April 22, 1919 - The Russian Civil War & the White Defeat at Orenburg
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
April 22, 1919. The Russian Civil War is about to hit its climax. Alexander Kolchak’s forces approach the city of Orenburg in Siberia. His army, the northern wing of the anti-Bolshevik forces known as the “Whites,” are on the upswing in the Civil War. The Red Army of Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik government stands in the way. On the plains of Siberia, the fate of Russia hangs in the balance.
The Russian Civil War was a direct outgrowth and part of the Russian Revolution. The Revolution had begun in February 1917 with the overthrow of the Tsar and the establishment of a democratic Provisional Government. Soon, however, the liberals and progressives in the Provisional Government found themselves caught between the nobles and officers who wanted a return to conservative rule, and the radical Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin who wanted to bring Russia to socialism.
The Russian liberals, upon assuming power, made the fateful step to continue Russian involvement in World War I. The war was drastically unpopular, and this undermined their regime. They also failed to prevent peasants across Russia from seizing land and property from the disempowered nobles, while also alienating these peasants by refusing to officially approve their new gains. The urban working class that had started the Revolution was solidly pro-Bolshevik, and the Army fell into Lenin’s hands as well when his faction promised to end the war and continue the Revolution: “Peace, Land, Bread” was Lenin’s motto. The Provisional Government thus had no real supporters, most of whom flocked to extremes left or right.
In the “October Revolution” of 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government and established a government based on local worker’s councils known as “Soviets.” They soon fulfilled their promise to end the war. Negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the German Army produced the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, which – at the cost of ceding Poland, Ukraine, the Baltics and Belorussia to the Germans – freed up their forces for the struggle to come. And the struggle was coming fast. The Civil War had already started even as Germans and Russians put pen to paper.
The two factions of the Civil War became known broadly as the “Reds” and the “Whites.” Let’s take a look at each of them.
It’s clear who the “Reds” are in this case – the Bolsheviks. Led by Vladimir Lenin and his small council of trusted adherents, the Bolsheviks drew their strength from the urban working class, and at the outset of the war they controlled Moscow, Petrograd, and most major industrial centers. The chief problem was that they had no army. Though in theory they inherited the Russian Army, that force had fled as soon as they heard that Lenin had come to power. The soldiers assumed that “peace, land, bread” held for them as much as anyone, and it was hard to get anyone interested in fighting for the Bolshevik regime. The Red Army that formed was almost a rabble, with no interest in training or discipline.
The “Whites,” on the other hand, are a lot harder to pin down. The Russian Civil War can be described as “Lenin and his Communists versus everyone else.” Monarchists, proto-fascists, liberals, progressives, socialists that Lenin didn’t like, and anyone else who wasn’t on board with Bolshevik rule joined the White faction. This seems like a strength, but it proved to be a major source of weakness: the Whites could not agree on a program or a creed. Right-wing army officers rubbed shoulders with socialist politicians, and this led to great dysfunction at the top of the White command structure. They were fighting the Reds, yes – but to what end?
Then there were the Nationalists. Countries like Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Georgia had never been exactly chuffed to be chained to the Russian Empire. With the turmoil of Revolution breaking out across the land and the Civil War starting up, many pro-independence factions arose in each of these regions trying to split off and form their own nations. Their level of success varied based on the fortunes of war and outside support. The notable success stories, Poland and Finland, had to fight hard to break away from the Bolsheviks.
The Reds soon found their popularity on the decline. As part of his new regime, Lenin instituted the Cheka – a secret police organ of terror. The Cheka kidnapped, tortured, and raped real and suspected dissidents across Russia, and its brutalities became so legendary that it served as the main benchmark for the West’s fear and hatred of socialism ever after. The Reds soon lost popularity with the peasants as well due to their habit of forced confiscation of food and supplies, with anyone who resisted deemed a “traitor” and “hoarder,” fresh meat for the Cheka. This caused widespread misery and starvation across Russia. Soon, the Reds were facing widespread uprisings, and the Whites took quick advantage.
One of the Whites’ major power centers was southern Russia, centered on the Crimea and the Caucasus. The leading officers of the old Imperial Russian Army began to coalesce here immediately after Lenin’s rise to power and allied with the Cossack tribes that roamed the lower steppes. This “Volunteer Army” fell to Anton Denikin, who cobbled together a makeshift force of Cossack cavalry, ex-Tsarist officers and liberal students. Denikin spent 1918 carving out a major swathe of territory, but failed to take the city of Tsaritsyn, defended by a Red leader named Joseph Stalin. When Stalin took power years later, he would rename the city he had defended Stalingrad.
The other major White power center was in Siberia. During the First World War, the Russian Empire had captured many prisoners from the Austro-Hungarian Army. Among them were a large number of Czechs and Slovaks who were bitter with Imperial rule and eager to fight their oppressors. From these troops the Russians had formed the elite Czechoslovak Legion. When the Civil War broke out, the Bolsheviks promised the Czechoslovaks safe passage from the port of Vladivostok, on Russia’s distant Pacific coast. As the Czechoslovaks tried to ride the vast Trans-Siberian Railway to the port, they met suspicious resistance from the Reds, who attempted to disarm them. In May 1918 the Czechoslovaks revolted, seized control of the railroads across Siberia, and aligned themselves with the Whites.
The Siberian front soon broke out into serious conflict, but its nature was bizarre for a modern war. It basically consisted of railroad duels involving armored trains and lightning strikes. The Czechoslovak and White forces were better disciplined and equipped than the Reds, riding the rails to each new destination to launch quick attacks that scattered the disorganized, demoralized Bolshevik forces. Soon they were digging into central Russia and advancing on Moscow. The liberal Provisional Government, which had fled from Bolshevik attacks to take refuge in Omsk, soon fell under the sway of military authority. In November 1918, the military overthrew the liberals and replaced them with Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who was designated Supreme Ruler of Russia.
The Reds were now in serious trouble. They faced a double pincer attack from Denikin’s Volunteer Army to the south and Kolchak’s White Army to the east. Even worse, Ukraine and the Baltic States had expelled all Red forces, and another White army was forming in the west to strike at Petrograd. If things weren’t bad enough, the Americans, British and French were arming and supplying the White forces from the sea, and had seized the northern port of Archangelsk. Their armies were a rabble, and they were surrounded. To all appearance, Lenin’s Soviet government was on its last legs.
Appearances were deceiving. Kolchak’s rise to power had indicated to the vast majority of Russians that the conservatives, not the liberals, now held the power in the White movement. The Whites did little to salve this fear with their brutal behavior and revenge killings. The peasants, never big fans of the Reds, soon soured on the Whites as well: the Whites wanted to turn back the clock to 1917, before the peasants had confiscated and redistributed the land they now held. Things were bad under the Reds, yes, but the Whites promised to return to the bad old days of serfdom and second-class citizenship. Russia’s misery would continue under either faction, but at least under the Reds they could keep their newfound gains.
At the beginning of 1919, the Whites began their great attack from two directions. Denikin’s Volunteers from the south and Kolchak’s Whites from the east both led great offensives towards Moscow. The Reds fell back, hemorrhaging casualties and losing critical ground. Kolchak’s Siberian army started its attack on March 4, capturing key cities in central Russia, rolling down the dirt roads across endless forests of pine and smoke. The earlier railroad war was over: both sides had over 100,000 men under arms, travelling in great mobs through the bitter early spring of central Russia. Hordes of cavalry and infantry wearing remnants of uniforms trudged through the mud and dust to collide in enormous, chaotic battles over small villages and dirty towns.
By April, the Whites were breaking through in Siberia. Kolchak’s forces captured city after city and began to home in on Orenburg, the critical center of Siberia and the final linchpin of Red defense. It looked like the end was in sight for Lenin’s Reds.
The Reds, though, had found their moment. Under the passionate military leadership of Defence Commissar Leon Trotsky and military commander Mikhail Frunze, the Red Army had come of age as a fighting force. Trotsky and Frunze had finally convinced Lenin to let them use former Tsarist officers as military experts to train and prepare the Red Army for war, and the re-imposition of brutal discipline restored order to the ranks. Lenin conscripted the workers of major cities into the Red Army, and this infusion of blood finally brought some strength into the Bolshevik ranks. The tide had begun to turn.
On April 22, 1919, Kolchak’s army stuck fast in front of Orenburg. Red resistance had finally coalesced in the pitched battle, with mobs of Communist soldiers thrown mercilessly at the overstretched White army. Within a few days, Trotsky and Frunze were on the counteroffensive, but April 22 saw the high-water mark of White victory. They could go no further.
The defeat of the Whites was not just due to the Red Army’s reorganization. In a sense, the Whites had defeated themselves. Nothing bound them together except hatred for the Reds, and as time went on these cracks broke into splits within the White ranks. Their mistreatment of the peasants and common people, who already hated the Reds, turned what could have been a national uprising into sullen resentment against both sides. The Whites’ corruption and sadism, to the average Russian, showed that they would just be a return of the old Tsarist status quo.
Somehow, as bad as Lenin and his Bolsheviks were and would be for Russia, the Whites had shown themselves to be worse. The Russian people weren’t fond of the Reds, but no one wanted to go back to the old Tsarist ways. The clock could not be turned back. The Revolution would survive.
When the Reds defeated Kolchak at Orenburg, the White movement began to break apart. By the end of 1919, the Reds would overrun Siberia; by 1920 they had cleared the south. Although there was still upheaval, bloodshed, and struggle to be found, the Reds had won the Civil War. It was on this bloody victory – which had cost around 12 million dead – that the Reds would build their new government: the Soviet Union.