As we approach the Hundred-Year anniversary of the Great October Revolution in Russia, we continue to read this interesting piece by journalist and archivist Vladimir Veretennikov, an ethnic Russian who lives in Latvia and writes about Russian history.
Where we left off, it was the Glory Days of World War I. This war was the purest possible example of Imperialist War. There were no good guys in this war. Just monarchies and autocrats fighting each other for their patches of plunder. All the nations of the planet, like sheep, had to line up on one side or another. An entire generation was sent into the slaughterhouse. It was this War that gave birth to the Communist Revolution.
The war corrupted everybody, even the Socialist International. Life-long Marxist intellectuals, who previously liked to quote that “The Proletarians have no country”, the moment war was declared, suddenly discovered that they were Uber-patriots of their own King, Queen, Kaiser, or Tsar. In all of this meat-grinder, only one tiny faction of the movement held fast and declared “a plague on all houses” — and this was the Bolshevik fraction of the Russian wing of the Socialist International. Anybody who has witnessed the hysteria and patriotic fervor that grips any nation when war breaks out, can comprehend the guts it takes to say “Bah Humbug!” to your own country when it rushes into war uncocked. Generally the only people with enough balls to buck the national war machine are either (1) dedicated and consistent pacifists; or (2) hardened Communists like Lenin. As I have written in previous blogposts, even Lenin was isolated within his own party, even most of the Bolshevik leadership got soft and squishy around the edges, at the notion that they had to call for the defeat of the Russian army in the middle of a killing war. While also urging German Communists to call for the defeat of their own army. And calling for soldiers on both sides of the trenches to fraternize with each other, become friends, refuse to hurt each other; and turn their rifles on their Imperial Overlords who had pitted these hapless gladiators against one another.
The Latvian Front
Returning to Veretennikov’s narrative: Russian soldiers and the newly-formed Latvian Riflemen (“Strelki”) battalions were fending off German troops at their lonely outpost on the Dvina River, known as the “Island Of Death”. The cruel Germans used everything they had in their arsenal, including poison gas. The casualties were significant, and it’s not the kind of death you would wish on anybody, even your enemy.
Recall that Latvia was at the time a subject of the Russian Empire, and therefore was fighting the Great War on the side of Russia, England and France; and against Germany.
Towards the end of 1916, beginning of 1917, famous and very bloody battles took place on Latvian soil. The Latvian Riflemen fought side by side with Russian Siberian units against the German troops. Veretennikov quotes Latvian writer Vilis Lācis, who describes the horrors of these battles in vivid detail.
Some famous Russian names stand out in these clashes: Ensign Nikolai Gumilev, who enlisted in the war as a volunteer; Konstantin Rokossovsky, later to be a Marshal of the Soviet Union; and Cavalier Ivan Tiulenev, who also later went on to serve as a General in the Soviet army and awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union and the St. George Cross. Gumilev was a Russian patriot who fought for Russia and despised the Bolsheviks. He was executed by the Cheka in 1921 for participating in a pro-Monarchist conspiracy. Rokossovsky and Tiulenev are examples of the other side of the fence: After the Revolution, they went over to the Communists and helped to build the new Red Army; thus providing a certain continuity of transition from Russian to Soviet statehood. See, Communism is stateless; and yet Mother Russia always endures.
The Ice Starts To Shift.
During the so-called “Christmas Battles” of 1916, the first signs appeared of an ideological crack in the patriotic Russian armor. The brass had decided on a major Christmas offensive to oust the German troops from Latvia. The Russian 12th Army of the Northern Front was counterposed by the German 8th Army. As wiki summarizes:
The battles took place in a swampy region, Tīreļpurvs (Tīrelis swamp), between Lake Babīte and Jelgava. The main assault force was the VI Siberian Rifle Corps which included two Latvian Rifleman brigades (“strēlnieki” who are a very important part of Latvian folklore and the first sign of having independence from Russia).
It was in the course of this clash, specifically the Battle of Machine-Gun Hill, that, for the first time, an organized group of soldiers refused the order to advance on the enemy. The Russian officers picked out 92 of the ringleaders of the mutineers and had them shot. Nonetheless, the offensive was called off.
And next thing you know, boom! — the Tsar is gone and Russia is suddenly declared a Republic…
[to be continued]