Ivan Vasilevich Ovcharenko.

In a ring of fire; memories of a partisan online

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To the Young Communist League of the Crimea,
to the Red partisans, to the heroes whose bones
are mouldering in the steppe, in the forest, and in
the rocky gorges of the Crimea this book is


All Rights Reserved

Printed in the

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Glavlit B 37,225



In the Kuban 5

Kerch 7

On the Way . -. 10

Headquarters 13

The First Victory . - .... 16

Struggle for the Class Line 18

A Demonstration 21

Battle and Siege 23

Cut Off '. . . . 25

After the Siege 26

Whiteguard Treachery 29

Agony in the Caves 33

The Sally 38

We Attack a Train .40

Siege and Propaganda 42

Chechentsy 46

Dynamite and Terror Underground 48

We Break Through v 51

In Ajimushkai 52

Colonel Kanyayev Pays the Partisans a yisit 57

The British and French Warship's Easter Present 65

Back to Stary-Karantin 69

A Raid on the Fortress 72

Runaways 77

We Abduct an Engineer 81

We Wreck the Barracks . . ,. 82

We Set the Station on Fire 83

The Phaeton 86

A Mix Up with the Cossacks ' .... 87

The Whites Advance 89

Agony Underground 90

The Sortie of Ten Spectres 96

Panic Among the Whites . . 98

Back Underground 99

Fathers and Sons 100

The Vale of Sorrows 102

Back in Ajimushkai 105

Storming the Bryansk Works 108

Death of Comrade Samoilenko 112

New Battles 114

"In the Noblest Cause" 115

"Water .... Water" 117

Mass Explosions 120

Red Partisans dp and die 123


1~*HE autumn of 1918 was without the usual laughter and
gay voices of youths and maidens. The fields waited in
vain for the harvest to be gathered.

Kornilov had rushed in from the Don. The rich Cossacks rose
against the Soviets and blood flowed in streams. The heroic
efforts of Red Guard detachments were unavailing against the
enemy's better armament. Wild Cossacks scoured the country,
looking for Bolsheviks. The villages of the Taman peninsula
were set with gallows from which the corpses of innocent
people swung.

A group of us revolutionary soldiers and sailors were tramping
through the plains. It was evening. There had been rain; the
air was raw and a bitter wind blew.

Tired and with aching limbs, we huddled together for
warmth in a shallow bush-hidden ditch. Hunted from all sides
by the Whites we must escape or perish. We dared not go into
the towns or villages and it was becoming dangerous to stay on
the plains.

Escape! But where?...

"We must head for Novorossisk," said Pankratyev, a hand-
some, blue-eyed sailor, devoted heart and soul to the revolution.
"Maybe we'll find some of our fellows there. They'll not sur-
render the town so easily!"

"You and your sailors!" said an old cavalry soldier scorn-
fully. "Didn't they sink the fleet? Good fighters, indeed!"

"They sunk it because they had to," answered Pankratyev


with heat. "Must have got the order to do it. Sea folk are a
tough tribe. I'm sure they hold Novorossisk!"

"If they couldn't keep their ships," the soldier retorted,
"there's small hope they could hold the town."

Their argument broadened into a general discussion of our
plight and how to get out of it. Many plans were offered. Even-
tually we decided to steal a- fishing boat and go through Kerch
to the Crimea, thence to the Ukraine and Russia.

The night was dark. We could see the coloured lamps of the
lighthouses on the Crimean shore, the lights of ships going
through the straits. At eleven o'clock we crept noiselessly to the
edge of the steep bank, climbed into a boat and pushed off.

When we had rounded the Eltinguensk lighthouse, we were
full of hope.

The shores were lost to sight. Black night surrounded us.
The wind gathered force, making our sails creak. The sea began
to rise, touched with white crests which gleamed in the dark.
Water splashed overboard and big waves lifted the boat until it
hung almost on its beam ends. Pankratyev, at the helm, pressed
on the tiller with all his strength. The rest of us sat together
silently, outwardly calm but with every nerve taut. Our one
desire was to reach shore as soon as it might be possible.

"A light to the left," Pankratyev suddenly cried, steering to
keep out of the neighbourhood of the approaching steamer.

Our hearts leaped.

"That light's coming towards us," someone murmured.

"It must be a coastguard steamer."

The wind grew stronger and soaked us with spray.

Happily, the light passed in the direction of Kerch; they
hadn't noticed us.

When dawn broke we were near the Crimean shore. We
landed eventually near Eltinguen village and scattered. Pan-
k-atyev and I went to Kerch.


Morning and a pale orange sky with a drift of grey clouds. The
horizon dark and threatening. Cutters, barges, schooners and mo-
tor boats glided between Kerch and Taman. Some of them car-
ried prisoners Red Guards, Bolsheviks to Taman, where they
filled the prison and fortress. Other vessels were crowded with
the retreating German army. The town was full of hooting
automobile horns, the clank of iron, men shouting, horses
neighing, the rumble of carts, the galloping of horses on the
pavement. The German cavalry, a serried column, rode sombre-
ly through the town, the clackety-cliack of their iron hoofs bur-
dening the morning air. Their infantry marched in ranks, heavy
and coarse, with the measured crunch-crunch of the men's nailed
boots. The inhabitants gazed at them, fascinated. Every Ger-
man soldier had- his neck and hands bandaged the result of
the hardy Kuban mosquitoes and midges.

The infantry was followed by artillery. The black muzzles of
che guns were covered, making them look like ordinary pieces
of machinery. German lieutenants rushed about the town. Rus-
sian whiteguards, officers and men who had come from the
Kuban to consolidate the "unified and indivisible" power of the
generals and bourgeoisie, slunk among the German officers.
Red prisoners were continually disembarking at the quays.
Whenever a steamer or cutter approached the shore, women,
children and old people ran out from everywhere and found
their sons, husbands, brothers among the prisoners. The women
wept and tried to force their way to their relatives, but the
guards stopped them.

The Mitridat mountain towered indifferently above the hu-
man beehive. In the middle of the strait lay the English, French
and whiteguard ships, cruisers, submarines, torpedo boats, like
enormous grey beasts of the sea, ready, at any moment, to break
their heavy chains and swallow up the town. Their sirens con-
tinually exchanged anxious signals.


At a distance, the once impregnable Kerch fortress stood
against the horizon, jutting into the sea, with its cape and long

The fortress was the site of mass executions.

Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries held meetings in
all parts of the town, setting the people against the Bolsheviks.

"Don't you see wihat these Bolsheviks, these German spies,
have done? For German money they have turned Russia into a
sea of blood. . . ."

Someone shouted in the crowd.

"Liar! It's you Who sell yourself to the Germans and white -

The orator, taken aback, finished his speech by pointing at
the crowd and saying:

"That fellow who shouted just now is a Bolshevik and a
German spy."

In these stormy days, while mass executions were of frequent
occurrence, while the fortresses and other prisons overflowed
with prisoners, a secret Bolshevik organization was formed in
Kerch to carry on the fight against the new rulers. They armed
and prepared the revolutionary masses for a revolt in favour of
the Soviets. Those who believed in the restoration of the Soviet
regime then were few. Many thought the revolution was sup-

The Germans left Kerch in November 1918. The Constitu-
tional-Democrats came to power, supported by the French and
English forces. The new government set out to repress the
revolution in the cruellest way. Mass executions were perpe-
trated openly. Thousands were murdered. Kerch and the whole
Taman peninsula ran with the blood of our fighters. But these
atrocious crimes also showed the working masses the nature of
the bourgeois and landlords' regime and moved them to armed
revolt. Meanwhile the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries
developed their work.

The Bolsheviks were also busy.


Proclamations, posters, slogans calling men to arms, appeared
everywhere. The small individual bolshevik groups began to
join the basic organizations the Party nuclei.

Soon, the organization called a congress with representatives
from twenty-three villages. This congress elected a revolutionary
military staff to make preparations for an armed revolt. Its
activity was soon felt in the district when it began to organize
and train detachments of partisans.

One day the watchman on duty at Kuz-Aul lighthouse came
to see me. His name was Slessarenko. He told me that a number
of Bolsheviks had escaped from the prisons of the White secret
service. He also said he was the representative of a detachment
of partisans commanded by Vassily Denissov, that he was re-
cruiting men for that detachment and searching for arms to
send to them. I looked at him with suspicion.

"Are you serious, or just kidding me?"

"Oh! You don't see any further than your nose," ihe retorted.

I wondered who he might be. There were rumours that the
Denissov brothers had escaped after killing two police spies in

I made objections.

"You say there's a big detachment down in the stone quar-
ries? I have not heard of anything they've done, yet."

"The detachment is only just forming," said Slessarenko
severely. "It is isolated. They are preparing for an attack."

"How many of them are there?"

"I can't say. There's a lot of these underground passages,
you know. But you can go yourself to see Denissov at the
quarry and talk to him about the work you'll do. You know him
better than I do."

When I agreed, he added:

"I've got two boys here, in hiding. They're sailors. I'll bring
them here and you'll take them along with you to the quarry.
I'll give you the password. Don't you go out. I'll be back in a
couple of hours."


He went off and was back within the two hours. He brought
two comrades whom he handed over to me, saying:

"Do all that's necessary as quickly as you can. Collect your
arms and cartridges and go there. Go at night. It's not so
dangerous then. And try to leave no traces. ..."

The comrades and I resolved to go to the quarry.

We set forth at night taking with us some zinc, cartridges,
two rifles and a revolver each.


February 1919. Spring was in the air when, just before dawn,
we climbed to the top of a long range of hills which ran from
the fortress cape. Approaching the quarry, we clambered to the
top of a mound from which we could see the entrances into the
workings, yawning black.

The night wind carried the acrid tang of burning manure
which serves as fuel in the huts of Stary-Karantin village, which
lay a little way off. We could hear the crowing of cocks, the
screams of geese and ducks, voices on the beach shouting "One,
two push!" as the fishermen put out in their boats.

Spirals of smoke rose above some of the tunnels, coming from
the caves in which the workmen and their families lived.

"They are comfortable at least," someone sighed. "These
caves must be warm and sheltered."

Presently we saw a man approaching. When he came near I
called to him.


The man stopped. He was of medium height and wore an
old coat and a cap -with strands of 'hay sticking to it; he held
a whip in his hands and his feet were wrapped in rags tied
with string.

"Where do you come from?" I asked him.

"From the rock over yonder."


"Which rock?"

"The town rock."

"And what are you doing here so early?"

"I live here. There, where you see the smoke coming out,
that's my home," he said, pointing to one of the tunnels.
"Sakharov lives down there and Kiryanov over there," and he
pointed to other spots where more smoke was rising.

"What is your name?"


That was the name of the man we were looking for; pos-
sibly he was this man's son.

"What is your profession?"

"All those who live here cut stone, from father to son
and our grandfathers before us all are stonecutters. Now tell
me what you stopped me for and what you want? I haven't
time to stand here, I must be going home."

"Is Vassily Denissov here in these rocks?" I asked.

"Who is that? I don't know anyone of that name."

The old man was unwilling to talk.

"We were told he was here, father. So we came and brought
arms with us."

"No, no, there's no such man here."

The old man was a hard customer. So I asked :

"Will you call your son Stepan?"

"How do you come to know him?"

"We were boys together."

"All right. I'll call him so you can talk."

None of us knew Stepan, but Slessarenko had told me I
must ask for Stepan Nesterenko.

"Just show him this note and he'll do all that's necessary."

Some moments later a man looked out of one of the passages
and then came up to us. He was rather tall,- thin, with light
brown hair, a slight moustache and pale face.

"What do you want?" he asked calmly, examining us with
cjuick, attentive glances. He was evidently perplexed.


"We must see Denissov."

"There's no such person here."

I took out the note which contained three words: "Receive
these comrades," and an illegible signature. I learnt after-
wards that there was, on the other side of the sheet, the imprint
of a thumb and a scrawl. That was the partisans' sign.

He looked at the note.

"To whom were you told to give the note?" he asked.

"To you, Nesterenko."

"All right, I'll be back directly, boys."

We went into the tunnel where he told us to hide, for the
sun had risen and the surrounding country Jay open before us,
glowing in the bright rays. Nesterenko walked swiftly along
the path which ran above the tunnels.

We turned into a passage and sat down on some stones to

Presently, the dead silence was broken by the sound of steps.
We could distinguish two voices speaking in a whisper.

"Shall I bind their eyes?"

"No, there's no need. They're friends," answered a familiar

Vassily Denissov walked up to me. He wore a grey Russian
coat gathered at the waist, with cartidge bands crossed on his
chest. His blue eyes looked sternly from under a shaggy fur
cap with a red cloth top. The impression of health and sturdi-
ness was enhanced by his long military moustache. He shook
hands with me.

"So, you're still alive!" he said. "I thought they'd caught
you somewhere,, and made soup of you. These boys our

"Ah! We have some here already. There's one just escaped
from prison, Dmitry Kossenko, an old sailor. A great fellow!"

We were led to the underground camp. Pitch darkness en-
veloped us. The lamps which our guides held threw a faint
flickering light over a small space before us. An endless num-


ber of passages and blind alleys fan in all directions, some high
and long, some short and narrow; they wound and crossed in-
tricately. It was an underground city with thousands of dark,
gloomy streets, occupying a site of about seven square miles.
The great stone roof which overhung it was in places nearly
three hundred feet thick.

Walking was difficult. We continually tripped over stones
scattered in our path. We also felt bones and feathers under our
feet. Our guides explained jokingly :

"The foxes have been eating the poultry."

In that underground city the air was heavy, charged with
damp and mildew.

Sometimes, as the dim light of the lamps fell on the walls
and corners of the passages, we saw bats hanging.


After wandering through dark, damp caverns, we came to the
place which served as headquarters. It was a blind passage
screened off by a jutting rock, forming a room.

"Get acquainted with those you don't know and make your-
selves comfortable on our chairs and couches," said Denissov
with a smile.

We sat down on a bunch of damp hay and cast our eyes
about the underground lodging. A square stone in the middle
of the room served as a table. Small stone squares placed around
it served as chairs. A ]big lamp and a shell holder into which
an ink bottle had been fitted stood on the table. A broken pen-
holder lay beside it. A tin box filled with oil with wicks stuck
in it stood at the door ; it burned with a great spluttering noise,
sending forth volumes of smoke and thin rays of light which
faintly lit the interior of the cave. Dim lights enveloped in
similar columns of smoke could be seen flickering down a
long passage.


A little way down the passage stood a sentinel.

It all reminded one of a vault with a row of candles leading
to a sepulchre.

After some minutes about ten people collected in the room.
They were dressed in a variety of garments, fur coats, army coats,
ordinary civilian clothes. Most had cartridge bands tied across
their chests and round their waists. Their faces were sooty with
the smoke from the oil lamps. They all seemed fit and excited
and noisily asked if we liked their lodgings.

Denissov told me of their work. They were already in com-
munication with the surrounding villages through their repre-
sentatives. The chairman of the revolutionary war staff had
promised to send them a machine-gun and, maybe, even an
armoured car.

Denissov offered me work on his staff.

While we were talking, the men brought us bread and lard.
Denissov's brother, Gregory, came in and we fell to with the
best of appetites.

"How d'you find the lard, good?" asked Denissov.

"Not bad. Bought it?"

"Certainly not. Took it from the landlord. Such a landlord
too!" said Denissov with a smile. "You can have a look at him.
He's under arrest just over there."

"What landlord is that?"

"The one from Ghurbash. Okorok* is his name and he's fat
and funny."

"Will you keep him long?"

"No. What do we want him for? His son probably will bring
us food today. Then we'll set him free."

That day the landlord's son brought some sacks of flour,
lard, an ox and five hundred rubles. The landlord Okorok was
immediately set free. The terrified man helped to make the de-
tachment famous. After his liberation he went to Kerch where

* Okorok, in Russian, means "ham."


the whiteguards took him into their secret service. He gave very
exaggerated information about the number of men in the de-
tachment at Stary-Karantin.

The information given us by Slessarenko was also exaggerated.
There were only twelve men in the detachment. It is true they
were all well armed, but then they had not really started work
yet. Slessarenko, Syunko, Presinsky and a few others, were en-
gaged in enlisting men in various parts of the region. The
sailors Volkov, Gin, Timofayev were in a detachment which
communicated with the revolutionary group in Stary-Karantin
village. Two members of the Party, Comrades Khovrin and
Baidikov, soon joined the detachment and later undertook Party
work among the members.

Taking advantage of the enemy's uncertainty, the revolution-
ary war staff and Party nuclei hastened to inform the working
masses in the town and rural districts of the existence of the
partisan detachment. Stirring appeals were made at village
meetings and among workmen asking them not to submit to
whiteguard orders of mobilization. The poor peasants were
called upon to unite round the Party and the revolutionary
military staff, to organize themselves into partisan detachments
and fight for the restoration of the Soviet regime which alone
protected the workers' interests.

"The Soviet regime will crush all exploiters. It will deal in
the most drastic fashion with all rogues and cheats. It will not
allow the workers to be mocked. Let us, therefore, rise together
to fight for the Soviet Government, the workers' government."

The appeal brought a warm response from the poor peasantry
of the Kerch region. They came from all sections to the various
quarries. We heard that another partisan detachment had been
organized thirty-five miles from the town in the Petrovsk
quarries, now called Lenin quarries. Our own detachment grew
to seventy men in the course of a week.

Under the influence of the agitation carried on by the revolu-
tionary staff and Party, the peasants' hatred of the Whites


became unbounded. The mobilization which the Whites de-
clared throughout the region failed. Resolutions were voted,
worded after this manner :

"We, peasants of the village of will not give the Whites
a single pound of bread, not a single horse, not a single soldier.
Enough deceit! Down with the whiteguard regime, down with
violence and oppression ! Let us give all help to the Bolsheviks.
Long live the Soviet Government the government of workers
and peasants!"

Meanwhile the kulaks and landlords supported the white-
guards, providing them with arms and grain of their own accord.


The whiteguards gave increasing attention to the quarries. But
because of the information about the number of men in our de-
tachment given by the landlord Okorok whom we had set free,
they hesitated to attack us and tried to get information from
other sources. They stopped inhabitants, mostly women who
came to sell milk, and asked about the number of men in our
detachment and whether we were well armed. Naturally, they
got no precise information, although rumours about the detach-
ment had spread among the inhabitants. The Whites finally
resolved to ascertain our strength and fighting capacity by giving

We got news of the attack prepared against us through our
town nucleus No. 1.*

It was February 22, 1919 (orthodox style), in early spring.
At dawn the whiteguards formed a chain at a distance of about
fourteen hundred yards from our positions, hardly perceptible
in the mist. They had two hundred and fifty men, armed with
rifles and machine-guns. Our strength was seventy men. We

* The chairman of the town nucleus was Stassevich.


entrenched and waited for their attack, taking positions among
the boulders on the surface of the quarry, on a hill which
dominated the surrounding country and formed a natural fort-
ress. It was impossible for the Whites to take it with the com-
paratively small force they had sent against us this time.

The mist began to clear. The enemy attacked in the early

Although they were later reinforced with men and machine-
guns, they were still unsuccessful against our little group of
Red partisans. By the evening of the second day the advantage
was definitely ours. The enemy retreated to the fortress, having
lost a number of men, while we had only one man wounded
and another who, losing his foothold, had fallen off a rock and
injured himself.

This first battle, which ended in the Whites' defeat, made a
deep impression on the local population, The working masses
became convinced of our fighting capacity and new groups of
men arrived every day to join our detachment.

But, besides conscious revolutionaries, criminals from the
underworld tried to get in. Some of them succeeded in joining
the Stary-Karantin detachment. These bad elements from town
dreamt of a free, independent life and big gain. But they did
not get them. We mercilessly opposed banditry. Most of them,
after experiencing the hard conditions of a partisan's life in
those evil-smelling caves and the stern discipline to which they
were subjected, left the detachment of their own accord.

Unfortunately our chief, Denissov, did not fight these mer-
cenary aims. But the Party nucleus regarded it as a threat of
degeneration and started propaganda among the men. It set
to work to dispel bad tendencies . and focus each man's atten-
tion on problems connected with the reinforcement of the de-

The Communists continually and insistently enlightened the
men in regard to the object of the detachment; they also tried

2 Ovcharenko 17

to influence Denissov and curb the peasant element in him by
friendly talks.

Denissov was of a free nature, daring and impetuous. His
natural recklessness bordered on anarchy and embodied the in-
dividualist spirit of the peasants in our ranks. He knew the
military business (having been sergeant-major in the imperialist
war) and felt independent. Having the support of a large num-
ber of men, he often opposed the staff, acting on his own and
posing as autocratic chief of the detachment, as if it belonged

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