An Empire Divided

The Whites

Contrary to Soviet propaganda, most of the Whites were not monarchists. They had lived through the fall of the tsar in March 1917 and the assassination of the royal family in July 1918. Indeed, General Mikhail Alexiev had advised the tsar to abdicate in 1917 and General Lavr Kornilov had actually arrested the tsarina. Both men would become prominent leaders of the White movement later that year. Nevertheless, most of the Whites had felt comfortable enough under the tsar's regime.

Officers and politicians who remained pro-monarchist attached themselves to each of the White armies because politically there was nowhere else for them to turn. Tension would surface in each of the White armies between those favouring the more democratic progressivism of the February Revolution and those who could not reconcile themselves to it. They made a common if uneasy cause against the Bolsheviks.

From November 1917 through the spring of 1918 and even beyond, those who would fight the civil war began to choose sides. Overall, the White armies were middle class in orientation hut were amazingly heterogeneous. Their ranks contained the full spectrum of former Russian society, from peasant to noble. They were united only through their opposition to Bolshevism, a political movement that they regarded as anti-religious, anti-property, anti-business and anti-Russian.

Consequently, the Whites failed to promulgate a comprehensive and coherent political platform upon which all, or even most, could enthusiastically agree. Each of the White factions, from the Southern Front under Generals Denikin and Wrangel, to the Northwestern Front under General Yudenich, to the Northern Front under General Miller, to the Siberian i'ront under Admiral Kolchak, published manifestos calling for the political formation of a future Constituent Assembly that would operate according to European-style parliamentarian procedures. Officially, each of the White factions eschewed engaging in politics until victorious and a Constituent Assembly could be convened in Moscow to decide Russia's future.

This stance cost them the support of a wider social base, particularly over the question of land reform. Russia remained an overwhelmingly rural and agricultural nation in the early 20th century. The nobility, the state church and the nouveaux riches collectively possessed too much of the arable land. The immediate question, much as in the earlier French Revolution, was whether to recognize the revolutionary seizures of land and property that had been carried out at the grassroots level in 1917 and which had been largely sanctioned by Kerensky's Provisional Government.

The primary White leaders, General Anton Ivanovich Denikin, General Petr Nikolayevich Wrangel and Admiral Alexander Kolchak, tried to institute land reform but most lacked either the political expertise or the best advisors to implement their policies. Wrangel suffered defeat before his more enlightened policies could take effect. Too often, the old landlords followed in the wake of the White armies, attempting to turn hack the clock to 1916 and repossess the Sands they had lost.

Also costly was the determination of the Whites to honour Russia's commitment to the Allies in World War One, a resolve that would last until Armistice Day, 11 November 1918. Given Russia's general exhaustion, continuing the war was exceedingly unpopular with the general population.

World War Allies Day
Russian troops charging with a regimental Hag bearing a religious image. Such a scene was typical of the White armies on all fronts. (Russian painting, 1910s)

Nevertheless, most of the Whites chose to place their faith in the Allies. Logically, after winning the war, the Allies would then help the Whites defeat Bolshevism, They sincerely believed the Bolsheviks were the hirelings of imperial Germany and their evidence seemed conclusive: Lenin had been exported to Russia by the Germans and many of the early Red Guard units they faced were heavily permeated with former German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war.

All White factions were loath to recognize the independence of the many new states that had broken away from the former Russian

Empire in 1917-18. These included Estonia, l,atvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and the Caucasian states. Denikin coined the phrase 'Russia One and Indivisible', a phrase that resonated with each of the other White leaders, and an ideal meant to keep 'Mother Russia' intact. This ideal alienated the new nationalistic states that had no intention of surrendering their ethnicity, language and independence and returning to the Russian fold. Failure to recognize reality and the aspirations of the breakaway nations cost the Whites critical support against the Bolsheviks to whom the new states themselves were generally opposed.

Above all, the Whites were military men rather than politicians. On each front, they elevated a general and vested him with wide civil and military powers, thinking that this man would create unity and lead them to victory, and that the Russian people would later decide, through the electoral process, what form of government was best. To those who did not readily understand this point of view, and more still to their opponents, the White approach appeared as a veiled dictatorship.

White ideology may be seen in the representative symbols they chose to adopt. Propaganda posters portrayed the Bolsheviks as destroyers, red with blood, gloating over the remains of the Russian Empire. Their flags, from the highest level down to battalion markers, often depicted saints, Orthodox or Maltese crosses, references to God, and expressions or images of patriotism and unity for the homeland. Many shock units carried banners with the skull and crossbones, implying readiness for sacrifice and death.

The early Whites on all fronts were volunteers almost to a man. Heavily outnumbered, they survived through an intense commitment to their cause and by sheer military prowess. By autumn 1918, however, heavy losses in the field caused them to resort to conscription from the newly-won territories. This resulted in a certain weakening of their units overall, even as the number of units in their order of battle increased. More dubious was the adoption of former Red soldiers into their own ranks, a method of recruitment that accelerated throughout 1919. Some former Red veterans, given retraining and a new cause, fought extremely well while others sought the first opportunity to desert.

Foreign observers noted the large number of young soldiers in the White armies. The Whites and their Cossack allies hesitated to conscript classes of soldiers that had been infected by extreme socialism in World War One, the so-called frontoviki. They turned instead to young men, even boys, from Russia's many military schools, the cadets and junkers, who fought gallantly for their cause. Most White units also had a disproportionate number of officers and there were cases of senior officers serving in the ranks as privates. Many battalions had an 'officer's company' which formed an elite on the battlefield and could supply critical

Russian officer in 1917 displaying the white flower of loyalty and honour: Many such young and idealistic men fought heroically in the White armies. (Bullock collection)

t y cadres to rebuild destroyed units or provide officers for newly-formed units.

Although largely proficient as infantry and in the technical arms, the Whites relied on the Cossacks to furnish the majority of their cavalry. Most numerous in the south were the Don Cossacks, followed, respectively, by the Kuban, Terek and Astrakhan hosts. In the east, the Orenburg, Ural and Siberian Cossacks supported the Whites on the front lines, while the hosts of the Semirechie, Amur, Ussuri and Trans-Baikal protected the lines of communication and often pursued semi-independent policies.

Each Cossack host attempted to preserve their ancient traditions, privileges and way of life during the course of the civil war. These had been eroded under the tsars from the 18th century through a policy of 'liussification', and further diluted by the presence of a growing number of inogorodnye or 'outsiders' living in Cossack lands. In the case of the Don and Kuban, these outsiders represented approximately half of the population. The Cossacks Iraditionally had been mounted soldiers who received plots of land and a measure of local autonomy In exchange for military service. The average Cossack was proud, protective of his culture and Orthodox in religion. In time, each Cossack voisko (military host or army) correctly came to see the Bolsheviks as inimical to their way of life.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment