XIII The Revolution Goes to War

1 Arming the Revolution

It was five years since Dmitry Os'kin had last been in Tula. Then, in 1913, he had been a simple peasant boy fresh from the countryside to sign up as a soldier of the Tsar. Now, in the spring of 1918, he was returning to the same town, a commissar in Trotsky's army, to put steel into the revolution.

The years of war and revolution had been kind to Os'kin. He had risen through the ranks, winning four St George's Crosses on the way, as the old caste of officers was destroyed. During 1917 his fortunes rose as his politics moved to the Left: he rode on the tide of the soldiers' revolution. His SR credentials won him command of a regiment, followed by election to the Central Committee of the Soldiers' Soviet on the South-Western Front. In October he went as an SR delegate to the Second Soviet Congress — one of that grey mass' of unwashed soldiers in the Smolny Hall whom Sukhanov had blamed for the Bolshevik triumph. In early 1918, when Trotsky began to build the officer corps of the new Red Army, he turned first to the NCOs, like Os'kin, who had learned their trade in the tsarist army. It was a marriage of convenience between the ambitions of the peasant sons and the military needs of the regime. As Napoleon had once said, every soldier carried in his knapsack the baton of a field-marshal: that was the making of an armee revolutionnaire.

One hundred miles south of Moscow, Tula was the arsenal of the revolution. After the evacuation of Petrograd it became the hub of the Soviet Republic's munitions industry. At the height of the First World War its factories employed over 60,000 workers, although by the time of Os'kin's arrival, with the general flight to the countryside, only 15,000 were left. The new military commissar took up his office in the Soviet building, housed in the former Peasant Bank, which, as if to symbolize the new social order, was surrounded by metal factories.1

The local Red Guards, which Os'kin had come to reorganize, had been mostly set up by the workers during 1917 to defend their factories against the threat of a 'counter-revolution'. After the Bolshevik seizure of power there had been a great deal of talk about using them to form a new type of 'proletarian army' rather than retaining the remnants of the old (and mainly peasant) one.

The Bolsheviks did not like the idea of a standing army. They thought of the army as a tool of oppression wielded by the old regime against the revolution. A workers' militia would be more egalitarian, and the Red Guards were to be the basis of such a force. They made up the units of the new Red Army, whose establishment was decreed on 15 January. Apart from their ideological objections to the idea of a standing army, the Bolsheviks also had practical reasons for favouring the volunteer principle at this stage: the disintegration of the old army and the complete absence of any apparatus to carry out conscription left them no choice. The only real troops they could rely on were the three brigades of Latvian Rifles, 35,000 strong, which stood alone between them and disaster during the first months of their regime.

At this time, when the workers were fleeing the cities, the new Red recruits were largely made up of unemployed former soldiers, and all those 'vagabond, unstable elements that', in Trotsky's words, 'were so numerous at the time'. Some of them had no doubt come to like the army way of life, or at least preferred it to post-war civilian hardships. But most of them had nowhere else to go — the war left them without home or family. They were stranded in towns like Tula, half-way between the Front and their long-abandoned homes. Many of these migrants signed up with the Red Guards simply to receive a standard-issue coat, or a pair of boots, before running off to sell them and start the whole process over again in some other town. The new Proletarian Militia was a rag-and-bone trade for the down and out.2

Naturally, such an army was virtually useless on the battlefield. The image of the Red Guards as disciplined crack troops is the stuff of Soviet mythology. The Red Guards were irregular detachments, motley-clothed and armed, poorly disciplined and very heavy-drinking. The 'committee spirit' of 1917 lived on in their ranks. Officers were elected and their primitive operational plans were usually voted on by a show of soldiers' hands. The military consequences were disastrous. Attacks were launched without proper scouting, often using no more than a school atlas. The soldiers fought in a wild and undisciplined manner, all too frequently breaking up in panic at the first sight of the enemy. Crushing defeats by the Germans in February and March, followed by the Czechs in May and June, made it clear to Trotsky that such methods would not do. With the Soviet regime on the brink of defeat, the Red Army would have to be reformed on the model of the old imperial army, with regular units replacing the detachments, proper discipline in the ranks, professional officers and a centralized hierarchy of command. That reformation was to be Os'kin's task in Tula.

One of Trotsky's first measures was to call on the services of ex-tsarist officers. They were called 'military specialists' rather than officers to dissociate them from the old regime (for the same reason soldiers were now called 'Red Army servicemen'). Some 8,000 ex-tsarist officers had volunteered to fight for the Bolsheviks after their seizure of power. The soldiers and their committees, for whom the revolution meant above all the ending of officers' authority, greeted them with much hostility. But the shortage of NCOs, as well as the so-called Red Commanders, whose training had only just begun, ensured that brute military needs won the day over revolutionary zeal. Now Trotsky sought to extend the principle with the mass conscription of the ex-tsarist officers, brushing aside the soldiers' objections by simply abolishing their committees. On 29 July he issued his famous Order Number 228, calling up all officers. By the end of the year, 22,000 ex-tsarist officers had been recruited; and in the course of the civil war the number rose to 75,000, not including doctors, vets and other officials. By the end, three-quarters of the senior commanders in the Red Army were drawn from the tsarist officer corps.3

What motivated these officers? Some, like Brusilov, who was to join the Red Army in 1920, were moved by a sense of patriotic duty: the country, for better or worse, had chosen the Reds, or so it seemed to them, and their duty was to serve it. Many were also driven by an inbred sense of military duty: these were 'army men' who would serve that institution regardless of its politics. Perhaps some junior officers were also attracted by the prospect of a more senior command in the new army than they might have expected in the old one. But the most common motivation was the simple need to find a job: it was survival, not self-advancement, which drew the officers to the Soviet cause. Most of them had lost their military pension, often their only means of livelihood, and were thus much worse off than the other ruined classes of Old Russia. Amidst the terror of 1918, moreover, they were well advised to make themselves useful to the regime. For as Trotsky was to put it in a memo to Lenin, by employing the ex-tsarist officers 'we shall lighten the load on the prisons'.* The officers who joined were closely supervised by the commissars, like Os'kin, and warned that any acts of betrayal of the Red Army would lead to the arrest of their families. 'Let the turncoats realize', read Trotsky's special order of 30 September, 'that they are at the same time betraying their own families — their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives and children.'4

There was a storm of opposition to the recruitment of these officers. Many soldiers saw it as a return to the old military order, and as a betrayal of Order Number One. They particularly resented the reintroduction of pay differentials based on rank, of compulsory saluting, and of special badges and uniforms, not to speak of rations and privileges, for the officers. The party workers in the army saw it as a challenge to their power, while the NCOs and the Red Commanders were jealous of the 'men with golden epaulettes' and feared that they might block their own promotion. Os'kin himself was in two minds about the tsarist officers. As a military man, he could see the desperate need for competent commanders. Military efficiency had to be placed before revolutionary equality. The antics of the Left SRs and the Anarchists in Tula — teenage fanatics of the militia principle — had caused enough chaos to convince him of the need for Bolshevik discipline and organization (he joined the party in July 1918). And yet, at the same time, as a peasant-NCO and a man of some ambition, he also resented the privileges of the ex-tsarists. Where he had earned his rank through courage under fire, most of them had gained theirs through birth and education. He felt that their attitudes were unchanged — 'their facial muscles winced whenever they were addressed by the soldiers as "comrade commander" ' — and feared this might lead them to revolt.'"'

* At that time (October 1918) there were 8,000 officers sitting as 'hostages' in the Cheka prisons (Revvoensovet Respubliki, 36).

The military setbacks of the summer were quickly blamed by Trotsky's critics on the ex-tsarist officers. The loss of Simbirsk to the Komuch in July had indeed been partly brought about by the mutiny of M. A. Murav'ev, a lieutenant-colonel in the tsarist army and the Left SR Commander of the Eastern Front. During the following months a concerted campaign was launched within the party against Trotsky's policies. Two articles in Pravda were the catalysts of this conflict. Sorin, a member of the Moscow Party Committee, accused Trotsky of vesting 'too much power' in the ex-tsarist officers, while unfairly making the commissars 'answer with their lives' when the soldiers refused to obey their orders. A commissar named Panteleev had indeed been shot on Trotsky's orders after his detachment had fled from the battle for Kazan. The case became a cause celebre for those determined to defend the independence of the party and its commissars against the commanders. Kamensky, a commissar in Voroshilov's army on the Southern Front, claimed in the other Pravda article that the ex-tsarist commanders acted like virtual 'autocrats', while the commissars were merely there to 'append a decorative signature' to their orders.6

Kliment Voroshilov, an Old Bolshevik and Red Guard commander, was the leading figure of this Military Opposition, as it soon came to be known. Based in Tsaritsyn, Voroshilov refused to carry out the orders of Trotsky's central command organ, the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic (RVSR) and its Commander on the Southern Front, the ex-tsarist General Sytin based at Kozlov. Stalin backed Voroshilov, although he always denied belonging to the-Military Opposition. This direct challenge to Trotsky's authority from such a senior party comrade was the origin of much of the personal animosity between Trotsky and Stalin in the years to come.

Trotsky turned the criticisms of his policies into a question of the party's general confidence in himself as Commissar for War. He demanded that the editors of Pravda be censured for publishing the articles by Sorin and Kamensky. He also demanded Stalin's recall from the Southern Front, where the Georgian was shooting dozens of officials and creating havoc as a special commissar for food supply. This was a dangerous game for Trotsky to play. The sentiments of the Military Opposition, like those of the Left Communists, from which it had in part originated, were widely shared among the rank and file who had joined the party since 1917. As they saw it, the whole purpose of the revolution was to replace the old 'bourgeois specialists' with proletarians loyal to the party. Theirs was a communism of careerists — one that combined an egalitarian rejection of the old authorities with the demand that they, as Communists, should enjoy a similar position of power and privilege within the new regime. In their eyes, comradeship and class were the only necessary qualifications for military advancement. Battles would be won by the 'revolutionary spirit' of the comrades and their men, not by the outmoded science of the tsarist Military Academy.

Underlying this mistrust of the officers was an instinctive lower-class resentment of all privilege and a deep anti-intellectualism. These same attitudes were also displayed towards the other so-called 'bourgeois specialists' employed by the Soviet regime in the bureaucracy and industry (i.e. Civil Servants, managers and technicians who had held their posts before 1917). Many intellectuals in the party leadership were themselves targets of this demagogic hostility from the rank and file. Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev, Stalin's three great rivals in the 1920s,* suffered particularly on this score. Their Jewish looks no doubt had much to do with it. Most of the Military Opposition came from lower-class families and had had no more than a basic education. Voroshilov was the son of a casual labourer on the railways, and had spent only two years at school. These 'sons of the proletariat' were resentful at having to give way to officers who had enjoyed all the privileges of noble birth and education in the Military Academy. Much of their resentment, as junior commanders, was provoked by what they saw as Trotsky's arrogance and his Bonapartist manners as the head of the Red Army. He always arrived at the Front in his richly furnished train (Trotsky was well known as a gourmet and his train was equipped with its own high-class restaurant). His commissars were always dressed in immaculate uniforms, with expensive leather boots and shiny golden buttons. Perhaps with a little more sensitivity Trotsky might have neutralized the Military Opposition. But he had never been noted for his tact — Trotsky himself once admitted that he was disliked within the party for his 'aristocratism' — and his pride had been wounded by the Oppositions challenge to his position and authority. Trotsky chose to strike back where it would hurt most, ridiculing his critics as 'party ignoramuses'. The odd betrayal by the military specialists, he claimed, was not as bad as the loss of 'whole regiments' through the incompetence of 'semi-educated' Communist commanders who 'could not even read a map'.7

* Stalin's rise to power was partly dependent on the mobilization of this anti-intellectualism against the Old Bolsheviks (those who had joined the party before 1917) among the rank-and-file Communists. Many of his most important allies in the 1920s were former members of the Military Opposition. Voroshilov, for example, joined the Politburo in 1925.

The conflict rumbled on through the winter, until March 1919, when, with Kolchak on the Volga, Lenin made an appeal for party unity, and a compromise of sorts was struck at the Eighth Party Congress. Trotsky's employment of the ex-tsarist officers was to be supported on the grounds of military exigency, but the supervisory role of the commissars and the general power of the party in the army were both to be increased, along with the training of Red Commanders for future leadership of the army. This, however, was just to throw a blanket over the dispute. The chain of command in the army became even more confused, with the commanders, the commissars and the local party cells all engaged in a three-cornered struggle for authority.8 Moreover, the conflict between Trotsky and the Military Opposition was to emerge the following summer, when Stalin relaunched a general attack on the leadership of the army.

* * * In the summer of 1918, with the Reds facing defeat on all sides, the Soviet Republic was declared a 'single military camp'. Martial law was imposed throughout the country. The RVSR under Trotsky's leadership became the supreme organ of the state; the whole economy was geared towards the needs of the army; and the country was divided into three main Fronts (Eastern, Southern and Northern), five Army Groups and a Fortified Area in the west. The Bolshevik leaders made fist-banging speeches and the press came out with bold headlines calling on the people to do their duty and defend the Fatherland.

In this desperate situation, Trotsky had no choice but to call for mass conscription. The Red volunteers were many too few and poorly disciplined to counteract the Germans in the Ukraine, the British in the north, the Czechs on the Volga, the Japanese in the Far East and the Whites aided by the Allies on the Don. Mass conscription was Trotsky's second major reform, after the recruitment of the ex-tsarist officers, and it was just as controversial as the first.

Whereas the Red Guards were seen as an army of the working class, mass conscription was bound to produce an army of peasants. Most Bolsheviks saw the peasants as an alien and hostile social force. Conscription on this scale was in their eyes tantamount to arming the enemy. It would 'peasantize' the Red Army and end the domination of the working class within it, an important retreat from the party's principles. But then the revolution was itself in retreat, with the Reds on the brink of defeat. If they were to survive, they had no choice but to mobilize the peasantry.

To begin with, though, most of the conscripts continued to be drawn from the cities. Of the fifteen compulsory mobilizations declared between June and August, eleven applied only to urban workers. With hundreds of factories closing every month, there was no great problem in getting workers to enrol for the army: 200,000 did so from Moscow and Petrograd alone. The local party organs also threw in 40,000 of their own members. Semen Kanatchikov, the Bolshevik worker now turned roving commissar, arrived in Tula to oversee the despatch of Communists to the Eastern Front. Os'kin thought him a 'severe task-master' and expressed his fears that if the best comrades were called up, there would not be enough left in Tula to defend the revolution there. This was a major problem for the provincial party organizations. Many of their most committed members were lost in battle, so that the worst elements, the self-seekers and the corrupt, took control of local party cells.9

During these first campaigns, when the Red Army was desperate for recruits, ultimate proof of devotion to the party was shown by fighting for it at the Front. The Bolsheviks had always distinguished themselves with a macho and military self-image. They dressed in leather jackets — a military fashion of the First World War — and all carried guns.* Half a million party members joined the Red Army during the civil war. Trotsky, who compared these Communist fighters to the Japanese Samurai, ensured that they were distributed evenly throughout all the army units. Party members, if not appointed commissars, were certainly expected to lead from the front. Many of them fought with a desperate courage, if only for fear of their own capture (and almost certain torture) by the Whites. The bravery of the Communist soldiers became part of the Reds' civil war mythology. It was what the Bolshevik historian L. N. Kritsman would later call the 'heroic period' of the revolution. And from that romantic image — the image of the party as a comradeship in arms unafraid to advance or conquer any fortress — came many of its basic ruling attitudes.

Mass conscription of the peasantry was one fortress still to be conquered. In 1918 the Soviet regime had no real military apparatus in the countryside. Few volost Soviets had a military committee (voenkom), the main organ responsible for carrying out Red Army conscription. Even where there was a military committee its work was usually hampered by the village commune, which alone had a register of peasants eligible for conscription. The first remotely comprehensive military census of the population was not completed until 1919 — which of course meant that until then any conscription was bound in effect to be no more than a voluntary call-up. It was hardly surprising, then, that of the 275,000 peasant recruits anticipated from the first call-up in June, only 40,000 actually appeared.10

* All party members had the right to carry guns. It was seen as a sign of comradely equality. They were not disarmed until 1935 — after the murder of Kirov.

There were several reasons why the peasants would resist mobilization into the Red Army. The first harvest of the revolution, which coincided with the call-up, was the most compelling. Peasant recruitments and desertions in all the civil war armies fluctuated in accordance with the farming seasons. Peasants joined up in the winter, only to desert the following summer. In the central agricultural regions the weekly rate of desertion was up to ten times higher in summer than in winter. As the Red Army grew on a national scale, such desertions became more common, topping two million during 1919, because the recruits were more fearful of being sent to units a long way from their farms.11

During the autumn of 1918 many village communes called on both sides to end the civil war through negotiation. Many even declared themselves 'neutral republics' and formed brigades to keep the armies out of their 'independent territory'. There was a general feeling among the peasants that they had been at war for far too long, that in 1917 they had been promised peace, and that now they were being forced to go to war again. Whole provinces — Tambov, Riazan', Tula, Kaluga, Smolensk, Vitebsk, Pskov, Novgorod, Mogilev and even parts of Moscow itself — were engulfed by peasant uprisings against the Red Army's conscriptions and its all too often coercive requisitioning of peasant food and horses. Os'kin, in Tula, had to deal with one of the largest revolts in November. Bands of peasants armed with harrows, spades and axes marched on the towns, where they ransacked and burned the Soviet's military offices. Many of the rebels had been called up. Others had lost their only horse to the army draft (a catastrophe for any peasant farm). Peasant recruits in the local barracks, disgruntled by the harsh conditions there, often joined the uprisings. Tula was surrounded by a band of 500 peasants. Os'kin and Kanatchikov mobilized the party and 2,000 factory workers, threatening shirkers with instant execution, and, with the help of a Red Army brigade from Moscow, pushed the rebels back to their villages, where they then carried out a series of brutal repressions. Os'kin calmly recalled that 'we shot several hundred peasants'. He sat as judge and jury on the ring-leaders of the uprisings, sentencing dozens of them to public hangings. Such were the powers and the responsibilities of a Bolshevik commissar.12

During the first months of 1919 the rate of peasant conscription improved markedly. The slack period of the farming season and the growing threat of a White advance from the Volga and the Don, leading to the loss of the land which the peasants had gained in the revolution, were crucial factors. But the general strengthening of Soviet power in the countryside also played its part. From 800,000 soldiers in January, the Red Army doubled in size by the end of April, the height of Kolchak's offensive in the east. Most of the new recruits came from the Volga region, the Red frontier against Kolchak, where the peasants had most to fear from a White victory.13

'We had decided to have an army of one million men by the spring,' declared Lenin in October 1918, 'now we need an army of three million. We can have it. And we shall have it!' And have it they did. The Red Army grew to three million men in 1919, and to five million by the end of the following year. But ironically, the possession of an army on such a scale was a serious handicap to the regime's military potential. For the army grew much faster than the devastated Soviet economy was able to keep it supplied with the instruments of war: guns, clothing, transport, fuel, food and medicine. The soldiers' morale and discipline fell in step with the decline in supplies. They deserted in their thousands, taking with them their weapons and uniforms, so that new recruits had to be thrown into battle without proper training, so that they in turn were even more likely to desert. The Red Army was drawn into a vicious circle of mass conscription, blockages of supply and mass desertion. And this locked the whole economy into the draconian system of War Communism, whose main purpose was to channel all production towards the demands of the army (see pages 612-15, 721-32).

With hindsight, the Bolsheviks might have done better to opt for a smaller army, better disciplined, better trained and better supplied, and not such a burden on the economy. As one Red commander put it to Lenin in December 1918: 'It is a thousand times more expedient to have no more than a million Red Army men, but well-fed, clothed and shod ones, rather than three million half-starved, half-naked and half-shod ones.' Such an army, made up largely of workers, would have been more battle-worthy than the peasant conscripts who barely knew how to handle a gun and ran home at the start of the harvest. The Reds, in practice, had no real fighting chance against the Whites, whose troops were much better trained and disciplined, unless they outnumbered them by four and sometimes even ten to one. For every active Red on the battlefield there were eight others who for lack of training, clothing, health or ammunition could not be deployed.14 A smaller army, moreover, by placing less pressure on the economy, would not have led to the same excesses — the violent requisitionings, the imposition of labour duty, the militarization of the factories — which did so much to alienate the peasants and workers from the Soviet regime. Yet arguments from hindsight are the luxury of historians: when Lenin made his panic call for a mass army, the regime seemed on the brink of defeat; and it is easy to understand why he opted for safety in numbers.

Watching the parade on Red Square to mark the first anniversary of the October Revolution, Lenin was shocked by the ragtag appearance of the troops. 'Look at them,' he exclaimed, 'they march like bags of sand.' In most of the units there were no standard uniforms, and the soldiers dressed in whatever came to hand. Many wore the uniforms they took from the captured Whites (who in turn wore British Army surplus kit). As for leather boots, they were worn only by the Red Army commanders, the commissars and the cavalrymen. The peasant infantry marched in the crude bast shoes, or lapti, manufactured in the villages. But even these were in short supply and there were times when, for lack of adequate footwear, whole regiments had to be confined to barracks. The supply of weapons was not much better. It was largely a question of shells: whereas the army was firing between seventy and ninety million rounds a month, the main arsenal at Tula was producing only twenty million. 'There were times', as Trotsky put it, 'when every one of a soldiers stock of cartridges counted, and when delay in the arrival of a special train bringing ammunitions resulted in whole divisions retreating.'15

'Comrades!', a bad-tempered Trotsky warned an army conference in 1919, 'although we have not been brought down by Denikin or Kolchak, we may yet be brought down by overcoats or boots.' In fact, if anything, the Red Army was brought down — quite literally — by illness and disease. More soldiers died from disease than from fighting in the civil war. Typhus, influenza, smallpox, cholera, typhoid and venereal diseases were the main killers, but many more men suffered from lice, stomach bugs, dysentery and toothache. On an average day in an average unit, 10 to 15 per cent of the men would be too ill to fight and had to be abandoned to fortune in the rear. But some units were taken out of action by rates of illness of up to 80 per cent. This was particularly true in 1920, when 30 per cent of the Red Army — that is, over a million men — contracted typhus. The unhygienic conditions of army life, where soap and bath water were not seen for weeks, were the root cause of the problem. But the situation was made much worse by the chronic shortages of doctors and nurses, surgical spirits, bandages and drugs. The rapid to-and-fro movements of the Fronts, so characteristic of the civil war, also made it difficult to set up proper field hospitals or to organize transport to the rear. The sick and wounded could thus be neither properly cared for at the Front, nor easily evacuated to the rear. The agony they must have gone through can only be imagined. Trotsky himself, touring the Southern Front in June 1919, was shocked to see the way the wounded men were treated:

Transports arrived by rail at Lisky station containing wounded men who were in a frightful condition. The trucks were without bedding. Many of the men lay, wounded and sick, without clothes, dressed only in their underwear, which had long remained unchanged: many of them were infectious. There were no medical personnel, no nurses and nobody in charge of the trains. One of the trains, containing over 400 wounded and sick Red Army men, stood in the station from early morning until evening, without the men being given anything to eat. It is hard to imagine anything more criminal and shameful!16

Given such hellish conditions, no one could expect the soldiers to behave like saints. Heavy drinking, brawls and looting were the most common — and least serious — problems of indiscipline. But there were also daily reports of soldiers disobeying orders; refusing to take in new recruits because of the extra burden on supplies; demanding leave and better conditions; and threatening to or actually lynching their commanders. Full-scale mutinies were not uncommon, culminating in the occupation of the Front headquarters, the arrest or murder of the staff and the election of new officers. It was back to the chaos of 1917. Much of the violence was reserved for the well-dressed officers and commissars, especially if they were suspected of corruption in the distribution of supplies. This violence was given a revolutionary edge by the fact that the officers were often seen as burzhoois — and an ethnic one by the fact that many of the commissars were Jews. Although anti-Semitism was generally much less widespread than among the Whites or Ukrainian nationalists, it was a definite problem in the ranks of the Red Army. One can only wonder what Trotsky must have felt as he read the reports of his own soldiers' pogroms in the Jewish settlements of the Ukraine, where he himself had grown up as a boy and where some of his relatives still lived.17

Desertion was the simplest solution to the soldier's woes. Over a million men deserted from the Red Army in 1918, and nearly four million by 1921. Trotsky said the Red defeats of 1919 — in the east in the spring and in the south in the summer — were a 'crisis of reinforcements', and that is precisely what they were. The Red Army was losing deserters faster than it could replace them with men trained and equipped for battle; and as the quality of the reinforcements fell, so the rate of desertion increased.

The commissars stopped at nothing in their desperate effort to stem the flood of peasant desertions. They sent detachments into the villages behind the Front and punished peasant households suspected of harbouring deserters. Punitive fines were imposed, livestock and property were confiscated, hostages were taken, village leaders were shot, whole villages were burned in an effort to persuade the deserters to return. Os'kin, not to be outdone in this zealotry, even formed a special brigade of Chinese Communists to help him combat the Tula deserters. He assumed that the Chinese would be 'more merciless' than the 'soft-hearted Russians' in taking reprisals against the villagers. Such measures were rarely effective, often merely strengthening the opposition of not only the deserters, but also the entire local peasantry, already embittered by the requisitioning and conscriptions of the Reds. Some deserters formed themselves into guerrilla bands. These were called the Greens partly because they hid out in the woods and were supplied by the local peasants; sometimes these peasant armies called themselves Greens to distinguish themselves from both Reds and Whites. They even had their own Green propaganda and ideology based on the defence of the local peasant revolution. During the spring of 1919 virtually the whole of the Red Army rear, both on the Eastern and the Southern Fronts, was engulfed by these Green armies. In Tambov, Voronezh, Saratov, Penza, Tula, Orel, Nizhnyi Novgorod, Kaluga, Tver and Riazan' provinces peasant bands, sometimes several thousand strong, destroyed the railways, the telegraphs and bridges, ransacked the Soviet military depots and ambushed passing Red Army units. The destruction and chaos which the Greens brought about was to be a crucial factor in weakening the Red Front at a vital moment in the civil war and would lead to the breakthrough of the Whites.18

* * * It may seem odd that a peasant boy like Os'kin should have been so ruthless in putting down the peasants of his native province. But in fact it was not unusual. The Red Army was full of peasant NCOs and commissars like him. It was their School of Communism — transforming them from peasants into comrades — and it was a vital part of their education to learn how to use violence against 'their own'. There was nothing new in this. Military service has always been a form of upward mobility and psychological transformation for the peasantry. The army broadens the peasant's horizons, acquaints him with new technologies and methods of organization, and often teaches him how to read and write. The Russian experience of the First World War was a revolutionizing one in this respect. Most of the peasants called up by the army had, like Os'kin, been educated during the boom in rural schooling between 1900 and 1914. Three out of four peasant recruits into the army in 1914 were registered as literate. They formed a huge pool from which a new class of officers and military technicians would come, replacing the old elite as it was destroyed by the war with the Central Powers. Six out of ten of the military students educated in the officer schools between 1914 and 1917 came from peasant families.19 These were the radical ensigns, the Os'kins of 1917, who led the revolution in the army and were elected to the soldiers' committees. By educating them, the old regime had sown the seeds of its own destruction.

It also created the foot soldiers of the new regime. Having risen so far through the ranks, it was hard for these peasant sons to return from the war to the dull routines of village life. Their new skills and prestige, not to speak of their own self-esteem, gave them the ambition to aim for something better. For Os'kin, as for so many peasants of that war generation, this could only mean serving the new regime. Joining the party offered them a welcome escape from the narrow village world of their peasant fathers and grandfathers, the old Russia of icons and cockroaches. It gave them entry into the new and urban-centred world of the ruling elite. Most of the Soviet bureaucracy, the provincial commissars and comrades of the 1920s, was drawn from these sons of the peasantry; and for most of them, as for Os'kin, the Red Army was the route to glory.

The Bolsheviks were quick to realize the potential of the Red Army as a school for their future bureaucrats. Compulsory lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic were introduced for all ranks from as early as April 1918. More people learned to read in the barracks and bivouacs of the Red Army than the rest of the country put together during the first years of the Soviet regime. By the end of 1920, there were 3,000 Red Army schools, with over two million books. The first emblem of the Red Army showed a hammer and a sickle with a rifle and a book.20

Much of the teaching was inevitably the crudest sort of political indoctrination. It was a marriage between the old socialist and intelligentsia ideals of mass enlightenment and the doctrinal demands of the Bolshevik regime. Primers and textbooks were filled with scenes from everyday life, familiar to the peasants, from which moral and political lessons would then be drawn. These were ABCs of Communism. Dora Elkina recalls how she came to write the first Soviet primer. In 1919 she was sent to the Southern Front to teach the soldiers how to read and write. Having got hold of some old school textbooks, she wrote out the first sentence on the blackboard: 'Masha ate the kasha'. But the soldiers only laughed and heckled. Close to tears, she hit upon the idea of turning the lesson into a political discussion and explained to the soldiers why they could not go home to their Mashas, and why the country was short of kasha. Then she turned to the blackboard and wrote: 'We are not slaves, slaves we are not!' It was a great success among the soldiers, for whom the idea of not being slaves had always been a vital aspect of the revolution. This simple expression of human dignity later became famous as the opening line of her reading book. It was used in primary schools throughout the 1920s and 1930s. For millions of Russians, many of them still alive, it was the first sentence they ever learned to read.21

The poet Mayakovsky also wrote and illustrated one of several primers put out by the Commissariat of Enlightenment in the civil war. Clearly rooted in the Lubok tradition — simple picture tales which had sold in their millions in the nineteenth century — it was a brilliant piece of popular satire, with offbeat couplets in the style of a peasant chastushka, or rhyming song, and a rude iconoclastic humour that would appeal to the soldiers in the trenches:


The Bolsheviks hunt the burzboois

The burzhoois run a mile


It's hard for cows (korovy) to run fast Kerensky was Prime Minister


The Mensheviks are people

Who run off to their mothers


Flowers (tsvety) smell sweet in the evening

Tsar Nicholas loved them very much22

The Red Army was the principal arena of Bolshevik propaganda in the civil war. It aimed to school its soldiers in the principles of Bolshevism — to transform them from peasants into proletarians. 'The main aim of our propaganda in the Red Army', declared one of its pioneers, 'is to fight against the petty-bourgeois, proprietorial psychology of the peasant, and to turn him into a conscious revolutionary fighter.'23 There were army reading clubs and discussion groups, where the latest newspapers were reviewed; evening concerts and lecture meetings, where various Bolshevik dignitaries appeared; propaganda trains furnished with libraries, printing presses and even cinemas, which toured the Fronts; and Red Army drama groups which entertained the troops with cabarets and plays to drive home the meaning of Soviet power and highlight the evil of its foes.

Half a million Red Army soldiers joined the Bolshevik Party during the civil war. These were the missionaries of the revolution. They carried Bolshevism, its ideas and its methods, back to their towns and villages, where they flooded into the Soviet institutions during the early 1920s. The whole of the Soviet apparatus was thus militarized. Certain Fronts and armies would colonize certain commissariats. Party factions were formed on the basis of the links between veterans of the civil war. The Red Army as a whole, with its centralized command, was seen as a model for the Soviet apparatus. Trotsky often compared the two, likening the need for discipline in industry and society at large to the need for discipline in the ranks. The success of the Red Army increasingly led to the application of military methods throughout the Soviet system. Nothing did more to shape the ruling attitudes of the Bolsheviks than the experience of the civil war. The image and the self-identity of the Soviet regime was based on the mythology of a new order born out of armed struggle against the old; and, rather as in Franco's Spain, this foundation cult of the civil war became a vital mythological propaganda weapon of the Stalinist regime, with its constant demands on the Soviet people to display the same heroic spirit, the same discipline and self-sacrifice, as they had shown in the civil war. Even the language of the Bolshevik regime, with its constant talk of 'campaigns', 'battles' and 'Fronts', of its 'vanguards' and 'fighters' for Socialism, bore the traces of this militarism. The Bolshevism that emerged from the civil war viewed itself as a crusading brotherhood of comrades in arms, conquering Russia and the world with a red pencil in one hand and a gun in the other.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!