The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed

The Southern Front

II. Denikin’s Offensive (May 15-August 1919)


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

* * *

The Donets front is now undoubtedly the front of greatest importance for all the Soviet republics. In saying this I do not forget the Petrograd front, but I consider, quite deliberately, that the loss of Petrograd (and I am sure we shall not lose Petrograd) would not be so serious for us as a prolonged loss of the Donets Basin. In so far as the Soviet Republic is now the stronghold of the world revolution, one can say that the key to this fortress lies in the Donets Basin. This is why all attention is now concentrated on that sector of the very extensive front of the Soviet Republic.

Our setbacks in the Donets Basin form part of our recent setbacks on the Southern front generally. We had been obliged temporarily to slacken the attention and backing we were giving to the Southern front. As everyone knows, this was due to the substantial, or at least seemingly substantial, successes won by Kolchak. Kolchak is now our principal adversary, since all the elements of the counter-revolution have recognised him as their leader and since he is the candidate of Entente imperialism. At the conferences in Versailles and Paris the question of recognis ing Kolchak has often been brought up, in a quite definite way. It was natural that we had to strike a blow as soon as possible on the Eastern front. Again, it was natural that this should necessi tate the concentration of all attention and all forces on the Volga. There, as everyone knows, we have achieved immense success. Kolchak has been forced back from before Samara to Ufa, and is continuing to retreat all along the middle stretch of the Volga. We are drawing near to Sarapul, to the line of the Kama. [50]

We have to fight with armies which we build on the spot. If we put in a special effort to build an army in the East, we inevitably slacken our army-building work in the South. That is what happened. From the standpoint of proper planning one may, of course, deplore this method of construction, but it is inseparable from the nature of a revolutionary epoch, in which factors of improvisation play an immense role, especially if we take account of the fact that the world situation, the interna tional situation, and, along with that, the strategic situation are changing very quickly, and while we can foresee the general trend of events with complete certainty, nevertheless it is not possible to foresee the phases in which these events will occur, the forms they will take, and, in particular, the side from which the greatest danger will come at any given moment. We have to maintain and develop a front along a line that is more than 8,000 versts in extent. This being so, our enemies can always select the weakest part of the front at any particular moment and strike a more serious blow there. This was what happened in the South.

Revolutionary troops are highly-strung, liable to rapid metamorphoses. They can quickly be brought to a sound condi tion and tempered, but just as quickly they can be brought to collapse. The art of command and administration calls for constant reckoning with this quick susceptibility, inflamniabil ity and general revolutionary irritability of forces a considerable proportion of whose personnel have gone through the four-years’ slaughter and the epoch of revolution and civil conflicts.

On the Donets sector of the Southern front in recent times there have been obvious signs of unsteadiness among the troops, which are to be explained, on the one hand, by the fact that here we had units that were freshly put together (the very best of the regiments have in the past experienced one or two cases of panic and senseless retreat), and, on the other, by the extremely harmful proximity and influence of the still surviving Ukrainian guerrilla movement. Marking time on the extreme right flank of the Donets front is the brigade, or the division, or the army – it is hard to say what it is – of a certain Makhno. This ‘fighting’ unit is attracting to itself at the present time all the elements of disintegration, decomposition, rebell ion and decay. That is perfectly understandable. The region is rich, one can get food, there is no discipline or order, they advance along the line of least resistance and retreat whenever and whithersoever they choose. The proximity of such an ‘army’ naturally disturbs and alarms the right flank of the adjoining armies, and this feeling of uncertainty has had its effect all along the line of the Donets front. For this reason the improvement in the situation has to begin with the right flank.

What form must this improvement take? It seems to me that this is quite clear: suppression of the independent Anarchist Republic of Gulyay-Polye, establishment of unity of Soviet power, and of unity in the army, its methods of administration and its apparatus of command. At this very moment the Makh. novites are trying to convene a military-Soviet congress cover ing five uyezds. Naturally, the command will permit nothing of the sort to take place, and will show the Anarchist Grigoriyevs of Gulyay-Polye that in our struggle against the Denikinites we shall not tolerate any elements of disorganisation and decom position in the close rear, and still less in the actual front line.

As soon as this has been done, our Southern front will strike a blow at Denikin’s forces in the direction that the command will indicate.

You ask me to speak about Petrograd? I have not been on the Petrograd front for a long time, and not at all since our retreat on the Western front. I can say only this. All the operations were conceived with a view to rapid decisions. The enemy was very well aware (this I know from a certain very eloquent document) that we had withdrawn considerable reserves from the Petrograd area to the Eastern front: hence his plan to capture Petrograd so quickly that we should not be able to bring in reinforcements from the centre in time. (As you know, the greatest advantage we possess is our central position in relation to our enemies, which enables us to act on internal operational lines, sending reserves to the most threatened sectors of the front.) However, the enemy miscalculated. His offensive has now been checked, and that means that his game is up. We have thrown considerable reinforcements into the front before Pet rograd, and we have every reason to count on decisive changes taking place in the situation there in the next few weeks, or even days.

As regards the setbacks on the other sectors of the Western front, they have been due, first, to the same general causes that I mentioned in connection with the Southern front (the temporary concentration of forces and resources on the Eastern front), and, secondly, to a considerable extent, to the particular structure of the Western front, which was divided into national sectors, with national armies. Given the enemy’s unity and the unity of his operational conceptions, this fragmentation of the front on purely national lines proved to be inviable, not to mention the fact that in many of the less conscious units it gave rise to national antagonisms. We have now established comp lete unity of the front of the Soviet Republics, in the sense that this front is divided between armies on the basis of exclusively strategic, and not national, considerations, and that we are using the separate national units – Ukrainian, Lettish, Polish, Estonian – where they can be used most advantageously, and not all as a matter of course on their respective so-called national fronts.

This also fully applies to the Ukraine. The task of the Ukrai nian front, as such, has been accomplished. The Ukraine has been liberated, so far as a huge tract of its territory is concerned. The Petlyurists have been smashed. That wretched successor of the Petlyurists, Grigoriyev, has been routed. What remain to be attended to are the Donets direction and the Polish-Galician Romanian direction: neither of these, however, is a Ukrainian front but rather a front common to all the Soviet Republics, for Denikin is advancing in the Ukraine and in Great Russia at one and the same time. The gentry of Romania and Poland and the Galician kulaks are ready to act equally against the Ukraine and against Great Russia, wherever the Entente may order them to strike.

Regarding help for Soviet Hungary, I can answer your question only thus: our help is expressed in our Westward pressure, and I have every reason to think that this pressure will increase in the immediate future.

I listened with amazement to your question concerning the danger that is said to be threatening Kharkov. We live, of course, in an epoch when nothing on this earth is stable, but I think that Kharkov stands in no greater danger than Tver, Penza, Moscow or any other city of the Soviet Republic.

Finally, in reply to your last question, about mobilisation, I think that we must mobilise as many age-groups as we can, without allowing any exceptions or deferments, and in the shortest possible time. We have to carry out a definite operation in the Donets Basin. The sooner we do this, the shorter will be the suffering of the Donets coal industry and of all economic life in the Kharkov area.

June 4, 1919
En Route, No. 52


50. On Kolchak’s retreat, see note 75 later on in this Volume.

return return

Last updated on: 21.12.2006