Friday, April 24, 2009

The Soviet - Polish War of 1920

On March 29 (in ) I discussed the article Katyn Massacre and the Polish Officer Corp, based on the book Katyn Detective by Y. I. Mukhin, 1995. Mukhin in a fascinating article argues that the Polish elitist officer corps was arrogant and opportunistic and entirely deserving of being shot and buried at Katyn; however it wasn’t Soviet Russia who gave these officers what they deserved, but Nazi Germany. One can read Mukhin’s article at .

I want to revisit Mukhin’s article to take up one of his assertions, namely “As part of the all out imperialist assault against Soviet Russia, the newly created Polish state launched an unprovoked invasion into its neighboring countries in 1920. The new Soviet Russia was powerless against the Polish invaders . . .”

In Juggernaut, A History of Soviet Armed Forces, chapter 2, “Revolution for export: The Battle for Poland, 1920,” Malcolm Mackintosh takes a different view than Mukhin. It should come as a surprise to no one that years before the Neocon’s sought to export Liberal Democracy, the Communists sought to export Communism. On page 35 Mackintosh writes, “From the earliest days of the Soviet regime, Communist Party leaders had debated the possibilities of using the Red Army to bring revolution to other European countries. In spite of the severe pressures of the civil war at home, Lenin and his colleagues had seriously considered forming a Red Army contingent to cross the Carpathians and link up with the short-lived Communist regime in Hungary in 1919. It was natural, therefore, that as the Soviet Government’s internal foes weakened and the White armies were driven back across Siberia and the North Caucasus, the problems created by the appearance of a new Polish state on Russia’s western frontier increasingly occupied the attention of the Bolshevik leaders. Poland stood between revolutionary Russia and the heart of industrial Europe, where, according to classical Marxism, the real proletariat, whose adherence to the Revolution would give the Communist cause its worldwide victory, was to be found.”

In the meantime, and beside the Communist point, we see here two newly formed governments with an ill-defined border. [p. 36] “. . . the whole area from Estonia to the Black sea was in a state of confusion so great that its future seemed to depend on the ability of each contender for power to seize and hold the territory he thought was rightfully his. . . Polish troops did . . . capture Minsk in August, 1919, but thereafter they took up defensive positions along the Berezina River . . . on March 29 the Poles [said] they would be ready to talk only on the basis of the Russo-Polish frontier of 1772, which would give Poland most of the territory which her troops now occupied with further extensions into the Ukraine. When the Russians showed no inclination to accept the Polish conditions, Pilsudski resolved to strike hard at the Soviet Western Front while the military odds were in his favor.”

Soviet leadership wanted to engage in some Communist military evangelism in Europe; and they would have to go through Poland to get to Europe, but not everyone thought they were ready. A lot in Soviet leadership wanted to invade Poland, just not yet. Had they settled on the 1772 border that Poland wanted, they probably could have gotten around to conquering Poland at their leisure, but they weren’t willing to give up any territory. The Soviet regime was (stupidly) very like the Nazi regime in not wanting to surrender any territory. And so on March 11, 1920 Lenin authorized “some preliminary planning for operations against the Polish troops on the northern sector.”

The Polish War of 1920 was an ongoing hot topic in Soviet Russia, perhaps until the USSR fell, but not as Mukhin would have it. The Red Army, everyone believed, should have defeated the Polish Army and because it didn’t, this war held the attention of “all groups in the Red Army -- the cavalry commanders, the young Communist military leaders, the ex-colonels and –generals of the Imperial Army, and the professional staff officers at Supreme Headquarters. For ten years or more they argued about its failure, each placing the blame on other shoulders. Egorov and Voroshilov, with Stalin’s support, blamed Tukhachevski and Kamenev; Tukhachevski blamed Budenny, stalin, and Egorov; Shaposhnikov at Supreme Headquarters blamed Tukhachevski and Egorov; and, in fact, the Soviet military press is still arguing about it today [1967]. The only person whom no one could blame was Trotsky, who had opposed the campaign all along on the grounds that the Red Army was too weak and its resources were too strained to overthrow Poland, much less carry the revolution into central Europe.”


The Soviet Union’s desire to spread Communism into Europe militarily was quashed (until World War II) by Poland’s desire to have its 1772 borders. I don’t believe anyone in the Red Army would agree with Mukhin’s view that Imperialistic Poland took advantage of “powerless” Soviet Russia. According to Macintosh the Red Army could and perhaps should have won. The Red Army wasn’t powerless but it was disorganized and had too many political leaders who didn’t know what they were doing militarily. I know Stalin is much admired in Russia today, but I see no evidence that he knew very much about how to fight a war.

From a counterfactual standpoint I wonder how Liberal Democracy would have fared in the Cold War had Trotsky rather than Stalin become Lenin’s successor. Trotsky seems more competent in every respect except ruthlessness. We might still be involved in the Cold War if Trotsky had become premier of Russia – either that or we’d all be Communists.

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