Through an American Lens: The Russian Civil War

Note: Some images are of a sensitive nature.

In 1919 the United States was entering a decade of prosperity after the success of World War I. The country benefited politically and financially from the experience and while things were by no means perfect, there was reason to hope. However, other countries did not fare as well. Inflation and unemployment rates across Europe, and especially in Germany, climbed. The end of World War I for Russia also had consequences, it sparked another kind of war– a civil war.

Czar Nicholas II returned home in 1916 when the need to deal with food shortages and rebellions became overwhelming. The Russian Empire pulled out of the war soon after in 1917. In addition to these concerns, there was a growing political movement led by the Bolsheviks to overthrow the monarchy, which the Imperial government hoped to subdue. Nicholas failed. He abdicated the throne in 1917 and a year later he, and his wife and children, were executed.

Starting with the February Revolution and the abdication of Nicholas and ending with the October Revolution in 1917, these revolutions caused a civil war to break out in Russia. This put the White Army, who were anti-communist supporters of a monarchy, against the communist Red Army. With no strict geographical boundaries for either side, the war raged for over five years with both soldiers and civilians fighting for their lives.

This brings us to our United States connection. In the summer of 1919 a young Naval Intelligence officer named George F. Zimmer was sent by then head of the United States Food Administration (precursor to the FDA) Herbert Hoover to photographically document the need for food relief.

Zimmer spent time on the front with Army Colonel Stanislav Bulak-Balakhovich who was working as a White Army Administrator of the northern city of Pskov at the time. While there, he photographed the city, people, and Army activities.

The photographs show a state of desperation from the people. The images show the faces of people, starvation, and suspected cannibalism.

The Army engaged in combat during Zimmer’s visit. These battles resulted in deaths, injuries, and prisoners of war.

While some of these images seem almost unbelievable, a letter written by Colonel Stanislav Bulak-Balakhovich is included in the series confirming their accuracy.

Local Identifier: FLAX-GZ-41

This series took almost 100 years to get to the National Archives by way of a donation. Though they are difficult to view, they convey the realities of war and its effect on everyday life. To learn more about the series and see more images (coming soon) please see the National Archives Catalog at this address.