‘The Heroism of the Red Officers’ by Moissaye Olgin from Soviet Russia (New York). Vol. 5 No. 2. August, 1921.
IT was the end of September when I saw Trotsky and spoke to him about the peace with Poland. He was very pessimistic, could not think of the possibility of a speedy conclusion of the war, and was already calculating what would be the cost of the new winter campaign to the Soviet Republic. But when I asked him: “How is General Wrangel’s situation?” he answered without a shade of doubt in his words: “We shall soon dispose of Wrangel; the White Army will be annihilated within six or eight months.” When I told this to my friends at Moscow they replied: “How can he know that?” Meanwhile Wrangel ‘s army was coming closer and closer. His demeanor was more insolent every day. I asked a number of officers at Moscow about it; they smiled and said: “If Trotsky said so he knows what he is talking about,” and one whispered to me: “Please keep an eye out for the military report of October 8, and you will learn something interesting.” My interest fully aroused, I began to inquire in various circles what was sup- posed to happen about that date; I was told that on October 5 new divisions would arrive at the front, with kursantsy (Red officer cadets, because they have taken courses), and that would change the situation. I had no other choice than to wait. All Russia was then waiting with bated breath. On October 5 the kursantsy really arrived at Wrangel’s front — they were the workers and peasants who had been educated to be Red commanders. On the same day new evolutions were undertaken, Wrangel’s army began to retreat, the Red Army victoriously advanced; five or six weeks later came the historical battle for the Isthmus of Perekop, in which Wrangel’s backbone was broken and in which also ten thousand kursantsy and Red soldiers lost their lives. Two months after my conversation with Trotsky there was no longer a single Wrangel soldier on the Crimean peninsula and Trotsky’s prediction had come true.
Since that time I was much interested in the kursantsy, spoke to many military authorities about them, visited many of the Red courses, made the acquaintance of many of the kursantsy themselves, and thus obtained the conviction that the Red courses were one of the most excellent military institutions in the world, and that the revolution would gain and be able to apply immense power by means of this organization.
“The kursantsy died with the Marseillaise on their lips,” was the story that ran from mouth to mouth. I knew that it was not the custom to invent heroic legends in Soviet Russia and to circulate military lies in order to keep up the courage of the people; and yet I wanted to get more precise data on these tales. I asked an official of the Pror (Political Administration of the Revolutionary Military Council) for documents. He showed me the report of a commander who wrote: “The Petrograd and Moscow kursantsy have added many splendid pages to the history of the revolutionary struggle.” One of these pages was the battle for the city of Oriekhov. The Officers’ Section of the Drozdovski Division fought with great ferocity against the kursantsy. A number of the latter were taken prisoners and sentenced to execution by the Whites. As they were being led away, they began singing the International. Even on this last journey, they were again maltreated by the officers, but their fearlessness was such as to impress even the White beasts. When they had arrived at the freshly-dug graves, the Reds, looking death calmly in the eye, sang their military war song. The Whites fired and the song was silent. Such reports on the kursantsy were very numerous. The peasants and workers who prepared themselves for the career of Red commander brought an iron will into battle, as well as an ardent enthusiasm and a contempt for death that was without vacillation. The greater number of these heroes consisted of Communists. The fight for the Isthmus of Perekop aroused all of Russia; since the defeat of Yudenich near Petrograd there had not been so exalted an enthusiasm.
The Difficult Conquest of the Crimea
Crimea has the shape of a bottle, the neck of which is formed by the Isthmus of Perekop, which connects the peninsula with Russia. To this point the Red Army had pursued Wrangel. To defend the entrance to the peninsula Wrangel’s officers constructed a regular fortress, with all sorts of obstacles. It was here that Wrangel had been in hiding before his onslaught on Soviet Russia and here he felt himself safe. It seemed impossible to take Perekop. France was supplying Wrangel with a great number of guns, tanks, airplanes, and wireless apparatus; the Red Army on the other hand did not have enough airplanes and artillery. But to permit the Wrangel army to remain here meant exposing the country to constant danger of counter- evolution, as the counter-revolution would then continue to have a figure on which they might place their hopes. It was therefore necessary to conquer Perekop and the Red Army accomplished this task empty-handed as it were.
At the head of the Red Army marched the battalions of the kursantsy. With a tremendous impetus they threw themselves, in spite of the barbed wire entanglements and the treacherous ditches, against the batteries. The whole act looked like one of madness, but in the words of Maxim Gorky: “The madness of the brave has conquered.” Perekop was taken. Wrangel’s place of ambush was burst open, the Red Army threw itself into the Crimea and drove the last White General into the sea; very great masses of munitions and foodstuffs were taken — a present from France. Wrangel was disposed of. Ten thousand kursantsy and Red soldiers lost their lives in this battle. Eye witnesses tell me of the mountains of bodies encumbering the battlefield, while new ranks passed over those that had fallen on their path to battle and victory. If you should speak of this to Russian petty bourgeois or intellectuals they would say: “Well, what about it? They take a common peasant boy, give him good food and shelter and the authority to command others; why should he not be faithful in return for all this?” To these narrow-minded and narrow-hearted creatures everything seems small; in all that is great they cim find only a petty spirit; for them there is nothing that is heroic or sacred; for them everything is estimated and judged on the basis of the payok (the daily food rations).
The Kursantsy Thrown Against Kolchak
Is the Russian kursant really a man who has been purchased? Would the price be worth the sacrifice? I was recently told of the Circassian officers’ courses which, after having been established in the year 1918 in Moscow, were shortly afterwards transferred to the Urals, so that they might be nearer to Siberia, whence attacks were feared from Kolchak. The possibility was reckoned with that the Red Army might, in case of need, be a source from which Red commanders might be drawn. The school, on its transfer journey, reached Uralsk a few weeks after leaving Moscow. Hardly had it arrived, when the Ural Cossacks fell upon the city, and the kursantsy had to lay aside their books and hasten to the defence of the railroad connected with the Urals and Riazan. In a few days it became clear that Uralsk was not safe, for the reinforcements from the Red Army had not arrived. All Soviet institutions were transferred to Saratov, but the kursantsy were thrown from Saratov to Cherkassy, in the province of Kiev. In June they arrived in Cherkassy, and already in July a life and death struggle had to be faced, first with the little Russian (Ukrainian) bands, then with Denikin. As Denikin was gaining every day, and a prolonged sojourn in Cherkassy was impossible, it was rendered necessary to transfer the forces to Petrograd. When the kursantsy arrived in Petrograd at the end of September they at once had to take part in the defence of the city against Yudenich. Between their various conflicts they had not neglected their studies, how- ever, and the alternation of their activity with theoretical instruction continued until the instruction was completed, early in 1920, and the students received their diplomas.
That is the way Red cadets study, a book in one hand, a gun in the other, ready at any moment to sacrifice their lives, ready to shed their blood for the revolution. Would one do this for the sake of a good military coat or a plate of kasha?
Radek’s Admonition to Red Soldiers
I heard many military speeches in Russia but none so clearly expressed the spirit of the revolutionary army as the speech delivered by Karl Radek on October 24, 1920.
It is a very long speech, and I shall therefore reproduce here only its conclusion:
“We believe that what we are doing is the sole means of saving mankind; of this we are convinced, and this is our strength. We can rightly say to the Red Army and to the Red kursantsy: the life that we are building will be so large and so magnificent that it is worth dying for it. All of us who are assembled here will perhaps not see that new age. A long road lies before us, severe struggles must be made, and after we have won the victory in Russia, we shall still have the task of aiding the workers in other countries. But one thing we know: the way is still a far one, and many of our brothers must still perish in the battle. But we speak of this not with gloom but with joy, for we know that the death of each of us is a source of new life.
“There was a time in which man dreamed much of immortality. Man lived his pittance of life, was a petty creature, sought ceaselessly to maintain himself alive, sought not to starve, never succeeded in doing anything big, and it seemed senseless to him that he must die without leaving behind him anything that was worth while. All his life the peasant or the worker tilled the soil or drove the cattle to pasture or slaved in the workshop. And he asked himself: What is the sense of all this? And as there really was no sense in it, he imagined to himself a life after death, a life in which he would not be a slave, but an immortal spirit, hearing the music of the spheres. But we know that when we go to our death there is no other life; when the soldier has died, nothing remains of him. And yet each of us goes into battle with the firm conviction that the cause we serve is immortal.
“Bourgeois historians describe the history of humanity in their works as a series of wars in which great captains carry off great victories, but we know that it is not the generals, not the field marshals, that achieve the victory, but the soldiers of their armies, soldiers whose names are not even mentioned. When we honor Lenin and Trotsky, we do not think of them as common men, as men of whom the world has already seen many. We know that they are the men who are most conscious of the magnitude of the cause they represent. But without us they could do nothing; we also know that the cause for which we are working is the cause of the working class, of all of us; we know that if this cause is victorious, the victory belongs to all of us. And this thought gives us a pleasure in life, it drives away all fear at the moment of danger. We know that the kursantsy who have died shall live in the hearts of their comrades, we shall never forget that they died for our cause. We are building this structure with our blood and with our sweat, and if it is necessary for us to put our lives into it as its comer stone, we shall do so with joy; and once the structure is finished and the people alone possess it and need no longer to suffer, but may lead a life that is worthy of man, the whole people will think of us, even if they do not know our names. The people will know that the foundation of this building was built op of the lives of the thousands of class conscious workers, who saw a bleeding and disorganized world before than and said: ‘We shall clear the way for a new life, even though we may lose our own lives in the task.’
“When we ask ourselves whether it is worth while to die, whether life could not offer us more than death, all of us may answer: to be sure it is better to live, to work, to create, on this great building; every one of us would like to behold the new life taking shape, but every one of us knows too that this new world can only be born if we refuse to be frightened in the presence of death. Therefore death, into whose eyes we look fearlessly, and in whom we have become accustomed to behold a danger, but nothing more — this death is for us the symbol of life, the greatest and mightiest heroism of life.
“We are taking leave of our comrades, whose death has just been reported to as. We say nothing to your dead bodies, that cannot hear us, we say nothing to your souls, for science knows nothing of your souls; we say only to ourselves: if these men could shout from their graves: All ready! we should answer them with the battle cry that was taught us in our youth: Ever prepared!”
Soviet Russia began in the summer of 1919, published by the Bureau of Information of Soviet Russia and replaced The Weekly Bulletin of the Bureau of Information of Soviet Russia. In lieu of an Embassy the Russian Soviet Government Bureau was the official voice of the Soviets in the US. Soviet Russia was published as the official organ of the RSGB until February 1922 when Soviet Russia became to the official organ of The Friends of Soviet Russia, becoming Soviet Russia Pictorial in 1923. There is no better US-published source for information on the Soviet state at this time, and includes official statements, articles by prominent Bolsheviks, data on the Soviet economy, weekly reports on the wars for survival the Soviets were engaged in, as well as efforts to in the US to lift the blockade and begin trade with the emerging Soviet Union.
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