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Admiral Alexander Kolchak’s archives have been declassified. Why is the White Army leader still so controversial?

Источник: Meduza
Heritage / Alamy / Vida Press

On March 21, it became public knowledge that Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, had declassified documents related to the criminal case against Alexander Kolchak. Kolchak led the White Army movement that attempted to regain control of Russia from the Bolshevik Red Army during the Russian Civil War of 1917 – 1923. Access to the documents declassified by the FSB remains limited: viewing them is still prohibited. Kolchak was executed by firing squad in 1920 after being convicted of war crimes, and in 1999, a Russian court declined to rehabilitate him. Rehabilitation is a legal practice typically used to exonerate the victims of Stalinist and post-Stalinist repressions, often after those victims have died. The fact that Kolchak was not accorded even that level of respect speaks to the controversy his name still inspires: in 2017, a memorial plaque mounted on the admiral’s former home in St. Petersburg was taken down just one year after its construction. At the same time, Kolchak has become the subject of various books and films, and he remains one of the most popular historical figures of the Civil War. Meduza asked history professor Andrey Ganin, a leading scholar at the Institute for Slavic Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences, to explain contemporary attitudes toward the figure of Alexander Kolchak.

Admiral Kolchak is one of the best-known symbols of the White Army

Admiral Kolchak is one of the White Russian leaders who is best known to the public. In that sense, he personifies a number of other White Army figures for many Russians, and that means both public enthusiasm and public hatred for the White Army is concentrated on him.

In a way, Kolchak is really one of the most notable symbols of the White Army. It is Kolchak who has become the subject of the most books and films, and there has even been a memorial statue built in his honor. Efforts to memorialize places that have some relationship to his life and work are ongoing, although they are clearly controversial. And that is no surprise.

The romance of Kolchak’s arctic expeditions draws people toward him, and so do his spiritual searchings, which drew on Eastern philosophy. His heroism in war and his deep sense of patriotism (though some Russians will always be prepared to accuse Kolchak of upholding Allied interests rather than domestic ones) also play a role in his charisma. Others find themselves attracted to Kolchak’s nationalism, the love story preserved in his letters to and from Anna Vasilyevna Timireva, his uncompromising struggle to preserve his ideals during the Civil War, or, of course, his tragic end.

Kolchak was shot in February of 1920 as the White Army advanced on Irkutsk

Alexander Kolchak and Viktor Pepeliayev, the former leader of the short-lived Government of the Russian State, which opposed the Bolshevik government, were shot on February 7, 1920, in Irkutsk. Their execution was ordered by the Irkutsk Wartime Revolutionary Committee (VRK). Their bodies were deposited into a hole in the Ushakovka River, a tributary of the Angara.

The VRK order that determined the fates of Kolchak and Pepeliayev asserted that a White underground in Irkutsk might prove capable of freeing the two men alongside approaching White Army forces. The Irkutsk VRK, writing that it was “obligated to prevent unnecessary deaths and keep the city from descending into the horror of civil war while basing its decisions on information provided by the current investigation … which has found Kolchak and his government to be acting illegally,” issued a death sentence. The order concluded with a memorable slogan: “Better to kill two criminals who have long been worthy of death than to kill hundreds of innocent victims.”

Another order issued by Ivan Smirnov, a member of the Fifth Army RVK and the chair of the Siberian RVK, carries the same date. It reads: “In light of renewed wartime activities against the Czech forces, the movement of Swiss divisions toward Irkutsk, and the unstable condition of the Soviet government in Irkutsk, I hereby declare: Admiral Kolchak and Chairman of the Ministers’ Council Pepeliayev, who are currently imprisoned by yourselves, as well as all who have participated in their punitive expeditions or served Kolchak either as counterintelligence agents or as guards, must immediately be shot.”

On February 9, Smirnov wrote by telegraph to Vladimir Lenin that Kolchak and Pepeliayev were shot “in light of current unstable conditions.” It is therefore undoubtable that Smirnov had intended to carry out a politically motivated execution in order to dispose of an opposition leader amid complex operational conditions that arose near Irkutsk in early February of 1920.

Crimes were committed in the territories controlled by Kolchak, but similar crimes on Red Army territory went unpunished

It is reasonable to argue that Kolchak, as the recognized leader of the White Army, was responsible for any crimes committed on the enormous territory he controlled either by his subordinates or on his command. Those crimes included massacres of peaceful civilians. The Civil War was not conducive to compromise, and both sides used every possibility they could think of to weaken and eliminate their enemies, including the execution of prisoners and hostages as well as merciless crackdowns on partisan fighters and local populations that supported them. However, similar events likely took place on even larger scales under Soviet leaders, and no legal body has criticized the Soviet army for allowing those crimes to occur.

Even today, 100 years later, the wide-scale terror of the Civil War remains a subject of passionate debate insofar as that terror has been very sparsely described and because it would still be premature to define a particular level of guilt on either side. That uncertainty does encompass the actions of Bolshevik leaders because the scale of the terrorist acts committed by all sides of the conflict has been heavily mythologized.

The monument to Alexander Kolchak in Irkutsk.
Irina Ovchinnikova / Fotobank Lori

As far as legal responsibility goes, I can provide a specific example. I recently completed a substantial biographical research project concerning V.I. Oberyukhtin, one of Kolchakov’s best-known generals. Oberyukhtin, who was directly subordinate to Kolchak and signed one of his army’s orders for repression, approved the immediate extralegal execution of a group of partisans as well as the execution of a group of hostages several days later and the destruction of inhabited areas in cases of mass resistance. The general was rehabilitated even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Oberyukhtin’s case, as in many others, it is unclear whether or how widely the orders in question were carried out.

One might argue that a declaration of national unity declaring that participation in the Civil War did not constitute a crime for any side would obviously make it necessary to rehabilitate Kolchak. However, that question is a bit odd in itself. Factually, Kolchak lost a war, was captured by his opponents, and was executed as an important leader from an opposing wartime faction. In other words, he was killed for political reasons, but Kolchak himself would have taken precisely the same actions had he defeated the leaders of the Red Army.

Kolchak’s rehabilitation is clearly necessary as a formal, legal act. The accusations against him have become the property of history, and historians should be permitted to work with the documents that describe them. However, in essence, history rehabilitated Kolchak long ago. Neither Reds nor Whites nor even the government that ordered Kolchak’s execution still exists within the Russian state.

Andrey Ganin

Translation by Hilah Kohen