Red baptism of fire

In the first months, the Bolsheviks were able to put down counter-revolutionary uprisings easily enough. Most challenges were only from half-hatched political plots, armed gangs or groups of the discontented. Three challenges were potentially more serious, those of Dutov, K a led in and Kornilov. Armoured trains and troop trains overloaded with Red Guards overturned Ataman Dutov's Orenburg Cossacks in January 1918, taking his capital on the 31st of that month. Red Guards converging south from Kharkhov and north from the Causcasus similarly defeated Ataman Kaledin's Don Cossacks in February. Kornilov's Volunteer Army was too small to be considered a serious threat.

Kornilov Division
A 2. Zhelezniakov. an Anarchist sailor who fought the Don Cossacks in 1918. In 1919 he commanded a formation of armoured trains against Denikin. (Painting by L. Kotliarov, Sovietsky Kudoshnik art card. 1960s)

The revolt of the Czech Legion in May jolted any feelings of complacency. The collapse of Bolshevik administrations throughout Siberia was a shock further compounded by the loss of influence along the Volga when KOMUCH began armed opposition in June. The loss of Kazan on 6 August was the final challenge that set Commissar for War Trotsky in motion. Kappel's Whites ami the Czechs had captured the immense Romanov Bridge that spanned the Volga and had interposed themselves between the Red 1st and 2nd Armies. From this point, the Whites could advance on Moscow or possibly link with the Allies who had begun landings in the north at Archangel.

Setting out from Moscow in his armoured train with a full staff retinue, Trotsky arrived at Sviazhsk station, 60 kilometres from Kazan. This railway station barred the way to Moscow. It was here, over the next month, that Trotsky formed the first of his reliable and more regular armies, the 5th Army.

Punishment for the loss of Kazan and the imperial gold was immediate. Trotsky ordered the shooting of the commander and commissar, and lined up and decimated, in full Roman fashion, units that had panicked. Similar discipline was applied to the personnel of the monitors, river barges and armoured steamers of the Volga f lotilla, under Commander Raskolnikov, including its flagship the llya Moummets. Four naval destroyers were brought in as reinforcements. Reserves were transferred from the west and rallied around his one reliable unit, the 5th Latvian Semigallian Soviet Regiment.

Meanwhile, advance elements of the 2nd Army moved northeast against the Kazan defenders on 24 August in support of the 5th Army. Aircraft, armoured cars and ships of both sides skirmished over the next days, but the Whites and Czechs, being greatly outnumbered, evacuated the city on 9 September. Three days later, to the south, Simbirsk fell to Mikhail Fukachevsky's First Army. There an armoured train and Comrade Gai's 'Iron Division' forced the bridge across the Volga, liy October, the F.astern Front had been restored and tire enemy government, KOMUCIL destroyed. According to Soviet legend, the Red Army had found its feet during the weeks at Kazan.

The stand at Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad, now Volgograd) became an even more famous legend once Stalin was able to reshape history in the 1930s, T his city on the Volga, 875 kilometres from Moscow, was the strategic linchpin of the Red line in the southeast. As long as the Reds held Tsaritsyn, the Whites in the east could not link up with the Whites of the south and southwest. Conversely, the city anchored the Red right flank on the F.astern Front and provided supplies and reinforcements to Red armies operating in the northern Caucasus and at Astrakhan, a city situated farther south on the Volga abutting the Caspian Sea.

Economically, the railways converging on Tsaritsyn transmitted cotton, food and other commodities from Central Asia to the Bolshevik heartland in the centre. If Kazan won Trotsky's election to Soviet sainthood, Tsaritsyn achieved Stalin's.

Commissar Stalin arrived in Tsaritsyn with two armoured cars and 400 bodyguards on 6 June. By September, he had become Special Commissar to the entire Southern Army Group, consisting of the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th Armies. From the start, Stalin shook up the command structures, arguing with Trotsky over the role of the military specialists and appointing his own men at will. Two men he chose to back, who would become his lifelong supporters, were Kliment Voroshilov and Semyon Budenny.

That spring, Voroshilov had organized the Lugansk Red Guard and had carried out a spectacular fighting retreat to 'Tsaritsyn, hounded by the Germans and Don Cossacks, I landsome, cunning, an excellent horseman

Voroshilov Pistol
Red commander Kliment Efnemovich Voroshilov in the trenchworks at Tsaritsyn, 1918. (Painting by L Kotliarov, Soviet art card, c. 1930)
Tsaritsyn City Centre
Admiral Kolchak's capital at Omsk on the Irt/sh River (Bullock collection)

and track pistol shot, Voroshilov was popular with the younger troops and would hold several important posts as army commander and commissar throughout the civil war. Semyon Budenny, a former tsarist cavalry non-commissioned officer and recipient of all St George awards for bravery, would rise to command the 1st Horse Army or Konarmiya in 1919. Together with Stalin, these men and other like-minded associates would form the 'Tsaritsyn Clique', a group that would profoundly affect Soviet history.

Stalin received credit for successfully defending Tsaritsyn from three Hon Cossack offensives that took place in August, September and finally from December 1918 to January 1919. I;ar from facing overwhelming odds as their reports indicated, the Reds had a marked superiority in artillery, machine guns and armoured trains and their forces rose from a rough numerical parity with the Cossacks to a distinct superiority by January. However, he did not manage to save the North Caucasian Army that Denikin's Volunteers progressively destroyed that autumn, nor to avert the catastrophe that would befall in spring 1919.

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