The Russian Revolution in Ukraine
Chapter 22: Battle with Cossacks, negotiations, and an agreement
It was January 8 1918 and it was cold. Towards evening a fine snow began to fall presaging a slight thaw. Our combat units occupied their positions and dug trenches. We communicated by telephone with the Cossack commanders and arranged to name delegates who would meet half-way between the stations of Kichkass and Khortiz to establish clearly what each side wanted from the other.
Our delegation was composed of two commanders from Bogdanov’s group, from the detachment of sailors – Comrade Boborikin, from the detachment of Aleksandrovsk anarchists – Maria Nikiforova, and from the revolutionary peasantry of Gulyai-Pole rayon and the Gulyai-Pole Anarchist Communist Group – myself.
Around 6 p.m. we travelled by locomotive to the appointed place. To meet us approached a locomotive with one wagon carrying the delegates of the Cossack units. This delegation was composed of both officers and rank-and-file Cossacks. But the rank-and-filers didn’t say anything. The officers did the talking. They spoke arrogantly, sometimes even with swearing. In particular, there was a lot of swearing when Comrade Boborikin declared that we would not allow them to pass through Aleksandrovsk with their weapons.
We spent a good hour jawing at each other and who knows how long we might have continued if the Cossacks had not declared outright that they didn’t need any permission from us to cross the Kichkass Bridge and pass through Aleksandrovsk.
"We are," one of their delegates told us, "18 echelons of Cossacks from the Don and Kuban-Labinsk regions, and six or seven echelons of haidamaks of the Central Rada." [The haidamaks supposedly came from Odessa and hooked up with the Cossacks in transit with the goal of penetrating to the left bank of the Dnepr to engage in a struggle there against the "katzaps".]
Hearing this bold declaration, which was accompanied by filthy language, our delegate replied: "In that case, we’ll take off. Our negotiations are finished. We, the representatives of the peasants, workers, and sailors, see in your attitude the desire to provoke a bloody, fratricidal struggle. Bring it on! We’ll be waiting!"
We immediately left their wagon and our locomotive carried us back to our lines. The Cossack delegation returned to their side.
Returning to our positions, we told our fighters that our parley with the Cossacks had led to nothing, that we could expect an attack at any minute, and that we must intensify the reconnaissance efforts of each unit and of the line of defence as a whole.
Then we sent a party down the track about one kilometre in the direction of the Cossacks and detached the rails in two places. When everyone had returned, it was about 1 a.m. and we anxiously awaited the attack of the Cossacks.
The night was overcast. The light snow which had been falling all evening was changing to rain.
Now it was already 2 a.m. The rain was coming down harder. The enemy had not showed himself and probably had decided to wait for dawn. Many fighters, sprawled in the trenches which they had just dug, talked among themselves. But the old soldiers from Gulyai-Pole said to them: "Don’t be fooled, Comrades, the Cossacks will try to take advantage of this bad weather by out-flanking us and seizing the Kichkass Bridge and Aleksandrovsk."
Many laughed. But their laughter soon stopped because shortly after 2 a.m. our scouts reported they heard blows striking the rails. That was an advanced reconnaissance of the Cossacks which had reached the dislocated rails. They were checking the railway line to find out what state it was in.
Ten or 15 minutes later we heard a locomotive huffing and puffing.
"They’re coming," was whispered all through our units.
"Keep quiet!" other voices whispered.
Our nerves were on edge. We were shivering.
"War – is a nasty business," said our fighters to each other.
I crouched down next to two of them and continued their thought:
"Yes, my friends, war is very nasty, we all know that but we still have to take our part in it.
"But why, why? Tell us Nestor Ivanovich," they insisted.
"So long as the enemies of our liberty have recourse to arms in order to fight us," I continued, "we are obliged to answer them in kind. Now we see that our enemies have not renounced arms. But at the same time they know well that the toilers no longer want to be paid servants but demand to be free, secure from any kind of forced labour. It would seem that this is enough.
Our enemies, the pomeshchiks, owners of factories and plants, generals, bureaucrats, merchants, priests, jailers, and the whole pack of cops hired to protect the pillars of the tsarist-pomeshchik regime – need to understand this and not try to block the path of the toilers who are trying to complete their work of revolutionary liberation.
Not only do they not want to understand, these parasites try to win over a certain number of state-socialists and, working with these class traitors, they invent new forms of authority to prevent the toilers from winning their rights to a free and independent life.
All these idlers do nothing, they don’t produce their own needs but try to have everything they want without working. They want to run everything, including the lives of the toilers and always – this is their characteristic – at the expense of the toilers.
Consequently they are responsible for this war, not us. We are only defending ourselves but that, my friends, is not enough. We can’t limit ourselves to defence, we also must go over to the attack. Defence is fine if, having overthrown Capital and the State, we were living in abundance and liberty, if wage slavery had been replaced by equality, and if our enemies were arrayed against us with the goal of crushing us and reducing us to slavery again. But in a situation where we are still reaching towards our goal, we must plan to attack our enemies ourselves.
Defence is closely linked with offence, but it also involves our brothers and sisters who are not fighting in the front lines but are carrying on with broadening and intensifying the ideals of the Revolution, which you, my friends, wrongly call war. In this sense the work of defence acquires its true character and justifies all the blood spilled by the combatants in the destructive phase of the Revolution; for this work consolidates the achievements of the Revolution without deforming their character or significance."
At this moment was heard a shout: "Machine gun section – fire!"
This command was addressed to a detachment with 16 to 18 machine guns which had followed our reconnaissance troops and set up their guns at a bend in the railway where they would face the approaching echelons of the enemy. (I did not approve of such a wasteful use of machine guns but at that time the Red Guards had three times as many machine guns as they needed so they weren’t considered valuable which is why these guns were moved so far in advance of our line of front.)
When the machine gun unit opened fire, I suddenly realized that I had been speaking to nearly 100 fighters, intently listening to what I said. Now they ran off to their posts. In answer to our machine guns, the enemy returned strong fire. Now began to crackle machine gun and rifle fire along the whole front which illuminated the whole line. The enemy’s firing ceased. We also stopped.
I felt a great sadness at this moment, a sadness which was shared by my companions. They recalled the cruelty with which, in 1905-06, the Cossacks had suppressed the attempts of the working people who had dared to voice their demands freely in their own assemblies. Each of us, if we had not seen it ourselves, had heard about it. This memory gave more courage to our combatants, it incited them to despise death, to face even more resolutely these men, like all men capable of both good and evil, but who at the moment were marching, bursting with pride, under the banner of antiquated ideas and led by generals and other officers. These men, mistaken it’s true, were forcing their way, weapons in hand, through revolutionary territory. They were headed to the "White" Don, to General Kaledin, to support reaction and make it triumph over the Revolution which had already cost the toilers so dearly. These men were our enemies, ready to strike us with their Cossack whips, with their rifle butts, to kill us outright.
Among our combatants sounded the cry: "Let’s attack! We must not let them leave the wagons!"
But soon the Cossacks advanced again towards our lines and opened fire. The reply of our guns was so strong and accurate that the lead echelon moved backwards quickly, responding with only a few isolated shots.
The Cossack command had prepared a series of echelons which it dispatched from Khortiz station in support of the first train. But the first train, moving backwards rapidly, collided with one of the support trains, knocking both trains off the rails. The collision was so violent that many wagons were destroyed and people and horses were killed. The Cossack command was forced to withdraw all the echelons remaining at Khortiz station back towards Nikopol'. At the same time they appointed a delegation of about 40 men, mostly Cossacks, to treat with us.
This delegation arrived under a white flag at around 3 p.m. on January 8, 1918. We met the delegation of Cossacks with great pleasure, led it to our command post, and with special interest asked what propositions it had after the failure to break through revolutionary territory by force. The delegation told us that behind the Cossack echelons were several echelons of haidamaks. These haidamaks dreamed of occupying Aleksandrovsk with the help of the Don and Kuban Cossacks. Then the haidamaks intended to scour the villages, killing "katzaps", "yids", and anyone else who didn’t profess the "orthodox faith" so they could raise the blue & yellow banner of pogroms over the land of "Mother Ukraine".
"But after the failure of our attack yesterday," the delegation told us, "after the destruction of trains and an evaluation of the strength of your forces and the support you enjoy among the population, the haidamaks withdrew in the direction Nikopol'–Apostolovo. Our Cossack command has decided not to follow them but to enter into negotiations with you to arrange a free passage through your territories."
"We will agree to give up our arms," said the Cossacks, "but leave us our horses and saddles and, if possible, our sabres."
Our command did not agree with this, for it well understood that a saddled horse and a sabre constitute the essential equipment for a Cossack, not only on the march but for a sudden attack on the enemy, especially if the enemy was like most of the revolutionary forces of that time – an untrained mob, only the raw material of a real army.
The delegation of Cossacks finally renounced their sabres, but insisted firmly on their horses and saddles. They argued that their tradition did not allow them to appear either at home or for military service without a horse and saddle. And our command, due to a whole range of considerations, tactical and otherwise, was compelled to concede on this point.
After the agreement, one part of the delegation returned to their echelon, the other part stayed with us.
The haidamak troops which had retreated to the Nikopol'–Apostolovo line, learning that the Don and Kuban Cossacks had agreed to give up their weapons before the revolutionary front, retreated even further to the Verkhovtzevo–Verkhne–Dneprovsk region.
Over the next two and a half days the Cossack
troops, 18 echelons strong, were disarmed and escorted into Aleksandrovsk. Here
they were able to re-stock their provisions and a whole series of meetings were
organized for their benefit on the subject of the worker-peasant revolution.
During these meetings the Left Bloc tried to win over the Cossacks to its ideas and trotted out the best orators they had available. These characters were very militant verbally, they described themselves as "implacably devoted to the Revolution and its goals: the liberation of work, the abolition of the capitalist yoke and the police state". These buffoons promised the Cossacks complete freedom, yakked about autonomy for the Don and other regions which had been oppressed under the rule of the Romanovs and which had formed the "one and indivisible" Russia, the "Holy" Russia run for the benefit of thieves and swindlers.
Some of the orators ranted shamelessly about the national renaissance of each of the oppressed regions, in spite of the presence at these meetings of their political opponents who knew perfectly well that all these beautiful words were contradicted by the real actions of the current government leaders and that, in pronouncing these speeches before a mass of Cossacks, they flagrantly lied.
However, the Cossacks paid little attention to what was said to them. They stood around and, occasionally, laughed.
Then the anarchists spoke, and in particular M. Nikiforova, who told the Cossacks that the anarchists were not promising anything to anyone, they only hoped that people would learn to know themselves, to understand their own social situation, and to want to gain their own liberty.
"But before speaking to you about all that in detail, Cossacks, I must tell you that up to now you have been the executioners of the toilers of Russia. Will you remain so in the future, or will you recognize your own wicked role and join the ranks of the toilers? Up to now you have shown no respect for the toilers whom, for one of the tsar’s roubles or a glass of wine, you have nailed living to the cross."
At this point the several-thousand strong crowd of Cossacks removed their papakhas and bowed their heads.
M. Nikiforova continued her speech. Many Cossacks were weeping like children.
Near the anarchist’s tribune stood a group of Aleksandrovsk intellectuals who said to one another: "My God! How pitiful and pale seem the speeches of the representatives of the Left Bloc and the parties in comparison with the speeches of the anarchists and, in particular, with the speech of M. Nikiforova."
For us, hearing this from the mouths of people who always disdained us throughout all the days and years of the Revolution, it was very flattering.
But we didn’t speak the truth to the Cossacks just to impress certain people. We only wanted the Cossacks to understand how things really stood, and, so understanding, be able to free themselves from being the tools of the ruling class. Ever since they settled ages ago on the Don and Donets, along the Kuban and the Terek, they had been the butchers of any attempt by labour to free itself. Yes, the Cossacks throughout their history had been the executioners for the toilers of Russia. Many of them had already realized this, but many still went to meet the revolutionary toilers with sabre and whip in hand.
All during their stay in Aleksandrovsk (which lasted five days after this meeting), the Cossacks came en masse to visit the office of the Federation of Anarchists. They wanted to ask questions about anarchism and willingly answered questions put by the anarchists. Relations were established. Some of the Cossacks left an address so they could receive anarchist publications and exchange correspondence on questions concerning the Social Revolution.
The Cossacks of Kuban, those of the Labinsky area especially, were the most eager to keep in contact with us and I know several of them maintained an active correspondence with our anarchists. They asked for information about various questions of social organization and always requested any fresh literature. They sent whatever money they could.
The Don Cossacks were also very interested but not on such a scale. This can be explained on the one hand by the fact that they were less advanced socially and on the other hand because their territory had been transformed into a hotbed of reaction which aimed at destroying the Revolution. This reaction was headed by Generals Kaledin, Alekseev, and Kornilov along with sundry tsarist functionaries and learned professors.
While the disarmed Cossacks were in Aleksandrovsk, the revolutionary commander proposed that they come to the defence of the Revolution by opposing General Kaledin. Many of them accepted this invitation and declared themselves ready to take up arms and leave for the revolutionary front. They were formed into sotnias and dispatched to Khar'kov to put themselves at the disposal of General Antonov-Ovseenko, commander of the armies of the south of Russia.
On the other hand, many declared that they wanted to see their children and parents since they had been away from home for four years. The revolutionary commander authorized them to leave but, in reality, they were also sent through Khar'kov where they were relieved of their horses.
I’m not going to censure this act of the
revolutionary powers of the Left Bloc, for the moment was such that allowing the
horses, with saddles, to pass through the war zone meant, in effect, treason to
the Revolution. But what irked me and others at the time was the fact that the
Bolsheviks and Left SRs, in their negotiations with the Cossacks, acted not as
revolutionaries but as Jesuits, promising them one thing and doing another. In
doing so they created much evil. However, they always behaved like this. They
sent an armoured car to break up a meeting of anarchists in Khar'kov and spied
on revolutionary organizations everywhere. This only presaged worse things to
come for these two parties, now ruling the country, were revolutionary in name
On to Chapter 23 My observations on the Left Bloc in Aleksandrovsk
Back to Chapter 21 Armed peasantry go to the aid of the city workers; the Aleksandrovsk Revkom and the Commission of Inquiry
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