I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading around the history of the Russian civil war, renewing my fascination with that period. Given the upcoming centenary of the first world war, and the probable emphasis in anglophone countries on the events of the western front, it’s probably worth also remembering the scale of the changes wrought in the east with the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires and the emergence of new states and polities, not to mention the various conflicts and revolutions that came in its wake, the most important of which, for its impact on the history of twentieth century was the October revolution in Russia.
Working through the history of the Russian Civil War and the Allied intervention can be daunting. So many acronyms, places and absolutely stupendous scale can reduce one to a state of complete confusion. So much so that I’ve put together this spreadsheet to put events in sequence. I don’t claim it to be comprehensive, but it’s as accurate as I can get it from the sources available to me.
It has also got to be remembered that this was not a simple green versus blue civil war like the American Civil War or the Spanish Civil war.
In very simple terms, the Bolsheviks mounted a coup against Kerensky’s Provisional Government. In some place the local authorities declared for Lenin, in other places Kerensky. Army officers, who were in a mutinous state anyway individually turned their attentions on the Bolsheviks in part because they were propped up by western aid. It is an open question how many of the white generals might in time have rebelled against Kerensky.
At the same time, various political groupings, mostly in Siberia, tried to stitch together a Provisional Government mark 2, which was in turn deposed by White forces under Kolchak. It is telling that after Kolchak’s coup parts of the Provisional Government’s forces defected to the Bolsheviks rather than fight for the old order.
In other places, in the Baltic, in the Caucasus various former polities tried to re-establish their former states which had been absorbed into the Russian empire, much as happened in the post 1992 break-up of the Soviet Union.
It also has to be remembered that the dramatic changes in this period affected the lives of millions and was built of many individual tragedies.
The most obvious of the tragedies was the extra judicial execution of the Tsar and his family in the basement of the Ipatiev house in July 1918.
We now know that they were all shot or otherwise murdered. We’ve found the bones. Modern DNA testing has disproved all of the imposters no matter how plausible. In the 1920’s when Shanghai was full of taxi-dancers claiming to have been countesses or princesses and ex-countesses working as nightclub entertainers the various imposters probably seemed a quite a bit more plausible.
Not now, we’ve found the bones.
It’s interesting however to look at how the myths might have come about. If you look at the July 18 1918 New York Times it has a report of the execution of the Tsar. Interestingly it says quite explicitly that only Nicholas has been shot and that the rest of the Imperial Family was in detention.
It also states that Nicholas may have been shot by the Ural Soviet to prevent capture by the Czechoslovak legion. (Strangely there have been whispers that the British in Murmansk had a house prepared for important personages – certainly one of the original plans was to evacuate the Czechs via Murmansk – and it would be only natural to speculate that someone thought that they might be taking the Tsar and his family into exile via Murmansk. How they were going to get them from Ekaterinburg to Murmansk is another mystery,)
Searching the newspapers of the time it’s also clear that no one had any real idea of what had happened with various fictitious accounts circulating, and even after the capture of Ekaterinburg by the White forces there was still a lack of clarity, as well as perhaps a reluctance to believe the extent of the murders.
And while the original investigators did not find the bones of Alexis, there was a report put out by the Bolsheviks a few days after the extra judicial killing that Alexis had died of exposure – the circumstances of suffering from exposure being unexplained.
In short no one at the time had any real idea what was happening, and if that was true for the imperial family it must have been so much more true for individuals and an opportunity to perhaps reinvent themselves.