Tag Archives: Russian Civil War

White ARmy, Black Baron

This weekend marks the one hundredth anniversary of the evacuation of Crimea by the White Russian Army of General Pyotr Wrangel. Although some sporadic fighting continued elsewhere in Russia for a few months thereafter, the evacuation marked the defeat of the last substantial White military force and so brought an effective end to the Russian Civil War.

Resistance to communist rule began almost immediately after Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized power in the Russian capital Petrograd in November 1917, although it took a while for the resistance to gather strength. The initial centre of opposition was in southern Russia in the region of the Don and Kuban Cossacks, where Cossack forces allied with former Imperial army officers who formed the Volunteer Army. Together in due course, the Volunteers and Cossacks created the Armed Forces of Southern Russia (AFSR), led by General Anton Denikin. This was one of three main formations in the ‘White’ armies (so-called to distinguish them from the revolutionary ‘Reds’), the others being led by Admiral Kolchak in Siberia and General Iudenich in the Baltic region.

Denikin resigned as commander of the AFSR in early 1920 following a decisive defeat at the hands of the Red Army. He was succeeded by General Wrangel, who renamed the AFSR as the ‘Russian Army’. All that remained under the control of the Russian Army was, however, the peninsula of Crimea. After Poland invaded Russia in 1920, Wrangel was able to slightly expand his territory into southern Ukraine, but his position remained precarious.

General Pyotr Nikolaevich Wrangel

Wrangel had a reputation as a reactionary, being known in Bolshevik propaganda as the ‘Black Baron’. Belying this reputation, as ruler of Crimea Wrangel pursued what were called ‘leftist policies in rightist hands’. Denikin had largely ignored administrative, social, and economic issues, focusing on fighting the war. Historians have much criticized him for this, as this neglect is said to have contributed to chaos behind the White lines, which fatally weakened their cause.

Wrangel learnt from this and set about establishing a sound administration in the Crimea and enacting economic reforms, particularly in terms of giving peasants ownership of the land they tilled. In this he was helped by his Prime Minister, Alexander Krivoshein, who previously as Minister of Agriculture had been considered the most liberal of all the ministers in the pre-war Tsarist government. Other liberals also came to Wrangel’s assistance, an example being the philosopher and economist Pyotr Struve, who in his youth had been on quite chummy terms with Lenin and other Marxists and had even drafted the first manifesto of the Russian Social Democratic Party (which later morphed into the Communist Party). In 1920 he became Wrangel’s foreign minister.

None of this was sufficient to save the Whites. Once Poland and the Bolsheviks made peace, the latter were able to transfer their forces to the south to crush the Whites.  By 4 November 1920, they were ready to attack.

Wrangel was relying on the fact that Crimea is separated from southern Ukraine by only a very narrow strip of land (known as the Perekop) to compensate for his relative military weakness, as it would be difficult for the Red Army to amass many forces in such a confined space. Unfortunately for the Whites, an early onset of winter froze the shallow water of the Sea of Azov on the northeastern side of Crimea, allowing the Red cavalry to penetrate into the rear of the Whites. Within a few days of the start of the Red offensive, the position of the Whites in the Crimea had become untenable. On 13 November Wrangel ordered his troops to start embarking on the vessels of the Russian navy and to abandon Crimea. Over the next five days, nearly the entire army was successfully evacuated, and made sail for Constantinople and a life in exile. The Whites were defeated.

Nikolai Turoverov, an officer in the Life Guards Ataman Regiment, who had served in the White Army throughout the entire length of the civil war, described the final moments before evacuation in his poem ‘Crimea’:

Уходили мы из Крыма
Среди дыма и огня,
Я с кормы все время мимо
В своего стрелял коня.
А он плыл, изнемогая,
За высокою кормой,
Все не веря, все не зная,
Что прощается со мной.
Сколько раз одной могилы
Ожидали мы в бою.
Конь все плыл, теряя силы,
Веря в преданность мою.
Мой денщик стрелял не мимо,
Покраснела чуть вода…
Уходящий берег Крыма
Я запомнил навсегда.

——–

We left Crimea,

Amidst smoke and fire.

From the stern I shot my horse

But missed.

And he swam, exhausted,

Behind the high stern,

Not believing, not knowing,

That he was saying goodbye to me.

How many times in battle

We expected to share a single grave.

The horse kept on swimming, losing strength,

Believing in my devotion.

My batman didn’t miss.

The water turned red …

I’ll remember forever

Crimea’s departing shore.

Nikolai Turoverov

Counter-revolution

As we mark the 100th anniversary today of the Great October Socialist Revolution, pundits are laying out what they believe are the lessons of the tragic events which befell Russia and its people in 1917. As my contribution, I would like to draw attention to something a little different: namely, that in Russia revolution means counter-revolution.

The Bolsheviks’ usurpation of power in November 1917 didn’t end the political struggle within Russia. Rather, it intensified it. Counter-revolutionary groups sprung up throughout the country, and before long civil war resulted. The violence which followed inflicted enormous damage on Russia. Bolshevik supporters who imagined that their party’s coup would lead to ‘peace, bread, and land’ proved to be cruelly deceived.

За_единую_Россію
The White Warrior slays the Bolshevik dragon

And so it often is with revolutions. The revolutionaries like to imagine that all they have to do is topple the old order and all will be well. They will establish themselves firmly in authority. They don’t imagine that a significant portion of the population might object to their unconstitutional seizure of power and take up arms against them, and that the revolution, however well-intentioned it may be, will have terrible results. But when a self-appointed elite seizes control in this way, people very often do object, and on occasions do so vehemently enough to do something about it.

We can see this in Ukraine. Those who jumped up and down on Maidan thought that if they toppled the existing regime everybody would just accept what they had done. But, of course, they didn’t. A portion of the Ukrainian population took up arms against the new government, leading to the loss of Crimea and much of Donbass, as well as to thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of physical damage.

Now, I don’t think for one instance that there will be a repetition of Maidan in Russia. I’m one of those who doesn’t believe that the ‘Putin regime’ is about to fall. But let’s just imagine that such a thing could happen, and consider how the Great October Socialist Revolution led to the Civil War, and how Maidan led to anti-Maidan. Mark my words, if there were to be another revolution in Russia, there would be another counter-revolution. There are more than enough modern-day Black Hundreds and lesser opponents of Western liberalism to ensure that any attempt to impose a Western liberal order on Russia by revolutionary means would be met by force. The Russian anti-Maidan would make the Ukrainian version look like a teddy bear’s picnic. It would not be pretty.

Revolutionaries, of course, will say that counter-revolution isn’t their fault; it’s the counter-revolutionaries’ fault. But my point here isn’t to say whether counter-revolution is right or wrong (although regular readers will probably recognize that I tend to be on the counter-revolutionary side). Rather, my point is to say that after revolution, counter-revolution is inevitable, and if it were to happen in Russia, it would be horribly destructive.

It’s something those who call for ‘regime change’, not just in Russia but in a host of other countries, should bear in mind.

Friday book # 48: Volunteer Army & Ukraine

This week’s book is something of a Ukrainian nationalist take on the White movement in the Russian Civil War. According to the cover blurb, ‘The Volunteer Army failed to defeat the Bolsheviks because it was unable and unwilling to come to terms with the Ukrainian question. At critical junctures during the Russian Civil War, its struggle against an independent Ukraine overshadowed its struggle against the Bolsheviks’. Author Anna Procyk casts the blame for the Whites’ failure on the liberal politicians who advised the White generals. She ‘challenges the view that the Volunteer Army’s generals were reactionary monarchists’ and argues that it was the liberals in General Denikin’s entourage who ‘reinforced [his] refusal to deal with the independent Ukrainian governments of 1918-19’. This led to the Whites’ defeat as it forced them to fight a two-front war (against Ukraine as well as against the Bolsheviks).

whites

Friday book # 47: Bolsheviks in Russian Society

I bought this week’s book while working in the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University as part of the research for my doctoral dissertation. I was particularly interested in the chapter by Leonid Heretz entitled ‘The Psychology of the White Movement’. The Whites, Heretz argues, thought in ‘religious categories’ and ‘did not fight for a restoration of the prerevolutionary order, nor indeed for any mundane political goal, but rather for the mythical “Holy Russia”,’ which the Bolsheviks had defiled. ‘The Whites’ struggle’, says Heretz, ‘was an attempt to cleanse and purify Russia by means of self-sacrifice’, which they imagined in terms of ‘redemptive suffering.’

brovkin

Friday book # 45: Origins of the Russian Civil War

Civil wars begin in many ways, but one is when a radical minority seizes power by force and seeks to impose its agenda on a largely unwilling population. Most people aren’t interested in politics and just want to get on with their lives. But in such circumstances, some will be found who decide to fight back. So it was in Russia between 1917 and 1921. In this week’s book, Geoffrey Swain puts the blame for the Russian Civil War firmly on the shoulders of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. As Swain says:

The Russian Civil War was an unnecessary war. It was a war brought about by Lenin when he wrecked the Railway Workers’ Union talks on 4 November 1917.  … [He] realized that in the absence of an international civil war he would have to impose his views through a civil war in Russia, and could do so by relying on the greed of the German imperialists.

That seems a fair conclusion to me, but no doubt the Leninist sympathizers among my readers will disagree.

swain

Friday book # 27: White Siberia

This week’s book examines the politics of the White movement in Siberia during the Russian Civil War. Author N.G.O. Pereira concludes with the words:

Nothing could be a better indication of the total reversal in values and judgements since 1985 than that Kolchak, portrayed for decades as the worst of the White bandits, is now depicted as the gallant and chivalrous knight who died a martyr-patriot, fulfilling his officer’s oath to a great and restored rodina (homeland). The truth, once again, lies somewhere between the two extremes.

white siberia