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White Army


Within weeks of the October 1917 Revolution, thousands of tsarist officers and supporters of the Provisional Government began armed resistance against the new regime. The Bolsheviks, who saw the anticommunists as more united than they actually were, named these men "White," a term taken from the reactionary forces during the French Revolution (the communist forces against which the Whites fought were called the Reds). There were, in fact, many disparate White armies, each under its own commander and with its own objectives. They lacked a central authority to coordinate action or policies on the far-flung battlefields of the Civil War. Politically they were just as divided because some White officers were monarchists while others wanted re-establishment of the Provisional Government. In the end the White armies were bound only by a common hatred of the communists and a shared desire to retain the old borders of the Russian Empire.

The lack of unity among the White armies was but one of the reasons for their defeat. When they were successful on the battlefield, the Allied powers (Britain, France, and the United States) provided critical military assistance, but as the Whites began to lose, the aid disappeared, consigning the Whites to their fate. The fluid nature of the civil war also meant that the Whites never created permanent institutions. Matters were not helped by the officers' reluctance to involve themselves in political matters, leaving chaos and banditry to reign in much of their territory. Thus, although it was not deliberate policy, White troops were allowed to commit atrocities during the war, such as pogroms against the Jews who lived in White-occupied lands. None of this endeared Whites to the population. Most devastating for the Whites was a paucity of new solutions to the problems that their country faced and a consequent inability to rally ordinary Russians and other nationalities to their cause.

The best known of the White armies were those led by Anton Denikin, Alexander Kolchak, and Nikolai Yudenich. Large Cossack units also fought alongside several of the White armies. One of the first anticommunist forces was the Volunteer Army, commanded first by Mikhail Alekseev and then Lavr Kornilov. When Kornilov was killed in battle, Denikin took command and led an offensive that came within 300 kilometers (186.4 miles) of Moscow. The Red Army, with twice as many men and strong cavalry units under Semeon Budenny, stopped him and forced the Volunteer Army into headlong retreat. Denikin resigned and was replaced by Peter Wrangel, whose counteroffensive was also pushed back. The tattered remnants of the Volunteer Army were evacuated from the Crimea in March 1920.

Denikin never coordinated his attacks with Kolchak's forces, which in 1919 made spectacular gains against the Bolsheviks in eastern Russia. Kolchak claimed to represent the legitimate authority of Russia, but when Red units led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky defeated his men (including Siberian and Western armies), his bid to win the recognition of the Allied powers was doomed. Yudenich meanwhile tried and failed to capture Petrograd with his Northern (later "Northwestern") Army. The collapse of their armies forced most White officers into exile in Germany and Paris, where they would plot their return to Russia for the next seventy years.

See also: civil war of 19171922; cossacks; denikin, anton ivanovich; kolchak, alexander vasilievich; yudenich, nikolai nikolayevich


Lincoln, Bruce. (1989). Red Victory. A History of the Russian Civil War. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Luckett, Richard. (1971). White Generals. An Account of the White Movement and the Russian Civil War. New York: Viking Press.

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

Wade, Rex A. (2001). The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Mary R. Habeck

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