In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Russian Civil War, 1918–1921

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Document Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • English-Language Journals
  • Russian-Language Journals
  • The Red Army
  • The White Army
  • Civil War Military Campaigns on the Periphery
  • Revolution and Civil War in the Russian Provinces
  • National Minorities
  • Allied Intervention
  • American Intervention
  • British, Canadian, and New Zealand Intervention
  • Politics and Diplomacy
  • Notable Figures
  • Personal Narratives
  • War and Society
  • State Building
  • The Politics of White and Liberal Anti-Bolshevik Movements
  • The Politics of Leftist Anti-Bolshevik Movements
  • Fiction

Military History Russian Civil War, 1918–1921
Roger Reese
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0051


The Russian civil war raged from 1918 to 1921, though some date its origins to the October Revolution in 1917 and others date its end in 1922 with the final crushing of peasant revolts and reconquest of the Caucasus; still others see its end as late as 1932 when Stalin finally consolidated his power. In general, the civil war was characterized by the struggle between the Bolsheviks and the right-wing Whites, former nobles, the propertied, and military officers. The left, represented by the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR) and anarchists (Greens) and the Mensheviks, also actively and often violently opposed the Bolshevik seizure and consolidation of power. The Bolsheviks were lucky to face a divided opposition because the anti-Bolshevik left would not unite with the anti-Bolshevik right. The intervention by the Western Allies in Russia and their minor role in the civil war has also generated controversy, probably much more than warranted. The Russian civil war has often been a contentious subject for historians, participants, and the reading public because of the ideological ramifications of its outcome that reverberated throughout the course of the Soviet Union’s brief seventy-four-year history. Cold War tensions seeped into the scholarship and popular writing that colored many an interpretation and clouded objective analysis. In the first decades after the end of the civil war, Western history mainly followed the line of the “White” anti-Bolshevik émigrés who lamented the failure of their movement and Allied intervention. The civil war continues to be a field of active research and has become more objective and more solidly based on archival sources since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nearly a quarter of all entries in this article have been written since the year 2000.

General Overviews

There are so many different aspects of the civil war, such as the military, political, ideological, economic, diplomatic, and social to name a few, that even the general overviews listed below cannot hope to cover each thoroughly. They all try to touch on each aspect lightly and also pick a few topics to cover in more detail. Footman 1961, Lincoln 1989, and Mawdsley 1987 focus on the fighting. Holquist 2002 and White and Thatcher 2006 delve more into the larger picture of war and revolution and the ideas associated with the revolution and change. Stone 2002 limits itself to a broad overview of mostly military, political, and economic themes. The overarching Soviet version of the Russian Revolution and civil war (Gorky 1935–1960) tries to cover everything in hopes of getting the Soviet people to identify with the success of the Bolsheviks as success for themselves. Smele 2015, Engelstein 2018, and Beevor 2022 all aim at comprehensive coverage of the war, especially the social, military, and political aspects.

  • Beevor, Antony. Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917–1921. New York: Viking, 2022.

    Written to appeal to a broad audience, this overview relies on a vast number of personal narratives in order to create a complete picture of the war. It highlights the personal trauma and violence experienced by the participants on all sides.

  • Engelstein, Laura. Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914–1921. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    Weaves together the wide-ranging ideological, ethnic, and social conflicts; the shifting fronts; the coalescing and disintegrating armies and political fiefdoms; and the foreign entanglements to show how the old empire disintegrated through a bloody conflict and how that bloodshed created a new empire. Notable for its breadth. Written to be accessible to the nonspecialist.

  • Footman, David. Civil War in Russia. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.

    This is a series of detailed sketches of several episodes, namely the early campaign on the Don River, the Samara government of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, foreign intervention at Archangel, the defeat of Admiral Kolchak’s forces in Siberia, the initial efforts of the Bolsheviks to create the Red Army, and the suppression of Makhno’s peasant anarchist movement in the Ukraine.

  • Gorky, Maxim, ed. Istoriia Grazhdanskoi Voiny v SSSR. 5 vols. Moscow: OGIZ, 1935–1960.

    This is the standard chronologically arranged Stalinist account of the civil war in which Trotsky’s role is marginalized and distorted and Stalin’s is magnified. It is richly illustrated and contains many accounts by participants.

  • Holquist, Peter. Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914–1921. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674273863

    The author places the turning point of Russian history at the outbreak of war in 1914 and traces the effects of that war and the civil war on the process and end result of the revolutions and subsequent Bolshevik methods of governance. The civil war is located historically as the culmination of World War I and revolution.

  • Lincoln, W. Bruce. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

    This is a general overview in a very readable, narrative style, more descriptive than interpretative or analytical. It is organized chronologically and geographically to cover the three major fronts of the civil war: the southern front, the northern front, and the eastern front.

  • Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987.

    This author assumes a basic knowledge of the contexts and personalities of the revolution and civil war on the part of the reader. While it covers the political and social aspects affecting the Bolsheviks and Whites, it mostly offers detail on the military campaigns in chronological order.

  • Smele, Jonathan. The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916–1926—Ten Years That Shook the World. London: Hurst, 2015.

    This book touches on nearly every possible arena of conflict in the ten years under discussion including political, geographical, ethnic, social, and foreign intervention. Takes the periodization to 1926 to include the wide ranges of internal resistance the Bolsheviks had to overcome before the civil war was truly over in the author’s view.

  • Stone, David R. “The Russian Civil War, 1917–1921.” In The Military History of the Soviet Union. Edited by Robin D. S. Higham and Frederick W. Kagan, 13–33. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

    This chapter provides a concise, well-organized overview of the major military, economic, and political issues of the civil war. In so doing it serves as an excellent starting place for subsequent broader and deeper investigation. To assist this, it includes a section of suggested further readings.

  • White, James D., and Ian D. Thatcher. Reinterpreting Revolutionary Russia: Essays in Honour of James D. White. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    This collection of essays covers events, issues, and debates concerning the driving forces of the revolution and its immediate aftermath with an emphasis on historiography from the prerevolutionary period through the founding of the Soviet state.

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