Stukov on the Military Capability of Soviet Russia in 1918


With the publication of this critical report by Innokenti Nicolayevich Stukov on the military condition of the Bolshevik forces in the Ukraine, we reach the end of our serialisation of the articles in the second issue of the journal Kommunist (April 1918). Stukov joined the Bolsheviks in 1905 and in 1917 was a member of the Bolshevik Military Organisation which went along with the sailors response to the provocations of the Provisional Government in July of that year. Even when Lenin had urged caution and that this was not a time for “an armed demonstration”, Stukov, along with Latsis and others in the organisation called for an all-out assault. He was similarly at odds with the majority of the Party when he called for the prosecution of “a revolutionary war” against German imperialism just one week after the October Revolution! Given such a voluntarist approach to what could be achieved at this time it is not surprising that he was very critical of the decision to make peace with Germany. Whilst negotiations were still going on he called on his Left Communist comrades to unseat Lenin in order to carry on the war.(1) This makes the report below seem very reliable since it gives graphic support to Lenin’s case that the option of resistance did not exist. His eyewitness account suggests that the soviet power could only call on the most disorganised of forces at the time. Stukov was still regarded as a “Left Communist” (though the Left Communist group of 1918 had largely dissolved by June of that year) when he signed the “Declaration of the 46” in 1923 against the new control over the Central Committee and Party which Stalin had established (despite having initially supported Stalin’s “reforms” mistakenly thinking it would bring “new blood” to the Central Committees). Like most of the rest of the “old Bolsheviks” he was shot (in 1936 according to some sources).

Our translation and publication of all these documents are intended to provide material for the study of the process of revolution and counter-revolution in Russia. What they do is throw light on the critical situation which occurred in the Spring and early Summer of 1918, a situation of economic crisis and impending civil war which would leave the Bolsheviks and the Russian working class fewer and fewer options. Little wonder that so many different communists at this time looked for the one thing that might save them – an international proletarian revolution.

What I Saw

Stukov’s Notes(2)

I visited one of the sectors of the Ukrainian-German front. If someone were to ask me what I saw, I’d have to answer without exaggeration: “Total chaos…” “A continuous tragi-comedy…”

Here in Moscow, some circles view the failures on the Ukrainian-German front as the consequence of an inability of Soviet detachments to fight.

Yes, the detachments are unsuitable for combat, fleeing even the smallest of clashes. Half, and even more of these detachments are made up of the worst elements in every sense of the word; they seriously don’t give a damn about Soviet power, internationalism, etc.

Is this the only cause of the incapacity of these detachments to fight?

Are there other reasons for their retreats?

For in these detachments, there also are elements well suited to combat, who are conscious and dedicated...

What I saw in the Novozybkov(3) region obliges me to state explicitly: detachments retreat because they are blind and deaf from a military standpoint, almost completely powerless and left without any sort of general command.

First, with regard to the conduct of operations in general.

What, for example, is the headquarters of a revolutionary army at the Western front?

Anything you want… except an institution or organization that directs military operations and coordinates the manoeuvres of units.

For there’s no one there who understands a thing about military art…

Moreover, the personnel of the general staff of a Western Front army can be divided into several categories, and this will give a representation closer to reality.

There are those dedicated body and soul to our cause, but with no idea of strategy, tactics or even battle. They would put as many soldiers as possible into action and start shooting. Whoever kills the most enemies, claims victory! These dedicated comrades know words like “position”, “flanks”, etc., but use them without precision, having a very abstract notion of it all.

If asked what the detachment should do upon advancing and occupying any position, these “commanders” would have no coherent response.

I remember a typical episode:

It was in a marshalling yard of the Polesie railway.(4) All tracks were loaded with military trains. Lots of screaming, noise and excitement. No one knew where the enemy was, everyone was trying to get into the cars to leave.

I addressed the assistant commander of the army "N", comrade L. and I asked, pointing out the mounted scouts of the general staff who were doing nothing:

– Do you know the first thing to do to avoid being taken prisoner?

– No, said the comrade frankly.

I was obliged to make this person who, at that time, was performing the command functions of an army listen to reason.

There are also people of another kind who take refuge in the general staffs. They go there to "eat" and for the pay. They do almost nothing, but talk a lot, are always up to something and are completely indifferent to our cause. Most of these people understand nothing, least of all military art.

Finally, we must consider another kind of leadership in the staff, to which the competent administrations should pay the most attention.

It is these people who are not only indifferent to the defence of the revolution, but also hate it. They are our hidden political enemies. They undermine our struggle with their provocations. The more competent they are in military art, the more they endanger the defence of the revolution.

The general pattern of their activity consists of the following: giving orders that will surely lead to failure. Those with no understanding of strategic and tactical operations are unable to perceive the treacherous implication of these orders.

It goes without saying that while there are not many of these people yet, they are very familiar with military art and know how to make decisions. From this standpoint, the appointment of commanders from the former officer cadre is very risky and dangerous. Here no political control by commissars is possible, as it would be necessary above all for them to have perfect knowledge of military art and science. A political commissar unfamiliar with them would never understand orders given by such military commanders. Yet the execution of such orders creates a situation in a detachment that one would call a debacle...

This is the personnel of the general staff whose "activities" I followed closely for two weeks.

How does the general staff work? Usually, it occupies a wagon behind the front. The wagon is always packed with people, three-quarters of whom have no connection with the general staff, and are even completely alien to it... Noise, screams, arguments. In such an atmosphere, in the presence of all these people, one discusses and decides. Orders are very rarely connected to one another, as there are no prior studies of the situation, or of the enemy's forces and intentions, but are simply given crudely. If we add that the same detachment receives both contradictory orders from different members of the staff, everyone will understand what monstrous chaos reigns. Under these conditions, provocation becomes very easy, so to speak. It imposes itself. All is immediately known by everyone – the enemy has no trouble learning what it needs.

To better illustrate this situation, I will recount an absolutely astounding example.

A password had to be sent to the detachments. We send a person who screams from afar to each soldier:

– Comrade! Comrade! For this day the password is "the bullet"!

And this "bullet" flies all around right to the enemy's positions.

Those who transmit orders often have no mandate to do so. In addition, it happens that whoever transmits a general staff order demotes it on his own initiative and gives another order of his own. The members of the general staff, the commanders of the vanguard, the commissars – all act together and no one understands anything, but everyone gives orders as they please. No wonder strange things happen: a soldier observing this scene gives an order – all the commanders rush to execute it...

That's the general staff for you, there’s its work. Of course, such a general staff can have no idea of a general plan of operations. And of course, it is incapable of coordinating the operations of the different detachments.

What does the general staff of the "N" army of the Western Front do with the various detachments? Quite simply it amasses them in a station without fixing a line of defence, and at the first movement by the enemy, it pulls them back, to say the least...

Thus the detachments remain powerless; they have no idea of their task or the general plan. It is very difficult to expect them to fight in such conditions, especially if the enemy carries out organized and resolute actions.

It is also difficult to ask them because they have no technical knowledge.

What equipment do our detachments have at their disposal?

Only guns in working order.

Of all the machine guns at the disposal of the detachments, almost half are still missing firing pins or any other necessary parts. And it is very rare that the detachment has its 8 or 10 machine guns. Some don't have any at all. One could say then that such a detachment is useless.

Sometimes a detachment has one or two cannons. They are then put on platform cars and cannot be used because the detachment has no means to transport them. And, if they can be used, the results are dismal because either the shells fail to explode or the gun is missing the necessary parts to aim. For example, detachment "N" had a gun that could only be fired as follows: open the breech, look through the barrel and orient it towards a visible objective, then push the firing pin.

Such a "close-range shot" has never had any effect aside from noise.

In addition, I have never seen in any detachment binoculars, compasses, field telephones and enough maps of the battlefield area. Without this equipment, the detachment remains deaf and blind, totally helpless and feels like it is lost in a thick forest. Most detachments have no mounted scouts; if they exist, they are so few in number that they cannot be used effectively. Thus the detachment does not know what is happening on its flanks, neither at the front nor even at the rear. It’s trapped.

All in all, these detachments are quite simply chained to the railway; they only move following it and can not perform any manoeuvres on the flanks. On the other hand, the enemy has the full ability to act quickly and easily. Clearly the position of our detachments is totally untenable in the face of the enemy. So, I repeat, one can understand why our detachments are always retreating and even fleeing.

In these notes, I have not mentioned all aspects of the sad scene that I observed at the front. If I have the opportunity, I will do so later. Here, I give no general conclusion regarding my observations, nor any conclusion of a military or even political nature.

I realise that there are certain people who would use these facts and claim that they were right. But let them be careful not to turn these simple facts against us, against the adversaries of peace. It is not enough to observe the facts; they must be studied in their genesis. And it seems to us that such an attitude towards the facts presented would lead us straight and easily to the first, organic cause over which we have no power.

In conclusion, I must say that the situation is not as desperate as it might seem at first sight. It can be corrected. But I will explain this next time once I have outlined other aspects of the situation.

I. N. Stukov

Translation: Klasbatalo

Introduction: CWO

(1) These biographical notes are compiled from R.V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, pp. 71, 90, 197 (Clarion, 1969) and the biographical note at the end of the French edition of La Revue Kommunist (Editions Smolny, Toulouse 2011) p. 386. The opinions expressed are ours.

(2) The original article in Kommunist 2 had this Editors’ note affixed to it “By publishing these notes as very interesting material to take account of the situation at the front and the state of Soviet detachments, the editorial staff points out that it does not bear responsibility for the author's judgment of the situation and that it gives comrades the opportunity to express their opinions and considerations on this problem.”

(3) Russian city in south-western Bryansk province.

(4) Former region now shared between Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.

Monday, October 21, 2019