolsheviks were successful among the workers and soldiers “because they said what their audience wanted to hear”[12]. Their support base leaned more towards the most poor of the society. Workers and peasants offered support on a conditional basis (for different parties), but The Bolshevik could quite firmly rely on the support of the industrial workers. The non-socialist parties relied more on the richer strata of the society: property-owners and businessmen. However, it must be remembered, that there was more than one type of SR, NS, or Menshevik. There were many groupings, factions and splits within the parties themselves.

From October revolution to the forming of two-party government

On the one hand, the interparty relations between the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs, and on the other hand, the relation between all the parties and groups supporting the government (the Reds) and all that were against it (the Whites) are, on the political “surface” of the society, the most influential factors for the future development of Soviet Russia.

Like the Bolsheviks were a split from the Social-Democratic Party, the Left SRs had split from the SR Party after the Second Congress of Soviets. They formed their own party in December 1917. Ideologically, the Left SR was the closest party to the Bolsheviks. They rejected a dictatorship of the proletariat, but favored the rule of all toiling people: the peasants, workers, and intelligentsia. The Left SR enjoyed great popularity among the peasantry, and could also rely on significant worker support.[13]

In the first months of the revolution, the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs were to be close partners. The Second Congress of Soviets began its first session on October 25. Almost half of the delegates were Bolsheviks, who formed the majority with their Left SR allies. The resolution on an all- socialist multiparty government passed unanimously in the Congress. The Right SRs and the Menshevik-Defensists walked out of the Congress in protest against the attack on the Provisional Government. Also the Menshevik-Internationalists left the Congress due to transferring all power to the soviets. The new government was formed by the Bolsheviks. The government faced two principal tasks: the first was to prevent counterrevolution, and the second to withdraw Russia from the war and give the new state time to consolidate herself[14].

In mid-November, the Constituent Assembly was elected. The Left SRs won 40% of the votes and the Bolsheviks came second with 24%. Other parties were far behind. The Left SRs won absolute majority in nineteen provinces, but they did not succeed very well in the most urban areas, where the Bolsheviks outpolled the others. In most of the major cities, they won 40 to 64% of the votes. The Bolsheviks demanded that the Assembly recognize the Soviet government, but the majority chose to deal with other questions. Hence, the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly.[15]

Almost all workers supported a multi-party government instead of the purely Bolshevik government. Throughout the country soviets were taking power as multi-party governments. Under the pressure, the Council of People’s Commissars agreed in December 1917 to give six commissariats to the Left SRs. For the next four months, Soviet Russia had a two-party government.[16]

The disbandment of the two-party government

The relationship between the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs was not unfriendly before May 1918; the Left SRs did not oppose the government, even they were no longer a part of it. The expelling of the Menshevik and SR opposition from the soviets outraged the Left SR, and so did the disbanding of soviets where the Bolsheviks failed to gain a majority, the forcible requisitioning of grain from the peasants, and the establishment of the committees of the village poor. Bolshevik agricultural policy designed to carry the class struggle into the village and to break the Left SRs’ influence among the peasantry forced the Left SRs into opposition.[17]

The support of the Bolsheviks was in the biggest cities and in military bases, but in the countryside they were outnumbered by the moderate socialists and the Left SRs, which, cannot in every case to be considered as “moderate”. In fact, when it came to the question of the ongoing war and the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Left SR were in their revolutionary enthusiasm far more radical than the leading Bolsheviks. The brake with the Left SRs and the Bolsheviks came over the question of Russia leaving the world war. The Left SRs, together with the Left Communists (a fraction in the Bolshevik party) pushed for a revolutionary war. On March 3, 1918, the Soviet Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The temporary resolution of the international crisis led directly into a major internal crisis. The coalition government dissolved, and a long period of one-party rule in Russia was to begin.[18] During the spring of 1918, The Left SRs joined with Mensheviks to challenge the Bolsheviks successfully in numerous elections to soviets outside Moscow and Petrograd. While the number of Bolsheviks and their influence in the soviets declined from the spring of 1918, the Left SR’s enjoyed and increasing popularity. From April to the end of June 1918, membership in the Left SR Party grew from about 60,000 to approximately 100,000 members.[19]

The Left SRs became more hostile towards the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1918 due to the peace treaty with Germany and the Bolshevik policy of backing poor peasants against richer peasants. The Assassination of the German ambassador Count Mirbach by Left SR assassins as a revenge for the Bolsheviks for signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk triggered the Bolsheviks to start fighting against the Left SR with force. In June, anti-Bolshevik governments were established in Samara and Omsk. Both the Left and the Right SRs begun a terror campaign against the government  (though, in the case of the Left SRs it was not so much for overthrowing the Bolshevik government but to change its policies, the friendly relations on German in particular: the Left SRs wanted to rise up against the imperialism). The government replied with mass terror.[20] The civil war broke out in July 1918.

Forming the opposition

The leaders of the major non-Bolshevik political parties gathered in Moscow to formulate a common platform and program for countering Bolshevik rule. In April 1918 parts of the leaderships of the SRs and Kadets, and all of the NS Central Committee, agreed on fundamental principles and strategies, which were embodied in the program of the Union of Regeneration of Russia. The founders contended that the Russian people had lost sight of the broader state interests of Russia by succumbing to their short-term demands for bread and peace, thereby permitting the Bolsheviks to seize power.[21]

The results were anarchy and a power vacuum at home, and the sacrifice of Russia’s commitments and honor abroad. They prescribed a return to such principles as the rule of law and statesmanlike conduct of political leaders and the people, principles that transcended party politics. Narrow partisanship made Russians loose of sight what was important and enduring. Through the efforts of the Union and similar public organizations, the people could be brought to their senses, re-establish the Eastern Front, and return to law and order.[22] But the people had no desire to pursue the war against Germany and Bolshevism.

On January 18, 1918, a law on the socialization of the land was adopted. The right to use the land belonged to one who cultivates it with one’s own labor. The law empowered the rural soviets to carry out the redistribution of the land. Peasants all over Russia seized land and expropriated landlords. This agrarian revolution made impossible a restoration of the old regime. But even the peasants favoring the Reds refused to sow more land than necessary for feeding their own families. Hence, the production of grain decreased significantly.[23]  Land reform lead to a decrease in production and next poor yield in the following years clinched that there was not enough grain. And this fact led to numerous problems. During the civil war, the Soviet state expanded its role in economy in order to win the war. During the first half of 1918, the Soviet government had nationalized almost all large industry. The shortages of food and fuel forced factories to close and workers to migrate to the countryside in order to survive. Of the 3.5 million workers before the revolution, only 1.5 million were still working in industry by the end of 1921. The main support base of the Bolsheviks, the urban proletariat, was becoming less.[24]

The Time of Terror

In the civil war the Bolsheviks and their supporters (“the Reds”) fought against their opponent ranging from monarchist to liberals (“the Whites”). The Mensheviks and SRs as moderate socialists were caught in between. The Right SRs decided in May 1918 to work with the Allies to overthrow the Bolshevik government. The Mensheviks opted for a political, rather than an armed struggle against the government, and did not ally with the Allies or the Germans. The Bolsheviks decided to expel the moderate socialists from the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets, the legislature chosen by the soviets.

Terrorism was a wide spread “continuation of politics” in the circumstances. The Whites also engaged in mass violence against civilians, and executed Communists, workers and Jews, who were associated with the hated Bolsheviks.[25] Despite all the differences between the different political forces, “there were also significant similarities in the forms and style of politics practiced across ideological boundaries during the Russian Revolution.” In Peter Holquist’s view[26], we might speak of significant variations “of a common revolutionary style of politics”. According to Peter Kenez[27], the Russian civil war “is best understood as a crisis of power.” The different political forces faced the same problems in forming a new system of administration. Each group tried to overcome anarchy and impose its will on the population. The Whites and the Reds both had an interest in what they thought, felt and said, and used surveillances to know what the people thought[28].

According to Suny[29], there were five distinct groups who fought against the Bolshevik government: First: the core of the Whites; the supporters of the tsarist regime, who were former army officers, people of great property, aristocrats, and “some disenchanted liberals who hoped to restore the monarchy.” Second: the supporters of the February Revolution and the Constituent Assembly; some liberals, the Right SRs, various nationalist groupings and the Menshevik-Defensists. Third: Foreign interventionists; Germans in Finland and in the West, the Allies (English, French) in the North (Murman), and the Japanese in the East. Fourth: “Greens”: peasants in various parts of Russia, claiming an independent way of life free from the interfering state resisting the encroachments of the Bolsheviks and the Red Army. Fifth: the nationalists in the borderlands who formed their independent states and looked for support against the Soviet state.

The Allied intervention was due to strategic reasons. The Allied wanted to recreate the eastern front. In north, British troops landed in Murmansk with approval of the Bolsheviks. Also the Czech and, after a moment of hesitation, also the US troops were present in northern Russia. British marines landed also at Vladivostok with the Japanese. In south, the Volunteer Army largely made up of former tsarist officers, the Don Cossacks and the forces of Kornilov and Denikin were fighting for restoration of monarchy and the tsarist regime. In west, Germans were occupying Ukraine. “By fall 1918 Britain, France, the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Rumania, and Ottoman Turkey all had troops in Russia, along with Finnish, Polish, and Serbian soldiers.”[30] The skirmished of the Finnish Civil War spilled into Russian Karelia and (following the idea of “Great Finland”) Finnish Whites urged the Karelians to secede from Russia[31].

The Red terror was based on the decree on September 5 after the assassination of M. S. Uritskii and the assassination attempt on Lenin. It was punitive and repressive policy and ideology (the “dictatorship of the proletariat”) that was practiced during the civil war. The White terror comprises all of the repressive actions carried out by the enemies of Bolsheviks, ranging from anarchists to monarchists, during the civil war.[32] Landlords, who returned to claim their lost property, often carried out the most brutal revenge on the peasants[33].

Just like the form the “dictatorship of the proletariat” had in the policies of the Soviet state, the military rule of the Whites in South, who supported the kind of regime before February 1918, was to be a temporary stage and required until the victory over the Bolsheviks had been achieved. According to Bortnevski, the “temporary military rule”, however, during the continuing civil war, transformed itself “gradually into a South-Russian (Denikin) variation of a military dictatorship.” The harshest measures were targeted against the Bolsheviks and other communists, but also to members of SR, Menshevik and People’s Socialist parties, and also the Jews. [34]

During the course of the civil war, the Bolshevik government encountered steady resistance from village communities, especially in the realm of food procurement. The food shortage was severe. There was not enough grain to feed all the people. The government had to use measures of terror to get the grain needed from the peasants. The material and moral conditions were intensely stifling. By 1920, suicide had become an option for a number of villagers and soviet members alike”. For many of the Bolsheviks, it “was difficult to understand, how these peasants, who before were so in support of Soviet power, were now dispirited and dismayed.” In some areas, the peasant resistance took a form of mass insurgencies.[35] There were many local resistance groups in the countryside. While the Reds and the Whites were fighting each other, there were hundreds of peasant wars being waged behind the lines.[36]

Why did the Bolsheviks succeed?

The success of the Bolsheviks in the civil war depended on ability to win over the peasantry. Through the course of the civil war, facing the possibility of a White victory and the old landlords, the peasants turned to the Bolsheviks as “the lesser of two evils”. The most of the White movement was based on “pre-February values”, which had no support among “the masses”. According to Bortnevski, “the Whites did not have any political and socioeconomic programs during the civil war”, and the “overall apathy and fatigue of the population led to a reinforcement of military influence in the administrative apparatus, including the punitive-repressive organs, and the inadequate definition of duties and privileges.” As a result, the administration grew more arbitrary in character.[37]

In the case of moderate socialist parties, there was a gap between political activists leading the parties and the groups they intended to lead. There was the tendency of socialists to attribute the failure of their cabinet to the “ignorance” of the masses, particularly peasants. A crisis of ideology and values arose in 1917 and early 1918. Growing alienation of the leaders of the SR party from their constituents after the February Revolution, as popular demands for an end to the war and immediate settlement of the land question clashed with their conceptions of legality. The leaders of moderate socialist parties abandoned their own revolutionary programs in pursuit of compromise, legality, and the interests of the Russian state, while their constituents became increasingly radicalized. Menshevik party leaders in 1917 used complex and abstract analyses to understand a crisis which was immediate and material, with the result that they became thoroughly alienated from those who had originally elected them.[38]

The Red victory was earned with enormous sacrifice and pain. The Bolsheviks had some advantages in the civil war. They held the industrial center of Russia and the most populated parts of the country, including the two major cities, Moscow and Petrograd. Most of the population of Russia lived in the Bolshevik-controlled area: soviet-held Russia had a population of about 60 million while the most reliable territories held by the Whites held only eight or nine million.

The Bolsheviks were able to mobilize more people more easily than the Whites. Their lines of supply and communication were shorter – –. The Reds also benefited from the War material left by the tsarist army, while the Whites depended on military supplies they received from the Allies or the enemy [the Reds].[39]

The Bolsheviks enjoyed the prestige of ruling from the traditional capital, Petrograd. They also had some support from former tsarist officers and “others with feelings of patriotism”. Bolsheviks offered self-determination and equal rights for ethnic and national minorities, The Whites supported “one and indivisible” Russia, an idea that had little appeal to non-Russians of to the lower classes. Localism was much stronger than any idea of a Russian nation (or the Soviet state).

The soviet forces benefitted from the promise of revolutionary social change. The White forces were unable to find a social base for their movement. The Whites and anti-Bolsheviks in general, were also very fragmented to many different groups with different aims. As Suny points out[40], the Bolsheviks proved to be successful state-builders. They were organized and disciplined. Propaganda, terror and violence, accompanied with real loyalty from the ordinary people made up a recipe for the success of the Reds in the civil war.


Bornevski, Viktor G. 1993. White Administration and White Terror (The Denikin Period). Russian Review, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 354–366.

Hafner, Lutz. 1991. The Assassination of Count Mirbach and the “July uprising” of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. Russian Review, vol. 50, no. 3, pp. 324–344.

Holquist, Peter. 1997. Anti-Soviet Svodki from the Civil War: Surveillance as a Shared Feature of Russiam Political Culture (Research Note). Russian Review, vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 445–450.

Kenez, Peter. 1985. Lenin and the Freedom of the Press. In Abbott Gleason, Peter Kenez, and Richard Stites (eds.) Bolshevik Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

––– 1991.  The Prosecution of Soviet History: A Critique of Richard Pipes. Russian Review, vol. 50, no. 3, pp. 345–351.

Kotsonis, Yanni. 1992. Arkhangel’sk, 1918: Regionalism and Populism in the Russian Civil War. Russian Review, vol. 51, no. 4, pp. 526–544.

Landis, Erik-C. 2004. Between Village and Kremlin: Confronting State Food Procurement in Civil War Tambov, 1919–20. Russian Review, vol. 63, issue 1, pp. 70–88.

Lenin, Vladimir. [1899]. The Development of Capitalism in Russia. The Process of the Formation of a Home Market for Large-Scale Industry.  (11.11.2008)

––– [1917]. Political Parties in Russia and the Tasks of the Proletariat. (11.11.2008)

––– [1917b]. The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution (“April Theses”) (10.11.2008)

Waldron, Peter. 1997. The End of Imperial Russia, 1855–1917.  New York: St: Martin’s Press.

[1] Suny 1998, 56–57.

[2] 1993, 356.

[3] Suny 1998, 85.

[4] Lenin [1899].

[5] Waldron 1997, 158–159, 161.

[6] Ibid, 57, 62

[7] Lenin [1917b], April Theses.

[8] 1991, 349.

[9] Kenez 1985, 137.

[10] Lenin [1917].

[11] Kotsonis 1992, 527.

[12] Kenez 1991, 349.

[13] Häfner 1991, 324–325.

[14] Suny 1998, 64.

[15] Ibid, 59–60.

[16] Ibid, 57–59.

[17] Häfner 1991, 326.

[18] Suny 1998, 65–68.

[19] Häfner 1991, 325.

[20] Suny 1998, 69–70; Häfner 1991, 325–333.

[21] Kotsonis 1992, 534.

[22] Ibid, 535.

[23] Suny 1998, 88–89, 91.

[24] Ibid, 84–85.

[25] Ibid, 71.

[26] 1997, 450.

[27] 1991, 347.

[28] Holquist 1997, 449–450.

[29] 1998, 72–73.

[30] Suny 1998, 74–77

[31] Kotsonis 1992, 533.

[32] Bortnevski 1993, 354–355.

[33] Kenez 1991, 347.

[34] Suny 1998, 76; Bortnevski 1993, 357–358.

[35] Landis 2004, 70, 80–81, 84.

[36] Suny 1998, 92.

[37] Suny 1998, 88; Bortnevski 1993, 366.

[38] Kotsonis 1992, 542–543.

[39] Suny 1998, 93.

[40] Ibid, 93–94.



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