Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Fourth International, February 1943


Olga Petrova

The USSR: The Civil War Heroes Go


From Fourth International, vol.4 No.2, February 1943, pp.56-58.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


A sound-proof wall separates us from Soviet Russia. No news arrives. It is impossible to take seriously the information supplied by foreign correspondents. So far as the Soviet press is concerned, it is so uniform and dull that one can gather nothing from it no matter how diligently one reads.

Suddenly, against this background of dullness and uniformity, Pravda published a play by Andrei Korneichuk, The Front. This is unprecedented! Never before have plays been printed in Pravda. If an exception is now made and a play is printed in its entirety – each of the four issues of Pravda from August 24 to August 27, 1942, devotes a full page to it – then this is, of course, not done for nothing. The play has obviously been written by special order; special importance is attached to it and it is indeed quite interesting.

As is usually the case with Soviet plays, two sets of heroes are represented in Korneichuk’s piece. There are on the one hand virtuous types, people of the new “Stalinist” formation – and they are, of course, the positive heroes. On the other hand there are – the former participants of the civil war: the “negative heroes” who allegedly bear the responsibility for the defeats of the USSR.

The principal hero of the play is General Ivan Ivanovich Gorlov, commander of a front, former worker and hero of the civil war. To be sure, he is a brave man – this is conceded even by his enemies – but he lacks adequate military education and refuses to learn. According to his views, in war “the chief thing is attack. To stun and to destroy, one must be audacious. The most important thing in an army leader is his soul. If the soul is bold, brave, aggressive, then nobody is to be feared ... There must be action without discussions. I am not in the habit of sitting long in a cabinet and wracking my brain over maps. War is not an academy ... War is risk and not arithmetic ... The chief thing is to seek out the enemy and beat him down wherever he is located. There must be action without discussions.” Such is Gorlov’s standpoint according to the play.

His brother Miron is an administrator, the director of an aviation plant. He is seven years younger and is a typical representative of the people of the new formation. He holds that “we still have many commanders who are uncultured, who don’t understand modern warfare, and therein lies our misfortune. War can’t be won by bravery alone. For winning the war, one must in addition to bravery possess the ability to wage war, and wage it in a modern way. One must learn how to wage war in a modern way,” But Miron does not succeed in convincing his brother.

In general, they cannot understand each other. The play opens with a dispute between them over the problem of supplying the army with planes. Gorlov confronts Miron with the charge that the administrators fail to supply the front with a sufficient number of planes. But Miron replies that they have now finished experiments and will shortly supply the army with planes of such speed that “Goering will burst from chagrin.” To Gorlov’s remark that “you had better bother less with speed and, above all, supply us with more. The Germans have so many planes;” Miron replies with the following philippic:

“Drop that little song, we know all about it, we’ve heard enough of it from your brotherhood. Enough. To the devil with it ... Some of our military strategists have been yelling for years: give us more planes, speed is a secondary thing, what matters to us is quantity. And we civilians used to listen until our eyes popped out of our heads ... If we had continued to listen to such strategists, we would have perished, the Germans would have picked us off like sparrows ... Believe me, no other aviation industry in the world could have been reconstructed as swiftly as ours was, but this cost us great efforts. Thanks to these efforts we now have the most modern and speediest planes ...”

This extremely interesting dialogue lifts the veil from the dispute between the military men and administrators which took place prior to the war and during the first months of the hostilities.

As an efficient administrator, Miron holds that what is necessary is to work more, talk less and not waste time on such trivialities as handing out decorations. He pokes fun at the fact that Gorlov has just received his fourth decoration. “By the time the war ends, there will probably be no longer any place where to hang them ... That’s your General’s trade. Either your chests are all hung with medals, or your faces are all black and blue. It is true, you and your kind don’t get enough black eyes, we as a rule get the most ... Were I in the government’s place, I’d give you less decorations and more black eyes, and such good ones as could be seen by everybody.” Miron keeps so busy that he even contrives “not to notice” how Stalin looks: he had an interview with Stalin and made his report to him, but there was a great deal to do, he remembered all of Stalin’s questions and advice, but “did not get a chance to take a good look at him.”

One of the most interesting conversations takes place between Miron and Gaidar, a member of the Military Council. (Gaidar, as befits a member of the Military Council, actually sides with the “positive people,” but not wishing to spoil his relations with Gorlov he countersigns the latter’s orders. For this he later “gets it” in Moscow, realizes his mistake and “corrects himself.”)

“I am a civilian:’ said Gaidar. “Before the war I was on civilian work. But I also find it hard. It is necessary to know military arts but they are not the same as in the civil war. Everything has become very complex ... He [Gorlov] has had the experience of the civil war and has authority among the commanders. He wages war as best he can.”

Miron gets indignant: “He wages war as best he can ... But when will the war be waged as it should be – how soon will that be? ... It is very difficult and costs much too dearly to keep waiting.”

Miron insists on the appointment of young and talented men, but Gaidar replies: “Unfortunately, this still plays the chief role among our highest commanding staff. No matter how talented a young commander might be, if they had not participated with him in the civil war, they refuse to recognize him. One has to argue and remonstrate so much.”

“Why not stop arguing and remonstrating,” says Miron, “you should proclaim a war against ignoramuses and ignorance in military matters.”

Gaidar’s answer is that “you can’t do this during war ... Things are a bit more complicated in war ... A sharp turn here might break up things ... Other methods are necessary. After all, the enemy is on our territory. In order to free the land, one must put up with people worse than your brother.”

This makes Miron explode: “Why? Don’t you recall the conditions in industry? In the beginning many factories and trusts used to have as directors old, deserving and authoritative comrades who kept boasting about their calloused hands and who had husky throats and used strong language but who didn’t know and didn’t want to know the necessary technique and who were unable to run the factories. At every step they would rattle on about their poor man’s origin but they refused to learn, refused to broaden their old knowledge through new experience, And what happened? The factories operated badly because almost everywhere were sitting ‘authoritative’ and self-complacent ignoramuses. If the Central Committee of the party had not made a sharp turn and placed engineers, technicians, men with knowledge at the head of the enterprises, then the workers would have unquestionably said: To hell with you together with your old and ‘authoritative’ people, if you can’t run things. This is a fact. And no matter how loudly the ignoramuses yelled, no one supported them. The people love and demand only those leaders who possess knowledge and wisdom.”

The Purge of the Older Generation

Miron thus appears as a representative of the people and demands an immediate purge of the army. In the name of the workers he tells his brother just before leaving:

“You know, brother, one should not fool himself and the government. You can’t and won’t be able to command a front. This is over your head. These are different times. During the civil war you did your fighting almost without artillery and the enemy likewise had little; you fought without aviation, without tanks and without a serious technique such as now exists and which must be understood, must be known as you know your own five fingers ... But you know little or nothing at all. Why don’t you go away yourself. Please, understand. After all, we are building machines night and day for the front. The best machines in the world. And what for? In order that the bigger half is destroyed because of your lack of ability, because of your backwardness. ... What can I say to the workers when I return to the factory? Or to the engineers? After all, they have not left their departments since the first day of the war. They are heroes ... I can’t hide from them that their precious labor and our rich technology is being used by you at the front ineptly and without the necessary knowledge.”

Miron’s heart yearns for Gorlov as a brother but is repelled by him as a commander. Miron is revolted by Gorlov’s entourage which consists of his former comrades-in-arms of the civil war. They are all workers “old, honest but a little weak” – as one of the “positive” heroes characterizes them. They are all depicted as subservient and sycophantic to Gorlov, drinking with him and flattering him. All that one hears from them is that Gorlov’s health is precious to the entire country; that he is a genius and a great army leader, etc., etc. They refer with contempt to the new heroes: “We are workers, heroes of the civil war – they are upstarts.” And so on and so forth. They nauseate Miron. “Lord almighty!” he exclaims, “men will there come an end in our country to fools, ignoramuses, sycophants, nincompoops, wheedlers? ... It is necessary to beat up these self-complacent ignoramuses, beat them bloody, beat them into a pulp and replace them as quickly as possible with different, new, young, talented people. Otherwise our great cause can be ruined.”

These new, young and talented people are represented in the play by Ognev, an army commander. The author does not succeed at all with this type who emerges unalive, unreal. After all, this could not have been otherwise, for Ognev has to embody all the positive traits without a single flaw or even a human frailty in his makeup. He is still young; naturally, did not participate in the civil war; his rank at the beginning of the war was that of colonel; within three months he was promoted to major-general, and shortly placed in command of an army; he has had a serious military education and keeps spouting quotations from von Moltke and Suvorov. Thanks to his vigilance it is possible to prevent a whole number of mistakes committed by Gorlov which would have resulted in a terrible catastrophe if not for Ognev. The latter speaks with unconcealed contempt about the former heroes of the civil war. He considers them “short-sighted people” who “upon reaching power preen themselves and love only to ‘instruct’ and curse others. And they absolutely want to straighten out other people’s brains with a cudgel.”

Ognev is in constant conflict with Gorlov, maintaining that the latter’s orders are ill-considered and harmful. Gorlov’s orders lack thought. Ognev says: “Everything is approached with ‘hurrah,’ with ‘maybe,’ as if the enemy were a fool or asleep. How can one surround the enemy in this way? ... A circle is drawn with a compass and we are told: Gallop onwards, boys, close in from two sides ... We succeeded because of the courage of the fighters and the heroism of the middle and lower ranking commanders. The warrior conquered despite orders which placed the troops in the most disadvantageous conditions.”

Gorlov and his entourage have all the human failings: they love to drink and to spend time in company, etc., whereas Ognev is akin to Superman. With a wound in his head and later another in his arm he continues to work. He never thinks of himself but only of his duties and his fighters. For example, the head of the political department reports to him that “the agency of the enemy has raised its head in the third battalion, discussions of an unhealthy sort are being carried on ... They say that the commander of the battalion is a real blue-blood and so is the political director. These two have got themselves a cook of their own and devour food for five while the kitchen for the fighters stinks to hell. The fighters beat up the cook because he kept on cooking muddy soup.”

Ognev immediately dictates the following order: “State the facts briefly but clearly and then forbid all commanders to sit down to eat untiI the fighters have been served.” Even when he finds the body of his father among those tortured to death by the Germans, he refuses, despite the proposal of Kolos [1], to postpone even for a minute an interview with a major who had been sent by Gorlov.

The “old men” – the heroes of the civil war – and the “young men” speak different languages. For example, one of the commanders complains about Khripun, the head of communications and one of Gorlov’s men. Khripun – who is depicted as a revolting flatterer – fails to supply the commanders with radios. The complaining commander says: “That’s the way things are! You can get nothing although the warehouses are filled to bursting. Everybody waits until he is taken by the throat, and the harder you squeeze, the better, and when you squeeze so that their eyes begin to pop out of their heads, then they give, and they praise you besides.”

Ognev becomes most indignant over the fact that reconnaissance is placed on a completely false basis by Gorlov and that according to reports of partisans, Gorlov’s information is completely false. But Gorlov snarls at this and is bold enough to say: “This partisan of yours told you a pack of lies. They always lie a lot and do very little.” The conflict over reconnaissance keeps growing sharper and finally leads to an open clash between Blagonravov, the chief of staff, and Udivitelny, the head of reconnaissance and one of Gorlov’s old comrades-in-arms. They quarrel bitterly and Blagonravov tells Udivitelny that he had been decorated by mistake and that he should be deprived of his honors “with plenty of noise and publicity in the press.” Thereupon Udivitelny phones the party-cell and inquires about Blagonravov’s social origin. Learning that the latter is the “son of a deacon,” Udivitelny makes preparations to bring charges against Blagonravov.

The Triumph of the “Young”

As was to be expected, the conflict between the “old men” and the “young” ends with the triumph of the latter. Gorlov is removed by order of Moscow and Ognev appointed in his place. The entire action takes place in 48 hours. The play begins with Gorlov’s receiving his fourth decoration for military achievements and concludes by his removal from his post. Gorlov’s removal is, of course, entrusted to Gaidar, the member of the Military Council, who, to be sure, on his arrival in Moscow “got it so hard that I’ll remember it all my life” for failing to take a sufficiently firm position toward Gorlov, for not acting as “a real party leader,” for working amiably with Gorlov, for having “countersigned, sealed and argued but not spoiled relations.”

On handing to Gorlov the order for his removal, Gaidar says: “You are a brave man and devoted to our great cause. This is very good and you are respected for it. But this is not enough for victory over the enemy. For victory it is necessary besides to know how to wage war in a modern way; it is necessary to have the ability to learn from the experience of modern war and the ability to nourish new young cadres and not to repel them. But you, unfortunately, lack this ability. Of course, knowledge, the ability to wage war – this is something one acquires. Today, you can’t wage war, today you don’t possess enough knowledge but tomorrow you can get them, together with the ability to wage war as well as the necessary knowledge. But all this provided, of course, there is a strong desire to learn, to learn from the experience of war, to work over oneself and to develop. But you lack precisely this desire. Can the old army leaders develop and become experts of the methods of modern warfare? Of course they can. Not less but even more so than the young – but on one provision, namely, that they have the desire to learn from the experience of war. Provided they do not consider it a disgrace for them to learn and to develop further. But the whole trouble with you, i.e., with certain old army leaders, is that you do not want to learn, you are sick with self-complacency and think that you are learned enough. That is your chief defect, comrade Gorlov.”

Just before leaving, Gorlov remarks: “You’ll be sorry but it will be too late.”

Gaidar replies: “Don’t try to frighten us. Bolsheviks are not the scary kind. We have no irreplaceable people. Many have tried to frighten us but they have long been lying on the garbage heap of history.”

After fulfilling the order issued to him, Gaidar immediately proceeds to straighten out other matters. He orders the immediate departure of Krikun, the special correspondent of a newspaper in the capital. This correspondent had already written 105 articles from the front. His writing is hackneyed and banal and supplies information about things of which he himself knows nothing, and he remains absolutely unconcerned whether what he writes is true or not. He says: “Were I to write what I saw I couldn’t write every day. I’d never be so popular.” He was, of course, protected by Gorlov who held that the “people must know how we are fighting and how many heroes we have.”

Gaidar also drives out Khripun, the head of communications, and the rest of Gorlov’s men and then transmits to Ognev “on instructions from Comrade Stalin” the order appointing him as commander of the front. Ognev says: “But why? After all, I am so very young.”

Gaidar reassures him: “Stalin says that it is necessary to advance more boldly to leading positions young and talented army leaders alongside of the old army commanders. It “is necessary to advance those who are capable of waging war in a modern way and not in the old manner. “It is necessary to advance those who are capable of learning from the experience of modern war, those who are capable of developing and advancing.”

What Stalin Is Doing

It is clear from this play that Stalin is replacing the old workers, the heroes of the civil war of 1918-20, with his own people. As is his custom, he seeks for those men at the switch upon whom he can unload the responsibility for his own mistakes. This time they are the military communists of the old formation. He is making them responsible for the defeats at the front.

But inasmuch as these “old men,” by admission of Stalin’s own “young men,” possess authority in the army and are loved, valued and highly regarded, Stalin had to apply a new tactic. It was impossible, for instance, to follow the fashion of former years and proclaim them to be fascist agents or mere wreckers. He had to proceed more cautiously. For this reason, these “old men” are endowed with all the human frailties and are on this occasion depicted as living people and not as emanations from hell. The task assigned to the author is quite clear: to justify the purge of last winter – the action takes place in January, the play itself appeared in August – and to do this without trampling the former heroes of the civil war into the mud. It is obvious that Stalin dares not as yet resort to sharper measures.


1. Kolos is a commander of a cavalry group. He participated in the civil war but is one of the “positive” types. He completely supports Ognev despite the ties of old friendship with Gorlov. “Dear Ivan Ivanovich,” he says to Gorlov. “we went through the entire civil war together; we began together and we shared joy and sorrow together and I am ready to lay down my life for you. But truth stands above everything. And truth is on the side of Major-General Ognev.”

Top of page

Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Last updated on 25.8.2008