My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 35

The Defense of Petrograd

There were sixteen armies fighting on the revolutionary fronts of the Soviet Republic. The Great French Revolution had almost as many — fourteen. And every one of the sixteen Soviet armies had its own brief but striking history. The mere mention of the number of any one army is enough to evoke scores of remarkable stories. Each of the armies had its own clear-cut, though ever-changing, physiognomy.

The Seventh army held the western approaches to Petrograd. The prolonged standstill had impaired its morale. Its watchfulness became dulled; its best workers, even whole detachments, were taken away and sent to the more active sectors of the front. For a revolutionary army, which needs constant charges of enthusiasm, marking time almost always ends in mishap, and often in disaster. The Seventh army was no exception.

In June, 1919, an important fort called “Krasnaya Gorka” (The Red Hill), in the Gulf of Finland, was captured by a detachment of Whites. A few days later it was recaptured by a force of Red marines. Then it was discovered that the chief of the staff of the Seventh army, Colonel Lundkvist, was transmitting all information to the Whites. There were other conspirators working hand-in-glove with him. This shook the army to its very core.

In July, General Yudenich was made Commander-in-chief of the Northwestern army of the Whites, and was recognized by Kolchak as his representative. In August, with the aid of England and Esthonia, the Russian “northwestern government” was established. The English navy in the Gulf of Finland promised Yudenich its support. Yudenich’s offensive was timed for a moment when we were desperately pressed on the other fronts. Denikin had occupied Orel and was threatening Tula, the munitions-manufacturing centre. From there it was only a short distance to Moscow. The South demanded all our attention. Just then, the first strong blow from the west threw the Seventh army completely off its balance, and it began to roll back with hardly a show of resistance, abandoning its arms and supplies as it went. The Petrograd leaders, Zinoviev in particular, kept telling Lenin about the enemy’s excellent equipment — the automatic rifles, tanks, airplanes, the British monitors on their flanks, and so forth. Lenin concluded that we could fight Yudenich’s army of officers, armed with the latest technical devices, only at the cost of denuding and weakening our other fronts, the southern one most of all. But this was impossible, and so, in his opinion, there was only one thing to do: abandon Petrograd and shorten the front line. After he decided that such an amputation was essential, Lenin began to try to win over other leaders. When I arrived in Moscow, I firmly opposed this plan. Yudenich and his masters would not have been satisfied with Petrograd alone; they wanted to meet Denikin in Moscow. In Petrograd, Yudenich would have found enormous industrial resources and manpower; moreover there would be no serious obstacles in his way from Petrograd to Moscow. So I decided that we had to save Petrograd at any cost, and found support first of all among the citizens of Petrograd. Krestinsky, at that time a member of the Politbureau, sided with me. I believe that Stalin also supported my stand. Several times during those twenty-four hours I attacked Lenin, until he said at last: “Very well, let us try!”

On October is the Politbureau adopted my resolution on the situation at the fronts: “Recognizing the existence of an acute military danger, we must take steps really to transform Soviet Russia into a military camp. With the help of the party and the trades-unions, a registration must be carried out listing every member of the party, of the Soviet institutions and the trades-unions, with a view to using them for military service.” This was followed by a list of practical measures. Regarding Petrograd, the resolution said: “Not to be evacuated.” The same day I submitted the draft of a decree to the Council of Defense:

“To defend Petrograd to the last ounce of blood, to refuse to yield a foot, and to carry the struggle into the streets of the city.” I had no doubt that even if the White army of 25,000 fighting men could manage to force its way into the city of a million inhabitants, it would be doomed to extinction if it met serious and well-organized resistance in the streets. At the same time, with an eye especially on the possible intervention of Esthonia and Finland, I thought it necessary to plan for the withdrawal of the army and workers toward the southeast, since that was the only way to save the flower of the Petrograd proletariat from wholesale extermination.

On the 16th I left for Petrograd. The next day Lenin wrote me:

“October 17, 1919. Comrade Trotsky: Last night transmitted in code . . . the decision of the Council of Defense. As you will see, your plan has been accepted. But the withdrawal of the Petrograd workers to the south is, of course, not rejected (I am told that you expounded it to Krassin and Rykov), but to discuss it before the need arises would distract attention from the fight-to-the-finish. An attempt to outflank and cut off Petrograd will, of course, bring corresponding changes which you will carry out on the spot . . . I enclose a proclamation which I wrote at the suggestion of the Council of Defense. I did it hastily, and it did not turn out well. You had better put my name under your own text.

This letter, it seems to me, definitely shows how the most violent disagreements between Lenin and me, inevitable in a work of such scope, were overcome in practice, and left no trace on our personal relations or on our joint work. It occurs to me that if it had been me against Lenin, instead of Lenin against me, who in October, 1919, defended the idea of surrendering Petrograd, there would have been plenty of literature to-day, in every known language, exposing this destructive manifestation of “Trotskyism.”

During the course of the year 1918, the Allies were forcing a civil war on us, supposedly in the interests of victory over the Kaiser. But now it was 1919. Germany had long since been defeated. Yet the Allies continued to spend hundreds of millions to spread death, famine, and disease in the country of the revolution. Yudenich was one of the condottieri in the pay of England and France. His rear was propped up by Esthonia, his left flank was covered by Finland. The Allies demanded that both these countries, freed by the revolution, should help to butcher it. There were endless negotiations in Helsingfors, as there were in Reval; the scales tipped this way and that. We watched in alarm the two little states that constituted a hostile pincers about the head of Petrograd.

On the first of September, I wrote in the Pravda, by way of warning: “Among the divisions we are now bringing over to the Petrograd front, the part of the Bashkir horsemen will not be least important, and if the bourgeois Finns attempt to attack Petrograd, the Red Bashkirs will advance with the battle-cry: ’To Helsingfors l’”

The Bashkir cavalry division had been formed only a short time before. From the outset, I had planned to transfer it to Petrograd for a few months, so that the men from the steppes might have a chance to live for a time amid the cultural surroundings of the city, come into closer contact with the workers, and visit clubs, meetings and theatres. To this, a new and still more urgent consideration was now added — that of frightening the Finnish bourgeoisie with the spectre of a Bashkir invasion.

But our warnings carried less weight than the swift successes of Yudenich. He took Luga on the thirteenth of October, Krasnoye Syelo and Gatchina on the sixteenth, directing his blow at Petrograd in such a way that he could cut off the railway line connecting Petrograd and Moscow. On the tenth day of his offensive, Yudenich advanced as far as Tsarskoye Syelo. His scouts on horseback could see the gilded dome of St. Isaac’s cathedral from the hill.

The Finnish radio, forestalling the event, reported the occupation of Petrograd by Yudenich’s troops. The ambassadors of the Allies in Helsingfors reported this officially to their governments. All through Europe and the rest of the world the news spread that the Red Petrograd had fallen. A Swedish newspaper wrote of “a world-week of Petrograd fever.” The ruling circles in Finland were especially excited. The government, as well as the military, was advocating intervention. No one wanted to let the quarry slip out of his hands. As was to be expected, the Finnish Social Democracy promised to observe “neutrality.” A White historian writes: “The question of intervention was now discussed only from the financial side.” All that remained was to ratify the guarantee of fifty million francs — that was the price of the blood of Petrograd in the Allied markets.

The question of Esthonia was no less acute. I wrote to Lenin on October 17: “If we save Petrograd, as I hope, we shall be in a position to make an end of Yudenich. The difficulty will be his right of asylum in Esthonia. Esthonia must close its frontiers to him. In case he does enter, we must retain the right of invading Esthonia on Yudenich’s heels.” This proposal was accepted after our army had begun to drive Yudenich, but it took some time to start the drive.

In Petrograd I found the leaders in a state of utmost demoralization. Everything was slipping. The troops were rolling back and breaking up into separate units. The commanding officers looked to the communists, the communists to Zinoviev, and Zinoviev was the very centre of utter confusion. Svyerdlov said to me: “Zinoviev is panic itself.” And Svyerdlov knew men. In favorable periods, when, in Lenin’s phrase, “there was nothing to fear,” Zinoviev climbed easily to the seventh heaven. But when things took a bad turn, he usually stretched himself out on a sofa — literally, not metaphorically — and sighed. Since 1917, I had had many opportunities to convince myself that Zinoviev had no intermediate moods; it was either the seventh heaven or the sofa. This time I found him on the sofa. And yet there were brave men about him — Lashevich, for example — but even their hands hung limp. Everyone felt it, and it had its effect everywhere. I ordered an automobile from a military garage by telephone from the Smolny. It did not come on time, and in the voice of the garageman in charge I sensed that apathy, hopelessness, and submission to fate which had infected even the lower ranks of the administrative staff. Exceptional measures were necessary; the enemy was at the very gates. As usual in such straits, I turned to my trainforce men who could be depended on under any circumstances. They checked up, put on pressure, established connections, removed those who were unfit, and filled in the gaps. From the official apparatus, which had become completely demoralized, I descended two or three floors to the district organizations of the party, the mills, the factories and the barracks.

Everyone expected an early surrender of the city to the Whites, and so people were afraid of becoming too conspicuous. But as soon as the masses began to feel that Petrograd was not to be surrendered, and, if necessary, would be defended from within, in the streets and squares the spirit changed at once. The more courageous and self-sacrificing lifted up their heads.

Detachments of men and women, with trenching-tools on their shoulders, filed out of the mills and factories. The workers of Petrograd looked badly then; their faces were gray from under nourishment; their clothes were in tatters; their shoes, some times not even mates, were gaping with holes.

“We will not give up Petrograd, comrades!”

“No.” The eyes of the women burned with especial fervor. Mothers, wives, daughters, were loath to abandon their dingy but warm nests. “No, we won’t give it up,” the high-pitched voices of the women cried in answer, and they grasped their spades like rifles. Not a few of them actually armed themselves with rifles or took their places at the machine-guns. The whole city was divided into sections, controlled by staffs of workers. The more important points were surrounded by barbed wire. A number of positions were chosen for artillery, with a firing-range marked off in advance. About sixty guns were placed behind cover on the open squares and at the more important street-crossings. Canals, gardens, walls, fences and houses were fortified. Trenches were dug in the suburbs and along the Neva. The whole southern part of the city was transformed into a fortress. Barricades were raised on many of the streets and squares. A new spirit was breathing from the workers’ districts to the barracks, the rear units, and even to the army in the field.

Yudenich was only from ten to fifteen versts away from Petrograd, on the same Pulkovo heights where I had gone two years before, when the revolution which had just assumed power was fighting for its life against the troops of Kerensky and Krasnov. Once more the fate of Petrograd was hanging by a thread, and we had to break the inertia of retreat, instantly and at any cost.

On October 18, I issued an order “not to send in false reports of hard fights when the actual truth was bitter panic. Lies will be punished as treason. Military work admits errors, but not lies, deception and self-deception.” As usual, in moments of stress, I thought it necessary to bare the grim truth before the army and the country, and I made public the senseless retreat that took place that very day. “A company of the rifle regiment took alarm because of an enemy threat against its flank. The regimental commander gave the order to withdraw. The regiment ran at a trot for eight or ten versts and reached Alexandrovka. A check-up disclosed that the troops on the flank belonged to one of our own units . . . But the stampeding regiment was not so bad, after all. With its self-confidence restored, it turned back at once, and at a rapid pace or a trot, sweating despite the cold, covered eight versts in an hour, dislodged the enemy, who were few in number, and recovered its old position with only a small loss.”

In this brief episode, for the one and only time during the entire war I had to play the role of a regimental commander. When the retreating lines came up against the division head quarters at Alexandrovka, I mounted the first horse I could lay my hands on and turned the lines back. For the first few minutes, there was nothing but confusion. Not all of them understood what was happening, and some of them continued to retreat. But I chased one soldier after another, on horseback, and made them all turn back. Only then did I notice that my orderly Kozlov, a Muscovite peasant, and an old soldier himself, was racing at my heels. He was beside himself with excitement. Brandishing a revolver, he ran wildly along the line, repeating my appeals and yelling for all he was worth:

“Courage, boys, Comrade Trotsky is leading you.” The men were now advancing at the pace at which they had been retreating before. Not one of them remained behind. After two versts, the bullets began their sweetish, nauseating whistling, and the first wounded began to drop. The regimental commander changed beyond recognition. He appeared at the most dangerous points, and before the regiment had recovered the positions it had previously abandoned he was wounded in both legs. I returned to the staff headquarters on a truck. On the way we picked up the wounded. The impetus had been given, and with my whole being I felt that we would save Petrograd.

At this point, I should like to dwell for a moment on a question the reader must already have asked himself several times:

When a man is in charge of a whole army, has he the right to expose himself to the danger of actual fighting? My answer is that there are no absolute rules of conduct, either in peace or in war. Everything depends on circumstances. Officers who accompanied me in my trips along the front frequently would remark: “In the old days, even divisional commanders never poked their noses into places like these.” The bourgeois journalists wrote of this as a “pursuit of self-advertisement,” and in this way translated into their familiar language something that was beyond their ken. In point of fact, the conditions under which the Red army was created, its personal composition, and the very nature of the civil war demanded exactly this sort of behavior. Everything was built up anew — discipline, fighting tradition, and military authority. Just as it was not in our power, especially in the first period, to supply the army with all its needs from a single centre and according to plan, just so were we unable by means of circulars or semi-anonymous appeals to inspire this army, got together under fire, with revolutionary enthusiasm. It was necessary to win authority in the eyes of the soldiers, so that next day one could justify to them the stern demands of the higher command. Where tradition is lacking, a striking example is essential. Personal risk was the unavoidable hazard on the road to victory.

The commanding staff, which had been drawn into a series of failures, needed to be shaken up, refreshed and renewed. Greater changes had to be made among commissaries. All the units were strengthened from the inside by adding communists, and fresh units were also beginning to arrive. The military schools were sent to the front posts. In two or three days, the supply service, which had gone completely slack, was tightened up. The rank-and-file of the Red army got some heartier food, changed their linen and boots, listened to a speech or two, pulled themselves together, and became quite different men.

October 21 was a critical day. Our troops had retired to the Pulkovo heights. Further retreat from there would have meant transferring the struggle to the streets of the city. Until then the Whites had advanced without meeting serious opposition. On the 21st, our army took a firm stand on the Pulkovo line and offered vigorous resistance. The advance of the enemy was checked. On the 22d, the Red army assumed the offensive; Yudenich had time to bring up reserves and strengthen his line; the fighting grew very bitter, but by the evening of the 23rd we had retaken Tsarskoye Syelo and Pavlovsk. In the meantime, the neighboring Fifteenth army was beginning to press in from the south, threatening the White rear and right flank. Then came the turning-point. Our units, caught unawares by the offensive, and embittered by their reverses, now began to vie with each other in self-sacrifice and acts of heroism. They suffered many losses. The White high command stated that our losses were greater than theirs. It is quite possible; they had bad more experience and had more arms. But there was more self-sacrifice on our side. Young workers and peasants, military students from Moscow and Petrograd, were utterly reckless with their lives. They advanced against machine-gun fire and attacked tanks with revolvers in their hands. The general staff of the Whites wrote of the “heroic frenzy” of the Reds.

In the preceding days hardly any prisoners had been taken; White deserters were rare. Now the number of deserters and prisoners suddenly increased. On October 24, when I realized the bitterness of the struggle, I issued an order: “Woe to the unworthy soldier who raises his knife over a defenseless prisoner or deserter!”

Our advance continued. The Esthonians and Finns were no longer thinking of intervention. The routed Whites were rolled back in two weeks to the Esthonian frontier, completely demoralized. As they crossed the boundary-line, the Esthonian government disarmed them. In London and Paris, no one gave them a thought. What only yesterday had been the “north western army” of the Entente was now perishing of cold and starvation. Fourteen thousand Whites were stricken with typhus and poured into the camp hospitals. That was the end of the “world-week of Petrograd fever.”

The White leaders later complained loudly against Admiral Cowan, who, they said, had broken his promise to lend them sufficient support from the Gulf of Finland. These complaints are, to say the least, exaggerated. Three of our torpedo-boats were sunk by mines during a night expedition, carrying down with them 550 young seamen. The British admiral should at least be given credit for this. The order to the army and navy mourning the grave loss said that day: “Red warriors! On all the fronts you meet the hostile plots of the English. The counter-revolutionary troops shoot you with English guns. In the depots of Shenkursk and Onega, on the southern and western fronts, you find supplies of English manufacture. The prisoners you have captured are dressed in uniforms made in England. The women and children of Archangel and Astrakhan are maimed and killed by English airmen with the aid of English explosives. English ships bomb our shores . . .

“But, even to-day, when we are engaged in a bitter fight with Yudenich, the hireling of England, I demand that you never forget that there are two Englands. Besides the England of profits, of violence, bribery and bloodthirstiness, there is the England of labor, of spiritual power, of high ideals of international solidarity. It is the base and dishonest England of the stock-exchange manipulators that is fighting us. The EngLand of labor and the people is with us.” (The order to the army and navy, October 24, 1919, No.159.)

For us, the tasks of education in socialism were closely intergrated with those of fighting. Ideas that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and forever.

In Shakespeare, tragedy alternates with comedy, for the same reason that in life the sublime is mingled with the petty and vulgar. Zinoviev, who had by that time managed to rise from his sofa and to climb to the second or third heaven, handed me the following document on behalf of the Communist International: “The saving of the Red Petrograd meant an invaluable service to the world proletariat, and consequently to the Communist International. To you, dear Comrade Trotsky, belongs of course the first place in the struggle for Petrograd. In the name of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, I hand over to you the banners, with the request that you give them to the most deserving units of the glorious Red Army under your leadership. Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Communist International — G. ZINOVIEV.”

I received documents like this from the Petrograd Soviet, from trades-unions and various other organizations. I handed the banners over to the regiments and the documents were put away by my secretaries in the archives, where they stayed until, some time later, they were removed when Zinoviev began to sing new songs and in quite a different key.

To-day it is difficult to describe, or even to recall, the outburst of joy over the victory before Petrograd, rejoicing that was all the greater because we had just begun to win decisive successes on the southern front as well. The revolution was again holding its head high. In Lenin’s eyes, our victory over Yudenich took on even greater importance because toward the middle of October he had thought it quite out of the question. The Politbureau decided to confer on me the order of the Red Flag for the defense of Petrograd. This placed me in a very difficult position. I had been rather hesitant about introducing the revolutionary order because it was not very long since we had abolished the orders of the old regime. In introducing the order of the Red Flag, I hoped that it might be an added stimulus for those for whom the consciousness of revolutionary duty was not enough. Lenin supported me in this. The decoration became established, and it was awarded, at least in those days, for actual services under fire. And now it was being given to me. I could not decline it without disparaging the mark of distinction that I had so often given to others. There was nothing for me but to yield to the convention.

Apropos of this, I remember an episode that I saw in its proper light only some time later. At the close of the meeting of the Politbureau, Kamenev, considerably embarrassed, introduced a proposal to award the decoration to Stalin. “For what?” Kalinin inquired, sincerely indignant. “I can’t understand why it should be awarded to Stalin.” They pacified him with a jest, and the proposal was accepted. After the meeting Bukharin pounced on Kalinin. “Can’t you understand? This is Lenin’s idea. Stalin can’t live unless he has what some one else has. He will never forgive it.” I understood Lenin, and inwardly agreed with him.

The award of the decoration was very impressively staged in the Grand Opera theatre, where I made a report on the military situation before the joint session of the major Soviet institutions. When, toward the end, the chairman named Stalin, I tried to applaud. Two or three hesitant hand-claps followed mine. A sort of cold bewilderment crept through the hail; it was especially noticeable after the ovations that had gone before. Stalin himself was wisely absent.

I was infinitely more pleased with the award of the decoration of the Red Flag to my train as a whole. “In the heroic fight of the Seventh army from October 17 to November 3,” I stated in the order of November 4, “the members of our train played a deserving part. Comrades Kilger, Ivanov, and Zastar fell in battle. Comrades Prede, Draudin, Purin, Chernyavtzev, Kuprievich, and Tesnek were wounded. Comrades Adamson, Purin, and Kiselis are suffering from shell-shock. I do not mention other names, because, if I did, everyone would be mentioned. In the striking change that came over the front, the members of our train played a most important part.”

Some months later Lenin asked me by telephone: “Have you read Kirdetzov’s book?” The name suggested nothing to me. “He is a White, an enemy. He writes about Yudenich’s advance on Petrograd.” I must add here that Lenin generally watched the White publications more closely than I. A day later he asked me again: “Have you read it?”

“Would you like me to send it over to you?” But I decided that I had the book, since Lenin and I received the same new publications from Berlin. “You must read the last chapter. It is an appreciation of the enemy. It says something about you, too.” But somehow I didn’t find opportunity to read the book. Strangely enough, I came across it in Constantinople, and remembered Lenin’s insistence that I read the last chapter. Here is the appreciation from the enemy as given by one of Yudenich’s ministers:

“On October 16, Trotsky arrived in haste at the Petrograd front, and the confusion of the Red Staff gave way before his burning energy. A few hours before the fall of Gatchina, he was still trying to check the advance of the Whites; but when he saw how impossible that was he left the town in a hurry to organize the defense of Tsarskoye Syelo. The heavy reserves had not yet come up, but he quickly concentrated all the Petrograd military students, mobilized the entire male population of Petrograd, and with machine-guns [?!] drove all the Red army units back to their positions, and by means of his energetic measures established defenses on all the approaches to Petrograd . . .

“Trotsky succeeded in organizing detachments of worker-communists, men who were strong in spirit, in Petrograd itself, and threw them into the thick of the fight. According to the evidence of Yudenich’s staff, these detachments but not [?] the Red army units, together with the marine battalions and military students, fought like lions. They attacked the tanks with their bayonets, and, although they were mowed down in rows by the devastating fire of the steel monsters, they continued to defend their positions.”

We never drove the men of the Red army with machine-guns. But we did save Petrograd.

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