The mysterious death of Shchors

Nikolay Shchors

A short account of the life and mysterious death of Red commander Nikolay Shchors

“A Communist commander is always a most precious acquisition for our Red Army. Only he must be a real Communist, that is, a man of duty and discipline from head to foot. However, we still have amongst our officers a considerable number of commanders who demand unquestioning subordination to themselves but are completely insubordinate towards their own immediate superior. Moreover, they justify this either by reference to their Party-mindedness or to some sort of special mandate received from authoritative Soviet officials. Such pseudo-Communists do more harm to the army than the worst traitors from among the White-Guard officers. A traitor causes the army material loss, goes over to the enemy, and that’s all, whereas a pseudo-Communist poisons the consciousness of his unit by criminal demagogy. While failing to obey an order he will brag about his ‘Party-mindedness’, shout about the interests of the revolution, and at the same time treacherously disrupt the co-ordination of military operations…Not all Makhnovites belong to the Anarchists: some of them wrongly regard themselves as Communists. Makhnovites under a Communist flag are very much more dangerous than under an Anarchist or Left-SR flag. Only when we have cleansed the Red Army of disorganisers shall we ensure its complete steadfastness in battle.”
(Trotsky. Commanders must know how to obey. July 18, 1919)

Nikolai Alexandrovich ( Ukrainian :Mykola Oleksandrovich) Shchors was born on 6th June 1895 in the village of Korjov in the municipality of Snovsk (now Shchors City), the son of a locomotive engineer, according to official Soviet hagiography, whilst other sources say that he came from a wealthy peasant family, although both could be true. He graduated from a military medical school in Kiev and then took a training programme at the Vilensky military school in Poltava which ended in 1916. The family appears to have been from the Bielorussian minority in the Ukraine, He fought in the First World War, first as a military medical assistant and then as a junior officer on the Southern front. In 1917 he was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.

After the October revolution of 1917 he returned home and in February, 1918 he formed a partisan detachment in Snovsk, formed mainly of local peasants and deserters from the Tsarist Army. This detachment operated in the forests at the confluence of present day Ukraine, Poland and Belarus. In March-April, 1918 he commanded the joint detachment of Novozybkovsky district that fought against the Austro-German invaders as a part of the 1st Revolutionary Army. In July he joined the Bolsheviks, having up until then being a supporter of the Ukrainian Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Borotbists). In September 1918 his detachment came together with others to form the 1st Ukrainian Soviet Bohun (Russian: Bogun)division and he lead it, continuing the struggle against the against the Hetman and his Austro-German backers. In November 1918 he took command of the 2nd brigade of the 1st Ukrainian Soviet division (Bohun and Tarascchan regiments) and took Chernihiv, Kiev and Fastov from the Ukrainian Directory. On February 5, 1918 Shchors was appointed mayor of Kiev.

Between March 6 and August 15, 1919 Shchors again led the 1st Ukrainian Soviet division in its offensive and liberated Zhitomir, Vinnitsa, and Zhmerinka from the Ukrainian Nationalist forces of Petlyura. He defeated the main forces of Petlyura near Sarny - Rovno - Brody - Proskurov. At this time Trotsky was, as the All-Russian Commissar of War, attempting to organise all the Red military detachments into a homogeneous centralised whole. He considered other fronts than the Ukrainian front more important and resented the slow response of local Party and military leaders for both soldiers and materiel to be moved from the Ukraine. The Red commanders of the Ukrainian forces, Antonov-Ovseenko and Schadenko, were fired as a result. Semen I. Aralov, one of Trotsky’s henchmen, was sent to dominate the Revolutionary Military Council at the Ukrainian front H.Q.

Meanwhile Nikolai Semenov, a red commander answering to Trotsky, ordered the disbanding of the 1st Ukrainian Soviet division and to transfer its forces to the 44th Soviet Division, which was weak and inexperienced in battle. As Shchors was engaged against the Poles this was difficult to do. Shchors was under suspicion because he had been a supporter of the Left SRs and had only joined the Bolsheviks at the late date of July 1918, just after the crushing of the Left SR uprising. He was seen as too inexperienced because he had only been a first lieutenant by the end of World War One, a view which failed to take account of his considerable military ability. Aralov and Semenov disapproved of Shchors for other reasons too, including his administrative reforms in the division and the fact that his regiments were larger than that set down in the official Bolshevik military table. His officer school for experienced soldiers from the ranks was much above divisional level. This contradicted the uniform pattern laid down by Trotsky.

In summer 1919 the Polish army began a major offensive. Shchors attempted to hold the line near Sarny - Novograd-Volynsky - Shepetovka, but was forced to retreat east by the superior numbers of the enemy. The 1st Ukrainian Soviet division was merged with the 44th Rifle Division and Shchors was appointed its new commander. Under his command the division defended the Korostensky railroad junction allowing the evacuation of Kiev and the escape of the southern group of the 12th Army from encirclement by Ukrainian nationalist forces of the Ukrainian Galician Army -UHA (the battle of Korosten). While fighting in the front lines of the Bohun regiment, Shchors was killed in very obscure circumstances near Beloshitsa village (now Shchorsovkaon) on August 30, 1919. Shchors was killed by an enemy machine gun shot, according to official sources. Shchors was buried in Samara far from the battlefield, for unclear reasons. He later became a great hero of the Soviet Union. Stalin commissioned Alekander Dovzhenkoto make a film about him in 1939 which was awarded the State prize of the Soviet Union in 1941. But more recently new facts have emerged about his death.

Prior to his death, Aralov and his associates compiled internal reports making out Shchors to be a “partisan” (the concept of “partisanism” was anathema to Trotsky). He was accused of disobeying orders and resistance to the changes in the Red Army. The First Bohun Regiment, the real effective core of the Army, was now vilified with accusations of lack of morale, discipline and combat effectiveness. However, Aralov and Semenov were constrained from dismissing Shchors because of his great popularity in the Division. Shchors was defeated by the Ukrainian Nationalist Army of the UNR and had to go on the offensive when the UNR joined forces with the UHA. He became effectively only commander of the First Brigade whilst the 2nd and 3rd Brigades were attached to the 44th Division under the command of Ivan Dubovy. Following defeat at Zhytomyr by the Nationalists, it was Shchors who took the initiative merging what was left of his 1st Division with Dubovy’s 44th. As Semenov had already ordered this, there was nothing his superiors could do. Dubovy had to accept Shchors's authority and he replaced him as commander of the 44th Division. He proceeded to fortify the Red Army positions around Korosten in an impressive way.

The first questioning of the circumstances of Shchors’s death came with the publication of the memoirs of Schadenko in 1958, published after his death. Here Schadenko implied that Shchors had been murdered on Aralov’s orders. He himself had witnessed several arguments between Shchors and Aralov.in summer 1919, but not his death.

The writer Ivan Tsiupa next presented the first alternative version of Shchors’s death in 1988. This followed his interview with Petrenko-Petrykovsky, the Red cavalry commander at Korosten. He testified that Shchors had been shot in the back of the head (a standard Chekist form of execution, by the way) from a pistol fired by Pavel Samuilovich Tanchil-Tanchilevich, an inspector from 12th Army HQ, who had been sent as Aralov’s special emissary. Dubovy, in an agitated state, had told Petrenko-Petrykovsky that Tanchil-Tanchilevich had stood to the right rear of himself and Shchors before the latter’s death. Petrenko-Petrykovsky went on to say that Dubovy had ordered Shchors’s corpse to be put under guard and isolated from everyone and that he had it sealed in a zinc-lined coffin and refused to allow any member of his family to see it. The body was meant to be sent to Snovsk. Instead it was stopped at 12th Army HQ and sent over 100 kilometres away to Samara, where it was buried.

Apparently Tanhil-Tahilovich was from Odessa, was a “dandy” with criminal connections according to Petrenko-Petrykovsky and could speak English and French fluently. In 1949 Shchors’s remains were ordered to be exhumed by the Moscow authorities. This was apparently due to foreign Communists from outside the Soviet Union, some of whom had fought at his side, asking about his burial place. An autopsy was performed and on 5th July of that year it was ascertained that Shchors had been shot with a small-calibre bullet i.e. a pistol or revolver which had been fired at close range and had entered his head from beneath and behind the right ear. Tanhil-Tanhilevich was reported to be standing behind Shchors to his right before his death, according to Dubovy. This completely goes against the original official story that Shchors had been killed by a bullet from an enemy machine gun. Apparently the autopsy report now resides in the KGB/NKVD archives in Moscow.

Trotsky (as can be seen from the telegrams quoted here and elsewhere on libcom) had been agitating strongly for a purge of the Red Army. Aralov had delivered the goods initially with the killings of Shary (Bogunski) and Lopatkin but was under great pressure from his superior. Trotsky was reporting to Moscow that Aralov was ineffective at carrying out the purge. Aralov had to deliver the goods or he himself would be in peril. Aralov was sending reports to the 12th Army headquarters on the “partisan” behaviour of Shchors and his circle, as well as their “nationalist” tendencies and the anti-semitism that had been allowed to take hold in the ranks. The last accusation is an intriguing one as Shchors was married to a Jewish woman revolutionary! (She was the Bolshevik Fruma Haykina who in fact led up a local Cheka group, wore a leather jacket and leather trousers and murdered many opponents, wiping out their whole families.) Aralov in his memoirs refers to Shchors's indiscipline, his favouring of guerillaism and his thinly veiled “anarchism”. In a later memoir written in 1965 the mask comes off and he admits that “Shchors’s insubordination brought about his untimely death”.

Nikita Kruschev himself in his memoirs says that before Dubovy was executed in 1938 during the purges he saw his written confession stating that he had shot Shchors so that he could get back command of the division. Kruschev thought that the confession was wrung out of Dubovy and was untrue. The battle is described by Kruschev as being against the Whites rather than the Galicians. Nevertheless the indications are that Dubovy was involved. Very soon after Dubovy’s confirmation as divisional leader, Tanhil –Tanhilovich re-emerged working on the censorship board of the 10th Army on the Southern Front.

Vasyl Bozhenko, Shchor’s veteran sidekick and one of his brigade commanders, died in mysterious circumstances himself in Dubno. At first it was alleged that he had fallen victim to disease in late July, and then it was claimed that he had been poisoned by a nationalist. He died on August 19th. Another close associate of Shchors, Tymofyi Cherniak, another brigade commandeer, was shot in his railcar on 11th August, allegedly by a group of Galicians in his regiment. All three, Shchors, Bozhenko and Cherniak were all originally junior officers or NCOs who had risen to leadership. They stood in the way of Trotsky’s plans to replace them with the spetsy - military specialists recruited from the upper ranks of the old Tsarist army.

Shchors became forgotten until resurrected as a Soviet hero by Stalin in 1935. It was ironic that here was a man feted by the Soviet system when indications point to him being murdered by those who were supposed to be on the same side.

Nick Heath

Sources: Farion, George M. Korosten :Mykola Shchors’s last battle. In Journal of Ukrainian Studies 28, no 1. (Summer 2003) Online at: http://vijsko.milua.org/JUS28-1_Farion1.pdf
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolay_Shchors
Trotsky: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1919/military/ch18.htm

Comments

Steven.
Jun 5 2016 16:37

Only just got round to reading this, very interesting thanks for taking the time to research and write it