Russian Civil War and the Issue of Hostages – Part I

Dear Readers:

Today I have this piece from GAZETA by Dmitry Okunev.  This will be of interest especially to history buffs of the Bolshevik era, as I am myself!  The piece marks an “anniversary” of sorts — it was exactly 100 years ago, on June 8, 1919, that Vladimir Lenin, then head of the Soviet government, ordered Lev Trotsky and others to take some civilian hostages, namely family members of Red Army military officers and specialists.

Ephraim Sklyansky

At that time Trotsky was Chairperson of the Revolutionary Military Council for the Red Army; his deputy and right-hand man was Ephraim Sklyansky.  Both men looked very much alike, both were Jewish with bushy heads of hair and little moustaches, and wore glasses.  Trotsky was almost never to be found in his office, preferring to travel around all over the front lines in his armored train, and leaving Sklyansky to handle regular business.  Knowing this, Lenin dispatched the telegram to Sklyansky, instructing him to deliver the order to Trotsky.

Before continuing with the main story, a quick goodbye to Sklyansky:  Trotsky valued his deputy quite a lot and praised him (Sklyansky) in his memoirs.  Trotsky called him the “Carnot” of the Russian Revolution, comparing him to Lazare Carnot of the French Revolution.  The French counterpart was also Jewish, was also a military genius and helped organize astounding military victories for the French Revolution and for Napoleon Bonaparte.  Sklyansky could have enjoyed a similar destiny except that, realistically, Stalin would have had him defamed and executed in the mid-1930’s; which is not even speculation but a very safe bet.  Sklyansky avoided this humiliating fate only by dying early — in 1925.  The Soviet government had sent him to the United States to study the textile trade, and Sklyansky died in a boating accident on Long Lake, New York.  According to later defector Boris Bazhanov, the boating “accident” had actually been engineered by Stalin and Yagoda, but this is just pure speculation, there is no proof of that.

“Work it out with Dzerzhinsky”

Returning to our hostage story:  Lenin’s orders to Trotsky (via Sklyansky) were as follows:   Seeing as how the Civil War in the East (against Admiral Kolchak) was going pretty well, but the opposite was the case in the South (where the Whites were winning, under the leadership of General Denikin), Lenin wanted to pull some units from the Eastern front and move them to the Southern front.  Denikin’s forces were attacking on many fronts and even threatened to take Moscow.

Meanwhile, White volunteers, under the command of General Vladimir May-Mayevsky, had already taken Ekaterinoslav and Kharkov, and were in the process of driving the Reds out of all of the Ukraine.  White General Vrangel was also winning victories in the Caucasus, having seized Tsaritsyn.  Where, in the process, he had driven out Joseph Stalin, who had been serving in Tsaritsyn as a Soviet functionary.

General Vrangel drove Stalin out of Tsaritsyn.

Given this difficult and seemingly impossible military situation, the Bolshevik leaders were worried about their own officers defecting to the Whites.  Especially those officers who had actually been trained in the Russian Imperial forces when the Tsar still ruled the country.  Unlike more recent proletarian volunteers, who were just now learning the trade of war, these former Tsarist officers had superb military skills, and yet were (understandably) not completely trusted by the Bolsheviks.

These former Tsarist officers now serving in the Red Army comprised a surprisingly high percentage of the junior and senior officers.  Worried that some of these officers might defect to the (seemingly) victorious Whites, Lenin ordered that their families be brought into custody as hostages.  To ensure their loyalty.  Such orders were issued to both Trotsky and Stalin.  “Work it out with Dzerzhinsky,” Lenin ordered.  This shows how the war had hardened Lenin, a man who, in normal times, was actually quite civilized in his behavior and who believed in the Marxist ideals of humanitarianism.  Lenin had a temper, of course, but unlike Stalin he was not a cruel man at all, and yet war can change people.

Beyond the issue of hostages, the larger issue itself, was the actual presence of these former Tsarist officers in the Red Army.  This was a huge bone of contention between Stalin and Trotsky, and could even be seen as the root cause of their feud.  A feud that became so deadly that, 15 years later, it led to the virtual destruction of the Bolshevik Party itself and all the Old Guard… at the hands of a vengeful Stalin!

[to be continued]

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