(Member of the Political Board of the Baltic Fleet)
Source: The Communist Review, May 1921, Vol. 1, No. 1.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Dave Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
When, on the eve of the October Revolution, thousands and tens of thousands of workers, with arms and banners, marched beneath the windows of the Liberal Ministries, in the first ranks of those stormy crowds went the sailors. When, in one night, the Winter Palace, surrounded by troops, zealously guarded by cadets of the privileged military Academies, crowded with Ministers and Senators, was stormed and taken, in the first ranks of the advancing proletarians went the sailors. When, round the cradle of the new-born proletarian Republic, there arose a wall of defenders on the heights of Pulkovo which shattered and drove off the hordes of General Krassnoff, amongst the first of the wounded were the sailors, and amongst the conquerors returning to Smolny on the armoured cars of Kerensky there fluttered their black and yellow ribbons.
On the other hand, when the bourgeoisie requires to bespatter with dirt the fair countenance of the revolution, to rob its victories of their glory, to deprive its stern sentences of their high merit, the first to be slandered is the Bolshevik sailor. He it is who kilts the defenceless and the conquered, who robs, violates and debauches. He it is who, for German gold, [illegible]es Kronstadt from its officers, who had been accomplishing, beside their immediate duties, additional feats of prowess as voluntary spies and unpaid police.
He it is who, for these same German millions, turns the guns of the “Aurora” and of the glorious destroyers of the “Novik” type on to the glittering mirrors of the Winter Palace. It is he, it is he, the unconquerable sailor; and wherever there flames up the threat of revolt before the terrified bourgoisie, there appears his heroic and martyred shadow.
Shot down in the far north, in the frozen marshes of Murmansk, he rises again from the burning sands of the Caspian shore. Throttled in the prisons of Koltchak or Denikin, he falls, weltering in his blood; and, lo, on the Baltic, again the wind of liberty lifts and caresses his open collar; and Yudenitch, crushed, crawling away from proud proletarian Petrograd, in vain threatens his beloved head. Every line, every page of the Russian Revolution, bears the trace of the sunburned sailor hand; on the brown skin of that hand the anchor and arms of the R.S.F.S.R. is wonderfully interwoven above the wrist, by the tattooing needle—a decoration which costs him dear.
Taken prisoner, whether as soldier or Commissary, he was ruthlessly shot—as was, indeed, everyone who was distinguished by the naïve but ineradicable initials of the fleet.
A sailor is an outlaw; a sailor dies without a trial; a sailor is a prized booty for which the titled hunters search without respite. And they are worth all this hatred, the Red sailors. They have done more and better than all the hatred of the bourgeois Press can attribute to them.
The demoralisation of the old Imperial Army could not, of course, but affect the fleet.
As in all parts of the mechanism of the State, in its midst the old element collapsed and fell away in rotting fragments, at first overwhelming in its evil ruins the first symptoms of new creative life. It seemed as if the Fleet had ceased to exist, and had melted away completely in the flame of the rising revolution. The ships grew empty, abandoned by their crews, the machines rusted, the stores were plundered. Encumbering the Neva with enormous unwanted steel boxes, the ships seemed only the ghosts of the hated machine of oppression. And yet, as it grew stronger and began to beat off its assailants, the great Revolution brought new life to those corpses, and forced them to serve the interests of the exploited classes shall never forget the figure of the Volga pilot in lapti and ragged tunic—the figure of a poor Russian peasant—standing on the proud captain’s bridge of a destroyer, and directing the fire of its merciless guns on to the White Guard ambush.
Those peasant lapti on a deck where previously one could not even die except in patent leather shoes; that destroyer, the last wonder of bourgeois culture, defending its freedom from the Volga alone, amongst the deserted, hare, shell-torn, peasant fields.
Unforgettable days! Ineradicable impressions! But my thoughts seem to be wandering.
Breaking down in the old harbours, dockyards, and bases, the Fleet first of all poured over the whole of revolutionary Russia. There was not a Committee of Defence, a Revolutionary Executive Committee, or a simple detachment of volunteers, into the ranks of which the sailors did not pour like a leaven. And yet the rising of the Czecho-Slovaks in the east, which tore away Siberia and the corn districts from Moscow, put an end to the scattering of the seamen.
They returned to their ships to retake Kazan, already captured by the Whites, and to free from them the Kama and the basin of the Volga.
In a short time, on these rivers, they had created a fleet. Guns were placed on ordinary shallow barges, broad and cumbersome to turn, and on these river turtles the sailors daily went into determined artillery duels. Wrapped in smoke, flame and shrapnel, those floating batteries, weak and completely uncovered, for a whole month daily bombarded Kazan, although faced with the strong artillery and a powerful fleet of the enemy.
How they could fight, those hastily constructed ships! The sharp military command is heard, followed by dead silence. The tackle feebly jerks and creaks, and the heart-beats of the engine are mingled with the sharp, short sounds of the shell being loaded. And, clothed in worn-out variegated rags, with open necks and bare-headed, the sailors bend their smiling eyes to the guns, and choose, and wait.
How many of them perished, amongst those fearless fighters; on the wooden decks, amidst the flame and shrapnel, without bandages or medical help, with eyes darkened by the dews of death and the smoke of powder, through which there fluttered on the masts, the little red flag darkened with age. This was the first period of the civil war—partisan and heroic.
Overcoming the opposition of the engineer specialists, the sailors at length called to the help of their exhausted detachment real naval warships from the Baltic Sea. They arrived one sunny autumn day, the wireless rings trembling at their masts; and in their first campaign an active part was taken by Comrade Trotsky. Three destroyers silently went down by night to Kazan itself, and, under the very nose of the short-sighted shore-batteries, burned and sunk several White ships, Their homeward path fell under enfilade fire, through a hell of exploding shells, under the silver eye of the searchlights.
On the ship where the commander of the Fleet, Raskolnikoff, flew his flag, and where, never lowering his head; observant and cold, stood Trotsky, the helm broke, and had to be repaired in the midst of the inferno, almost without hope of salvation. But, in spite of all, the destroyer revived, and left the battle without hurt.
That night, one of the cold black-and-lilac nights of September, for the first time welded the former officers together with the revolutionary crews and laid the foundation of a new Red Fleet. In a few days Kazan had fallen, and the sailors, maintaining contact with the armies of the right and left banks, moved down to the lower reaches of the Volga.
This campaign, which spread over many hundreds of miles, was carried out with epic simplicity along the wild shores of the Kama, overgrown with century-old firs. Groups of swans fled from the sound of the guns, and their noisy tract, cutting across the orbit of the conflict, foretold victories, sacrifices, and yet new victories.
Here fell Markin, one of our best sailors and revolutionaries, drawn into an ambush by his savage valour. His death imparted a still more determined character to the war, but set it upon the path of correct strategical organisation. Along the wild expanse of this river, for the first time since the beginning of the civil war, mines now made their appearance. The first Red hydro-aeroplane spread its wings over the silent mountains, hurling down, whole hives of white bees, in the form of proclamations, on to the heads of the enemy. Retreating step by step, defending themselves with desperation, the Whites gradually withdrew to the east, burning bridges, sinking hundreds of barges loaded with corn, staining the course of the majestic northern river with blood, and disfiguring its banks with fire.
How often did we come too late! How often, after the battle, did the sailors rush to the liberated wharves, still in the grip of the exultation of victory, still dizzy and intoxicated with their exertions—and still too late!
On the very shore, where the cliffs descend to the strand they would find piled up, on a narrow strip of earth, soldiers’ caps, stained with rain during night bivouacs, peasant tunics, peasant lapti, thrown off at the moment of supreme despair; and above them, at the height of a man, a thick purple band of blood and brains. And quivering, not daring to remain lest they should again be too late, the ships went on.
The following year was a year of struggle for the possession of the Caspian Sea. Gradually becoming technically more perfect, organising strong fighting units, educating its sailors and re-educating its old officers, the river flotilla grew into a High Sea Fleet. But under what conditions was that work carried on! One must have known Astrakhan, with its blazing sands, its burning dust, its marsh fevers. Astrakhan, burned in several risings, hanging by the thread of a single railway line, which was daily cut by White bands! Astrakhan in the grip of cholera and malaria, starving, deprived of all the most simple medicines! Astrakhan, blockaded by the British Fleet from the sea, and by Denikin from the direction of Tsaritsyn; and none the less feverishly creative, patiently labouring, persistently serving the revolution. No, general phrases are not sufficient to enable one to understand all the grandeur and all the poverty of that town!
One had to see those stifling barracks, where sailors had their wounds dressed with scraps of old linen: where there was nothing to replace the bandages soaked through and through with blood. In all the beds, on the breasts torn asunder with shrapnel, on the foreheads with their bullet wounds, on the arms, everywhere, there flames our Red, our undying star! And the villages, decimated with disease! And the mothers, offering their last cow, their last horse, for a bottle of castor-oil for their pale, blue, almost transparent children, doomed by dysentry! They did not even dare to pray, for the heavens seemed also against them. Every day there flew over the town British aeroplanes, glittering wonderfully in the sun, to hurl a few poods of dynamite onto our ships, and, still more often, on to the working-class quarters, half buried in dirt, on to the broken roofs and the clay walls. And every day, past the open windows of the hospital filled with groans and delirium, past ruins and destruction; bowing their banners, rejoicing in their proud loneliness and self-sacrifice, great processions went by, escorting to their graves the children, wives, and warriors of the great army of labour. They marched together under the blazing sun, and sang the “International.”
None the less, neither by day nor by night, under the glare of the searchlights, did the ship-building wharves cease their work. Scarcely able to raise the enormous hammer with their hands, exhausted by three years’ starvation, the workers, none the less, raised it to is true royal height, and brought it down upon the white-hot iron—repairing, arming, and building. And the ships into which there had poured the living energies of the workers of a whole town, the ships which devoured the labour, the will, and the brains of their exhausted builders, one after another went down into the sea, and, borne along by that collective will, dared not perish, dared not be defeated, even one against three, even one against five!
Many of them, flat-bottomed river craft hung round with heavy armour, could be overturned by the first violent storm, and the sailors all knew it, all, from the ship’s, boy to the commander and the commissary; and not once did these men refuse to carry out their military duty. In place of one ship broken in a gale and lost with all its crew, there immediately appeared another, just as obstinate, just as helpless. That is how the sailors lived.
And not only by steadfastness and courage were these years of civil war proud and glorious, but also by their unaccustomed development of spiritual culture. For, in Astrakhan, during the long winter campaign, men not only fought and built, but also intensively studied. Men condemned to die, and possibly guessing their approaching fate, were particularly earnest in their reading during the last weeks and days before setting out, and eagerly listened to the orchestra of Beethoven, the organ of Bach, the violin of Sarasate. For whole hours, those audiences, almost illiterate, scarcely emerging from social ignorance, holding their breath, would listen to the lecturer, the musician, or the agitator. And, even on the day of departure, many crews could not tear themselves away from their “political section”: some professors received permission to accompany their pupils to the very bar itself, to the threshold of battle and torment. Thus, in place of the priest glozing over crime with his, defiled cross, the artist and the scientist stepped upon the deck of the Bolshevik warship.
And at length came victory. The White fleet, defeated in several battles, demoralised and deprived of its base, fled from Baku to the Persian harbour of Enzeli. There it hoped to find protection and re-equipment. There it was seized by the Red Caspian Fleet at the head of which, as at the time of its first attacks before Kazan, stood the Communist Raskolnikoff. And, at the moment when Enzeli was being evacuated by the last British soldiers, carrying away on their backs even baths plundered from the houses of the peaceful Persian population, on the masts of the captured fleet there rose the red flag, and the first Soviet placard unfolded, on the trunk of a tropical tree, its audacious, many-hued tints.
Thus the Bolshevik sailor, black with coal-dust, stepped down upon the shore of the rejuvenated Persia.