Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism

Chapter 13
The Army and the War

In the months preceding the revolution discipline in the army was already badly shaken. You can pick up plenty of officers’ complaints from those days: soldiers disrespectful to the command; their treatment of horses, of military property, even of weapons, indescribably bad; disorders in the military trains. It was not equally serious everywhere. But everywhere it was going in the same direction – toward ruin.

To this was now added the shock of revolution. The uprising of the Petrograd garrison took place not only without officers, but against them. In the critical hours the command simply hid its head. Deputy-Octobrist Shidlovsky conversed on the 27th of February with the officers of the Preobrazhensky regiment obviously in order to feel out their attitude to the Duma – but found among these aristocrat-cavaliers a total ignorance of what was happening, perhaps a half-hypocritical ignorance, for they were all frightened monarchists.

“What was my surprise,” says Shidlovsky, “when the very next morning I saw the whole Preobrazhensky regiment marching down the street in military formation led by a band, their order perfect and without a single officer!” To be sure, a few companies arrived at the Tauride with their officers – more accurately, they brought their officers with them. But the officers felt that in this triumphal march they occupied the position of captives. Countess Kleinmichel, observing these scenes while under arrest, says plainly: “The officers looked like sheep led to the slaughter.”

The February uprising did not create the split between soldiers and officers but merely brought it to the surface. In the minds of the soldiers the insurrection against the monarchy was primarily an insurrection against the commanding staff. “From the morning of the 28th of February,” says the Kadet Nabokov, then wearing an officer’s uniform, “it was dangerous to go out, because they had begun to rip off the officers’ epaulets.” That is how the first day of the new régime looked in the garrison.

The first care of the Executive Committee was to reconcile soldiers with officers. That meant nothing but to subordinate the troops to their former command. The return of the officers to their regiments was supposed, according to Sukhanov, to protect the army against “universal anarchy or the dictators of the dark and disintegrated rank-and-file.” These revolutionists, just like the liberals, were afraid of the soldiers, not of the officers. The workers on the other hand, along with the “dark” rank-and-file, saw every possible danger exactly in the ranks of those brilliant officers. The reconciliation therefore proved temporary.

Stankevich describes in these words the mental attitude of the soldiers to the officers who returned to them after the uprising: “The soldiers, breaking discipline and leaving their barracks, not only without officers, but in many cases against their officers and even after killing them at their posts, had achieved, it turned out, a great deed of liberation. If it was a great deed, and if the officers themselves now affirm this, then why didn’t they lead the soldiers into the streets? That would have been easier and less dangerous. Now, after the victory, they associate themselves with this deed. But how sincerely and for how long?” These words are the more instructive that the author himself was one of those “left” officers to whom it did not occur to lead his soldiers into the streets.

On the morning of the 28th, on Sampsonievsky Prospect, the commander of an engineers’ division was explaining to his soldiers that “the government which everybody hated is overthrown,” a new one is formed with Prince Lvov at the head therefore it is necessary to obey officers as before. “And now I ask all to return to their places in the barracks.” A few soldiers cried: “Glad to try”.[1] The majority merely looked bewildered: “Is that all?”

The scene was observed accidentally by Kayurov. It jarred him. “Permit me a word, Mr. Commander ...” And without waiting for permission, Kayurov put this question: “Has the workers’ blood been flowing in the streets of Petrograd for three days merely to exchange one landlord for another?” Here Kayurov took the bull by the horns. His question summarised the whole struggle of the coming months. The antagonism between the soldier and the officer was a refraction of the hostility between peasant and landlord.

The officers in the provinces, having evidently got their instructions in good season, explained the events all in the same way: “His Majesty has exceeded his strength in his efforts for the good of the country, and has been compelled to hand over the burden of government to his brother.” The reply was plain on the faces of the soldiers, complains an officer in a far corner of the Crimea: “Nicholas or Mikhail – it’s all the same to us.” When, however, this same officer was compelled next morning to communicate the news of the revolutionary victory, the soldiers, he tells us, were transformed. Their questions, gestures, glances, testified to the “prolonged and resolute work which somebody had been doing on those dark and cloudy brains, totally unaccustomed to think.” What a gulf between the officer, whose brain accommodates itself without effort to the latest telegram from Petrograd, and those soldiers who are, however stiffly, nevertheless honestly, defining their attitude to the events, independently weighing them in their calloused palms!

The high command, although formally recognising the revolution, decided not to let it through to the front. The chief of staff ordered the commander-in-chief of all the fronts, in case revolutionary delegations arrived in his territory – delegations which General Alexeiev called “gangs” for short – to arrest them immediately and turn them over to court-martial. The next day the same general, in the name of “His Highness,” the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, demanded of the government “an end of all that is now happening in the rear of the army” – in other words, an end of the revolution.

The command delayed informing the active army about the revolution as long as possible, not so much through loyalty to the monarchy as through fear of the revolution. On several fronts they established a veritable quarantine: stopped all letters from Petrograd, and held up newcomers. In that way the old régime stole a few extra days from eternity. The news of the revolution rolled up to the line of battle not before the 5th or 6th of March – and in what form? About the same as above: “The grand duke is appointed commander-in-chief; the czar has abdicated in the name of the Fatherland; everything else as usual.” In many trenches, perhaps even in the majority, the news of the revolution came from the Germans before it got there from Petrograd. Could there have been any doubt among the soldiers that the whole command was in a conspiracy to conceal the truth? And could those same soldiers trust those same officers to the extent of two cents, when a couple of days later they pinned on a red ribbon?

The chief of staff of the Black Sea fleet tells us, that the news of the events in Petrograd at first made no marked impression on the soldiers. But when the first socialist papers arrived from the capital, “in the wink of an eye the mood changed, meetings began, criminal agitators crawled out of their cracks.” The admiral simply did not understand what was happening before his eyes. The newspapers did not create this change of mood. They merely scattered the doubt of the soldiers as to the depth of the revolution, and permitted them to reveal their true feelings without fear of reprisals from the staff. The political physiognomy of the Black Sea staff, his own among them, is characterised by the same author in a single phrase: “The majority of the officers of the fleet thought that without the czar the Fatherland would perish.” The democrats also thought that the Fatherland would perish – unless they brought back bright lights of this kind to the “dark” sailors!

The commanding staff of the army and fleet soon divided into two groups. One group tried to stay in their places, tuning in on the revolution, registering as Social Revolutionaries. Later a part of them even tried to crawl into the Bolshevik camp. The other group strutted a while and tried to oppose the new order, but soon broke out in some sharp conflict and were swept away by the soldier flood. Such groupings are so natural that they have been repeated in all revolutions. The irreconcilable officers of the French monarchy, those who in the words of one of them “fought as long as they could,” suffered less over the disobedience of the soldiers than over the knuckling under of their noble colleagues. In the long run the majority of the old command were pushed out or suppressed, and only a small part re-educated and assimilated. In a more dramatic form the officers shared the fate of those classes from which they were recruited.

An army is always a copy of the society it serves – with this difference, that it gives social relations a concentrated character, carrying both their positive and negative features to an extreme. It is no accident that the war did not create one single distinguished military name in Russia. The high command was sufficiently characterised by one of its own members: “Much adventurism, much ignorance, much egotism, intrigue, careerism, greed, mediocrity and lack of foresight” – writes General Zalessky – “and very little knowledge, talent or desire to risk life, or even comfort and health.” Nikolai Nikolaievich, the first commander-in-chief, was distinguished only by his high stature and august rudeness. General Alexeiev, a grey mediocrity, the oldest military clerk of the army, won out through mere perseverance. Kornilov was a bold young commander whom even his admirers regarded as a bit simple; Kerensky’s War Minister, Verkhovsky, later described him as the lion heart with the brain of a sheep. Brussilov and Admiral Kolchak a little excelled the others in culture, if you will, but in nothing else. Denikin was not without character, but for the rest, a perfectly ordinary army general who had read five or six books. And after these came the Yudeniches, the Dragomirovs the Lukomskies, speaking French or not speaking it, drinking moderately or drinking hard, but amounting to absolutely nothing.

To be sure, not only feudal, but also bourgeois and democratic Russia had its representatives in the officers’ corps. The war poured into the ranks of the army tens of thousands of petty bourgeois youths in the capacity of officers, military engineers. These circles, standing almost solid for war to complete victory, felt the necessity of some broad measures of reform, but submitted in the long run to the reactionary command. Under the czar they submitted through fear, and after the revolution through conviction – just as the democracy in the rear submitted to the bourgeoisie. The conciliatory wing of the officers shared subsequently the unhappy fate of the conciliatory parties – with this difference, that at the front the situation developed a thousand times more sharply. In the Executive Committee you could hold on for a long time with ambiguities; in the face of the soldiers it was not so easy.

The ill-will and friction between the democratic and aristocratic officers, incapable of reviving the army, only introduced a further element of decomposition. The physiognomy of the army was determined by the old Russia, and this physiognomy was completely feudal. The officers still considered the best soldier to be a humble and unthinking peasant lad, in whom no consciousness of human personality had yet awakened. Such was the “national” tradition of the Russian army – the Suvorov tradition – resting upon primitive agriculture, serfdom and the village commune. In the eighteenth century Suvorov was still creating miracles out of this material. Leo Tolstoy, with a baronial love, idealised in his Platon-Karatayev the old type of Russian soldier, unmurmuringly submitting to nature, tyranny and death (War and Peace). The French revolution, initiating the magnificent triumph of individualism in all spheres of human activity, put an end to the military art of Suvorov. Throughout the nineteenth century, and the twentieth too – throughout the whole period between the French and Russian revolutions – the czar’s army was continually defeated because it was a feudal army. Having been formed on that “national” basis, the commanding staff was distinguished by a scorn for the personality of the soldier, a spirit of passive Mandarinism, an ignorance of its own trade, a complete absence of heroic principles, and an exceptional disposition toward petty larceny. The authority of the officers rested upon the exterior signs of superiority, the ritual of caste, the system of suppression, and even a special caste language – contemptible idiom of slavery – in which the soldier was supposed to converse with his officer.[2] Accepting the revolution in words and swearing fealty to the Provisional Government, the czar’s marshals simply shouldered off their own sins on the fallen dynasty. They graciously consented to allow Nicholas II to be declared scapegoat for the whole past. But farther than that, not a step! How could they understand that the moral essence of the revolution lay in the spiritualisation of that human mass upon whose inertness all their good fortune had rested? Denikin, appointed to command the front, announced at Minsk: “I accept the revolution wholly and irrevocably. But to revolutionise the army and bring demagogism into it, I consider ruinous to the country.” A classic formula of the dull-wittedness of major-generals! As for the rank-and-file generals, to quote Zalessky, they made but one demand: “Only keep your hands off us – that is all we care about!” However, the revolution could not keep its hands off them. Belonging to the privileged classes, they stood to win nothing, but they could lose much. They were threatened with the loss not only of officer privileges, but also of landed property. Covering themselves with loyalty to the Provisional Government, the reactionary officers waged so much the more bitter a campaign against the soviets. And when they were convinced that the revolution was penetrating irresistibly into the soldier mass, and even into their home estates, they regarded this as a monstrous treachery on the part of Kerensky, Miliukov, even Rodzianko – to say nothing of the Bolsheviks.

The life conditions of the fleet even more than the army nourished the live seeds of civil war. The life of the sailors in their steel bunkers, locked up there by force for a period of years, was not much different, even in the matter of food, from that of galley slaves. Right beside them the officers, mostly from privileged circles and having voluntarily chosen naval service as their calling, were identifying the Fatherland with the czar, the czar with themselves, and regarding the sailor as the least valuable part of the battleship. Two alien and tight-shut worlds thus live in close contact, and never out of each other’s sight. The ships of the fleet have their base in the industrial seaport towns with their great population of workers needed for building and repairing. Moreover, on the ships themselves, in the engineering and machine corps, there is no small number of qualified workers. Those are the conditions which convert the fleet into a revolutionary mine. In the revolutions and military uprisings of all countries the sailors have been the most explosive material; they have almost always at the first opportunity drastically settled accounts with their officers. The Russian sailors were no exception.

In Kronstadt the revolution was accompanied by an outbreak of bloody vengeance against the officers, who attempted, as though in horror at their own past, to conceal the revolution from the sailors. One of the first victims to fall was Admiral Viren, who enjoyed a well-earned hatred. A number of the commanding staff were arrested by the sailors. Those who remained free were deprived of arms.

In Helsingfors and Sveaborg, Admiral Nepenin did not admit the news of the insurrection in Petrograd until the night of March 4, threatening the soldiers and sailors meanwhile with acts of repression. So much the more ferocious was the insurrection of these soldiers and sailors. It lasted all night and all day. Many officers were arrested. The most hateful were shoved under the ice. “Judging by Skobelev’s account of the conduct of the officers of the fleet and the Helsingfors authorities,” writes Sukhanov, who is by no means indulgent to the “dark rank-and file,” “it is a wonder these excesses were so few.”

But in the land forces too there were bloody encounters, several waves of them. At first this was an act of vengeance for the past, for the contemptible striking of soldier. There was no lack of memories that burned like ulcers. In 1915 disciplinary punishment by flogging had been officially introduced into the czar’s army. The officers flogged soldiers upon their own authority – soldiers who were often the fathers of families. But it was not always a question of the past. At the All-Russian Conference of Soviets, a delegate speaking for the army stated that as early as the 15th or 17th of March an order had been issued introducing corporal punishment in the active army. A deputy of the Duma, returning from the front, reported that the Cossacks said to him, in the absence of officers: “Here, you say, is the order. [Evidently the famous Order Number 1, of which we will speak further.] We got it yesterday, and yet today an officer socked me on the jaw.” The Bolsheviks went out to try to restrain the soldiers from excesses as often as the Conciliators. But bloody acts of retribution were as inevitable as the recoil of a gun. The liberals had no other ground for calling the February revolution bloodless except that it gave them the power.

Some of the officers managed to stir up bitter conflicts about the red ribbons, which were in the eyes of the soldiers a symbol of the break with the past. The commander of the Sumsky regiment got killed in this way. Another commander, having ordered newly arrived reinforcements to remove their ribbons, was arrested by the soldiers, and locked up in the guard house. A number of encounters also resulted from the czar’s portraits, not yet removed from the official quarters. Was this out of loyalty to the monarchy? In a majority of cases it was mere lack of confidence in the revolution, an act of personal insurance. But the soldiers were not wrong in seeing the ghost of the old régime lurking behind those portraits.

It was not thought-out measures from above, but spasmodic movements from below, which established the new régime in the army. The disciplinary power of the officers was neither annulled nor limited. It merely fell away of itself during the first weeks of March. “It was clear,” said the chief of the Black Sea staff, “that if an officer attempted to impose disciplinary punishment upon a soldier, the power did not exist to get it executed.” In that you have one of the sure signs of a genuinely popular revolution.

With the falling away of their disciplinary power, the practical bankruptcy of the staff of officers was laid bare. Stankevich, who possessed both a gift of observation and an interest in military affairs, gives a withering account in this respect of the commanding staff. The drilling still went on according to the old rules, he tells us, totally out of relation to the demands of the war. “Such exercises were merely a test of the patience and obedience of the soldiers.” The officers, of course, tried to lay the blame for this, their own bankruptcy, upon the revolution.

Although they were quick with cruel reprisals, the soldiers were also inclined to childlike trustfulness and self-forgetful acts of gratitude. For a short time the deputy Filomenko, a priest and a liberal, seemed to the soldiers at the front a standard-bearer of the idea of freedom, a shepherd of the revolution. The old churchly ideas united in funny ways with the new faith. The soldiers carried this priest on their hands, raised him above their heads, carefully seated him in his sleigh. And he afterward, choking with rapture, reported to the Duma: “We could not finish our farewells. They kissed our hands and feet.” This deputy thought that the Duma had an immense authority in the army. What had authority in the army was the revolution. And it was the revolution that threw this blinding reflection on various accidental figures.

The symbolic cleansing carried out by Guchkov in the upper circles of the army – the removal of a few score of generals – gave no satisfaction to the soldiers, and at the same time created a state of uncertainty among the high officers. Each one was afraid that he would lose his place. The majority swam with the current, spoke softly and clenched their fists in their pockets. It was still worse with the middle and lower officers, who came face to face with the soldiers. Here there was no governmental cleansing at all. Seeking a legal method, the soldiers of one artillery battery wrote to the Executive Committee and the State Duma about their commander: “Brothers, we humbly request you to remove our domestic enemy, Vanchekhaza.” Receiving no answer to such petitions, the soldiers would employ what means they had: disobedience, crowding out, even arrest. Only after that the command would wake up, remove the arrested or assaulted officer, sometimes trying to punish the soldiers, but oftener leaving them unpunished in order to avoid complicating things. This created an intolerable situation for the officers, and yet gave no clear definition to the situation of the soldiers.

Even many fighting officers, those who seriously cared about the fate of the army, insisted upon the necessity of a general clean-up of the commanding staff. Without that, they said, it is useless to think of reviving the fighting ability of the troops. The soldiers presented to the deputies of the Duma no less convincing arguments. Formerly, they said, when they had a grievance, they had to complain to the officers, who ordinarily paid no attention to their complaint. And what were they to do now? The officers were the same – the fate of their complaints would be the same. “It was very difficult to answer that question,” a deputy confesses. But nevertheless that question contained the whole fate of the army and fore-ordained its future.

It would be a mistake to represent the state of affairs in the army as homogeneous throughout the country in all kinds of troops and all regiments. The variation was very considerable. While the sailors of the Baltic fleet responded to the first news of the revolution by killing officers, right beside them in the garrison at Helsingfors the officers were occupying a leading position in the soldiers’ soviet by the beginning of April, and here an imposing general was speaking at celebrations in the name of the Social Revolutionaries. There were many such contrasts between hate and trustfulness. But nevertheless the army was like a system of communicating vessels, and the political mood of the soldiers and sailors gravitated towards a single level.

Discipline was maintained somehow while the soldiers were counting on a quick and decisive change. “But when the soldiers saw,” to quote a delegate from the front, “that everything remained as before – the same oppression, slavery, ignorance, the same insults – an agitation began.” Nature, who was not thoughtful enough to arm the majority of men with rhinoceros skin, also endowed the soldier with a nervous system. Revolutions serve to remind us from time to time of this carelessness on the part of nature.

In the rear as well as at the front, accidental pretexts easily led to conflicts. The soldiers were given the right to attend theatres, meetings, concerts, etc., “equally with all citizens.” Many soldiers interpreted this as a right to attend theatres free. The ministry explained that “freedom” was to be understood in a speculative sense. But a people in insurrection has never shown any inclination towards Platonism or Kantianism.

The worn-out tissue of discipline broke through in various ways at different times, in different garrisons, and in different regiments. A commander would often think that everything had gone well in his regiment until certain newspapers appeared, or until the arrival of some outside agitator. It was all really the work of deep inexorable forces.

The liberal deputy Yanushkevich came back from the front with a generalisation – that the disorganisation is worst of all in the “green” troops composed of muzhiks. “In the more revolutionary regiments the soldiers are getting along very well with the officers.” As a matter of fact discipline rested for the most part on two foundations: the privileged cavalry made up of well-off peasants, and the artillery or technical branch in general with a high percentage of workers and intellectuals. The land-owning Cossacks held out longest of all, dreading an agrarian revolution in which the majority of them would lose, and not gain. More than once after the revolution individual Cossack divisions carried out punitive operations, but in general these differences were merely in the date and tempo of disintegration.

The blind struggle had its ebbs and flows. The officers would try to adapt themselves; the soldiers would again begin to bide their time. But during this temporary relief, during these days and weeks of truce, the social hatred which was decomposing the army of the old régime would become more and more intense. Oftener and oftener it would flash out in a kind of heat lightning. In Moscow, in one of the amphitheatres, a meeting of invalids was called, soldiers and officers together. An orator-cripple began to cast aspersions on the officers. A noise of protest arose, a stamping of shoes, canes, crutches. “And how long ago were you, Mr. Officer, insulting the soldiers with lashes and fists?” These wounded, shell-shocked, mutilated people stood like two walls, one facing the other. Crippled soldiers against crippled officers, the majority against the minority, crutches against crutches. That nightmare scene in the amphitheatre foreshadowed the ferocity of the coming civil war.

Above all these fluctuations and contradictions in the army and in the country, one eternal question was hanging, summed up in the short word, war. From the Baltic to the Black Sea, from the Black Sea to the Caspian and beyond into the depths of Persia, on an immeasurable front, stood sixty-eight corps of infantry and nine of cavalry. What should happen to them further? What was to be done with the war?

In the matter of military supplies the army had been considerably strengthened before the revolution. Domestic production for its needs had increased, and likewise the importation of War material through Murmansk and Archangel – especially artillery from the Allies. Rifles, cannon, cartridges, were on hand in incomparably greater quantities than during the first years of the war. New infantry divisions were in process of organisation. The engineering corps had been enlarged. On this ground a number of the unhappy military chieftains attempted later to prove that Russia had stood on the eve of victory, and that only the revolution had prevented it. Twelve years before, Kuropatkin and Linevich had asserted with as good a foundation that Witte prevented them from cleaning up the Japanese. In reality Russia was farther from victory in 1917 than at any other time. Along with the increase in ammunition there appeared in the army toward the end of 1916 an extreme lack of food supplies. Typhus and scurvy took more victims than the fighting. The breakdown of transport alone cancelled all strategy involving large-scale regroupings of the military mass. Moreover an extreme lack of horses often condemned the artillery to inaction. But the chief trouble was not even here; it was the moral condition of the army that was hopeless. You might describe it by saying that the army as an army no longer existed. Defeats, retreats, and the rottenness of the ruling group had utterly undermined the troops. You could no more correct that with administrative measures, than you could change the nervous system of the country. The soldier now looked at a heap of cartridges with the same disgust that he would at a pile of wormy meat; the whole thing seemed to him unnecessary and good for nothing; a deceit and a thievery. And his officer could say nothing convincing to him, couldn’t even make up his mind to crack him on the jaw. The officer himself felt deceived by the higher command, and moreover not infrequently ashamed before the soldiers for his own superiors. The army was incurably sick. It was still capable of speaking its word in the revolution, but so far as making war was concerned, it did not exist. Nobody believed in the success of the war, the officers as little as the soldiers. Nobody wanted to fight any more, neither the army nor the people.

To be sure, in the high chancelleries, where a special kind of life is lived, they were still chattering, through mere inertia, about great operations, about the spring offensive, the capture of the Dardanelles. In the Crimea they even got ready a big army for this latter purpose. It stood in the bulletins that the best element of the army had been designated for the siege. They sent the regiments of the guard from Petrograd. However, according to the account of an officer who began drilling them on the 25th of February – two days before the revolution – these reinforcements turned out to be indescribably bad. Not the slightest desire to fight was to be seen in those imperturbable blue, hazel and grey eyes. “All their thoughts and their aspirations were for one thing only – peace.”

There is no lack of such testimony. The revolution merely brought to the surface what already existed. The slogan “Down with the war!” became for that reason one of the chief slogans of the February days. It came from demonstrations of women, from the workers of the Vyborg quarter, from the regiments of the Guard. Early in March when deputies from the Duma made a tour of the front, the soldiers, especially the older ones, would continually ask them: “What are they saying about the land?” The deputies answered evasively that the land question would be decided by the Constituent Assembly. But here would sound out a voice betraying the hidden thought of everybody: “Well, as for the land, if I’m not here, you know, I won’t need it.” Such was the original soldier programme of revolution: first peace, and then the land.

Toward the end of March at the All-Russian Conference of Soviets, where there was a good deal of patriotic bragging, one of the delegates representing the soldiers in the trenches reported very sincerely how the front received the news of the revolution: “All the soldiers said, ‘Thank God! Maybe now we will have peace!’” The trenches instructed the delegate to tell the conference “We are ready to lay down our lives for freedom, but just the same, Comrades, we want an end of the war.” That was the living voice of reality – especially the latter half of it. We will wait a while if we have to, but you up there at the top, hurry along with the peace.

The czar’s troops in France in a completely unnatural atmosphere – being moved by the same feelings, passed through the same stages of disintegration. “When we heard that the czar had abdicated,” an illiterate middle-aged peasant soldier explained to his officer, “we all thought it meant that the war was over ... The czar sent us to war, and what is the use of freedom if I have got to rot in the trenches again?” That was the genuine soldier philosophy of the revolution – not brought in from the outside. No agitator could think up those simple and convincing words.

The liberals and the half-liberal socialists tried afterwards to represent the revolution as a patriotic uprising. On the 2nd of March, Miliukov explained to the French journalists: “The Russian revolution was made in order to remove the obstacles on Russia’s road to victory.” Here hypocrisy goes hand-in-hand with self-deceit – the hypocrisy somewhat the larger of the two. The candid reactionaries saw things clearer. Von Struve, a German Pan-Slavist, a Lutheran Greek Orthodox, and a Marxian monarchist, better defined the actual sources of the revolution, although in the language of reactionary hatred. “In so far as the popular, and especially the soldier, masses took part in the revolution, it was not a patriotic explosion, but a riotous self-demobilisation, and was directed straight against a prolongation of the War. That is, it was made in order to stop the War.”

Along with a true thought, those words contain also a slander. The riotous demobilisation was growing as a matter of fact right out of the war. The revolution did not create, but on the contrary checked it. Deserting, extraordinarily frequent on the eve of the revolution, was very infrequent in the first weeks after. The army was waiting. In the hope that the revolution would give peace, the soldier did not refuse to put a shoulder under the front: Otherwise, he thought, the new government won’t be able to conclude a peace.

“The soldiers are definitely expressing the opinion,” reports the chief of the Grenadier Division on the 23rd of March, “that we can only defend ourselves and not attack.” Military reports and political speeches repeat this thought in various forms. Ensign Krylenko, an old revolutionist and a future commander-in-chief under the Bolsheviks, testified that for the soldier the war question was settled in those days with this formula: “Support the front, but don’t join the offensive.” In a more solemn but wholly sincere language, that meant: defend freedom.

“We mustn’t stick our bayonets in the ground!” Under the influence of obscure and contradictory moods the soldiers those days frequently refused even to listen to the Bolsheviks. They thought perhaps, impressed by certain unskilful speeches, that the Bolsheviks were not concerned with the defence of revolution and might prevent the government from concluding peace. The social patriotic papers and agitators more and more cultivated this idea among the soldiers. But even though sometimes preventing the Bolsheviks from speaking, the soldiers from the very first days decisively rejected the idea of an offensive. To the politicians of the capital this seemed some kind of a misunderstanding which could be removed with appropriate pressure. The agitation for war reached extraordinary heights. The bourgeois press in millions of issues portrayed the problems of the revolution in the light of “War to complete victory.” The Compromisers hummed the same tune – at first under their breath, then more boldly. The influence of the Bolsheviks, very weak in the army at the moment of the revolution, became even weaker when thousands of workers who had been banished to the front for striking left its ranks. The desire for peace thus found no open and clear expression exactly where it was most intense. This situation made it possible for the commanders and commissars, who were looking round for comforting illusions, to deceive themselves about the actual state of affairs. In the articles and speeches of those times it is frequently asserted that the soldiers declined the offensive because they did not correctly understand the formula “without annexations or indemnities.” The Compromisers spared no effort to explain that defensive warfare permits taking the offensive, and sometimes even requires it. As though that scholastic question were at issue! An offensive meant re-opening the war. A waiting support of the front meant armistice. The soldiers’ theory and practice of defensive warfare was a form of silent, and later indeed of quite open, agreement with the Germans: “Don’t touch us and we won’t touch you.” More than that the army had nothing to give to the war.

The soldiers were still less open to warlike persuasions because, under the form of preparation for an offensive, reactionary officers were obviously trying to get the reins in their hands. In the soldiers’ conversation appeared the phrase: “Bayonet for the Germans, butt for the inside enemy.” The bayonet, however, had here a defensive significance. The soldiers in the trenches never thought of the Dardanelles. The desire for peace was a mighty underground current which must soon break out on the surface.

Although he did not deny that negative signs were “to be observed” in the army, Miliukov tried for a long time after the revolution to assert that the army was capable of fulfilling the tasks laid out for it by the Entente. “The Bolshevik propaganda,” he writes in his character of historian, “by no means immediately reached the front. For the first month or month and-a-half after the revolution the army remained healthy.” He approaches the whole question at the level of propaganda, as though that exhausts the historic process. Under the form of a belated struggle against Bolsheviks, to whom he attributes veritably mystic powers, Miliukov carries on his struggle against facts. We have already seen how the army looked in reality. Let us see how the commanders themselves appraised its fighting capacity in the first weeks, and even days, after the revolution.

On March 6 the commander-in-chief of the northern front, General Ruszky, informs the Executive Committee that a complete insubordination of the soldiers is beginning, popular personalities must be sent to the front in order to introduce some sort of tranquillity into the army.

The chief of the staff of the Black Sea fleet says in his memoirs: “From the first days of the revolution it was clear to me that it was impossible to wage war, and that the war was lost.” Kolchak, according to him, was of the same opinion, and if he remained at his post as commander at the front, it was merely to defend the staff officers against violence.

Count Ignatiev, who occupied a high command in the Imperial Guard, wrote to Nabokov in March: “You must clearly understand that the war is finished, that we can’t and won’t fight any longer. Intelligent people ought to be thinking up a way to liquidate the war painlessly, otherwise there will be a catastrophe ...” Guchkov told Nabokov at the same time that he was receiving such letters by the thousand. Certain superficially more hopeful reports, rare enough in any case, were mostly contradicted by their own supplementary explanations. “The desire of the troops for victory remains,” says the commander of the 2nd Army, Danilov. “In some regiments it is even stronger.” But just here he adds: “Discipline has fallen off ... It would be well to postpone offensive action until the situation quiets down (say one to three months).” And then an unexpected supplement: “Only 50 per cent of the reinforcements are arriving. If they continue to melt away in the future, and are equally undisciplined, we cannot count on the success of the offensive.”

“Our Division is fully capable of defensive action,” reports the valiant commander of the 51st Infantry Division, and immediately adds: “It is necessary to rescue the army from the influence of the Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies.” That, however, was not so easy to do.

The chief of the 182nd Division reports to the commander of the corps: “With every day misunderstandings are increasing, essentially about trifles, but ominous in their character. The soldiers are increasingly nervous, and the officers still more so.”

This is so far only scattered testimony, although there is much of it. But on the 18th of March there was held at staff head-quarters a conference of high officers on the condition of the army. The conclusion of the central organs of command was unanimous: “It will be impossible to send troops to the front in sufficient numbers to replace the losses, for there is unrest among all the reserves. The army is sick. It will probably take two or three months to adjust the relations between officers and soldiers.” The generals did not understand that the disease could only progress. For the present they observed a decline of spirits among the officers, agitation among the troops, and a considerable tendency to desert. “The fighting capacity of the army is lowered, and it is difficult at present to rely on the possibility of an advance.” Conclusion: “It is now impossible to carry into execution the active operations indicated for the spring.”

In the weeks following, the situation continues to get worse and similar testimony is endlessly multiplied. Late in March the commander of the 5th Army, General Dragomirov, wrote to General Ruszky: “The fighting spirit has declined. Not only is there no desire among the soldiers to take the offensive, but even a simple stubbornness on the defensive has decreased to a degree threatening the success of the war ... Politics, which has spread through all the layers of the army, has made the whole military mass desire only one thing – to end the war and go home.”

General Lukomsky, one of the pillars of the reactionary staff, dissatisfied with the new order, took over the command of a corps and found, as he tells us, that discipline remained only in the artillery and engineering division in which there were many officers and soldiers of the regular army. “As for the three infantry divisions, they were all on the road to complete disintegration.”

Deserting, which had decreased after the revolution under the influence of hope, increased again under the influence of disappointment. In one week, from the 1st to the 7th of April, according to the report of General Alexeiev, approximately 8,000 soldiers deserted from the northern and western fronts. “I read with the utmost astonishment,” he wrote to Guchkov, “the irresponsible reports as to the ’excellent’ temper of the army, What is the use? It will not deceive the Germans, and for us it is a fatal self-deception.”

So far, it is well to note, there is hardly a reference to the Bolsheviks. The majority of officers had hardly learned that strange name. When they raised the question of the causes of the army’s disintegration, it was newspapers, agitators, soviets, “politics” in general – in a word, the February revolution.

You still could find individual officer-optimists who hoped that everything would turn out all right. There were still more who intentionally shut their eyes to the facts, in order not to cause unpleasantness to the new government. On the other hand a considerable number, especially of the highest officers, consciously exaggerated the signs of disintegration in order to get from the government some decisive action, which they themselves, however, were not quite ready to call by name. But the fundamental picture is indubitable. Finding the army sick, the revolution clothed the inexorable process of its decline in political forms which became more cruelly definite from week to week. The revolution carried to its logical end not only the passionate thirst for peace, but also the hostility of the soldier mass to the commanding staff and to the ruling classes in general.

In the middle of April, Alexeiev made a personal report to the government on the mood of the army, in which he evidently did not hesitate to lay on colours. “I well remember,” writes Nabokov, “what a feeling of awe and hopelessness seized me.” We may assume that Miliukov was present during that report, which must have occurred in the first six weeks after the revolution. More likely indeed it was he who had summoned Alexeiev with the desire of frightening his colleagues, and through their mediation, his friends the socialists.

Guchkov actually had a conversation after that with the representatives of the Executive Committee. “A ruinous fraternisation has begun,” he complained. “Cases of direct insubordination are reported. Orders are talked over in army organisations and at general meetings before being carried out. In such and such regiments they wouldn’t even hear of active operations. When people are hoping that peace will come tomorrow” – Guchkov added, wisely enough – “you can’t expect them to give up their lives today.” From this the War Minister drew the conclusion: “We must stop talking out loud about peace.” But since the revolution was just what had taught people to say out loud what they were formerly thinking in silence, this meant stop the revolution.

The soldier, of course, from the very first day of the war, did not want either to die or to fight. But he did not want this just the way an artillery horse does not want to drag a heavy gun through the mud. Like the horse, he never thought that he might get rid of the load they had hitched to him. There was no connection between his will and the events of the war. The revolution showed him that connection. For millions of soldiers the revolution meant the right to a personal life, and first of all the right to life in general, the right to protect their lives from bullets and shells, and by the same token their faces from the officers’ fists. In this sense it was said above, that the fundamental psychological process taking place in the army was the awakening of personality. In this volcanic eruption of individualism, which often took anarchistic forms, the educated classes saw only treachery to the nation. But as a matter of fact in the stormy speeches of the soldiers, in their intemperate protests, even in their bloody excesses, a nation was merely beginning to form itself out of impersonal prehistoric raw material. This flood of mass individualism, so hateful to the bourgeoisie, was due to the very character of the February revolution, to the fact that it was a bourgeois revolution.

But that was not its only content, either. For besides the peasant and his soldier son, the worker took part in this revolution. The worker had long ago felt himself a personality, and he entered into the war not only with hatred of it, but also with the thought of struggling against it. The revolution meant only the naked fact of conquering, but also the partial triumph of his ideas. The overthrow of the monarchy was for him only a first step, and he did not pause on it but hastened toward other goals. The whole question for him was, how much farther would the soldier and peasant go with him? What good is the land to me if I won’t be there? asked the soldier. What good is freedom to me, he repeated after the worker before the closed doors of the theatre, if the keys to freedom are in the hand of the master? Thus across the immeasurable chaos of the February revolution, the steely gleams of October were already visible.


1. “Glad to try, your excellency,” was the customary reply to an order in the old army.

2. “Just so,” “in no wise,” and “I cannot know,” instead of “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know” are translations of the examples give by the author of this idiom. [Trans.]

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Last updated on: 1 February 2018