Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

III – The First Flames of the Civil War

Written: 1925–1928, Vienna, Leningrad, Dietskoye Seloe.
First Published: L’An 1 de la révolution russe, 1930.
This Version: New International, Vol. XIV No. 5, July 1948, pp. 155–158.
Translation: Dan Eastman.
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This months’ installment from Victor Serge’s great historical work comes from the first half of Chapter 4 – “The First Flames of Civil War and the Constituent Assembly.” The second half, dealing with the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, will appear next month. Ellipsis points (...) which appear within quotation marks are thus reproduced from Serge’s text. – ED.

The General Headquarters – in Russian, the Stavka – of a country at war is a sort of military capital, no less important than the civil capital. After the proletarian insurrection, the Stavka became the last hope of the counter-revolution. It barely managed to hold out until November 18.

Fortunately for the counter-revolutionists, the General Staff was situated a goodly distance from both Petersburg and Moscow, in the little town of Mogilev in White Russia, a town of sixty thousand inhabitants where the proletariat and the Bolshevik Party were equally weak. An Army Committee elected at the beginning of the revolution in March 1917 and under the influence of the S-Rs was the highest “revolutionary” authority at the Stavka. It got along well enough with the General Staff, reproved Bolshevik leaders, affirmed the undying loyalty of the army to the country and the Allies, and announced the “firm determination of the soldiers to continue the war to its end.”

On October 31 it officially announced its resolve to “reply to the Bolsheviks force for force.” Its troops were to “march on Petrograd” to re-establish law and order.

“Not one unnecessary drop of blood will be spilled,” the S-Rs announced. “If the reactionaries are reinforced, we shall turn all our forces against them.”

On the same day, the commander in chief, General Dukhonin, summoned the Bolsheviks to submit unconditionally to the Provisional Government, This threat was nothing but words. The majority of the soldiers received the news of the second [Bolshevik] revolution with transports of joy. The S-R Army Committee suffered a sudden change of mind, and announced that it would be content with a socialist coalition government. It changed back again when the leaders of the S-R Party, Chernov and Gotz, arrived in Mogilev. The Ukrainian national the Rada, came out against the Bolsheviks, The counter-revolutionary socialists conceived the idea of an alliance with this parliament.

The Army Committee proposed the formation of a law-and-order government with V.M. Chernov as its president. The Allied representatives at the Stavka encouraged these efforts. While these negotiations, intrigues, and conspiracies were being formulated the soldiers and the masses acted. The armies of the North and the Northwest went over to the Bolsheviks. The crack battalions of St. George proved to be more than doubtful. Hostile to both their own generals and the S-Rs, they hindered the departure of the Stavka for the South. The soldiers began to arrest their officers more and more frequently.

On November 9 Lenin, Stalin, and Krylenko called Dukhonin on the telephone and ordered him to begin armistice negotiations with the Germans and Austrians immediately. Receiving only evasive answers, they terminated the conversation by dismissing Dukhonin from his post: “Second Lieutenant Krylenko is appointed commander in chief.”

But how to disarm the General Staff? The People’s Commissars did not yet dispose of any governmental apparatus. They were ignorant of the weakness of their adversary. Once more they put their faith in the masses. A radio message drawn up by Lenin called upon the troops to intervene:

“Soldiers, the cause of peace is in your bands. You will not let counter-revolutionary generals sabotage the great work of peace; you will place them under guard to protect them from the indignation of the revolutionary army, and to keep them from escaping the trial that awaits them. You will observe the strictest revolutionary and military discipline.

“The front-line regiments are to elect representatives immediately to enter into formal armistice negotiations with the enemy. The Council of People’s Commissars authorizes you to act. Inform us of the progress of the negotiations. The Council of People’s Commissars alone has the authority to sign the final armistice.”

This text aroused a discussion in the All-Russian Soviet Executive during which Lenin explained his idea:

“We cannot overcome Dukhonin” he said, “except by relying on the initiative and sentiments of the mass organizations. Peace will not be made solely from the top. We must conclude it from the bottom. We haven’t the slightest confidence in the German generals but we have confidence in the German people. The struggle with the Stavka must be carried through without regard for the formalities ... I am opposed to any half-way measures.”

The Stavka’s own troops turned against it. On November 18, the date set for the flight into the Ukraine, the General Staff was confronted by the soldiers. The emigré Stankevich, who was an eyewitness, wrote:

“The Stavka had barely commenced preparations for its departure when crowds of excited soldiers appeared, saying that they would not let the officers depart ... The Stavka had not one soldier left. Dukhonin was at the mercy or his own artillery.”

The Allied officers, several generals and a few reactionary bands alone escaped. On the arrival of Krylenko with some Red sailors, General Dukhonin was arrested, and shot in the Mogilev station.

Democracy vs. Private Property

The resistance of the Stavka saw the first intervention of the Allies in the Russian Revolution. The leader of the French military mission, General Lavergne, and an American officer officially encouraged General Dukhonin’s resistance. Trotsky pointed this out in a menacing note to the powers.

On every front, the revolution was similarly reduced to a conflict between the masses on one side and the command and its staff on the other. And the result of the conflict was the same almost everywhere.

Broken in the capital cities and broken at the Stavka, the resistance of the counter-revolution then concentrated in the South. The asylum of the vanquished combatants of Petersburg, Moscow, and Mogilev was the Ukraine, nationalist and hostile to everything reminiscent of the old Great Russian yoke. Others took refuge in the southeastern provinces and in the Don and Kuban Cossack territories.

As a rural petty bourgeoisie, with a strong military tradition and privileges even under the czarist regime, the Cossack population appeared to the counterrevolutionary generals as an ideal recruiting ground for counter-revolutionary armies. Autonomous governments had been instituted in these provinces. The Don country was a sort of Cossack republic ruled by an elected military chief, General Kaledin, who promptly joined forces with the counter-revolution, A vague parliamentary Rada was seated at Ekaterinodar, the capital of the Kuban country. It was composed of Cossacks and intellectual socialists – such frank representatives of the wealthy that constitution deprived the poor non-Cossack peasants and the workers of the right to vote.

Thenceforth, during many bloody years, the history of the typically rural petty-bourgeois Don and Kuban Cossacks was a history of endless hesitation and splits. Encouraged and recruited in turn by the revolution and counter-revolution, they showed conclusively that they could not decide for themselves.

As democrats they were hostile to the restoration of the old order; as strangers to the patriotism of the Great Russian bourgeoisie, they were constantly in open or concealed conflict with the White generals; an embarrassing Cossack question constantly preoccupied the councils of the nationalist armies. But as resolute partisans of private property, the same Cossacks fought violently against the proletarian communists. After the October Revolution their ideal became regional independence. They wanted to preserve their territories from “Bolshevik anarchy.” In this, as in everything else, the second-rate politicians of the Don and Kuban showed characteristic blindness.

Kornilov Reappears

While Krylenko was taking over the Stavka at Mogilev, the man who had engineered the unsuccessful September coup d’etat, the man who had restored the death penalty in the armies, the would-be dictator of the Russian bourgeoisie, General Kornilov, simply walked out of the Bykhovskoye Monastery, where he had been interned by the Provisional Government.

Was it through duplicity or weakness that Kornilov escaped? Both Kerensky had confided the care of his accomplice, who was imprisoned merely for the sake of form, to a detachment of cavalry entirely devoted to the prisoner. Kornilov put himself at the head of this detachment and started out for the Don country, where he arrived the end of December, alone and disguised as a peasant, after narrowly escaping from arrest by his own most devoted soldiers. [1]

The old General Alexeyev had been raising a volunteer law-and-order army in the Don since the beginning of November. Thousands of officers and Junkers came from all over Russia to Rostov and Novocherkask.

The White Guard, General Denikin, described the nature of the counter-revolutionary armies with praiseworthy clarity, To the call for volunteers came “officers, Junkers, students, and very, very few other elements. The nation did not respond. Under these recruiting conditions the army had a grave organic fault from the outset. It had the character of a class army as was to be expected ... It is evident that such a volunteer army could not fulfill its mission in Russia.” What then did the White generals expect? They wanted to surround the Bolsheviks, whose powers of organization they did not yet know, and await the outcome.

The formation of the army was difficult. The majority of the officers hesitated, went into hiding, or adapted themselves to the new government. Once the military hierarchy collapsed, the professional soldiers were completely disoriented. And finally the hatred of the masses barred their road wherever they turned. Those who did reach the Don underwent innumerable dangers; the fugitive officer en route to the South was for the soldiers an outlaw to be killed on sight.

Alexeyev had to work day and night to form his first units. Money was lacking. If the urban bourgeoisie gave anything at all, they gave too little. The day soon came when they could give nothing. “The Allied ambassadors were fearful,” said Denikin.

Even the Cossacks regarded this mobilization of armed Great Russian patriots on their soil unfavorably. The reactionary monarchist generals in their appeal of December 27 were forced to include the sovereignty of the people and the power of the Constituent Assembly. Nevertheless, the Don Cossack Council decided to keep an eye on the volunteer army and “purge counter-revolutionary elements.”

This army never contained more than three or four thousand men at its best: But it was overrun with officers. The two generalissimos in command, Alexeyev and Kornilov, were constantly at odds with each other. Together with Kaledin they formed a ruling triumvirate in the Don country.

The army began by suppressing workers’ insurrections at Rostov and Taganrog on November 26 and January 8, after the Cossacks had refused to take action against the workers. The volunteer army found itself in a shameful situation. The ground slipped from under its feet. The workers in the neighboring regions were menacing. The Cossacks defied the generals and left the army to defend their own villages. The Red Guard and the Caucasian Army re-entered the country to surround the Don and lay siege to the Kuban.

The Council of People’s Commissars outlawed the leaders of the Cossack counter-revolution in an appeal on November 28:

“Local garrisons are urged to act immediately, without waiting for orders, against the enemies of the people. Negotiations with them are forbidden. Any workers or railway men who lend them assistance will be punished to the fullest extent by the revolutionary law.”

The Soviet government did not rest at this measure. The Red Guard of the cities of Petrograd, Moscow, and Kharkov and of Donetz mines, together with sailors and several units of the regular army, all under the command of Antonov-Ovseyenko, began a vast converging movement to separate the Don from the Ukraine and capture Rostov and Kiev.

Cossack Counter-Revolution Defeated

It goes without saying that in this guerrilla warfare, which was fought mostly along the railway with armored or simply armed trains, the Red General Staff on the southern front could give only the vaguest orders. Two remarkable leaders were members of Antonov’s staff: a Left S-R named Sablin who commanded the workers from Petrograd and Moscow, and a non-commissioned Bolshevik officer, Sivers, who was soon to be killed, in command of the Don army.

At first the Reds were defeated at Matveyev-Kurgan near Taganrog; but a workers’ uprising in the latter city chased out the Whites and restored the situation. The Cossacks fell prey to hesitations, and split into old and young, rich and poor, soldiers and civilians. Red Cossack units were formed. The workers went into action. The counter-revolution was doomed – only the officers continued to support the volunteer army. The struggle ended on January 29 with the suicide of the Ataman, Kaledin, and the hazardous retreat of Kornilov into the Kuban.

A passage from the last speech made by Kaledin in the Don Cossack Council as the Reds entered Novocherkask describes the debacle that overtook the first phase of the counter-revolution:

“When Kornilov departs we shall have left only a handful of men, one hundred to one hundred forty rifles at best ... How can we account for this shameful defeat? The vilest kind of egotism has betrayed us. Instead of defending their native land against the enemy, the Russian officers, its finest sons, flee shamefully before a tiny army of usurpers. There is no duty, no honor, no patriotism, not even simple morality left.”

There was nothing left for the Ataman but suicide. His successor, Nazarov, was unable to organize any resistance or flee the collapse of the Cossack democracy. The Reds surprised him during a session of the Cossack Council on February 12 and shot him.

Confused struggles similar to those in the Don, because they involved the same social forces, broke out in the Kuban and ended on March 1 with a victory for the Reds. Soviet power was installed at Ekaterinodar, but only for a short time.

The uprising of the Ural Cossacks under the command of General Dutov was momentarily victorious in the capture of Orenburg, but likewise ended in defeat on January 18.

The Ukraine

In the south of the great Russian plain, the Dnieper region is to Russia what Provence is to France.

A milder and sunnier climate and a more fertile land, gayer and easier customs and a less modulated but more sonorous language, all serve to differentiate the native sons of the Ukraine from the Great Russians. There is an economic basis for this difference. Before the World War three-quarters of the coal produced in the Russian Empire came from the Ukraine; two-thirds of the ferrous minerals; three-quarters of the manganese; two-thirds of the salt; four-fifths of the sugar; and nine-tenths of the wheat exported by Russia.

It was by far the richest country of the empire. The theoreticians of the Ukrainian national movement, bourgeois theoreticians naturally, reproached czarism with having systematically drained the capital and wealth of the Ukraine into Great Russia proper; with having encouraged the Baltic ports to the detriment of the Black Sea ports; with having blocked the progress of Ukrainian industry; finally they made the most of denouncing the unbearable harshness of Russification.

The Ukrainian national movement sprang into life almost the moment the autocracy fell. A Ukrainian national assembly, called the Rada, was soon formed, and engaged in a struggle with Prince Lvov’s Provisional Government. The Ukraine demanded almost complete autonomy. The Bolsheviks alone supported this demand. Thus the Rada greeted the October Revolution as a great liberation, but after seeing the example of the Great Russian bourgeoisie, the Ukrainian bourgeoisie had no intention of following the proletariat on the road to social revolution.

At the same time the Ukrainian workers’ soviet kept pace with the Great Russian soviets. The Kiev Soviet had maintained a Revolutionary Committee since October 22 with the purpose of seizing power. The soviet and the Rada formed a temporary bloc against the Cadets, Mensheviks, and S-Rs in the Kiev municipal administration who were defending the Petrograd Provisional Government.

No sooner was Kerensky defeated than a new bloc was formed. The Rada formed a bloc with the Cadets (Russian Constitutional Democrats, the party of the Great Russian big bourgeoisie) against the Bolsheviks. The struggle between the “People’s Republic of the Ukraine” and the Kiev Soviet was thenceforth ruled by force ofarms ...

The rural petty bourgeoisie consisting of the wealthy and middle peasants with their intellectual representatives was the backbone of the national movement; like the Don and Kuban Cossacks, it was democratic and counter-revolutionary at the same time. Independence, a republic, private property: the Ukrainian-petty bourgeoisie was ready to fight fiercely for these bourgeois ideals.

The KievRada numbered 230 peasant representatives, 132 army representatives, and 100 representatives of the workers, salaried employees, intellectuals, etc. This Rada tried to maneuver among the various social forces of the Ukraine. Its manifesto of November 7 was a curious medley of Soviet phrases ... At the very moment that it issued this high-sounding manifesto, the Rada gave White officers and troops that were trying to reach the volunteer army of the Don free passage across its territory, refused the same privilege to Red troops marching into the South, and disarmed all Ukrainian Soviet units. The Council of People’s Commissars addressed an ultimatum to the Rada on December 4 which began with these significant words:

“We recognize without reserve or condition the national rights and the national independence of the Ukrainian people ...”

The Rada was forced to unmask by this declaration. Its reply to the Council confused extreme rightists and the Bolsheviks in the same criticism, and the anarchy of the Red troops with the class war in Russia. The Rada demanded a socialist coalition government and a federated republic. This document signed by Vinnishenko, Petlura and Mirny was tantamount to a declaration of war.

The battle was already under way, in any case. A general strike broke out in Kiev, and the Rada fell under the combined blows of the Petrograd, Moscow and Kharkov Red Guard under the command of the victor of Pulkovo, Muraviev, and of Red troops from the Rumanian front. The Reds entered Kiev on January 26, but their victory was incomplete; guerrilla warfare continued in the Ukraine until 1921. A Ukraine Soviet government was set up in Kharkov.

In its intervention on the side of the counter-revolution, France did not stop at a hasty recognition of Ukrainian independence, nor at sending a French military mission to the Kiev Rada. M. Stephen Pichon negotiated a loan of 180 million francs for the Ukrainian counter-revolutionists in the early part of January. Thus supported by the French government and advised by the French agent General Berthelot, the Rada proceeded to solicit the aid of Germany against the Bolsheviks.

The Massacre of Officers

It was during this period that the Red terror was spontaneously born from a number of events. It was the direct consequence of a whole series of causes.

The General Staff had always maintained discipline by a liberal use of the death penalty, that is, by the exercise of systematic legal terror. Both the army and the fleet remembered the pitiless repressions of 1905-06. After the revolution the officers everywhere appeared as the most active agents of the counterrevolution. They demanded the restoration of the death penalty.

Accustomed by the war to regard mutiny as a dangerous monster to be slain without ceremony, the officers had come to rely on terror. Episodes like the massacre of the Kremlin arsenal workers were common wherever the officers had power. They sowed a harvest of hate that ripened in a few weeks’ time.

General Denissov [a White Guard] gave some interesting figures on the massacre of officers in the Don region alone, where between February 13 and April 14, 1918, fourteen generals, twenty-three colonels and 292 commissioned officers were slain.

Several specific instances reveal the nature of this wave of terror:

An officer was walking down the street of a small Crimean city. No one paid any attention to him until a crippled beggar started after him shouting, “Tear off your epaulets, comrade, tear them off!” The officer hurried on while the beggar roused a mob with cries of “Comrades, there goes the counter-revolution!”

On another occasion a group of Red sailors occupied the railway station at Sevastopol. Every arriving naval officer was examined. If he had served in 1905-06, when the sailors were so brutally suppressed, he was instantly stood up against a wall and shot. The other officers passed unmolested through the bloody square of execution under the threatening eyes of the sailors.

After the first encounters of the civil war, the treason on the Rumanian front, the conspiracies and uprisings in the Don, the Kuban, the Urals, and the Crimea, the fury of the soldiers and sailors ceased to make distinctions among the officers.

The first dispatches from the south announcing the mass execution of officers were published in Petrograd during the latter part of January. At the head of a Tatar army, the officers had made themselves masters of the Crimean peninsula and proceeded to shoot all their Bolshevik prisoners. The arrival of Red sailors restored the situation.

A telegram dated January 20 told of the bombardment of Yalta by two Red torpedo boats and concluded with these lines:

“Several dozen officers were executed. They were led down to the water front and drowned with stones around their necks. Their bodies were later seen floating in the port. Two big merchants were shot.”

There were like events in most of the smaller Crimean cities. The Red terror was born in one of the gayest and most beautiful Russian province.

The massacre of the officers by their own soldiers was limited to the territories where the civil war raged. In the capitals and throughout most of the country the revolution still displayed a magnanimity which was to last several months.

To Work: Record of Two Months

The period from the first days of November until the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (January 7, 1918) was marked in the interior of Russia by the economic resistance of the former ruling classes, the political struggle around the Constituent Assembly, and the struggle for peace. We are forced to analyze these, three struggles separately, although in reality they were different aspects of the same process.

We have already outlined the general situation in the country. The simple enumeration of the main acts of the Soviet government will clarify the work accomplished:

This was a remarkable creative work, but sabotage hindered and counter-revolution undermined every step. The most active counter-revolutionary elements were: the big bourgeoisie grouped around the Cadet Party, twenty or thirty thousand officers, and the Socialist Revolutionary Party. On November 6 Purishkevich, the leader of the “True Russians,” an ultra-reactionary group, was arrested. On him was found a letter to the Ataman, Kaledin, which said in part:

“The situation can be saved only by the formation of officers’ and Junkers’ regiments ... power is in the hands of a criminal mob that can be brought to its senses only by public shootings and hangings.”

In a document drawn up by Trotsky on November 7 and published in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee are to be found the first intimations of tile measures which were later to characterize the period of “War Communism.” Stating that the sabotage was leading the country to famine, the MRC warned the wealthy classes that they were “playing with fire.”

“They will be the first to feel the consequences of the conditions they are creating. The wealthy classes and their allies will be deprived of the right to purchase supplies. All their goods will be requisitioned. The goods of the principal culprits will be confiscated.”

The working class was urged to boycott the saboteurs.

In the early part of December, the situation in Petrograd suddenly became worse as mobs started to sack the wine cellars. Drunken, angry and demoralized crowds menaced the capital with anarchy. An Extraordinary Commissar with full powers to deal with the situation was appointed.

In response to the activities of the counter-revolution Lenin proposed in a speech to the Executive Committee on December 1 to declare the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) enemies of the people. He said:

“When a revolutionary class is at grips with owning classes: it must break their resistance. And we shall break the resistance of the owning classes by the very means they employ against the proletariat. No others have yet been invented.”

Lenin refused to persecute individuals: “We must strike the general staff of the whole class.” There was, he said, no question of more or less justice toward this or that person. Miliukov’s Cadet Party found unexpected champions in Maxim Gorky and in the Left S-Rs. The great author was misled once again by his love of culture. “The Cadet Party,” he wrote, “contains the most cultivated men in the country.” (Novaya Zhizn, December 7.) But did not the party of Galiffet and Thier’s [butchers of the Paris Commune] contain the most cultivated Frenchmen of 1871? Basically the measure was correct. Several arrests of leading Cadets followed.

A few days later the Left S-Rs finally decided to participate in the government, after they saw the All-Russian Congress of Peasant Soviets endorse the October Revolution. Six of their leaders entered the Councilor People’s Commissars: Proshian, Algasov,Trutovsky, Steinberg, Mikhailov, and Ismailovich. Lenin believed that the bloc of the Bolsheviks with the Left S-Rs) who had great influence in the rural districts, “can be an honest coalition because there are no fundamental conflicts between the interests of the workers and the interests of the exploited and toiling peasants ... Socialism can satisfy both; and only socialism can.” Even if they had programmatic differences with the peasants, Lenin thought the Bolsheviks should support them against the bourgeoisie.

Lenin’s general outlook at that period was expressed in a speech made [November 22] at the Congress of the Fleet:

“The oppressed masses are confronted with a most difficult task; they have to build up a state unaided. You see what capacities for resistance the bourgeoisie possesses, how they block our activity by sabotage, what a flood of lies and calumnies are spread about us on every occasion and without occasion.

“We are for a strong government power, for constraint and violence. But we shall use it against a handful of capitalists, against the bourgeois class ...

“The working class must rely on itself, ... Let us have faith in our own forces ... Divided the masses are impotent, united they are invincible.”



1. “Tired out and not understanding the events which only made them anxious, the cavalrymen said they had done everything possible and that they still remained devoted to the general, but – ‘Ah. General,’ they asked, ‘what can we do when the whole of Russia is Bolshevik?’” From Denikin’s Notes. – V.S.

Last updated on: 2 August 2018