by George Levy
especially for PoliSMI
Pavel Dybenko speaks to the Revolutionary Tribunal
The current understanding of February 23rd maintains an unjustified myth and detracts the Russian populace from coming to know a true and accurate account of the aftermath of revolution and the consequences that followed. What we do know about this time…V. Lenin and V. Bonch-Bruyevitch have told us and therefore the subsequent perception is a result of this “truth”
How Russia and the World Views February 23rd
On February 24, 2009 Evgeny Levin’s article The Red Army-Strongest of All, published in The Russia Mir, well represents the mindset of February 23 and began….
When asked why February 23 became Red Army Day (from 1949-1993 – Day of the Soviet Army and Navy), any Soviet schoolboy could answer easily and without stumbling: it was the day that the newly formed Red Army troops won their first victory over the Germans. Or, according to the “Short History of the Communist Party,” it was when “the young squads of the new army – the army of a revolutionary people – had their first heroic victory against the German predator. Outside of Narva and Pskov the German occupiers were strongly resisted. Their advance was halted at Petrograd.”
These days, everyone who is interested in history knows that Comrade Stalin distorted the facts in this case. Pskov was occupied by the Germans on February 24 with virtually no resistance. Narva fell on March 3, although the revolutionary Dybenko detachment, which was sent to protect the city, left a shameful position and “retreated” right up to Samara.
Furthermore, in 2004 late Deputy of the Duma Yushenkov in agreement with Russian Television Commentator/Respected Author; M.L. Mlechim and many others proposed the idea, both in the hallowed halls of the Duma and on television, that these retreats were a disgrace to the history of Russia. The men would go on to state that not only was the retreat itself despicable but the actions of one Pavel Dybenko was particularly disturbing. According to them, Dybenko was a coward and a drunk who favored retreat than battle. This they said was also based from archival material. Dybenko’s current reputation as an in-experienced leader of drunken disorderly groups of sailors and a coward who favored retreat rather than battle is the myth propagated throughout.
For many historians of Russian history, the understanding of Dybenko and his actions during February 23rd rely heavily on Lenin and Trotsky’s Governments case against him in May of 1918. Although the accusations as presented by Krylenko were to be discredited, the underlying motivation was accomplished. Very simply, after only four hours of deliberation, President Berman and the Tribunal found Dybenko not guilty and acquitted him of all charges. What then did this bringing Dybenko to trial on charges that held no merit accomplish? Defense Attorney Shtienberg was on record as saying, “Dybenko grew to become increasingly dangerous and the sole purpose of this case was to eliminate him from the political arena”. Alexsandra Kollontai stated, “She felt Dybenko had been betrayed”. “Narva”, she said, “was not the actual reason for his arrest”. If one considers Shteinberg’s and Kollontai’s statements, the relevant questions develop into; Why would Pavel Dybenko be politically dangerous to the likes of Lenin and Trotsky? Why was it important to eliminate Dybenko from the political arena?
Answering these questions is made difficult in part because of the lack of historical record. The official case file of Dybenko’s trial in May of 1918 was either destroyed or continues to be unavailable. Dybenko’s own biographers and even his early works all end short of the actual events. Many of the books about the October revolution published in Russia during the Soviet era don’t mention Dybenko’s name at all or describe the events that he was involved in very selectively. Like for example several articles from the Historical-and-Military magazine publication either omit the Narva episode altogether or mention it real briefly, just stating in one sentence that Dybenko and his detachment took part in the Narva’s defensive operation and that’s it, without giving any details of the operation and its consequences.
It should be noted that the “Case file of Admiral Shchastny” which happened one month later in June of 1918 is available for historians to examine. Moreover one could sit for hours at the Russian Naval Archives and go through three-foot high stacks of material and one would not find a word on Dybenko’s trial nor the battle of Narva. At first, further inspection yielded little or no additional information.
There are a nominal number of books written which discuss Dybenko, Tsentrobalt, and the sailor’s activities.
In the book, “The sailors of the Baltic Fleet in 1917” written by A.V. Bogdanov and published in 1955, Dybenko is not mentioned at all, as if he never existed or was too insignificant. Tsentrobalt is, on the contrary, discussed throughout.
In another, “The heroic deeds of the Baltic Sailors in 1918” by V.I. Sapozhikov published in 1954, it is less surprising Pavel Dybenko’s name and his role not just at the Narva operation but also in the Baltic fleet altogether are absolutely absent from the book. Importance and undeniable authority of the Tsentrobalt, which was the Central Committee of the Baltic Fleet, is stressed and underlined all through the book. It’s leader and chairman, Pavel Dybenko, however remains unmentioned.
In the book “Under Pskov and Narva, February 1918” written by A.I. Cherepanov and published in 1957 one would expect to finally come across some information concerning Dybenko’s incident at Narva as this whole book is devoted solely to the description of events that took place preceding, during and following the Narva’s defense operation. The author dwells on the causes and the consequences of the war for the young Soviet state and of the general political situation in Russia. He provides a complete list of the military detachments involved on both sides, depicts the battles, moves of both armies, etc. Our expectations are finally justified….but not much. Out of 140 pages of the book of the Narva and Pskov defense operation history only a little passage mentions Pavel Dybenko. The information is very scarce and compressed.
To dispel the myth of February 23rd and to answer the questions…Why would Pavel Dybenko be politically dangerous to the likes of Lenin and Trotsky? Why was it important to eliminate Dybenko from the political arena?...one must follow the ensuing study on the relationship between the early Soviet Government and Tsentrobalt between the time of Great October and May 1918. The outcome of the investigation reveals a struggle of political will between Vladimir Lenin the head of the “Bolshevik” party and Pavel Dybenko, the Chairman of Tsentrobalt.
Investigation of the historical record via archival research, numerous books on the era, newspaper accounts, and dogged pursuit of the truth exposes a story known to few, involving the actions of many if not all of the early leading Russian theorists and political figures. A faction of these men led by Lenin, inebriated with their new found power began to destroy the gains of social justice that defined Great October….a people’s popular uprising and revolution. Lenin’s “coup” and move toward complete dictatorship would happen in March of 1918…utilizing the Treaty of Brest Litovsk and the alleged events of Narva, Lenin will eradicate all opposition to his authority by removing all dissenting members of the Central Commiittee and more importantly remove his perceived military threat from Dybenko. Prior to February 23 Pavel Dybenko showed himself “unreliable” to the leading political power structure as he continued to maintain independence for the fleet and was surely attracted to defending October’s harvest.
This stance by Pavel Dybenko posed a political threat not rooted in minor disagreement or power struggles but in a populist and democratic vision for the Russian people that conflicted with the aims of Lenin’s faction of the Bolsheviki. Historical instances between Great October and February 23rd bear out Dybenko’s unwillingness to tow the party line and become subordinate to Lenin
In this writing I put forward that Dybenko’s court martial and later exclusion from positions of political influence arose from these political differences. Dybenko was too independent, willing to sacrifice Lenin and Trotsky, plus had the personal magnetism to attract followers
Decades apart, G.P. Maximoff and Noam Chomsky came to similar conclusions concerning the aims of Lenin’s faction of the Bolshevik Government, “the first things Lenin and his associates did upon taking power was to begin to destroy the soviets”.
Dybenko, the Russian Navy and its Soviet Tsentrobalt would also become a target. The “armed fist of the revolution” had to be broken, and like all things in Russia become subordinate to the Executive Committee and its Dictatorship of the People. A conflict between Lenin’s “opportunistic vanguardism” and Dybenko’s understanding of “representative government” was inevitable.
The written word of Dybenko being disloyal and someone not to be trusted can be found in the political spin of the Boshevik leaders. This includes the events of Narva. By reviewing the following examples of alleged insubordination by Dybenko and the alleged actions on the part of the politically powerful one can track the path of reaction and actions meant to harm Pavel Dybenko.
Deployment of personnel and ships during Great October
“The time has come to show how to die for the revolution! For it is better to die for freedom and dignity than to live without either.”
An Insurrection is impossible without the forces of the Baltic Fleet.
During the early hours of Great October and from Petrograd Lenin contacts via the wire Sheinman, chairman of the Helsingfors Soviet of Soldiers, Sailors, and Workers Deputies, and orders him to immediately have ships and submarines deployed to Petrograd. In reply, Sheinman stated he would have to get “Dybenko” on the wire since Lenin’s order was a naval question.
Not pleased, Lenin tries to convince Sheinman of the necessity of his request stating that Kerensky’s forces are fast approaching and have taken Gatchina, and as some of the Petrograd troops are exhausted we are in urgent need of strong reinforcements.
Lenin ended with “I expected you to say you were ready to come and fight”
Chairman Sheinman calmly responded, “It seems useless to me to repeat that. We have made our decision and consequently everything will be done”.
Unrelenting, Lenin contacts Izmailov, Deputy Chairman of Tsentrobalt, continuing in his attempts to direct the Navy by calling for “battleships to enter the Ships Canal!” Izmailov had to explain to Lenin that battleships are large vessels and cannot safely anchor in the Canal, he continues on the abilities of the ships…then with assurance recommends; “in short let the sailors and their command handle this.”
Chairman Sheiman speaks to the trust in Dybenko’s leadership and Izmailov symbolized the independence and confidence of Tsentrobalt.
If Lenin and his Executive Committee did not control the fleet’s actions: is it true the fleet was an element of “Lenin’s Bolshevik” party? Indubitably Lenin would have to work on the “political problem involving insubordination of the Baltic fleet”.
Not surprisingly, the powerful circle of Lenins’ faction of the Bolsheviks opposed the upright agreement between Pavel Dybenko and the Cossacks at Gatchina Palace.
The following recounts the events.
The Krasnov agreement—Great October
“Do you know whether it is true that Dybenko is here?,,,He is my enemy”
Alexander Kerensky, Head of the Provisional Government
The guards take Dybenko to the barrack where the Cossacks are resting. Dybenko asks if Kerensky is there and suggests guarding him in case he decides to flee. He speaks before the Cossacks for several hours about the betrayal of the Provisional government and about the new people’s power represented by the Soviets of workers, soldiers and sailors. He tries to convince them that they are the same working people as workers or sailors and that the new power will express their interests rather then interests of rich capitalists. He tells them about the new decrees of the Soviet government to stop the war and achieve the peace, to save the country from total destruction and give all the land to peasants, to establish control over the industry, to ban capital punishment in the military. By 8 o’clock in the morning he manages to convince the Cossacks to stop fighting and to arrest Kerensky. They agree on the condition that they have to get the approval of the Cossacks’ committee.
The Cossack Chairman proposed consideration of clause № 11 declaring that Lenin and Trotsky withdraw from government and abstain from any public activity until they have cleared themselves of the charge of having worked for the enemy. General Woytinsky witnesses the proceedings and observed ten Cossack representatives sitting on one side of a long table facing two sailors. Woytinsky recalled, “One of the latter was a big, strikingly handsome man, the notorious Dybenko, the ringleader of the Baltic Fleet”.
In the end Dybenko will agree to clause № 11 the last clause in an eleven point Cossack/Dybenko accord, otherwise known as the Krasnov Agreement. The truce agreement was amazingly fair and one that many saw as favorable to the Cossacks.
As you would have thought, the agreement was based on the understanding a coalition (soviet) government would be formed.
Clearly, Dybenko’s negotiations did not sit well with the politically dominant, Lenin is furious…Lenin demands Dybenko be court-martialed: Podvoiskii and others are in agreement. Interesting enough Dybenko is not court-martialed…yet.
Even though, as stated above, the Cossacks proposed clause № 11, a faction of the Bolsheviki leaders put forth the perception that Dybenko, perhaps only as a joke, found it possible to propose to Krasnov’s Cossacks, to exchange Kerensky for Lenin. Or that a ‘wily’ Dybenko had after some fighting offered to hand over Lenin to Krasnov’s Cossacks in exchange for Kerensky!
The viewpoint of Lenin and his faction of the Bolsheviki will be that Dybenko over extended his authority; he wasn’t authorized to come to an agreement with the Cossacks. The Soviet of the People’s Commissars declined to ratify the treaty, negotiated and signed by Dybenko. Declaring, Dybenko had the authority to arrange a cease-fire but did not have support to arrange a peace agreement with the Cossacks. The treaty is to be considered canceled
The potential obstacle to new policy had been revealed…
The two aforementioned incidences recount the fleet’s leadership…one which held unsympathetic attitudes toward Lenin’s directives then followed by Dybenko negotiating a truly democratic peace. Together these actions demonstrate the tone of the fleet’s attitude regarding its relationship with political leaders. Lenin will begin the task to reassign the power structure of the fleet and calls for a meeting with the sailors. The following events including the Sailor’s Congress adds fuel to an already burning flame.
The First All-Russian Naval Congress—1917 November 18-25
A meeting between delegates of the Navy are summoned less than a month after Great October…the outcome will determine the fate of Tsentrobalt. During the fourth day of the Congress Lenin addresses the sailors. On the agenda of the First All-Russian Naval Congress were questions concerning the activity of the Central Committee of the Navy and to introduce reforms in the Navy Department.
“The Congress’, Lenin said, “has to pass some serious resolutions dealing with raising the level of discipline, appointing commissars to every ship, dismissing the elective system of commanding staff. and other restrictive measures.”
There were “rumours” that the fleet was unorganized and in disarray. Yet at the congress Lenin beamed one could not deny the fact that the fleet was “operating independently and had created a new order…a brilliant example of practical government”
Lenin finishes his speech at the Congress and charges the sailors to support the revolution and Soviet Power.
With the knowledge that the trusted Dybenko would head any new administrative structure the naval congress agrees to transfer command of fleets and flotillas into the hands of the central committees of fleets and flotillas. The congress also adopts a resolution regarding this new administrative organization for the Navy, thereby forming the Supreme Naval Collegium, whose members were to include P. E. Dybenko as Chairman, M. V. Ivanov, F. F. Raskol’nikov, and V. V. Koval’skii.
Furthermore, during the congress Lenin will experience first hand the devotion and respect the sailors provide Dybenko. During the last session of the Naval Congress, the delegates were honoring men who had performed heroically during Great October by awarding these brave men new rank.
The ending question of the session discussed recognizing the service of Pavel Dybenko in the fight for the attainment of Soviet Power. In unity the delegates affirm the decision to honor Dybenko by awarding him the highest naval military rank available, an Admiral
At the podium Dybenko replied, “I want to thank you for all the attention though I ask you allow me to make a suggestion, I began this fight in the rank of a conscript sailor and as you see I have already been promoted to the rank of free citizen of the Soviet Republic, which for me is the highest rank available. Allow me to continue my service in this rank.”
The Congress exploded with applauds and loud hoorah’s…the ovation lasted for a very long time.
“Pavel Dybenko was exceptionally charming,’ a former soldier of the 3rd Kronshtadt regiment recalled, “Even now I can still picture him standing in front of me. A well built tall sailor, about twenty-eight years old, with lively black eyes and a small beard. I can still see his contagious smile.
The Marriage to Kollontai
I came to know Pavel Dybenko as being passionate, steadfast, and totally decisive, the soul of the Tsentrobalt, firm and determined.
We’ll have a Red wedding…..” They registered a civil marriage in the middle of November. “The record of my marriage with Pavel Dybenko”, remembers later Alexsandra Mikhailovna, “starts the new Book of Records of Civil State Acts in the Soviet country”.
Kollontai had been one of Lenin’s few advocates during the year 1917. She participated in the RSDWP conference in 1903 and played an active role in discussions of political will. At many meetings Kollontai stressed the importance of addressing concerns of the Russian female. She spoke constantly to workers groups, woman’s groups, and the men of the armed forces. It is by her political agitation that Kollontai would meet Dybenko. On that day the twinkle of Kollontai’s eyes no longer belonged to Lenin. According to Kollontai, Dybenko was everything that represented free will.
As member of the council of Commissars in October 1917, Commissar of Public Welfare Alexsandra Kollontai was the woman with the highest revolutionary profile. Her marriage to Pavel Dybenko, the then Military and Naval Commissar, was commonly referred to as the romance of the revolution. Dismayed but not deterred Lenin was effecting a plan that would see Pavel Dybenko dead or in the least discredited to a point of his removal from government.
As for Kollontai, Lenin’s longtime confidant, a turned back and the continued disparaging of her husband became predictable. Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership began describing Dybenko as a comrade of radical and unpredictable views, and Kollontai’s involvement with him lost her the confidence she previously enjoyed.
Nevertheless, Kollontai believed as did Dybenko a new dawn had arrived, that anything was possible, and both held close to their hearts the social triumphs of Great October
Complications between Dybenko and Lenin continue
The politically powerful are treated to another act of “defiance” by Dybenko and this time in plays out on the stage of the Constituent Assembly.
…Earlier that evening As Lenin was preparing to leave the Constituent Assembly he wrote an order…“Do not disperse the Constituent Assembly until today’s session is over”, the order went on to read, “Don’t let anybody in Tavrichski Palace tomorrow morning”.
Meanwhile, Tsentrobalt lieutenant Zheleznyakov approached Dybenko and reported,
“The sailors are tired, they want to sleep”
Zheleznyakov then asked, “What should we do?” Dybenko gave the order to disperse the Constituent Assembly after the People’s Commissars have left the Palace. Lenin found out about this order and was incensed. Lenin confronted Dybenko and demanded the order be cancelled. Dybenko responds, “Can you, Vladimir Ilyich, guarantee that no sailor’s head will fall down in the streets of Petrograd tomorrow?”Lenin fuming approaches Kollontai and seeks her cooperation to encourage
Dybenko revoke his command. Without success, Lenin reiterates his order to the sailor Zheleznyakov, an attempt to supersede that of Dybenko’s. Zheleznyakov reports to Dybenko the order Lenin gave meant to substitute his. Dybenko shrugs off Lenin’s order and suggests Zheleznyakov to go ahead and close the Assembly. Zheleznyakov asks, “What will happen to me if I don’t fulfill Lenin’s order?” To which Dybenko responds, “Disperse the Assembly and we’ll deal with it tomorrow.” Pavel Dybenko believed the Constituent Assembly was dispersed not on the day of it’s opening, but on October 25th, the sailor Zheleznyakov just executed the order of the October Revolution.
N. Krupskaya recalls in “Reminiscences of Lenin” a confrontation occurred between Lenin and Dybenko, in an entirely separate affair The following account is just another of numerous examples intended to pour scorn upon Dybenko.
…We sat drinking tea, talking to the different comrades who came in. I remember Kollontai and Dybenko among others. The sitting opened at 4 p.m. On his way to the hall Ilyich reminded himself that he had left his revolver in his overcoat pocket. He went back for it, but the revolver wasn't there, although no strangers had entered the apartment. Obviously one of the guards had removed it. Ilyich rebuked Dybenko for the lack of discipline among the guards. Dybenko was very upset. When Ilyich came back from the meeting hall Dybenko handed him his revolver, which the guard had returned.
Still another example of belittling Dybenko came to pass when in January of 1918, a German delegation arrived in Petrograd. Count Kaiserling chaperoned by Trotsky visited Petrograd as part of an official German International Relations assemblage is introduced to Ministers of the Government. After an introduction to Dybenko, the Minister of Marines, Count Kaiserling was said to exclaim: “Is it possible that this is the Minister of Marines? He cannot speak two words.
He is perhaps a brave man, but for a minister he is altogether impossible. It is the strength of the plebeian. It cannot be.”
The Birth of the Red Army
On the 15th of January the decree entitled, ‘The Scheme for a Socialist Army’ declared the formation of the Red Army and was signed not only by Pavel Dybenko but also by Podvoiskii and Lenin. Many years later in 1921, A. Oeuvre interviewed Trotsky who acknowledged the authentication of the decree.
Part of the whole was a document entitled ‘The Democritazation of the Navy’ instituting the reorganization of the fleet. Authored by Pavel Dybenko, the document speaks to the independence of the fleet along with other rights such as assembly, speech, and freedom of religion.
“All sailors of the Navy have the right to be members of any political, national, religious, economic, or professional organization, society or union. They have the right, freely and openly, to express and profess by word or mouth, in writing or in print, their political, religious, and other views.”
Furthermore, news outlets around the world declared; provisions for election by the universal suffrage of the sailors for the entire commanding personnel of the Russian navy is contained in the decree issued by Dybenko last Friday in his “for the democratization of the navy.”
Also, all sailors are to bear titles corresponding with their posts, such as commander engineer, and commander gunner. All appointments are to be confirmed by a central naval committee. Committees of the commanding personnel are to have the right to demand the removal of elected commanders, but the latter may appeal to the central committee.
The democratic minded Dybenko is sanctioned and Lenin’s response is swift as he authors;
‘The Order of Subordination of the Feet’Considering the wording of the note to § 51.(Democratization of the Fleet) to be inexact or based on a misunderstanding, since the text, if taken literally, implies a refusal to recognize the supremacy of the Soviet state authority. With malevolence, Lenin also threatens to take off the upcoming agenda Dybenko’s request for allotments toward sailors’ education and for the Naval Ministry.
The decision to remove Dybenko from power has been sealed. Lenin, V. Bonch-Bruyevitch, Dzerzhinsky and others plan an act of terror so heinous…resulting in the discrediting of Pavel Dybenko and the revolutionary sailors.
to be continued
translation into Russian by sparling-05