Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Red Army executes Kolchak, 1920

This execution of Kolchak occurred near the end of the Russian revolution. Kolchak had been declared the supreme leader of the “Whites”; so when Irkutsk fell to the Red Army in March of 1920 and Admiral Kolchak was captured, the Red Army summarily executed him.

Was this a proper execution? Should he have been considered a prisoner of war? He was “investigated” but not tried. Should he have been tried?

I’ve been reading Juggernaut, The Russian Forces, 1918-1966, by Malcolm Mackintosh, published in 1967. Mackintosh seems more interested in the military events than the political implications although he does touch on them just enough to arouse interest if not to satisfy it. Was Kolchak executed because the Reds were barbaric or was this a proper thing to do? Mackintosh doesn’t offer his opinion, but I shall offer mine – as much as I am able, from what I can find.

We learn elsewhere that Kolchak had resigned and was attempting to go to Britain. From Wikipedia we learn: “It appears that Kolchak was then promised safe passage by the Czecho-Slovaks 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. Following the arrival of an order from Moscow, he was summarily sentenced to death along with his Prime Minister, Viktor Pepelyayev. They were executed by firing squad in the early morning, and as it was freezing, digging graves would have been a monumentally inefficient task, so the bodies were disposed of in the Angara River[6]. 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.”

If Kolchak were an active enemy attempting to destroy an established state, and if that established state captured him, and if his continued existence represented a rallying cry to the enemy; then he should have been executed.

But the Reds did not represent an established state. The Reds and the Whites fought a Civil War to see who was going to be the State, and while the Reds, by March of 1920, were almost there, they had not yet arrived. But even so, if Kolchak were an ongoing threat, then his execution was warranted. It doesn’t appear, however, that was the case. We aren’t told by Wikipedia what the “investigation” between January 21 and February 6 disclosed but it apparently was not sufficient for the death sentence to be issued at Irkutsk. Advice was asked from Moscow and Moscow issued the invariable sentence upon enemies, former enemies and suspected enemies: death. Assuming that Kolchak’s crime was to be in one of those three categories, was his execution justified?

Of course Lenin and Stalin could justify such executions for “the greater good of the Soviet Union,” But given the information before me, I do not think, from my Western point of view, that he should have been executed. This was a confused time and while he seems to have had personality problems of such a nature that almost no one liked him, he didn’t commit any real crimes.

So moving away from what “ought to have been done” from my Western perspective and given Lenin’s assumptions (of which I have a general understanding), was he justified in ordering the execution of Kolchak?

Probably. While Kolchak had not committed any crime, he was a vigorous and outspoken opponent of Communism. Had Lenin left him alive, he could have become a later thorn in his side. Let us not forget that Lenin and his cohorts were “feeling their way” with their revolution. They were probably being prudent (from their perspective) to leave no enemy, former, actual, or suspected, standing, for who could know what forces would be marshaled against them in the future? Who could know who might lead a new White Civil War against the Reds? So it wasn’t quite paranoid at this point in March of 1920 to eliminate Kolchak. The Red revolution had a great number of enemies in the world, especially in the West, but thanks to the enervating work of the First World War, no nation was in a position to oppose the Reds; so if they could just tie a tidy bow around the Civil War and declare it at an end, they would have all the time they needed to convert the Soviet Union into the Workers Paradise.

Or so Lenin and the others would have reasoned. So Kolchak had to go, but it is interesting that attempts are being made to rehabilitate his reputation: (from Wikipedia) “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. A movie about his life, titled Admiral (Адмиралъ), was released in Russia on 9 October 2008 to honor the Admiral. According to popular, but unconfirmed version, Kolchak was the author of the Shine, Shine, My Star chanson.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon this... best source on Kolchak is Jon Smele's 1996 book. BTW, Irkutsk was in pro-Soviet hands long before the Red Army officially arrived in early March. Kolchak was executed nearly a month earlier, on orders of the local Bolshevik in charge, for fear (it seems) that the White forces would retake the town and liberate the former dictator.