War Against the Cossacks I

At the start of 1919, the Red Army was in disarray; by the end of the year, the Whites were fleeing. General Denikin reached the high point of his push toward Moscow when the Volunteer Army took Orel, two hundred miles south of the capital, on October 13, 1919, where the campaign stalled. In November, General Iudenich was defeated in the north. In Siberia, as we know, Admiral Kolchak renounced his claim to supreme leadership on January 4, 1920, and was executed a month later. On April 4, 1920, Denikin was succeeded at the head of the Volunteer Army by Baron Petr Wrangel, a scion of the German and Swedish Baltic nobility. The last of the White commanders, Wrangel continued the effort for another six months. On November 2, he retreated to the Crimea; two weeks later, he boarded ship to Constantinople with the remainder of his troops and as many civilian refugees as managed to escape along with him. The challenge to Bolshevik power from the old regime military establishment had been defeated.

In some respects, Red victory reflected certain obvious advantages. The Soviets controlled the geographic center and what was left of the imperial administration; they had a unified mission and a leader of overwhelming authority, equipped with a powerful ideology accessible at every level of the social hierarchy, from sophisticated intellectuals to the last ragged foot soldier. The Whites had a defensive, not an inspirational message; their leadership was fragmented geographically, ideologically, and personally; their forces were scattered around the peripheries. Yet the outcome was far from inevitable, and the Bolsheviks felt themselves vulnerable until the very end.

Although in 1919 the Reds were fighting “on all points of the compass,” the focus was on the south. As we have seen, Moscow continuously pressured Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko in the Ukraine to send troops to the Southern Front. By mid-February, the Red Army had moved a quarter of its men and resources to the Southern Army Group. Ranged against it were three White armies—Denikin’s Volunteer Army, Petr Krasnov’s Don Army, and Wrangel’s Caucasus Volunteer Army—which at the start of the year had combined to form the Armed Forces of South Russia, under Denikin’s command, headquartered in Ekaterinodar in the deep Kuban. Krasnov and Denikin had never been able to cooperate. Once the armies joined forces, Krasnov was replaced at the head of a much weakened Don Army by a more accommodating commander.

In January and February 1919, the Armed Forces of South Russia easily swept the Reds out of the North Caucasus, taking fifty thousand prisoners. The commander of the North Caucasus Red Army, Grigorii “Sergo” Ordzhonikidze, wired Lenin that his army had “ceased to exist. … The enemy occupies cities and stanitsas almost without resistance. … There are no shells or bullets.” Those Red Army men who escaped walked across the desert to the port city of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea, some dying along the way, from typhus, storms, cold and hunger; after leaving Stavropol, some headed south through the mountains into Georgia.

The Red defeat gave the Whites an important advantage. With the Caucasus Mountains at their back, Denikin could safely head north, on the quest to put the Empire back together again. “A swollen army, really a horde rather than an army,” Trotsky remarked, “has clashed with Denikin’s properly-organized troops and in a few weeks has been reduced to dust. For the illusion of partizanstvo we have once more paid a high price.” To counter desertion and insubordination, in late 1918 Red Army Commander in Chief Ioakim Vatsetis had demanded the application of Red Terror in the army, “not only against outright traitors and saboteurs but also against cowards, scoundrels, and their accomplices and concealers.” As we have seen, the Bolsheviks had from the start considered the struggle against the class enemy as a form of warfare, authorized and executed by the state, against the domestic population. But in the military itself not all problems could be solved by terror. In the south, the Red Army was far from home base, suffering from a weak supply system and chronic desertion, reliant on relatively young and inexperienced officers and on former tsarist commanders of doubtful loyalty.

By contrast, the Whites were supplied out of the port of Taganrog; they had overall a more professional officer corps and the use of battle-hardened Cossack cavalry. Though troop reinforcements were not forthcoming, the British supplied ammunition and equipment, clothing and boots. Whether the supplies served their purpose is not clear. Of the beds and medical equipment destined for a hospital in Ekaterinodar, British journalist John Ernest Hodgson reported, nothing ever got there. “Beds, blankets, sheets, mattresses, and pillows disappeared as if by magic. They found their way to the houses of staff officers and members of the Kuban Government.” Nurses’ uniforms were similarly rerouted. “I did not, during the whole of my service with the Army in Russia,” Hodgson later recalled, “ever see a nurse in a British uniform; but I have seen girls, who were emphatically not nurses, walking the streets of Novorossisk wearing regulation British hospital skirts and stockings.”

Misappropriated or not, British aid continued until the end of the year, bolstering the Whites’ military advantage. Red Army troops in the south greatly outnumbered Denikin’s forces, yet in the first months of 1919 the Whites conquered one city after another. All attempts by the Red Army between March and May to regain control of the Donbas and the Upper Don ended in failure. By the end of June, they had lost Tsaritsyn, which they had captured in fall 1918, Kharkov, and Ekaterinoslav. Buoyed by success, on July 3, 1919, Denikin issued a secret order, the so-called Moscow Directive, outlining his plan for conquest of the Soviet core. His leading generals were each to follow a railway line and converge on the capital—Wrangel up the Volga, Vladimir Sidorin north along the Don, Vladimir Mai-Maevskii from Kharkov to Moscow. This was an ambitious plan, intended to recruit a peasant army along the way, threaten the regime’s geographic hub, and establish a popular base for the counterrevolution. It seemed to be working. Wrangel, after taking Tsaritsyn, moved up along the Volga, chasing the Reds before him. By early August, he was approaching Saratov, 250 miles further up the river.

The Red Army had no choice but to focus on the southern threat. On July 3, Vatsetis had been replaced as commander in chief by Colonel Sergei Kamenev, a former tsarist officer who had welcomed both February and October and soon rose in the Red Army. The appointment of Kamenev and his chief of staff, General Pavel Lebedev, reflected the shift in summer 1919 to greater reliance on old regime holdovers, though accompanied by lingering distrust. But the “military specialists,” as they were dubbed, were needed. Trotsky insisted that the use of partisan outfits, with headstrong commanders resistant to central authority, was a recipe for defeat; the army must impose discipline and unitary top-down command.

On July 9, Lenin demanded “All Out for the Fight Against Denikin.” The Soviet Republic “must be a single armed camp.” Instead of focusing on the Donbas, with its denser railroad network and a factory work force that would presumably have welcomed the Reds, Kamenev proposed moving into the Kuban, striking at Denikin’s heartland, through uncertain Cossack terrain. Trotsky disliked the plan and attempted to resign as commissar of war, but the offer was rejected. Meanwhile, the Whites, under the command of General Mai-Maevskii, gained control of the Donbas. In the Upper Don, the Red Army was hampered behind the lines by Cossack revolts in the very area which had earlier deserted Krasnov and allowed the Reds to enter. The conduct of Soviet officials had since then turned the Cossacks against them. In the course of August, in central Ukraine, the Whites took Poltava, Kherson, Nikolaev, Odessa, and Kiev.

The most spectacular moment in the northward White sweep was the raid executed in August by Lieutenant General Konstantin Mamontov’s IV Don Cavalry Corps. His seven to eight thousand fierce Cossacks covered five hundred miles in forty days of pillage and destruction, on a path that included Tambov and reached Voronezh, three hundred miles south of Moscow, in mid-September. Mamontov used the familiar slogan as his rallying cry: “Arm yourself and rise against the common enemy of our Russian land, against the Jewish Bolshevik Communists!” Trotsky denounced his fighters as “mounted bandits,” “wild dogs,” who “get drunk, rape women, beat up old men.” They were not soldiers but degenerates who must be “tracked down like beasts of prey” and annihilated. As usual, though, the enemy also lurked within. Communists must be on guard, Trotsky warned, against anyone giving aid, directly or indirectly, to the bandits. “Cowards, self-seekers, deserters must be punished on the home front as they are in battle—by shooting.”

After Voronezh, however, Mamontov’s men had taken their loot and gone home. The remnants of the IV Don Corps were destroyed in November. Mamontov died of typhus in Ekaterinodar in February 1920, but he had taught the Red Army a lesson. His men behaved like criminals, but he was a skillful partisan leader and the style of warfare was effective. In Ukraine the Bolshevik leadership had rejected “primitive, inexperienced partisan methods.” The regular army had not yet formed, and the independent bands were out of control. At the start of the year, Trotsky had again denounced “the partisan scourge,” but now he insisted the Red Army needed a new kind of partisan—disciplined outfits subordinate to the main command but capable of supplementing the regular army with targeted actions behind the lines.

Mamontov raised the issue not only of partisan warfare but of cavalry. And here, too, Trotsky changed course. In mid-September, he issued the incongruous command, “Proletarians, to horse!” “The most conservative type of weapon, almost on the point of extinction,” he explained, “has suddenly returned to life and become a most important means of defense and offense in the hands of the conservative and declining classes. We must tear this weapon from their hands and make it our own. The workers’ revolution must create a mighty Red Cavalry.” By the end of the year the Red Cavalry (Konarmiia), under Semen Budennyi’s command, counted fifteen thousand horsemen. They were neither proletarians nor even mostly Cossacks, but peasants.

Partisan methods might be needed in extremis, but the Red Army continued to develop in the direction demanded by Lenin and Trotsky, toward greater professionalism and discipline. New men were trained as “Red Commanders,” noncommissioned officers were promoted, and party members were recruited into the army, where they helped educate the troops. The Cheka paid special attention to monitoring the conduct and attitudes in the ranks. The army still suffered from lack of equipment, high rates of desertion, illness, and draft dodging, in addition to battle casualties. The campaign against deserters intensified in mid-1919, leading to the return of 1.4 million men in the second half of the year. Technology was still primitive. The Red Army relied mainly on horse-drawn carts to transport machine guns; armored cars were useless on the terrible roads; armored trains fared better, when the tracks were still in place.

Despite these changes, in early fall of 1919, the Soviet regime was still embattled. Denikin resumed his northward offensive in mid-September, following the railroad from Kharkov through Kursk and Orel toward Tula, site of the Red armaments factories, headed for the capital. A week after Kursk fell on September 20, martial law was declared in Moscow. On October 13 Denikin took Orel. General Iudenich’s Northwest Army was meanwhile nearing Petrograd. The tide turned quickly, however. By the end of October, as we have seen, Iudenich had been driven back. By then, also, the Latvian Rifle Division had helped the Red Army retake Orel, and Budennyi’s Red Cavalry had recaptured Voronezh. It was the turn of the White armies to retreat, this time on a long trek southward. In early January 1920, they crossed the Don.

In August 1919, Trotsky had dismissed Denikin’s Moscow Offensive as an audacious gesture born of despair. Wrangel later called the plan “the death sentence of the South Russian armies.” “Striving for space,” he concluded, “we endlessly stretched ourselves into a spider’s web, and wanting to hold on to everything and to be everywhere strong we were everywhere weak.” Denikin defended the strategy. “We lengthened the front by hundreds of versts and became from this not weaker, but stronger.” At their farthest reach, the White armies had occupied 350,000 square miles with a population of forty-two million, but they were never in any one place for long. The only area they held for more than five months was the North Caucasus and part of the Don, with a population of a mere nine million. The Soviets, by contrast, dominated a population of sixty million on a vastly broader terrain, fielding a vastly bigger army, which, despite its many weaknesses, continued to gain in strength.

Once his fortunes changed, Denikin’s forces crumbled. In December 1919 Denikin shifted Wrangel from the Caucasus Army to the Volunteer Army, but Wrangel, then ill with typhus, quarreled with the Volunteer command and was replaced at the start of the new year. The Whites lost Kiev on December 16, Tsaritsyn on January 2, 1920. The Volunteer and Don Armies were tired of fighting. The Red Army took Novocherkassk and Rostov on January 7, and crossed the Don ten days later. Denikin now, belatedly, offered concessions to the Cossacks—the greatest being their own army under the Cossack general Andrei Shkuro—but the White commanders kept quarreling, and the old distrust between former tsarist officers and the Cossack “separatists” endured. The Kuban Cossacks had their own leader and were unwilling to attach themselves to the broader Russian crusade. They were reluctant even to follow their own local but fragmented leadership.

In a last gasp, the Armed Forces of Southern Russia took Rostov yet again on February 20, but it was a futile move. The best of the White cavalry, under General Aleksandr Pavlov, were destroyed by a fierce snowstorm, in which many of the men and horses froze to death. Abandoning Ekaterinodar in mid-March, the White army began a final retreat, this time ignominious, Cossacks and refugees heading toward the sea. At Novorossiisk, on the Black Sea coast directly east of Crimea, the remaining British stores were thrown into the water; Cossacks shot their horses; civilians crammed into the few British ships waiting to take them away. The cavalry that reached Crimea arrived without their mounts. The Kuban Army, which had rejected Denikin, headed for the mountains, but the Georgians would not let them cross over, and some sixty thousand surrendered in April.

The indignity and disorder of the evacuation were echoed in the tensions between the White leaders, who fell out among themselves. In January Wrangel plotted to unseat Denikin, in February Denikin dismissed Wrangel, and in March Denikin’s chief of staff was assassinated, probably by another officer. On March 3, now in Crimea, Denikin resigned and Wrangel replaced him. A month later, Denikin left for Constantinople on a British destroyer. The broad southern front had been reduced to the nub of the Crimea, where the final act would play itself out.

After Constantinople, Denikin made his way first to England, then Belgium, spending a few years in Hungary before settling in Paris in 1926. In 1940, after the German occupation, he made his way to the south of France, where he lived undisturbed for the duration of the war. He left for the United States in 1945 and died of a heart attack while visiting Ann Arbor, Michigan, in August 1947. His remains were reburied in Donskoi Monastery in Moscow in 2005, when Patriarch Aleksei II hailed him as a champion of a united Great Russia.

It was one thing for the Reds to assert military superiority over forces organized from outside, which had used the Don and Kuban as staging grounds for their larger imperial ambitions. It was another thing to get a foothold among the population of this turbulent region. As they did everywhere else, the commissars struggled to impose their authority by means both of propaganda and repression: ideological saturation, plus systematically applied reprisals. The point was always to simplify the political landscape, to eliminate rivals on the left, discipline their popular followers, intimidate groups with a vested interest in opposing Bolshevik rule, and dramatize the high costs of noncooperation.

The Cossacks as a people persisted, however, in their complexity. Those who had abandoned General Kaledin in early 1918 later also resisted the Reds. In the region itself, the Bolshevik leaders of the Don Party Bureau and the Southern Front Revolutionary Military Council approached the Cossacks with caution. They had adopted a policy of targeted reprisals against men who had fought with Krasnov and local leaders (priests, atamans) who actively promoted the White cause. They rejected the generalized assault on anyone once connected to Krasnov’s army as sure to alienate the broad population. They recognized that many Cossacks had been recruited into the White army, or even joined up for various reasons, without ideological conviction. Of course, it was this very instability, captured in Mikhail Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the Don (1928–1932), where Cossacks figure as the collective protagonists, that aroused suspicion.

On January 24, 1919, the Moscow party leadership announced a new, more aggressive approach. Referring to the “Cossack people” (kazachestvo) as a whole, the directive informed local officials “that the only correct approach is the merciless fight against all the Cossack elites by means of their complete annihilation. No compromises, no halfway measures can be accepted.” The circular called for “mass terror against wealthy Cossacks, exterminating every last one,” as well as “merciless mass terror against Cossacks of any kind who have participated directly or indirectly in the fight against Soviet power.” A category described as “middle Cossacks” was to be treated preemptively, in such a way as to discourage opposition. The policy was known as “de-Cossackization” (razkazachivanie), a concept earlier used in the context of abolishing the estate hierarchy and status privileges. Cossacks stood to forfeit both the burden of military obligation and their favorable access to land. In some areas of the Don, war-weary Cossack veterans preferred to give up their advantages, but most viewed the abolition of estate categories as a threat to their collective existence.

In January 1919, the term acquired a more ominous meaning. The purpose now was literally to decapitate Cossack society and intimidate everyone else. In applying the new decree, the Southern Front Revolutionary Military Council nevertheless continued to favor the execution of ringleaders over the slaughter of ill-defined “Cossack elites.” The policy, however construed, was implemented by extraordinary tribunals mounted in the occupied stanitsas. Despite the relative moderation of the Don-based commissars and local party leaders, Moscow pressured the tribunals for results. Their energetic decisions, over the course of a mere six weeks, resulted in the deaths of as many as ten thousand Cossacks in the Don territory, where groups of men were systematically rounded up and shot after perfunctory hearings. The military leadership of the Southern Front defined the categories to be executed, on the basis of thoroughgoing sweeps of the Cossack settlements. These included anyone holding any kind of public position; all Krasnov officers, in particular, and anyone associated with Krasnov, in general; figures associated with the old regime; and “all rich Cossacks without exception.” Property belonging to the victims was to be confiscated and redistributed. Many Cossack fighters who avoided execution were confined to prisons in conditions that encouraged epidemics.

The application of the January 24 circular has been called a Cossack genocide. The death toll was extreme, the purpose murderous, but the goal of wiping out the entire Cossack population “to the very last one,” was never explicitly stated and never achieved. The language of the circular targeted “elites,” though it was vague enough to give license to indiscriminate slaughter. If not literally genocidal, the policy was designed to tear apart the fabric of Cossack society and destroy its economic life. The Cossacks were both a fighting force and a community, but they were not now confronted on the battlefield; they were murdered in their homes. The January 24 circular made for excellent White propaganda, and its implementation naturally increased the hostility of the Cossack population as a whole, confirming the presumption that they were endemically hostile to the revolution. A case of terror substantiating its own fears.

Since the party apparatus had barely penetrated the Don, repression was implemented by outsiders with little understanding of the people they were sent to subdue. Their cultural distance no doubt made it easier to accomplish their ruthless task. Indeed, party leaders were explicit about the danger of trying to win over “the counterrevolution” by persuasion rather than crushing it by force. People from the inside were more likely to be soft; what was needed were “experienced, enterprising, energetic, and decisive Communists,” the Don Party Bureau advised, if possible from Moscow and Petrograd. The purpose of the campaign was clear both to those in Moscow who defined it and to those who put it into effect. It was not a matter of local comrades going overboard or getting out of hand. The January 24 circular was signed by Iakov Sverdlov, chair of the All-Russian Executive Committee, with the support of Lenin and Trotsky. Inside the Don Party Bureau, some questioned its wisdom, but the enthusiasts, local chair Sergei Syrtsov and Aron Frenkel’, were the ones who carried it out.

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1 thought on “War Against the Cossacks I

  1. Pingback: War Against the Cossacks I — Weapons and Warfare – The Sharpened Quill

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