Yakov Ozerov and the guilt of Trotsky

Yakov Ozerov
Yakov Ozerov

A short biography of the Maximalist Yakov Ozerov, Makhnovist chief of staff.

Submitted by Battlescarred on September 28, 2021

Yakov Vasilievich Ozerov came from a peasant family in the North Caucasus. He became a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, and then of its left split, the Union of Socialist Revolutionaries-Maximalists. He took part in the 1905-1907 Revolution. He was a staff captain in the Tsarist army, commanding a cavalry company. Arrested, he managed to escape and fled into exile in 1908.

In 1917 he returned to Russia and joined the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, whilst remaining a Maximalist by conviction. He later rejoined the Maximalists. From the end of 1917 he was an assistant to the military commissar of the North Caucasus. In spring and summer of 1918 he was company commander of a Kursk detachment of Maximalists, fighting the Whites, and was wounded several times. He was arrested by the Cheka in July 1918, but was later released and joined the Red Army, acting as a military expert in the North Caucasus.

In March 1919 he was appointed by the Bolshevik Pavel Dybenko as chief of staff of the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Ukrainian Army, commanded by Makhno (the Makhnovists working within the Red Army in this period). The Bolsheviks thought that he was now their man, but he quickly adopted the political positions of the Makhnovists. He was responsible for repelling the advance of the Whites on Berdyansk.

The Makhnovists had negotiated with the Soviet authorities and according to Arshinov, became part of the Red Army on the following basis, that the internal order of the Makhnovist units remains the same, that they receive political commissars appointed by the communist government; that they are subordinate to the Red high command only in operational terms; that they are not withdrawn from the anti-Denikin front; that they receive military equipment and upkeep on a par with the units of the Red Army, that they continue to be called the Revolutionary Insurgent Army, and keep their black banners. This pact was seen as purely military by the Makhnovists and did not compromise the social structures in the region controlled by the Makhnovists, whilst assuring them of arms, ammunition and other materiel.

It was then suggested by the Red command headed by Pavel Dybenko, that the election of commanders in the Makhnovist detachments be abandoned, that their Military Revolutionary Council was abolished, that commissars be admitted to the brigade headquarters and regiments for political agitation. The Makhnovists agreed to the admittance of the commissars and to Ozerov as chief of staff but maintained election of commanders and the Military Revolutionary Council.

Referring to the situation on the Ukrainian front, Skachko, commander of the 2nd Ukrainian Army reported that “There is nothing to oppose the enemy, for the 3rd Brigade of Makhno, being continuously for more than three months in battles, receiving only miserable crumbs of uniform and having in addition such unreliable neighbours as the 9th Division, completely exhausted...” The Makhnovists had hoped to have received arms when they joined the Red forces, but only received 3,000 Italian rifles, which turned out to be useless, as only a small amount of ammunition was provided. This appears to have been deliberate and was admitted as such by Antonov-Ovseenko.

Relations between the Bolsheviks and the Makhnovists were fairly cordial whilst Antonov-Ovseenko was in charge of affairs in the Ukraine. All this changed with the arrival of Trotsky in the Ukraine on May 16th, 1919. Sent by the Bolshevik leadership to deal with the threatening situation in the Ukraine with the White offensive, his main concern was to defeat partisanism (partisanshchina) as a principle, which seemed to be a priority before the defeat of the Whites. Both Lenin and Trotsky were opposed to partisanism, Lenin writing in 1917 that 'One should shun partisanshchina like fire, the arbitrary operations of individual detachments, the disobedience vis-à-vis the central power. It leads to ruin.” He later added in July 1919, referring to the struggle against Denikin’s Whites that “The partisan spirit, its traces and remnants, have caused our army more suffering, defeats and catastrophes, more losses in life and material than all the betrayals by [former Tsarist] military experts.”

For Trotsky, the fight against partisanism meant dropping the policy by Antonov-Ovseenko which looked towards a united front between the various partisan bands in the Ukraine, including the Makhnovists, against the Whites. Those who refused to thoroughly conform to Red Army discipline were regarded as hostile. Trotsky regarded Antonov-Ovseenko as too easy going, too intelligent. Put under pressure by Trotsky and the leadership in Moscow, Antonov-Ovseenko reacted by replying in a telegram: “I cannot fulfil your orders. I do everything I can, I do not need prodding. Either trust, or resignation”. This was regarded as insubordination, and coupled with a number of defeats, this meant the end of his role as commander of the Ukrainian front. Along with this, the Red commander Skachko was replaced by Voroshilov, who adopted an intransigent attitude towards partisan detachments.

Rather than look towards the looming threat of Denikinist victories, Trotsky was more concerned with the elimination of Makhno and the Makhnovists. As a result, He published an article “Makhnovshchina” on June 2nd in his paper On the Road, published on his armoured train. This was reprinted two days later in the Bolshevik paper in Kharkov, Izvestia. This stated: “Makhno and his closest co-thinkers consider themselves Anarchists, and on this basis they "reject" state power. So then, they are enemies of the Soviet power? Obviously, since Soviet power is the state power of the workers and working peasants. But the Makhnovites cannot bring themselves to say openly that they are against Soviet power. They dissemble and prevaricate: local Soviet power they say they recognise, but they reject central power. But all the local Soviets in the Ukraine recognise the central power which they themselves have elected. Consequently, the Makhnovites actually reject not only the central Ukrainian authority but also the authority of all the local soviets in the Ukraine. What then do they recognise? They recognise the authority of the Gulyai-Polye Makhnovite soviets, that is, the authority of a circle of Anarchists in the place where this has temporarily succeeded in establishing itself. This is actually the entire clue to the political wisdom of the Makhno movement... Makhno's "army" is partisanism at its worst, although there are in it quite a few good rank-and-file fighters. No hint of order and discipline is to be found in this "army". There is no supply organisation. Food, uniforms and ammunition are seized wherever they happen to come to hand, and they are expended in the same careless way. This "army" also fights when it feels like it. It obeys no orders. Individual groups advance when they can, that is, when they encounter no serious resistance, but at the first firm push from the enemy they scatter in all directions, surrendering stations, towns and military equipment to an opponent small in numbers. The blame for all this lies wholly with the muddle-headed and dissipated Anarchist commanders. In this "army", commanders are elected. The Makhnovites shout raucously: "Down with appointed commanders!" This they do only so as to delude the ignorant element among their own soldiers. One can speak of "appointed" persons only under the bourgeois order, when Tsarist officials or bourgeois ministers appointed at their own discretion commanders who kept the soldier masses subject to the bourgeois classes. Today there is no authority in Russia but that which is elected by the whole working class and working peasantry. It follows that commanders appointed by the central Soviet Government are installed in their positions by the will of the working millions. But the Makhnovite commanders reflect the interests of a minute group of Anarchists who rely on the kulaks and the ignorant.”

On June 3rd, Trotsky demanded of the Makhnovist headquarters that it occupy an additional 10 kilometre section of the front from Slavyansk to Grishino. This was an impossible demand, as one division cannot hold two hundred kilometres of a front. Trotsky was further enraged by the fact that a congress of the Makhnovist free Soviets was scheduled for June 15th in Gulyai Polye.

Despite the fact that the Makhnovists were the only forces holding back the White advance Trotsky began his move against them. He instructed Rakovsky, the Bolshevik political boss in the Ukraine, to start taking measures against them. On June 4th Trotsky abolished the Ukrainian Front, and prohibited the Makhnovist congress, which he regarded as a “crime and betrayal”. Delegates to the congress and any distributors of the call for the congress were threatened with arrest and trial by the 14th Army of the Soviets. Voroshilov as commander of the 14th backed him up, outlawing any congresses in the area controlled by his forces. On June 6th Rakovsky threatened to use the sword of Red terror against the leaders of the “kulak counter-revolution”. On the same day Denikinist forces broke through, with the 9th Division of the Red Army offering no resistance, into the Gulyai Polye area and slaughtered the Makhnovist detachment led by Boris Veretelnikov. The detachment had no ammunition (see above) and had only bayonets and were hacked to death by Shkuro’s Cossacks. A meeting of Makhnovist commanders was quickly convened. The following day, Gulyai Polye was recaptured by the Makhnovists in a heroic attack. By now, the Reds were beginning to realise the gravity of the situation, and they alternated between panic and gloating over the defeat of the Makhnovists. Shkuro attacked the flank and rear of the 13th Red Army, which began to disintegrate. As a result Voroshilov and Mezhlauk, another Bolshevik commander, headed towards the Makhnovists in an armoured train, sending out a telegram in advance to hold the front. Whilst this was going on, Trotsky had issued his Order No.105 stating “To defectors to Makhno-execution”, followed on June 8th by a declaration that the Makhnovists were responsible for the defeat of the Red Front in the Ukraine! “Who is responsible for our recent failures on the Southern Front and especially in the Donetsk Basin? The Makhnovists and the Makhnovshchina...The Makhnovist units turned out to be completely incapable of fighting, and the mounted White Guards drove them in front of them like a herd of sheep”. The Reds sent “reliable honest military units” to the Gulyai Polye region, which promptly destroyed the Rosa Luxemburg agricultural commune set up by the Makhnovists, and severely beat its chair, Kiryakov. A few days later, the Denikinists appeared and shot him.

In response to this situation, Makhno sent a telegram to Trotsky, with copies to Lenin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, asking to be relieved of command of his division. He explained elsewhere: “Trotsky in an article entitled “Makhnovshchina” ...proves that the Makhnovshchina is, in essence, a front against Soviet power, and does not say a word about the actual White Guard front, stretching for more than a hundred miles...”
Voroshilov hoped to lure Makhno to his armoured train at Gaichur station, so that he could arrest him and have him shot. But the train found itself surrounded by the Whites and Makhno had to come to the rescue by hitting the Whites from the rear with a small cavalry detachment. Voroshilov sent messages of gratitude, but Makhno refused to visit him on the train, well aware of the treacherous plans. He informed Voroshilov that he would now raid into the rear of the Denikinist forces.

Addressing the Makhnovist forces on June 15th, Makhno said: “Contrary to Trotsky’s desire to push us into Denikin’s arms, we passed the test brilliantly. Surrounded by tribunals that shoot us, without ammunition and shells, we...moved forward”.

Voroshilov was furious that Makhno had escaped. On June 15th members of the Makhnovist headquarters were captured and shot by the Cheka two days later. They included the anarchists Mikhalev-Pavlenko (1), Burbyga (2) and Oleinik, all seasoned Makhnovists, and the Left SRs Korobko, Kostin, Polunin, and Dobrolyubov. Arshinov was to write later: ““On June 11 or 12, 1919, being on a combat train and not even for a minute leaving the battles with the advancing Denikinites, Mikhalev-Pavlenko, along with Burbyga, was treacherously captured by Voroshilov, the commander of the 14th Army, and executed on June 17, 1919 in Kharkov ". Viktor Belash confirmed that “On June 17 in Kharkov, under the chairmanship of the Trotskyist Piatakov (members: Buzdalin and Rafailov), the Extraordinary Military Tribunal of the Donetsk Basin met. Among those sentenced and executed within 24 hours were members of the former field headquarters of the Insurrectionary Division.” The verdict of the tribunal was that ““The so-called “Makhno Headquarters ”is guilty of disorganizing the Soviet power in the Gulyai Polye region, that is, just in one of the most important areas of the frontline ...Here a breakthrough was formed, bursting through which the Whites attacked the Red Army in the flank and in the rear. During the panicky retreat of the Makhnovist detachments, the headquarters, after the capture of Gulyai Polye, criminally fled and, moreover, with such haste that all communication was lost, and some responsible officers of the headquarters did not know who had fled where”.

As for Ozerov, he was involved in continuing to fight the Whites. Having crossed over to the right bank of the Dnieper, he was arrested by the Reds and shot on August 2nd, by a verdict of the Ukrainian Cheka presided over by the bloodthirsty Latsis.

Thus Ozerov and the others became scapegoats for the failure of Trotsky and Voroshilov to take the White threat seriously.

The murder of Ozerov, Mikhalev-Pavlenko and the others was not forgotten by the Anarchists, Left SRs and Maximalists. It was one of the reasons behind the explosion at the building of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party, which caused ten deaths and injured 55 others on September 25th, 1919. This was engineered by members of the anarchist and Left SR underground. They issued a statement June this year which noted:”An extraordinary military revolutionary tribunal shot seven rebels in Kharkov: Mikhalev-Pavlenko, Burbyga, Oleinik, Korobko, Kostin, Polunin, Dobrolyubov, and then Ozerov. September 25 this year the revolutionary insurgents avenged their deaths on the Moscow Committee of the Bolsheviks. Death for death!”

(1)Mikhalev-Pavlenko. Anarchist syndicalist. Former railway official and post and telegraph worker. An active participant in the revolutionary events in Petrograd in 1917-1919. In the spring of 1919 he came from Petrograd to join the Makhnovist movement, and served as a member of its headquarters of the Makhno brigade, and on the Military Revolutionary Council (VRS). He was in charge of the engineering and technical units of the movement. A close friend of Makhno, who was greatly upset by news of his execution.

(2) Burbyga. Also from Petrograd and also organiser of postal and telegraph workers. Also on RVS and adjutant of Makhnovist headquarters, and later assistant chief of staff.

Nick Heath

Shubin, Alexander. Red and black: the split between the Makhno and the Bolsheviks:

Golovanov, Vasily. Trotsky needs a scapegoat: