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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Tribunes of the Revolution: Mikhail Frunze -- Civil War General



From the June 1976 issue of Soviet Life magazine we republish this look at the life of the great early Soviet military and revolutionary leader, Mikhail Frunze:


The name of Mikhail Frunze ( 1885-1925 ) is one of the most honored in the history of the country's Socialist Revolution and the first years of Soviet power. A comrade in arms of Lenin, he was one of the architects of the Red Army victories during the Civil War and foreign intervention ( 1918-1920) and later served as People's Commissar ( Minister) of the Army and Navy.



The Crimea is familiar to many Americans from the history of World War II. In February 1945 the heads of the three big powers -- Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin -- met at Yalta in the Crimea. The decisions made there helped bring the war to a successful conclusion. A street in Yalta was named alter Franklin Delano Roosevelt In memory of those days.


Victory in the Crimea


But let us go back to earlier events connected with the Crimea. Washed by the Black and Azov seas, this small peninsula is linked to the mainland by the Perekop and Chongar isthmuses. In 1920, the third year of the Civil War that racked the young Soviet republic, a White Guard army under Baron Pyotr Wrangel, a former czarist general, was concentrated in the Crimea. Wrangel built a strong system of trenches, dugouts and artillery barriers across the isthmuses and, believing his position impregnable*, launched an offensive on the mainland in the southern part of the Ukraine. Supplied by foreign supporters with the best available weapons, ammunition and other equipment, including tanks, his White Guard troops were a serious threat to the Soviet republic.


By the fall of 1920 the Red Army had successfully completed its operations in all other areas, and the large front in the south was the only one left . Lenin declared that Wrangel had to be routed as soon as possible, before winter set in. The Red Army's best forces were directed to

that area, and Frunze was put in command of the Southern Front.


When he arrived , Wrangel was stepping up operations to a maximum in order to seize the

Donets coal basin.



But Frunze saw through the enemy's plan . The Soviet troops first paralyzed Wrangel's attempts and then closed a pincer around the White Guards on the mainland, dealing them a crushing blow at the end of October 1920. After losing a considerable portion of his men and equipment, Wrangel withdrew to the peninsula behind his fortifications on the isthmuses.


On November 7, 1920, the third anniversary of Soviet power, Frunze gave the order to storm

the Crimea. It was a tough job. Without heavy artillery or naval support, the Soviet troops had

to advance over open terrain in summer uniforms in the face of an icy wind (the temperature had dropped to 10 below zero Celsius), and then storm fortifications on the narrow isthmuses under cannon and machine gun fire.


Frunze decided to deliver the initial blow, not head on, but on the flanks, across shallow, swampy Sivash Bay, bypassing the main fortifications. It was the last maneuver Wrangel expected. On the dark night of November 7-8, Soviet divisions forded the bay and delivered a stunning blow to the enemy. Immediately afterward other Red Army divisions stormed the main enemy defenses. “The Crimean Verdun” as Wrangel had dubbed his positions, fell ingloriously, and the White Guards fled to the peninsula's southern shores, where the remnants of Wrangel's army and their hapless general quickly boarded ships that would carry them to ports in patron countries.


On November 16, 1920, Frunze cabled Lenin: "Our cavalry seized Kerch today. The Southern

Front is liquidated."


Lenin wrote that this victory was one of the most brilliant pages in the history of the Red Army.

In recognition of his services in the Crimean operation, Frunze was presented with the highest

revolutionary award of the time: a sword with a gilded hilt and an order of the Red Banner attached to it. The inscription on the blade read, "To a people's hero."



Choosing a Road


Mikhail Frunze was born in Central Asia, the son of a medical orderly. His father was Moldavian, his mother from a Russian peasant family. After graduating from the gymnasium with a gold medal, he entered the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology in 1904. He was a good student who, his professors predicted, would become a successful engineer.


But Frunze chose a different kind of life. Communicative, warmhearted and sensitive to injustice, he could not remove himself from the social strife around him. A revolution was maturing, and Frunze, who had made his first acquaintance with the concepts of freedom while still a gymnasium student, became involved in the social democratic movement and joined its Leninist sector.


The shooting down of peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg on January 9 ( January 22, New Style ), 1905,** made young Frunze a revolutionary. The day after Bloody Sunday he wrote to his mother, “The streams of blood shed on January 9 demand retribution. The die is cast. I have crossed the Rubicon; my road is clearly defined. I dedicate myself wholly to the revolution. Don't be surprised, no matter what you hear about me. The road I have chosen is not a smooth one..."


A popular revolution began to build up at the beginning of 1905. The Bolshevik organization sent Frunze to the textile city of Ivanovo -Voznesensk, one of Russia's major industrial centers.


Since the party had been outlawed, he took a pseudonym, Comrade Arseny.


In the spring of 1905 a strike broke out in " textile land,” the biggest the country had ever seen. It went on for 72 days. In the course of the strike the workers' economic demands were supplemented with political demands for the overthrow of czarism and the establishment of a republic.


For the first time, strikers began to form their own bodies of popular, democratic power - Soviets of Working People's Deputies. Such Soviets were later formed in other industrial centers. Subsequently, Lenin built his concept of a republic of Soviets around these bodies. The victory of the Socialist Revolution in October 1917 made this concept a reality.


In December 1905 an uprising against czarism broke out in Moscow. Mikhail Frunze arrived at

the head of several armed workers detachments from Ivanovo - Voznesensk and Shuya. Under his command the detachments guarded workers demonstrations in Moscow and fought on the barricades.


In April 1906 the Fourth Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party was convened in Stockholm. Frunze took part as a delegate from the Bolshevik organizations and supported Lenin's program.


School of Courage


After returning from the congress, Frunze continued his underground work. But in March 1907

the previously elusive Arseny was arrested. Twice a czarist court sentenced him to death. However, because of public pressure, the death sentence was commuted. Frunze spent seven years in prison and then was exiled to Siberia.


The reminiscences of people who knew him during that period give us a picture of Frunze

as a revolutionary. Boris Ovchinnikov, a lawyer who defended him in the czarist court, wrote:

“Frunze had a tender nature, gentle and delicate. There were no contradictions in his personality. His courage was above all tranquil. Take this incident: He spent two whole months after his second sentence in a death cell, but in those two months he didn't turn gray,

didn't go mad, but studied the Italian language. And with the most limited facilities . He was allowed only the Bible, in the Russian and Italian languages, in his cell." Soon he began to read the Divine Comedy in the original. He also knew Latin, German, French and English (the last he also learned in jail).


During the time he spent in prisons, in a convict colony and in exile he studied history, economics and military strategy. When World War I began, he arranged talks with his comrades in exile on the situation at the fronts.


Fyodor Petrov, an old Bolshevik who was in exile with Frunze, recalled: "His reviews of developments at the fronts were so so profound and interesting, we could listen to them for hours. We later realized that his military knowledge came from books, and his practical experience from training workers detachments."


In the poetry Frunze wrote at the time, we find these lines:


Freedom, freedom! One word only ,

But how it fires body and soul!


Several times he tried unsuccessfully to escape from jail. He did, however, escape from exile. He turned up with a forged passport on the Western Front and managed to become an official in a military board office. With other Bolsheviks he built a strong Leninist Party organization in

the army that became a center of revolutionary work among the soldiers.


In February 1917 the second popular revolution in Russia finally overthrew czarism. State power fell to the bourgeois Provisional Government. But along with this government, everywhere there emerged 1905-type Soviets. In Minsk, today the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Frunze formed workers combat detachments to defend the Soviets against the counter-revolutionary forces.


In the fall of 1917 Frunze returned to Ivanovo-Voznesensk. He was elected chairman of the

Soviet of Workers' , Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies in the neighboring city of Shuya and led

efforts to set up Soviets in the surrounding area.


In Shuya the October Revolution was achieved without bloodshed, but In Moscow the counter-revolution put up armed resistance, and Moscow's Bolsheviks needed help. Again, as in 1905. Frunze arrived with workers armed detachments from Shuya and lvanovo-Voznesensk and took an active part in the fighting.


Military Leader


With the establishment of Soviet power, Frunze became wholly absorbed in building socialism. Unprecedented new relations were taking shape. and party activists were given new responsibilities. The party organizations, the Soviets, the new economic bodies all needed personnel. Frunze had the knack of rousing and directing the in-exhaustible spring of popular initiative.


But the young Soviet republic's peaceful days were very brief. The leaders of the counter-revolution, whom the victors had magnanimously set free, immediately began to conspire against the power of the workers and peasants. The country's borders were also threatened with armed inter-vention from outside. As early as July 1918 Frunze helped put down a counterrevolutionary uprising in Yaroslavl, and in August of the same year he was appointed commissar of the military region which embraced all of Central Russia.


Soon the party sent him to the Eastern Front. a vast area on the left bank of the Volga. The White Guard armies there were commanded by Alexander Kolchak, a czarist admiral who proclaimed himself "supreme ruler of all Russia." He was planning the "swift seizure of Moscow," since March 1918 the seat of the Soviet Government. headed by Lenin.


On the Eastern Front, Frunze first commanded an army group and then all the front's armies. It was there that his military talents were fully revealed: his ability to pinpoint the main threat. concentrate all effort against it. Secure a super-iority of forces at a key sector and, through maneuvers and determined action, press on to rout the enemy. He initiated a counteroffensive which developed in to a general victorious offensive against Kolchak.


In the fall of 1919 and the first half of 1920. after fulfilling Lenin's order to liberate the Urals. Frunze commanded the Turkestan Front. which embraced all the territories of the present Central Asian republics and Kazakhstan. Here the troops he led breached the White Guard barrier which separated the Soviet Central Asian regions from the rest of the Soviet republic. and assisted the rebelling peoples of the Khiva and Bukhara emirates.


In this struggle against the White Guards and nationalist counterrevolutionary forces Frunze displayed his striking talent as a statesman, his broad vision, his ability to skillfully combine military action with political and diplomatic measures. Himself a native of Central Asia, he under-stood the customs and traditions of the Moslem population. His wise policy did much to forge the friendship between the Russian people and the numerous peoples of the Soviet East.


"To Make War Impossible"


Later, after Wrangel was routed. Frunze headed a Soviet diplomatic mission to Ankara. where he met with Kemal Atatark. leader of the Turkish national liberation struggle and founder and first president of the Turkish Republic. Their talks played an Important role in creating a basis for friendship and good-neighborly relations between Turkey and the Soviet state.


From 1921 to 1925 Frunge served in the government of the Soviet Ukraine and as USSR People's Commissar of the Army and Navy and Chair-man of the USSR Revolutionary Military Council -- then the supreme body charged with the defense of the Soviet state.


Drawing on the teachings of Marxism-Leninism. he systematized the Red Army's experience and formulated principles which influenced the development of Soviet military strategy. Frunze saw the function of the armed forces in a workers' and peasants' state as defense of the people's peaceful labor.


He was aware of the growing importance of sophisticated equipment in contemporary warfare but felt that the decisive role was played by human beings, by their high morale based on a clear understanding of the justice of the socialist cause.


A military leader of the Revolution's armed forces, which went Into action only when the socialist state had to be defended. Frunze was an ardent and determined champion of peaceful relations among all peoples. "The Soviet Union." he wrote in 1925, "consistently and unwaveringly fights for peace. The main aim of our policy is to lead the working people out of the bloody torrent of war and make all war impossible. The Soviet republic has exerted and will continue to exert every effort to establish peaceful cooperation among countries and peoples." This approach outlined by Lenin is the Soviet Union's basic policy on international affairs.


Frunze's grasp of the laws governing social development enabled him to predict a number of events. Thus, in 1925, eight years before the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, he said: "There is not a single large bourgeois state at present, with the exception of the North American United States, which would insist on a policy of nonrecognition and disregard of the USSR. ... In the near future the United States of North America will also have to change its stand. It is inevitable; the entire logic of international relations impels it...It is impossible not to recognize us since every day we become a stronger factor in international relations, a factor carrying considerable weight in international politics."


Frunze's life was short. He died on October 31, 1925, at the age of 40, at the peak of his creative ability. He was burled at the Kremlin wall in Moscow's Red Square, near the Lenin Mausoleum. Frunze's son Tina proved worthy of his father. A military pilot he was killed on a combat mission against the Nazis near Moscow in the winter of 1942. The title Hero of the Soviet Union was conferred upon him posthumously. The capital of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. where Mikhail Frunze was born, was re-named in his honor. The Military Academy was also named for him. This Academy, which Frunze once headed, trained many outstanding Soviet Military leaders who became famous on the battlefields of the Great Patriotic War against nazism (1941-1945).


*Special U.S. emissary Admiral McKelley, who was then in the Crimea, declared in August 1920 that with proper support from outside Wrangel could hold the area indefinitely.


** This demonstration of the capital's working people began in the most peaceful way. With their wives and children, the workers marched from the city outskirts to the Winter Palace, the Czar's residence (today it is the Hermitage Museum). They were dressed in their

Sunday best and carried church banners, icons and portraits of Czar Nicholas II. The purpose of the demonstration was to hand the Czar a petition in which they asked him to relieve their suffering. The Czar's reply was a cold- blooded attack against the unarmed people. Over a thousand men, women and children were killed and about 5,000 wounded. That day became known as Bloody Sunday, and the tragedy gave direct impetus to the first Russian revolution

of 1905-1907.




Article by Pyotr Koltsov, Soviet historian.

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