Continuing my review of this historical piece by reporter Dmitry Okunev, about a little-known facet of the Russian Civil War. And also examining the roots of the Stalin-Trotsky conflict, one of those colossal historical feuds that was to define the essence of the Soviet state for the next 70-some years.
Where we left off, Stalin and Trotsky had a tactical difference about the employment, in the Red Army, of officers who had come up in the ranks under the former government. Trotsky thought it was a good idea to employ these “specialists”, and that the Reds, in fact, would not be able to win the war without their skillset; whereas Stalin wanted to get rid of them and just rely on proletarian recruits. Technically, as the overall head of the Red Army, Trotsky’s opinion should have held more weight. But, in reality, the true Decider was Lenin, the head of state and de-facto Commander in Chief (although, technically, he did not have that title). And Lenin tended to listen to Stalin, sometimes.
But it wasn’t just Lenin and Stalin. As paranoia spread, lots of Bolsheviks were suspicious of these “specialists”, they suspected them of disloyalty, possible treason; and were worried they would defect over to the Whites at the first opportunity. In an attempt to prevent the unthinkable from happening, a betrayal so grand that it would lose the whole war, Lenin penned the following order to Trotsky’s aide, Ephraim Sklyansky:
Given the increasing frequency of betrayals, it is necessary to take hostages from the bourgeoisie, and from the families of the officers. Work out the details with Dzerzhisky.
The taking of hostages was nothing new for the Bolsheviks: They had been doing this ever since the Revolution, and especially after the assassination attempt against Lenin on 30 August 1918. By April 1919 so many hostages had been collected, that they had to build special work camps for them. The Whites were doing the same thing. Both sides occasionally carried out “exemplary” shootings of hostages to teach the other side a lesson.
Given this, there was nothing all that extraordinary in Lenin’s missive to Sklyansky. Except! And here is the key difference: This was the first time that hostages were to be taken, not from the other side, but from one’s own side. From officers serving in the Red Army. Knowing that his near and dear ones were languishing in a Chekist prison, the Red “specialist” would not even think about defecting nor undertaking any subversive activities against the Reds. Instead, he would continue to fight with honor against his former classmates, friends, and fellow soldiers in the opposite, White, camp.
But What About the Spanish Conquistadors? Yes, according to Okunev, they too used to employ this practice of taking hostages. Might have even perfected it. Recall that Hernán Cortés was busy conquering Mexico in the years 1519-1521, exactly 400 years before the Russian Revolution! While fighting against the Aztecs, the Spanish would enlist, as soldiers, members of competing tribes such as the Tlascanat, Totonac, and others. These latter would obey the Spaniards not only because they hated the Aztecs, but also because the Spaniards had taken their wives and sons as hostages. What Cortés never did, however, was promote any of these Indians into the higher ranks of his Conquistador army.
Which is what the Bolsheviks did: the top echelons of the Red Army contained more than a few Colonels and Generals who used to serve Tsar Nicholas II. “Rank has its privileges”, and one would not expect that these higher-ranking officers would need to waste a single moment worrying about their families. Which is not to say that the Bolsheviks did not watch these guys like a hawk. Lenin’s telegram, by the way, coincided in time with the arrest of Colonel Jukums Vācietis, still another hint (with no factual proof) that Stalin’s hand may have been involved in this machination. Let me explain:
Vācietis was a Latvian military commander serving in the Red Army. Born in 1873, the offspring of a very humble family (as a child he had worked in a match factory), he was one of the older “specialists” who had started his military career in the Imperial army in 1891. During World War I Vācietis commanded the 5th Latvian Zemgale Rifle Regiment and rose, by his own merits, to the rank of Colonel. The Latvian Riflemen were a key factor in the success of the Bolshevik Revolution, as we explored in this earlier blogpost from a couple of years ago. Vācietis and his Rifle Regiment were among those who went over to the side of the Bolsheviks. From April 1918 onward he commanded the Red Latvian Riflemen Division, and for a couple of months commanded the entire Eastern front. Vācietis enjoys the historical distinction of being the very first Commander-in-Chief of the entire Red Army. From 1918-1919 he was a member of the Revolutionary Military Council, headed by Trotsky. The two men had a good working relationship.
When things were not going so well on the battle front, some positions got shuffled around, which is normal in war time. Some Bolsheviks were unhappy with Vācietis performance, and he was removed from his position as Commander-in-Chief. His replacement was Sergei Kamenev, not to be confused with, and not related to, Lev Kamenev, Lenin’s old comrade (whose real name was actually Rozenfeld). The other guy’s name actually was Kamenev, he was Russian not Jewish, and he had a humongous moustache to prove it!
As for Vācietis, he was removed from his post on 3 July 1919 and then arrested 5 days later. Accused of being a member of a White Guard counterrevolutionary conspiratorial yada yada. But this was not the 1930’s yet, there was still some due process, Vācietis was able to successfully defend himself against the false charge, and was released from the dungeon.
Vācietis went on to continue serving in the Soviet military, taught at the Frunze Military Academy, and wrote several books.
And then the inevitable: On 29 November 1937 — you guessed it! — Vācietis was arrested, accused of being a counterrevolutionary Latvian fascist yada yada, and executed on 28 July 1938. What was his actual crime? Please re-read the sentence above, about how he and Trotsky got along together quite well! Everybody knows the rules by now: If you ever worked with, collaborated with, got along with, Trotsky, then you are kaput! These are the rules of Stalinist Office Politics.
Vācietis was rehabilitated in 1957 when, once again, the Party, under new leadership, conceded that the charges against him had been pure baloney.
But what about Sergei Kamenev, the Inquiring Reader inquires? Was he also purged? Well, no. Colonel Kamenev dodged a bullet. Literally. He died of a heart attack on 25 August 1936, the very same day that his namesake, Lev Kamenev, was executed by Stalin’s henchpersons.
[to be continued]