The Green movement formed as a popular reaction to Bolshevik activities in the countryside during the Civil War of 1917–22. After the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik government instituted War Communism (1918–21), 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. Common targets for official requisitioning included recruits for the Red Army, horses, and grain. (From 1929 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 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.
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 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.
Besides Soviet records of their oppositional activity, there is 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”. 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 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 make a significant dent in Communist 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.
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. Notably, “Green” movements developed in the regions of Tambov, Novgorod, Tula, Ryazan', Tver', Voronezh, Kostroma, Syzran', Gomel, Kursk, Bryansk, and Orel, among many others. 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 guerrilla warfare, attacking Soviet communication systems, mills, railways, and plants, as well as Red Army detachments if they were comparable in size. If the peasants successfully overwhelmed Reds, they cruelly punished soldiers and Communist officials, often mutilating bodies, torturing families, or burying victims alive.
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. 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 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 achieve victory over the oppressors of the present ”