One day closer to the Hundred-Year Anniversary of the Great October Revolution in Russia, and we continue to read this interesting piece by journalist and archivist Vladimir Veretennikov.
Veretennikov’s very title of the piece is provocative. Like many newspaper headlines it is crafted to intrigue and draw in readers. The Russian-language comment section to the piece reflecs the spectrum of Russian political views about the causes of the October Revolution and the role of these Latvian Battalions. Some commenters object to laying the blame on Latvians (or other soldiers) for what happened. Others say the Russian army should have fought (for England/France and against Germany) on to the last Latvian. The more simplistic commenters assert that Russia was seized by foreign spies in 1917-1918. By which they mean Germans, of course. Although the other side could affirm, with equal plausibility, that the Tsar and his camarilla were entangled in a nest of English spies. Usually the anti-October pundits blame the Jews for all of Russia’s woes. Others point out that the revolutionary events went much deeper than the actions of just a few disgruntled Latvians or plotting Jews. It’s funny how, a century later, people are still fighting these ideological battles and taking sides, each Re-enactor equipped with his own What-If machine.
In any case, whether one is a Leninist or an anti-Leninist, one must concede Lenin’s genius in his direction of a logical and consistent socialist policy on the Nationalities issue. By devising rules by which national minorities could achieve a level of autonomy within the new Greater Russian entity, the Bolsheviks were able to win over significant national and ethnic layers to their side. The Latvian Riflemen are just one example. And the Bolshevik policy was not cynical, either. No, this was nothing like the Pentagon pretending to offer statehood to the Kurds if they help fight against Saddam, or anything like that. The Bolshevik policy on Nationalities was debated, refined, and written down for all to read, it wasn’t just some opportunistic conjuncture for seizing power. It was precisely the sincerity, the clarity, and the consistency of this position which made it so effective. In first disassembling the Russian Empire, and then building it back, bigger than ever.
Where we left off, we had seen the first cracks in the ice, during the army’s Christmas Offensive of 1916. For the first time since the war started, an entire group of soldiers on the Dvina front refused to follow the orders of their commanding officer. They were shot as mutineers; and yet the offensive to push the German army out of Riga’s environs had to be called off.
Meanwhile, the Romanov Dynasty crumbled, the Tsar abdicated his throne and a Republic was declared. Two parallel governments arose to fill the power gap. All smart bets were on the Provisional Government, which began its term with an insane level of support among all political forces, and among the people at large, but soon managed to squander every kopeck of its political capital. Alongside, performing basic civil functions such as keeping order and taking out the trash, were the local/regional Councils (Soviets) of Workers, Soldiers and Peasant Deputies. Veretennikov quotes Russian historian Oleg Pukhliak:
The poorly considered decrees of the Provisional Government, headed by Kerensky, undermined discipline in the ranks of the army. Regimental-level Commanders were deprived of the right to punish (soldiers) and were permitted to order them to fight only “for the salvation of the Motherland, and for freedom”, as it was fashionable to say in those days. In these circumstances, the majority of Latvian Riflemen went over to the side of the Bolsheviks, who had stated their intention to create, within Russia, both Latvian and Latgalian Autonomies. Taking advantage of this relaxation of discipline within the (Russian) army, and the crumbling of the front, the Germans, on September 1, began their offensive against Riga.
It wasn’t just the lax discipline either, the Russian army on the Norther Front was beset by a host of woes. The supply chain was broken: provisions and ammo were in short suply. Revolutionary agitators operated freely within the units, further undermining the discipline of the officers. The soldiers felt emboldened to simply refuse to perform their basic job, which was to fight and kill the enemy!
General Nikolai Ruzsky was not happy about the situation in Riga. He wrote that all the “misfortunes of the Northern Front” were caused by “two highly propagandized nests”. Unlike some of the other officers, Ruzsky never went over to the new Red Army. He remained loyal to the Tsar. Eventually he ended up in the Caucasus, fighting alongside other White generals. Captured by the Bolsheviks on September 11, 1918, he was executed. Another unhappy camper was General Yakov Davidovich Yuzefovich, of the 12th Army. Yuzefovich wrote a letter to General V.A. Cheremisov, the Commander of the Northern Front, in which he particularly complained about the Latvin Riflemen: “As far as these Latvian Riflemen are concerned, it is precisely they who have corrupted the entire army, and now lead it behind them!”
From this juicy quote, Veretennikov obtained the headline for his piece.
At this dire moment in time, with the entire Northern Front collapsing and the Germans on the march, there was only one chance to save Riga from falling to the enemy:
Commander-in-Chief of the Russian armed forces; Head of the Provisional Government Alexander Kerensky arrived at the front to take charge in person, and to order a new counter-offensive.
[to be continued]