Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2
The Bolshevik Revolution As Seen Through the Eyes of the Soldiers of the Russian Expeditionary Corps in France
BEGINNING in February 1916, as a pledge for its subordination to imperialism and in exchange for war provisions, Russia had agreed to send to France two infantry brigades totalling 20,000 men. This was well below the hopes of the French High Command, who had believed it possible to draw from the ‘immense reservoir’ of Russia more than a million men. Nevertheless, France did not spare any propaganda efforts in order to show how one could rely on men such as these, on their strength, their courage, their faith in the Tsar and in God. Were these men not formidable examples for French soldiers after all?
Less than one month later, the February Revolution erupted in Petrograd. The Russian troops fighting in France, for their part, soon embarked on an open revolt against their commanders. The first soldiers’ committees emerged from two brigades, causing great fears among high-ranking officers, Russian and French alike.
Demanding their immediate repatriation, these Russian units refused to recognise any longer the authority of their ‘bloodthirsty’ officers. In order to isolate these troops from the French divisions, who had themselves began to feel deep anger and had engaged in several acts of mutiny in the aftermath of the April 1917 offensive, the Russian soldiers were ordered to head toward the La Courtine camp, which was several hundred miles away from the front.
The October Revolution occurred a few weeks after the repression ordered by France and executed by troops loyal to Kerensky against the 10,000 Russian soldiers who had mutinied after spending three months inside this camp. The assault of La Courtine camp, which called for 10,000 soldiers, the use of several batteries of artillery and ‘a really fierce battle’ spanning three days, undoubtedly left several dozen dead.
It took several long weeks for the troops to get information on the events in Russia. The French press, as well as the journals edited by the Russian High Command in France, were busy unleashing a continuous torrent of abuse and attacks against the ‘Maximalists’ who had just taken power. According to Clemenceau’s government, the Russian high-ranking officers and their penholders in France, there was now nothing but pillage, violence and anarchy in Russia. The authorities spared no effort and no means of propaganda – leaflets, cinema, speeches, ‘friendly chats’ and the use of infiltrated agents. But this was to no avail.
The correspondence of the Russian soldiers, who until their repatriation in 1919 and 1920 had been divided into several dozen working squads and camps in France and Algeria, leaves no doubt on this point. Theirs is a unanimous cry of hope that rises in the autumn of 1917 and grows and grows in the following months, despite their difficult living conditions, despite ill-health and despite repression. 
On 10 November, sources in the postal control commissions stressed that soldiers at La Courtine camp were ‘more Maximalist than ever’, and that after the Bolshevik insurrection their unrest was ‘at its highest point’. The following month, the effect of October became even greater, and among the Russian units as a whole:
The victory of the Maximalists in Russia has done nothing but enliven the revolutionary and pacifist feelings which now dominate the Russian troops as a whole. Every letter discusses politics and – save for very few exceptions – they all support the Bolsheviks. Now cries of ‘Long live Lenin!’, ‘Down with the war!’, ‘Death to the bourgeoisie!’ have become more common than ever.
The soldiers saw in this historic event an end to the world war, the distribution of land and the conquest of freedom. On many occasions, Lenin is described as a ‘hero’, as a true representative of the workers, as opposed to the ‘traitor’ Kerensky, who, it seems, is no longer merely regarded as Kaledin’s standard bearer …
In our country the hour of freedom has finally come, and it shall come here too! We are all rejoicing in the conquest of power by the veritable heroes of the revolution, by comrades Lenin, Trotsky and Krylenko. We shan’t fire another bullet on any of the fronts: the entire world is yearning for a better life.
Lenin is the only fighter for the rights of the working class. He is faithful to his ideal, and he’ll never cooperate with the bureaucracy. Kerensky accused Kornilov of being a traitor and only deserving death, but now they’ve become friends, and together they appeal to the people!
Kerensky, Kaledin and Kornilov are leading the working class to ruin, but soon we’ll free ourselves from the yoke which has crushed us for centuries. Comrades, look at things with a cool gaze. In Russia, people are fighting capitalism to protect our rights which a handful of rich individuals are trying to take away from us.
Comrades are all those who wish for peace, among the Russians as well as our allies or our enemies. Those who call for war to continue until the final victory are the bourgeoisie in every country, but who, if not the people, give their blood for it? But after the war, the peasant shall take all. Those who marched against the people in the past were Kaledin’s Cossacks, the enemies of Russia who crushed the revolution in 1905. And who are the Cossacks if not the bourgeoisie?
We need land, we need freedom and equality. We don’t need war. Our so-called enemies are people just like us. They’re not the ones living on our land. On the contrary, it is within our country that there are those who own the land, who demand from us the payment of rent and taxes and who fight against us! They are the bourgeois capitalists – it’s they who are our enemies, sucking our blood!
Any force opposed to the new rulers is identified as ‘bourgeois’, as ‘blood-sucking capitalist’.
We see the influence of workers in the support for the October Revolution seen among the Russian brigades. References abound to the ‘rights of the working class’ or to the 1905 Revolution in the letters of these men.
The profound yearning for peace by the Russian people and their rejection of nationalism, is emphatically reaffirmed in their letters throughout 1918, up to the treaty of Versailles. But beyond this opposition to war, another vision increasingly emerged, a vision of the common interests that united people. The majority of the soldiers made the ideals of the October Revolution their own. This revolution, threatened by the intervention of the Allied forces and the White armies, found in the Russians in France and Algeria some of its staunchest defenders.
Against the War, Peace Amongst People
Fight? Fight against whom? For what? Put yourself in my place, come on! If someone said to you, well ‘go and fight against your neighbour’, you’d answer, well go and look for some other idiot!
The Russians’ opposition to the war was all the more fierce during the winter of 1917, as soon as the military and diplomatic situation started to point to an imminent end to hostilities. In their letters, the soldiers repeatedly stress their wish for ‘universal’ peace:
These exertions, these tortures to which we submit ourselves – we won’t see them for what they are until we want to do so. We shall stand firm until the very end and we shall defend with our very lives the ideas of our free motherland. Long live the universal freedom of all peoples! Long live the general and democratic peace for all peoples! (Algiers, February 1918)
When shall we finally free ourselves from this militarism, which is the cause of our suffering? It crushes all people under its yoke, as if we could not all live together in peace. On this Earth there’s space for everyone! But there are some who need to get richer and richer, to oppress others. It is they who profit from militarism. People will never be happy until we continue to have soldiers in this world. (Algiers, March 1918)
The news of the peace of Brest-Litovsk strengthened considerably this wave of support for the Bolsheviks among the troops. From now on, nothing would force them to remain far away from their country or fight for much longer. It was time to go back and ‘benefit from the new freedom’:
Russia has signed a peace treaty. We are happy! Forget about the terrible butchery started by Nicholas and his court in order to have a bloodbath. Now there’ll be no more wars! The whole world must live in peace! Men don’t need to kill each other. Enough of wars! (Algiers, March 1918)
Russia has achieved peace without annexation or contributions, by her free will and that of Qurzeme [sic], Lithuania and others. The Bolsheviks have signed for peace. Yes, a little blood has been spilt, but now all is quiet. Long live the Bolsheviks! Let’s stick a bayonet in Kaledin’s belly! (Algiers, April 1918)
Russia has opened the eyes of the entire world; she has proved that she does not want any more conquests. From all corners of the globe people are extending their hand in support. She has only one enemy: the bourgeoisie. (May 1918)
The signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918 created a new impetus in favour of a generalised peace. For example, here is what a soldier wrote about the celebrations that erupted when all hostilities had ceased: ‘There were no Russian flags in the city, only Nicholas’ banner, but it’s a shame that there were no red flags, the flag of the universal proletariat.’ (December 1918)
The introduction of ‘appropriate disciplinary measures’, in other words, the arrest and solitary confinement of a certain number of ‘ringleaders’ and the general strengthening of discipline, gave the French military authorities the means with which to ‘quell the unrest’ caused by the announcement of an end to the fighting, which did not, however, lead to a growth in consciousness.
News of the German revolution of November 1918 reached these detachments only in a very fragmented way. Equally, the international negotiations and the ensuing signing of the treaty of Versailles had a very limited effect among the Russian soldiers. In the end, the civil war raging within Russia and the French propaganda for the counter-revolution exhausted all hopes for peace.
Internationalists and Revolutionaries
In the minds of the majority of the Russians kept in France and Algeria, the Bolshevik revolution would open up a new era for all peoples, and thereby put an end to oppression, war and national hatred. They lined up with extraordinary enthusiasm behind the red flag of the revolution, and the first actions taken by the new regime only strengthened their confidence with each passing day:
If in the meantime we should die, we’ll know the reason why. I’ll die for freedom, for equality, for fraternity, for the ideals for which people have been suffering for 300 years. But after carrying this entire burden, after being jeered at all this time, now they have broken their chains. Here, we too shall discard the accursed yoke and we’ll don the new red flag of labour of our great free and all-powerful Russia! (Algiers, January 1918)
Nicholas’ regime is over for us. But, until the end of our days, we’ll stand firm in our opinions. Our fate is in Russia’s hands … A great multitude will die, but this does not hold any fear for us. We know what we are doing; with all our hearts, we want to see the ideas which now rule in our dear fatherland triumph at last. (Algiers, February 1918)
The French bourgeoisie locked us up as a thank you for the blood spilt on 16 April.  They took away our committees to exile us! But it won’t matter, they’ll never capture us all. Yes, Nicholas II took a lot from us, but in the end he’ll have to pay for it! The same goes for the French tyrants – now they’re drinking our blood, but soon it will choke them. These torments only strengthen our faith, because we’re supporting a just cause, and death does not frighten us: they can oppress us, they can starve us, they can tie us to a horse saddle and make us run until we can’t breathe any longer, those blood-sucking bastards!! (Algiers, March 1918)
We have not betrayed our country, since we’ve remained firm in our beliefs. Morally we’re suffering, but this suffering is also strengthening our hearts in anticipation of the future struggle, in which we’ll conquer that freedom which you’ve already achieved in Russia. Now we are overcoming the darkness which has so far enveloped the world. (Algiers, April 1918)
In 1918–19, as in 1917, Russia – or rather the revolution – continued to be the main inspiration for the actions and consciousness of the Russian soldiers in France. They firmly linked their future to the final victory of the Bolsheviks and their ideas:
I urge you to support with all your might the Bolsheviks, or in other words Lenin. If you don’t do this, you’ll perish. (Algiers, February 1918)
Life is hard in Russia, but it’s only so in a material way. But when you’re free in your actions, you’re no longer under the yoke of an arbitrary power. Our country has taken the path wanted by its people – a path which will bring happiness to all Russians, and perhaps to the entire world. (Algiers, February 1918)
I came here on my free will; I knew what awaited me. We came here for the general ideal for which the man who is leading Russia today has himself fought. (Algiers, February 1918)
The lessons these men drew of war and the events in Russia have a universal value. Many of them point to the inequalities between rich and poor, ‘between master and subject, between the rulers and the ruled’, and just as many strongly defend their convictions:
Our mother believes that the circumstances which are forcing her to work well into her old age are a form of punishment from God, but she’s deceived herself. If God really punished men for their faults, then there would never have been so much blood spilt on Earth. These misfortunes are being inflicted upon us by gods like our own Nicholas the Bloody. Moreover, the world is also being deceived by all those priests who say to the people that there’s a God who determines what they do. These are the culprits behind the massacres that fill the earth with graves and the rivers with blood! So that all this shall not happen again, soldiers must prevent the bourgeoisie from regaining power. (Algiers, March 1918)
The Russian storm has cleansed the political air; the hour of social revolution has struck … To our flag, comrades, to our red flag!!! We are on the side of Lenin against Kolchak, we are with Béla Kun and with the people. And above all we are against the government of the bourgeois and of capitalists! (July 1919)
The great mass of workers felt themselves transported by the revolutionary wave which, spreading from Russia in 1917, was now reaching Europe. Starting in the spring of 1919, in the main they no longer felt isolated, and thought that it would not be long before people would rise up ‘everywhere’. As two soldiers stressed in April 1919: ‘Things are going well; the working class is making big strides, not only in Russia but everywhere. In other words, it is continuing its advance to freedom.’ ‘In Hungary, the Soviet and Bolshevik Republic in power will join forces with the Moscow government, forging an alliance.’
The February Revolution and the repression following the mutiny at La Courtine had made the various pro-war and patriotic speeches delivered by the representatives of the Provisional Government and the French authorities unbearable for these men. All those who henceforth opposed the war, their officers and the French regime, felt stronger in their resolve. Their evident sympathies towards certain German prisoners-of-war with whom they rubbed shoulders were now extended to men who had been victims of militarism, of a war to which they considered themselves more and more opposed, because it was a war wanted by the ‘capitalists’.
The civil war waged in Russia by the White armies against the Bolsheviks, or ‘the understanding of the concrete events in international life’, as the Dieppe postal control commission wrote, turned these feelings into a true revolutionary and internationalist consciousness, one that the French authorities could not smother. ‘The Russians are forever in the turmoil of revolutionary and anti-capitalist ideas’, concluded the Algiers committee in January 1918.
Forever, and more and more every day …
Defending the Revolution
The Russians were not unaware of the difficulties and dangers faced by the new government. In their letters, they repeated their unfailing support for the Red Army, and they revealed their fears that the old ruling class, with all its privileges, might be restored to power.
Many of the letters contain expressions like ‘Long live the federative republic of the committees’, ‘Long live the Bolsheviks! Only they can save us. Long live the democratic republic!’, ‘Long live the Soviet republic, long live Trotsky and Lenin, long live the red guards!’ ‘Let us not abandon the Bolsheviks’, wrote another: ‘It is this party which has united the entire working class, all those who struggle. Yes, long live the Bolshevik government, and long live our honourable comrade Lenin, who loves our beautiful and dear new Russia!’ (August 1918)
The soldiers saw themselves as fighting alongside the working class, alongside ‘those who struggle’ and alongside those who must face the resistance of the Russian bourgeoisie and the old propertied classes. They made the difficult fight waged by the population their own: ‘The Allies want to overthrow them [the Bolsheviks] at all costs. And if they fall, we too are lost.’ Some of them hoped that they might fully take part in the fight:
You’re telling me that Russia is being murdered. This is true, and we must save her, but not by remaining here: we must hurry back to Russia, to help our comrades to crush the bourgeoisie and stop it from drinking our blood. Enough of suffering! We need freedom, we must shake off the yoke we have been carrying around our necks and must walk in the open air and breathe freely. (March 1918)
We are like prisoners, for we don’t want to submit ourselves to our royalists and to Kornilov, because we have dared to remind them that we are men, not cattle to be sold for silver and whose existence is regarded as that of mere objects, and because we burn with the desire to return to our fatherland and fight tyranny and oppression there, until there’ll be one last drop of blood in our veins. (Algiers, April 1918)
This great determination was based on a clear perception of the stakes and the nature of the imperialist intervention in Russia. The Allies, and above all France, were vigorously denounced as ‘the gendarmes of the bourgeoisie all over the world’, who wanted to restore the ‘tyrants’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’:
Let us not soil our names by falling into a shameful slumber: our fatherland needs strong fighters, otherwise it will perish! Our enemies are boldly coveting our exhausted Russia, where freedom was conquered with the blood of our brothers. They are shaking with impatience, they are ready to rush over to our fatherland and crush her freedom under their feet! Do not lose heart, comrades! Extend your hand to your exhausted brothers for the fight against capitalism. Down with our singing press, down with all the Burtsev Draboviches  of this world, etc. … and all of those who, wherever they may be, commit this crimes against our free government of the Soviets. Long live the proletariat of the entire world! Long live the war against capital! Down with all national wars! Long live the fraternal peace of the whole world! (December 1918)
‘It will be like with this Legion, like with us at La Courtine’, wrote one of the soldiers.  ‘The Russians will march in front, maybe a thousand of them, followed by the main powers. People will say: “Look, it’s the Russians who are fighting you, we are only trying to protect them.” And to our soldiers who’ll be at the front they’ll say: “Go on and shoot, otherwise we’ll shoot you in the back from behind!”’ (January 1919)
Thousands of miles from revolutionary Russia, despite the repression with which the revolt was crushed in the summer of 1917, and despite the way that the participants were reduced for the last two years to the status of virtual prisoners of the French army, almost every soldier of the expeditionary corps rallied behind the Bolsheviks. ‘No university’, wrote one of these men, ‘has taught its students what life has taught us during our stay here.’ The February Revolution had awaken everybody’s consciousness. On this point a soldier wrote: ‘Here papers write that Russia is on the verge of the abyss, but it’s capitalism which is in danger, since the day when we started to ask ourselves who our real enemy was.’ When the Russians scattered among the various French departments and in Algeria were finally granted the right to return to Russia in 1919 and 1920, almost unanimously they asked to be sent to territories under the control of the Bolsheviks.
As for the alleged unity of those few hundred men whom the French High Command had set up with the aim of integrating them into the counter-revolutionary forces of Denikin, they mutinied after executing the officer who commanded them upon their first engagement with the Red Army.
In the specific conditions of isolation in which the living forces of the revolution were kept, in the vice of Allied censorship and propaganda, those men travelled the same path taken by the soldiers and the mass of the Russian people. As Trotsky wrote: ‘The Russian soldiers had carried this dreadful infection with them across the sea in their canvas knapsacks, in the linings of their coats, in the secret places of their hearts.’  This was formidable proof of the strength of the winds of revolution in the year of 1917.
1. The quotes that follow are taken from the archives of the postal control commissions in France and Algeria, who were charged with the surveillance and censoring of the mail belonging to the Russian soldiers in France.
2. This was the date of the appalling offensive by Nivelle, during which the Russian troops suffered terrible casualties.
3. They were the editors of the Cause Commune and the Soldat-Citoyen Russe en France respectively, the two papers circulated among the Russians by the High Command.
4. Since the attack on the La Courtine camp in September 1917, the French troops had formed a cordon of several thousand men to counteract any possible weaknesses on the part of the ‘loyalist’ troops.
5. L.D. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London 1975, p. 779.
Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011