Report from the (Now Quiet) Fronts #54: A Legacy of Evil

When the Great War ended in November 1918 the Russian Civil War had already begun, and the Reds were losing. By the beginning of 1919 the entire northern Caucasus was dominated by the Whites under General Anton Denikin, while the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had become independent.  Northwestern Russia was still in the hands of the Allies, and White General Nikolai Yudenich had begun organizing an army in Estonia.  Siberia and the far east were controlled by the Allies, the Czech Legion and sundry White forces coalescing under Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who proclaimed himself Supreme Rule of Russia.  The low point for the Bolsheviks came in June 1919, when General Pyotr Wrangel took Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) on the Volga River, only 200 miles from Moscow.


Close to crushing Bolshevism

What was the problem?  Well, the emerging Marxism-Leninism ideology and its repressive methods were not at all the popular, especially among the peasantry, who wanted their own land and could hardly understand the proffered benefits of communism.  As the Civil War developed, the violent repression of the Bolsheviks seemed, if anything, worse than that of the Czar, and the confiscation of food supplies for the Red Army created man-made famines that understandably dampened any peasant enthusiasm.  Men like Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were not inclined to judicial process or mercy; threats and summary executions were the way to solve any problems.

Further, the Red Army was initially hardly a first class military force, despite the efforts of War Commissar Leon Trotsky (assassinated in 1940).  Workers could not be turned into effective soldiers overnight, and in any case many of the “recruits” were dragooned, essentially facing a choice of joining the cause or being shot.  Such men were hardly enthusiastic about fighting, especially when death threatened, and given the growing propensity on both sides to simply slaughter prisoners, surrender was hardly attractive.  The result was predictable: indiscipline, mutinies, desertions and flight in the face of the enemy.



The Bolshevik leadership of course saw this as the essential reason why the Reds were losing battles, and the solution was of course obvious: more terror.  In December of 1917 Lenin had created the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage – the Cheka (forerunner of the OGPU, NKVD and KGB) – a merciless secret police to eliminate political opposition, and in 1918 Trotsky organized the Special Punitive Department of the Cheka.  These were detachments that followed the Red Army and set up tribunals to judge soldiers, including officers (and the odd political commissar), accused of retreating, deserting or not showing enough enthusiasm.  Summary execution was very frequently the result.


Cheka on parade


Cheka at work


Even these draconian measures could not fully do the job, and in August 1918 Trotsky had the Cheka begin creating the notorious “barrier” or “blocking” troops, whose job was to shoot soldiers who retreated without orders, which generally meant just retreating, orders or not.  These were men from reliable Red Army units, but the Cheka was also building up its own paramilitary forces, which would swell to over 200,000 by 1921.  This was the beginning of the “Red Terror” (better, the “First Red Terror”), which by the end of the Civil War had executed anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 (conservative estimates) people.

The Red Terror, under the leadership of the head of the Cheka, “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky, established the basic mechanisms – intimidation, torture, extrajudicial executions and a degree of arbitrariness – that would characterize the security apparatus of the Soviet Union.  This was deemed necessary for the dictatorship of the proletariat to survive and was supported and justified by the ideology of the Bolshevik leadership: “To overcome our enemies we must have our own socialist militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia’s population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.” – Grigory Zinoviev (executed in 1936). And even those committed to the Bolshevik cause were not safe: “Do not look in materials you have gathered for evidence that a suspect acted or spoke against the Soviet authorities. The first question you should ask him is what class he belongs to, what is his origin, education, profession. These questions should determine his fate. This is the essence of the Red Terror.” – Martin Latsis (executed in 1937).


Iron Felix













Incidentally, a 15 ton statue of Dzerzhinsky was erected in 1958 in front of the Lubyanka, notorious home of the Soviet security apparatus from the Cheka to the KGB (and now of one of the directorates of the FSB, the current version of the Cheka).  It was torn down when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but a recent poll (2013) revealed that 45% of Russians want the statue re-erected.  Stalin would approve.


Felix before the Lubyanka

But the tide was turning. The White forces were generally as ruthless as the Reds, and their initial popularity quickly began to drain away. It also became clear that the major figures – Denikin, Yudenich, Kolchak, Wrangel – were not so much fighting for the restoration of the monarchy as for personal power. Further, the Red Army had the advantage of a central command and inside lines of communication, while the White armies essentially fought independently. And the Allies were leaving, as resurgent American isolationism and British war-weariness and near bankruptcy took hold; by the end of 1919 all significant Allied forces had left, except the Japanese, whose remaining forces were not withdrawn until 1925.

By the middle of summer 1919 the Red Army was larger than the White and capable commanders, like Mikhail Tukhachevsky (executed in 1937), were emerging and taking the offensive. On 14 October Tukhachevsky launched a counteroffensive after defeating the last White offensive on the eastern front and captured Omsk on 14 November. Kolchak’s forces began to disintegrate, and he surrendered his command to Ataman Grigory Semyonov (executed in 1946), who held the area east of Lake Baikal with Japanese support. The Japanese, however, began leaving in July 1920, and by September 1921 the remnants of Semyonov’s army, now little more than bandits, withdrew.


Kolchak’s retreat








With Kolchak’s army crumbling the Reds could concentrate on the south, and an alliance was made with the anarcho-communist Free Territory of Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine. Denikin’s army was soon in full retreat back to the Don River, and in March 1920 an attempt was made to evacuate the troops across the Kerch Straights to the Crimea. It was a disaster. Only 40,000 of Denikin’s men made it across, leaving behind their horses, heavy equipment and 20,000 comrades to the Reds. Denikin surrendered his command to Wrangel, who reorganized the army in the Crimea and invaded the southern Ukraine in October.


Denikin’s evacuation






The Reds appealed once again to Makhno, despite the fact that they had been attempting to assassinate him, and Ukrainian troops aided in the defeat of Wrangel in November. Less than two weeks later Makhno’s staff and subordinate commanders were arrested at a conference in Moscow and executed. Makhno escaped, but the Red Army and Cheka forces descended on the Free Territory with a vengeance, conducting a massacre of anarchists; Makhno carried on a guerilla campaign until August 1921, when he and a few men fled into exile. Wrangel, meanwhile, was unable to defend the Crimea, but he was able to evacuate all his people from Russia by November 1920.


The Free Territory



The threat in the west was the new Polish Republic, where head of state Józef Piłsudski was seeking to extend Poland’s frontiers east into Belarus and the Ukraine. After sporadic fighting throughout 1919 he launched a major offensive on 24 April 1920 and was immediately met by a Russian counterattack that drove the Poles back to Warsaw. But in August they destroyed the Red force, and the Russians accepted a cease fire in October. On 18 March 1921 the Treaty of Riga awarded Poland large chunks of Belarus and the Ukraine; the rest was absorbed by emerging Soviet Union.



Finally, in the northwest Yudenich, having guaranteed the independence of Estonia, launched in October 1919 an Allied-supported offensive aimed at capturing St. Petersburg. They easily reached the approaches to the city on 19 October, but Trotsky refused to surrender the birthplace of Bolshevism, arming the workers and rushing troops from Moscow. Soon facing three times the original number of defenders and dwindling supplies, Yudenich retreated to Estonia.











By the beginning of 1921 it was clear the Reds had won the war and now controlled most of the former Russian Empire, but troubles remained. The Russian economy had essentially collapsed (only 20% of the pre-war level), and requisitioning of food supplies by both sides, coupled with droughts, brought on the famine of 1921-22, which killed anywhere from two to ten million. The result was endless peasant revolts, which were crushed with what was now the standard brutality; in March 1921 in sympathy with striking workers in St. Petersburg the garrison of the Kronstadt fortress revolted and was promptly overwhelmed by 60,000 troops under Tukhachevsky. The Civil War offically ended in June 1923, but minor resistance continued into the 30s.






The human cost of the Civil War is impossible to determine with any accuracy, but by any estimate it was staggering. The White Terror killed some 300,000, including 100,000 Jews, while the Reds killed or deported 300,000-500,000 Cossacks. Perhaps 1-1.5 million combatants died in battle and captivity or from disease, and 7-8 million civilians perished in massacres and from starvation and disease; in 1920 some 3 million died of typhus alone. By 1922 there were perhaps 7 million homeless “street children,” dramatically revealing the extent of the carnage.


Street children

On 30 December 1922 the Bolshevik controlled republics – Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Transcaucasia – signed a treaty establishing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. By 1940 there would be 15 Republics, and as of 26 December 1991 there would be none. The de facto ruler of the new USSR was Vladimir Lenin, who was ruthless enough, but he died of a stroke in 1924 and Joseph Stalin took over and began eliminating all opposition and turning the workers’ paradise into a charnel house. Forced collectivization and rapid industrialization, for example, resulted in the man made Famine of 1932-1933, which left 7-8 million dead, and in just the two years 1937-1938 as many as a million people were executed. By Stalin’s death in 1953 anywhere from 20 to 30 million souls had perished due to his policies.


Lenin and Stalin 1922


The treaty creating the USSR



The face of evil





More English Poetry of the Great War

There was no glory in the industrial slaughter on the Western Front, and soldier poets considered the dismal reality of death and dismemberment.


Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen 1917

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918

Wilfred Owen













The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’

‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
‘ And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’

Siegfried Sassoon 1918

Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon ultimately became acquainted with Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Bertrand Russell, but he was initially – like many others – very naïve about what he was facing and his early poetry was more traditionally romantic.  His bravery is unquestioned; he earned from his men the nickname “Mad Jack” for his exploits under fire, was awarded the Military Cross in July 1916 and was recommended for the Victoria Cross. But he could not ignore the reality of the trenches and rapidly became disgusted with war.  In July 1917 he refused to return to the front after a convalescence and sent to his commanding officer a letter that was subsequently published and read in Parliament:

Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression (sic) and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

A Soldier's Declaration

A Soldier’s Declaration

This was pretty heavy stuff in the summer of 1917 and was considered treasonous by many and inasmuch as he was an officer a clear act of insubordination – “a willful defiance of military authority.” Presumably reluctant to suffer the embarrassment of court-martialing a war hero, the Under-Secretary of State for War declared Sassoon unfit for service, and he was sent to a hospital for “shell shock.”

Sassoon is echoed after the war by G.K. Chesterton:


 Elegy in a Church Courtyard

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.

G.K. Chesterton 1922

G.K. Chesterton 1874-1936

G.K. Chesterton













Death of a Housewife

My mother, Mary, died in her sleep in the early hours of 17 September, just two months short of her 94th birthday. Her mind was slipping away (though she still knew me in August), and her life had shrunk down to a soporific existence in the narrow confines of the “memory” ward at her retirement home. She really had no desire to go on living once her husband of 70 years died three years ago, but in this society suicide is illegal (thank you, Christianity) and there was no way we could help. Unlike many poor souls she had the money for an incredibly expensive nursing home, but she seemed to just shut herself down.

What a honey!

What a honey!

Mary was born in 1921 in San Francisco, the youngest of some eight or nine children (I no longer know how many) born to Martin and Ana Kolačević, who had emigrated from Croatia before the First World War. (At least I think it is Kolačević; it is Klotovich on Mary’s birth certificate, but this does not seem to be an actual Croatian surname.) It always amazed me, once I had grown up, that this old lady living in San Francisco in the 1980s was once a subject of Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Mary and her siblings attended Mission High School in the late 1930s, where she and her sisters were very popular, partly because their brothers were all star athletes.

Ana and Martin Kolačević

Ana and Martin Kolačević


There she met my father, Earl Berthold (see earlier post Death of a Salesman), who was certainly an unlikely candidate for this attractive young woman. He was a skinny, model-building nerd, but he could dance and he could make her laugh. They were both A students, but of course they had no opportunity for college in the later years of the Great Depression. You can imagine my father dining with the Kolačević family (My grandfather was already dead of Black Lung.), dealing with a mother who only spoke Serbo-Croatian and burly brothers who apparently wondered about this non-athletic wimp their sister was dating.

Mission High

Mission High

Grandma Kolačević seemingly recognized good material in Earl, but she did have one demand: her daughter was certainly not going to marry a non-Catholic. Fortunately, Earl, who was some sort of Protestant, hardly cared and was happy to take instruction. (My parents were minimalist Catholics and ceased any involvement with the Church once their boys opted out.) They married in 1942, while my father was in the Army Air Corps, and stayed that way until Earl died 70 years later, producing two sons, one of whom is writing this.

The happy couple

The happy couple

Mary was a quintessential housewife, and the only real full time job in her lifetime was working in a cigarette factory during the war, which, needless to say, enhanced her popularity. She cooked and cleaned and raised the kids while my father went off to bring home the bacon, though I do not recall her doing housework wearing dresses and heels like June Cleaver. When Earl returned home from selling truck bodies, they always had a couple of drinks before dinner, old fashions, I think, though in later years this turned to wine.

The four Kolačević sisters in middle age

The four Kolačević sisters in middle age

Children of the Depression, they were both very responsible people, particularly financially, and began saving for college the day I was born. After the war (I think) they bought a small house in San Francisco, and in 1956 they got upwardly socially mobile and moved about eight miles south of San Francisco to Millbrae and bought a new ranch style house. Millbrae, like all the San Francisco Peninsula, would become a bedroom community for the City, and the house they paid $17,000 for is now worth over a million. There they stayed for the rest of their lives. And the habits of a lifetime never died: my mother was still clipping store coupons in her eighties.

New house

New house

Old house

Old house

Party on, mom!

Party on, mom!

They discovered golf in their forties and became addicts, playing through their seventies; Mary was by far the better golfer. Like her husband, Mary was a voracious reader, especially in her later years, and they certainly entertained, at least until all their friends were dead or dying.

Above all Mary was my mother. When I visited, I talked mostly with my father, who was interested in history and world events, but it was my mother to whom I responded on a visceral level. When I was with her, I automatically watched my language, and when I returned for a visit after a year and a half at Cornell and they met me at the airport, she said nothing and only cried because I had grown my hair long. I had it cut the next day. No matter what my age, when I was around Mary, I was fifteen years old.

Earl and Mary and a son in old age

Earl and Mary and a son in old age

My only real regret concerning this woman is that for a variety of reasons my brother and I never provided her with grandchildren – this branch of the Berthold family ends with us.

Next summer my brother and I, following my father’s wishes, will bury their ashes at the Russian River, north of San Francisco. There Mary and Earl had danced during their younger days, and until the sons were too old we went there every summer for two weeks and stayed in cabins built during the Lincoln administration. But it was affordable for the young family, and it was wonderful.

They are both gone now, and a large measure of joy has left my life.

Grief Again: Lucy

(This is perhaps self-indulgent, but it is born of love.)


Lucy the dog, our companion for eleven years, embarked on her last journey Sunday morning. She was a big rescued dog of indeterminate age and ancestry. She was found tied to a sidewalk pole, where she had been left unattended for three days. She had a hernia that was repaired, but she was frightened of humans, evidence of abuse by some useless human animal. With one blind eye and a wart on her face she was not an attractive dog – people always commented on how cute Alfred  was but said nothing about Lucy.  But she was beautiful to us.  She got used to us and became Alfred’s constant companion. In her later years she suffered from a torn ligament and arthritis, but with pain killers life was still good, if considerably slower. Last week she suffered from a bleeding nostril of unknown cause, but it seemed to be getting better, when she began having serious trouble getting to her feet and difficulty sleeping.  We needed to come to the terrible decision and perform our last act of love for her.

       Lucy 2000? - 2014

2000? – 2014

It seemed harder to see Lucy off than had been the case with Alfred, probably because she was the surviving dog and for all her leg problems still seemed to be enjoying life. Her ashes will also be placed by a tree planted for her, next to Alfred’s, and they can in some sense be together again.

Lucy, Alfred and George the cat.

Lucy, Alfred and George the cat.

I have already written about the meaning of pets and the nature of grief – see “Grief: Alfred” (2013/11/01) – and will not repeat it all here. Suffice it to say that like Alfred she was a member of our family, as important to us as any child, and the grief is very, very real.  Like Alfred, she will be remembered so long as Denise and I are alive.





Grief: Alfred

(This might appear self-indulgent, but it is something I need to do.)

Alfred the dog, our companion for twelve years, reached the end of the line yesterday. He was a mix of terrier, bouvier and god knows what else, rescued from a shelter as a pup. He was having increasing difficulty using his hind legs to get up and did not seem to be enjoying life anymore, so we allowed him to leave us gently, falling into a sleep from which he would never wake. Fortunately, he did not have to suffer, as we compel humans to do. His ashes will be placed by a tree planted for him. (This is not at all easy to write this.)

   Alfred 2001-2013


People who have no pets cannot understand how dear a cat and dog will become. They are not “just animals,” but rather members of the family, especially for those whose children have grown up and moved away. They offer unquestioning love, yes, even the cats, who will respond to attention and affection no less than the more domesticated dog. And time and again dogs, albeit unknowingly, have risked or sacrificed their lives to rescue an endangered family member.

Death is inevitable and as much a part of life as birth, but it is very difficult to entertain that thought when actually confronted with it. We keep telling ourselves that Alfred lived a very long life (a dozen years is ancient for a dog of some eighty pounds) in a wonderful home, playing with his life-long comrade, Lucy the dog, but it hardly helps. The grief is still just as real and no less crushing than had a human family member died. And we know that little things – his favorite spot empty, the extra leash, only one food bowl at dinner time – will sustain that grief for a considerable time. Distraction eases the pain, but you suddenly remember and feel guilty that you are doing something other than grieving. In the quiet moment you remember and try to fight replaying the whole event over in your mind. But we also know from experience that in time the grief will subside, replaced by a sweet memory, tinged with sadness.

We have buried a dozen cats in the last forty years, and every death was a blow, especially since virtually all lived into their middle and late teens. But Alfred was our first dog, and his death has hit particularly hard. Cats can be very affectionate, but they are independent creatures, whereas a dog is completely and absolutely devoted, and the loss is consequently greater.

We knew this was coming, but it was only yesterday that we had to face it and make the dreadful decision, when it was clear that Alfred had crossed a line in the night and was no longer comfortable. But the day before he was still in good enough shape to have one last walk and enjoy reading the doggy pee-mail and sniffing a neighbor dog with Lucy. We have a vet who makes house calls, so Alfred could quietly expire in his home, surrounded by his family, including the cats. Lucy could not of course understand what was happening, but she certainly sensed something was wrong.

Lucy is also an old big dog, perhaps even older than Alfred, and she is arthritic and walks with some difficulty. But with pain medication and shorter walks she is obviously enjoying life, even if it is more limited. Her time is also growing short, and we will have to face this unpleasantness again, but the grief is a small price to pay for years of joy and unquestioning, undying love.



Alfred lives on in our memory, and that memory will last as long as Denise and I live.