13/6/1919 The pendulum swings against the Red Army in Ukraine and south Russia

With unfortunate timing, the Allies have conferred partial recognition on Admiral Kolchak as leader of Russia now that the Red Army has successfully struck back against him; his army no longer threatens to break into European Russia and overthrow the Communists.

The Bolshevik situation is less promising in the south. The Red Army had overrun Ukraine, advancing as far as the pre-war frontiers, but their overstretched forces now face revolts by forces following Nikifor Grigoriev (previously a Bolshevik ally) and the anarchist partisans of Nestor Makhno.

Soviet control of Ukraine is also being contested by Denikin‘s counter-revolutionary Volunteer Army. Bolshevik repression of the Cossacks has pushed them to revolt, which has allowed Denikin’s forces to break through and advance north. Denikin’s men have pushed back the Red Army and advanced into south eastern Ukraine, where they have in turn defeated Makhno’s anarchists. Today Kharkov falls to Denikin’s field commander May-Mayevsky, whose dissolute character does not stop him being an effective military commander.

Denikin and May-Mayevsky have certain key advantages over their enemies. The men of the Volunteer Army are highly trained and far better motivated than the Red Army’s conscripts. They also possess an abundance of cavalry and have received plenty of supplies and military equipment from the Allies, which May-Mayevsky has proved adept at using to good effect. With the Volunteer Army’s star clearly in the ascendant, further defeats for the Red Army in Ukraine look to be inevitable.

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Vladimir May-Mayevsky (Wikipedia)

22/5/1919 Riga falls to the Freikorps

German Freikorps volunteer units came to Latvia ostensibly to save the country from invasion by the Red Army. Since then however they have seized power in the country, with Freikorps commander Goltz ruling through a puppet government. The Germans have continued to push back the Soviets and today they evict them from Riga, Latvia’s capital.

Before the war Riga was an important industrial and commercial centre and had a substantial community of ethnic Germans. The intervening years have not been kind to it, with industrial activity having collapsed and the city having lost half its population. Nevertheless, to the Freikorps its capture is a triumph, calling to mind its previous seizure by the German army in 1917, when it still looked like Germany might win the wider war.

The fighting for Riga is however quite brutal. The Freikorps are incensed by the resistance they are offered by Soviet irregulars, particularly those they dub Flintenweiber: young rifle-armed women who snipe at the German troops. The Freikorps launch an orgy of violence against real or suspected Flintenweiber and communist sympathisers.

With Riga now secure the ambitions of the Freikorps are growing. Goltz begins preparations for an invasion of Estonia, intent on expanding his Baltic empire.

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Freikorps officers before the attack on Riga (Wikipedia)

Map of (confusing) Baltic situation following fall of Riga (Pygmy Wars: Latvia 1919)

28/4/1919 The Red Army strikes back against Kolchak’s Siberian Army

The Allies have been pursuing a contradictory policy towards Soviet Russia, never being entirely sure whether the Bolshevik regime is something they should seek to contain or overthrow, or whether they should accept that the Bolsheviks are not going away and instead seek some kind of accommodation with them. As a result Allied intervention forces have been landed in Russia, but forces too small to seriously contend with the Red Army. The Allies have also supplied arms to the White forces in the field against the Soviets, but never in very great quantities. And through all this they have been carrying out half-hearted attempts at negotiating with Lenin‘s representatives.

For all the efforts Trotsky has put into moulding the Red Army into an efficient fighting machine, it had looked as though the Whites might actually succeed in crushing the Bolsheviks. Admiral Kolchak‘s Siberian army successfully captured Perm at the end of last year. Earlier this month Kolchak launched a new offensive. His forces made impressive gains, helped by a peasant uprising taking place in the Red Army’s rear.

But today the Red Army launches a counterattack, led by Mikhail Frunze, formerly a Bolshevik agitator in Minsk and Moscow. Frunze’s blow shatters Kolchak’s forces. It becomes apparent that Kolchak’s army has overstretched itself and is unable to battle determined opposition. Moreover corruption and disorganisation in the Whites’ rear means that their army is badly supplied and equipped. And the Whites too face their own revolting peasants, angry at attempt to requisition food or pay for it in currency rendered worthless by runaway inflation.

In Paris, many had been hoping that Kolchak’s offensive would spell the end of the Bolsheviks. There was talk of formally recognising Kolchak’s regime as the government of Russia. Now though it is apparent there is no prospect of the Bolsheviks’ immediate collapse. Kolchak is not going to be solving the Allies’ Russian problem for them.

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Soldiers of Kolchak’s army (Wikipedia)

Mikhail Frunze and his wife, Sophia (Wikipedia)

The Bolshevik counteroffensive (Wikipedia)

21/4/1919 Poland pushes the Red Army out of Vilnius

In January the Red Army forced the Poles to withdraw from Vilna. Since then Piłsudski, Poland’s military commander, has been determined to recover the city. After a series of engagements in which the Poles successfully deceive the Soviets as to their true objective, Polish cavalry race into the city, catching the Reds by surprise. Fighting continues for a few days but by today the city is securely in Polish hands. Unfortunately the victory is then marred by assaults on the city’s large Jewish population, who are believed by many Poles to be in league with the Soviets.

Piłsudski hopes that by occupying Vilna he will create a fait accompli and ensure that the city remains in Polish hands. But he is creating problems for Poland with its northern neighbour. Vilna is known as Vilnius by the Lithuanians, and they see it as the ancient capital of their newly emergent country. Its retention by Poland will poison relations between the two countries.

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Map and Polish troops entering Vilna (Wikipedia: Vilna offensive)

18/3/1919 Red Army blues

Counter-revolutionary forces continue to pose a threat to Soviet Russia, but the Red Army has been enjoying considerable success against its enemies. Much of this is down to Trotsky‘s recruitment of former Tsarist officers, whose efforts have given the Red Army a much-needed professionalism. This policy has however led to considerable disquiet within the Communist Party. The opponents of Trotsky’s policy, a loose group known as the “military opposition”, fear that the Red Army is in danger of itself becoming a counter-revolutionary organ, led by reactionary officers and with a rank and file made up of conscripted peasants who are not true believers in socialism. Tensions boil over at the Communist Party congress now taking place, with the military opposition arguing that the Red Army needs to be brought under party control.

Lenin appeals for party unity and Trotsky is obliged to compromise. Officer training for party members is stepped up so that they will eventually be able to move into Red Army leadership positions. More crucially though is the appointment of political commissars to all units, to keep an eye on the officer corps and prevent them from deserting to the Whites or acting in a counter-revolutionary manner. This is not a role for the faint-hearted, with Trotsky stating that the commissars will be personally responsible for the performance of units they are attached to. But the commissars’ appointment makes clear that the Communist Party is asserting its control over the Red Army.

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Leon Trotsky and a Red Army officer (BBC: Reasons for the victory of the Reds in the Civil War)

Lenin and some of the 400 congress delegates (Wikipedia: 8th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks))

15/2/1919 Pogrom in Proskurov: Ukrainian Cossacks massacre Jews

Germany’s defeat has rendered the peace of Brest-Litovsk void, leaving Soviet Russia free to invade territories in the west that it had been forced to abandon. Ukraine in particular is now a zone of war as the Red Army battles against Ukrainian nationalists, other local forces and White armies seeking to overturn the Revolution. The Red Army is enjoying some success, including the capture of Kiev earlier this month. But the fighting is not all going the way of the Soviets. Ukrainian Cossack forces capture the town of Proskurov from the Bolsheviks today. Their leader then orders a massacre of the town Jewish population. His men are happy to oblige, brutally killing more than 1,500 people. Smaller atrocities of this type are occurring all across the country.

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Pogrom victims, Proskurov (The Jewish Voice – February 1919: Horror Comes to Ukrainian Jewish Community in the Town of Proskurov)

Ukraine (Wikipedia: Ukraine Offensive (1919)

9/1/1919 As the Red Army advances, Latvia seeks German volunteers

Civil war rages in Russia. In Siberia the counter-revolutionary forces of Admiral Kolchak have stormed Perm and are threatening to advance westwards. Elsewhere though the tide may be turning in the Bolsheviks‘ favour, as the increasingly powerful Red Army exploits the disorganisation and lack of unity among the Bolsheviks’ enemies. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk obliged the Bolsheviks to abandon vast territories in the west of the former Russian Empire. That treaty has however been rendered null and void by the German armistice with the western Allies. Now the Red Army is expanding into Ukraine and the Baltic States, keen to bring them back into the Russian orbit and introduce them to the delights of socialism. The Bolsheviks have captured Riga, Latvia’s capital, and have also taken Vilna (or Vilnius), which is separately disputed between Poland and Lithuania.

Fearing that the Red Army is about to snuff out their recently achieved independence, the leaders of Latvia now take a desperate step: they advertise in Germany for volunteers to come and aid them in their struggle against the Red Army. The Latvians hope that there are enough demobilised soldiers in Germany who miss the comradeship and certainties of army life, and that these men will be keen to join their struggle against Bolshevism. Whether these German volunteers will be an easily controllable force is of course another matter, but Latvia’s desperate situation obliges its leaders to offer what may prove to be a faustian pact.

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Red Army propaganda poster (The Charnel-House: Плакаты СССР- Будь на страже! (Д. Моор) 1920)