My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 33

A Month at Sviyazhsk

The spring and summer of 1918 were unusually hard. All the aftermath of the war was then just beginning to make itself felt At times, it seemed as if everything were slipping and crumbling, as if there were nothing to hold to, nothing to lean upon. One wondered if a country so despairing, so economically exhausted, so devastated, had enough sap left in it to support a new regime and preserve its independence. There was no food. There was no army. The railways were completely disorganized. The machinery of state was just beginning to take shape. Conspiracies were being hatched everywhere.

In the West, the Germans occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, White Russia and a large section of Great Russia. Pskov was in their hands. The Ukraine became an Austro-German colony. On the Volga, in the summer of 1918, agents of France and England engineered a rebellion of Czecho-Slovak regiments, made up of former war prisoners. The German high command let me know, through their military representatives, that if the Whites approached Moscow from the east, the Germans would come from the west, from the direction of Orsha and Pskov, to prevent the forming of a new eastern front. We were between hammer and anvil. In the North, the French and English occupied Murmansk and Archangel, and threatened an advance on Vologda. In Yaroslavl, there broke out an insurrection of the White Guards, organized by Savinkov at the instigation of the French ambassador Noulens and the English representative Lockhart, with the object of connecting the northern troops with the Czecho-Slovaks and White Guards on the Volga, by way of Vologda and Yaroslavl. In the Urals, Dutov’s bands were at large. In the South, on the Don, an up rising was spreading under the leadership of General Krasnov, then in actual alliance with the Germans. The left Socialist Revolutionists organized a conspiracy in July and murdered Count Mirbach; they tried, at the same time, to start an uprising on the eastern front. They wanted to force us into war with Germany. The civil-war front was taking more and more the shape of a noose closing ever tighter about Moscow.

After the fall of Simbirsk, it was decided that I should go to the Volga, where we were facing the greatest danger. I began to get a special train ready — in those days, not so simple a matter. Everything was missing, or, to be more exact, no one knew where to find anything. The simplest task became a complicated improvisation. I never imagined then that I would have to live in that train for two years and a half. I left Moscow on August 7, still ignorant of the fall of Kazan the day before; only en route did I hear that very disturbing news. Red units hastily drawn up for service had left their posts without a struggle and had bared the defenses of Kazan. Part of the staff proved to be traitors; the others had been caught off guard and had to run for safety as best they could, under a rain of bullets. No one knew where the commander-in-chief or the other commanding officers were. My train stopped at Sviyazhsk, the nearest sizable station to Kazan. There, for a whole month, the fate of the revolution hung again in the balance. That month was a great training-school for me.

The army at Sviyazhsk was made up of detachments which had retreated from Simbirsk and Kazan, and of assisting units rushed in from all directions. Each unit lived its own distinct life, sharing in common only a readiness to retreat — so superior were the enemy in both organization and experience. Some White companies made up exclusively of officers performed miracles. The soil itself seemed to be infected with panic. The fresh Red detachments, arriving in vigorous mood, were immediately ingulfed by the inertia of retreat. A rumor began to spread among the local peasantry that the Soviets were doomed. Priests and tradesmen lifted their heads. The revolutionary elements in the villages went into hiding. Every thing was crumbling; there was nothing to hold to. The situation seemed hopeless.

Here, before Kazan, one could see on a small stretch of land the multiple diversity of the factors in human history, and could draw up arguments against that cowardly historical fatalism which, on all concrete questions, hides behind the passive working of the law of cause and effect, ignoring the while that most important factor — the living and active man. Could much more be needed to overthrow the revolution? Its territory was now reduced to the size of the ancient Moscow principality. It had hardly any army; it was surrounded by enemies on all sides. After Kazan would have come the turn of Nijni Novgorod, from which a practically unobstructed road lay open to Moscow. The fate of the revolution was being decided here at Sviyazhsk. And here, at the most critical moment, it rested on a single battalion, on one company, on the courage of one commissary. In short, it really was hanging by a thread. And thus it went, day in and day out.

Despite all this, the revolution was saved. What was needed for that? Very little. The front ranks of the masses had to realize the mortal danger in the situation. The first requisite for success was to hide nothing, our weakness least of all; not to trifle with the masses but to call everything by its right name. The revolution was still very irresponsible; the October victory had been won very easily. At the same time the revolution had not removed, by a single stroke, all the hardships that had fostered it. The spontaneous pressure had relaxed. The enemy was gaining its successes through military organization, the very thing we did not have. But the revolution was achieving it, before Kazan.

The propaganda throughout the country was being fed by telegrams from Sviyazhsk. The Soviets, the party, the trades-unions, all devoted themselves to raising new detachments, and sent thousands of communists to the Kazan front. Most of the youth of the party did not know how to handle arms, but they had the will to win, and that was the most important thing. They put backbone into the soft body of the army.

The commander-in-chief on the eastern front was Colonel Vatzetis, who had been in command of a division of Latvian Rifles. This was the only unit left over from the old army. The Latvian farm-hands, laborers, and poor peasants hated the Baltic barons. Czarism had capitalized this antagonism in the war with the Germans, and the Latvian regiments had been the best troops in the Czar’s army. After the February revolution, they came almost to a man under the Bolshevik influence, and played an important role in the October revolution. Vatzetis was enterprising, energetic and resourceful. He had distinguished himself during the insurrection of the left Socialist-Revolutionists. Under his direction, light guns were placed in front of the conspirators’ headquarters, and two or three volleys, merely to frighten them without casualties, were enough to make them take to their heels. Vatzetis replaced Muravyov after the treason of the adventurer in the east. Unlike the other officers trained at the military academy, he never lost himself in the chaos of the revolution, but plunged cheerfully in, blowing bubbles, appealing, exhorting, giving orders even when there was little hope of their being carried out. While other “specialists” in government service were more fearful of overstepping their authority than of anything else, Vatzetis in his moments of inspiration would issue orders as if the Soviet of Commissaries and the Central Executive Committee did not exist. About a year later, he was accused of dubious schemes and connections and had to be dismissed, but there was really nothing serious about the accusations. Perhaps before going to sleep, the chap had been reading Napoleon’s biography, and confided his ambitious dreams to two or three young officers. Today, Vatzetis is a professor in the military academy. In the retreat from Kazan on August 6, he was one of the last to leave the staff headquarters when the Whites were already entering the building. He managed to make his escape, and arrived at Sviyazhsk by way of a circuitous route, having lost Kazan but not his optimism. We considered the more important questions together, appointed the Latvian officer Slavin commander of the Fifth army and said good-by to each other. Vatzetis left for his staff headquarters and I remained at Sviyazhsk.

Among the party workers who arrived on the same train with me was a man named Gusev. He was called an “old Bolshevik” because of his share in the revolution of 1905. He had retired to bourgeois life for the next ten years, but, like many others, returned to revolution in 1917. Later Lenin and I removed him from military work because of some petty intrigues, and he was immediately picked up by Stalin. His special vocation to-day is chiefly that of falsifying the history of the civil war, for which his main qualification is his apathetic cynicism. Like the rest of the Stalin school, he never looks back over what he has written or said before. At the beginning of 1924, when the campaign against me was already quite overt, Gusev played his role of phlegmatic slanderer. But the memory of those days at Sviyazhsk, despite the six intervening years, was still too fresh, and acted as a check on even him. This is what he said then of the events before Kazan: “The arrival of Comrade Trotsky worked a decisive change in the situation. In Comrade Trotsky’s train to the obscure station of Sviyazhsk, there came a firm will to victory, a new sense of initiative, and resolute pressure in all phases of the army work.

“From the very first days, every one began to feel that some abrupt change had taken place, not only at the station — the active campaign headquarters of the political section and the army supply staff, crammed with the supply trains of countless regiments — but even in army units stationed about fifteen versts away. It was first apparent in the matter of discipline. Comrade Trotsky’s harsh methods . . . were most expedient and necessary for that period of undisciplined and irregular warfare. Persuasion counted for nothing, and there was no time for it. And so, during the twenty-five days that Comrade Trotsky spent at Sviyazhsk, a tremendous amount of work was done, with the result that the disorganized and demoralized units of the Fifth army were changed into the fighting units that later recaptured Kazan.”

Treason had nests among the staff and the commanding officers; in fact, everywhere. The enemy knew where to strike and almost always did so with certainty. It was discouraging. Soon after my arrival, I visited the front-line batteries. The disposition of the artillery was being explained to me by an experienced officer, a man with a face roughened by wind and with impenetrable eyes. He asked for permission to leave me for a moment, to give some orders over the field-telephone. A few minutes later two shells dropped, fork-wise, fifty steps away from where we were standing; a third dropped quite close to us. I had barely time to lie down, and was covered with earth. The officer stood motionless some distance away, his face showing pale through his tan. Strangely enough, I suspected nothing at the moment; I thought it was simply an accident. Two years later I suddenly remembered the whole affair, and, as I recalled it in its smallest detail, it dawned on me that the officer was an enemy, and that through some intermediate point he had communicated with the enemy battery by telephone, and had told them where to fire. He ran a double risk — of getting killed along with me by a White shell, or of being shot by the Reds. I have no idea what happened to him later.

I had no sooner returned to my carriage than I heard rifle-shots all about me. I rushed to the door. A White airplane was circling above us, obviously trying to hit the train. Three bombs dropped on a wide curve, one after another, but did no damage. From the roofs of our train rifles and machine-guns were shooting at the enemy. The airplane rose out of reach, but the fusillade went on — it seemed as if every one were drunk. With considerable difficulty I managed to stop the shooting. Possibly the same artillery officer had sent word as to the time of my return to the train. But there may have been other sources as well.

The more hopeless the military situation of the revolution, the more active the treason. It was necessary, no matter what the cost, to overcome as quickly as possible the automatic inertia of retreat, in which men no longer believe that they can stop, face about, and strike the enemy in the chest. I brought about fifty young party men from Moscow with me on the train. They simply outdid themselves, stepping into the breach and fairly melting away before my very eyes through the recklessness of their heroism and sheer inexperience. The posts next to theirs were held by the fourth Latvian regiment. Of all the regiments of the Latvian division that had been so badly pulled to pieces, this was the worst. The men lay in the mud under the rain and demanded relief, but there was no relief available. The commander of the regiment and the regimental committee sent me a statement to the effect that unless the regiment was relieved at once “consequences dangerous for the revolution” would follow. It was a threat. I summoned the commander of the regiment and the chairman of the committee to my car. They sullenly held to their statement. I declared them under arrest. The communications officer of the train, who is now the commander of the Kremlin, disarmed them in my compartment. There were only two of us on the train staff; the rest were fighting at the front. If the men arrested had showed any resistance, or if their regiment had decided to defend them and had left the front line, the situation might have been desperate. We should have had to surrender Sviyazhsk and the bridge across the Volga. The capture of my train by the enemy would undoubtedly have had its effect on the army. The road to Moscow would have been left open. But the arrest came off safely. In an order to the army, I announced the commitment of the commander of the regiment to trial before the revolutionary tribunal. The regiment remained at its post. The commander was merely sentenced to prison.

The communists were explaining, exhorting, and offering example, but agitation alone could not radically change the attitude of the troops, and the situation did not allow sufficient time for that. We had to decide on sterner measures. I issued an order which was printed on the press in my train and distributed throughout the army: “I give warning that if any unit retreats without orders, the first to be shot down will be the commissary of the unit, and next the commander. Brave and gallant soldiers will be appointed in their places. Cowards, bastards and traitors will not escape the bullet. This I solemnly promise in the presence of the entire Red Army.”

Of course the change did not come all at once. Individual detachments continued to retreat without cause, or else would break under the first strong onset. Sviyazhsk was open to attack. On the Volga, a steamboat was held ready for the staff. Ten men of my train crew, mounted on bicycles, were on guard over the pathway between the staff headquarters and the steamship landing. The military Soviet of the Fifth army proposed that I move to the river. It was a wise suggestion, but I was afraid of the bad effect on an army already nervous and lacking in assurance. Just at that time, the situation at the front suddenly grew worse. The fresh regiment on which we had been banking left its post, with its commissary and commander at its head, and seized the steamer by threat of arms, intending to steam to Nijni-Novgorod.

A wave of alarm swept over the front. Every one began to look toward the river. The situation seemed almost hopeless. The staff remained at its post, though the enemy was only a kilometre or two away and shells were bursting close at hand. I had a talk with the indispensable Markin. Boarding an improvised gunboat with a score of tested men, he sailed up to the steamer held by the deserters, and at the point of a gun demanded their surrender. Everything depended on that one moment; a single rifle-shot would have been enough to bring on a catastrophe. But the deserters surrendered without resisting. The steamer docked alongside the pier, the deserters disembarked. I appointed a field-tribunal which passed death-sentences on the commander, the commissary, and several privates — to a gangrenous wound a red-hot iron was applied. I explained the situation to the regiment without hiding or softening anything. A number of communists were injected into the regiment, which returned to the battle front with new commanding officers and a new spirit. Everything happened so quickly that the enemy did not have time to take advantage of the disturbance in our ranks.

It was necessary to organize an aviation service. I called up an engineer-pilot, Akashev, who, though an anarchist by conviction, was working with us. Akashev showed his initiative and quickly rounded up an air squadron. At last we got with its help a full picture of the enemy front; the command of the Fifth army had come out of the dark. The fliers made daily air raids on Kazan, and a frenzy of alarm took hold of the city. Some time later, after Kazan had been taken, I received some documents that included the diary of a bourgeois girl who went through the siege of Kazan. Pages were given over to descriptions of the panic that our airmen caused, and alternated with pages describing the girl’s affairs of the heart. Life went on. Czech officers vied with Russian. Affairs begun in the drawing-rooms of Kazan ran their course and reached their finale in the cellars that served as shelters from the bombs.

On the twenty-eighth of August, the Whites launched an outflanking movement. Colonel Kappel, later a celebrated White general, penetrated to our rear under cover of darkness, with a strong detachment behind him, and seized a small railway station, destroyed the tracks, and cut down the telegraph-poles. When he had cut off our retreat in this way, he advanced to attack Sviyazhsk. If I am not mistaken, Kappel’s staff included Savinkov. This move caught us quite off our guard. We were afraid to disrupt the already shaky front, and so we withdrew only two or three companies. The commander of my train again mobilized every one he could lay his hands on, both in the train and at the station, including even the cook. We had a good stock of rifles, machine-guns and hand-grenades. The train crew was made up of good fighters. The men took their posts about a verst from the train. The battle went on for about eight hours, and both sides had losses. Finally, after they had spent themselves, the enemy withdrew. Meanwhile the break in the connection with Sviyazhsk had stirred up Moscow and the whole line. Small units were rushed to our relief. The line was quickly repaired; fresh detachments poured into the army. At that time, the Kazan papers were reporting that I had been cut off, taken prisoner, killed, had flown away in an airplane — but that my dog was captured as a trophy. This faithful animal later was captured on all the civil-war fronts. In most cases, it was a chocolate-colored dog, but sometimes a Saint Bernard. I got off all the cheaper because I never had any dog.

While I was making the rounds of the staff quarters at three o’clock in the morning, on the most critical night at Sviyazhsk, I heard a familiar voice from the staff-room saying: “He will play this game until he is taken prisoner, and will ruin himself and all of us. You mark my words.” I stopped at the threshold. There, facing me, were two young officers of the general staff, sitting at a table and poring over a map. The man who was speaking stood with his back to me, bent over the table. He must have read something like alarm on his companions’ faces, for he turned sharply around toward the door. It was Blagonravov, former lieutenant in the Czar’s army, a young Bolshevik. An expression of mingled terror and shame seemed to freeze on his face. As a commissary, it was his duty to keep up the morale of the specialists attached to the army. Instead of that, here he was, at this critical moment, stirring them against me and actually suggesting that they desert! I had caught him red-handed, and I could scarcely believe my eyes or ears.

During 1917, Blagonravov had proved himself a fighting revolutionary. He was the commissary of the Peter-Paul fortress during the revolution, and later on he took part in the suppression of the military students’ uprising. I intrusted him with important commissions during the Smolny period, and he carried them out well. “Out of such a lieutenant,” I had once said jokingly to Lenin, “even a Napoleon may come some day. He even has the right name for it: Blago-nravov, 1 almost like Bona-parte.” Lenin laughed at this unexpected comparison, then he grew thoughtful, and, with his cheekbones bulging even more, said very seriously, almost threateningly, “Well, I think we’ll manage the Bonapartes, don’t you?”

“Everything is in the hands of God,” I answered him in jest. It was this same Blagonravov whom I had sent to the East when the people there had been asleep to the treachery of Muravyov. When, in Lenin’s reception-room in the Kremlin, I explained his task to Blagonravov, he answered as if he were depressed:

“The whole point of the thing is that the revolution has entered upon a decline.” That was in the middle of 1918. “Is it possible that you are spent so quickly?” I asked him, indignantly. Blagonravov pulled himself up, changed his tone, and promised to do everything that needed to be done. I was reassured.

And now I had caught him on the verge of downright treason at our most critical time!

We walked into the corridor so that we need not discuss it in front of the officers. Blagonravov was pale and trembling, with his hand raised to his cap. “Please don’t commit me to the tribunal,” he kept repeating despairingly. “I will earn my reprieve if you send me into the lines as a private.” My prophecy had not come true; here was my candidate for a Napoleon standing before me like a wet hen. He was dismissed from his post and sent to do less responsible work.

Revolution is a great devourer of men and character. It leads the brave to their destruction and destroys the souls of those who are less hardy. Today, Blagonravov is a member of the ruling staff of the State Political Board (“GPU”) 2, and one of the pillars of the present regime. He must have learned to hate the “permanent revolution” when he was still at Sviyazhsk.

The fate of the revolution was trembling in the balance between Sviyazhsk and Kazan. No retreat was open, except into the Volga. The revolutionary Soviet of the army informed me that the problem of my safety at Sviyazhsk restricted the freedom of their action, and demanded that I move at once aboard a ship on the river. They were entitled to make this demand — from the outset I had made it a rule that my presence at Sviyazhsk should in no way embarrass or restrict the high command of the army. I stuck to this rule all through my stops at various fronts. So I complied with the demand and moved over to the river, not, however, to the passenger-steamer that had been made ready for me, but to a torpedo-boat. Four small torpedo-boats had been brought up to the Volga, with great difficulty, by way of the Mariinsk canal system. By that time, a few of the river steamers also had been armed with guns and machine-guns.

The flotilla, under the command of Raskolnikov, was planning a raid on Kazan that night. It had to pass two high headlands on which the Whites had mounted their batteries. Beyond the headlands, the river curved and broadened out, and there the enemy’s flotilla was stationed. On the opposite bank, Kazan lay open. The plan was to pass the headlands under cover of darkness, destroy the enemy’s flotilla and shore batteries, and shell the city.

The flotilla set out in battle formation with lights out, like a thief in the night. Two old Volga pilots, both with thin little beards, stood next to the captain. Having been forced to come aboard, they were in mortal fear every minute, and were hating us and cursing their fate, trembling the while like aspens. Now everything depended on them. The captain reminded them from time to time that he would shoot both of them on the spot if they drove the ship aground. We had just come abreast of the headland, rising dimly out of the dark, when a shot from a machine-gun lashed across the river like a whip. A gunshot followed it from the hill. We went on silently. Behind us, from below, answering shots followed. Several bullets drummed on the iron sheet that protected us to the waist on the captain’s bridge. We crouched, and the boatswains shrank down, searching the darkness with piercing eyes and exchanging words in tense whispers with the captain. Once past the headland, we entered the reach. Beyond us, on the opposite shore, the lights of Kazan were visible. Heavy firing was going on behind us, from above and below.

Not more than two hundred yards away at the right, under cover of the hilly banks, the enemy flotilla was lying, the boats looming up as a vague mass. Raskolnikov ordered the guns to open fire on the boats. The metal body of our torpedo-boat groaned and shrieked with the first shot from its own gun. We were moving in jerks, as if that iron womb were giving birth to shells in grinding pain. Suddenly the darkness of the night was stripped naked by a flare — one of our shells had set fire to an oil-barge. An unexpected, unwelcome, but resplendent torch rose above the Volga. Now we began to fire at the pier. We could see the guns on it clearly, but they did not answer. The gunners apparently had simply fled. The whole expanse of river was lit up. There was no one behind us. We were alone; the enemy’s artillery obviously had cut off the passage of the rest of our boats. Our torpedo-boat stood out on that bright river like a fly on a white plate. In another moment we would find ourselves under the cross-fire from the headlands and the pier. It gave one the creeps. And on top of this, we lost control of our boat. The steering-gear had been broken, probably by a shot. We tried to turn the rudder by hand, but the broken chain got tangled around it, and the rudder became useless. We had to stop the engines. The boat was slowly drifting toward the Kazan bank when it ran into an old, half-submerged barge. The firing ceased altogether. It was as light as day and as silent as night.

We were in a trap. The only thing that seemed incomprehensible was the fact that we were not being pounded by shells. We did not realize the destruction and panic caused by our raid. Finally, the young commanders decided to push away from the barge and regulate the movement of the boat by running the right and left engines alternately. It proved successful. With the oil torch still blazing, we went on to the headland. There were no shots. Around the headland, we sank into darkness again. A sailor who had fainted was brought up from the engine-room. The battery stationed on the hill did not fire a single shot. Obviously we were not being watched, and probably there was no one there to watch us. We were saved. An easy word to write, “saved.” Cigarettes were lighted. The charred remains of one of our improvised gunboats were lying sadly on the shore. We found a few wounded men on the other boats. Only then did we notice that the bow of our torpedo boat had been neatly pierced by a three-inch shell. It was the hour before dawn. We all felt as if we had been born a second time.

One thing followed another. A flier who had just come down with welcome news was brought to me. A detachment of the Second army under the command of the Cossack Azin had come right up to Kazan from the northeast. They had captured two armored cars, had disabled two guns, routed an enemy detachment, and occupied two villages twelve versts away from Kazan. The airman flew back at once with instructions and an appeal. Kazan was being squeezed in the clutch of the pincers. Our night raid, as we soon learned through our reconnaissance men, had cracked the White resistance. The enemy flotilla had been almost completely destroyed, and the shore batteries had been reduced to silence. The word “torpedo-boat,” on the Volga, had the effect on the Whites that the word “tank” had on the young Red troops before Petrograd, some time later. Rumors were spread about to the effect that the Bolsheviks had Germans fighting with them. The prosperous classes began to flee in hordes from Kazan. The workers’ districts lifted their heads again. A revolt broke out in the powder-works. An aggressive spirit became apparent among our troops.

The month at Sviyazhsk was crammed full of exciting episodes. Something happened every day. In this respect, the nights quite often were not far behind the days. It was the first time that war had unrolled before me so intimately. This was a small war; on our side, there were only about 25,000 to 30,000 men engaged. But the small war differed from a big one only in scale. It was like a living model of a war. That is why its fluctuations and surprises were felt so directly. The small war was a big school.

Meanwhile, the situation before Kazan changed beyond recognition. Heterogeneous detachments became regular units, buttressed by worker-communists from Petrograd, Moscow, and other places. The regiments stiffened up. Inside the units, the commissaries acquired the importance of revolutionary leaders, of direct representatives of the dictatorship. The tribunals demonstrated to every one that revolution, when threatened by mortal danger, demands the highest sacrifice. Propaganda, organization, revolutionary example and repression produced the necessary change in a few weeks. A vacillating, unreliable and crumbling mass was transformed into a real army. Our artillery had emphatically established its superiority. Our flotilla controlled the river. Our airmen dominated the air. No longer did I doubt that we would take Kazan.

Suddenly, on September 1, I received a code telegram from Moscow: “Come at once. Vladimir Ilyich wounded, how dangerously not yet known. Complete order prevails. August 31, 1918. Svyerdlov.” I left at once. The mood of the party circles in Moscow was sullen and dismal, but they were absolutely unshakable. The best expression of this determination was Svyerdlov. The physicians declared that Lenin’s life was not in danger, and promised an early recovery. I encouraged the party with the prospects of success in the East, and returned at once to Sviyazhsk.

Kazan was taken on September 10. Two days later, Simbirsk was occupied by our First army. This was no surprise to me. The commander of the First army, Tukhachevsky, had promised at the end of August that he would take Simbirsk not later than September 12. When the town was taken, he sent a telegram: “Order carried out. Simbirsk taken.” Meanwhile, Lenin had been recovering. He sent a jubilant telegram of greetings. Things were improving all along the line.

The Fifth army was now headed by Ivan Nikitich Smirnov. This was vastly important. Smirnov represented the most complete and finished revolutionary type; he had entered the ranks thirty years before, and had neither known nor sought for relief. In the darkest years of the reaction, Smirnov went on digging underground passages. When they caved in, he did not lose heart but began all over again. Ivan Nikitich was always a man of duty. In this respect, a revolutionary resembles a good soldier, and that is why a revolutionary can become a fine one. Obeying only the demands of his own nature, Ivan Nikitich was always a model of firmness and bravery, without that cruelty which so often accompanies them. All the finest workers of the army began to take him as their example. “No one was more respected than Ivan Nikitich,” wrote Larissa Reisner in her description of the siege of Kazan. “One felt that at the most critical moment he would be the strongest and the bravest.” Smirnov has not a trace of pedantry. He is the most sociable, cheerful, and witty of men. People submit to his authority all the more readily because it is not at all obvious or peremptory, even though quite indisputable.

As they grouped themselves about Smirnov, the communists of the Fifth army formed a separate political family which even to-day, several years after the liquidation of that Fifth army, plays a part in the life of the country. “A Fifth-army man,” in the lexicon of the revolution, carries a special meaning; it denotes a true revolutionary, a man of duty and, above all, a scrupulous one. With Ivan Nikitich, the men of the Fifth army, after the termination of the civil war, transferred all their heroism to economics, and almost without exception found themselves in the ranks of the opposition. Smirnov stood at the head of the military industry, then he held the office of commissary of post and telegraph. To-day, he is in exile in the Caucasus. In prisons and in Siberia you will find many of his fellow heroes of the Fifth army. But revolution is a great devourer of men and character! The latest reports have it that even Smirnov has been broken by the struggle and is preaching surrender.

Larissa Reisner, who called Ivan Nikitich “the conscience of Sviyazhsk,” was herself prominent in the Fifth army, as well as in the revolution as a whole. This fine young woman flashed across the revolutionary sky like a burning meteor, blinding many. With her appearance of an Olympian goddess, she combined a subtle and ironical mind and the courage of a warrior. After the capture of Kazan by the Whites, she went into the enemy camp to reconnoitre, disguised as a peasant woman. But her appearance was too extraordinary, and she was arrested. While she was being cross-examined by a Japanese intelligence officer, she took advantage of an interval to slip through the carelessly guarded door and disappear. After that, she engaged in intelligence work. Later, she sailed on war-boats and took part in battles. Her sketches about the civil war are literature. With equal gusto, she would write about the Ural industries and the rising of the workers in the Ruhr. She was anxious to know and to see all, and to take part in everything. In a few brief years, she became a writer of the first rank. But after coming unscathed through fire and water, this Pallas of the revolution suddenly burned up with typhus in the peaceful surroundings of Moscow, before she was even thirty.

One good worker joined another. Under fire, men learned in a week. The army was taking shape magnificently. The lowest ebb of the revolution — the moment of the fall of Kazan — was now behind us. Along with this, a tremendous change was taking place in the peasantry. The Whites were teaching the mouzhiks their political ABC’s. During the ensuing seven months, the Red Army cleared a territory of nearly a million square kilometres, with a population of forty millions. The revolution was again advancing. When they fled from Kazan, the Whites carried away with them the gold reserves of the republic, which had been stored there since the February offensive of General Hoffmann. We recaptured them considerably later, and with them Admiral Kolchak.

When I was at last able to take my eyes from Sviyazhsk, I observed that certain changes had taken place in Europe. The German army was in a hopeless position.

1. In Russian this means “good-natured” or “good-mannered.” — Trans.

2. The GPU, which is the abbreviation of “Gosudarstvennoye Politicheskoye Upravleniye,” i.e., “State Political Board,” is the Soviet organization of secret police. — Trans.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05