The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed


II. Commanders and Commissars


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

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There has fallen into Soviet hands on the Eastern front a report presented to the Kolchakite White-Guard command by the former commander of a brigade in N division, Kotomin, who went over to the Whites. This report is a document which is exceptionally instructive in many ways.


Kotomin is, as we can see from his report, someone who is not stupid, not without powers of observation, and not lacking in character. He is acutely hostile to the Soviet power. He does not state in his report what the reasons of principle are for this hostility of his – he feels no need for such reasons of principle. His hatred is purely organic, a class, social hatred. We do not know what Kotomin’s own origins are, but it is perfectly clear that the way of life and habit of thought of the bourgeois-noble milieu have saturated him through and through. The ideas of communism do not interest him. As will be clear to everyone, he quite fails to consider whether communism will be achieved, whether people will live better and more easily under the communist order, and so on. Instead, he firmly feels and knows that the rule of the Communist Party has done great harm to the privileges by which he and his like have lived and flourished, and he is filled with great hatred for Communists, his hatred being the fiercer the more conscious, disinterested and self-sacrificing a particular Communist worker may be.

Kotomin was a member of the League for National Rebirth. [36] He joined the Red Army (it is not quite clear from the report whether as a volunteer or as a result of conscription) with the aim of bringing disintegration into the ranks of the revolutionary regiments. It maybe, though, that Kotomin is in this matter embellishing his past record for the eyes of the White-Guard command. Kotomin chose officers with a White-Guard outlook for the headquarters of the brigade which was entrusted to him. ‘Wishing to form my headquarters staff from former regular officers who were opposed to the Bolsheviks, and having information from the League for National Rebirth, of which I am a member and to which I applied in Tula, I at once engaged as chief of staff Lietutenant-Colonel Nelidov (of the 10th Ingermanland Regiment), who, while a member of the secret organisation in Tula, commanded a battalion of volunteers.’ And, subsequently, Kotomin steadily recruited White Guards to his staff, and along with them sniffed out sympathisers in the headquarters above them.


In selecting the elements he needed, Kotomin at once came up against the commissars. In his report Kotomin very carefully singles out the Jewish commissars and demonstrates his hatred of them in the most emphatic way.

It is worth while saying a few words about this question. The Jewish commissars are far from constituting such a big percentage of the total as is maintained in White-Guard reports, leaflets and newspapers. But it is undoubtedly a fact that the percentage is fairly high. Kotomin, like many other anti-semites, sees the reason for the considerable number of Jewish commissars as being due to the special abilities and talents of Jews. He twice speaks of their ‘great talent’. Such an evaluation of the Jews certainly calls for no objection. It is a fact that the Jews are a predominantly urban people, and that they form a very high proportion of the town population. The Tsarist regime, which established very harsh conditions for the Jews, impelled not only the Jewish workers, like the Russian workers, but also petty-bourgeois intelligentsia elements of the Jewish community to take the path of revolution. Among the considerable number of Jewish Communists who have joined the Party in recent times there are quite a few the source of whose Communism is not so much social, not so much a matter of class, as national. [Kotomin cites the example of a brigade commissar, a Jew named Sh., who ‘knew how to fix it’ so that not he but another commissar was sent to the front with the brigade. According to our investigation this did indeed happen. But Kotomin says nothing about Sh. having been summoned before a Party court. The party knows no national differences, where either heroes or self-seekers are concerned. (Note by Trotsky)] These are, of course, not the best Communists, and the organisation of Soviet power relies not upon them but upon the Petrograd and Moscow workers who were steeled in the old underground.

Anti-semitism means not only hatred of the Jews but also cowardice in relation to them. Cowardice has big eyes, and it endows its enemy with extraordinary qualities which are not at all inherent in him. The socio-legal conditions of life of the Jews are quite sufficient to account for their role in the revolutionary movement. But it has certainly not been proved, nor can it be proved, that Jews are more talented than Great Russians or Ukrainians.


’When the brigade arrived at Simbirsk on April 18,’ Kotomin reports, ‘Front headquarters appointed as chief of staff a Jewish Communist who had graduated from the Red General Staff Academy, a very clever young man of 24 who had completed his studies at a neuropathological institute in Lausanne or Zurich. This Red General Staff officer was a highly undesirable element from my point of view, and I made every effort to get rid of him. Mature, clever, hardworking, cheekily defiant like all Jews generally, he eventually got on bad terms with everybody, and to my great joy I was able to get rid of him in the first days of June ... After V’s departure, the post of chief of staff was again filled by Lieutenant-Colonel Ya., who, by force of circumstances, was unable to come over along with me, because his family had been registered, and, if he had come over, it can be said with almost complete certainty that this would have entailed the severest penalties for his family, possibly even going so far as shooting. It must be noted that, in general, the situation of those regular officers who have family ties and who have joined the Red Army either voluntarily, in order to carry out a definite task, namely, the disintegration of Bolshevism, or as a result of conscription, is nightmarishly frightful. In connection with my going-over I had talks with the commander of my N regiment, Captain L, with the commander of X regiment, K, as well as with the chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Ya., and they are all dreaming only of the time when they will be in a position to join one of the Volunteer Armies. Because of their family ties, however, this going-over will have to assume the form of their being taken prisoner, so that their families may not be subject to penalties.’

’Nightmarishly frightful,’ as we see from Kotomin’s words, is the situation of an officer who joins the Red Army with the innocent aim of disintegrating a unit, or of treacherously leading it under the exterminating fire of the enemy, or deserting it in a moment of danger and going over to the Whites. Treacherously attempting to kill hundreds and thousands of Red Army men, persons like Kotomin indignantly denounce the Soviet power which holds their families responsible for their treachery.


How does Kotomin estimate the attitude of the regular officers towards the Soviet power? ‘Nearly all the regular officers,’ he says, ‘with rare exceptions, are conscious and honourable enough to appreciate fully all the harm that has been done through the usurpation of power by the Bolshevik-Communists, they want with all their hearts to break with the Red Army and are its irreconcilable foes.’ However, this appreciation, obviously made because the White command wants to hear it, is subsequently refuted by a number of facts and statements provided by Kotomin himself. True, Kotomin names a number of commanders who have gone over to the Whites or who have carried on vigorous activity aimed at disintegrating their regiments but he also, in passing, mentions other examples. Thus, divisional commander V, when conversing with Kotomin, ‘expressed the view that, if he is serving in the army, he considers it his duty to serve honourably, and concluded with the statement that he does not understand the non-party attitude, since he considers that the question must be posed thus: “either with us or against us”.’ And here we find the commander of a regiment, Staff-Captain Ryakin, a Knight of St George, 24 years old, ‘a very brave and resolute man who has recently taken over his regiment – definitely a dangerous man, for he serves with zeal, risking his life at every step. Thus, for example, with 150 soldiers of his regiment, when during the night of July 22-23 the village of Verkhtechinskoye Metlino was captured without a single casualty (either dead or wounded) he took prisoner 300 men of the 45th Regiment, captured two field kitchens and five machine-guns. The regiment, although it includes many Communists, is held together by Ryakin alone.’ The neighbouring regiment is commanded by Captain L who, in Kotomin’s opinion, ‘is held back from going over to the Whites only by his family ties’. Later, the report names a number of commanders and workers in the supply service who either went over or would have liked to go over to Kolchak. But here we come upon ‘divisional commander Captain Vinogradov – and his son, who is the divisional adjutant: they are definitely dangerous men, devoting all their energies to their work’. Kotomin likewise describes two commanders of artillery sections, Mukhin and Bobrov, as ‘definitely dangerous’ men, that is officers who are honestly and energetically doing their duty. There is, finally, a third type of officer described by Kotomin, an example of which is former Staff-Captain N, who is ‘not well trained from the military standpoint, and lacks resolution: he is wholly in the hands of his commissars and divisional staff, towards whom his attitude is extremely ingratiating’. Along with this we find another such type, a former ensign, ‘extremely irresolute and cowardly, but who knows how to keep on good terms with the command, and so stays in favour with them’. We have no reason to object: such people do exist.

In the concluding section of his report, devoted to general observations, Kotomin returns to the subject of the regular officers. ‘All of them,’ he says, ‘with extremely rare exceptions, are hostile to the Soviet power, but they must be divided into several groups. The first, which is the least important, consists of those who are actively combating Bolshevism in various organisations, or who are working in organisations or have voluntarily joined the Red Army and are trying in every way to disintegrate it and prepare it for a revolution. The second group is the largest; cowed and weak-willed, without resources and largely where they are through conscription, they work under unremitting surveillance by Commissars and Communists, and work fairly well, but without doing anything special, since in their hearts they dream only of the day when Bolshevism will have been eliminated in one way or another. A third group consists of officers who are so wearied by everything and so lacking in staunchness, that they are prepared to agree with any authority whatsoever, so as to be left in peace without their private life being disturbed.’ Later, though, Kotomin makes an extremely important correction to his own account of the political outlook of the regular officers. ‘The feeling among the commanding personnel of units which have come from the rear to the front,’ he says, ‘is in almost every case, without exception, exactly the same: a desire to go over to the Whites so as to be rid of the nightmare of the Bolshevik regime. The only factor that holds them back is their well-founded anxiety about their families, whom the Bolsheviks have registered, and so they all look forward impatiently to even the slightest push effected by the Whites, in order that they may go over, if only in the more or less camouflaged way of being taken prisoner, so as to safeguard their families. The feeling among the commanding personnel, including the regular officers, of the front-line troops is diametrically opposed to this, in view of their direct community of interest, as having earlier volunteered to go to the front, with the upholding of the Bolshevik power of Soviet Russia.’

Thus, Kotomin quite sharply contrasts the front-line officers with those from the rear who have been recently taken by conscription from various Soviet jobs and sent to join active service units. The difference noted in Kotomin’s report undoubtedly does exist. In those units which have been at the front for a long time, the commanding personnel is made up to a considerable extent of volunteers who joined the Red Army in the first period of its formation. But, also, those commanders who were called up a year or more ago, in the conscription of officers, have mostly succeeded in becoming closely bound up with the Red Army and are to a greater or lesser degree filled with its spirit. The active White-Guard elements have managed by this time to go over to the enemy, and, as a result, that section of the commanders drawn from among the regular officers of the old army who have been working in the Red Army for a year or more, and have passed through defeats and victories along with it, are an extremely valuable element, bound to the army not merely by considerations of pay and rations, but also by an inner spiritual bond, by shared efforts and shared sacrifices. Officers who, having established themselves in various peaceful occupations in the rear, stubbornly and persistently avoiding mobilisation, find themselves mobilised all the same, are frequently in a bitter mood when they arrive at the front, and constitute rather favourable human material for the White Guards. Kotomin was on the Eastern front with a brigade of that sort, formed in the rear and provided with officers conscripted in the rear. Kotomin’s own generalisation about the almost universal hostility of the regular officers to the Soviet power must therefore be taken as applying mainly to these men whose service in the rear has been disturbed, to their disquiet.


Kotomin singles out the General Staff officers. ‘It must be supposed,’ he says, ‘that a considerable percentage of them belong to the League for National Rebirth, but there are certainly others who work for conscience’s sake and render immense service to Bolshevism. Although I know very many of the General Staff officers working in the Red Army, I can say nothing about the true nature of their work, which will undoubtedly be clarified in the future, since very precise information about this exists at the National Centre. In general it can be said that the majority of the old General Staff officers are installed in posts in the rear, with only the younger ones serving, either voluntarily or under compulsion, at the front.’ Kotomin’s hope that it may be possible to effect a precise political registration of the General Staff officers with the help of the National Centre is now out of date, as the Cheka has effected not just a pretty complete ‘registration’ of this National Centre, but also its liquidation.


‘The next category of the commanding personnel of the Red Army,’ writes Kotomin after concluding his account of the regular officers, ‘consists of the junior commanders, up to the level of company commander, but at the front even the seconds-in-command of particular units are drawn from among former NCOs and even private soldiers. This category can be divided into two groups: a smaller one unconditionally devoted to the interests of communism, with which their personal interests are inseparably linked, and a larger, predominantly made up of conscripts, who are almost hostile to Bolshevism. Both groups of this category are poorly qualified from the military standpoint, and represent no particular menace.

‘Among the commanding personnel of all categories there are also Party members, or sympathisers, especially at the front, whose interests are merged to such a degree with the interests of Bolshevism that they must certainly be regarded as the most dangerous element in the Red Army.

‘There are among the commanders also persons with a cer tain past, sometimes criminal, but these are gradually being eliminated from the army as a result of the Soviet power having recognised them as a dangerous element, not to be tolerated.

‘As regards the so-called Red officers, the whole mass of them are men without education. Although they mostly belong to the Party, they have little stability. Their average general and military training is below the level of that formerly acquired in a good regimental NCOs’ school.’

In this appreciation, of course, the facts are refracted through the prism of a White Guard who has fled to the camp of Kolchak. We see, too, that Kotomin contradicts himself. Nevertheless, there are also some correct statements to be found here. It is undoubtedly the case that among the conscripted NCOs there is a certain percentage of kulak elements, whose proper place is in the rear levies and not in positions of command. Undoubtedly it is also the case that the conscripted NCOs in the units formed in the rear are far from always distinguished by the necessary battle-readiness. How ever, many of these undergo complete regeneration at the front, producing numerous excellent commanders who are now at the head of very large formations, up to division and cavalry corps level, inclusive.

Typical of the White-Guard colonel is his contemptuous evaluation of the Red commanders. All the same, however, it is true that the preparation provided by the command courses is inadequate, needs to be improved in many respects, and must be supplemented in the future by command courses of a more advanced type. The reform, improvement and development of military training is a most urgent and important task.


‘Between the units at the front,’ says Kotonlin, ‘and the units formed in the rear, there is a sharp difference. In the first there is a substantial preponderance of Communists. In the aggregate of volunteer Red Army men in these units there are almost no regular officers. In the second category, though, the majority of the soldiers are conscripts, and the commanders are mostly regular officers. The first category are more staunch, whereas the second are easily susceptible to demoralisation, and less staunch.’ Here a very important question of our military policy is touched upon, and we cannot ignore Kotomin’s testimony. Those units which were formed, or re-educated, at the front, he declares, are incomparably more staunch than those which were formed in the rear. And that is understandable. As regards the raw mass of Red Army men, they can be welded into fighting units only if given the appropriate military and political leadership, day by day. In young, freshly-formed units the immediate importance of the commanding personnel is incom parably greater than in old-established, seasoned units. In the latter, too, cases of betrayal occur, but a traitor’s going over to the enemy does not disintegrate the unit, and it is even rare for this to do the unit any serious harm. The fresh formations that have come up from the rear are another matter. A well-organised group of characters of the Kotomin type are capable, right from the start, of disrupting a unit almost irreparably. It is all the more important in the case of new formations to select experienced commanders, if only, to some extent, from among such as have been through the fire of the Red Army at the front. Rear formations, if brought into action gradually, with the necessary precautions (especially where the commanding personnel are concerned), soon acquire the colouring of the military milieu around them and become combat-ready front-line units.


Of very great interest is that section of the report which is direcTly concerned with the work of the Communist Party in the army and the role played by its representatives. ‘The commissars,’ writes Kotomin, ‘are the best of the Communists, and must be divided into several categories. The first (the smallest, in my view) does not exceed 5 per cent and is perhaps much smaller. These are the idealist Communists, who believe strongly in the idea of socialism and are energetic to the limits of human endurance – workers who put into their work everything they know, all their vigour and determination, without exploiting the advantages of their position. The remaining 95 per cent, and perhaps more, are men who think that communism can bring them great advantages, which they exploit to the full. These include both workers who hope to improve their personal position through socialism and peasants (of the poorest sort, of course) who count on being able to do well for themselves at the expense of the more prosperous, without having to work for it, and also the dregs of the other classes, mostly youngsters and failures, and, of course, almost a majority of Jews, whose dream is not at all of the establishment of communism but of obtaining world domination for themselves.

’The role played by the commissars in the army is enormous. They maintain the spirit of class antagonism among the soldier masses. In battle they, both in person and also acting through the Communist cells which are being organised to an ever greater extent, urge the units forward, keeping close watch on everyone. They check the work of the commanders and their behaviour in action. They carry on ceaseless agitation, making use of every suitable case and exploiting every fact, however small, that can be used to emphasise the advantages of the Bolshevik way of life. What is particularly striking about the commissars, especially those at the front, is how amazingly hard-working they are. This is due of course, to their youth, to the fanaticism of their idealist leaders, and to the strict Party discipline: they bear great responsibility before the senior commissars for any negligence, and are moved both by desire for promotion and by fear of denunciation, as spying on one another is prevalent among them to the most persistent and merciless degree.’

Once again, let us not forget for one moment that the report was written by a double-dyed White-Guard traitor. He divides the commissars into two groups. Five per cent, in his opinion, are disinterested, idealistic Communists, while 95 per cent are persons interested in the material results of communism. This classification is actually the result of bourgeois obtuseness. By the disinterested Communists Kotomin evidenTLy means only those who have come from a bourgeois milieu, those who have, in their time, voluntarily broken with their family background and the privileges of their situation, and devoted themselves to the cause of the working class. As for the proletarian Communists, Kotomin views them as persons who ‘hope through socialism to improve their personal position’. Of course the aim of communism is the betterment of the position of the working masses, of the toilers of town and country. Communism is advantageous to the working class, that is a fact beyond dispute. But this does not mean at all that each worker Communist, each member of the oppressed class who gives his life on the barricades or serves as a commissar, is fighting for his own personal advantage. The disinterestedness of his work and the moral value of his heroism is no lower, no less, than that of the man of bourgeois origin who has won for himself the right to fight in the ranks of the proletariat.

The mercenary ‘Communists’ – that is, pseudo-Communists – are those who are guided by immediate personal interest, who have wormed their way into the Party because it is the ruling party, and who try to avoid difficult and dangerous posts and lead a parasitic life. It is quite obvious that, after all the purges which have been carried out, the proportion of such elements is certainly not 95 per cent. They can barely amount to more than five per cent, especially in the army in the field. Kotomin himself is really aware of this, for the role of the Communist Party would be inexplicable if the ideologically disinterested Communists amounted to no more than five per cent. What speaks in Kotomin here is his embittered class instinct, his hatred of the proletariat which has proved able to bring forward from its midst many tens of thousands of dedicated nameless heroes – his endeavour to endow his enemies with features of petty-bourgeois self-interest, bourgeois greed, so as thereby to justify and dignify himself and his White-Guard milieu. Influenced by this psychological need, Kotomin tries to contrast the commissars at the front with the commissars in the rear, making it seem as though the small minority capable of self-sacrifice had all been sent to the front. This allegation is sufficiently refuted by events. Every fresh danger at the front causes an influx of Communists into the active units. There has never been a failure to answer the call of the Central Committee. On the contrary: local Party organisations have met their obligations twice and thrice over, and the places of those Party members who have fallen are being filled by young proletarians who, in the atmosphere of Party organisation, soon acquire the revolutionary tempering they need. Petrograd remains a model in this respect.


’Under pressure from the centre,’ says the report, ‘and also, of course, through awareness that the Communists cannot get by without the help of regular officers, the attitude of the commissars, especially the more conscious among them, and especially in recent times, has become more and more courteous, even to the extent of allowing the officers a certain degree of freedom in operational decisions. At the same time, along with this, secret surveillance, especially of the senior commanders, has been intensified, and has been taken to extreme lengths. For example, the commissars live in the same room with the men to whom they are attached, accompany them everywhere, and surround them, and all commanders generally, with devoted Communists, so that every step taken by every member of the commanding apparatus is known precisely to the commissars and to the cells. At the same time, the commissars uphold the prestige of the commanders, strictly punishing even those commissars at lower levels who engage in demagogic attacks on the commanders.

’Striving to win full popularity among the soldiers, the commissars and Communists do everything they can to draw the masses over to their side: through increases in pay, through giving the soldiers all manner of benefits and privileges, by making a tremendous effort, they are gradually getting the mass of the soldiers accustomed, so to speak, to the institution of commissars and ready to see in it their defender and protector in all matters. The prejudice that there formerly was among the conscripts against commissars and Communists is gradually abating. This is due solely to the fact that the soldiers at the front are placed in very good conditions, and are constantly being electrified by the commissars with unrealisable promises – and, what is most important, to the fact that the Whites are retreating, which they explain in accordance with what the Communists say, by the strength and justice of the Communist cause in the present war.

Even in the White-Guard colouring given it by this renegade, the work done by the commissars and the Communist cells appears before us in all its immeasurable revolutionary-educational significance. That close bond which has been formed everywhere between honourable commanders and commissars Kotomin tries to represent as artificial politeness on the part of the commissars. Actually, close collaboration under wartime conditions often results in deep mutual attachment. How many instances there have been when, in connection with transfers, particular commanders and commissars have persistently asked not to be separated. The improvement in relations between commissars and commanders is due not so much to ‘pressure from the centre’ as to the mere fact of the selection of a large number of experienced, battle-tested commanders, to each of whom not only his commissar but every Red Army man under his command is dear.

In various parts of his report Kotomin speaks of the prevailing antipathy of the conscripts (mostly peasants) to the very fact of conscription, and to the Soviet power. That the politically backward peasants do not show that enthusiasm regarding mobilisation into the Red Army which we observe among the advanced workers is an undoubted fact, but, having crossed over into Kolchak’s camp, Kotomin can see for himself how the Siberian peasants are reacting to conscription by the White Guards. While, in general, the peasant fights unwillingly, in those places where he has to choose between the Soviet power and the rule of Denikin and Koichak, in the overwhelming majority of cases the peasant consciously opts for the Soviet rule. The regeneration undergone by the conscripted peasants at the front is not merely admitted but is sharply underlined by Kotomin himself. ‘The prejudice that there formerly was among the conscripts against commissars and communists is gradually abating,’ as we have already read in this report: ‘the mass of the soldiers are getting accustomed, so to speak, to the institution of commissars and are ready to see in it their defender and protector in all matters.’ One cannot imagine a more striking admission from a White Guard of the organisational importance of the commissars and of all the revolutionary-educational work done by the Communists in the Red Army.

We have quoted the most substantial parts of the renegade’s report. There are not a few of these Kotomins, sworn enemies of the working class. But the enemy often notices things that we ourselves overlook through familiarity. That is why careful study of the conclusions drawn by this White-Guard report can be of considerable benefit to responsible workers in the Red Army.

October 13, 1919
Izv.V.Ts.I.K., No.231


36. On the ‘League for the Rebirth of Russia’ see supra, Note 30.

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Last updated on: 18.12.2006