Historical Piece: How Latvian Riflemen Corrupted The Russian Army – Part III

Dear Readers:

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.

If everybody had their own What-If machine…

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.

A Latgalian woman

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.

Tsar Kaput

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.

Russian historian Oleg Pukhliak

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!

Russian Commander-in-Chief Alexander Kerensky

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]

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2 Responses to Historical Piece: How Latvian Riflemen Corrupted The Russian Army – Part III

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    “Meanwhile, the Romanov Dynasty crumbled, the Tsar abdicated his throne and a Republic was declared.”

    Very important note – Republic was NOT proclaimed following the abdication of Nicholas II (and then his brother Mikhail). As you can deduce from its name, the Provisional Government was just a temporary measure, and from the get go all “revolutionary parties” argued, that the precise form of government for Russia must be decided by the Constitutional Convention (rus. Учредительное Собрание) when (not if – when) it would be elected. So, in theory, should, say, the monarchists of all stripes win the majority therein, they could have voted for Russia to remain a monarchy and even invite this or that royal to the now vacant throne.

    But then fucking Kerensky unilaterally proclaimed Russia a Republic (actually – a “Directory”). That was a disastrous decision on many levels. For one – Kerensky usurped the powers of the would be Constitutional Assembly, while showing no desire to actually call for its elections (we are at War, you know!). Should he do this from the positions of strength like any self-respecting dictator it’d be understandable – but he and his government had negligible legitimacy and its power slipped with each passing day.

    Let us also recall what else happened in the days prior to the proclamation of the Russian Republic and the surrendering of Riga – namely, the Kornilov’s putch in late August, the mass resignation of all remaining kadets from the government… and amnesty of Bolsheviks in 30 August.

    But this proclamation was primarily an enormous political disaster, because several provinces of Russian Empire became its integral parts only on condition of them being sworn to the Crown directly. The most obvious and often cited example – Duchy of Finland.


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks, Lyt, that is an extremely interesting fact, and one I did not know before.
      Seems like Kerensky was not capable of doing even one single thing properly.
      Had he allowed the Constitutional Convention to do it’s thing, then … who knows? (My What-If Machine not working right now, it is in the shop being repaired.)

      From Kerensky’s autocratic declaration of the La Republique, it flows, I reckon, that those who accuse the Bolsheviks of “losing Finland” should actually turn their ire against Kerensky. Because the so-called Russian Republic did not have any legitimate rights over Finland if this Duchy was a direct subject of the Crown.

      This “Russian Republic” thing also explains where current white-blue-red flag comes from. I was never quite sure about that, either. Does this flag symbolize that the Yeltsin-Putin government considers itself (emotionally, if not legally) to be a descendant of the Kerensky regime? (*snark *snark)


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