Of bicycles and Bolsheviks

While cycling may well be the first modern sport in the sense of having become a full-fledged sport upon its invention, a group of cyclists shares responsibility for one of the biggest social disasters in the history of humankind. Exactly 100 years ago this week, military cyclists betrayed Russia and the Russian people.

In his self-serving, mostly mendacious History of the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik outcast Leon Trotsky proposed a research theme for ‘idealistic psychologists.’ The multi-volume chronicle is not devoid of delightful passages, as the research challenge testifies:

‘Let a man find himself, in distinction from others, on top of two wheels with a chain – at least in a poor country like Russia – and his vanity begins to swell out like his tyres. In America it takes an automobile to produce this effect.’ (Vol. III, Ch. 7)

How ‘vain’ the early twentieth-century Russian cyclists actually were?

Russian cyclist troops on the march with their bicycles folded on their backs, 1917. Note their Mosin-Nagant rifles with fixed bayonets. Copyright: © IWM. Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205287734

What Trotsky referred to was the initial refusal of the Russian army’s Bicycle Battalions to surrender in November 1917. Led by Trotsky himself, the Bolshevik putschists faced an immediate threat from the bicycle squad stationed at Petrograd’s (i.e. Saint Petersburg’s) Peter and Paul fortress.

Once the fortress issue had been amicably solved, other cycling troops – those guarding the Winter Palace, seat of the Provisional Government – simply left their positions. They hurried home and had to be replaced by less competent guards.

At that point the 3rd Bicycle Battalion was quickly approaching Petrograd. Could the speeding soldiers establish sanity in the embattled city? ‘This selected military unit,’ Trotsky reminisced in his rambling chronicle, ‘the first to be chosen out from the whole active army, adhered to the insurrection before even reaching the capital.’

It still took a monstrous civil war, and millions of victims, to bring what was left of the Russian empire under Communist rule. What if the cycling soldiers, especially the 3rd Battalion, had not decided to switch allegiances? Just imagine hundreds of battle-hardened bikers storming into the capital, hunched over the handlebars and running down the rebels!

In that case, cycling would surely have become a national pastime in Russia and statues of cyclists instead of Bolshevik bosses would adorn public spaces in today’s Russia.

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