In his wonderful novel, The White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov describes the surreal life of Kiev during the spring of 1918, when the city became filled with refugees from the Bolshevik north.
Among the refugees came grey-haired bankers and their wives, skilful businessmen who had left behind their faithful deputies in Moscow with instructions to them not to lose contact with the new world which was coming into existence in the Muscovite kingdom; landlords who had secretly left their property in the hands of trusted managers; industrialists, merchants, lawyers, politicians. There came journalists from Moscow and Petersburg, corrupt, grasping and cowardly. Prostitutes. Respectable ladies from aristocratic families and their delicate daughters, pale depraved women from Petersburg with carmine-painted lips; secretaries of civil service department chiefs; inert young homosexuals. Princes and junk-dealers, poets and pawnbrokers, gendarmes and actresses from the Imperial theatres.1
Kiev was not the only city to be overrun in this way. Bulgakov's description could have been applied to almost any major city in the south. But the presence of the Germans and their puppet Ukrainian government headed by the Hetman Paulo Skoropadsky, which pledged to protect the property of the refugees and gave them employment, certainly made Kiev the place to go. Every house was filled to bursting point. Russian princes slept on floors and divans. The city had an atmosphere of frenzied excitement, with everyone living as if there was no tomorrow. People dined in vast numbers at expensive restaurants, gambled away fortunes at clubs and casinos, and indulged in wild affairs. Cafes did a brisk business selling cocktails and women. Cabarets and theatres were packed out every night, as people laughed away their fears. Shop windows were crammed with French perfumes and silks, great slabs of sturgeon and caviar, and vintage bottles of Abrau champagne with the double-headed eagle on their labels.
These refugees hated the Bolsheviks with a passion. But very few were inclined to fight them. 'Their hatred', wrote Bulgakov, 'was not the kind of aggressive hatred that spurs the hater to fight and kill, but a passive and cowardly type of hatred.'2 They muttered words of outrage as they sat in their restaurants over lunch and read about the latest horrors in the north. But they had no intention of giving up these comforts to go off to war. This was a bourgeoisie on the run.
Only the officers — the landowners' sons and students whose studies had been broken off by the war — hated the Reds with the sort of hatred that made them want to fight. These young men had fled their shattered regiments at the Front and risked their lives crossing the country to reach the cities of the south. By day, they roamed the streets penniless and unshaven; at night they slept on people's chairs and floors, using their greatcoats as blankets. This was a dispossessed generation who had nothing to lose in a civil war. Many of them had already seen their families lose their landed estates to the peasantry, or had had their own careers, their hopes and expectations, ruined as a result of the revolution. They drank too much, seethed with anger and thought only of revenge.
One of these student officers, Roman Gul', was passing through Kiev on his way to join the White Guards on the Don during the winter of 1917. In October he had received a telegram from his father: 'The estate is destroyed, ask for leave.' Since then he had been on the run from the Bolsheviks. Travelling through Russia in a third-class railway carriage, Gul' was disgusted by the malice and mistrust on the faces of the peasant troops around him. 'These are the people who smashed our old mahogany chairs,' he wrote to a friend from the train; 'these are the people who tore up my favourite books, the ones I bought as a student on the Sukharevka;* these are the people who cut down our orchard and cut down the roses that mama planted; these are the people who burnt down our home.' It was partly in order to avenge this loss that Gul', like so many young men of his class, had resolved to join the Whites. 'I saw that underneath the red hat of what we had thought of as the beautiful woman of the Revolution there was in fact the ugly snout of a pig. My heart was full of doubts and hesitations, but I convinced myself that in the end, to put all this right, one had to take responsibility, one even had to be prepared to commit the sin of murder.'3
Gul's destination, Novocherkassk, was the headquarters of the fledgling Volunteer Army led by Alexeev and Kornilov. After the Bolshevik seizure of power, and Kornilov's release from the Bykhov Monastery, both men had fled to the sleepy town on the steppe, where the Don Cossacks, thought by the Whites to be stalwart supporters of the old order, had recently elected General Kaledin as the Ataman of their traditional assembly, the Krug. Taciturn and gloomy, Kaledin was a typical Cossack general of the old school. During 1917 he had sided with Kornilov against the Soviet and at the Moscow Conference in August had called forthrightly for the abolition of all the democratic army organizations.
* A large flea-market in Moscow.
The Don Krug had declared its independence on 20 November. The basic concern of the Don Cossack leaders was to defend this, but the Volunteers had persuaded them that this could only be achieved by joining forces with them against the Bolsheviks. The latter had mobilized the support of much of the non-Cossack population in the Don — among the Russian peasants (inogorvdnye), the industrial workers and the sailors of the Black Sea Fleet — for an offensive against Rostov, the major city of the Don. Hence, to begin with, Kaledin welcomed the arrival of the Volunteers — a mere forty officers, calling themselves Alexeev's Organization — on 17 November. His own forces had been fast disintegrating, as the younger and more radical Cossacks, who were in no mood to fight the Reds, returned from the Front and began to campaign against his leadership. Many local Cossacks were afraid that the presence of the Volunteers might make Novocherkassk, the Don capital, a target for the Bolsheviks. Because of this Cossack mistrust of the Whites, Alexeev's officers had had to be hidden in a hospital at first. But as the Reds approached, and it became clear that the Don could not be defended without their support, Kaledin was able to deploy them without serious Cossack objections. At the beginning of December the Red Guards finally captured Rostov. Kaledin imposed martial law and called on the Volunteers to retake the city (his own Cossacks had refused to fight). Alexeev's army, which by this stage had grown to a force of some 500 officers, was quite sufficient to defeat the more numerous but hopelessly indisciplined Red Guards. The six-day battle began on 9 December — St George's Day, the patron saint of Russia. It was the first major battle of the civil war.4
The battle for Rostov was typical of the fighting that characterized the first twelve months of the war (October 1917 to September 1918). There were no fixed 'fronts', as such, since neither side had enough men or channels of supply, and the movement of the fighting was extremely fluid. Large towns could be captured by tiny armies hardly worthy of the name. Most troop movements were by rail, and for this reason these early confrontations have become known as 'the railway war'. It became a question of loading a handful of men and some machine-guns on to a train and moving off to the next station — which would then be 'captured' along with the town. The 'fighting' in these battles was often farcical, since many of the rank-and-file soldiers, especially on the Red side, were reluctant to fight at all (many of them had only joined up in order to get an army coat and a daily ration of food). It often happened that the opposing sides would unexpectedly run across each other in a village or some small town and, after a meeting, would agree to retreat rather than engage. The Red soldiers, in particular, would often run away in panic as soon as the first shots were fired; and although the Whites, as 'volunteers', had many fewer problems of this sort, there were many occasions when their officers were also forced to use terror against their own troops. On both sides, officers played down the failures of their men, whilst exaggerating their 'successes', in their operational reports. As Trotsky once complained, every town was captured, or so it was claimed, 'after a fierce battle'; while every retreat was 'only as a result of the onslaught of superior forces'. These absurd aspects of the civil war were best captured by Jaroslav Hasek in his comic novella The Red Commissar. Its Schweikian hero orders his troops to retreat to the left when his lines are broken on the right. He then sends a telegram to headquarters announcing a 'great victory' and the encirclement of the Whites.5
The growth of the Volunteer Army was largely due to the charismatic presence of General Kornilov. He and his followers had fled from the open jail at the Bykhov Monastery after Dukhonin had lost control of Stavka to the Bolsheviks in November. Since this ruled out the possibility of bringing down the Bolsheviks from inside Soviet Russia, and indeed put themselves at risk of execution, the Bykhov generals resolved to flee to the Don. Most disguised themselves and travelled by train through Bolshevik Russia. Lukomsky shaved off his beard and spoke in a German accent; Romanovsky masqueraded as an ensign; Markov as a common soldier. Denikin pretended to be a Polish nobleman and travelled third class: it was here that he witnessed for the first time the 'boundless hatred' of the common people for 'everything that was socially or intellectually higher than the crowd'. Proud as ever, Kornilov, however, refused to hide his identity and instead led his loyal Tekinsky Regiment on a forced march through hostile Bolshevik terrain. They were finally stopped and engaged in battle by a Red armoured train. Kornilov's white horse was shot from underneath him. He managed to escape, and reassembled most of his troops, but they were already too demoralized to go on, and Kornilov, realizing that he could make it only without them, decided to abandon them and complete his journey alone disguised as a peasant. Ironically, he travelled to the Don in a Red Guards' train.6
Novocherkassk, which Gul' reached on New Year's Eve, was a microcosm of the old Russia in exile. St Petersburg on the steppe. The fallen high and mighty thronged its muddy streets. 'Here were generals, with their stripes and epaulettes, dashing cavalry officers in their colourful tunics, the white kerchiefs of nurses, and the huge Caucasian fur hats of the Turkomen warriors,' recalled Gul'. Numerous Duma politicians had come to try and direct the White movement: Miliukov, Rodzianko, Struve, Zavoiko, G. N. Trubetskoi, N. N. Lvov, even the SR, Boris Savinkov. Leading intellectuals also made the Don their home, both in the physical and in the spiritual sense. Marina Tsvetaeva, whose husband, Sergei Efron, was one of the first to join the Volunteers, wrote a series of poems, The Swan's Encampment, from her Moscow garret, in which she idealized the rebels on the Don as the 'youth and glory' of Russia:
White Guards: Gordian knot Of Russian valour. White Guards: white mushrooms Of the Russian folksong White Guards: white stars, Not to be crossed from the sky. White guards: black nails In the ribs of the Antichrist.
'White Guards', 27 July 19187
For Tsvetaeva, as for so many of her class and background, the Don represented the last hope of saving Russian civilization. It was, as she expressed it, the last dream of the old world'.
In Novocherkassk the official clock ran on St Petersburg time — an hour behind local Don time — as if in readiness to resume the work of government in the tsarist capital. Nothing better symbolized the nostalgic attitudes of the Whites. They were, quite literally, trying to put back the clock. Everything about them, from their tsarist uniforms to their formal morning dress, signalled a longing to restore the old regime. In later years, looking back on the civil war, all the most intelligent people on the White side, whether in south Russia or Siberia, acknowledged that this identification with the past was a major reason for their defeat. For however much the leaders of the Whites might have pledged their belief in democratic principles, they were much too rooted in the old regime to be accepted as a real alternative to the Bolsheviks; and this was even more true of the White officers and the local officials who came into contact with the ordinary people and formed their image of the White regime. Astrov, the Kadet who joined the Volunteers, wrote in 1920: 'We, with our dated ploys, our dated mentality and the dated vices of our bureaucracy, complete with Peter the Great's Table of Ranks, could not keep up with the Reds.' Shulgin, the Nationalist, wrote in 1919: 'The counter-revolution did not put forward a single new name ... That was the main reason for our tragedy.' Struve, writing in 1921, stressed how this 'old regime psychology' had prevented the Whites from adopting the sort of revolutionary methods essential to win a civil war:
Psychologically, the Whites conducted themselves as if nothing had happened, whereas in reality the whole world around them had collapsed, and in order to vanquish the enemy they themselves had to undergo, in a certain sense, a rebirth . . . Nothing so harmed the 'White' movement as this very condition of psychologically staying put in previous circumstances, circumstances which had ceased to exist. . . Men with this 'old regime' psychology were immersed in the raging sea of revolutionary anarchy, and psychologically could not find their bearings in it... In the revolutionary storm that struck Russia in 1917, even out-and-out restorationists had to turn revolutionaries in the psychological sense: because in a revolution only revolutionaries can find their way.8
It was his dislike of this restorationism — and his wounded leg — which prevented Brusilov from coming to the Don, despite several appeals by his old friend Alexeev. While Brusilov was clearly sympathetic to the Whites, he was convinced that their cause 'was doomed to fail because the Russian people, for better or worse, have chosen the Reds'. There was no point, as he explained to a friend in early April, in trying to put the clock back. 'I consider the old regime as having been abolished for a very long time.' Kornilov's war against the Bolsheviks might have been, as he put it, 'brave and noble', but it was also a 'stupid act' that was 'bound to waste a lot of young men's lives'. No doubt there was a hint of his own dislike for Kornilov in this. But there was also a sense of resignation that made Brusilov reject a civil war — as if, in his mind, the revolution had been planned by God and was part of a divine comedy whose end was not yet clear. As a patriot, Brusilov thought that it was his 'duty to remain on the people's side' — which meant taking no side in the civil war, even if this also meant betraying his own social class and ideology. Meinecke's dictum of 1919 — 'I remain, facing the past, a monarchist of the heart, and will become, facing the future, a republican of the mind' — might just as well have been Brusilov's.9
The Volunteer Army was an officers' army. That was its major problem: it never succeeded in attracting the support of the civilian population, not even of private soldiers. When Kornilov was first shown the list of volunteers, he exclaimed in anger: 'These are all officers, but where are the soldiers?' Of the first 3,000 volunteers, no more than a dozen were rank-and-file troops. There has never been such a top-heavy army in the history of warfare. Captains and colonels were forced to serve as privates. Major-generals had to make do with the command of a squadron. Constant squabbling over the command posts caused terrible headaches for the General Staff. Senior generals refused to serve under younger officers promoted strictly on merit; monarchists refused to obey commanders opposed to the Tsar. Some refused to serve below the rank they had held in the imperial army, thinking it beneath their dignity. The cafes were full of these idle officers. They dubbed the Volunteers 'toy soldiers'. Pride in their previous rank and status overcame their desire to fight.10
Even the two men at the head of the movement could not stop themselves from petty bickering. Kornilov had been given the command of the Volunteer Army, while Alexeev was placed in charge of political and financial matters. But the division never really worked and both men got in each other's way. Relations became so bad that routine communications between them had to be made through messengers, even though their offices were next door to each other. The atmosphere was poisoned by their continuous squabbles, as Roman Gul' discovered when he tried to enlist at the army's offices in Novocherkassk. Unaware that the enlistment bureau was run by Alexeev's supporters, he named a relative of Kornilov as one of his referees. 'The ensign made a grimace, shrugged his shoulders and said through his teeth: "Look, he doesn't really belong to our organization." ' It was only later that Gul' learned of the 'covert struggle and the secret war between the two leaders'. The split had less to do with ideology than with tactics, style and personal rivalry. Both men had accepted the February Revolution and had pledged to restore the Constituent Assembly. But Kornilov was hostile to the Kadet politicians — and indeed to all politicians — whom Alexeev courted. He also favoured bolder tactics — including terrorism inside Soviet Russia — than the conservative Alexeev. 'Even if we have to burn half of Russia and shed the blood of three-quarters of the population, we shall do it if that is needed to save Russia,' Kornilov once said. Alexeev and the senior generals looked upon Kornilov as a rabble-rouser and a demagogue, who had only risen to the rank of general after the February Revolution. Yet it was precisely this image of the 'self-made man' — an image which Kornilov had cultivated — that made him the idol of the junior officers. It was a clash between the old tsarist principles of seniority and the mass politics of 1917.11
As an army of Russian officers, the Volunteers were always bound to have a problem with their Cossack hosts. The White leaders had made the Don their base because they had presumed the Don Cossacks to be stalwart supporters of the old order. But this owed more to nineteenth-century myths than to twentieth-century realities. In fact the Cossacks were themselves divided, both on regional and generational lines. In the northern districts the Cossacks were smallholders, like the local Russian peasants, and generally supported the ideas advanced by the younger and more democratic Cossack officers for a socialist republic that would unite them with the peasantry. The northerners resented the southern districts, both for their wealth and for the pretensions of their elders to speak for the territory as a whole. The younger and war-weary Cossacks from the Front — influenced by the officers risen from their ranks — were more inclined to find some accord with Bolshevik Russia than to fight against it. Thus it was really only in the southern Don — where the Cossacks were more wealthy and more determined to defend their historic landed privileges against the demands of the Russian peasants for land reform — that the Cossacks were prepared to fight the Bolsheviks. Most of the Cossacks of the northern Don, by contrast, rallied behind the Military Revolutionary Council in Kamenskaia led by the officer, Philip Mironov, who had organized the Don Cossack revolt of 1905—6. Mironov's aim was an independent socialist republic uniting the Cossacks with the Russian peasants. But in effect his MRC was to serve as a fifth column for the Bolshevik troops as they invaded the Don from the eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, in the Don's industrial cities the mainly Russian workers, who were generally supportive of the Bolsheviks, staged a number of protest strikes against the presence of the Volunteers. The workers massacred suspected supporters of the Whites — which in effect meant all the burzhooi — while the Whites carried out equally savage reprisals, putting out the eyes and cutting off the noses of hundreds of strikers. In short, there was a spiral of increasing terror as the cities of the Don descended into civil war.
To a growing number of the local Cossacks, all this appeared to be an alien conflict imported from Russia. The younger Cossacks who had spent the past three years at the Front were especially hostile to the idea of fighting for the Whites. So there was a growing split between Cossack fathers and Cossack sons, as the readers of Sholokhov's novel And Quiet Flows the Don will recall, and Kaledin's forces fell apart as the younger Cossacks turned their backs on war. The defence of the Don was thus left to the Volunteer Army and a dwindling number of mainly older Cossacks who remained loyal to Kaledin. Without proper supplies or finance — the Rostov middle classes were reluctant to support the Volunteers — they had little chance of holding off the Reds.12
On 8 February, six days after a workers' uprising in the city, the Reds captured Taganrog. They were now less than fifty miles from Rostov. Kaledin's government was doomed. The Volunteers, seeing no reason to sacrifice their army in the defence of Rostov, prepared to abandon it and march south to the Kuban, where the Cossacks, worried by the Red advance, might be persuaded to join them. Kaledin resigned as Ataman. The same day he shot himself. Ten days later, on 23 February, the Red Army captured Rostov for the second time in three months. Novocherkassk, the Don capital, fell on the 25th. With the conquest of the Don, the Soviet control of Russia was virtually complete. Only the Kuban remained as a major pocket of resistance. Lenin pronounced the civil war over. But in fact it had only just begun.
The Ice March, as the Volunteers' retreat from the Don to the Kuban came to be known, was the heroic epic of the Russian civil war.* The drama of the Ice March became a legend among the Whites and was later retold in countless emigre memoirs. This was the defining moment of the White movement, the moment when the Volunteers became a real army, as if their very survival, against all the odds, bound them together and gave them a strength that far transcended their actual numbers.
On 23 February, as the Soviet forces entered Rostov, Kornilov led off his Volunteers, some 4,000 highly trained soldiers and officers, armed with no more than a rifle each and a few cannons, across the frozen steppelands of the Don. They marched in single file, a thin black line in the vast snow-covered steppe. Their long civilian tail — bankers, politicians, university professors, journalists, nurses and the wives and children of the officers — slowed them down. This was the bourgeoisie of Rostov on the run. They preferred this cruel journey to staying behind and running the risk of falling victim to the Bolsheviks. The Ice Marchers marched by day and night avoiding the railways and the settlements, where the population was likely to be hostile. The wounded and the sick were left behind. Many of them shot themselves rather than run the risk of being captured by the Reds.
General Lukomsky, whose group separated from the main column, was taken captive by the Russian villagers of Guliai-Borisov and brought before a Revolutionary Tribunal. Lukomsky tried to convince the villagers that he was a travelling businessman, but this was hardly likely to win him any friends, and they called for the burzhooi to be shot. But Lukomsky was able to escape in the confusion, when just before his scheduled execution the villagers beat to death two Volunteers and began to fight among themselves for their boots. Whilst waiting to be executed, Lukomsky had seen his own grave being dug, and had taken some cyanide pills which he had had with him since his imprisonment in the Bykhov Monastery. Luckily for him, they had no effect.13
The deeper the Whites moved into the steppe, the more they resorted to terror against a hostile population. Their Ice March left a trail of blood. It was perhaps unavoidable, given the Volunteers' desperate need for food and the reluctance of the peasants to give it to them. The Whites were stranded in a Red peasant sea. But there was also an element of sheer class war and revenge in their violence, as in so many acts of the White Terror, which was a mirror image of the class resentment and hatred that drove the Red Terror. Terror lay at the heart of both regimes. The Whites were the avengers of those who had suffered at the hands of the revolution. As Wrangel later wrote, 'we had not brought pardon and peace with us, but only the cruel sword of vengeance'. Most of the officers were landowners' sons, who, like Gul', had lost their inheritance to the peasantry. They had every reason to seek vengeance — not just against the despised peasantry but against the 'Bolshevik' Jews and intellectuals who had stirred them up. One of the worst White atrocities during the Ice March took place in the village of Lezhanka. It was inhabited by Russian peasants well known for their revolutionary sympathies. Roman Gul' watched in horror as his fellow officers brutally slaughtered sixty peasants, many of them old men and women, in a reprisal for the Red Terror in Rostov. Hundreds of peasants were stripped bare and whipped while the Volunteers stood around and laughed. Gul' met one poor peasant woman — she cooked him breakfast in her hut — who had lost her husband and three sons. All of them had been shot as 'Bolsheviks'. This was a rude disillusionment for Gul', who had joined the White movement under the illusion that it was fighting for democratic ideals betrayed by the Bolsheviks. He began to wonder if 'the Whites were in fact any better than the Reds'.14
* There was nothing to compare with it on the Red side — except perhaps the long march of the Taman Army, trapped by the White forces in the Taman Peninsula, during August and September 1918. This epic story formed the basis of Serafimovich's famous novel The Iron Flood. The Taman Army had a heroic status under the Soviet regime. All the more ironic, then, that Yeltsin should have used it to bombard the parliament building in October 1993.
After several weeks wandering across the steppe, fighting off the Reds with their last ammunition, Kornilov ordered the Volunteers to attack Ekaterino-dar, capital of the newly established North Caucasian Soviet Republic. On 23 March they had been joined by the Kuban Army, some 3,000 Cossacks led by General Pokrovsky, which had fled Ekaterinodar and somehow stumbled across the Don marchers in the nearby Circassian Hills. At a surreal summit meeting in the hillside village of Shendzhii, with all the formal protocol of the old regime, Kornilov and Pokrovsky united their armies for the recapture of the Kuban. On 10 April, Kornilov, acting as the overall commander, ordered the combined force of 7,000 men to begin the attack on the capital. They met fierce resistance from the Reds, some 18,000 troops in all. Kornilov soon realized that the siege was doomed to fail, threatening the destruction of the whole army, yet still refused to retreat. That, after all, was not in his nature. 'If we do not take Ekaterinodar,' he told Denikin on the 12th, 'there is nothing left for me to do but to put a bullet through my head.'15
In the event, Kornilov did pay with his life for his suicidal venture. Early on the following morning a chance shell landed a direct hit on his farmhouse headquarters, burying him in the rubble.* General Denikin, who immediately took over the command, tried to keep the news of his death from the men. Kornilov, to them, was not just a commander, but the very symbol of their cause, and it was bound to shatter their morale at this critical point in the battle. The great White hero was buried in a modest churchyard in the village of Elisavetinskaya. But the Reds later found the grave and carried off his rotting corpse to Ekaterinodar, where they paraded it through the town before burning it in the main square.
* The Reds later claimed that they had been informed of the whereabouts of Kornilov's headquarters by a defector from the Volunteers.
Ironically, Kornilov's death was probably the salvation of the Whites. Had he lived, he would undoubtedly have ordered a final attack on Ekaterinodar, which was almost bound to end in complete defeat. The night before his death, he had refused to heed the advice of his generals to leave the farmhouse, which had been heavily shelled for several days, because it was 'not worth the trouble; tomorrow we'll begin the final assault'.16 Denikin, who had never been keen on the idea of the siege, ordered the army to retreat quickly to the north, leaving behind some 200 wounded to speed up their march. If the Reds had made a serious effort to pursue them, instead of dancing on Kornilov's grave, they might have won the civil war there and then. But the Volunteers were allowed to flee back to the Don, from where they had launched their grim march. Four thousand set out and at least that number returned. More importantly, they came back with their fighting spirit strengthened.
* * * The Don to which they returned had, in the ten weeks of their absence, been terrorized by the Bolsheviks. The Don Soviet Republic managed to achieve what Kaledin had always tried but failed to do — to turn the Cossacks against the Reds. After the Bolsheviks captured Rostov, the Red Army rulers instituted a reign of terror over the Don. Soviets were imposed on the Cossack settlements and foodstuffs were requisitioned from them at gunpoint. Punitive levies were extorted from the burzhoois and hundreds of hostages were shot at random. The Red Guards, retreating from the German advance towards Taganrog and licensed by the Bolsheviks to 'loot the looters', roamed through the stanitsas, or Cossack settlements, reaping bloody havoc. Churches were attacked, priests were executed. One priest had his nose and ears cut off, and his eyes pulled out, in front of the worshippers at an Easter service.
The result was a wave of Cossack uprisings — as much out of fear of what the Reds might do as anger at what they had already done — starting in the villages near Novocherkassk. These had always been the richest in the Don and were thus the most exposed to requisitioning and the terror. The Cossacks were driven to revolt by the image of the 'Bolsheviks' as the incarnation of all their worst fears and prejudices about ethnic outsiders and the Russian state. Each stanitsa had its own insurgent army, usually organized by the officers and equipped by the Cossack farms. During April these converged on the stanitsa of Zaplavskaya, near Novocherkassk, where there was a strong force of officers and men, to prepare for the liberation of the capital. By the end of April, they had 10,000 cavalrymen. With the Reds distracted by the German advance from Taganrog to Rostov at the start of May, the Cossacks retook Novocherkassk without serious resistance from the exhausted Reds. There they elected a Krug for the Salvation of the Don, led by General Krasnov, their new Ataman, who had led the expedition against Petrograd to restore Kerensky's rule during the October Days.17
Krasnov looked every inch the Cossack Ataman. He came from a famous Cossack family and, being a great impresario of the 'Cossack cause', often played on this lineage. He had been a journalist before the war, and later, in exile, he would make a living as a novelist. Both personae were available to Krasnov the politician. There were no bounds to his historical imagination. He filled his speeches with archaic terms, designed to create the illusion of an ancient Cossack nationhood stretching back to the Middle Ages. By focusing on the glories of the Cossack past, he aimed to unite the Cossacks around the idea of their struggle against the Bolsheviks as a war of national liberation. It was a fancy-dress nationalism, based more on myth than on history, but it was powerful all the same. The All-Great Don Host', a title which had not been used in official documents since the seventeenth century, was restored on Krasnov's orders. The personal rule of the Ataman, as well as the Cossacks' rights and privileges over the non-Cossack population (now condemned as 'Bolsheviks' to a man), were upheld by the Don Krug's Basic Laws. It was a kitsch attempt to return to the Cossack Golden Age of Russian fairy tales. Public buildings hung out the Cossack flag; schoolchildren were ordered to sing Cossack hymns; there was even a special Cossack prayer.18
With the Cossacks in control of the Don, supported by the Germans to the west and the Volunteers to the south, the stage was set for the anti-Bolshevik forces to consolidate their military hold over the whole of the region; this they did between May and August.
By the middle of June, Krasnov's Don Army numbered 40,000 soldiers. It was armed by the Germans in exchange for Cossack wheat. With the Reds stretched on the Volga, it successfully completed the reconquest of the Don and created buffer zones in the north towards Voronezh and Tsaritsyn. Meanwhile, the Volunteer Army was reinforced by the arrival of 2,000 troops from the Romanian Front led by Colonel Drozdovsky. It was now in a position to launch a new offensive: but in which direction? Alexeev and Krasnov both wanted Denikin to strike north towards Tsaritsyn on the Volga: Alexeev to link up with the Czechs and the Komuch forces further up the Volga in Samara; Krasnov to lift the threat on the Don from the Red forces based in Tsaritsyn. Had this been done, the combined forces of the Volunteers, Krasnov's Cossacks, the Czechs and the Komuch might have won the civil war by advancing on Moscow from the vital bridgehead of the Volga. But Denikin stubbornly refused and marched his Volunteers southwards into the wilderness of the Kuban steppe. He wanted to strengthen the White rear by building up an army of Kuban Cossacks. By doing so he missed a vital opportunity to link up with the other anti-Bolshevik armies. Krasnov's Cossacks attacked Tsaritsyn on their own later in the autumn; but they could not take it. By the time Denikin finally reached the Volga, during the following summer, his eastern allies were in full retreat and the chance to combine forces had passed for ever.
On the face of it, the Volunteers should never have had the slightest chance of victory in this Second Kuban Campaign. There were only 9,000 of them, as opposed to 80,000 Reds at the start of the campaign in June. But the Reds were cut off from their depots in the north, surrounded by a largely hostile population, and as a consequence their conscript troops were demoralized. The Volunteers, by contrast, were highly disciplined and spurred on by the memory of the Ice March. One-third of their troops at the start of the campaign were exiled Kuban Cossacks fighting for the liberation of their homelands. This proportion grew as the Volunteers advanced into the Kuban, where the local Cossacks, who had suffered under the Reds, either joined the Volunteers or formed their own detachments to fight alongside them. On 18 August, after several weeks of fighting, they finally captured Ekaterinodar. The Reds fled south to Piatigorsk, in the Caucasian mountains, while the Whites extended their control throughout the northern and western Kuban. By November, they had seized control of Stavropol too. From a tiny force of officers during the Ice March, the Volunteers had grown to an army 40,000-strong with a rich territorial base the size of Belgium from which to launch their crusade against the Bolsheviks.19
* * * General Denikin could not have expected to find himself supreme ruler of these territories. He had only been the Volunteers' commander since Kornilov's death — and Alexeev had remained the political leader of the movement. 'Alexeev's Army' was how the Volunteers were still known. But Alexeev was a sick man, and he died in October, leaving Denikin the undisputed military and political leader of the counter-revolution in the south. The constitution of the Volunteer Army, drawn up after the occupation of Ekaterinodar, gave him the powers of a military dictator: Kornilov's dream had been realized at last. But Denikin was no Kornilov: he lacked the character to play the part of a Generalissimo; and that partly explains the Whites' defeat.
Denikin was a military man: he came from a soldiers' family, and had spent all his life in the army. Politics was a foreign country to him, and he approached it from a narrow military perspective. The Academy of the General Staff had not encouraged him to think beyond the three basic articles of faith: Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationalism. 'For the officers', he recalled, 'the structure of the State was a preordained and unshakeable fact, arousing neither doubts nor differences of opinion.' The experience of 1917 — which taught him that the army fell apart when it dabbled in politics — strengthened Denikin's apoliticism. It bred in him, as in many officers, a contempt for all politicians. He wanted, in his own words, to keep it immune 'from the wrangling politicians' and to establish his 'own programme on the basis of simple national symbols that could unite everyone'.20
The constitution served Denikin's aim. This verbose charter was a triumph of form over content, full of legal ideals that were quite impracticable in a civil war. It was, in short, just what one would expect from a constitution written by the Kadets. It promised everything to everyone; and ended up by giving nothing to anyone. All citizens enjoyed equal rights; yet 'special rights and privileges' were reserved for the Cossacks. The state was governed by law; yet there were no legal limits on Denikin's dictatorship (they called him 'Tsar Anton'). None of the basic political issues facing Russia was confronted seriously. What form of government should it have? Was the Empire to be revived? Were the rights of the landed gentry to be restored? All these questions were buried in the interests of the military campaign.
Perhaps this was understandable given the divisions at Ekaterinodar. A multitude of groups and factions, from the Black Hundreds on the Right to the radical democrats on the Left, vied with each other for political influence over the White movement. None had a base of popular support; yet all strove for a 'historic role'. They bickered with each other and played at politics. The State Unity Council and the National Centre were the only two groups with any real influence, sharing the posts in Denikin's government. The former was monarchist and denied the legitimacy of the February Revolution. The latter was Kadet and pledged to restore the Constituent Assembly. It is little wonder that Denikin chose to avoid politics. He saw himself surrounded by scheming politicians, each trying to pull him in one direction or another. He tried to steer a middle course, keeping his pronouncements open and vague so as not to offend anyone, and increasingly withdrew into his own narrow circle of right-wing generals — Romanovsky, Dragomirov and Lukomsky being the most crucial — where the main decisions were made. The Special Council was a sorry phantom of a government. It rubber-stamped decisions already taken by the generals, and buried itself under paper decrees on such vital matters as the postal service or the minute details of finance and supply. Much of its time was taken up with the burning question of whether schools should use the old or the new orthography — and of course it opted for the old spelling. Senior politicians, such as Shulgin and Astrov, would not demean themselves with such work; and their absence from the Special Council downgraded its effectiveness even further.21
During the early days this neglect of politics did not seem to matter.
It was enough to place the military campaign before everything else, and to concentrate on promoting vague national symbols as an alternative to the Reds' propaganda. But later on, when the Whites could aim not just to conquer Russia but also had to try and rule it, this neglect of politics became a disastrous weakness. Their politics lost them the civil war, at least as much as their reverses on the battlefield.
The White leaders — and this applies to Siberia as much as it does to the South — failed to adapt to the new revolutionary world in which the civil war had to be fought. They made no real effort to develop policies that might appeal to the peasants or the national minorities, although the support of both was essential. They were too firmly rooted in the old Russia. The vital importance of propaganda and local political structures passed them by almost completely: dominated by the narrow outlook of the army, they could not understand the need for mass mobilization in a civil war. It was not until 1919, and then only on the Allies' insistence, that the Whites began to devote any real resources to their own machinery of propaganda. And even then the whole thing was approached in a low-key and amateurish fashion compared with the brilliant propaganda of the Reds. OSVAG, Denikin's propaganda agency, was originally set up within the Department of Foreign Affairs: it saw its main aim as to convince the Allies, rather than the Russian people, of the merits of the White cause, and very little of its material ever reached the factories or the villages. It was grossly under-financed and under-valued by the White leaders, not least because it opposed their Rightist views, and for this reason the generals often claimed that it was staffed by 'draft-dodgers', 'socialists' and 'Jews'.22
The Whites, in short, failed to understand the nature of the war in which they were engaged. They assumed that it could be fought in the manner of a conventional nineteenth-century conflict: by placing the army above politics. Yet this was to ignore the basic fact that in any civil or total war the ability of the armies to mobilize the population's resources in the territories which they occupied was bound to determine the outcome of the struggle. Their capacity to do this was precisely a question of politics: terror alone was not enough; it was also a question of tapping mass support or at least exploiting mass opposition to the enemy. This was especially so in the major campaigns of the Russian civil war (in 1919) when both the Reds and the Whites grew from small partisan forces to mass conscript armies which depended on the mobilization of the peasantry and its resources. For neither side could count on the peasantry's support, and they were both weakened by desertion and peasant revolts in the rear which were attributable as much to political failure as to military exactions.
The Whites failed to develop a viable politics for the task of democratic mobilization. On the major policy questions — land and nationalities — they drew up voluminous but non-committal bureaucratic projects for future debate. Everything was put off until the Constituent Assembly had been reconvened; and then, under the pressure of the Rightists, the Constituent Assembly itself was postponed. The Whites could not free themselves from the bureaucratic customs of the old regime. They adopted a dead and legalistic approach to a revolutionary situation that cried out for bold popular reforms. They saw themselves as the representatives of the old Russian state in exile and postponed all politics until military victory had returned them to the old capital; they never understood that victory itself was dependent on forging a new type of state.
* * * One of the Volunteers' most pressing problems was their relationship with the Cossacks. The White generals were Russian centralists. But the Don and Kuban Cossacks both wanted to establish independent states. They even sent their own unofficial representatives to the Versailles Peace Conference in an unsuccessful effort to get the backing of the Western Powers. Given their military dependence on the Cossacks, the Whites should have tried to placate them. Yet they never even came close to satisfying their demands. They looked on the Cossacks as ordinary Russians and dismissed their nationalism as the work of a few extremists. The Kuban government, led in the main by chauvinists and demagogues, flexed its muscles in an effort to behave like a sovereign power. It banned Russian immigration to the Kuban, closed its borders to exports, and took control of the railways. Such actions were a constant thorn in the side of the Volunteers. To keep the army fed and equipped, the Whites were forced to requisition foodstuffs from Cossack settlements, riding roughshod over the local organs of self-rule, all grist to the mill of the Cossack national leaders.
Perhaps the Whites' intransigence was a blessing in disguise: the Cossacks' nationalism in action was not a very pretty sight. The Kuban Cossacks drove out thousands of non-Cossacks (mainly Russians and Ukrainians) from their farms and villages, expelled their children from the local schools, and murdered many hundreds of them as 'Bolsheviks'. The Krug even debated the idea of driving all the non-Cossacks out of the Kuban altogether.* It was a sort of 'ethnic cleansing' based on the idea that the Cossacks were a superior race to the non-Cossack peasantry. The Cossack leaders frequently expressed the opinion that their people were the only Russians of any value and that all the rest were 'shit'. The Krug did nothing to stop the persecutions. In one village a group of Cossack soldiers seized the school mistress, an immigrant Russian who had taught the local Cossack children for over twenty years, and beat her to death.
* One Cossack delegate thought this was too kind and said it would be better simply to kill all the non-Cossacks.
None of her Cossack neighbours tried to save her. The Whites had an obvious interest in protecting the non-Cossacks: they represented 52 per cent of the Kuban population. If the Cossacks were left to their devices, the others would be driven into the arms of the Reds. Yet the Whites' intransigence on Cossack independence merely fanned the flames of this racial hatred and led to the steady worsening of relations with the Kuban government. If only the Whites had made some gesture towards the idea of Cossack autonomy, albeit conditionally upon the defeat of the Reds, they might have stopped the rot. But they failed to seek a compromise. Trapped in the nineteenth-century world of the Russian Empire, they were as insensitive to the national aspirations of the Cossacks as they were to all nationalisms other than their own.23
The Kuban Cossacks were just as unsuccessful in their campaign to establish an independent army. From a military point of view, this would have been disastrous for the Whites, for the Kuban Cossacks made up most of their troops and virtually all of their cavalry. The Don Cossack Army, moreover, which was independent, was hardly an encouraging example. Its loose detachments, each organized by a separate Cossack settlement, were outside the control of the central command. They fought bravely to defend their own local homelands but were reluctant to move away from them. This became a critical problem as the Whites advanced into central Russia during 1919. The Cossacks did not much care who ruled in Moscow so long as they were left to themselves. 'Russia is none of our business' — thus Denikin summed up their attitude. The failure of the Don Army to take Tsaritsyn, despite a two-month siege at the end of 1918, had already shown the limits of the Cossacks' morale outside their homelands. Once they were let loose on Russian peasant soil, they were always inclined to degenerate into looting; and in Jewish settlements they often indulged in pogroms. This was to be a major reason for the White defeat: the plundering and violence of the Cossack cavalry in 1919 did more than anything to rally the population of central Russia behind the Reds. It was also why Denikin resisted Cossack demands for an independent army. He would not even consider separate Cossack units.24
The Whites manifested the same inflexibility towards the demands of the national minorities. A Russia Great, United and Indivisible' was the central plank of their ideology. Without any clear social alignment, the Whites relied on the idea of the Russian nation and the Empire to draw together their disparate elements. Their imperial policies owed as much to the ideas of the Kadets and the Octobrists as they did to the values of the old regime. Miliukov and Struve now defended a Great Russia as firmly as the most reactionary monarchist. This commitment to the Russian Empire was a fundamental weakness in the White movement, because its armies were based mainly in those territories (the Ukraine, the Caucasus and the Baltic) where the non-Russian population favoured at the very least more autonomy and perhaps complete independence from Russia. The Whites failed to see that a compromise with these national aspirations was essential if they were to build a broad base of support among the non-Russian peoples. Instead of making the nationalists their allies, they turned them into enemies.
As an army staffed mainly by sons of the gentry, the Volunteers were even more at odds with the peasants. Although himself the son of a former serf, Denikin never saw the vital need to accept the revolution on the land if his army was to conquer peasant Russia. The Whites assumed they could win the civil war without the support of the peasantry; or, at any rate, they seemed to think that the whole question of land reform could be put off until after victory. Their view of the civil war — that its outcome would be decided by military force alone — ruled out the need to present popular policies as part of their campaign. Not that their agrarian policies could ever have been popular: the dominance of the landowning class among Denikin's followers made it impossible for the Whites in south Russia to advance a programme on the land capable of winning mass peasant support. The two commissions set up by Denikin to make proposals for land reform both stressed the sale of the gentry's surplus land (and then only three years after the end of the civil war) but ruled out any compulsory expropriation. This was basically the minimalist Kadet land programme of 1917. It refused to recognize the fact of the rural revolution and continued to defend — probably as much preoccupied with the sanctity of the law as with the interests of the gentry — the formal property rights of the landowners. Statisticians calculated that if a programme was introduced on the basis of the commissions' proposals, the peasants would have had to give back three-quarters of the land they had seized from the gentry since 1917. Thus the vast mass of the peasantry had every reason to oppose the Whites.25
All the more so, since Denikin's armies and his local officials were notorious for helping the squires to reclaim their land in the territories which they reconquered. The policy was often justified on the grounds that gentry-farmed estates were more productive, but this was a flimsy excuse for the restoration of the old order. In any case, most of the land returned to the ownership of the gentry was rented back to the peasantry (usually at a fixed rate of one-third of the harvest). The system of local government in so far as there was one, as opposed to military rule and terror, was turned over to the local squires and the former tsarist police and officials acting in the name of district captains. The inescapable conclusion was that the Whites were seeking to restore the discredited local apparatus of the old regime. The district captains, for example, were remarkably similar to the tsarist land captains, who had ruled the villages like petty tsars. There were several cases of the same land captains returning as district captains to their former fiefdoms, where they took savage revenge on the villagers executing and flogging their leaders. The efforts of the liberals to restore the volost zemstvos met with stiff resistance from the Rightist elements in Denikin's regime on the grounds that this would undermine the status of the local nobility. The worst form of the gentry's reaction — that which had opposed the volost zemstvos under Stolypin — lived on at the heart of the White regime. As Denikin himself acknowledged, the rural power holders under his regime may have had the advantage of experience:
but in terms of their psychology and world-view, their customs and their habits, they were so far removed and alienated from the changes that had taken place in the country that they had no idea how to act in the new revolutionary era. For them it was a question of returning to the past — and they tried to restore the past both in form and spirit.26
This failure of the Whites to recognize the peasant revolution was the reason for their ultimate defeat. Denikin himself later admitted as much. It was only in 1920, after their failure to penetrate into the rural heart of central Russia, that the Volunteers finally confronted the need to appeal to the peasants; but by then it was too late. Whereas land reform was the first act of the Bolsheviks, it was the last act of the Whites: that, in a peasant country, says it all.
* * * In November 1918, with the end of the fighting in Europe, the civil war entered a new phase. The rupture of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty after the German defeat and the retreat of German troops from the Baltic, the Ukraine and the Crimea gave the civil war armies the chance to step into the vacuum left by this withdrawal.
The Volunteers had every reason to be optimistic. With the defeat of the Germans, they expected the Allies to increase their support for the White cause in the south. Until then, the Allies had looked at the civil war from the sidelines. Their main interest had been in the north and in Siberia, where they had been hoping to resurrect a Russian army to continue the war against Germany. A few hundred British marines had occupied the Arctic ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk to defend Allied military stocks. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk they had even become involved in minor skirmishes against the Reds. German occupation of the Ukraine and their control of the Black Sea had made it difficult for the Allies to get military aid to the Volunteers. But all that had now changed. The Allies recognized Denikin as the main White leader in the south and pledged material support, including twelve divisions, to help occupy the Ukraine. They also promised the Volunteers the Allied military supplies left behind by the Russian army on the Romanian Front — if only they could get their hands on them. The height of this wave of euphoria came on 23 November, when an Anglo-French fleet sailed into Novorossiisk. General Poole and Lieutenant Erlich disembarked and were met by vast cheering crowds. They assured them that Britain and France were committed to the same goals as the Volunteers. Everyone expected the Whites to march triumphantly on Moscow, now that the Allies were on their side. They had defeated the mighty German armies; it would surely be a simple task for them to see off the Bolsheviks. Such optimism was further strengthened by the rise of Admiral Kolchak on the Eastern Front.
In fact the promise of Allied aid turned out to be empty. The involvement of the Western powers never amounted to much in material terms and always suffered from a lack of clear purpose or commitment. Western public opinion was divided between the Reds and Whites, while most of those in the middle, weary after four years of total war, were opposed to sending more troops abroad. Most of the Allied politicians were not sure why they should get involved in a foreign civil war now that the World War was over. Many of them knew very little about Russia — Lloyd George, for example, thought that Kharkov was a general rather than a city — and, as always in international matters, ignorance bred indifference. Some politicians, such as Churchill, wanted to launch a Western crusade against Communism, but others feared that a White victory would result in a strengthened Russia with renewed imperial ambitions, and preferred to see Russia Red but weak. The Western leaders wavered schizo-phrenically between these two views. They could not decide whether to make war or peace with the Soviet rulers — and thus ended up doing both. With one hand they gave military aid to the Whites; with the other they tried to force them into peace talks.*
As so often in these situations, Western policy was one of drift. Once the British gave aid to the Whites, France and the other imperial powers quickly followed suit. It was like a poor man's game of poker: none of the players wanted to be left out of the bidding, since the prize (influence in Russia) was much too great, but none of them would play with very high stakes. The result was that all the major powers (Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Japan and the United States) despatched only small forces — just, as it were, to keep their hand in.
* In January 1919 President Wilson and Lloyd George agreed terms with the Bolsheviks for a peace conference on the island of Prinkipo, just off Constantinople. The Bolsheviks offered to honour Russia's foreign debts, to make minor territorial adjustments and to suspend hostile propaganda against the West — although this was later explained by the Soviets as a diplomatic manoeuvre. The White leaders would not have anything to do with the conference. They felt betrayed by the Allied suggestion that they should come to terms with the Reds. Churchill and the French backed them. The conference never convened, but Wilson continued peace talks with the Bolsheviks. William Bullitt, his principal foreign policy adviser, was sent on a secret mission to Moscow. Bullitt was favourably impressed by the Soviet experiment and recommended a separate peace, but this was scotched by the British and the French.
The intervention never reached the threatening level later claimed for it by Soviet historians. It was just enough to keep the Whites from defeat but insufficient to give them a real crack at victory. Denikin's forces, for example, received a few hundred khaki uniforms and some tins of jam during the first months of Western aid. British soldiers and tanks arrived in the spring, followed by the French navy, which landed at Odessa. Almost immediately, the sailors mutinied — they had no stomach for a war against the Reds who were at that time advancing on Odessa — and the French ships had to be evacuated.
Because the Whites were getting such meagre aid, Petliura's Ukrainian nationalists were the first to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the German forces from the Ukraine. They were soon forced out of Kiev and pushed deep into the Western provinces by the Reds invading from the north. But the Reds in turn had only a weak hold over the Ukraine, which sank deeper and deeper into chaos. The Bolsheviks' policies in the countryside met with widespread resistance from the peasantry, who rallied to the local nationalists, to the various Green armies that hid out in the woods and to Makhno's anarchists. Meanwhile, the Whites were rallying their own forces. The withdrawal of the Germans had deprived Krasnov's Don Army of its main protector and exposed its left flank to the Reds who were advancing from the Ukraine. The Don Army had already been stretched by its winter campaign against Tsaritsyn. It was falling apart, its Cossacks deserting in droves as the Reds advanced. Krasnov was forced to seek Denikin's aid, knowing that the White leader would demand the subordination of the Don Army to his own command. With the Allies backing Denikin, there was little else that Krasnov could do. On 8 January the Don Army was finally merged with the Volunteers. They were now called the Allied Forces of South Russia — although in reality they were anything but a unified force.
The counter-revolutionary armies of the south were now under the command of men committed to a national campaign. During the following spring they were to break out of their Cossack homelands and occupy south Russia, most of the Ukraine and even threaten Moscow itself. In the process their forces were to grow and develop into a mass conscript army dependent on the recruitment of the peasantry. This was the root of their ultimate downfall: their neglect of politics had not prepared them for the tasks that now confronted them in ruling these newly conquered territories.