Alexander the not-so-great

Civil War in Siberia
July 11, 1997

The "Whites", the losers in the Russian civil war that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power, have never really enjoyed a good press, consigned apparently to the dustbin of history. Why then, if this is self-evident, bother to study them: Anton Denikin, Mikhail Alekseev, the Volunteer Army, Petr Wrangel, Aleksandr Kolchak and the vast, terrible upheaval in remote Siberia? Jonathan Smele's starting point is precisely the relevance of investigating the "White" movement to obtain "a full historical understanding of the Russian Revolution", a "comprehension of the motives and behaviour of Lenin's most puissant opponents".

Twenty years ago Colonel Vasilii Polikarpov in his studies of the civil war pressed much the same point, insisting that it is impossible to understand revolution without understanding counter-revolution, utilising not only Lenin's works but also those emanating from the "counter-revolutionary camp". While searching for "the full historical understanding" of the revolution, Smele's immediate point of departure with respect to the civil war in Siberia is the observation by none other than one of Admiral Kolchak's interrogators, the Bolshevik lawyer K. A. Popov, who recognised the value of Kolchak's self-portrait but admitted that this fell short of "a complete and exhaustive history and portrait of the Kolchak regime itself". This encyclopedic study utilising a formidable array of sources admirably accomplishes the task that Popov regarded incomplete: a definitive survey and evaluation of the Kolchakovshchina, the Kolchak regime.

Vice admiral Kolchak, successful wartime naval commander, was by no means an "accidental choice" in the role of dictator, turning up in Omsk as if by chance. "Military circles" had already decided on Kolchak as dictator with Major-General Alfred Knox lending appreciable aid to this end, not to mention the presence of the 23rd Middlesex Battalion, assigned as personal bodyguard to Kolchak. Smele provides a very detailed analysis of the collusion, the nods and winks leading to the coup that overthrew the Directory in November, 1918, and finally installed Kolchak, newly promoted full admiral, as Supreme Ruler.

The coup was discounted with the promulgation of a new constitution, the existence of the council of ministers and notions that the dictatorship was only provisional. What transpired in reality was, in Smele's words, "the constitution contradicted, democracy derided, freedom forgotten". Both the council of ministers and Kolchak himself were trapped from the outset, the former unable to rein in the military, the latter only nominally a dictator, incapable of applying the dictatorial iron hand. The army on which both rested their hopes, renamed the Russian Army, quickly showed itself to be "dishonest, inglorious" on a brutally terrifying scale.

Kolchak's attempts to transform himself into a "real dictator" failed through personal shortcomings, the inability to inspire loyalty, reliance on incompetents, vanity and irascibility. His dictatorship was, in effect, a shield for other greedy petty dictatorships: "His own will, he has not." Neither in political nor in military matters was he the master. His exclusively naval background left him doubly disadvantaged as commander-in-chief, exposing his limited grasp of land warfare and encouraging sardonic disparagement by freebooting generals and murderous Cossack atamans, to whom an admiral of any sort remained "a sort of civilian".

The fascination of this volume lies in the detailed treatment of the internal deterioration of what Lenin called "Kolchakia", the ruination of industry, the ravaging of the countryside brought about by a marauding White army, the fate of the imperial Russian gold reserve. There is irony and tragedy in this definitive account of the rise and fall of White Siberia. What should have been the life-line of Kolchak and his regime, the Trans-Siberian Railway, proved in the end to be a noose. The railway was perceived as the great energiser of an anti-Bolshevik campaign. The Siberian peasantry offered a wellspring of men and abundant supplies. Taken together, here was a formula for victory. But military managers subverted the prime economic function of the railway, bringing disaster on the economy. The result was hunger in the towns and seething unrest in the countryside.

By August 1919, the end was in sight. Effectively written off by the Allies, in Lord Curzon's words Kolchak was "a lost cause". General Denikin in southern Russia was now the beneficiary of those supplies formerly promised to Kolchak. In tracing the long-drawn-out collapse of the White movement Smele carefully weighs the evidence whether Kolchak might have been spared his eventual fate, the "odious deed at Irkutsk" that delivered him to the political centre and execution. Given the frailty of the political centre, the Czechoslovak Legion "could have saved Kolchak", if it had desired to do so, but it did not.

Behind that decision lay the calculation of the cost in lives and the delay imposed on the legion's evacuation from Russia. It was a cruel judgement but in these circumstances well-founded. What Smele finds remarkable is not that the legion finally ditched Kolchak but that the Czechs did not abandon him earlier, given what they had previously experienced at his hands. Whatever the rationalisations, General Maurice Janin and others could not be oblivious to the inevitable fate awaiting those arrested, a dark end to a depressingly brutal and increasingly desperate struggle.

This is a monumental treatment of a vast and tragic scene, fully embracing a major dimension of revolution and civil war in Russia, delineating in every relevant detail how military dictatorship came to Siberia and why it disintegrated. Those who talk presently of authoritarianism, "dictatorship" military or otherwise, for modern Russia - read, mark and learn from this acutely discerning work.

John Erickson is director, Centre for Defence Studies, University of Edinburgh.

Civil War in Siberia: The Anti-Bolshevik Government of Admiral Kolchak, 1918-20

Author - Jonathan D. Smele
ISBN - 0 521 57335 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 759

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