The Latvian Red Rifleman in the Russian Civil War 1917-1922

The Monument of the Latvian Red Rifleman

The Monument of the Latvian Red Rifleman

The formation of the Latvian Rifleman regiments had national causes. Latvian land was invaded by the German army, and large numbers of Latvians applied to make national armed forces in the Russian army. The Czar Nicholas II had doubts about that – he remembered the revolution of 1905 where Latvians took active role. After three years of war his fears became true – Latvian rifleman joined the Bolshevik revolution. Latvian red rifleman is one of the controversial subjects in Latvian history. Praised by Lenin, doomed by Stalin and hated by nationalist Latvians, Latvian rifleman had made their place in Russian history. Their role in the Russian Civil war are often overestimated and filled with many myths. Only in last twenty years we are able to discover who these men really were.

As mentioned the Latvian rifleman regiments were originally formed in 1915 to defend Riga from the Germans and liberate rest of the Latvian land. Latvian rifleman fought in heavy frontline for two years. In the outcome, Germans could not capture Riga, but Russian army also was unable to chase Germans away. Latvian rifleman suffered heavy losses in battles of Island of Death (1916) and the Christmas Battles (1917). Latvians were angered by the incompetence and hypocrisy of the Russian high command. Also the Russian supporting divisions were not much of a help.

On 23-27 February (8-12 March) Czar Nicolay II resigned. Russia was now ruled both by Provisional government and by the Petrograd Soviet. The two government situation led to confusion and rivalry. The armed forces now became center of political fight arena.

The Interim government was ready to continue war, while Bolsheviks promised peace and bread. The leadership of 12th army where Latvians fought tried to establish loyal executive committee called Iskosol. However, Latvians had no interest about it. On 26 March representatives of the rifleman first met at Valmiera and decided that they must continue to fight and support the Petrograd Soviet. They also asked for autonomous Latvia in democratic Russia. Soon the rifleman circles were entered by the Bolshevik agitators. From 9 to 11 April in Riga 1st rifleman congress took place deciding to organize united officer and soldier executive committee or Iskolatsrel.

The Iskolatsrel was ruled by far left-wing majority, however there were calls for Latvian national autonomy. The leading figure was staff captain Ozols. Despite the presence of right wing views among Latvians, the Bolsheviks started to gain upper hand. They were superbly organized and experienced. Their sympathizers were mainly low rank soldiers, while officers were more nationally minded. Also there so-called Mensheviks that fell out with the Bolsheviks and asked to support the Provisional Government. On 29 May at Second rifleman congress conducted a resolution that disapproved the Provisional government and asked the handover of power to the workers, soldiers and peasants.

On spring 1917 the German general staff decided to finally capture Riga and encircle the 12th army. The attack was set at 1 September and Russians were aware of this. However, the army was demoralized and could not withstood the German cannonade and fell back. However, Latvian rifleman continued to resist faced Germans at Mazā Jugla. Facing German majority, Latvian rifleman held of the offensive rescuing the Russian army units who retreated in panic.  Even despite Bolshevik sentiments the Latvian riflemen were ready to defend their homeland. In same time loyal to Russian government units fled without a fight. Latvians managed to hold for 26 hours and then retreated with the rest of the 12th army. The army was saved but Riga was lost.

Meanwhile in Petrograd (Petersburg) the Provisional government started to lose its power. Bolshevik uprising in July and Kornilov Affair in August made Lenin stronger.

When 12th army was in disarray on 25 October (7-8 November) Bolsheviks seized the power by coup and called it an international revolution. Majority of the Latvian rifleman supported this. Only small circle of Latvian officers and nationally minded soldiers gathered in Latvian National Soldiers Union. The Iskolatsrel lead by Bolsheviks turned down the right wing Latvian National Provisional Council.

For a short time a Soviet power was established in Latgalia and much of Vidzeme. Meanwhile in Petrograd it was decided that Red Guards and Sailors are not enough to defend the city. So first Latvian rifleman 6th Tukums regiment was sent to defend the Bolshevik headquarters in Smolny institute. Many Latvians were against this. The new arrived Latvians took part in disbanding the Constituent Assembly 19 January 1918.

Lenin could not legitimize his seizure of power. The Russian army had collapsed and the new Red Guards were poorly disciplined. So Latvian rifleman who still kept relative unity and discipline were summoned to help the Bolshevik revolution. A Latvian revolutionary corpus was made. On 19 February 1918 Germans launched a full-scale attack to capture all parts of Latvia and Estonia. Latvians retreated this time. On March Latvia rifleman marched in Moscow. Russia was already full of Latvian refugees from WWII. Latvian riflemen were forced to abandon their homeland, but their will was still strong and hopes for returning were high.

Latvian Red Rifleman in Red Square at Moscow

Latvian Red Rifleman in Red Square at Moscow

On 3 March Soviet Russia signed peace agreement with Germany. The Russian military command was reorganized; all high command posts were disbanded and staffs were fired. It turned out that of destroyed multi-million Czar army only Latvian rifleman were left intact. At Moscow 5700, at Petrograd, Toroshin and Bologoje – 6000 Latvian man still were ready to fight. Initially an order came to disband the Latvian regiments, however with the lead of commander Jukums Vācietis the order was disputed. While Soviets officially declared that they have an international army, they were forced to include national division in their ranks. Latvians had great reputation and still ready to fight. Also Estonian divisions in the Red Army were formed.

On 13 April 1918 the Soviet Wartime and people’s commissariat issued an order to form Latvian Soviet rifleman division. The commander in charge was Vācietis, and commissars were Pētersons and Dozīte. It was one of the first divisions in the Red Army. Nearly all remaining Latvian men joined, all believed in coming defeat of Germany and the liberation of Latvia. Most of them took the rifleman regiment as their family and had nowhere to go since the border was closed. At the end of 1918 there were 23-24 thousand man in the division along with 400 machine guns, 80 cannons and 20 airplanes.

 One of the first serious Latvian battles in the Russian civil war was the uprising of the Czech legion May 1918. The legion of Czech and Slovak nationals was formed from prisoners of war and included in the Russian army. Soviets initially promised to transport them over Vladivostok to France. However, Soviet war commissar Leon Trotsky ordered to disarm them. A legion of size of 51 000 man revolted and too over large areas from Volga to Far East. After first incidental encounter between Latvians and Czechs, that proved successful for Latvians, more regiments were sent to deal with the enemy.

On 6 July at Moscow the anti-Soviet leftist movement the Socialist Revolutionary Party of so-called Esers, launched a coup against the Soviet government. Latvians took the most important part in defeating the Eser uprising that crushed this important movement completely. Latvians also crushed the Esers at Yaroslavl, where ex Latvian rifleman officer Kārlis Goppers was one of the anti-Soviet leaders. Also another Latvian officer Fridrihs Briedis was arrested by Cheka.

As the situation in the Eastern front was critical Latvian officer Vācietis was appointed as the commander in chief of the whole Red Army. At night between 16 and 17 July Soviets murdered the whole family of Czar Nicholas II. It has been speculated for many years that Latvians took part in the murder. While Latvian historians drastically denies that any Latvian took part in the shooting, Russian historians name at least one Latvian named Celms and claims that five other Latvians refused to fire at the Czar’s children.

Jukums Vācietis - the High commander of the Red Army

Jukums Vācietis – the First Main commander of the Red Army

Latvians took the most part in defending the Kazan. On September British Secret service agent’s ambassador R. H. Bruce Lockhart and Sidney Rielly was provoked by Latvian rifleman in to plot to depose the Soviet government. British believed that the Latvian rifleman will help them to stage a coup, however it was a trap by Cheka and the ambassador was arrested.

Latvians were sent to Southern front to face the Don Cossacks. Latvians remembered the actions done by Cossacks in Latvia in 1905-1907. However in 11 November 1918 Germany surrendered ending the WWI. On 13 November Soviet Russia annulled the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. Latvians were ready to go back to homeland and make it as Soviet republic. On 18 November in Riga the right-wing Peoples Council proclaimed the Republic of Latvia as national independent state. Soviets saw this as an obstacle. On 23 November the Commissar in the National issues Joseph Stalin ordered to form a provisional soviet Latvian government. That was done in 4 December. Soviets needed the puppet republics to justify the occupation of the Baltic States.

On November Red Army Pskov division entered Latvia. Latvians were still far behind caught up in other sectors of the whole civil war front. Latvian riflemen were told that the democratic Latvian provisional government is actually ruled by German barons and whole idea of sovereign Latvia is just a German trick to annex Latvia. Latvian government was forced to cooperate with Germans and ask for their armed assistance. However, both sides knew that is a temporary union dictated by the Soviet offensive. Latvian government issued a call to Latvian rifleman to join the ranks of the new Latvian army. Rifleman never heard this and it would not change much. On 18 December first red rifleman entered Latvia.

While the Latvian government had issues forming their own army, red rifleman defeated Germans at Inčukalns. On 3 January 1919 red rifleman brought Soviet power to Riga. A Latvian Soviet Army was formed with Vācietis in charge. The head of the Latvian Soviet government was Pēteris Stučka. Latvian army along with Germans were chased away to Courland and held small strip of land from Ventspils to Liepāja.

However, soon troubling news came from Estonia. Estonian army had defeated the Red Army and head into Northern Latvia. Red riflemen were sent to face the Estonians but were beaten. Estonians had effectively defeated the red rifleman along Valka.

The Soviet plans for communist revolution in Germany crumbled. Latvian Soviet government carried out nationalization angering the peasants who at first believed that Soviets will give them land. Soviets issued a mobilization and gathered a force of 250 000 man – young, untrained without any will to fight. Red rifleman in the end managed to stop Estonians from taking all of Vidzeme. Meanwhile Germany sent a large force of auxiliary forces of the so-called “Iron Divison”.

Germans along with Latvians started the offensive on February. Soviets were defeated in all fronts also Estonians continued to attack at northern Latvia. In April Estonians formed the 1 Valmiera infantry regiment made of Latvians, many of them deserters from the Soviet army. The mobilized Latvians refused to fight and joined the Estonian ranks.

Latvian Soviet republic crumbled. On 22 May Germans captured Riga. Latvian army followed behind but met their fellow Latvians in the battlefield of Kaugurciems. Soviets were chased away from Vidzeme and retreated in Latgalia. After Germans and Latvians turned against each other in the battle of Cesis, the situation stabilized. Meanwhile Moscow was unsatisfied with the red rifleman and renamed the Latvian Soviet Rifleman division to 53 Rifleman Division removing its national status. At last a communist fraction was made within division to suppress any anti-soviet activity.

On July red rifleman were sent to Belorussian front to fight Lithuanians and Poles. Disappointed Latvian rifleman left their homeland for the last time. On September they were sent to fight of White Guard offensive to Moscow. Latvians now fought on the fields of Orla and Kursk. After finishing Denikin Latvians were sent against Yudenich at Tula region. While other Red Guards run off from approaching White Guard tanks, Latvians did not lost courage and stood against them. Latvian rifleman entered Eastern Ukraine and encountered Anarchists lead by Nestor Makhno.

Meanwhile in Latvia at the winter months Latvian army liberated Latgalia. On 1920 news came to faraway rifleman about peace talks between Latvian Republic and the Soviet Russia. It now came to Latvian rifleman that their cause for free Latvia was lost and those who they stood against were the real heroes.  There was no way back they were trapped in Soviet Russia.

The Insignia badge of the Latvian Red Rifleman

The Insignia badge of the Latvian Red Rifleman

Despite that the remaining Latvian forces fought battles in Crimea. After a year of hard battles the remaining Latvian rifleman divisions were finally disbanded. Large numbers of Latvian rifleman choose to move to independent Latvia. Others however stayed. Many of them like Vācietis, Bērziņš, Pētersons and others stayed in Soviet Russia and took high governmental posts. In the purges of 1937-1938 the remaining elite of the Latvian rifleman was eliminated. Soviet leadership disliked the Latvian rifleman from the start, but was forced to relay on them.

Stalin destroyed most of the top Latvian red rifleman. After the occupation of Latvia, the Soviet propaganda remembered about them and used to justify the Soviet power. Monument commemorating them was placed in center of Old Riga. Museum dedicated to them was built nearby which now serves as a museum of occupation.

The reason why the Latvian Red Rifleman is sometimes called the core of the Red Army and the rescuers of communist revolution was their great discipline and will power. The Red Army units were often unorganized and cowardly. The Soviet commanders lacked talent. So the Soviet leadership sent Latvians to the most troublesome spots of the front where other Red Army units could not handle. The main dream of the Latvian rifleman was to liberate Latvia from the Germans. The fate made to fight for Soviets that did not want any independent Latvia. Undoubtedly many really believed the Soviet propaganda, but seeing how many left Russia for Latvia in disappointment shows that real ideal for them was their fatherland. Latvians did took part in many Soviet atrocities, however in overall Latvians were one of the most disciplined in the Red Army. The fate of the Latvian Red rifleman is one of the greatest tragedies of the Latvian nation. 20 years later Latvians again were forced to fight in the Soviet ranks where they met their Latvian brothers in Nazi ranks. Latvians must never again fight in ranks of the totalitarian armies. The main army for Latvia is our National Armed Forces that is a pride of our nation.

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