The Russian Civil War
Posted on February 24th, 2017

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge 

Shortly after the October Revolution in 1918 war between the Red guards and the White guards (Counter Revolutionary) was broke out. The conflict lasted until 1921. The Red and White fractions unleashed enormous brutality and cruelty on each other. The towns were burnt and villagers were left to starve. The peasants were forcibly recruited and set to the war fronts. The children became orphaned. The villages were deserted due to the conflict and hundreds of thousands became internally displaced.

After the October coup d’etat, Bolshevik authority rapidly spread throughout the country. The new regime, however, was able to hold the peripheries of the Russian Empire only temporarily and had to fight against a variety of local governments. In the South, in 19I7-I8, at least a dozen such governments resisted Soviet power, each representing different, often contradictory, social interests and regional or national aspirations. ‘The Volunteer Army of General Alekseev’ was by no means the most important or legitimate alternative to the Soviets in the South, nor was it regarded as such. At the same time, this Army, as the only anti-Bolshevik centre in the South, had clear all-national goals and claimed to be the only heir to legitimate all-Russian authority. With this perspective, it insisted on the continuation of the war with Germany as a task equally important to the fight against the Bolsheviks. It also opposed not only separatism, but even regional particularism in the South. With the passing of time, the movement became more rigid in this respect, increasingly alienating the Cossacks, who composed the majority of the Army. Furthermore, the Volunteer Army rejected any definite ‘pre-determination’ of the social, economic and political order of a future Russia. This meant that the movement could neither deliver the peace and land that the people (narod) wanted,  nor unequivocally guarantee the democracy and freedom that the educated society (obshchestvo) desired. An equally important negative element was the Army’s behaviour on the White-controlled territory.  Although the re-establishment of law and order was high in Denikin’s priorities, the Army frequently brought even more lawlessness and disorder to an already fragmented society.  It was often argued by the Whites themselves, and still is by some historians, that these factors severely handicapped anti-Bolshevik propaganda work and offered excellent material for Red agitation.   This opinion seems to overlook the analogous difficulties which con fronted Bolshevik propaganda. War Communism, as an ideology, did not possess popular appeal; since it included mass terror and requisitions, it quickly antagonized the population within its reach (Lazarski, 1992).

Sean Guillory describes the hidden pain and agony of the young Komsomol (members of the Soviet youth organization) members who took part in the Russian civil war.

Komsomol literature in the 1920s repeatedly evoked the memory of the civil war as a means to inspire young communists to sacrifice themselves for the construction of socialism……………………Experiencing violence was central to the darker side of the Komsomol civil war veteran. As Joshua Sanborn has noted, performing violence was necessary for inclusion in the nation, but the promotion of brutality was a slippery slope, for destructive violence tended to outstrip its productive virtue. Indeed, as Sanborn shows, the omnipresence of violence during World War I and the civil war.

Komsomol civil war memoirs display ambivalence toward the civil war. This contrasts with our broader understanding of the war’s memory as a heroic period in which communists sacrificed themselves wholeheartedly for the revolution. Alongside a narrative that framed the war as a heroic epoch,” veterans voiced confusion, personal loss, hardship, physical suffering, and fear in the face of death.

It is precisely because of these elements that Komsomol civil war narratives can be seen as part of the important phenomenon of war remembrance at the turn of the century. These narratives, like many of their European counterparts, are ultimately personal stories that attempt to come to terms with the personal transformations that war brought upon young soldiers and to render the strangeness of these experiences understandable to both the readers and the soldiers themselves.

Nikolay Ostrovsky, the author of the well-known novel How the Steel Was Tempered” participated in the Russian Civil War as a young Komsomol. He was 15 years of old and never had any military training. In autumn 1920 Ostrovsky was seriously wounded in the back, and then demobilized from the Red Guards. These wounds made him lifelong physical and psychological consequences. In the later years he was blind and paralyzed. Ostrovsky died in 1936 aged 32.

In the Russian civil war, nearly 10 million people were perished.  A considerable numbers died due to starvation and disease. The Civil War was a cataclysm in astronomical proportions to the people.

At the end of the Civil War despite all the negative psycho social consequences Trotsky wrote: in the unstable poise of a scale only a small weight is enough to decide. That small weight was probably the Party.

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