The Thin Ice of Modern Life


It’s been an exceptionally warm winter in Tiraspol, perhaps the warmest in modern history. We’ve had absolutely no snow at all except for one brief dusting that was gone by the next morning.

But that wasn’t the case a century ago.

In January of 1920, this region of the world was experiencing severe cold and lots of snow. And it was during this frigid winter that a group of desperate refugees made a long overland march from Odessa to the Dniester River.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, almost no one knows their story. I’ve spent over a decade reading Romanian and Moldovan histories, and I’ve never heard this winter march ever mentioned. And despite the fact that the column marched through Tiraspol, no one here that I’ve talked to has ever heard of it either.

Nikolai Emilyevich Bredov

Today, we tend to think of the Soviet Union as a fait accompli, as if Lenin stepped off the boat from Sweden in 1917 and boom, the Soviet Union was created.

But that just isn’t so.

What followed Lenin’s arrival in St. Petersburg was a massive armed conflict that took nearly 20 years to conclude, one that claimed approximately 1 million lives and left some 12 million people injured.

I suppose the reason that we’ve largely forgotten about it is that it was overshadowed by World War 2, but on my never-ending quest to pierce through the veil of propaganda and better understand Romania’s history, I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching it lately.

There were several different groups involved in the fighting, including the Bolshevik Communists (the “Red Army”), Germany, Poland, the United States, France, Britain, the “Green” army, the “White” army, and one group in Ukraine that was fighting every other group.

Obviously, this was a complex and wide-ranging conflict, so there’s no way that I could possibly have time or the space to get into the details of it here.

For our purposes, all you need to know is that, in January 1919, a faction of the White Army led by General Bredov, with considerable tactical and logistical support from France and Britain, was holed up in the city of Odessa (Ukraine) as Bolshevik (Red Army) units closed in.

The plan was to use British ships (along with two French ships) to transport as many of the fighting men and their equipment possible to Crimea where they would regroup under the White Army’s supreme commander.

Unfortunately, the city was in turmoil, and people were panicking as the Red Army approached. The situation was also worsened by the fact that it was bitterly cold, food supplies were limited, and a typhoid epidemic had broken out.

Realizing their desperate situation, General Bredov decided to strike out overland in an attempt to get to the Romanian port of Galati and then take allied ships to Crimea.

A group of some 16,000 people made their way to Ovidiopol on the coast of Ukraine just down the road from Odessa. It is the story of these people that I want to tell today.

Ovidiopol

But before I do that, it’s worth mentioning that the city of Ovidiopol is a mixture of the Greek word for a “city” (pol) and the name of the Roman poet Ovid (Romanian: Ovidiu).

During his lifetime, Ovid was exiled to the city of Tomis on the Black Sea, which is the modern city of Constanta in Romania. But as far as anyone is aware, he never went east towards Odessa.

But in 1716, the Moldovan/Polish/Russian politician and scholar Dmitri Cantemir, in his book of Moldovan history, reported that a lake near Odessa was known by locals as Ovid’s Lake (Ro: Lacul Ovidului), and so the nearby town was renamed Ovidiopol in 1795.

Side note to the side note: Today, Dmitry Cantemir’s face appears on some banknotes in Pridnestrovie (“Transnistria”).

Winter March

In some senses, the 16,000 people who left Ovidiopol in February 1920 were the lucky ones.

Most of the White Army forces in Odessa failed to evacuate in time, and the Red Army captured hundreds of thousands of kilograms of material, including grain, weapons, and a ship full of British (Triumph) motorcycles. Three White Army generals and over 3,000 White Army soldiers were also captured, most of whom were executed soon afterward.

Meanwhile, the Ovidiopol group under General Bredov slowly walked overland until they got to the city of Tiraspol (then under French control).

It’s hard to get an exact figure of how many people survived this desperate march, but the numbers I’ve seen are around 2,000 children, 11,000 unarmed men, 3,000 armed men, and an unknown number of women and “hangers-on”, ordinary people trying to escape the fighting.

The winter was so cold that by the time they got to the Dniester River across from Bender, the river had frozen over. The bridge that used to connect the Left Bank and Right Bank had been blown up a year earlier when Romania had fought off a proto-Communist insurgency in Bender.

Therefore, the only way over the river was by walking across the ice.

At the time, Romanian forces were garrisoned in Bender, but they were nominally under the command of the French. The two countries had been allies during World War 1 proper (fighting ended on the Western Front in 1918), and Romania had several delegates in Paris at that very moment whose job was lobbying the “Great Powers” for Romania to be granted sovereignty over Transylvania.

But in Bender, Romanian forces were stretched really thin. They were suppressing at least two armed insurrections in (what is today) the Republic of Moldova, which they had just annexed, as well as multiple (primarily Hungarian but also local ethnic German) guerilla insurgencies in Transylvania.

Romania had also just wrapped up a war inside Hungary itself after overthrowing the government in Budapest. And, of course, Romania was still recovering from having 90% of its territory plundered by the German Army during World War 1.

So when a horde of 16,000 hungry, typhoid-infected refugees showed up on the river bank across from Bender in February 1920, Romanian forces panicked.

Desperate Measures

At first, representatives from Bredov’s White Army attempted to negotiate the crossing for their forces. After all, they were all supposed to be on the same side, and Bredov’s White Army had full support of the French.

And all that Bredov was requesting was permission to transit through Romanian territory and then take ship passage to Crimea to continue the fight against the Red Army.

But the Romanian commander refused to let them cross. Bredov then asked if the children could cross the river, but again, the Romanian commander refused. Bredov then begged for the Romanians to let his sick and wounded (some 2,000 people) to cross, but the Romanians again refused.

When around 500 children tried to dash across the frozen Dniester, Romania opened up with artillery fire. Finally, to keep anyone from sneaking across, Romanian soldiers went down to the river and used saws to cut the ice.

A New Hope

Realizing that there was no way across the river, General Bredov was forced to make a new plan.

At the time, Poland was fighting the Soviet Union. In those days, the borders of Poland also included parts of what are now Belarus and western Ukraine, and so many of the people Bredov’s group were Polish/Ukrainians, so the new plan was to proceed upriver (staying on the Left Bank, today’s Pridnestrovie) and hook up with Polish forces.

And that’s what they did. Heading up through Podolia, they slowly proceeded overland on foot. In early March, they arrived in Polish territory (now western Ukraine), but the group was on its last legs. Nearly 4,000 people were infected with typhus and thousands more were starving.

As such, the Poles quarantined the group, sending them into four different camps (inside modern Poland’s borders) that were also being used for prisoners of war. They also relieved the enlisted men of what few weapons they still had. But they did provide medical care and food.

For whatever reason, the Poles did not take well to their (primarily) Russian allies, and there were numerous problems in the camps. As the Poles were then fighting predominately ethnic Russians, there was a lot of tension in the camps between Polish guards and the ethnic Russian members of Bredov’s group. There were numerous disputes over petty things like stealing chickens and refusing to use the respectful “you” form of address and things like that.

Officially, once the quarantine period was over, the Poles were supposed to send Bredov’s men to Crimea, but bureaucratic wrangling over the route ultimately led to Bredov’s men staying put in the camps.

At some point, most of Bredov’s soldiers who were not deemed to be ethnic Russians were separated, many of them sent off to their homelands. And all the children, women, and other non-combatants were sent off by train with a free ticket home or else given official refugee status.

One plan was for Bredov’s men to take a train from Poland to Cernauti (now Ukraine) and then onto Constanta (Romania) where they would board ships to Crimea, but that, too, fell through after failing to get approval from the Romanian government. Romania did, however, send shoes, clothes, and other supplies north by train for Bredov’s men in the summer of 1920.

Bredov went to Warsaw many times to talk to the Polish leader, Jozef Pilsudski, but again, endless bureaucracy and ethnic tensions led to a stalemate.

It was only on September 2, 1920, that a few hundred of Bredov’s men rode south on a train from Poland and entered Romania. The Polish war against the Soviet Union ended on October 18, 1920. Fighting inside Russia proper went on until 1922.

Obviously, we all know now that the Soviet Union was ultimately victorious and the White Army was defeated.

After 1919, Bredov’s men made almost no contribution to the war. But those who survived the perilous trek from Ovidiopol were granted a special campaign medal.

1920 campaign medal written in Old Church Slavonic

Final Thoughts

The Red Army victory throughout Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltics was far from inevitable. Many historians have written about just how close the margin of victory was. I myself have described the missed opportunity to defeat the Soviets in Ukraine.

What would’ve happened if Romania had let Bredov’s army cross the Dniester in February 1920? We’ll never know, but it just might have tipped the scales.

What we do know, however, is that the Dniester River has, time and time again, served as the boundary between opposing sides, whether that was the Ottoman Turks versus the Russians, the Red Army versus the White Army, the Russian monarchy versus the Romanian monarchy, the Nazis versus the Soviets, or the Pridnestrovians versus (the Republic of) Moldovans in 1992.

But all I can think about is just how much work it must’ve been to cut out huge chunks of river ice, working in subzero temperatures, using primitive equipment, in order to deny sanctuary to thousands of desperate people.

I’d give anything to find and read a diary from one of the soldiers tasked with that duty so I could learn what their thoughts were, and whether any of them knew just how far into the future the consequences of that decision would lead…

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