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Fourth International, Autumn 1959


Larissa Reissner

From Svyazhsk


From Fourth International, No. 7, Autumn 1959, pp. 24–25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Of Larissa Reissner, author of the following, Leon Trotsky himself wrote in My Life:

[...] This fine young woman flashed across the revolutionary sky like a burning meteor, blinding many. With her appearance of an Olympian goddess, she combined a subtle and ironical mind and the courage of a warrior. After the capture of Kazan by the Whites, she went into the enemy camp to reconnoitre, disguised as a peasant woman. But her appearance was too extraordinary, and she was arrested. While she was being cross-examined by a Japanese intelligence officer, she took advantage of an interval to slip through the carelessly guarded door and disappear. After that, she engaged in intelligence work. Later, she sailed on warships and took part in battles. Her sketches about the civil war are literature. [...] In a few brief years, she became a writer of the first rank. But after coming unscathed through fire and water, this Pallas of the revolution burned up with typhus in the peaceful surroundings of Moscow, before she was even thirty. Born 1 May 1895 of a German landowner father and a Polish mother in Vilna, Poland, Larissa Reissner was educated in Germany and France; rallying at once to the Russian revolution, she became its “burning meteor” before she was 22.

From her sketch of the defense of Svazhsk, we have excerpted here only her evaluation of Trotsky’s qualities of leadership; but its descriptive parts are of a fascinating brilliance, and we heartily recommend them and the rest of her work, insufficiently known abroad, to German-reading comrades, who will find them in her Oktober: Ausgewählte Schriften.

[...] In conditions of constant danger and with the greatest moral exertions, [the Red Army] worked out its laws, its discipline, its new heroic statutes. For the first time, panic in the face of the enemy’s more modern techniques became dissolved. Here one learned to make headway against any artillery; and involuntarily, from the elementary instinct of self-preservation, new methods of warfare were born, those specific battle methods which are already being studied in the highest military academies as the methods of the Civil War. Of extreme importance is the fact that in those days at Svyazhsk there was precisely such a man as Trotsky.

No matter what his calling or his name, it is clear that the creator of the Red Army, the future chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, would have had to be in Svyazhsk; had to live through the entire practical experience of those weeks of battle; had to call upon all the resources of his will and organizational genius for the defense of Svyazhsk, for the defense of the army organism smashed under the fire of the Whites. [...]

In the party and in the masses there lived only a foreboding; a creative premonition of [a new] military revolutionary organization which was never seen before and to which each day’s battle whispered some new real characteristic.

Trotsky’s great merit lies in this, that he caught up in flight the least gesture of the masses which already bore upon it the stamp of this sought-for and unique organizational formula.

He sifted out and then set going all the little practices whereby besieged Svyazhsk simplified, hastened, or organized its work of battle. And this, not simply in the narrow technical sense. No. Every new successful combination of “specialist and commissar,” of him who commands and the one executing the command and bearing the responsibility for it – every successful combination, after it had met the test of experience and had been lucidly formulated, was immediately transformed into an order, a circular, a regulation. In this way the living revolutionary experience was not lost, nor forgotten, nor deformed.

The norm obligatory for all was not mediocrity, but on the contrary, the best, the things of genius conceived by the masses themselves in the most fiery, most creative moments of the struggle. In little things as well as big – whether in such complex matters as the division of labor among the members of the Revolutionary Military Council or the quick, snappy, friendly gesture exchanged in greeting between a Red Commander and a soldier each busy and hurrying somewhere – it all had to be drawn from life, assimilated and returned as a norm to the masses for universal use. And wherever things weren’t moving, or there was creaking, or bungling, one had to sense what was wrong, one had to help, one had to pull, as the midwife pulls out the newborn babe during a difficult birth.

One can be the most adept at articulating, one can give to a new army a rationally impeccable plastic form, and nonetheless render its spirit frigid, permit it to evaporate and remain incapable of keeping this spirit alive within the chicken wire of juridical formulas. To prevent this, one must be a great revolutionist; one must possess the intuition of a creator and an internal radio transmitter of vast power without which there is no approaching the masses.

In the last analysis it is precisely this revolutionary instinct which is the court of highest sanction; which exactly purges its new creative justice of all deeply hidden counter-revolutionary backslidings. It places its hand of violence upon the deceitful formal justice in the name of the highest, proletarian justice which does not permit its elastic laws to ossify, to become divorced from life and burden the shoulders of Red Army soldiers with petty, aggravating, superfluous loads.

Trotsky possessed this intuitive sense.

In him the revolutionist was never elbowed aside by the soldier, the military leader, the commander. And when with his inhuman, terrible voice he confronted a deserter, we stood in fear of him as one of us, a great rebel who could crush and slay anyone for base cowardice, for treason not to the military but the world-proletarian revolutionary cause.

It was impossible for Trotsky to have been a coward, for otherwise the contempt of this extraordinary army would have crushed him. [...]

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