The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed

The Eastern Front

Kolchak’s Offensive (March-April 1919)


By the Chairman of the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic and People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs to the Commissars of the Third Army, April 23, 1919, No. 90, Vyarka

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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For several months now the Third Army has been falling back before the advancing enemy. [74] There are absolutely no grounds for attributing this steady retreat to a superiority of forces on the part of the enemy. With some variations this way or that, the contending forces were approximately equal. It would also be misplaced to refer in this connection to the army’s tiredness. It is, of course, very tired, but that is the case on all the fronts, and in the hungry rear as well. Our front is 8,000 versts long, and until we have won a decisive victory on one of the sectors of the front there cannot be sufficient reserves available in the country to relieve the armies now in action. The surest road to rest is victory soon, and victory soon can be attained only through maximum effort.

From this follows what must be the principal commandment for the leading Communist workers in the army: to cast aside all talk about the enemy’s superiority in numbers, to cease expecting salvation to come from the centre, and to bring about an immediate turn within the army itself – establishing a firm regime in it; making the best of the soldiers, and primarily, the Communist cells, understand that the country’s fate now depends on the conduct of the Third Army; achieving a complete turn-round in morale and going over to the offensive at any cost in effort and sacrifice.

Until recently the number of Communists in the army was given as 12,000. This is a very serious misunderstanding. If in the Third Army there were not 12,000 but 2,000, or even 1,000 real Communists, that is, self-sacrificing seasoned fighters, we should long since have crushed Kolchak’s bands on the Perm front.

(1) It is therefore necessary to carry out a purge of the Communist cells. There must be a practical check on how the members of the cell behaved at a difficult moment. It must be laid down as a rule that membership of a cell confers no privileges or rights but merely imposes the duty to fight more bravely and devotedly for the interests of the Soviet land.

(2) It must once more be impressed on the mind of every commissar that he is answerable along with the commander, for the fighting capacity of his unit. The post of commissar of a military unit is one of the most responsible posts in the Soviet republic. The Commissar must be a model of personal courage. At critical moments the conduct of an entire unit and the saving of a position often depends on the commissar. The composition of the corps of commissars must be given an airing. There must be a real check on how the commissars of each unit behaved during the most critical moments. Those commissars whose experiences have tired them out excessively must be replaced. Those commissars who have lost faith in victory or who have come to accept the shame of constant retreat must be sent back to the rear. Those commissars who have entirely submitted to the mood of their units and have concerned themselves mainly with ensuring the security of the retreat must be court-martialled. Those battalions, companies and commandos which have gone off on their own or which have begun to disintegrate must have special commissars assigned to them. Those Red Army men who have shown devotion and resolution under the test of fire must be promoted to the post of commissar or commander. All this must be done as quickly as possible.

(3) There must be a check on the composition of the commanding personnel. A ruthless purge is needed of those commanders in the Third Army who hide themselves away in corners when fighting begins, but who are the first to get moving when the moment of retreat arrives. Care and vigour must be shown in promoting firm, resolute Red Army men to junior posts of command.

(4) A regime of strict, unwavering discipline must be established in the army. In some units of the Third Army there are still surviving the habits of guerrilla-ism and atamanism, the practice of discussing combat orders, and on various pretexts failing to carry them out. Direct responsibility must be imposed on commissars and commanders for the fulfilment of combat orders.

Some Communists justify by reference to their membership of the Communist Party the arbitrary violations of military order that they commit. A directly opposite rule must be laid down:

Communists are to be punished with two-fold severity for conduct that violates order and unity of action. No services in the past can or shall serve as justification for anyone who in the future shows himself to be an undisciplined member of the revolutionary military family.

(5) In units which are advancing, it is the heroes who set the tone. In an army which has been retreating for a long time, power is gradually gathered by the self-seekers. This danger threatens the Third Army. It is necessary to introduce into the most demoralised units, as rank-and-file Red Army men, genuine and reliable Communists who will bring a fresh eye to investigation of the internal life of a unit, help to rid it of direct agents of Kolchak , handing them over to the tribunal, and will thereby compel the self-seekers to hold their tongues.

(6) It must be laid down as an invariable rule that not one crime, not a single offence against revolutionary military duty is to be left unpunished. Investigation must be brief, so that the punishment may follow the crime as quickly as possible. The tribunals must ensure that, by the sentences they pass, they make the less conscious Red Army men and the less firm commanders and commissars realise that it is now a matter of life and death for the working class and that no mercy can be shown to criminals, idlers, cowards and characterless connivers.

(7) On the other hand, the best soldiers, commissars and commanders must feel that they are surrounded by the care and love of the army and of the whole country. The commissars of units must be in the very midst of the mass of the soldiers, during their service, in battle, at rest and in their recreation. This obligation must apply to the commanders as well. A closer bond must be established between the Communist cells, when these have been purged and checked, and the commanders and commissars, in the work of keeping watch on the conduct of the Red Army men. Commissars of units must periodically submit, through the proper channels, reports on the soldiers in their units, putting forward the ablest of them for promotion to posts of command and recommending them for rewards, and publicising their deeds in the press.

(8) Commissars must regularly furnish, not less often than once a week, information for the Political Department and correspondence for the army newspaper. An army’s newspaper ought not to be a mere reproduction of the Soviet or Communist newspapers. It must never forget for one moment that it is an army newspaper: it must depict the life of the army in all its details. Every unit must recognise itself there, as though in a mirror: heroes must be exalted in the consciousness of the masses, and self-seekers subjected to contempt and mockery. Such concrete illumination of the army’s internal life has greater educative significance than agitational articles of a general political character. A Red Army man who is capable of follow ing political affairs generally will read general Soviet publications.

All the measures listed are to be put into effect in the shortest possible time. The period when the roads are unusable must be utilised for complete internal regeneration of the Third Army. This regeneration must begin at the top, with the commissars, the commanders and the Communist cells. Everyone must shake himself, cast aside fatigue and the habit of retreating which has been formed, stand fast, and concentrate all his energy and will-power on advancing, at whatever cost in effort. There can be no doubt that the forcibly conscripted, compulsorily knocked-together armies of Kolchak will break up into fragments at the first serious blow. But this blow has to be delivered.

The Third Army is not weaker numerically than Kolchak’s army which opposed it. Consequently, everything now depends on initiative, resolution, devotion, heroism and self-sacrifice on the part of the Communist comrades. The Party, through its Central Committee, addresses this call to them: ‘Comrade Communists of the Third Army, it is up to you to save the revolutionary honour of the Third Army, and, along with that, to save the revolution.’ In the situation which has been created for the Third Army and for the country, Communists can now have no doubts, no hesitations, there can be for them no looking back, no indulgence in criticism, but one slogan only: Forward!


74. The Third Army, consisting of the 29th and 30th divisions and a special brigade, was stationed on the extreme left flank of the Eastern front. At a time when, in the Ufa and Orenburg directions, units of the Fifth and First Armies had achieved, down to the beginning of March, some substantial successes, the Third Army, which at first was covering Penn, and then Vyatka, kept on falling back. After stubborn fighting the enemy took Penn, and thereby presented a serious threat to our Ufa group. By mid-April the Third Army had reached Glazov.

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Last updated on: 27.12.2006