Russian Civil War and the Issue of Hostages – Part IV

“The worst nightmare one can imagine, is still preferable to getting no REM sleep at all.”  (Anon)

Dear Readers:

Today concluding my review of this interesting piece by Dmitry Okunev.  Which reads sort of like a monograph, big enough to be a nice term paper, but not thick enough for a dissertation.  Where we left off, the Bolshevik leadership were getting paranoid — and probably for good reason, since there had been defections and betrayals, as happens in any war — and decided to take a drastic step:  Namely, take hostages from the families of their own Red Army officers!  At least those of non-proletarian background.  These guys had grown up in the Tsar-era military academies, and some of the very men they were fighting against on the battlefield, had been their former friends and comrades.  Some pillow talk around the trenches, and maybe they could be enticed back into the fold…

Admiral Kolchak: “People tell me I look a lot like Konstantin Khabensky, but I just don’t see it….”

The military structure of the Red Army is a bit confusing, and sometimes it is hard to tell who was really in charge. We saw that Jukums Vācietis (and then replaced by Sergei Kamenev) was the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, technically.  But Trotsky was the Chairman of the Supreme Military Council, and Lenin was the Head of the Soviet of Defense, plus head of the government as a whole.  June 8, 1919 is the date when Lenin sent his telegram to Trotsky’s people, asking them to take civilian hostages and stressing the need to “utterly destroy” the enemy.  As opposed to giving the enemy some candy.

A day later, Lenin composed a second telegram, this time to the Military Council of the Eastern Front, asking for more troops:  “The serious worsening of the situation near Piter [Petersburg/Petrograd], and the break-through [of the Whites] to the South, require us to take more and more troops from your [Eastern] front.”  Lenin had in mind the recent successes of White General and Olympic Horse-Jumping competitor General Alexander Rodzyanko.  Lenin was probably scared that Rodzyanko would come riding into Petrograd on his White horse, even leaping over the city walls and barricades.  Hence the need for more troops.

Lenin went even further in his second telegram:  He demanded that the Red officers “transform into an even more revolutionary military regime, thinking outside of the box.”  By this he had in mind forcibly drafting more soldiers, even just guys walking down the street.  Such were the harsh rules of War Communism:

“Will-burr! I’m tired of carrying this bourgeois on my back, I’m defecting to the Bolsheviks!.”

Mobilize all available [men] from the age of 18 to 45, in the area near the front, give them the task of seizing all the major factories, such as Motovilikhi, Minyar.  Promise to let them go once they take the factories.  Allocate rifles, one for each two or three men.  Call upon them to drive Kolchak out of the Urals!”

Amazingly, these orders were effective, proving that Lenin hadn’t lost his marbles just yet!  Admiral Kolchak’s Westward advance stumbled and turned into ignoble retreat.  Or maybe Kolchak was just eager to get back to his mistress.

As for the taking of hostages from among the families of their own officers, the Bolsheviks resorted to this measure more than once in the course of the Civil War, especially during the most difficult times.  During the campaign against General Nikolai Yudenich in the North, who was busy marching on Petrograd in the Fall of 1919, whilst trying not to trip on his own moustache; there were quite a lot of defections from the Red Army to the Whites.  Attempting to staunch this flow of traitors, Trotsky issued an order to the 7th Army (defending Petrograd) to immediately arrest the families of defectors.  Which is actually a slightly different concept from peremptorily taking hostages of a man before he did anything wrong.

The long-bearded Sorcerer, Chernomor

Defending himself in his Autobiography, from the accusation of being a ruthless dick, Trotsky asserted that none of these civilian hostages had ever actually been shot.  And Petrograd managed to repulse the Bearded Chernomor’s attack without resorting to any further barbarity.

Another player in this drama was Stalin, of course.  Always lurking out there on the fringes, the outside man looking in;  in Okunev’s words, “Always trying to accurately sense Lenin’s mood.”  Not to be outdone in ruthless dickishness, that summer Stalin composed a motivational leaflet addressed “To the soldiers defending Petrograd”, which reads as follows:

“The families of all those who defected to the side of the Whites, will be arrested immediately.  All the property of the traitors will be confiscated.  There will be no mercy shown to the traitors.  The families of all the commanders who betrayed the cause of the workers and peasants, will be taken as hostages.”

The next stage in this saga of hostage-taking occurred in December of 1919, when the Presidium of the Cheka issued a decree, signed by Felix Dzerzhinsky and Martyn Latsis, on “the arrest of hostages and bourgeois specialists”.  Felix and Martyn, a Pole and Latvian respectively and hence much more suavishly villainous than the “coarse” Kartvelian Stalin, managed to sound more Machiavellian and less just brutal fist in the face, as they explained their motives and definitions thusly:

Martyn Latsis on a stamp

“A hostage is a captive member of that society or that organization, which fights against us.  This should be the type of member who has some worth which the enemy values; and who can, thus, serve as collateral, preventing the opponent from killing, from shooting, our own captive soldier.  From this it should be understood, that hostages must be taken only from amongst those people who have some weight in the eyes of the counterrevolutionaries.”

Iron Felix, as everyone knows, died of a heart attack in 1926.  Thus, dodging the future bullet in the head.

Latsis was not so lucky.  Hint to novice or would-be Russian historians of the 20th century:  When wiki-ing the biography of a Communist, the first thing to check is the death date.  By some huge coincidence, so many of these people died in the years 1936-38.

Unlike Dzerzhinsky, who joined the Party later, Latsis had been one of the true Old Bolsheviks, a Party member since 1905.  During the Civil War, he served in the Cheka and was, as we saw, somewhat ruthless in his methods, although one should not take at face value the American wiki hysteria about “bloody Red Terror” and the like.

As an Old Bolshevik and former comrade of Lenin’s; as a member of Trotsky’s Military Council (although there is no indication that he was friends with Trotsky); just by nature of his past revolutionary distinctions, Latsis was a natural target of Stalin’s counter-revolutionary rage.

Once again, the inevitable:  Latsis was arrested on November 29, 1937, accused of [yada yada] and executed in 1938 by firing squad.  Rehabilitated in 1956, when the Supreme Court of the USSR conceded that all the charges against him had been baloney.

That is the end of this piece, and the moral of the story is this: [insert your own moral]


(but do stay tuned for more Stalin vs Trotsky action in the next series!)

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