War Against the Cossacks II

Filipp Mironov

Nevertheless, the Cossacks had to be conquered from within; they could not simply be wiped out. The case of Colonel Filipp Mironov, a talented military commander and charismatic popular leader, illustrates the pathos and contradictions inherent not only in the struggle to secure the loyalty of the Cossack population but also in the wider conflict between the broad peasantry and the emerging institutions of the Soviet state. The story is amply documented in material gathered by the Cheka, which built a case against him in the end.

Mironov was a decorated Cossack officer from the stanitsa of Ust-Medveditsa (today the Russian city of Serafimovich), on the Don River northwest of Tsaritsyn. In 1906 he was dismissed from the army after protesting the use of Cossack troops to suppress domestic unrest. In 1917, by then a mature forty-five, he did not immediately welcome the October coup. “I admit,” he later reflected, “I was not sympathetic.” He set himself to studying the Social Democratic program, he recounted, in order to “take a position that would assure the victory of the popular cause and without too many victims.” Returning to his hometown, he took up “civic political activity.”

Wary of the Bolsheviks at the start, he was at the same time hostile to their opponents. In December 1917, he addressed a letter to Kaledin’s Don Host Government, in which he cited John Stuart Mill on behalf of freedom of speech (citing also the far-from-liberal Slavophile philosopher Konstantin Aksakov) and condemning the imposition of martial law in the Don Republic. He ended with a stirring appeal (which he hoped to publish in local newspapers): “To the Constituent Assembly! To the federative democratic republic! To the truly free liberated Don! … To free speech, light and truth! … The Don is not for the adventures of landlords, capitalists, and generals, but for free Cossack citizens! To the laboring Russian people!”

Mironov’s understanding of socialism as a liberating creed sometimes jarred with Bolshevik methods. He joined the Ust-Medveditsa Soviet Executive Committee, but then withdrew. Signing himself “Citizen Mironov,” he explained his reasons. Arresting the prosecutors and judges of the local courts, he objected, “cannot strengthen the idea of Bolshevism, and I serve only ideas, not persons. The tsarist government perished because it committed atrocities such as no government should permit.” Despite these criticisms, Mironov nevertheless affirmed his commitment. “I arrived at the idea of Bolshevism by cautious steps and over many years, but having arrived I will renounce my convictions only at the price of my head.” Ideas, not leaders; principles, not policies.

In January 1918, Mironov addressed a passionate appeal to the “Citizen Cossacks of the Ust-Medveditsa district,” in which he described socialism as the search for “justice, reason, and freedom.” The various socialist parties approached this goal from different angles, he explained; the Bolsheviks were the most resolute, the most determined not to delay or defer. Mironov’s understanding of politics obviously derived from the leaflets, proclamations, and newspapers issued by all the parties. He did his own reading as well, but he was no intellectual. His beliefs reflected the extent to which socialism as a culture, as a worldview or value system, had penetrated well beyond the educated elites. His own language has a certain freshness, an engaging naiveté, and indeed naiveté—or excessive cunning—was to be his undoing.

Above all, Mironov was an accomplished military commander. In January 1918, he led a Cossack division from the Romanian front back to the Don, but then refused to fight against the Reds. In the summer, Mironov led a Cossack force on behalf of the recently constituted Don Soviet Republic, preventing Krasnov’s Don Army from moving up the Volga. By September his brigade had become a division. In January 1919, Trotsky, as commissar of war, greeted the “heroic warriors” of Mironov’s “meritorious division,” adding: “All Russia expects great things from you.”

Despite his heroism, or perhaps because of it, Mironov was distrusted. Stalin reported to Lenin from Tsaritsyn in early August 1918, complaining of the unreliability of Mironov’s forces. The Cossack troops kept moving back and forth, making it impossible to gauge their loyalty. “Entire regiments have gone over to Mironov in order to obtain weapons, to gather information about our forces, and then entice entire regiments back over to Krasnov’s side.” There is no evidence that such devious strategies were afoot, but Stalin was right about one thing. Mironov toed nobody’s line. The local party bosses understood that as well. They considered him unsuited to serve on the Don Executive Committee. “He may be a good military commander,” they noted in January 1919, about the same time that Trotsky was praising his battlefield prowess, “but in political terms he is an unknown quantity.”

Commenting on Stalin’s remark, two distinguished Russian historians, Viktor Danilov and Nonna Tarkhova, writing soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, describe the Bolsheviks as having an “oversimplified understanding of the events of the Civil War, displaying extreme one-sidedness and inflexibility of judgment and evaluation, which deepened social antagonisms, inflamed political passions, and led to ever more victims.” Indeed, that was the Bolshevik method—to deepen social divisions, inflame passions, and brandish the sword of terror over everyone’s head. Mironov believed these methods were damaging the revolution. He wired Trotsky in early January 1919. “It would be desirable in implementing the decrees of the central authorities in the Don region to pay special attention to the cultural and economic peculiarities of the Don population.” Operatives unfamiliar with the region and its customs only antagonized the local population, causing “nothing but harm to the revolution.”

Unlike other popular leaders, who encouraged or ignored the spontaneous aggression of their men as a way of retaining their loyalty, Mironov called for austerity and self-control. He warned his troops not to be “inadvertent allies” of the “brigand” Krasnov by abusing the local people and turning them against the revolution, instead of drawing them in. “There is no place for brigands in the Red Army!” he thundered. “In the name of the revolution,” he warned against drunkenness, as a breach of discipline, and forbade “the use of violence against persons, because you are fighting for the rights of individuals, and to be a worthy fighter you must learn to respect the individual person in general.” In the same spirit, Mironov resisted the application of the instructions of January 24, 1919, calling for “mass terror” against any Cossack fighters known to have joined the Whites at any time. He preferred to allow those who surrendered to return home with their horses and equipment. “I do not think the ignorance of benighted Cossacks will be considered a crime,” he said. “These people deserve to be pitied, not despoiled; indeed, revenge is a two-sided sword and never achieves its goal. The laboring people do not need it.”

Mironov thus confronted the party with a natural leader whose message competed with the official line, endorsing discipline, morality, justice, and the bright future. In late February, Trotsky had him transferred to Serpukhov, in central Russia, six hundred miles north of his home base, in order to “look him over.” In early March, Mironov was denounced in absentia to the chair of the Don Party Bureau as a demagogue and anti-Semite who agitated against Communist power, having allegedly described the Communists as “robbers, deserters, and cowards” while presenting himself as the champion of the downtrodden. His listeners had apparently taken his message to heart. When later interrogated, peasants who had attended a local meeting reported that “Old Man Mironov told them that for now they were fighting against Krasnov on behalf of the Bolsheviks, but later would fight against the Communists.” Indeed, Mironov made no secret of his objection to Soviet methods in the Don. In a message addressed to the Red Army command, Mironov offered his advice. “Time and skillful political workers will destroy the ignorance and fanaticism instilled in the Cossacks by the barracks schooling of the old police regime, which has penetrated the Cossack organism.” Communism should be introduced “by means of lectures, conversations, brochures, and so on.” Violence would not work.

Mironov here was advocating for wise application of Soviet power, not opposing the Soviet regime, but the Cossacks who took the brunt of its murderous methods drew the obvious conclusions. Rebellion was first reported in Kazanskaia stanitsa on March 13, 1919. The rebels seized weapons and ammunition and murdered the local commissar, a certain Kupfervasser, clearly one of the unwelcome outsiders. They issued an announcement, which included the election of a new soviet; the recognition of all kinds of paper money (Kaledin’s, Krasnov’s, Russian)—in itself a declaration of political instability; and general mobilization, except for certain categories. “Soviet troops that surrender without resistance,” the rebels promised, “will be disarmed and allowed to return home. Those that resist will be disarmed by force, arrested, and sent to Veshenskaia stanitsa, but without the use of violence or shooting.”

The rebels made the by now common distinction between the Soviet regime, standing for the revolution, and the Communist Party, which represented the reality of Soviet rule. “Our rebellion has been launched not against the power of the Soviets and Soviet Russia, but only against the Party of Communists, which has seized power in our homeland.” Harsh requisitioning, jeopardizing their very existence, had bred discontent, but finally “the illegal, inappropriate arrests and executions of innocent peaceful inhabitants,” and other intrusions, had “overfilled the cup of our patience and the population has arisen and overturned Communist power.” The rebels had gotten their hands on official documents, including the January decree ordering mass shootings of the Cossack population “by settlers from Russia,” as they put it. “We submit to Soviet power, but this power must be elected from among our own population, it must understand our needs and customs, it must be the true expression of the will of the People.” Denouncing the collective farms and the mass executions, they concluded, “Long live the Power of the People!”

On March 16, the Military Council of the Southern Front called for “merciless repression,” demanding the same energetic measures that had provoked the rebellion to begin with. Instructions to local officials were precise. They were “to torch all rebellious villages; shoot anyone, without exception, taking direct or indirect part in the uprising; in each rebellious village gather five or ten adult males for execution; take mass hostages from neighboring villages; warn that all villages showing support for the rebels will be subject to the merciless annihilation of the entire adult male population and be burned to the ground at the first sign of assistance to the rebels.” The list of categories to be repressed was now even longer and more detailed than before.

At the same time, the party began to reconsider. On March 16, the day that Sverdlov, author of the January decree, died in Moscow, probably of influenza, the party’s Central Committee heard a report from Grigorii Sokol’nikov, on behalf of the Don Party Bureau, arguing against the anti-Cossack campaign. Lenin, Stalin, Dzerzhinskii, and Trotsky were among those present. Perhaps because Sverdlov was now dead, the Bolshevik leaders decided to “suspend the application of measures against the Cossack people.” They hoped to win the support of the Upper Don Cossacks, whom they considered potential allies, against the agitated region of Veshenskaia in the south.

On March 25, the hard-line Syrtsov instructed the local Bolsheviks to change course. The Veshenskaia rebels were of course still to be apprehended and punished with all possible “ruthlessness,” but “indiscriminate repression must not be applied to stanitsas that have not revolted.” In other words, a switch to targeted, not wholesale terror. “Economic measures, particularly requisitions, should be applied carefully and with discrimination,” so as not to provoke further resistance. The message was repeated in April, to repress the insurrection, but “in relation to peaceful districts do not resort to mass terror, persecute only active counterrevolutionaries.” Requisitioning and taxation should be applied carefully and in reasonable proportions.

These decrees obviously acknowledged and described the abuses, which were clearly still going on a month after the first warning. In what later became a typical Stalinist move, local officials who had obeyed the January decree were now punished for implementing its demands. Thus in April, the head of the revolutionary committee in the village of Morozovskaia was arrested and tried by a military tribunal for the execution of sixty-four Cossacks whose corpses had later been found in a barn. The confused commissar had received conflicting instructions—from local officials who considered him too extreme, and from his military superiors who urged him to do more. He was executed finally for what had since been defined as a crime. Indeed, the official attitude remained unclear. The Central Committee had not revoked, but merely halted, the process of de-Cossackization, and pressure on the mutinous southern sector was never intended to stop. On April 22, Moscow reiterated the point. In relation to the “counterrevolutionary southern Cossacks” terror was to continue; peasants were to be settled among them, to dilute their presence, and mobilized against them.

In March, just as the trouble was beginning, Mironov had submitted his report recommending a political, not military, approach to the Cossacks. Red Army commander in chief Vatsetis had read and approved it. The southern military authorities, however, did not want Mironov back in the Don, and he was dispatched to the Belarus-Lithuanian Front. As the Don and the Volunteer Armies continued their advances, however, Mironov was ordered to return to the Southern Front and in mid-June was appointed to head a Special Corps of Don Cossacks. In July, he had the chance to present his March report directly to Lenin in Moscow, but his views were opposed by persistent advocates of the former harsh methods. The Special Corps was scuttled.

In July and August, the city of Saransk, three hundred miles southeast of Moscow, between Saratov and Kazan, became the site of meetings at which Cossacks gathered to voice their opposition to the continuing anti-Cossack pressures. Here Mironov learned more about what had been happening in his absence. Writing to Lenin, he condemned “the destruction of everything owned by the laboring peasant, which he has earned through bloody toil, in order on this foundation to begin a new life, full of new dangers and good so far only in theory.” He was no friend of Denikin, Kolchak, Petliura, or Hryhoriïv, he said, “but I regard with the same revulsion the violence of the false Communists, which they inflict on the laboring people, and therefore I cannot be on their side.”

It is unlikely that Lenin or anyone else ever read Mironov’s letter, but it reflected views congenial to Cossacks and peasants suffering under the new order but with no desire to return to the old. In August, Mironov composed the program for a “Worker-Peasant Party,” calling for popularly elected soviets and freedom of speech and assembly for all socialist parties. He demanded the abolition of the Sovnarkom and the Cheka, an end to grain requisitions, but also to private property in land. The land must belong on a common basis to the tillers, who were to be gradually schooled in the development of agricultural methods. An “appeal to the long-suffering Russian people,” issued in Saransk, announced the formation of a Don Revolutionary Corps under the command of “Citizen Mironov.” Deserters were welcome to rally under the red banner for the fight against Denikin and against the Communists. “Land to the peasants, factories to the workers, power to the laboring people as represented by authentic Soviets of worker, peasant, and Cossack deputies elected on the basis of free socialist campaigning. Down with the autocracy of the commissars and the bureaucratism of the Communists, who have doomed the revolution.”

In response to this appeal, Trotsky spewed the usual boilerplate invective: “As a turncoat and traitor, Mironov is declared outside the law. Every honest citizen who encounters Mironov has the duty to shoot him like a mad dog. Death to the traitor!” Trotsky admitted that mistakes had been made. “When the Red Army moved into the Don it is clear that in certain places individual Soviet agents and the worst Red Army units were guilty of injustices and even brutality toward the local Cossack population.” These excesses, he insisted, had been a response to the Cossacks’ own support for the White forces. Yet a true Bolshevik should have put these abuses in perspective, not used them as an excuse to advance his own personal career.

It is unclear whether Mironov was a power-hungry careerist or the White Knight of the People’s Cause. At the mass meeting of August 22, 1919, in Saransk that launched his rebellion, he characterized “Citizens Lenin and Bronshtein-Trotsky” as extremists, ready to spill the blood of the people. A political commissar reported that his speech was replete with “Black Hundreds pogrom appeals.” Indeed, Mironov had not avoided the question of the Jews, a flashpoint for all anti-Bolshevik propaganda. In June, while still on the Western Front, Mironov had called for strict discipline and explicitly denounced pogroms: “Is it possible,” he had appealed to his men, “that the soldiers of the Red Army, bearers and guardians of the ideas of equality and brotherhood, should commit anti-Jewish pogroms!?” The answer is “no, no, a thousand times no!!” Now, in August, on home ground, according to the commissar’s report, Mironov had said he regretted his “proclamations against pogroms. We must destroy the power of the Jews, not only in the regions, but in the center, where they have implanted the Bronshteins, Nakhamkises, and other scoundrels.” (Iurii Steklov, a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, had been born in Odessa as Ovshii Nakhamkis.) Calling for war against the Communists, he ordered that any Communists who tried to leave the city be shot on the spot.

Shooting on the spot was, of course, a Bolshevik remedy against which Mironov had protested, though it was not exclusive to them. On the question of the Jews, it may be that party informants were trying to blacken Mironov’s name, but the identification of the reviled Communists with the already hated Jews was ubiquitous among resentful peasants and Red Army men. It was not merely a staple of White propaganda. Mironov indeed personified the uncertainty of Cossack support for the revolution and the dangers of heeding the “voice of the people.” On September 16, 1919, Trotsky announced that Mironov had been arrested without resistance, along with his followers, whom Trotsky characterized as deluded. He was charged with armed rebellion against Soviet power. The prosecutor was the Latvian Ivar Smigla, at this point head of the political department of the Red Army. Mironov, for his part, claimed always to have supported Soviet power.

The verdict announced on October 7, 1919, listed among Mironov’s other offenses the “fomenting of ethnic antagonisms,” having denounced the current government as “Yid-Communist.” He and nine others were sentenced to be shot. Smigla appealed for clemency. He did not think it was “useful” to kill Mironov or his confederates. Nikolai Rybakov, assigned to be Mironov’s defender at the trial, was more explicit. He sent his protest to Mikhail Kalinin, who had succeeded Sverdlov as president of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. The condemned, said Rybakov, “had for two years fought like lions on the front lines of the Don, had been wounded, had received the highest Red decorations … The names of the convicted are known to everyone on the Don. Their execution will reflect badly on Soviet authorities in the eyes of the Don Cossacks. For political reasons it is desirable to reduce the sentence.” Moscow assented. Rybakov was then arrested for publishing his appeal in the local newspaper, but was later released.

The “mad dog” Mironov was in Trotsky’s clutches, but instead of being shot he was pardoned and restored to service in the Red Army. In the wake of the rebellion, the Politburo, the party’s highest decision-making body, yet again reconsidered its policy toward the Cossacks. “We are giving the Don, the Kuban full autonomy,” Trotsky wired Smigla, “our armies are cleaning up the Don. The Cossacks have entirely broken with Denikin. We must establish appropriate guarantees. Mironov and his comrades can serve as intermediaries, whom we can send deep into the Don.”

From prison, Mironov called on his followers to make peace with Soviet power. He claimed that the Communists had mended their ways, that Trotsky was “introducing strict control over political workers and purging the Communist Party of unworthy, provocateur, and counterrevolutionary elements.”98 Clearly an astute operator—or else compelled to follow a script—Mironov informed Trotsky that he had been “born again,” dedicated to “our common cause—the destruction of the power of capital, the power of the bourgeoisie,” and asked for Trotsky’s “complete confidence.” The party accorded Mironov full amnesty and drafted him into the Don Executive Committee. Trotsky restored his command. Drawing certain lessons from the Mironov case, the Don Committee warned political instructors that “in the fight between the two camps—Red and White, there is no room for a third—yellow or green. Either Lenin, or Denikin. … The Civil War mercilessly destroys everything intermediate, it punishes those who sit between two stools.” Mironov took command of the Second Red Cavalry fighting against Wrangel, but his loyalty remained suspect. He was arrested for a second time on February 13, 1921, on charges of conspiring to organize an insurrection against the Soviet regime. The documents do not tell us if the charges had any foundation. In this period, Moscow was busy liquidating all vestiges of popular opposition, just as it was changing political course and softening the harsh policies of the Civil War. On April 2, 1921, by then almost sixty, Mironov was condemned to death and shot by the Cheka in Moscow. His reputation was formally restored in November 1960.

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1 thought on “War Against the Cossacks II

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

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