The Green armies (Russian: Зеленоармейцы), also known as the Green Army (Зелёная Армия) or Greens (Зелёные), were armed peasant groups which fought against all governments in the Russian Civil War from 1917 to 1922. The Green armies were semi-organized local militias that opposed the Bolsheviks, Whites, and foreign interventionists, and fought to protect their communities from requisitions or reprisals carried out by third parties. The Green armies were politically and ideologically neutral, but at times associated with the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. The Green armies had at least tacit support throughout much of Russia, however their primary base, the peasantry, were largely reluctant to wage an active campaign during the Russian Civil War and eventually dissolved following Bolshevik victory in 1922.
The Green movement formed as a popular reaction of the peasantry against Bolshevik activities in the countryside during the Russian Civil War, which began after the October Revolution in November 1917. The Bolshevik government instituted the War Communism policy in 1918, sending officials through the peasant lands of central Russia to collect supplies that the state needed to sustain the military and to begin building a socialist economy. Official requisitioning of peasant property occurred, with common targets including recruits for the Red Army, horses, and grain. Requisitioning units and agricultural overseers often overstepped their official duties, plundering households indiscriminately and harming villagers. The official policies inflamed passions, and their harsh implementation engendered widespread resentment to the Bolshevik regime. The bloody repression of any popular unrest further alienated the peasantry, and when the Green armies began to form, Bolshevik excesses led many peasants to devote themselves to anti-Bolshevik activities.
Constituents, leadership and goals
Despite Soviet attempts to associate the Green armies with White leadership, such a designation overemphasizes the political aspects of the movement. In a broad sense, the Green armies were spontaneous manifestations of peasant discontent rather than of any specific ideology. By 1920, the Bolsheviks had secured victory over the Whites and the peasant soldiers of the Red Army, outraged at the prospect of continuing to violently oppress their own class in the interest of the new government, deserted and consolidated in groups in the forests, eventually leading to their "Green" designation. While these groups primarily opposed the Bolsheviks, they often did so without a plan or alternative form of government in mind; rather, they simply wanted to rid the countryside of Bolshevik influence by any means necessary.
Besides Soviet records of their oppositional activity, there is very little personal information about the Green leaders, described as "men who acted and wrote not" due to the widespread illiteracy and spontaneous nature of their movement. In order to build substantial forces, a motivated individual would lead a group of soldiers through the countryside, enlisting village inhabitants and deserters from the Red Army along the way. The leaders would enter a village and make an announcement, employing simple messages and vague, reactionary goals in their rhetoric to rouse enthusiasm. They often exaggerated Bolshevik weakness and opposition victories as a means to convince listeners to join. By keeping the objectives simple, the recruitment indiscriminate, and the mood optimistic, Green leaders succeeded in provoking a sense among the peasants that they could make a significant dent in Bolshevik power. They also drew support from disillusioned urban and railroad workers, who had "fled back to the villages" and informed the peasants about the horrendous working conditions of developing industry.
Tactics and activity
While it can be difficult to distinguish Green armies from other forms of peasant unrest, they were marked by concentrated leadership and distinct units, displaying a higher level of organization than most peasant uprisings. For instance, Aleksandr Antonov's Green army in Tambov had a medical staff, reinforcement brigades, and a complex system of communication and intelligence that employed women, children, and the elderly. Notable Green movements also developed in the regions of Novgorod, Tula, Ryazan, Tver, Voronezh, Kostroma, Syzran, Gomel, Kursk, Bryansk and Oryol, among many others. Estimations of Green forces ranged from a few hundred to fifty-thousand. Apart from the weapons that Red deserters brought with them, the Greens stole war material from defeated Bolshevik soldiers, from Bolshevik supply buildings, and from abandoned garrisons of the former Imperial Russian Army. They incited armed resistance to Bolshevik institutions in nearby villages and towns, bragging of peasant victories and recruiting new soldiers, sometimes by force. Green bands conducted highly mobile guerrilla warfare, attacking Bolshevik communication systems, mills, railways and factories, as well as Red Army detachments if they were comparable in size. If the peasants successfully overwhelmed Bolsheviks, they cruelly punished soldiers and officials, often mutilating bodies, torturing families or burying victims alive.
Cooperation with other groups
Green armies often cooperated with other opposition groups – including anarchists and moderate left-wing Socialist-Revolutionary Party – in concerted efforts against the Bolsheviks, but generally for strategic reasons rather than ideological ones. While disillusioned Whites joined the Green cause and led some of the peasant bands, the Bolsheviks overstated the extent to which the two elements were related. Prone to follow fiery rhetoric and promises of violent revenge, the peasants usually rejected leaders who announced a primarily political goal or who represented the more moderate interests of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and other parties associated with the Provisional Government of 1917. "They preferred waging a desperate and lonely struggle on their own to helping the oppressors of the past [the Whites] achieve victory over the oppressors of the present [the Reds]."
The Bolshevik government tried to build an anti-revolutionary, anti-communist image for the Green armies. Provincial Communist officials announced to locals that the Green armies were a subsection of the villainous White movement, despite the fact that Green armies were generally just as hostile to the Whites as they were to the Reds. The Bolsheviks also exaggerated the influence of the kulaks in Green armies, who were undoubtedly involved but hardly the driving force of the movement.
The Bolsheviks initially believed that they could easily defeat the Greens, treating them as a hopeless cause both in their propaganda and in their military strategies. Instead of focusing armed attention on the Greens as a whole, the Reds treated each peasant army as a specific instance of unrest, suppressing harshly and further angering the peasant population. By the time that Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks realized the strength of the Green movement, it had grown into a serious social and military threat to Bolshevik power. Some scholars credit the Green movement with indirectly forcing the Communist Party to change its economic strategy in 1921 (see New Economic Policy), and yet, while the Greens certainly contributed to changes in Bolshevik policy, the extent of their influence is open to debate. It is far less contestable that the New Economic Policy – along with increased rainfall – quelled the Green movement by improving rural conditions and thus damaged the Green armies’ foundation for successful recruitment – peasant discontent. By the summer of 1922, as the Bolsheviks were securing their victory in the civil war, the Green troops had all but disappeared.
Reasons for failure
Aside from the Bolshevik response, a number of internal aspects of the Green movement led to its failure. Green activity often amounted to violence without an actual goal beyond killing communists and interrupting their economic and political activity. Thus, the armies rarely moved outside of their original geographic region. When Greens conquered towns or villages, they did not install themselves politically, leaving the territory to be retaken later by Bolsheviks. Furthermore, there was a great deal of tension within the bands, which often included agrarian peasants, kulaks, workers and Whites, many with preexisting resentment towards each other. The Green armies were underfunded, low on supplies, and outmatched by the Red Army (which, despite its flaws, had better organization and morale as a result of greater, more frequent victories).
- Compare: Vladimir N. Brovkin, Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War: Political Parties and Social Movements in Russia, 1918-1922 (Princeton: Princeton University, 1994), 130-54.
- Orlando Figes, Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 319-20.
- Oliver H. Radkey, The Unknown Civil War in Soviet Russia: A Study of the Green Movement in the Tambov Region 1920-1921 (Stanford: Hoover Institution, 1976), 48.
- Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 70-94.
- Graeme J. Gill, Peasants and Government in the Russian Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1979), 185.
- Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 139-47.
- Brovkin, Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War, 155-62.
- Raleigh, Donald J. Experiencing Russia’s Civil War, (Princeton: Princeton University, 2002), 337-41. and Radkey, The Unknown Civil War, 139-74.
- Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 319-21.
- Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 84, 142.
- Raleigh, Experiencing Russia’s Civil War, 382.
- Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 407-8.
- Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 78-80, 104-7, 407.
- Brovkin, Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War, 318.
- Raleigh, Experiencing Russia’s Civil War, 354-87.
- Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 49-59.
- Brovkin, Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War, 319-21.
- Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 49-59.
- "Socialist-Revolutionary Party appeal to the Bolshevik government, July 1919". University of East Anglia. Archived from the original on 2007-10-26. Retrieved 2008-06-10.
- British Military Operations 1919-1939 by Brian Watson. Retrieved on 10 June 2008.