The final shots of the First World War (“The War to End All Wars”) were fired on November 11, 1918. In France’s Forest of Compiègne, an armistice was concluded between German commanders and Marshal Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander. The war was over and the world breathed a sigh of relief.
In Russia, this event went largely unnoticed. The country had withdrawn from the war a year earlier, when the Bolsheviks issued a Peace Decree on November 8, 1917, before many Russians even knew that the Reds had seized power in Petrograd.
By the time of Russia’s withdrawal from the war, Europe was exhausted, and this call for peace was embraced by many and increased Lenin’s popularity. The governments of the warring countries, of course, took note that the decree was addressed to “peoples and their governments.” The message was clear: if governments did not want to end the war, the people should rise up and do it for them. Russia’s departure from the war was a great relief for Germany and its allies, who were in a critical situation. As a result, they managed to keep fighting for another year, until November 1918.
Did withdrawing from the war help Russia? It certainly helped the Bolsheviks. It secured the support of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. However, the revolution by no means marked the end of bloodshed. As the Germans were bringing their peace offer to Marshal Foch’s railway car, Russia was embroiled in Civil War; multiple governments were competing for authority; thousands were trying to flee the country; famine, typhus, and Spanish flu were taking countless lives; the royal family had been executed; and even many apolitical people were losing their lives to the Red Terror.
By the autumn of 1918, the Bolsheviks seemed to be on the verge of winning the Civil War. In recent months, White forces had suffered a series of major defeats in battles waged across the Urals and in Siberia. Furthermore, that November, just as peace was being concluded in Western Europe, the remnants of the Provisional Government, barely surviving as “The Directorate,” which was controlling – or rather trying to control – the situation in the eastern part of the country, was rapidly losing its grip on power.
Most members of the Directorate were former Socialist Revolutionaries, who before the revolution had been best known for their terrorist attacks. Many of the men fighting with the White Army saw no difference between the SRs and the Bolsheviks. Nobody had the patience to delve into the differences in their programs. For the Whites, the SRs were the socialists who assassinated a number of tsarist ministers and even plotted to assassinate the tsar. Why were they now fighting the Bolsheviks? How would they behave if they achieved power? They had had a chance to govern in 1917, when they were part of the Provisional Government. And what happened? They plunged the country into chaos and then relinquished power to the Bolsheviks. Would something similar happen again?
Apparently, these were the sorts of questions troubling Admiral Kolchak, the Directorate’s minister for the army and navy. As a result, Kolchak, who enjoyed great popularity among soldiers, carried out a coup on November 7, 1918, ordered the arrest of the Directorate’s SR members, and declared himself Supreme Ruler. The White movement now had a new, experienced, and decisive leader. Shortly thereafter, Kolchak joined forces with Denikin, who was commanding the White Army in the South, and began a major offensive against Bolshevik-held territory. The Civil War entered a new, even bloodier phase.
Now that war in the West had ended, the question arose: might the countries of the Entente – England and France – as well as the United States, shift their focus from fighting Germany to helping their former ally, Russia? Kolchak and Denikin received an infusion of aid in the form of money, arms, military advisors, and some troops. By early 1919, it looked as if the White Army might soon emerge victorious.
But 1919 proved to be even bloodier than 1918. Kolchak and Denikin’s fierce offensives were repelled, and, in the second half of the year, the Red Army began to break through on all fronts.
Historians still debate how the Reds gained the upper hand. Perhaps it was the peasants who played the key role. At first, they had been horrified by the Bolshevik’s ruthless expropriation of almost all their grain, but after switching their support to the Whites, they became equally horrified to see the landowners returning. Despite assurances by White commanders that the land question would be resolved later, after the war, the peasants worried that the land expropriated in 1917 would be returned to the nobility rather than be left in the hands of those who actually till the soil. Reasoning that it was better to support the Reds, who took your grain, than the Whites, who would take your land, the peasants switched their support back to the Bolsheviks.
Another reason the peasants may have switched sides was the fact that Denikin and Kolchak’s troops could be just as merciless as the Bolsheviks. Today, Denikin and Kolchak are portrayed as angels incarnate, valiantly fighting the Red demons. Alas, the truth is not so simple. The White Terror turns out to have been just as horrific as the Red one.
But what about the prospect of help from the West? Wouldn’t the defeat of Germany represent salvation for the White Army, the remnants of the Russian imperial army that had fought with the Entente? This was not to be: the English and French soldiers who went through living hell at Verdun and the Somme had not the slightest desire to go and fight in Russia, rather than return home. They did not want to fight under any circumstances, but especially against Russia’s new government, and they were not highly motivated to support their own leaders, who were now being blamed for allowing their people to be slaughtered.
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