Ode to Kornilov

On this day (13 April) in 1918, General Lavr Kornilov, briefly Supreme Commander of the Russian Army in July and August 1917 and later one of the founders of the anti-Bolshevik White Volunteer Army, was killed by a Bolshevik shell which landed on his headquarters outside the city of Ekaterinodar in the Kuban region of southern Russia. Below is an ode to Kornilov penned by Ivan Savin in 1925. Ivan Savin (1899-1927) was the pen name of Ivan Savolainen, a Russian Finn who fought in the Volunteer Army in the later stages of the Civil War before going into exile in Finland, where he died in 1927. Savin’s brothers all died in the war, and his poems are full of the pathos of loss – loss of family, of youth, of homeland. In this poem, which was regularly reprinted in émigré military journals, he declares that Kornilov saved Russia’s honour by proving that at least somebody had stood up to the Bolsheviks. The (not very poetic) translation is mine.

Не будь тебя, прочли бы внуки                                                                              В истории: когда зажег                                                                                            Над Русью бунт костры из муки.                                                              Народ, как раб, на плаху лег.

И только ты, бездомный воин,                                                       Причастник русского стыда,                                                                              Был мертвой родины достоин                                                                              В те недостойные года.

И только ты, подняв на битву                                                         Изнемогавших, претворил                                                                             Упрек истории – в молитву                                                                                       У героических могил.

Вот почему с такой любовью,                                                                                 С благословением таким                                                                                Клоню я голову сыновью                                                                                Перед бессмертием твоим.


But for you, our children would have read                                                             In history, that when revolt                                                                                             Kindled in Russia fires of torment;                                                                             The people, like a slave, lay down on the executioner’s block.

And only you, homeless warrior,                                                                                 Sharing in Russia’s shame,                                                                                               Were worthy of the dead motherland                                                                     In those unworthy years.

And only you, having roused                                                                                           The exhausted to battle, turned                                                                                   The reproach of history into a prayer                                                                       By heroes’ graves.

That is why with such love,                                                                                              With such blessing                                                                                                               I bow my head as a son                                                                                                       Before your immortality.


8 thoughts on “Ode to Kornilov”

  1. From this piece, the “Kornilov Affair” and how Kornilov inadverntely helped bring down Kerensky government:

    Kornilov considered Bolsheviks “German spies” because they did not support the endeavors of the Russian army to hold the attacks of the German troops. He was also concerned with the unrest and discord the Bolsheviks were stirring up in the country and the army, depriving it of the ability to fight effectively at the front. He suggested to the head of the Provisional government, Aleksandr Kerensky, that measures be taken to restore order.

    While Kerensky agreed that only extreme and harsh measures would save the country’s economy and rescue the army from anarchy he could not administer his plan, because by doing so, he would have to share his power with the military regime, represented by Kornilov. Kerensky simply was not prepared to do so, even for the good of Russia.

    Kornilov attempted to impose martial law, alleging he was acting under Kerensky’s directions. He wanted to overthrow both Kerensky and the Bolsheviks and restructure the Provisional government.

    During the last days of August and the first week of September 1917, Kornilov concentrated his troops near Petrograd (modern day St. Petersburg). His striking force, according to the plan, would be the so-called “Savage Division” that consisted of experienced fighters from the Caucasus. During the beginning of the coup Kornilov made an announcement: “I do not need any personal benefits. My job is to save Russia and rule it until the people elect their Assembly – the body that will determine the future development of the Russian state. It is the only way to save Russia from the German invasion.”

    However, his plan was stopped by the Soviets of workers. They managed to convince the population that Kornilov’s assault was the way to dictatorship. For this reason they armed themselves to block telegraph and railway communication between the location of Kornilov’s troops and Petrograd. The Bolsheviks also unfolded a huge propaganda campaign among Kornilov’s soldiers – making some of the latter switch sides. This coup showed that the Provisional government of Russia could not control the military might of the country and it was even ready to negotiate with the Bolsheviks to save itself.

    Kerensky dismissed Kornilov from his post of commander-in-chief and accused him of attempting a coup d’état. Kornilov and his supporters were arrested and jailed. But at the end of November, less than a month after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Kornilov escaped with other generals of the Russian army to the south of the country where he set up the “Volunteer Army” that managed to take control of very important areas in the south.

    From wiki, on Kornilov’s actions and fate during Civil War:

    Even before the Red Army was formed, Lavr Kornilov promised, “the greater the terror, the greater our victories.” He vowed that the goals of his forces must be fulfilled even if it was needed “to set fire to half the country and shed the blood of three-quarters of all Russians.”[8] In the Don region village of Lezhanka alone, bands of Kornilov’s officers killed more than 500 people.[9]

    On 24 February 1918, as Rostov and the Don Cossack capital of Novocherkassk fell to the Bolsheviks, Kornilov led the Volunteer Army on the epic ‘Ice March’ into the empty steppe towards the Kuban. Although badly outnumbered, he escaped destruction from pursuing Bolshevik forces and laid siege to Ekaterinodar, the capital of the Kuban Soviet Republic, on 10 April. However, in the early morning of 13 April, a Soviet shell landed on his farmhouse headquarters and killed him. He was buried in a nearby village.

    A few days later, when the Bolsheviks gained control of the village, they unearthed Kornilov’s coffin, dragged his corpse to the main square and burnt his remains on the local rubbish dump.[10]

    The Kornilov Division, one of the crack units of the White Army, was named after him, as well as many other autonomous White Army formations, such as the Kuban Cossack Kornilov Horse Regiment. The Kornilov Division became recognizable for its Totenkopf insignia, which appears on the division’s flags, pennants, and soldiers’ sleeve patches.


  2. Well, if I was alive at that time I would have probably joined Nestor Makhno, which very probably would have ended unpleasently for me.

    The Russian civil war is pretty interesting for another reason btw:

    The Bolsheviks were opposed by a “Grand coalition” featureing numerous Great powers, the White army, the Poles, various different Nationalists, the Central Asians and other actors. What happened was, very very broadly, the the grand coalition could not agree on very much, had very distinct aims (f.e. Pilsudski explicitly wanted only land, but was interested in making the Soviets win because he prefered a communist, and thus isolated, post war Russia). Often they waited on each other, secretly hoping that their “allies” would do the heavy lifting which make them be well positioned in the “post Bolshevik battle”, while the Bolsheviks knew that it was victory or death (all non Bolshevik non Makhno forces had decent exile locations, the Bolsheviks would simply be put down had they been defeated) and used internal lines of communication and transport to concentrate their forces and defeat most of their enemies in detail, while buying off those (Czech legion, Pilsudksi, German Empire) they could not defeat on the battlefield.


  3. Congrats to him.

    My own grandfather on the German side was a communist in Nazi Germany, was thus used to living on the run, got drafted into the Wehrmacht under a false name in 44, spent most of the war frantically running/riding away from the red army, then got captured, fled Soviet captivity, pretended to be a French soldier (had a close encounter with a Polish officer that was fluent in French, but successfully pretended to be totally drunk) and basically walked home from Poland.

    In East Germany, he proceeded to be the “wrong kind of communist” which greatly reduced his odds of promotion.


    1. That’s a beautiful story. I visited GDR in 1973 or 74, the last year of high school. Maybe I saw him there. Nice place, as I remember. BTW, was Stasi really such a terrible thing (I mean the 70s and 80s), or only for intellectuals?


  4. If you were sufficiently important, Stasi was kind of a poker game. F.e. Johannes Gauck (current president of Germany, and always very “my human rights are the best” kind of guy) leveraged his church position into having 2 of his sons studying in West Germany, getting a West German car and regularly being allowed to visit his sons there. These were privileges that were unattainable for normal citizens, and that led to persistent and not quite unfounded rumors that he hasnt exactly come clean about what kind of services he offered to the Stasi in return.

    Amusingly enough, he was put in charge of the Stasi files, and had a lot of opportunities to scantify his own stuff. He also literally employed dozens of Stasi officer in Stasi file central (allegedly because only they knew their way around those files, interestingly, no other entity charged with the Stasi files did the same), and there is a popular theory that Gauck was appointed because he was an IM (snitch), and only an IM (sitch) who pretended to be a human rights activist and dissident could be controlled and thus trusted with the Stasi files containing information on west german political personell.

    An honest idealist may not be controllable, and could have exposed the dirty secrets the Stasi had collected, but someone who was Stasi himself, and could proven to be Stasi, could be controlled and if neccessary discredited.

    And well, he literally killed the professional lives of people that did less Stasi cooperation then he, officially and provably did.


    1. Right, but my question is: did it (Stasi) affect the lives of ordinary people – not intellectuals, officials, activists. Things that disturb intellectuals get trumpeted and generate outrage, while, say, someone dying of a gunshot wound in a Baltimore ghetto is not likely to be interviewed by the BBC.

      I’m curious whether the Stasi’s infamy is (mostly) the result of its effect on the intellectuals, or was it also a real problem for most of the population: farmers, factory workers, plumbers, waiters, low-level bureaucrats…


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