Aleksandr Kolchak

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Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Kolchak
Aleksandr Kolchak.jpg
Admiral Kolchak, later victim of Red Terror
Birth date 16 November 1874(1874-11-16)
Place of birth Saint Petersburg
Death date 7 February 1920 (aged 45)
Place of death Irkutsk
Allegiance  Russian Empire
Service/branch Russian Navy
Years of service 1895-1920
Rank Admiral (from 1917)
Battles/wars Russo-Japanese War
World War I
Russian Civil War
Awards Order of St. Stanislaus 2nd class
Order of St. Anne 4th class
Order of St. George 4th class
Order of St. Vladimir 4th class[1]

Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Kolchak (16 November 1874 – 7 February 1920) was a naval commander in the Imperial Russian Navy, a polar explorer and, later, Supreme Ruler 1918-20 (head of all the counter-revolutionary anti-communist White forces during the Russian Civil War) of Russia. He was recognized in this position by all the heads of the de jure White movement, as de facto by Yugoslavia and the Entente States. He was also a prominent expert on naval mines[2] and a member of the Russian Geographical Society.[3] Among Kolchak's awards are the St. George Gold Sword for Bravery given for his actions in the battle of Port Arthur[3] and the Great Gold Constantine Medal from the Russian Geographic Society.[3][4] Soviet maps depicted Kolchak Island up until the mid-1930s.

Today a large memorial statue of Kolchak stands next to the place where he and his Prime Minister were murdered by the Bolsheviks in Irkutsk, Siberia.


Early life and career

Kolchak was born in Saint Petersburg in 1874 into a military family descending from the 18th-century Moldavian mercenary, Iliaş Colceag. His father was a retired major-general of the Marine Artillery, who was actively engaged in the siege of Sevastopol in 1854-55 and after his retirement worked as an engineer in ordnance works near St. Petersburg. Kolchak was educated for a naval career, graduating from the Naval Cadet Corps College in 1894 and joining the 7th Naval Battalion of the city. He was soon transferred to the Far East, serving in Vladivostok from 1895 to 1899. He returned to European Russia and was based at Kronstadt, joining the Polar expedition of Eduard Toll on the ship Zarya in 1900 as a hydrologist. After considerable hardship, Kolchak returned in December 1902; Eduard Toll with three other members went further north and were lost. Kolchak took part in two Arctic expeditions and for a while was nicknamed "Kolchak-Poliarnyi" ("Kolchak the Polar"). For his explorations Kolchak received the highest award of the Russian Geographical Society.

In December 1903, Kolchak was on his way back to St. Petersburg, there to marry his fiancée Sophia Omirova. Not far from Irkutsk, he received notice of the start of war with the Japanese Empire and hastily summoned his bride and her father to Siberia by telegram for a wedding, before heading directly to Port Arthur. In the early stages of the Russo-Japanese War, he served as watch officer on the cruiser Askold,[5] and later commanded the destroyer Serdityi. He made several night sorties to lay naval mines, one of which succeeded in sinking the Japanese cruiser Takasago. He was decorated with the Order of St. Anna, 4th class, for the exploit. As the blockade of the port tightened and the Siege of Port Arthur intensified, he was given command of a coastal artillery battery. He was wounded in the final battles for Port Arthur and taken as a prisoner of war to Nagasaki, where he spent four months. His poor health (rheumatism - a consequence of his polar expeditions) - led to his repatriation before the end of the war. He was awarded the Golden Sword of St. George with the inscription "For Bravery" on his return to Russia.

Returning to Saint Petersburg in April 1905, Kolchak was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander. Kolchak took part in the rebuilding of the Imperial Russian Navy: the Baltic fleet had been almost completely destroyed during the war. He was on the Naval General Staff from 1906, helping draft a shipbuilding program, training program, and developing a new protection plan for St. Petersburg and the Gulf of Finland area.

Kolchak took part in designing the special icebreakers Taimyr and Vaigach, launched in 1909 and Spring 1910. Based in Vladivostok, these vessels were sent on a cartographic expedition to the Bering Strait and Cape Dezhnev. Kolchak commanded the Vaigach during this expedition and later worked at the Academy of Sciences with the materials collected by him during expeditions. His study, The Ices of the Kara and Siberian Seas, was printed in the Proceedings of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences and was considered the most important work on this subject. Extracts from it were published under the title "The Arctic Pack and the Polynya" in the volume issued in 1929 by the American Geographical Society, Problems of Polar Research.

In 1910, he returned to the Naval General Staff, and in 1912 he was assigned to serve in the Russian Baltic Fleet.

First World War

After the outbreak of war initially on the flagship Pogranichnik, Kolchak oversaw the laying of extensive coastal defensive minefields and commanded the naval forces in the Gulf of Riga. Admiral Essen was not satisfied to remain only on the defensive and ordered Kolchak to prepare a scheme for attacking the approaches of the German naval bases. During the autumn and winter of 1914-1915, Russian destroyers and cruisers started a series of dangerous night operations, laying mines at the approaches to Kiel and Danzig. Kolchak, being of the opinion that the person responsible for planning operations should take part in their execution, was always on board those ships which carried out the operations and sometimes took direct command of the destroyer flotillas.

He was promoted to Vice-Admiral in August 1916, the youngest man at that rank, and was made commander of the Black Sea Fleet, replacing Admiral Eberhart. Kolchak's primary mission was to support General Yudenich in his operations against the Ottoman Empire. He also was tasked with the job of countering any U-boat threat and to begin planning an invasion of the Bosphorus (which was never carried out). Kolchak's fleet was successful at sinking Turkish colliers. Because there was no railroad linking the coal mines of eastern Turkey with Constantinople, the Russian fleet's attacks on the Turkish coal ships caused the Ottoman government much hardship. In 1916, in a model combined Army-Navy assault, the Russian Black Sea fleet helped the Russian army to take the Ottoman city of Trebizond (modern Trabzon).

One notable disaster took place under Kolchak's watch: the dreadnought Empress Maria blew up in the port of Sevastopol on October 7, 1916. A careful investigation failed to determine the cause of the explosion; it could have been accidental or sabotage.


After the February Revolution in 1917, the Black Sea fleet descended into political chaos. Kolchak was removed from command of the fleet in June and travelled to Petrograd. On his arrival at Petrograd, Kolchak was invited to a meeting of the Provisional Government. There he presented his view on the condition of the Russian armed forces and their complete demoralisation. He stated that the only way to save the country was to reestablish discipline and restore capital punishment in the army and navy.

During this time many organisations and newspapers with a nationalist tendency spoke of him as a future dictator. A number of new and secret organisations had sprung up in Petrograd which had as their object the suppression of the Bolshevist movement and the removal of the extremist members of the Government. Some of these organisations asked Kolchak to accept the leadership.

When the news was received by the then Naval Minister of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, he ordered Kolchak to leave immediately for America (Admiral James H. Glennon, member of American mission, headed by Senator Elihu Root invited Kolchak to go to America in order to give the American Navy Department information on Bosphorus). On 19 August 1917 Kolchak with several officers left Petrograd for Britain and the United States as a quasi-official military observer. When passing through London he was greeted cordially by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who offered him transport on board a British cruiser on his way to Halifax. The journey to America proved to be unnecessary, as by the time Kolchak arrived, the US had given up the idea of any independent action in the Dardanelles. Kolchak visited the American Fleet and its ports, and decided to return to Russia via Japan.

Russian Civil War

At the time of the revolution in November 1917, he was in Japan and then Manchuria. Kolchak was a supporter of the Provisional Government and returned to Russia, through Vladivostok, in 1918. Kolchak was an absolute supporter of the Allied cause against Germany, and initially hearing of the Bolshevik coup on November 7, 1917, he offered to enlist in the British Army to continue the struggle. Initially, the British were inclined to accept Kolchak’s offer, and there were plans to send Kolchak to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), but London decided that Kolchak could do more for the Allied cause by overthrowing the Bolsheviks and bringing Russia back into the war on the Allied side. Reluctantly, Kolchak accepted the British suggestions and with a heavy sense of foreboding, Kolchak returned to Russia. Arriving in Omsk, Siberia, en route to enlisting with the Volunteer Army, he agreed to become a minister in the (White) Siberian Regional Government. Joining a fourteen man cabinet, he was a prestige figure; the government hoped to play on the respect he had with the Allies, especially the head of the British military mission, General Alfred Knox.

In November 1918, the unpopular regional government was overthrown in a military coup d'etat. Kolchak had returned to Omsk on November 16 from an inspection tour. He was approached and refused to take power. The Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Directory leader and members were arrested on November 18 by a troop of Cossacks under ataman Krasilnikov. The remaining cabinet members met and voted for Kolchak to become the head of government with dictatorial powers. He was named Supreme Ruler (Verkhovnyi Pravitel), and he promoted himself to Admiral. The arrested SR politicians were expelled from Siberia and ended up in Europe.

He issued the following manifesto to the population:[citation needed]

The Provisional All-Russian Government has come to an end. The Council of Ministers, having all the power in its hands, has invested me, Admiral Alexander Kolchak, with this power. I have accepted this responsibility in the exceptionally difficult circumstances of civil war and complete disorganisation of the country, and I now make it known that I shall follow neither the reactionary path nor the deadly path of party strife. My chief aims are the organisation of a fighting force, the overthrow of Bolshevism, and the establishment of law and order, so that the Russian people may be able to choose a form of government in accordance with its desire and to realise the high ideas of liberty and freedom. I call upon you, citizens, to unite and to sacrifice your all, if necessary, in the struggle with Bolshevism.

The SR leaders in Russia denounced Kolchak and called for him to be killed. Their activities resulted in a small revolt in Omsk on December 22, 1918, which was quickly put down by Cossacks and the Czechoslovak Legion, who summarily executed almost 500 rebels. The SRs opened negotiations with the Bolsheviks and in January 1919 the SR People's Army joined with the Red Army.

Kolchak pursued a policy of persecuting revolutionaries as well as Socialists of several factions. Kolchak’s government issued a decree on 3 December 1918 stating, “In order to preserve the system and rule of the Supreme Ruler, articles of the criminal code of Imperial Russia were revised, Articles 99 and 100 of which established capital punishment for assassination attempts on the Supreme Ruler and for attempting to overthrow the authorities. “Insults written, printed, and oral, are punishable by imprisonment under Article 103. Bureaucratic sabotage under Article 329 was punishable by hard labor from 15 to 20 years.[6]

On April 11, 1919, the Kolchak's government adopted Regulation no. 428, “About the dangers of public order due to ties with the Bolshevik Revolt”. The legislation was published in the Omsk newspaper Omsk Gazette (no. 188 of 19 July 1919). It provided a term of five years of prison for “individuals considered a threat to the public order because of their ties in any way with the Bollshevik revolt.” In the case of unauthorized return from exile, there could be hard labor from 4 to 8 years. Articles 99-101 allowed the death penalty, forced labor and imprisonment, repression by military courts, and imposed no investigation commissions.[6]

Kolchak acknowledged all of Russia's debts, returned factories and plants to their owners, granted concessions to foreign investors, dispersed trade unions, persecuted Marxists, and disbanded the soviets. Kolchak's agrarian policy was directed toward restoring private land ownership. The former Tsarist laws were restored. There was brutal repression committed by Kolchak's regime: in Ekaterinburg alone the Great Soviet Encyclopedia alleges that more than 25,000 people were shot or tortured to death.[7] In March 1919 Kolchak himself demanded one of his generals to "follow the example of the Japanese who, in the Amur region, had exterminated the local population." [8]

Sovietskaya Rossiya, an "official organ" of Soviet Bureau established by Ludwig Martens, quoted a Menshevik organ Vsegda Vperyod alleging that Kolchak's men used mass floggings and razed entire villages to the ground with artillery fire. 4,000 peasants allegedly became victims of field courts and punitive expeditions and that all dwellings of rebels were burned down.[9]

An excerpt from the order of the government of Yenisei county in Irkutsk province, General. S. Rozanov said:[6]

“Those villages whose population meets troops with arms, burn down the villages and shoot the adult males without exception. If hostages are taken in cases of resistance to government troops, shoot the hostages without mercy."

There was prominent underground resistance in the regions controlled by Kolchak's government. These partisans were especially strong in the provinces of Altai and Yeniseysk. In the summer of 1919 partisans of Altai Region united to form the Western Siberian Peasants' Red Army (25,000 men). The Taseev Soviet Partisan Republic was founded south-east of Yeniseysk in early 1919. By the fall of 1919, Kolchak's rear was completely disintegrating. About 100,000 Siberian Communists seized vast regions from Kolchak's regime even before the approach of the Red Army. In February 1920, some 20,000 partisans took control of the Amur region.[10]

British left-wing historian Edward Hallett Carr wrote,[11]

It is no longer possible for any sane man to regard the campaigns of Kolchak, Yudenich, Denikin and Wrangel otherwise than as tragic blunders of colossal dimensions.

On the contrary, a former Chief of Staff to Admiral Kolchak wrote,[12]

They (Kolchak, Kornilov, Denikin and Wrangel) were first of all patriots with a deep love for their country and worked for its salvation without any regard for self-advancement. Political intrigues were unknown to them and they were ready to work with men of any political party, so long as they knew that these men were sincere in their endeavours to free Russia...and to make it possible, after the end of the war, for a National Assembly, chosen by the people, to decide the character of the future Government of Russia.

Supreme Governor of Russia

Initially the White forces under his command had some success. Kolchak was unfamiliar with combat on land and gave the majority of the strategic planning to D.A. Lebedev, Paul J. Bubnar, and his staff. The northern army under the Russian Anatoly Pepelyayev and the Czech Rudolf Gajda seized Perm in late December 1918 and after a pause other forces spread out from this strategic base. The plan was for three main advances – Gajda to take Archangel, Khanzhin to capture Ufa and the Cossacks under Alexander Dutov to capture Samara and Saratov. Kolchak had put around 110,000 men into the field facing roughly 95,000 Bolshevik troops. Kolchak's good relations with General Alfred Knox meant that his forces were partly armed, munitioned and uniformed by the British (up to August 1919 the British spent an official $239 million[citation needed] aiding the Whites, although Churchill disputed this figure at the time as an "absurd exaggeration").

The White forces took Ufa in March 1919 and pushed on from there to take Kazan and approach Samara on the Volga River. Anti-Communist risings in Simbirsk, Kazan, Viatka, and Samara assisted their endeavours. The newly-formed Red Army proved unwilling to fight and retreated, allowing the Whites to advance to a line stretching from Glazov through Orenburg to Uralsk. Kolchak's territories covered over 300,000 km² and held around 7 million people. In April, the alarmed Bolshevik Central Executive Committee made defeating Kolchak its top priority. But as the spring thaw arrived Kolchak's position degenerated – his armies had outrun their supply lines, they were exhausted, and the Red Army was pouring newly raised troops into the area.

Kolchak had also aroused the dislike of potential allies including the Czechoslovak Legion and the Polish 5th Rifle Division. They withdrew from the conflict in October 1918 but remained a presence, their new leader Maurice Janin regarded Kolchak as an instrument of the British and was pro-SR. Kolchak could not count on Japanese aid either; the Japanese feared he would interfere with their occupation of Far Eastern Russia and refused him assistance, creating a 'buffer state' to the east of Lake Baikal under Cossack control. The 7,000 or so American troops in Siberia were strictly neutral regarding "internal Russian affairs" and served only to maintain the operation of the Trans-Siberian railroad in the Far East. The American commander, General William S. Graves, personally disliked the Kolchak government, which he saw as Monarchist and autocratic, a view that was shared by the American President, Woodrow Wilson. As a result, both refused to grant him any aid.

Defeat and death

When the Red forces managed to reorganise and turn the attack against Kolchak, from 1919 he quickly lost ground. The Red counter-attack began in late April at the centre of the White line, aiming for Ufa. The fighting was fierce as, unlike earlier, both sides fought hard. Ufa was taken by the Red Army on June 9 and later that month the Red forces under Tukhachevsky broke through the Urals. Freed from the geographical constraints of the mountains, the Reds made rapid progress, capturing Chelyabinsk on July 25 and forcing the White forces to the north and south to fall back to avoid being isolated. The White forces re-established a line along the Tobol and the Ishim rivers to temporarily halt the Reds. They held that line until October, but the constant loss of men killed or wounded was beyond the White rate of replacement. Reinforced, the Reds broke through on the Tobol in mid-October and by November the White forces were falling back towards Omsk in a disorganised mass. The Reds were sufficiently confident to start redeploying some of their forces southwards to face Anton Denikin.

Kolchak also came under threat from other quarters: local opponents began to agitate and international support began to wane, with even the British turning more towards Denikin. Gajda, dismissed from command of the northern army, staged an abortive coup in mid-November. Omsk was evacuated on November 14 and the Red Army took the city without any serious resistance, capturing large amounts of ammunition, almost 50,000 soldiers, and ten generals. As there was a continued flood of refugees eastwards, typhus became a serious problem.

Kolchak had left Omsk on the 13th for Irkutsk along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Travelling a section of track controlled by the Czechoslovaks he was sidetracked and stopped; by December his train had only reached Nizhneudinsk. In late December Irkutsk fell under the control of a leftist group (including SRs) and formed the Political Centre. One of their first actions was to dismiss Kolchak. When he heard of this on January 4, 1920, he announced his resignation, giving his office to Denikin and passing control of his remaining forces around Irkutsk to the ataman, G. M. Semyonov. The transfer of power to Semyonov proved a particularly ill-considered move.

It appears that Kolchak was then promised safe passage by the Czechoslovaks to the British military mission in Irkutsk. Instead, he was handed over to the leftist authorities in Irkutsk on January 14. On January 20 the government in Irkutsk gave power to a Bolshevik military committee. The White Army under command of Vladimir Kappel rushed toward Irkutsk while Kolchak was "investigated" before a commission of five men from January 21 to February 6. Despite the arrival of an order to the contrary from Moscow,[13] he was summarily sentenced to death along with his Prime Minister, Viktor Pepelyayev. They were executed by firing squad in the early morning of 7 February 1920, and the bodies were disposed of in the Angara River.[13] When the White Army learned about his execution, the decision was made to withdraw farther east. The Great Siberian Ice March followed. The Red Army did not enter Irkutsk until March 7, and only then was the news of Kolchak's death officially released.


Admiral Kolchak was not successful from the time of his taking the position of Supreme Ruler until his death, though it must be borne in mind that he operated under very difficult circumstances. As a military commander he was unable to make successful strategic plans or to manage to coordinate with other White Army generals such as Yudenich or Denikin.

Kolchak failed to convince the potentially friendly states of Finland, Poland, or the Baltic states to join with him against the Bolsheviks. He was unable to win diplomatic recognition from any nation in the world, even Britain (though the British did support him to some degree). He alienated the Czechoslovak Legion, which for a time was a powerful organized military force and very strongly anti-Bolshevik. As was mentioned above, the American commander, General Graves, disliked Kolchak and refused to lend him any military aid at all.

After decades of being vilified by the Soviet government, Kolchak is now a controversial historic figure in post-Soviet Russia. The "For Faith and Fatherland" movement has attempted to rehabilitate his reputation. However, two rehabilitation requests have been denied, by a regional military court in 1999 and by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation in 2001. In 2004, the Constitutional Court of Russia returned the Kolchak case to the military court for another hearing.

Monuments dedicated to Kolchak were built in Saint Petersburg in 2002 and in Irkutsk in 2004, despite objections from some former Communist and left-wing politicians and former Soviet army veterans. There is also a Kolchak Island. The modern Russian Navy thought about naming the third ship of the new Admiral Kolchak class to commemorate the Admiral but the time was not right and the name was not assigned.

In culture

A Kolchak biopic, titled Admiral (Адмиралъ), was released in Russia on 9 October 2008. The film portrays the Admiral (Konstantin Khabensky) as a tragic hero with a very deep love for his country. Elizaveta Boyarskaya appears as his common law wife, Anna Timireva.

Director Andrei Kravchuk described the film as follows,

"It's about a man who tries to create history, to take an active part in history, as he gets caught in the turmoil. However, he keeps on struggling, he preserves his honor and his dignity, and he continues to love."[14]

Contrary to popular opinion, Kolchak was not the author of the Shine, Shine, My Star art song.[15]

Awards and decorations

  • Silver medal to commemorate the reign of Emperor Alexander III (1896)
  • Order of St. Vladimir, 4th class (6 December 1903, Polar Expedition and 19 March 1907), 3rd class with Swords (9 February 1915)
  • Order of St. Anna, 4th grade (11 October 1904, for the Russian-Japanese war), 2nd degree (6 December 1910) and 1st Class with Swords (1 January 1917)
  • Gold Sword for Bravery "For action against the enemy at Port Arthur" (12 December 1905)
  • Order of St. Stanislaus, 2nd Class with Swords (12 December 1905) and 1st Class with Swords (4 July 1916)
  • Great Gold Medal of Konstantinovskaya № 3 (30 January 1906, Imperial Geographical Society)
  • Silver medal at the St. George and Alexander ribbon in memory of the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905 (1906)
  • Medal to commemorate 300 years of the reign of the Romanov dynasty (1913)
  • Officer of the Legion of Honour (1914, France)
  • Breastplate for the defenders of Port Arthur (1914)
  • Order of St. George, IV degree (2 November 1915, with a landing at Riga) and III degree (15 April 1919, for the liberation of the Urals)
  • Medal to commemorate 200 anniversary of the victory Gangutskaya (1915)
  • Order of the Bath (United Kingdom, 1915)
  • Gold weapons - Dirk Union army and navy (June 1917)

See also


  • Admiral Kolchak. M. I. Smirnov. The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 11, No. 32 (Jan., 1933), pp. 373–387
  • Problems of Polar Research: a Series of Papers by Thirty-one Authors. Special Publication No.7. New York, American Geographical Society, 1928.
  • The testimony of Kolchak and other Siberian materials. Stanford University Press. 1935.
  • Civil War in Siberia: The Anti-Bolshevik Government of Admiral Kolchak, Jonathan D. Smele. Cambridge University press, 1996.

External links



  2. 100 великих казней, "Вече", 1999, ISBN 5-7838-0424-X
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 (Russian)Колчак Александр Васильевич. Retrieved on 2009-01-03.
  4. (Russian)Плотников, И.Ф.. Александр Васильевич Колчак. Жизнь и деятельность. Retrieved on 2009-01-03.
  5. Bogdanov, K.A., Admiral Kolchak, Sudostroyeniye, St.Petersburg, 1993.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Цветков В. Ж. Белый террор — преступление или наказание? Эволюция судебно-правовых норм ответственности за государственные преступления в законодательстве белых правительств в 1917—1922 гг.
  7. S.N. Semanov, "Kolchakovshchina", Great Soviet Encyclopaedia
  8. Furies By Arno J. Mayer - not an original source citation, Mayer's footnote for this statement not cited
  9. P. Golub. White Terror in Russia (1918–1920). Moscow: Patriot, 2006. ISBN 5-7030-0951-0
  10. "The Partisan Movement of 1918-22", Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 1969-1978
  11. A review of General Wrangel's memoirs, John Hallett, Fortnightly Review, January 1930, as quoted by Jonathan Haslam in The vices of integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892-1982, ISBN 978-1-85984-289-8, p. 32
  12. "{{{title}}}".
  13. 13.0 13.1 Lincoln 1999: Red Victory