Russian Civil War and the Issue of Hostages – Part II

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

(“In Time of the Breaking of Nations”, by Thomas Hardy)

Dear Readers:

By 1918 the Romanov Dynasty had completed its historical cycle:  From the era of Michael Romanov, the Founder, whose reign brought an end to the Time of Troubles; to the Loser Tsar Nicholas II, who (1) brought the Empire into chaos by forming a disastrously mistaken alliance with England and going to war against Germany on behalf of treacherous “Allies”; and then (2) threw it all away and abdicated, leaving a pile of mess for some new Hercules to come and clean up.

The Breaking of Nations

Today continuing my review of this historical piece  by Dmitry Okunev.  Where we left off, the Bolsheviks and Red Army were in serious danger of actually losing the Civil War.  Which would have been a national tragedy, especially for the Russian people.  Although I don’t normally permit “What-If” type analyses of historical events, I think it is a pretty safe bet that, had the Whites won, today’s Russia would most likely consist of a scattering of foreign-dominated and mutually antagonistic fiefdoms; if it existed at all.

The Loser Tsar’s abdication had thrown the country into a state of political crisis.  Now it was just an issue which strong man would prevail.  None of the White Generals or Admirals had shown any particular qualities of a national leader; not to mention an economic plan to rebuild the country.  Only Lenin and the Bolshevik Party offered a concrete economic plan and were willing to step up to the plate, build a new government, and take over this mess.

In danger of losing to the forces of Chaos, Lenin, the head of the Soviet government, ordered Trotsky and Stalin to see to it, that the Tsarist officers currently serving in the Red Army, should remain loyal to the Red Army and not defect to the seemingly victorious Whites.  To ensure this, the officers families were to be taken into custody and held as hostages.

Dzerzhinsky: Was ruthless enough to have given such an order.

Which raises a ticklish point:  Suppose somebody had defected?  Did the Bolsheviks actually have it in them to murder, in cold blood, wives and children?  Well, some of them did, for sure, like the ones who executed the Tsar’s family.  Those guys were so cruel, they even killed the servants, the dogs and the chickens, which was completely unnecessary overkill.  Technically they only really needed to eliminate the Tsar and the Heir.

It goes without saying that Felix Dzerzhinsky probably would have had it in him to issue such a barbarous order, which is why Lenin left this business to him.  Although thankfully, as far as I know, the theory never actually had to be tested.  The Tsarist officers serving in the Red Army, as far as I know, remained loyal to the Red Army, despite all setbacks.  See, they were patriots too, their loyalty was to Russia, not to Tsar Nicky and his eccentric family.  The era of dynastic loyalty was coming to a close in many parts of Europe — the carnage of World War I saw to that.  An old way of life was coming to an end, a different way was needed.

Stalin vs Trotsky

In the issue of the Imperial officers (they were called “Specialists” at the time) now serving in the Red Army, Okunev sees the roots of the later Stalin vs Trotsky feud; the ferocious feud that was to, 10 years later, split the Communist Party and eventually lead to the executions of most of the Old Bolsheviks at the hands of the victorious Stalin.  But it all started with a difference of opinion:

Trotsky believed that the Red Army simply could not do without these former Tsarist officers.  They were the ones with the training, they had studied this stuff in school, fought in World War I, and knew how the process actually worked.  As an intellectual and one who highly valued education, Trotsky looked down his nose at amateurs.  Among whom he counted the “partizanshchina”, those spontaneous self-called troops who fought on behalf of the Reds.

Stalin, on the other hand, believed that the “partizanshchina” were the real deal.  These were proletarian offshoots who believed in the cause and came flocking to volunteer for the Red Army.  By sponsoring such types, Stalin earned the loyal support of men like Kliment Voroshilov, who began life as a simple worker, but went on to become a brilliant General and even Marshal, in the Soviet army.  Voroshilov served with Stalin during the defense of Tsaritsyn, and went on to distinguish himself in the Soviet Cavalry, helping to win the Civil War.

Future Marshal Kliment Voroshilov

With successful examples like Voroshilov, Stalin argued that the Party could raise its own officer corps from the proletarian masses, and had no need of “class-alien” types such as the Imperial Specialists.

It was an honest debate, and both sides had some merits to their arguments.  It should have been just that:  a civilized debate by civilized politicians who both believed in the same thing, but had honest tactical disagreements.  But no….  Here the personalities of both men showed themselves at such a foetal stage:

Trotsky, of course, was arrogant to the point of ridiculing his opponents; and he was always particularly disdainful of Stalin, whom he despised as an “Ossetian” oaf.  Due to his arrogance (his major character flaw), Trotsky could never have become Lenin’s successor:  The rest of the Party leaders, all of them people with big egos, would never have accepted such an even bigger ego over theirs.  This explains why, in the future, they would even ally with an untrustworthy monster like Stalin over the egotistical Trotsky.

On the other hand, Trotsky had some really good qualities as a human being:  He was mostly honest and transparent; he was smart and very well read; he was good at explaining his thoughts; he was ruthless but not cruel; he valued education and achievement; and he was loyal to those who were loyal to him.  Stalin, of course, was exactly the opposite:  Stalin was a liar, a slanderer, a poisoner, and very rarely loyal to anybody except himself.  He was the kind of guy who toss his own mother under the bus if he thought it would bring him some slight advantage.

The Sytin Saga

Major-General Sytin

Okunev:  In his struggle against the [Tsar-era] specialists, Stalin did not hesitate to employ the methods which we saw later, in the 1920’s and 30’s, namely, shameless slander, whispering campaigns, demonization of his opponents.  The main victim of Stalin’s combinations was an officer named Pavel Sytin, who commanded the front at Tsaritsyn.  Even though he himself did not occupy any military post, Stalin manage to squeeze this former Imperial officer out, creating, as Sytin described it, a “hostile work environment” in which it was impossible for him to do his job.

Major-General Sytin, born 1870, graduated from the Kiev Military Academy in 1892.  He had fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.  During World War I he commanded a Russian artillery brigade and an infantry division.  He had tons of military and battlefield experience.

In December of 1917, a Soldiers Soviet voted Sytin to be the Commander of the 18th Army Corpus.  The entire Corpus then went over to the Soviet side.  As an older and seasoned war veteran, Sytin was a valuable “get” for the Reds.  From March 1918 he served on several fronts and took part in truce negotiations with the various enemies.  By October 1918 he commanded the entire Southern Front for the Reds.  His troops fought very bloody battles against White Cossacks.  Their attempt to advance to Balashov were thwarted, however, and Sytin was removed from the front and put in charge of the Revolutionary War Council.  In 1920-21 Sytin served the Soviet government as the military attache of the Russian Soviet Republic in Gruzia.  From 1922 onward he took a teaching position at the Workers and Peasants Red Army Military Academy.  All in all, a good egg, from a Commie point of view, even though he started life as a Tsarist officer.

And then the inevitable:  Recall that this guy once ticked off Stalin, a man with a very long memory.  And even accused Stalin of harassing him and creating a hostile work environment.  There is an old Russian joke, to the effect that two creatures on this planet have the longest memories:  Elephants and Women.  To that, add a third creature:  Stalin.

General Sytin was arrested on 27 February 1938.  True to the rules of the Stalinist genre, Sytin was accused of belonging to a counter-revolutionary organization.  He was shot on 22 August 1938.  Was rehabilitated on 16 March 1957, once the Party conceded that all the charges against him had been baloney.

But returning to the year 1919:

Perhaps in part affected by Stalin’s slanders against Sytin and the others, Lenin (whose main character flaw was that he listened to Stalin, sometimes) came to have suspicions about the loyalty of these non-proletarian military specialists.  An increasingly paranoid Lenin became worried that some of these guys, at least, might be plotting with the enemy.  And thus he penned the order to Sklyansky, about taking the hostages.  And, although I wasn’t there at the time, I am guessing that Trotsky, when he heard about this, probably shook his head and went, “Oi, I see the dirty hand of Djugashvili in this…”

[to be continued]

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