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The Green armies, Green Army (Russian: Зелёная Армия), or Greens (Russian: Зелёные) were armed peasant groups which fought against all governments in the Russian Civil War. They fought to protect their communities from requisitions or reprisals by either side. At times associated with the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, by far the largest grouping of the Russian Constituent Assembly, the Green Armies had – at least tacit – support throughout much of Russia. However, the Green Armies' primary base, the peasantry, were largely reluctant to wage an active campaign during the Russian Civil War.


The Green movement was a popular reaction to Bolshevik activity in the countryside during the Civil War of 1917-1922. After the second revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik government instituted War Communism, sending officials through the peasant lands of central Russia to collect supplies that the state needed in order to sustain the military and to begin building a socialist economy. Common targets for official requisitioning included recruits for the Red Army, horses, and grain. Collectivization – which required relocation and novel farming techniques – angered peasants who were hardly predisposed to leave their home and adopt a new way of life when they were already struggling to survive. Requisitioning units and agricultural overseers often overstepped their official duties, plundering households indiscriminately and harming innocent villagers. The official policies were inflammatory, and their harsh implementation engendered widespread resentment to the Bolshevik regime. Bloody repression of any popular unrest further alienated the peasantry and, when Green armies begin to form, encouraged them to devote their lives to the anti-Communist reaction.[1]

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 Reds had secured victory over the Whites and thus the peasant soldiers of the Red army were outraged at the prospect of continuing to violently oppress their own class in the interest of the new government. Groups of deserters consolidated in the forests, eventually leading to their “Green” designation. While these groups 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 Red influence by any means necessary.[2]

Besides Soviet records of their oppositional activity, we have very little personal information about the Green leaders due to the widespread illiteracy and spontaneous nature of their movement. “The Green leaders were men who acted and wrote not”.[3] In order to build substantial forces, a motivated individual would lead a group of soldiers through the countryside, enlisting deserters and village inhabitants along the way. The leaders would enter a village and make an announcement, employing simple messages and vague, reactionary goals in their rhetoric in order to rouse enthusiasm. They often exaggerated Bolshevik weakness and oppositional 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 actually make a significant dent in Communist power.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] Notably “Green” movements developed in the regions of Tambov, Novgorod, Tula, Ryazan', Tver', Voronezh, Kostroma, Syzran', Gomel, Kursk, Bryansk, and Orel, among many others.[7] Forces ranged from a few hundred to fifty-thousand according to the highest estimates. Apart from the weapons that Red deserters brought with them, the Greens stole war material from defeated Red soldiers, from Communist supply buildings, and from abandoned garrisons of the old Tsarist military. They incited armed resistance to Soviet institutions in nearby villages and towns, bragging of peasant victories and recruiting new soldiers, sometimes by force. Green bands conducted highly mobile guerilla warfare, attacking Soviet communication systems, mills, railways, and plants, as well as Red Army detachments if they were comparable in size.[8] In the event that the peasants successfully overwhelmed Reds, they cruelly punished soldiers and Communist officials, often mutilating bodies, torturing families, or burying victims alive.[9]

Cooperation with other groups

Green armies often cooperated with other oppositional groups – including anarchists and left SRs – in concerted efforts against the Reds, but generally for strategic reasons rather than ideological ones.[10] While disillusioned Whites joined the Green cause and led some of the peasant bands, the Soviets overstated the extent to which the two elements were actually related.[11] 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.]” [12]

Bolshevik response

The Soviet 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 apparently 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 certainly involved but hardly the driving force of the movement.[13]

The Communists initially believed that they could easily defeat the Greens, treating the force 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.[14] By the time that 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 Soviet policy, the extent of their influence is open to debate. It is far less contestable that the NEP – along with increased rainfall – quelled the Green movement by improving rural conditions and thus damaged the armies’ foundation for successful recruitment – peasant discontent. By the summer of 1922, the Green armies had all but disappeared.[15]

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 senseless violence without an actual goal outside of murdering Communists and interrupting their economic and political activity. Thus, the armies rarely moved outside of their original geographic region.[16] When the Greens conquered towns or villages, they neglected to install themselves politically and simply left the territory to be retaken later by Reds.[17] Furthermore, there was a great deal of tension within the bands, which often included agrarian peasants, kulaks, workers, and Whites, many of whom possessed preexisting resentment towards each other. The Green armies were permanently underfunded, low on supplies, and would never have stood a chance against the Red armies which, despite their own flaws, were much more organized and whose soldiers’ morale improved as a result of greater, more frequent victories.[18]

See also


  1. 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.
  2. Orlando Figes, Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 319-20.
  3. 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.
  4. Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 70-94.
  5. Graeme J. Gill, Peasants and Government in the Russian Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1979), 185.
  6. Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 139-47.
  7. Brovkin, Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War, 155-62.
  8. Raleigh, Donald J. Experiencing Russia’s Civil War, (Princeton: Princeton University, 2002), 337-41. and Radkey, The Unknown Civil War, 139-74.
  9. Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 319-21.
  10. Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 84, 142.
  11. Raleigh, Experiencing Russia’s Civil War, 382.
  12. Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 407-8.
  13. Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 78-80, 104-7, 407.
  14. Brovkin, Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War, 318.
  15. Raleigh, Experiencing Russia’s Civil War, 354-87.
  16. Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 49-59.
  17. Brovkin, Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War, 319-21.
  18. Radkey, Unknown Civil War, 49-59.

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