Stalin in the Russian Civil War

On May 17, 1919, Stalin arrived in Petrograd with full powers to organize the defenses of the region against attack by General N. N. Yudenich’s army, which was advancing from the northwest. Remaining in Moscow, Lenin maintained control over the Revolutionary War Council and had direct contact with all the fronts. To Stalin in Petrograd, he sent a stream of telegrams, harrying, advising, demanding information. In a telegram on May 20, he expressed the hope “that the general mobilization of Petersburgers will result in offensive operations and not just sitting about in barracks.”

Lenin was disturbed by the speed of Yudenich’s advance. He mistrusted the commanders and the troops of the Red Army in the region. On May 27, he warned Stalin to assume treachery, and as an explanation of defeat or other failure, treachery was to become a phobia in the party. Stalin responded promptly. The Cheka was unleashed and soon claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy among employees of the Swiss, Italian, and Danish consulates. Stalin reported to Lenin that a counterrevolutionary plot in support of the Whites had been crushed and that the Cheka was investigating further. In a message to Lenin, dated June 4, 1919, he wrote: “I am sending you a document from the Swiss. It is evident from the document that not only the chief of staff of the Seventh Army works for the Whites . . . but also the entire staff of the Revolutionary Council of War of the Republic. . . . It is now up to the Central Committee to draw the necessary inferences. Will it have the courage to do it?”

Stalin himself did not escape criticism. An old Bolshevik hostile to the Tsaritsyn group, A. I. Okulov, who was the political member of the West Front Military Council, complained to the Central Committee that due to Stalin’s actions the Seventh Army was being detached from the West Front, which was under the command of D. N. Nadezhny, a former tsarist corps commander, and that it should be restored to his command. Lenin asked Stalin to comment. “My profound conviction,” he replied, “is: 1, Nadezhny is not a commander. He is incapable of commanding. He will end up by losing the Western Front; 2, workers like Okulov who incite the specialists against our kommissars, who are sufficiently discouraged anyway, are harmful, because they debilitate the vital core of our army.” Okulov was removed from his post.

Following the repulse of the White advance on Petrograd in June, Stalin was appointed to be the political member of the Military Council of the West Front, and a new commander replaced Nadezhny.

On the East Front, disagreements erupted between Vatsetis, the commander in chief, and S. S. Kamenev, the commander of the front. Trotsky supported Vatsetis, whom he had appointed, and he showed hostility toward Kamenev. On one occasion in Simbirsk, Trotsky, dressed in black leather uniform, like his personal escort, and armed with a pistol, burst into Kamenev’s office and excitedly threatened him. Later, at the instigation of Vatsetis, Trotsky summarily dismissed him.

Kamenev was liked and respected. The Military Council of the East Front formally protested to Lenin. Kamenev himself went to Moscow to put his case. On May 15, 1919, he was interviewed by Lenin, who was impressed and told him to return to his command. Lenin was usually careful and diplomatic in his dealings with his closest associates, and in overruling Trotsky publicly, he was expressing his strongest disapproval. He had been losing confidence in Trotsky’s judgment and was increasingly impatient of his bombastic behavior. He also had no high opinion of Vatsetis, who, like Trotsky, had antagonized military as well as political workers.

The climax came in July 1919. Kamenev had worked out a plan for a further advance eastward into Siberia. Vatsetis vetoed the plan. The East Front Military Council again protested to Lenin. Two meetings of the Central Committee considered the evidence and decided against Vatsetis. At a meeting on July 3, the committee reviewed and endorsed its decision. Trotsky in a fury, his pride affronted, declared that he would resign all his offices, but the committee rejected his resignation. It was decided further that Kamenev should be appointed commander in chief. Vatsetis was arrested, investigated for suspected treason, released, and subsequently given an appointment as a military instructor.

The Central Committee also reorganized the Revolutionary War Council, limiting its membership to six. Trotsky was included, but the other five members were not his supporters. He could no longer dominate the council and get his way. Deeply offended, Trotsky remained at the South Front for the rest of the summer. The Revolutionary War Council functioned directly under Lenin’s control, and more harmoniously.

Trotsky subsequently held Stalin responsible for this major reverse in his military standing. He maintained that Stalin’s antagonism toward Vatsetis was well known and that he had supported the East Front Military Council as a means of striking at Trotsky himself. It was a reflection of Trotsky’s egocentricity that he had to interpret Stalin’s actions in terms of hostility toward himself. In this conflict, however, Stalin’s views were those of Lenin and the other members of the Central Committee, and his overriding concern was the victory of the Red Army.

By the end of June 1919, A. Denikin controlled the whole of the Don region and his army continued its rapid advance. His forces had first spread across the Ukraine and south Russia and then they had pressed northward. In Moscow, Lenin became increasingly anxious about the defense of the city. Kamenev, the commander in chief, had prepared a plan, concentrating strong Red forces to make a flank attack from the east. A second plan, prepared earlier by Vatsetis, and which Trotsky subsequently claimed as his own work, proposed that the armies of the South Front strike due south against Denikin’s forces. The Central Committee had approved Kamenev’s plan.

The Red Army’s flank attack failed completely to halt the White advance. Disturbed by this failure, Kamenev reviewed his strategy and recommended that, while maintaining pressure on the enemy from the east, strong forces of reserves should be concentrated south of Moscow. The response of Lenin and the Central Committee was a striking expression of their confidence in Kamenev. He was told “not to consider himself bound by his former recommendations or by any previous decisions of the Central Committee” and that he had “full powers as a military specialist to take whatever measures he thought fit.”

On September 27, 1919, the Central Committee approved the plan to post strong reserves south of Moscow. It decided also to send Stalin to take charge of the South Front. This was a severe rebuff to Trotsky, who had been there during the months of disaster. For a short period, Stalin and Trotsky were both at the headquarters of the South Front, but apparently, they did not quarrel openly.

On October 11, 1919, Yudenich launched a surprise attack on Petrograd, and the Red Army began to fall back in disorder. Lenin considered that the city should be abandoned, for he would allow nothing to weaken the defenses of Moscow. On October 15, however, the Politburo sent Trotsky to take charge of the defenses of Petrograd. He rallied the troops and reorganized the defenses of the city, and Petrograd did not fall. Later he was to complain bitterly that in official records, Stalin had merged the first and second campaigns of Yudenich into one and “the famous defence of Petrograd is represented as Stalin’s handiwork.”

Soon after arriving at the South Front headquarters, Stalin reported to Lenin and set out the action he proposed. He criticized Kamenev for holding to his original strategy. He argued that they must “change this plan, already discredited in practice, replacing it with a major attack on Rostov from the Voronezh area by way of Kharkov and the Donets Basin.” He set out cogently his reasons and closed his report with the comment that “without this change in strategy, my work . . . will be senseless, criminal, and superfluous, giving me the right, indeed obliging me, to go off anywhere, even to the devil, but not to stay at the South Front.”

During the six months from October 1919 to March 1920, while Stalin was at the South Front headquarters and, as he boasted later, “without the presence of Comrade Trotsky,” the Red Army succeeded in crushing the White forces. Denikin had advanced headlong, exhausting his men, and leaving himself exposed to attack in the rear. His troops were driven from Orel on October 20, 1919, and from Voronezh four days later; the morale of his force collapsed. He himself lost the confidence of his officers and the support of his Cossack allies. Early in April 1920, after nominating General Peter Wrangel as his successor, he escaped into Turkey.

In the advance of the South Front’s armies against Denikin’s armies, Budënny played a conspicuous role. He was a swaggering cavalryman, brave and energetic, but limited in ability. He was tireless in pressing for the formation of a cavalry army under his command. Stalin welcomed the idea of massed Red Cavalry, but Trotsky at first opposed it. He mistrusted the Cossacks, who would be the main source of cavalrymen and who were more in sympathy with the White than the Red cause. With Stalin’s support, Budënny’s proposal was adopted, at least nominally. Trotsky changed his mind about massed cavalry and issued his proclamation “Proletarians to Horse!” Budënny and his Red Cavalry became one of the romantic legends of the Civil War.

By early January 1920, Budënny had led his cavalry to the shores of the Sea of Azov. The South Front was then divided into the Southwest Front, under Egorov’s command operating against the Whites in the Crimea, and the Southeast Front, commanded by V. I. Shorin and including Budënny’s Cavalry Army, which was renamed the Caucasian Front.

Shorin had been an officer in the tsarist army, but although nearly fifty years old at the time of the Revolution, he had never risen above the rank of captain. High command had come to him as to many others, because no one else was available in the revolutionary camp at the time. He was disliked by Budënny and Voroshilov, who schemed to have him dismissed. Stalin supported them, and was said by Budënny to have told Ordzhonikidze, recently appointed the political member of the Caucasian Front, that Shorin was to be dismissed “for adopting an attitude of mistrust and enmity toward the cavalry army.” M. N. Tukhachevsky, a former second lieutenant of the Semenovsky Guards Regiment, then in his twenties, who was later designated to succeed Shorin, was to find that Budënny and Voroshilov were unruly and undisciplined but to be handled with care because they had influential protection.

Early in February 1920, Budënny’s Red Cavalry suffered a severe defeat by the Cossacks. This reverse, indicating lack of discipline and poor leadership, disturbed Lenin. He at once sent a telegram to Stalin, signed by Trotsky, too, appointing him to the Caucasian Front to resolve whatever problems had led to the defeat. The telegram also directed him to make a journey to front headquarters to concert further action with Shorin and to transfer troops from the Southwest Front to his command.

Stalin was evidently tired and unwell. His reply was cantankerous. He stated that visits by individuals were in his view wholly unnecessary, adding that “I am not entirely well and ask the Central Committee not to insist on the journey.” He commented further that “Budënny and Ordzhonikidze consider. . . Shorin to be the reason for our failures.” He prevaricated over the transfer of troops to the Caucasian Front. When Lenin sent him instructions to effect the transfer without further delay, he replied crossly that it was a matter for the High Command to ensure the reinforcement of the front. Unlike the staff of the High Command, who were all in good health, he was ill and overburdened. Apparently, he felt that he had been in the south long enough and that he had completed his task there. Finally, on March 23, 1920, he returned to Moscow.

Stalin was allowed only a short respite. On May 26, 1920, he was ordered to join the Southwest Front. He was in Kharkov on the following day. The Red Army’s position in the south had become critical. Wrangel, who had succeeded Denikin, had restored morale and discipline among the White forces in the Crimea. He was building up the Volunteer Army to a strength of 20,000 men, supported by 10,000 Cossacks. His forces presented a severe challenge from the south.

At this time, the Poles attacked from the west, seizing Kiev and storming over the Dnieper. Their objective was to conquer Belorussia and western Ukraine, vast territories which they had lost to Moscow in the seventeenth century. The Poles were, however, wary of any alliance with the Whites, recognizing that they would hardly accept such a loss of territory to Russia’s traditional Polish enemy. The Poles were also on guard against the Soviet regime. Trotsky had publicly threatened to invade Poland as soon as the Whites had been defeated in the south.

Attacked in the south, where Wrangel made early gains, and in the west, the Red Army found itself under severe pressure. The Central Committee approved the High Command’s plan that the West Front, now commanded by Tukhachevsky, should attack in northern Belorussia to compel the Poles to move troops away from the Southwest Front. It meant giving priority to the expulsion of the Poles. Egorov, commanding the Southwest Front, and his officers disagreed with this strategy. It was for this reason that Stalin was hurriedly dispatched to his headquarters.

Within a few days of his arrival, Stalin had visited the Crimean Front and reported to Lenin. The situation gave rise to great anxiety. He had replaced the commander of the Thirteenth Army. He requested two divisions to reinforce the Southwest Front, for Egorov’s initial offensive against the Poles had failed. Lenin in his reply firmly reminded him to copy all communications on military matters to Trotsky, the kommissar for War. He also repeated the Central Committee decision that the Southwest Front should not yet embark on any offensive in the Crimea. Stalin at once protested against the refusal to send two further divisions and stressed the danger posed by Wrangel to the south. Lenin was not to be moved, however, and he confirmed the original plan.

Kamenev’s order on June 2, 1920, was that the Cavalry Army should attack the Polish positions and seek to outflank them south of Kiev. Egorov and Stalin apparently amended the line of attack in passing the order to Budënny. The effect of this change cannot be judged. The Red Cavalry attacked, forcing the Polish forces south of the Pripet Marshes to retreat hurriedly. To the north Tukhachevsky’s West Front opened its offensive early in July 1920, again compelling the Poles to fall back. By the end of the month, the Red Army had advanced across the frontier into northern Poland. A provisional Polish government was set up under the chairmanship of Dzerzhinsky. Tukhachevsky’s four armies were drawn up on the Vistula, and the capture of Warsaw seemed imminent.

Lenin was carried away by the vision of the Red Army in Warsaw and of a communist Poland giving its full support to the revolutionary movement. He felt acutely the isolation of Russia, which with all its internal problems was bearing the socialist banner alone. This vision was shared by many within the party and gave rise to a wave of enthusiasm, as members rallied to the cry “Onwards to Warsaw!” But there were realists, Stalin foremost among them, who saw the dangers of this policy. In June 1920, he wrote that “the rear of the Polish forces is homogeneous and nationally united. Its dominant mood is ‘the feeling for their native land.’ . . . The class conflicts have not reached the strength needed to break through the sense of national unity.” It was a clear warning against accepting Lenin’s facile belief that the Polish proletariat was ready for revolution.

The Politburo had, however, decided on its policy of conquering Poland in spite of the opposition expressed by Stalin and others. Stalin had hurriedly rejoined the Southwest Front which covered the southern part of the Polish lines and was at the same time on guard against Wrangel in the south. The Politburo now decided to form a special front against Wrangel under Stalin’s direction. A major part of the forces of the Southwest Front would be transferred to Tukhachevsky’s Western Front for the advance on Warsaw, and the remaining forces would form Stalin’s special front. Angered by these instructions from the Politburo, Stalin replied churlishly that the Politburo should not be concerning itself with such details. Lenin was taken aback and asked for an explanation of his opposition. In his reply, Stalin set out the organizational difficulties which the instructions entailed. Lenin was impressed by his appreciation of the situation and allowed the Southwest Front to retain its previous commitments; only three of its armies were to be transferred to the Western Front.

The basic problem was that Tukhachevsky’s Western Front was separated by more than 300 miles of the Pripet Marshes from the Southwest Front. Communications and the prompt transfer of forces over such distances were further complicated by the absence of a strong central command. Trotsky and the Supreme War Council were ignored. Kamenev, the commander in chief, issued directives but could not enforce them. The Politburo and, in particular, Lenin, acting independently, tried to resolve conflicts, but could not be sure that their instructions would be observed. Moreover, Lenin’s instructions conflicted on occasions with plans of the commander in chief. Thus Kamenev confirmed that Tukhachevsky should outflank Warsaw from the north and west and take the city by August 12, 1920. This left the large Lublin gap unprotected between the Russian forces and the Pripet Marshes. At this time, Wrangel was moving with some success, posing a threat that alarmed Lenin. On August 11, he instructed Stalin to break off operations against the Poles at Lvov and to embark on an immediate offensive to destroy Wrangel’s army and seize the Crimea. On the same day, Kamenev ordered the Southwest Front to send “as large a force as possible toward Lublin to assist Tukhachevsky’s left flank.”

At this time, it was believed that the Red Army had already won the battle for Warsaw. Stalin and Egorov were planning to send their cavalry not to Lublin, but to the Crimea, and they ignored Kamenev’s instructions. On August 13, Kamenev sent orders that both the Twelfth and First Cavalry armies would be transferred to the command of the Western Front on the following day. Egorov felt he had to comply. But Stalin refused to sign the order and sent a telegram angrily reproaching the commander in chief for trying to destroy the Southwest Front.

Tukhachevsky’s advance had been progressing slowly. But on August 16, the Poles counterattacked, concentrating on the Lublin gap, and within a few days, they had shattered the West Front. On August 19, the Politburo, including Stalin, met in Moscow, still unaware that the Poles were on the point of routing Tukhachevsky’s armies. The Politburo, “having heard the military reports of Comrades Trotsky and Stalin,” decided that the main concentration of forces should now be directed to the recovery of the Crimea.

Responsibility for the disaster was angrily debated then and later. Lenin abstained from blaming anyone, but it is clear that he himself and all the participants bore part of the blame. Lenin had been carried away by hopes of a Polish revolution and seriously miscalculated the strength of Polish resistance. Kamenev and Tukhachevsky must bear the military responsibility since they neglected to ensure protection of their flanks before advancing. Moreover, even if Stalin and Egorov had responded promptly to orders to transfer troops from their front to fill the Lublin gap, it is doubtful whether such troops could have arrived in time and in fighting condition to have withstood the Polish onslaught.

Stalin’s concern to maintain the strength of the Southwest Front was understandable. It was facing the Polish forces at Lvov, Wrangel’s army to the south, and the possibility of Romanian intervention. All were serious threats, which were causing Lenin and the Politburo anxiety, and the wisdom of detaching any of its armies to reinforce the Western Front was questionable. Rightly or wrongly, however, Stalin was undoubtedly guilty of insubordination, as on other occasions in the Civil War when he was sure that he was right. But there was also an inevitability in the defeat of the Red Army. The troops were near exhaustion. They had fought heroically on Russian soil. Now they encountered the Poles, who were defending their capital and homeland against their traditional Russian enemy, and they fought with desperate bravery.

By the close of 1920, the Civil War had ended. Wrangel, his volunteer army greatly outnumbered by the Red forces in the south, suffered a disastrous defeat. His army disintegrated, as had Kolchak’s army in Siberia some months earlier. But the Whites had been doomed to failure from the start.

Lenin and his government had been able to raise the Red Army to a strength of more than 5 million men and to ensure the supply of basic munitions. There had been failures of organization, conflicts between commanders and kommissars, and frequent confusion among the headquarters of the fronts, the High Command, and the party Central Committee in Moscow. The new Soviet leaders and the Red Army were able to rise above these obstacles, and united and fired by revolutionary zeal, they triumphed.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to penetrate the endemic confusion of the Red Army’s operations in this period and the miasma of suspicions, vicious antagonisms, and conflicting claims – many of them made later – in order to evaluate the contribution of the individual Soviet leaders to the triumph. Lenin had been in command throughout the war. He had closely followed each operation and had sent out orders, usually in the name of the Central Committee, but they were his orders. He had handled troublesome personalities, especially Stalin and Trotsky, with tact and firmness. All had accepted his supreme leadership. It was, indeed, during the years after the Revolution, and particularly during the Civil War, that he revealed greatness as a leader.

Trotsky’s prestige had greatly diminished by the end of the war. The failure of his negotiations with the Germans and the forced acceptance of the disastrous terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had damaged his reputation. He had resigned as kommissar for Foreign Affairs and become kommissar for War. In the early months of the Civil War, he had blazed across the sky like a comet. He had laid the foundations of the Red Army. A small vibrant figure in black leather uniform, he was gallant and ludicrous at the same time. At every opportunity, he harangued the troops. He was a fine orator, and very conscious of this talent. Often, as in Sviyazhsk in August 1918, his dramatic words and presence raised the morale of disheartened men, just as his ruthless punishments restored discipline. But he greatly overrated the power of his theatrical performances. Budënny wrote that to ordinary, often illiterate, soldiers he could be a strange figure with his waving arms and spate of words, most of which they did not understand. At times, his exhortations stirred them to anger. Moreover, as Lenin came to recognize, he was readily carried away by his own words, losing touch with the realities of the situation. He was also unsound in his appointments to positions of command. His stubborn support for Vatsetis had been an example. At the start of the war, Trotsky had exercised wide independent authority; by the time of the Polish War, he was to be found in Moscow and directly under Lenin’s control.

Increasingly, Lenin had come to rely on Stalin, who was in most things the antithesis of Trotsky. He rarely addressed the troops or meetings of any kind, but when he did, he spoke in simple terms. He was the realist, who coldly assessed men and situations, and was usually sound in his conclusions. He remained calm and self-possessed. He was difficult only in his antagonisms toward certain people and when his advice was rejected. While demanding that others obey orders, he himself did not hesitate on occasions to be insubordinate, for he readily set his judgment above that of others. But he learned, too, that in war, a supreme commander, exercising unquestioned authority, was essential to victory. He never forgot this lesson.

In November 1919, Trotsky and Stalin were awarded the new Order of the Red Banner. The award to Stalin was “for his services in the defense of Petrograd and for his self-sacrificing work at the South Front.” The two awards were an indication that at the time, Lenin and the Central Committee considered both men equally valuable.

In later years, when seeking every pretext to denigrate Stalin, Trotsky wrote contemptuously of his role in the Civil War. It is clear, however, from contemporary sources, including Trotsky’s papers, that he had then rated Stalin high as a military organizer. In times of crisis when party interests and the revolutionary cause transcended personal rivalries, he turned to him. During the Polish War, for example, when anxious about an attack by Wrangel from the Crimea, Trotsky recommended that “Comrade Stalin should be charged with forming a new military council with Egorov or Frunze as commander by agreement between the Commander-in-Chief and Comrade Stalin.” On other occasions, he made or supported similar proposals to send Stalin to resolve crucial problems at the fronts. Like Lenin and other members of the Central Committee, he had come to value Stalin’s abilities.

Stalin emerged from the Civil War and the Polish War with a greatly enhanced reputation. He had made mistakes but so, too, had others. To the people generally, he was still not well known. He was rarely in the public eye and, unlike Trotsky, he did not court publicity. Within the party, he was known as the quiet and incisive man of action, a leader of decision and authority. In the immense task facing the government, of reorganizing the country after the years of war and revolution, he was clearly a man who would bear special responsibilities.

The experience of the Civil War made a profound impact on Stalin. It broadened his knowledge of himself and his abilities. For the first time, he had responsibility on a vast scale, and he found that he could carry it and, indeed, was stimulated by it. But this self-knowledge came in conditions of complete brutalization. He had witnessed the bread war when villages and whole towns were wiped out in the struggle to ensure grain deliveries to the north. He had been schooled in the principle that the party’s purposes must be pursued, no matter what the cost in human lives. Now he had seen people massacred in thousands in the struggle for the survival of the party and its government. The experience implanted more deeply in him that inhumanity which was to mark his exercise of power.