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Pavel Dybenko

Pavel Efimovich Dybenko (Russian: Павел Ефимович Дыбенко), (February 16, 1889 – July 29, 1938) was a Soviet revolutionary and a leading officer.

Prior to military service

Pavel Dybenko was born in Lyudkovo village, Novozybkov uyezd, Chernigov guberniya, Imperial Russia (now Novozybkov, Bryansk Oblast, Russia) in a Ukrainian peasant family. In 1907 he started working in the local Treasury department, but was fired as "untrustworthy" due to his political activities. From 1907 onward, Dybenko became active in a Bolshevik group, distributing revolutionary literature throughout the Novozbykov region - progressive publications such as the People’s Gazette and the Proletariat which spoke to anti-Tsar sympathies.

He moved to Riga and worked as a port labourer. He tried to avoid enlisting, but was arrested and forcibly enlisted.

Towards the October 1917 revolt

In November 1911, he joined the Baltic Fleet. The first six months he served on the ship "Dvina".

The "Dvina" was utilized by the Navy as a training vessel for the new recruits at Kronstadt. Formerly known as the Pamiat Azova its sailors were veterans of the 1906 revolutionary actions.

In 1912 he joined the Bolshevik Party. In 1915, he participated in the mutiny on board of the battleship Emperor Paul I. He was imprisoned for six months and sent as an infantry soldier to the German front. There he went on with anti-war propaganda, and was again imprisoned for 6 months.

He was released after the February 1917 revolution, and returned to the Baltic Fleet. In April 1917, he became the leader of the Tsentrobalt.

Dybenko's role in the October Revolution

During the first hours after the taking the Winter Palace, Dybenko personally entered the Ministry of Justice and destroyed there the documents concerning the financing of the Bolshevik party by the German military secret services and the General Staff of the German Army.[1] However, the action of Dybenko entering the Ministry of Justice to destroy documents as recalled by Savchenko can be challenged: according to all reports Pavel Dybenko was in Helsinki organizing the sailors departures for Petrograd. From the book Radio October...On the “Krechet” in Helsinki, radio operator Makarov hands a telegram to Pavel Dybenko with the report of the “Samson” commissar, Grigoriy Borisov: “To Tsentrobalt. Everything is calm in Petrograd. The power is in the hands of the revolutionary committee. You have to immediately get in touch with the front committee of the Northern Army in order to preserve unity of forces and stability.”)

Dybenko was appointed the People's Commissar (minister) of naval affairs. Lenin, who knew Dybenko well enough as not to rely on him as a Navy commander, assigned to him an assistant, an ex-tzarist admiral who helped manage professional affairs of the Navy.

On February 18, 1918, the German army advanced towards Petrograd. The Lenin-Trotsky government sent Dybenko to defend Petrograd by the force of the Baltic Fleet. The later communist propaganda claimed that revolutionary mariners achieved a great victory there on February 23, 1918. February 23 was declared "The birthday of the Red Army". This day is celebrated in Russia and Ukraine to this day as a national holiday. A special military decoration, "20 years to the Soviet Army" was instituted for this occasion in February 1938. However, this medal was never given to Dybenko himself.

The truth is that Dybenko and his mariners fled the field. According to the memoirs of Bonch-Bruyevich,[2] the mariners came by a barrel of pure alcohol and consumed it. Their whereabouts were unknown for at least a month. Lenin wrote in his famous article on 25 February 1918, in Pravda evening edition: A lesson humiliating but necessary : Refused to fight,... refused to defend the Narva line, ...failed to destroy everything as they retreated...[3]

Lenin added: From the point of view of the defence of the fatherland it would be a crime to enter into an armed conflict with an infinitely superior and well-prepared enemy when we obviously have no army. ... implying that Dybenko and his mariners definitely were not an army.

The government issued an order to arrest Dybenko and to deliver him to Moscow, that he might face court martial. His command was taken over by General Parsky.[4] The Germans were in fact stopped by the ex-Tzarist general Nikolayev who organized some retreating Russian soldiers to fight.[5]

The defeat at Narva caused the Bolshevik government to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Another outcome was the transfer of the Bolshevik capital from Petrograd to Moscow.

In April 1918, he was dismissed from the government, expelled from the communist party and put to trial for cowardice. Unexpectedly, the court martial declared him innocent, since "Being no military expert, he was absolutely neither competent nor trained for the task,... he was not prepared to fight...".

Dybenko with his wife Alexandra Kollontai during his service in the Ukrainian Soviet Army

Dybenko strongly opposed the Brest-Litovsk peace, and tried to organize mariners to act against it. He was arrested.

According to the testimony of J.Sadoul, a French socialist who was present then in Moscow and wrote memoirs about this period, it was Dybenko's fellow mariners who saved him. They threatened to open fire on the Kremlin and terrorized Bolshevik government members. The intervention of his wife Alexandra Kollontai, then a People's Commissar of social affairs, also played a role.[6][7]

In April 1918, Dybenko arrived with Kollontai in Samara,(Kollontai was not with Dybenko in Samara...she was in Petrograd and questioned on the whereabouts of Dybenko, threatened with arrest as an accomplice if she failed to be truthful the authorities promised to return)[8] a city governed by local Leftist-SR party (Leftist-SR: Leftist-Socialist-Revolutionaries, see Socialist-Revolutionary Party), along with Anarchists and some other non-Bolshevik groups, all opposing Bolsheviks and the Brest-Litovsk peace. Dybenko soon headed the local opposition, and from that remote town he published letters accusing Lenin of corruption, stealing 90 tons of gold, incompetence, terrorism, and of being a German agent.

The Samara opposition groups planned an armed revolt on May 15, 1918. However, one week prior to that date, Dybenko reappeared in Moscow. There he was pardoned and granted life, on the condition that he would never again meddle in politics. The Samara revolt was crushed by Bolshevik forces.

Dybenko left Moscow. In order to keep him as far as possible from the Baltic Navy, Lenin gave him a low-rank military job (a battalion commander, a lt.col equivalent) at the "No-man's land" between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine was occupied by the German army as the outcome of the Brest peace, and after the German capitulation and retreat of the German army, the situation there developed a chaos of "war of everybody against everybody".

During the Civil War

In the winter 1918, Dybenko troops conquered some towns near the Russian-Ukraine border in the Kharkov district. Dybenko tried then to cooperate with non-Bolshevik leftist political forces, especially with the Left SR, but also with Maximalists and Anarchists, all having some military forces, who tried to achieve independence in Ukraine. However, this attempt brought no results. The non-Bolshevik troops were disarmed.

In the beginning of 1919, Dybenko unexpectedly received a general-rank appointment as the commander of the Red Army forces which invaded Ukraine (particularly, the 1st Trans-Dniepr division. This division had 10000 soldiers, and included the anarchist brigades of Makhno and Grigoriev). Trotsky selected him for this role because of his Ukrainian name and origin. It could help the Bolsheviks to pretend it was just another military force acting in the Ukrainian chaos, rather than an "official invasion".

During the spring of 1919, Dybenko's forces destroyed all non-Bolshevik political forces in Ukraine. In Dnipropetrovsk, he arrested and executed all S.R. activists. In Zaporizhia he executed the members of the local Soviet (elected local authority).

The Dybenko troops supplied their own needs robbing both the local population, and the trains carrying coal and provision to Russia.

In April 1919 Dybenko disregarded the orders of his superiors, and conquered Krym instead of moving his forces into the eastern Ukraine (Donbas). The result of this insubordination was, that the White army conquered Donbass, and later (August to December 1919) conquered the entire Ukraine. Dybenko created what he called "The Krymean Soviet Army", with 9000 men, independent from the Ukrainian Front. He created the Krymean Soviet Socialist Republic, and invited Lenin's brother Dmitry Ulianov, to be the prime minister there. Kollontai also joined him. For himself he reserved the appointment of the Army-and-Navy minister.

The regime which Dybenko established in Krymea was called "Dybenkism" by the leading Bolsheviks. By "Dybenkism" they meant some combination of anarchy, tyranny, and banditry. Trotsky said then that the whole Krymean army was infected by Dybenkism and stopped supplies to it. During his short reign, Dybenko terrorised national minorities in Krymea.

The Krymean Soviet Socialist Republic was rather short-lived. Soon Krym was reoccupied by Denikin. Dybenko fled to Ukraine, losing his army. Some of his soldiers deserted to Makhno's forces, some became independent bands fighting against the Red army and the White army simultaneously.

In September 1919 Dybenko appeared in Moscow, and entered the Red Army Academy. After one month he was appointed the commander of the Division No. 37, and sent to fight against the advancing white army at Tsaritsyn and Tula. He was put on Court Martial for unjustified executions of soldiers of his, but was found not guilty.

In March 1920 Dybenko was appointed commander of the Caucasian cavalry division, and in May 1920 - the Horseback division #2 of the Southern front. Due to Dybenko's lack of experience in cavalry warfare, his division #2 was crushed by the White-Guard cavalry led by General Barbovich (Барбович). After this event, the Bolshevik command could not entrust any cavalry to him, and he was recalled to Moscow to complete his studies.

After the civil war

In March 1921 Dybenko led, under the command of Tukhachevsky, the suppression of the naval rebellion in Kronstadt. Following the military action, Dybenko created a court martial, that "Individually discussed each man's case".

Dybenko won there his first Order of the Combat Red Banner, then the USSR's supreme decoration. He received two more, in peace time, (12.2.1922, 19.4.22) for his excellency in suppression of peasants uprisings (One- for the Tambov uprising, the second- unclear).

Dybenko wrote several books, all memoirs from the pre-revolution and revolution time. The high quality of these books was no match with his very low education and poor vocabulary. This led some historians to suspect he could not have written them, and they were indeed written by his wife Alexandra Kollontai.[9]

Savchenko's assessment regarding Dybenko's intellect does not reflect historical fact. Consider Dybenko ascends to the leadership of the most politically advanced military organization. Dybenko authors the Charter for Tsentrobalt, the freely elected body of sailors and base support personnel. Dybenko authors the historical document entitled "The Relationship between Tsentrobalt and the Fleet Headquarters" Dybenko advocates on behalf of Tsentrobalt in front of Alexander Kerensky, an intellectual politician, and convinces Kerensky of the legality in making Tsentrobalt a legal institution. All before Alexandra Kollontai met Dybenko In 1922 Dybenko finished (as an extern) the General Staff Military Academy. Alexandra Kollontai admitted in her memoirs she wrote all his home assignments and his thesis. She also authored some army reform ideas, which Dybenko ascribed to himself. Soon their marriage collapsed, Dybenko attempted suicide, and Kollontai arranged a diplomatic mission for herself, just to be as far as possible from him. Dybenko was married two times more.

After finishing the Academy, Dybenko was appointed Commander of the 5th Rifle Corps of the Red Army, and then the 10th Rifle Corps and restored as a member of the Communist Party. Dybenko served between 1925 and 1928 as a head of the Artillery Directorate and the Supply Directorate of the General Staff of the Red Army.

In 1928 he was sent to command the Central Asia Military District. To mask his ignorance in military matters, he always preferred "the Iron Fist method". He created a Border-Guard and fought against smugglers. He suppressed the local nationalists and Muslim devotees with notable cruelty. He did not hesitate to attack civilians in the peace time, and to set fire to entire populated villages.

In 1930 Dybenko was sent, with a numerous group of other generals, to Germany.

In 1933 Dybenko was appointed the Volga military district commander. According to Stalin's well known method, his enemy of old, corps commander Ivan Semenovich Kutyakov (ru), a renowned hero of the Civil War, was assigned as Dybenko's deputy. Both wrote many slanderous letters against each other. This slander caused the liquidation of Kutyakov in 1937. Kutyakov was arrested by NKVD men in Dybenko's office,[10] with Dybenko's personal assistance, and soon was shot. Dybenko himself suffered no harm. The Kutyakov's slander contained mainly the truth about Dybenko's brutality, drunkenness and incompetence. These accusations were well known in the top level of the Soviet army. Tukhachevsky and Uborevich openly criticized him. But he wrote an explanatory letter to Voroshilov (then: the Defence Minister), and was pardoned. Later in 1937, Dybenko assisted the NKVD in preparing Tukhachevsky's arrest.

Dybenko became a member of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, was promoted to Komandarm second class ("Four Rombs", at that time it was equivalent to a 4 star general), and appointed the Leningrad military district commander after Yona Yakir's downfall. (Leningrad military district was always one of the most important districts, second only to Kiev)

Wherever he was, he loved rich life. For example, while serving in 1935—1937 as the Volga military district commander, he annexed an island on the Volga river, 57 square kilometers large, just for hunting entertainment for himself and his friends.[11]

Dybenko personally led the purges in the Leningrad military district in 1936-1937. In 1938 he participated, as a judge, in the trial of the Tukhachevsky group.


Dybenko was among the officers purged from the Party in 1938. At first, he was moved from his command of the Leningrad Military District officially for "lack of trust"[12] and appointed Deputy People's Commissar of Forestry industry, as a preparation for his arrest, in order to disconnect him from his followers. Five days later, he was arrested and accused of Nazi conspiracy and links with Mikhail Tukhachevsky. He did not deny the accusations of using state funds to organize sex and alcohol orgies.[13] The NKVD tortured him by putting him in a small iron box.[12]

Zinaida Viktorovna Dybenko (Дыбенко Зинаида Викторовна), Dybenko's third wife, was arrested, charged with being a "ЧСИР" - "a member of traitor's family" and with confess to the authorities about her husband being a traitor and a spy. She was sentenced to five years in the "Akmolinsk's camp for the wives of traitors to the Motherland".

He was sentenced to death, and shot. Twenty years later, following the death of Stalin, Dybenko was rehabilitated.

Books by Dybenko

  • The Depths of the Tzarist Navy (В недрах царского флота), 1919;
  • The Rebels (Мятежники), 1923;
  • October on Baltics (Октябрь на Балтике) 1934;
  • The Baltic revolutionaries (Революционные балтийцы)
  • From the Depth of the Tzarist Navy to the Great October (Из недр царского флота к Великому Октябрю) free online full text, russian
Preceded by
Konstantin Avksentevsky
Commander of the Central Asia Military District
Succeeded by
Mikhail Velikanov


  1. Savchenko, biography Retrieved 9 June 2008.
  2. Memoirs, Bonch-Bruyevich, an ex-Tzarist general and one of the prominent Bolshevik military leaders
  3. A Painful But Necessary Lesson, V.I. Lenin, Pravda (evening edition), February 25, 1918, No. 35, free full text, English translation.
  4. From Tsarist General to Red Army Commander by Mikhail Bonch-Bruevich, translated by Vladimir Vezey, Progress Publishers, 1966, p256
  5. (Source: Kiselev in Kievsjkie Vedomosty, №38 (3135), 21 feb 2004) Archived February 17, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  6. Leonora Ritter. "Alexandra Kollontai". Charles Sturt University. Archived from the original on 10 June 2008. // Retrieved 9 June 2008. 
  7. (See also Hero Up, Time, Monday, Nov. 29, 1926)
  8. Pravda 4.20.1918 p. 3.
  9. Савченко Виктор Анатольевич, Авантюристы гражданской войны: Историческое расследование — Харьков: Фолио; М.: ACT, 2000 p 37
  10. Mahno memorial website
  11. The Resort on Volga Island, telling about Dybenko annexing of 57 km² island for himself
  12. 12.0 12.1 Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge, 1971
  13. (Volkogonov, Triumph and Tragedy, V2, P269)

External links

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