The Role of Bolshevik Leaders in the Red Army's Civil War Victory
One of the most significant qualities of the Soviet military-political leadership was its extraordinary ability to find common language with hostile or untrustworthy forces. This characteristic made possible the Bolsheviks' major achievement of attracting tens of thousands of former officers from the pre-revolutionary military forces into the ranks of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army (RKKA) as so-called military specialists. All the same, Soviet leaders understandably never entrusted these officers with the full weight of military (to say nothing of political) authority. Soviet Russia's military policy was not directed by military specialists, but by the Bolsheviks themselves.
As the events of the Civil War demonstrated, the Bolsheviks proved to be better at organizational matters than the old tsarist army officers who traditionally displayed a lack of initiative, lethargy, and adherence to routine. Commenting on General A. I. Denikin, for example, Colonel A. A. von Lampe of the tsarist General Staff wrote: "Although Denikin is a decent man, there is no doubt he is narrow-minded and possesses no broad state vision...he is neither a dictator nor an authority figure. He is a simple functionary in his own realm, but little more." Once they entered into Red Army service these "simple functionaries" (including even the highest-ranking command officers) operated under the direction of more energetic political leaders who successfully coordinated both political and military objectives while actively directing the military specialists in the conduct of their tasks. The political leadership of the White forces, by contrast, consisted of representatives from the liberal and Socialist Revolutionary camps who, judging by their handling of events in 1917, were incapable of directing state functions during periods of crisis and who were mistrusted by members of the tsarist officer corps.
Leon Trotsky reviews Red Army troops. Photo courtesy of Rodina.
The Bolsheviks, too, were not well-regarded by the tsarist officer corps, but during the course of the Civil War the highest ranking leaders of the Party demonstrated considerable organizational skill and unexpected energy, something which cannot be said of their adversaries. From 30 November 1918 onward, the operations of Soviet Russia's military and civilian ministries were coordinated by the Council (Soviet) of Workers' and Peasants' Defense under the direction of Vladimir Lenin. Although he had no prior state administrative experience, Lenin knew how to concentrate authority in his own hands and how to quell opposition within the party's highest ranks. He developed a long-term strategic vision for his state and army, and put in place a stable central administrative apparatus that contributed to the successful organization of the Soviet rear. In his position as head of the Revolutionary Military Council (Revvoensovet) of the Republic and as People's Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs, Leon Trotsky, though himself no military specialist, organized the Red Army from scratch and transformed it into an effective and powerful fighting force. On problematic fronts which demanded immediate intervention and the adoption of extraordinary measures, Joseph Stalin, Member of the Party Central Committee and the Revvoensovet, straightened out the situation and contributed to the RKKA's military security. Similarly, the "professional revolutionary" Aleksei Rykov, as special representative of the Council of Workers' and Peasants' Defense in charge of provisioning the Red Army and as Chairmen of the Council on National Economy (VSNKh), played a major role in organizing supplies for the armed forces and overseeing the nationalization, centralization, and regulation of Soviet military industry.
The principal factor in determining the Bolsheviks' victory was their internal unity. They possessed a unified military-political center and, despite individual differences, a single party doctrine. With the decree of 1 June 1919 "On the Union of the Soviet Republics of Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Byelorussia for the Struggle Against World Imperialism" they established military and economic unity among socialist republics which, in turn, facilitated the integration of new allies into their system. There was no similar unity in the anti-Bolshevik camp which was torn by internal conflicts and inconsistencies.
Victory was also aided by the Bolsheviks' ability to compromise and forge tactical alliances with hostile elements. One example involved cooperation with the so-called anarchist "brigade commander" Nestor Makhno (though the Bolshevik leadership's attempt, at Trotsky's urging, to instill "strict discipline" among Makhno's troops through the introduction of Bolsheviks, Chekists, sailors, and workers into his "anarchist bands" proved unsuccessful). The Reds were similarly prepared to cooperate at the end of 1919 even with the leader of the Ukrainian nationalists, Simon Petliura, and they concluded a military-political alliance with Bashkir nationalists (only later to deny them independence and abolish the Bashkir army).
Despite the fact that he lacked any military education, Trotsky's forte as leader of the Red Army was a clear understanding of strategy. In this respect, he greatly surpassed even the academically trained old military specialists who poorly understood the social dimensions of the Civil War. His superlative skill was particularly evident in the course of discussions regarding Soviet strategy along the southern front during the summer and autumn of 1919, a time when Commander-in-Chief Kamenev planned a major offensive into Don Cossack territories where the Reds had encountered bitter opposition from the local populace. With White forces concurrently achieving major success in the main Kursk sector, the very existence of Soviet Russia was at stake. Trotsky's proposal called instead dividing the Cossacks from the Whites by launching a main attack directly into the Kursk-Voronezh sector. The party leadership did not, however, support this idea. Only after several months of abortive attempts to realize Kamenev's plan did they finally come around to adopting Trotsky's approach.
During the course of the Civil War the highest-ranking Party leaders, including members of the Central Committee Politburo such as Trotsky and Stalin, were regularly dispatched to threatened sectors along the front. Typically, their arrival produced positive results. This was especially true in the case of the talented organizer Trotsky who, given his understanding of the nature of the Civil War and the administrative methods which it called for, was capable of communicating effectively with the Army's military specialists.
The Party Central Committee's extraordinary commissars provided direct local administration, a practice that is in keeping with the nation's tradition. During the defense of Petrograd in the autumn of 1919, for example, Trotsky used his personal authority to undertake every measure necessary to prepare the Seventh Army to defend "the cradle of the revolution." He resolved military supply problems, decided issues involving cadres, oversaw strategic planning and higher administrative issues, while also exhorting the military and political leadership and serving as the source "for initiative at the front and immediate rear." In addition to all of this, Trotsky directed meetings, delivered speeches, and wrote articles with his characteristic energy. The benefit derived from his presence in Petrograd is unquestioned.
In their capacity as leaders of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, the strengths displayed by Bolshevik chieftains far outweighed their liabilities, the most notable of which was their lack of military education and prior experience in building an armed force. Many leaders of the RKKA were able to overcome this deficiency through direct, practical work and self-education.
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