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A socialist Army Officer Confronts War and Nationalist Politics: Konstantin Oberuchev in Revolutionary Kyiv

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A Socialist Army Officer Confronts War and Nationalist Politics:

Konstantin Oberuchev in Revolutionary Kyiv

The career of Konstantin Oberuchev (1864-1929) offers a case study of a self-consciously revolutionary and socialist thinker and social activist who confronts the dilemmas of wartime and revolutionary politics. This essay will focus on the period of his life when he seemingly had the greatest opportunity to achieve his political ideals for Russia, the short year between March and November 1917 when he held positions of considerable political influence in Kiev, first as army commissar and then commander of the Kiev Military District.1 During those months, Oberuchev’s fate reflected the dramatic transformations in the Russian Empire itself; at the beginning of 1917 he was still in America, where he spent the last year of his several years abroad as a political exile for his revolutionary activities while serving in the Russian imperial army as a relatively high-ranking (staff) officer. He was arrested the first time in 1889, shortly after graduating from the Mikhailov Artillery Academy for his participation in an illegal military-revolutionary organization;2 he was at first held for seven months in the Peter and Paul fortress-prison in the capital and then deported to Turkestan to serve in detention until his retirement from the military in 1906. After retirement he lived in Kiev, writing for military and socialist newspapers and taking part in the cooperative movement and Socialist-Revolutionary organizations, including those seeking to penetrate the Imperial Army. He was certain that he narrowly escaped arrest in 1909, when the police uncovered revolutionary plots throughout the army. In 1913 he was about to take part in a congress of the Moscow Union of Consumer Associations when he was arrested a second time for his ties to revolutionary comrades; though sentenced to exile in Olonets province, that sentence was changed to exile abroad with no permission to return until January 1917. He left Russia for Switzerland.

He returned home from exile to his native Kiev in February 1917 at the age of 51 fully ready to resume his political activities, and found employment in the Union of Towns’ Committee for the Southwest Front. In short order, he was rearrested by the military commander, even though the ban on his return had expired. While still under arrest, he was nominated by the new provisional authority, the Executive Committee of the Council of Public Organizations (hereafter ECCPO, IKSOO in Russian abbreviation), to the post of army commissar for Kiev Military District, a large front-line district that was crucial to the ongoing war on the Eastern Front. As military commissar Oberuchev functioned as a mediator between the newly proclaimed civilian authority, recognized by the Provisional Government in Petrograd and very much a local, Kievan version of that proto-state, and the military authorities in this all-important district. After he served briefly in that post, the commander-in-chief of the Southwest Front, wartime hero General Aleksei Brusilov, promoted him to the post of commander of the Kiev Military District, thereby replacing the man who had only recently arrested him. His appointment was delayed by the crisis of the Provisional Government in Petrograd, during which the Minister of War from the nationalist Octobrist Party, Alexander Guchkov, resigned and was replaced by Alexander Kerensky, an erstwhile Socialist-Revolutionary. (Guchkov had only recently conducted a purge of the Army to rid it of officers who did not meet the test of the new political situation after the tsar’s abdication.)

As commissar Oberuchev was responsible for explaining difficulties to the troops and officers and trying to keep the peace between the two groups, but as district commander he was more responsible for delivering results, like replacement troops to the front and keeping those troops armed and otherwise supplied. Very soon, he felt his authority undermined by the rise of Ukrainian nationalism and the success of Bolshevik propaganda in the ranks. He requested permission to resign from his post after he concluded that the conflicts over ukrainianization of the army had made his position impossible. In September 1917 Oberuchev came to revolutionary Petrograd for a new assignment, that of negotiator with the Central Powers over the exchange of prisoners-of-war. He was on his way home from the Copenhagen talks when the Bolsheviks seized power in the capital. Though he was invited by the Bolshevik delegates at the talks to serve the new Lenin government and continue his work with prisoners-of-war, he refused. Oberuchev had come to detest the Bolsheviks and could not fathom finding any common principles with which he might work with them. He died in emigration in New York in 1929.3

Oberuchev wrote the first version of his memoirs after he decided not to return to now-Bolshevik Russia and found refuge in Sweden.4 His efforts to understand the defeat of moderate socialism and the usurpation of the revolution by the Bolsheviks provide the broad frame for his interpretations of the particular cases of how democratization in the army went wrong and why the Ukrainian socialists split from their Russian erstwhile comrades-in-arms, thereby exacerbating the fragmentation of the initially united opposition forces in early 1917. The fighting condition and morale of the army quickly became crucial determinants of the survival of the new revolutionary authorities who were committed to continuing the war in the name of freedom and to the survival of the Russian Empire as a multinational state. Army politics became inextricably bound up with the rise of national rivalries and conflicts, while newly assertive non-Russians challenged the socialist credentials of their Russian counterparts who claimed authority to decide military matters. Because Oberuchev was in the maelstrom of Kiev as it evolved into the capital of an increasingly autonomous Ukraine and because his responsibilities were tied up with the decisive Southwest Front, his account of these months stresses these linkages better than many memoirists. (He attended nearly all important congresses during 1917 in Kiev and several other meetings outside the city, mostly in garrison towns.)5 He faced conflicts within the framework of his own revolutionary politics between his identities as a socialist, a military officer, and as a patriotic Russian. His decisions, choices, and evaluations are not those of all Russians or officers or socialists during this period. But nor are they at all unique, for many other citizens of the new Russia were coming to similar conclusions. However representative or not he was, his perspective on the events of 1917 in Kiev helps us understand that year in ways different from Petrograd-centered ones, but also from those of the Ukrainian movement in Kiev itself.
His Understanding of the Revolution

Oberuchev was one of many defeated socialists and revolutionaries who tried to understand how the Bolsheviks had shut them out of the political space of revolutionary Russia.6 He attempted to understand how the initial revolutionary unity and hopes for a better future in the first months after the abdication of Nicholas II descended into conflicts and hatred and how the first generation of revolutionary leaders were supplanted by a new, in his view, more plebeian, set of representatives of the “crowd” who had trouble thinking for themselves in the confusing circumstances. Oberuchev had considered himself a revolutionary and a democrat for most of his conscious life and remained so committed to his death in emigration in 1929. He had not only been sentenced to internal exile in the Russian Turkestan for his political convictions and organizational activities, but been expelled from his native land for them. For him revolution was a matter of deeply ingrained faith and ultimate justice. Oberuchev was proud of his career as a revolutionary in military uniform and placed himself in the noble tradition of the Decembrists of the 1820s and the later Populists of the 1870s. He lionized the officers of the imperial army who formed the military-revolutionary circles, for which many were expelled and arrested. In many ways, military service was for Oberuchev another version of the “to the people” ethos of earlier generations of well-intentioned intellectuals.7

As a moderate (perhaps right) SR who stubbornly insisted on Russia’s obligation to win the war against the Central Powers, albeit without annexations and indemnities, he found himself in the camp of socialist “defensists” and opposed to the far left of the revolutionary movement which opposed the war and either sought its immediate end through negotiations or Russia’s defeat. Most of his experience was with soldiers, officers, and frequently with the workers of wartime, revolutionary Kiev. In his analysis of the causes of the Bolsheviks’ success (and the moderates’ failure), he identifies many factors, including the tragic and senseless fragmentation of the new political institutions and newly empowered political parties. The socialists were as prone, if not more so, to the splintering over fundamental questions of war and power, as he acknowledged himself. The once united opposition front against the autocracy was replaced by a proliferation of committees and executive committees who claimed to speak with the authority of the revolution and asserting the rights of particular constituencies. Oberuchev viewed the committees largely in a positive light during the first months of the revolution and saw them as crucial in helping the revolutionary citizenry assert its voice and shed its prior timidity before authority. But as they fell sway to the Bolshevik influences, he came to view the Russian population as misled, if not deceived by crass appeals to their basest instincts.

Of course he assigned a large measure of blame to the nation’s exhaustion and to the incompetent waging of the war by a reactionary and inflexible autocracy. He experienced the pettiness and self-defeating behavior of the Russian wartime authorities himself, even while exiled in Switzerland where he, together with other Russian émigrés and the help of the Swiss state and society, helped organize relief for Russian prisoners-of-war in Central Power camps. Not only did the tsarist officials refuse to allow money that had been raised in Russia to be transferred to the émigré groups, but they eventually stopped paying Oberuchev’s pension because of his political unreliability. (Admittedly, the idea of the autocracy paying a pension to a sentenced revolutionary officer while he was in foreign exile already seems generous, but Oberuchev believed firmly that the pension was his entitlement for his service in the Russian Army.) He also acknowledges that his years away from Russia, especially in Switzerland, were critical in his repudiation of the culture of arbitrary arrests that manifested itself among the newly assertive workers and soldiers almost immediately after the overthrow of the old regime. This was one of the unfortunate legacies that that old regime bequeathed to its successor.

But it was precisely this enthusiasm for arrests to avenge past wrongs that led Oberuchev to perhaps his most important explanation for why the Bolsheviks behaved the way they did, namely, inciting the otherwise “soft” crowd to violent acts against the existing authorities. The strong dose of populism that formed his identity as a socialist-revolutionary led him to insist on the fundamental goodness of the Russian people, even the crowd, a goodness he illustrates with several personal encounters. He resisted a revolutionary politics based on class and insisted that the “people” (narod) was a concept he could better understand.8 Even the wartime hardships did not exhaust that reservoir of goodness, witness the behavior of the revolutionary soldiers and workers during the first weeks of the new order. Still, his faith in the people’s goodness was coupled with a belief in their lack of culture, which made Russia unready for real socialism; instead, the main struggle for the moment had to be for political liberties and a democratic republic to replace the autocracy.9 This contradictory view of the people led him to a novel theory of why 1917 went so wrong so quickly. The main “instigators,” a word he uses frequently in describing the organizers of the rabble in revolutionary Ukraine, in many instances were former policemen and political agents of the Old Regime who had been dismissed en masse by the new Provisional Government and the revolutionary soviets and who remained disgruntled at the new authorities. It was these unemployed policemen who were among the most enthusiastic new volunteers to the Bolshevik party. And who but former policemen would be so ready to call for summary arrests and worse of the new revolutionary authorities?10

Oberuchev had formed his hostile views of the Bolsheviks already in emigration in Switzerland, where he recalls hearing Lenin, Trotsky, and Lunacharsky speak to socialist circles. With the qualified exception of Lunacharsky and Alexandra Kollontai, he found the Bolshevik leaders to be narrow-minded, inflexible, intolerant, and fanatic. Another Bolshevik he met in Switzerland and whose political career intersected with his in 1917 was Iury Piatakov, who would become head of the Kiev Bolsheviks. He “considered and continues to consider him an honest revolutionary.”11 During the war, when Oberuchev took up the cause of helping Russia’s prisoners-of-war, he confronted Bolshevik agitators who opposed his efforts because they wanted Russia’s defeat in the war. Part of Oberuchev’s intense feelings against the Bolsheviks came from his own sense of revolutionary patriotism; he viewed them as traitors and demagogues well before 1917. He resented the Bolsheviks for exploiting the social and political tensions in the country and destroying the national unity that followed in the initial euphoria of the revolution. While the majority view of counterrevolution in 1917 linked it to the officers or other imperial elites, Oberuchev, like a Cassandra, warned constantly and in vain of the creeping danger of counterrevolution from the left.12

Oberuchev and the Revolutionary Russian Army

Konstantin Mikhailovich was born in Turkestan to a colonel in the Imperial Army. He first attended the Kiev Military Gymnasium, then enrolled in the Mikhailov Artillery School (in St. Petersburg), and graduated from the Mikhailov Artillery Academy in 1889 (just before his first arrest). He became a leading specialist on problems of artillery and published widely in military journals, even from exile and after retirement. He was also committed to the Revolution, and saw himself in a noble tradition of officer-revolutionaries dating from the Decembrists’ uprising in 1825.13

As a socialist, he advocated the eventual establishment of a militia-type military service in place of the standing army, which had been associated with despotism and autocracy by European liberals and leftists for much of the second half of the nineteenth century. (The leading European advocate of the militia was the French socialist Jean Jaures.14) In the months before the outbreak of World War I, Oberuchev took advantage of his exile in Switzerland to become acquainted with the experience of the country that had successfully replaced the standing army with a citizen militia; he wrote several articles about his observations and was reaffirmed in his socialist faith that such an important reform in civil-military relations was feasible, albeit in a country far more democratic than Russia was likely to be for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, Oberuchev seemed reconciled to the need for regular armies, especially during the global conflict that became World War I. His own complicated feelings of patriotism for Russia led him to apply to the War Ministry in Petrograd for permission to return home and serve in the army’s ranks, despite his opposition to the autocracy and even his revolutionary efforts to overthrow it. Not surprisingly, but very disappointing to him, the Russian authorities refused to honor his request, demonstrating to Oberuchev that even in times of national emergency, the bureaucracy remained narrow-minded and fearful of its own citizens. His feelings of thwarted patriotism were only made more painful by the death in battle of his brother on the Eastern Front in February 1915. Since he was banned from direct participation in the wartime effort, he directed his energies to joining other Russian émigrés and Swiss officials and citizens in mobilizing support for the relief of Russian prisoners-of-war. In short, Oberuchev had a very strong sense of duty and readiness to join the fray to support the Russian war effort in spite of the autocracy’s mismanagement and incompetence.

These patriotic feelings, combined with his strong sense of the honor of the Russian officers who risked their careers and lives for the revolution (including himself), rendered him very intolerant of deserters in 1917. He considered them traitors to the revolution and cowards. His hopes as commissar and commander in Kiev were to take advantage of the euphoria and unity of the early weeks of the revolution and form a new type of revolutionary, conscious military discipline among the troops to supplant the former harsh, unthinking obedience based on physical punishment of the Old Regime. He fulminated against the Bolsheviks and the Ukrainian nationalists for appealing to the basest instincts of the soldiers, self-preservation and a politics of entitlement, instead of trying to inspire them to defend the new revolutionary regime. (Ironically, the Bolsheviks tried to introduce a similar conscious, revolutionary discipline in the early years of the Red Army.)

Oberuchev insists that he was against allowing politics into the army, although his position is less straightforward than it appears. He believed that the politicization of the army would inevitably lead to military conspiracies, coups, and a praetorian state. He insisted that “an army should be an apparatus for defense of the country from foreign enemies and nothing more.” Accordingly, he criticized both the Petrograd military authorities themselves for introducing “political departments” in several districts and the soldiers’ and officers’ soviets for claiming the right to issue unilateral orders to their constituencies on military matters and for agitating among the soldiers on political issues.15 Still, although he opposed allowing soldiers to vote in the local elections for the Kiev city duma later in the year, he insisted on their right to take part in the elections to the Constituent Assembly (elections that did not occur until after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd) and on their right to express their political views “as citizens.”16 Even on this issue, his position is inconsistent, since he welcomed the municipal elections as an important educational experience and trial in anticipation of the balloting for the Constituent Assembly; his opposition to soldiers’ participation thereby would have denied them this critical experience.17 So he too, like those he criticized, favored soldiers’ taking their newly gained empowerment seriously, but only as long as (another ironic appearance of the formula of postol’ku-poskol’ku) their politics was limited to arenas he thought appropriate. In another episode that betrayed his somewhat opportunistic approach to contemporary politics, Oberuchev described a tour he made of several garrison towns after the disastrous June offensive to learn firsthand the conditions of his troops. He invited the deputy chairman of the Kiev Soldiers’ Soviet, a Menshevik soldier Okhrim Task, to help him address the now overwhelming problems of morale and desertion in the district.18

Oberuchev’s observations, judgments, and behavior also illustrate the contradictions of attempting military reform aimed at a general democratization of the army during wartime and revolution. While postponing the militia ideal to a less chaotic future, Oberuchev initially welcomed the changes in the army that recognized soldiers’ and officers’ rights as citizens. In a characteristic greeting that reflected soldiers’ new revolutionary status and image, Oberuchev addressed a crowd of disgruntled and disobedient troops as “comrades, fighters (voiny), and citizens!”19 This new form of address signaled the expansion of citizenship to soldiers as well as presumed their revolutionary sympathies and acceptance of the ethos of egalitarianism that “comradeship” asserted. For Oberuchev and the other moderate socialists who served the Provisional Government, such democratization went hand in hand with the expectation that the soldiers would fight for the new regime, even if it was the same old war. After Oberuchev was appointed commander, he found a new ally in his revolutionary defensism in the commissar appointed to replace him in his former position, a Menshevik Defensist Ivan Kirienko.20

In the spirit of the soldiers’ newly recognized rights, from the first days of the revolution, military men began electing their deputies to a range of organizations to assert the voice of those bearing arms for the nation.21 In many units, officers and soldiers elected separate councils (sovety) and executive committees, but often held joint meetings. The months of March to November 1917 saw a feverish proliferation of committees to address all possible issues that was quickly dubbed komitetchina by contemporaries. Soon the committees became the forum for articulating social discontents; soldiers complained about “reactionary” and “counter-revolutionary” officers, while workers suspected all military men of conspiring to overturn “their” revolution. To Oberuchev all these demands and charges reflected the low level of political development of the Russian population who demanded all sorts of rights in the name of the new regime, but rarely felt any commensurate obligations to defend and otherwise support that new regime.

For Oberuchev as army commissar this fissure translated into the conflicts and mutual suspicion that pit officers against soldiers. Indeed, Oberuchev saw his role as commissar primarily as a political buffer between the soldiers and their commanders.22 Accordingly, he devoted most of his career as commissar (and later as commander) to resolving disputes over authority in his jurisdiction. The first army elections in Kiev began with the officers’ electing their representatives and forming their own executive committee to coordinate future political activities in the military. Next the soldiers elected their representatives and formed their executive committee. At this stage, there was still enough harmony to permit the officers and soldiers to agree to form a joint Council of Military Delegates of the Kiev Military District.23 But soldiers’ deputies felt as much if not more solidarity with the workers’ deputies that were being elected and maintained contacts with their organizations. Often soldiers were able to find allies among the workers for their challenges to officers’ authorities and alleged abuses. Workers, likewise, could find sympathy in their conflicts with employers and factory owners. Before long, soldiers and workers joined forces in a joint executive committee of their representatives, notably excluding officers’ participation in their deliberations.

Of course, even this episode of worker-soldier solidarity proved to be fragile and brief; Oberuchev was disturbed when he attended a joint meeting of the workers and soldiers’ soviets of Kremenchug, another garrison town in the district he commanded. The soldiers offended the workers by charging that the members of their soviet were hardly genuine workers—meaning those with long ties to factories and other proletarian workplaces and the consequent revolutionary consciousness—but instead were avoiding military service under the guise of workers. The workers in turn accused the soldiers of reactionary and even counterrevolutionary politics. Still, the executive committees of the soldiers and workers were able to agree on resisting pressure from above, including from Oberuchev, to release or try an officer, Lt. Colonel Smirnov, they had been holding for more than three months without any charges beyond a vague accusation of “counterrevolution.” Oberuchev observed this as another example of the culture of arbitrary arrests that the Old Regime left as an important legacy to revolutionary society.24 It was also a sign of his rapidly eroding authority in Kiev (and Petrograd, by extension.) Even among the soldiers themselves, each month brought growing polarization; for example, soldiers at the front, at least initially, resented the soldiers in the rear, who began to fear for their lives when they were sent from Kiev on morale and inspection tours to the front lines. The front-line soldiers believed that those in the rear were partly to blame for their suffering in the trenches, while they lived it up.25

The most serious threat of the new politics to the integrity of the army was the increasing insistence on electing officers and commissars and, by extension, of removing unpopular officers by popular vote. This was a form of democratization that Oberuchev fought with all his energy, but largely in vain. He recounts how he visited a unit whose council of military deputies had just elected an army commissar; he defended the authority of the Provisional Government and the army itself to make such appointments. But an assertive soldier pointedly reminded him that his own appointment as commander of the military district had been on the recommendation of the Kiev Soviet. He acknowledged this “democratic” initiative, but insisted that he had been first nominated by Brusilov and that the Soviet had only lobbied for his appointment with the Petrograd authorities.26 Still, the soldier grasped the slippery slope of the transformation of civil-military relations throughout the country. And Oberuchev was willing to have it both ways himself. When he faced arrest by a group of angry soldiers over his insistence that they pay for transportation on the city trams or not ride, a Polish officer (serving in one of the experimental Polish regiments) tried to shame them into obeying their commander on the grounds that he had been “elected by the soldiers themselves.” Oberuchev did not correct them at this moment, but was able to avoid arrest and have a heated conversation with the soldiers. It proved impossible for not only Petrograd, but also Kiev authorities to manage the fragmenting of authority through the proliferation of new committees and councils.

In the end, the most serious threat that the soldiers’ posed to Oberuchev’s sense of the limits of democratization was their protest against the war itself and their unwillingness to fight it. He recorded the range of ways in which the soldiers expressed their opposition to the unpopular war, most tragically in self-mutilation or simulating sickness or injury. (Cutting off or otherwise injuring one’s fingers was the most widespread method of self-mutilation, leading to the nickname palechniki for this group. Another alarming population of self-mutilators, according to Oberuchev, were those soldiers who “consciously” contracted venereal diseases so as to avoid service at the front.)27 He detected what he interpreted as the war-weary soldiers’ own version of the defensism that he shared with much of the new ruling elites; for the soldiers, defense meant “not a step forward, but no movement backward either.” In reply to these attitudes, Oberuchev penned several articles in Kievskaia mysl’ on the differences between offensive and defensive warfare. But the mostly negative answers he received touched a sore spot with him. “It’s fine for you to think about offense when you’re sitting warm in the city. But for those of us who have been here three years, it’s not something we care to think about.”28 Indeed, Col. Oberuchev appears to have never taken part in a genuine war, since his career coincided with the largely peaceful years of Alexander III and the opening of Nicholas II’s reign.

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