Briedis | bit.ly/cfbh_briedisKārlis Lobe, 1963—David Guild, 1993

 37 

4.

Resisting the Bolshevik revolution

B
ecause of his serious wound Briedis was evacuated deeper to the rear. As a result of the Christmas battles he was promoted to Lt.-Colonel and, on being appointed to the command of the 1st Daugavgriva regiment, he was straightaway made up to full colonel, although he had still not fully recovered from his wounds. In March 1917 he hurriedly returned to his regiment.

The 'great bloodless' revolution had taken place accompanied by the slogan - remove all obstacles which might delay the union of the people's forces with the allies in the successful struggle for final victory. This was the centrepiece of the people's wishes and aspirations. Yet there was much naivety and intellectual confusion in the hope of the people and the army that one could push aside with a light hand all that was strongest and most unshakeable in one's consciousness; it was expected that with speeches and with agitation alone, without any compulsion, those subjected to the new authority would purely in the name of reason and the 'discipline of conscience' advance into the enemy fire with even greater enthusiasm than they had done earlier when compelled to do so by the dictates of the old order.

To begin with - for at least a month - it seemed that, whatever was the case elsewhere, in Latvian regiments it might turn out this way. Already in the first days of the Revolution there had appeared the socalled 'Order No.l', which in the long run was to threaten the previous good relationship among the troops, but which the riflemen very tactfully - perhaps it was like this in all Latvian regiments - seemed to ignore. However, then there was the slogan: transform the imperialist war into a civil war. Here a strange foreign element crept in. Also the composition of the riflemen, including the officers, had become noticeably different. From Trotsky's memoirs we know that, bearing in mind the events of 1905, Lenin devoted greater activity to winning over the Latvian rifle regiments, sending especially talented agitators to them. Bolshevik societies were organized in each company and command.

For Germany this was a great relief. Ludendorff said of this: 'How often had I hoped for a Russian revolution to alleviate our position, but always it has turned out to be a fool's 38  paradise[1]; now it has arrived. Now a great weight has been lifted from my heart. It is necessary to strengthen through propaganda the acute desire for peace among Russian troops. The Russian revolution is one of these events which a military commander cannot foresee as a definite factor in his calculations; but now it is not only a hope but a reality, with which the soldier can come to terms.' Now it is also known how he has come to terms with it. At that time too it was obvious and clear, but one did not dare say so. 'Fraternisation' with the Germans was now a duty of the 'revolutionary avant-garde'. But in what other way could one transform the 'imperialist war' into a civil war in the units of the armed forces, if not by inciting the men against their own officers and instructors!

Briedis, of course, did not look helplessly on at what was happening around him. In order to isolate those riflemen in the regiment who did not wish to adopt the Bolshevik position from the importunities of the agitators, he organised the so-called Iron Company. Already because of its past, the 1st regiment did not have a good reputation with the Bolsheviks. Now this company annoyed and alarmed them. Also, when the regiment went up to its positions, fraternisation began even in this regiment; but it was almost immediately broken off. 'The officers were guilty', said the former 1st regiment rifleman and pre-war social democrat-Bolshevik, I. Adamsons. Particularly after the 17/30 May resolution of the Latvian Rifle Regiment's executive committee relations between officers and men began to worsen sharply. It is obvious that they tried especially to blacken Briedis, though this turned out to be difficult.

Briedis still had not lost confidence in reason. The officers elected him and one other to the All-Russian Union of Officers which met with the Commander-in-Chief at Mogilev in the middle (Old Style) or end (New Style) of May 1917. A. Skrodelis who took part as a Russian division representative, said that Colonel Briedis came up to him after a pessimistic speech and said: 'Lt. Skrodelis, it's not so hopeless. Just believe and it won't be so. Something elemental has started, but it will also come to an end.' The professional power-seekers knew that reason is powerless against instincts which have been set free and excited. Briedis was elected to the leading position in the Union.

Attempts, too, to organise defences after the fall of Riga 39  had no success. So, standing in our trenches in Sigulda 'we threw back fairly frequent German attacks', wrote J. Ulpe. Yet, when the regimental commander Briedis tried to persuade the riflemen to go over to the attack, they again refused and only went out on patrols.

The collapse went even further. At the end of October came the dismissal of commanders and the election of new ones. In many units this had already taken place earlier and in reality the officers hadn't any power at all since the middle of summer. Everything was determined by committees. Briedis finally realised that continuing to fight against the Germans in such conditions was impossible. To save the officers from humiliation, he used the rights he still possessed to issue certificates transferring them to the reserve of officers at Vitebsk. I cannot really find an explanation of resignation, except that it was connected with the Bolshevik Revolution in Petrograd.

On 25 October/7 November the Bolshevik organisation received news of the outbreak of revolution in Petrograd and, along with it an instruction for the regiment to go to Cēsis. The 'revolutionary leadership' of the regiment tried to delay its departure. Over the next few days some of the 'reactionary' officers escaped; among them was the regimental commander, Briedis. Particular officers were arrested on the instructions of the regimental committee. G. Krēsliņš said that after their dismissal from their posts and the movement of the regiment to Cēsis, Briedis and Bolšteins were arrested and placed under house arrest; but a few days later it appeared they had been released. In Valmiera the officers had received documents placing them in the officers' reserve at Vitebsk, where Briedis and Bolšteins were. The main organiser in Vitebsk was Colonel Briedis. At Vitebsk it was made known that those who wished could join a 'union for the defence of freedom and the motherland'[2]; almost all the Latvian officers who were in Vitebsk joined the union and, divided up into groups of five, they departed.

K. Būmanis said that Briedis had divided the Latvian officers at Vitebsk into Petrograd and Moscow groups for action. In Briedis' speeches can be heard appeals to fight for the Constituent Assembly, for that body had promised autonomy for Latvia which could not be expected from the Bolsheviks.

As far as Briedis' arrest at that time is concerned, according to the Latvian 40  Conversational Dictionary this took place in Valka, but Briedis escaped. The man sent to arrest him was the president of his regimental committee. It is true of his escape that he asked permission to go out, but none of the guards accompanied him and so he never returned.

In such a way must stand out, both in the regiment and among riflemen in general, one who laid the most splendid foundation for his reputation.

The author himself visited General Goppers and Colonel Briedis when they, having set off and stopped in Valka, subsequently failed to turn up. I found them in a small, narrow hut; for some reason Briedis had been feeling ill and was in bed. He did not say anything. The Latvians were not on their own the majority of the guards - there were never so many of them as they proclaimed, and some units were Latvian in name only. Not a few of the simple riflemen, but also a greater part of the Latvian intelligentsia who took part in the war were on the opposite side - with the intention of fighting against the Bolsheviks, against a 'transformation of war into civil war' - and for the true aim of the revolution, the Constituent Assembly, which had already been democratically elected and expressed the wishes of the inhabitants at that time. On this side were not the privileged, but the oppressed; not only those who were comparatively well provided with worldly goods, but often those in want. Briedis strove to be active in this area. This side of the Latvians' struggle and the troubles they incurred has been much neglected, while on the Bolshevik side everything that took place has been lauded to the heavens and in the usual hyperbolic manner.

So, on 13 December 1917, collaborating with Goppers in Petrograd were gathered approximately 120 former officers from the Latvian riflemen who, as platoon and group commanders, must have been part of those regiments which had originally promised to defend the Constituent Assembly. At the last minute these regiments repudiated that decision. Here one has to ask what has become of these several thousand Russian officers who in November had been gathered together in reserve in Vitebsk? So too the group of Latvian officers must have scattered, each their own way.

At the end of January Goppers, who was supposed to have joined his family, was still staying in Moscow with several officers hoping to meet Briedis. He knew that about 40 Latvian officers were with him. Briedis had already been acquainted for more than a month with their circumstances and was hoping that a strong officers' organisation would be created to cleanse Moscow from 41  the Bolsheviks and join up with General Alekseyev (the leader of the forces supporting the Constituent Assembly). Politically this would be acceptable to the Latvian nationalists, for they 'were ready for any sacrifice which would save their country from being conquered and occupied by the Germans - though they now considered the Bolsheviks the more immediate enemy, as allies of the Germans'. Round about this time (the beginning of February) Briedis had already made approaches to some 12 different officers' organisations and was already in contact with some of them. Then Goppers changed his mind and left Moscow to work alongside Briedis.

Conferences with the officers' groups pointed to even more comforting numbers of supporters. But when one began to check it turned out to be otherwise. In one group where there were 60 members on the books, only four could be located. Other groups too were not much more substantial. So to our surprise it was the Latvian group which, in the end, turned out to be the strongest. Thus checking the strengths gave a shattering picture. At the same time Briedis and Goppers explained to them one other incomprehensible circumstance. In the 'Central Staff' which had just been founded, nobody wanted anything to do with officers who belonged to the Socialist Revolutionaries, and also an otherwise more strongly organised group which supported the Constituent Assembly. Here, too, another factor came to the fore: it turned out that within the staff and outside it one got the impression of a group with a pro-German orientation. This group as well as the Bolsheviks was, through the mediation of a minister of the Tsar, conducting 'peace talks' and had even concluded 'peace,' whereupon, according to Briedis' information, they had received money from the Germans. Such a situation was completely unacceptable to Briedis and Goppers. Moreover, as Briedis had in all this time received only 3,000 roubles for the maintenance of the Latvian group from the representative of Alekseyev, he and Goppers had considered liquidating the whole enterprise. But suddenly it was as if some other possibility existed.

One evening, probably in the middle of March, Briedis called on Goppers in complete secrecy, dressed in civilian clothes (in which Goppers had never seen him) and invited Goppers to go with him, but not saying where. Going by an circuitous route Briedis took Goppers to a house where he introduced him to Savinkov. There is nothing in Goppers' narrative that tells us that Briedis had met Savinkov much earlier, but Briedis must somewhat earlier have been connected with that organisation which Savinkov 42  had founded - "The Union for the Defence of Freedom and the Motherland', if one is to judge by his activities in Vitebsk. In general, Savinkov, about whom legends have been created as a revolutionary, must have been interested in Briedis. He, in his turn, now left a good impression on both Briedis and Goppers, the more so that he had just come from General Alekseyev.

Savinkov's idea was: to found in Moscow a completely non-party association of officers who took, as their aim, the bringing about of the collapse of Bolshevik power and the continuing of the war against Germany. After the collapse of the Bolshevik regime a military dictatorship was to be set up with a working cabinet. Some popular general would be chosen as chief of the officers' association. All this was also in line with the views of Goppers and Briedis and, although Savinkov just then did not have the means to support such an association, they were happy to meet him. For the present the group of Latvian officers was the only hope and, indeed, the nucleus too for Savinkov's projected association. A miniature staff was set up, where Briedis took control of the intelligence section while Goppers was the general on duty. The overall command and coordination of all activities fell to Savinkov himself.

Their activities were made more difficult because of their conspiratorial nature; nevertheless Briedis entered into his duties with unusual speed and success. Already in the course of a month he was able to provide all sorts of interesting information, for he had men on all the Bolshevik staffs. Some of it was quite surprising - for instance, concerning the patrols which were instructed to capture Savinkov. Particularly interesting were data about the Bolshevik forces in Moscow at that moment. It turned out that the most reliable of the Bolshevik forces were two groups of sailors and the three red regiments of the 1st rifle brigade. They were few in numbers - about 400 bayonets each. The Latvian red troops would also not constitute a great problem. On the other hand, there were about 53,000 German troops, of whom about 7,000 had been sent from the front, while the remainder had come from German prisoners of war. In Moscow itself three German staffs were active and their intelligence was excellent for they maintained connections with the Bolsheviks and the anti-Bolsheviks. Against such large German forces in Moscow no success could be hoped for (unless the Germans wished it), and consequently the military activity of Savinkov's organisation was transferred to the provinces.

 43  Goppers and Briedis, of course, had strong connections with the Moscow branch of the Latvian Soldiers' National Union. That had earlier been one of the more active branches, but now it had been strengthened by some members of the central committee; in reality it constituted almost the whole group of Latvian officers, including some of the founder members Goppers and Briedis. Agitation was conducted among the remnants of the rifle regiments, that they should take advantage of demobilisation and avoid being conscripted in the Red Army; it was also recommended that they should go off to Siberia and find work there. The Latvian National Soldiers' Union guaranteed them a free passage and two months' subsistence. The propaganda was successful. The riflemen had themselves become bored with their situation. On demobilising, for instance, only 60 men might remain from a regiment of 400, the remainder preferring to go back to Latvia (which was only possible for individuals at that time). A train was organised for going to Siberia. But when the riflemen had taken their seats in the carriages, a section of sailors appeared and arrested the officers who were taking the money for the rations. Part of the train was delayed and a part left, but without money. This was not the only such incident.

Briedis' activities in the conspiracy and at intelligence gathering were very successful, yet it was not at all as it had been during the war. Here it was different, especially in the case of those whom he had sent, or who had gone on their own initiative, to work in Bolshevik institutions, especially the Cheka. He always advised them to get in wherever they could and to take on responsible positions. But at the same time he had to be wary of such people.

On the other side they were not self-taught conspirators but professionals, who often themselves had once worked simultaneously for the Okhranka and for their own revolutionary organisations. It seemed that Briedis was not able to understand how an officer, and a Latvian officer to boot, could be a traitor. Such a man was Captain-Lieutenant A. Erdmanis (formerly a sailor, then an officer in the 2nd rifle regiment and later on the intelligence staff of the 12th Army), who, under the name of Birze and with the appropriate papers, had gained the trust of the British Military Mission. He had obviously enjoyed Briedis' trust too. When Erdmanis was arrested in Liepaja, they found on him documents which proved that he was also well in with the Cheka - for instance, he had a certificate issued by Dzerzhinski himself, stating that comrade Birze was to proceed without delay[3] on a mission 44  to investigate the mutiny in Iaroslavl', and Erdmanis-Birze's activity in the Cheka was not, it seemed, concealed either.


[1]"Castle in the air."
[2]Rather than the more common "tēvzeme," Briedis summons the more evocative "dzintarzeme," land of amber.
[3]"that his car is not to be detained"
Under Swedish copyright law, "Briedis," including all derivative works, remains under copyright by the original rights holder until 2067, regardless of copyright by Taylor and Francis of David Guild's translation. Our corrected and annotated version of that translation is reproduced by express permission of the late author's wife, Heather Guild. Without prejudice to other rights accorded, "Briedis" is presented here for informational, educational, and research purposes under §20. and §21. of Latvian copyright law and as a protected derivative work under §5. The Goppers archive resides in the Latvian National Library.

Site contents copyright © 2017, S.A. and P. Vecrumba. All Rights Reserved. Wikipedia™, external site and Google Translate™ links are provided for convenience and do not constitute endorsement of, affiliation with, or responsibility for such content.

We use cookies to assist in context-sensitive navigation. By accessing our site, you agree to the placement if this type of cookie on your computer or mobile device. We do not share user information with third parties.

Please Email us at contact@latvians.com with comments or questions. We look forward to your feedback.

Center for Baltic Heritage is a LATVIANS.COM project.