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Britain and the Russian Civil War

On 7 November 1917 (25 October according to the Russian calender of the time) the Provisional Government established by the February Revolution was overthrown by a force led by the Bolshevik party, headed by Vladimir Lenin. More than three years of brutal civil war followed as different interests fought to obtain control of the country. The largest combatant groups in the war were the Bolshevik Red Army, formed to defend the October Revolution, and the White Army, a coalition of anti-Bolshevik groups, led by former Tsarist officers. Other military groups included the Green armies (peasant militias), the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine (or Black Army, a Ukrainian anarchist force), and various nationalist forces in states fighting for independence from the former Russian empire.

Russia's former allies in the First World War were active in their intervention in the civil war. The Bolshevik administration formally ended Russia's involvement in the First World War on 3 March 1918, with the signing of a peace agreement with Germany (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk) which ceded territory to Germany in return for an end to the fighting. This allowed Germany to focus its attacks on the Western Front, left the pro-Allied Czechoslovak Legion stranded in Russia, and left military supplies and equipment in Russia vulnerable to German (or Bolshevik) acquisition. Between 1918 and 1920 forces from countries including Britain, France, the United States of America, Japan, Greece, Italy and China were active on Russian territory. Financial support was also provided to sections of the White Army.

Selected sources:

  • To the toiling masses of France, Britain, America, Italy and Japan, 1918. Published appeal signed by Lenin, Trotsky and Chicherin on behalf of the Bolshevik administration. It defends the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, attacks the intervention of the Allies, and calls for international working class solidarity to support the revolution and combat the attacks of "the bandits of International Imperialism".
  • Resolution in support of the Soviet Republic of the Russian workers, issued by the Russian Anti-Intervention Committee, August 1918. The resolution was passed in Edinburgh by representatives of the British Section of the International Socialist Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Plebs League, Workers' International Industrial Union and Forth Area Workers' Committee. It calls for a British revolution to render the state "harmless to the workers" and foil "the British Ruling Class in their dastardly attempt to drown the Russian Socialist Republic in the blood of the Bolshevik Army".
  • 'Why have you come to Mourmansk?', 1919. "Special Russian number" of the anarchist journal Freedom, January 1919, including reproduction of an appeal circulated amongst British troops in Russia by the Russian Workers' and Soldiers' Republic.
  • British Soldiers in Russia, 1919. Letters from soldiers serving in the British North Russian Expeditionary Force, published as a leaflet by the People's Russian Information Bureau. The authors criticise the food and accommodation provided for the British soldiers, describe the harsh weather, and object to British involvement in the conflict - "it is a damn shame that troops who have been in France should have to come out here to suffer this when the war is over and we ought to be at home having a good time with our wives and children".
  • British Troops in the Caucasus, 1919. Leaflet produced by the People's Russian Information Bureau. It attacks the role of Denikin in the region and dismisses the suggestion that the presence of British troops would help to prevent massacres of Armenians.
  • A collection of reports on Bolshevism in Russia, 1919. "Reports from His Majesty's official representatives in Russia, from other British subjects who have recently returned from that country, and from independent witnesses of various nationalities" of Bolshevik atrocities and the state of Soviet Russia. Includes descriptions of the killing of the British naval attaché, Captain Francis Cromie, at the British Embassy in Petrograd, and the arrest of other British officials. A pro-Bolshevist response to the publication by Henry Sara, from the anarchist journal The Spur, is also available online.
  • British consul replies to anti-Bolshevik slanders, 1919. Correspondence between Rear-Admiral Kemp, recently the British senior naval officer in North Russia, and Douglas Young, the former British Consul at Archangel, reprinted from The Times by the People's Russian Information Bureau. They debate the actions and aims of British intervention.
  • Bulletin of the Russian Liberation Committee, 5 April 1919. The London-published anti-Bolshevik bulletin includes coverage of the "success of Admiral Kolchak's forces" in "liberated Russia".
  • The present struggle in Russia: interventionists condemned by all but monarchists, [1919?]. Leaflet produced by the People's Russian Information Bureau, reproducing what it describes as an intercepted "Russian Government wireless of great importance" on a meeting between "anti-Bolsheviki at Ufa, the Social Revolutionaries, and the Soviet representatives".
  • 'Hands off Russia', July 1919. Appeal for British workers to stop the transport of munitions to Russia, published in the journal of the United Society of Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Shipbuilders. It is written by the future leader of the Communist Party of Great Britain (and union member), Harry Pollitt.
  • The Bullitt Mission to Russia: testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, of William C. Bullitt. Whilst in Russia in March 1919, William C. Bullitt attempted to broker a deal between the Allies and Soviet government to end the civil war and lift the Allied blockade. Allied leaders at the Paris Peace Conference (which also produced the Versailles Treaty) blocked the plan. The testimony included detailed descriptions of what Bullitt saw in Russia, including a copy of his report, and of the political manoeuvres in Paris, as well as supplementary reports by Lincoln Steffens and Captain W.W. Pettit on what they had observed in Russia in 1919.

  • The Political Gambler: Being the Record of Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill, M.P., Secretary of State for War, August 1919. Hostile profile of Churchill by the politician Joseph King - one of the many charges made against Churchill is his keenness to send British conscripts to war against Russia.
  • The foreign policy of Soviet Russia: report submitted by the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to the Seventh All-Russian Congress of Soviets (Nov. 1918 to Dec. 1919). It presents the official Bolshevik view on "the cardinal question in the domain of foreign policy" - "the question of peace with the Entente Powers who are attacking us, who support the counter-revolution in Russia and are endeavouring to strangle the Soviet regime by a hunger blockade".

  • Russia's Call to Humanity "Save Our Souls": An Appeal to the Allies, 1919. Pamphlet by the Russian Expressionist writer Leonid Andreiev, published by the Russian Liberation Committee. He attacks the "betrayal or madness" of the Allies negotiating a peace with the Bolshevik "savages of Europe", and appeals for them to hear "the sobs and groans, the lament of women, the whimper of children, the hoarse outcry of the strangled, the unbroken rattle of the executioners' rifles, that for the last year and a half have been the ceaseless song of Russia". Andreiev had supported the 1905 and February 1917 revolutions.
  • Russia's Appeal to British Workers, 1920. Reproduction of a Bolshevik pamphlet "scattered" amongst British soldiers serving in Russia during 1918-19. It criticises the system of capitalism in Britain and contrasts it with the new Russia "being slowly created" by the Bolsheviks. It was republished by the Executive Committee of the Communist International in 1920, with a foreword by the Scottish socialist John Maclean, in response to fears of British military intervention in the Polish-Soviet War.
  • In the hands of the Bolshevists, 1920. James Leishman's description of his experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war in Russia in 1918 and 1919, published in the anarchist journal The Spur.
  • The blockade of Russia, 1920. Leaflet published by the Labour and Russia Council of Action, criticising the British naval blockade of Russia as "the mainstay of the Counter-revolutionary attack, and therefore the chief support of the hideous civil war that for nearly three years past has devastated great tracts of her country".
  • Bolshevik Materialism and British Idealism: Lenin v. Lloyd George, 1920. Self-published pamphlet by Richard Lee, including sections on 'What Lloyd George and the Allies have done to Russia' and 'How the Sane-minded (!!) British People have been Hoodwinked concerning Russia'.
  • Report, resolutions and other papers relating to the Rank and File Convention in London, 10-12 March 1920. The convention included several delegates who would later become leading figures in the Communist Party of Great Britain. The resolutions discussed included a proposal for a general strike to stop British intervention in Russia.
  • Export of armaments to Russia. Basic statistical data from the archives of the Trades Union Congress relating to the supply of weapons to Russia by Britain, the United States and France in 1920. It notes that the exports cease in 1921, after the defeat of the 'White' military leaders Kolchak, Denikin and Wrangel.
  • Attacks on Russia during 1921. Pamphlet published in 1922 by the National "Hands off Russia" Committee, including correspondence and interviews with the Polish, Japanese, Finnish, French, Roumanian, and Russian official representatives in London.

  • The Red Army: A Short Account of the First Army of the Workers, 1928. Early Stalin-era history of the Red Army, including account of its role against White Russians and "allied imperialism" (particularly Britain and France) during the civil war. Trotsky, former head of the Red Army, isn't mentioned.

Additional documents on the Russian Civil War are available through our digital collection on the Russian Revolution and Britain, 1917-1928.