Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak (16 November [O.S. 4 November] 1874 – 7 February 1920) was a polar explorer and commander in the Imperial Russian Navy, who fought in the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War. During the Russian Civil War, he established an anti-communist government in Siberia—later the Provisional All-Russian Government—and was recognised as the “Supreme Ruler and Commander-in-Chief of All Russian Land and Sea Forces” by the other leaders of the White movement (1918–1920).
His government was based in Omsk, in southwestern Siberia. He tried to defeat Bolshevism by ruling as a dictator but his government proved weak and confused. For example, he lost track of the imperial gold reserves and much of it disappeared. He failed to unite all the disparate elements. He refused to consider autonomy for ethnic minorities, refused to collaborate with non-Bolshevik leftists, and relied too heavily on outside aid. As his White forces fell apart, he was captured by independents who handed him to the Bolsheviks, who executed him.
A formation of White Russian soldiers outside of Rostov.
Admiral Kolchak’s spring attack, also called the ‘Ufa Offensive,’ was one of the five most dramatic anti-Bolshevik operations of the Civil War (the other four being the 1918 Volga campaign, Denikin’s May–June 1919 advance from south Russia, his September–October 1919 advance, and the Polish 1920 attack). The main blow came in the centre of the front on 4 March 1919; the attacking White force was Western Army under General Khanzhin, a veteran artilleryman; it advanced roughly parallel to the east–west railway from Cheliabinsk (in the Urals) to Simbirsk and Samara (on the Volga). Khanzhin’s troops moved rapidly across the snowy steppe in sledges. Ufa was recaptured on 14 March, and by the end of April the White army had taken points within 75 miles of the Volga, at Chistopol (on the Kama River) and on the Ufa-Samara railway. Some 250 miles had been covered in eight weeks. The Whites had taken 115,000 square miles of territory (an area bigger than Britain) and a population of 5 million. Moscow was badly frightened, and in faraway Paris the Allies saw the White movement finally justifying itself. At the same time the other major White force, Gajda’s Siberian Army, made on Khanzhin’s right flank an advance of about ninety miles, a third of the way from Perm to Viatka.
Unfortunately for the Whites, Khanzhin was soon driven back. Two weeks were lost fighting around Ufa; then, in mid-April, came the spring thaw, the rasputitsa, which turned the roads to mud, and rivers and streams into serious obstacles. Khanzhin had pushed back the Red Fifth Army, but his flanks were threatened by Second and First Armies. Once the ground became firmer, on 28 April, the Reds began their counterattack. During May Western Army had to retreat far from the Volga; by the end of the month it was trying to defend a line 275 miles east of the Volga along the Belaia River. Ufa itself, on the Belaia, was threatened. On the night of 7 June Chapaev’s 25th Rifle Division made a surprise crossing below the city, which fell to the Reds on the 9th with large amounts of supplies and grain. By mid-June the Whites had been pushed fifty miles east of the Belaia. At this time the northern bulge of Kolchak’s front had been crushed in as well: at the beginning of June Gajda’s Siberian Army had actually pushed farther west along the Perm-Viatka railway to the town of Glazov, but then the Reds drove it back to within fifty miles of Perm.
Several factors were behind the events of March–June 1919, a White defeat that would prove to be decisive. One was political failure. Moscow’s propaganda always spoke of the ‘Kolchakovshchina,’ the reign of Kolchak. This was exaggerated, but the Omsk regime was unapologetically that of a military dictator, and any judgment of the Omsk regime must begin with the dictator, the Supreme Ruler, himself. The British and French military advisers had quite different views of the man. General Knox reported (as late as December 1919) that despite Kolchak’s defeat and personal failings ‘he was and is the best man in Siberia.’ General Janin, however, regarded him as an incompetent neurotic and reported to Paris that he was probably addicted to drugs. Kolchak’s associates found him moody and indecisive. The Russian General Budberg, in charge of army supply, assessed Kolchak’s complex personality:
He is a big, sick child, a pure idealist, a faithful slave of duty and ideals and Russia; he is undoubtedly a neurotic, who is quick to lose control, extremely stormy, and unrestrained in showing his dissatisfaction and anger. . . . He is wholly consumed by the idea of serving Russia, of saving her from Red oppression, of restoring her in all her strength and inviolable territory; thanks to this idea he can be made to do anything; he has no personal interests, no personal ambition, and in this respect he is crystal pure. . . . He has no notion of the hard practicalities of life, and he lives by mirages and imposed ideas. He has no plans, system, or will of his own and in this respect he is soft wax from which his advisers and retainers can make what they want, knowing that it is enough to present something as needed for Russia and the cause to get the admiral’s agreement.
Whatever the faults of his personality, Kolchak’s politics did not fit the stereotype of a black reactionary. His father was a military engineer; Kolchak himself was a young specialist from a technically advanced part of the armed forces. He was apparently not a monarchist, and his regime did not call for a restoration of Tsarism. He took the advice of a small ‘Council of the Supreme Ruler,’ staffed by men who were often of Kadet sympathies and remarkable youth. The Kadets – of the party’s right wing – had more influence in Omsk than in any of the other White governments. Gins, one of Kolchak’s main advisers, was thirty-two in 1919; Sukin, running foreign affairs, was twenty-eight; Mikhailov, in charge of finance, was twenty-four. His associates grumbled with some justification against this reliance on Wunderkinder (both in the administration and the army).
But Kolchak had already lost the support of the political Left. The November 1918 coup overthrew a government, the PA-RG, which claimed – through the Constituent Assembly and the Ufa Conference – national legitimacy. At the end of December 1918 there was an uprising in Omsk, inspired mainly by the Bolsheviks; in their fierce suppression of the rising the authorities flailed out against everyone on the left. Prominent SRs, including several Constituent Assembly delegates, were summarily executed; the episode showed again that Kolchak’s officers hated the SRs as much as the Bolsheviks. Even without the December events, however, the SRs would not have cooperated with Kolchak, and so the largest party in Siberia and the Urals worked against the Supreme Ruler from the beginning. After the Omsk coup a number of former Komuch leaders, including Volsky, even crossed over to the Red side, encouraged by Moscow’s gestures towards socialist pluralism. And in January 1920 the Siberian SRs would wreak a terrible personal revenge on the admiral himself.
Whoever its friends and enemies were, the Kolchakovshchina was not an effective dictatorship. At the central level Kolchak was unable to make the government work. Budberg sat through many top-level meetings; ‘The regime,’ he re-marked, ‘was only form without content; the ministries can be compared to huge and imposing windmills, busily turning their sails, but with no millstones inside and with much of their machinery broken or missing.’ This came about partly because Siberia had been an administrative backwater of the Tsarist Empire, with few experienced government personnel. But the nature of the November coup had made things worse by permanently alienating one source of administrative talent, the pro-SR intelligentsia. Kolchak’s civilian subordinates felt also that he concentrated too much on military affairs; one felt ‘the Admiral who was Supreme Commander-in-Chief swallowed up the Admiral who was Supreme Ruler, along with his Council of Ministers.’ To a large extent the government just became an organization for supporting the army.
If Kolchak could not create a proper administration in Omsk, he had no chance of extending effective control over the vast territory of Siberia. Much of western Siberia (the front) had been under military administration even during the period of the PA-RG, and in mid-April 1919 military control was extended to all towns and the railway. And army rule was disastrously inefficient. The lack of administrative personnel, meanwhile, was even more important at the grass-roots level than at the centre. Kolchak was fortunate that most Siberians were Great Russians; he lost much of the organized support of part of the important Bashkir minority (between Orenburg and the Urals) when, in February 1919, the Bashkir Corps changed sides, but this was a small problem compared to General Denikin’s friction with the Ukrainians or General Iudenich’s (in the Baltic) with the Estonians. Kolchak could not control the Orenburg and Ural cossacks, but unlike the southern Whites he was not faced with great cossack claims; Denikin had to make his first headquarters (Ekaterinodar) in the heart of one of the cossack hosts; Kolchak’s problem was that geography cut him off from the main Orenburg and Ural Hosts. Overall, however, Kolchak still had the greatest trouble imposing his will over the vast territory that had been taken from Red control. A notorious area of weakness was the region east of Lake Baikal. There local atamans such as Semenov and Kalmykov were a law unto themselves and enjoyed the support of the Japanese. ‘Stenka Razin under a white sauce’ is how General Budberg described them. They choked the long supply line upon which the Siberian army and economy had to rely.
Kolchak’s economic policy was ineffective. Galloping inflation was made worse by the disastrous abolition of ‘Kerenki’ banknotes in April 1919. Kolchak, seeing himself only as a trustee, would not use the captured Imperial gold reserve. The few Siberian capitalists gave little help; donations came, one minister recalled, ‘like milk from a billy-goat.’ The military gave little thought to the long-term condition of the economy, and as a result Kolchak’s only industrial region, the Urals, was in a bad way; as early as April 1919 the official in charge resigned in protest at chaotic military rule, lack of food supplies, and an absence of coherent support from Omsk. The Allies provided no economic aid. Siberia’s economic problems were beyond the ability of any regime to solve quickly. The World War had upset the whole Russian economy, and Civil War cut Siberia and the Urals off from their natural supplies and markets in central Russia. Consumer goods had to be brought in along the one rail link with the Pacific. And the war against the Bolsheviks, fought on a limited base of manpower and natural resources, demanded great economic sacrifices.
In his base area, Kolchak faced no conflict between dispossessed landlords and revolutionized land-hungry peasants; prerevolutionary Siberia had had no large gentry estates. (There was, however, some tension between the starozhili the ‘old’ settlers, and the poorer immigrants of the past few decades, the novoseli.) Nevertheless, there was no effective land law, no confirmation of the Bolshevik decree on land. This was a greater weakness once the Kolchak forces reached the fringes of European Russia, where the land question was more important. In newly occupied regions such as Ufa Province the peasants had little reason to welcome Kolchak, especially when some of his commanders enforced the return of seized lands to their owners. Meanwhile, there was no reason for the peasants in the Soviet-controlled Volga provinces to rise in support of the White armies advancing toward them.
The lack of ‘propaganda by deed’ was matched by the lack of any effective mobilization of support. As one of Kolchak’s generals later lamented, ‘we not only did not give the muzhik [peasant] the bird in the hand, we were even afraid to promise him the bird in the bush.’ Kolchak’s propaganda organization, Osved, was organized too late; funds were eventually pumped into it, but it was ineffective and it was unpopular among the army high command.
The weaknesses, political and administrative, of the Kolchakovshchina had two major effects on the spring campaign. First, it made the Whites less attractive to the peasants of the Volga-Kama basin who were the first objects of ‘liberation.’ And second, it made it more difficult for Kolchak to raise enthusiastic popular forces to serve in his army. Kolchak seized power in November 1918 and called the population ‘to union and to struggle with Bolshevism, to labor and to sacrifices.’ One of his basic problems was that the response to that call was so weak, and the weak response came partly from the nature of the Kolchakovshchina. Active internal resistance to Kolchak’s rule was not, however, a major cause of the failure of the Ufa offensive. The rear of Kolchak’s armies was more stable than it would be later, and it was not necessary to pull troops out of the front line for battle with anti-White partisans. And it is not clear that the alternatives to military dictatorship would have been any more effective. Would the pre-Kolchak ‘liberal’ Omsk PA-RG have been able either to attract military leaders or to enforce conscription? It would in any event have been challenged by the Chernov-led SRs. Would such a government really have created more enthusiastic forces, or brought about risings behind the Bolshevik lines? This had not been the case for Komuch in 1918, and the Bolshevik hold was stronger by the late spring of 1919.
Kolchak’s armies were stopped and then pursued back toward the Urals. This was largely due to the growing size and quality of the Soviet forces. But the initial Red defeats were a sign of problems in the Red Army, and these were only gradually overcome in the course of the campaign. The Soviet high command had had little knowledge of what was going on in Siberia, and it was surprised by Khanzhin’s Ufa attack on 4 March 1919. Ten days before, Vatsetis had reported to Lenin that the local situation was improving and that the Urals were nearly within reach; given the danger of Allied intervention, he urged that the main stress of Soviet grand strategy still be put on the Ukrainian and Western Army Groups. On 24 February Trotsky made a most optimistic speech in Moscow to a meeting of Red Army cadets; ‘Summing up the position on our fronts it can be said that the situation is completely favorable.’ The commander of Eastern Army Group misread White intentions; Colonel Kamenev assumed a concentration in the north around Perm, rather than in the centre before Ufa, and the poor initial deployment of the Red armies was one reason for Khanzhin’s successes.
The confusion in the Red eastern command continued during the battles with Kolchak. Kamenev did work out a counterattack plan, which was approved at a high-level meeting with Trotsky and Vatsetis in Simbirsk on 10 April; he began a counterattack with his two southern armies, now under the command of Mikhail Frunze. (Frunze was a veteran Bolshevik who had become involved in the army in the previous summer, and in 1925 he would replace Trotsky as Red Army chief; his 1919 ‘Southern Group’ had originally been formed for the advance into Turkestan.) In the end, however, the planned sweep from the south was threatened by rapid White progress. Troops had to be thrown in front of the Whites, and Frunze’s counterattack was launched earlier than planned and with more limited goals. But the White drive was stopped, and clearly Kamenev deserved much of the credit. On 3 July, after his armies had pushed Kolchak back to the Urals (and with disaster threatening on other fronts), he replaced Vatsetis as Red Army Main Commander-in-Chief. But this was only after he himself had been sacked, on 5 May, just as the shape of his victory was becoming clear. (According to Kamenev’s memoirs, Vatsetis dismissed him for ‘non-execution of his orders and, in general, for lack of discipline’.) He was, however, brought back by Lenin (presumably over Trotsky’s objections) three weeks later, at the demand of the Eastern Army Group commissars.
The various Red armies had begun the spring campaign in a disorganized state. The shortcomings had been brought out at the time of the ‘Perm Catastrophe.’ Dzerzhinsky and Stalin reported that Third Army’s move in December 1918 from the Urals to beyond Perm was not even a proper retreat, but ‘an absolutely disorderly flight of an utterly routed and completely demoralized army.’ It was in a deplorable state. Commanders were unreliable; commissars inexperienced; soldiers confused, hungry and cold. Of 30,000 men, only a third remained; some had begun fighting on the White side. Fifth Army – shattered at Ufa in March 1919 – was a centre of the Military Opposition to Trotsky’s centralizing policies with, as Vatsetis complained in mid-April, continuing splits between officers and commissars. Trotsky himself blamed the defeat of Fifth Army on the local commissars’ ‘system of slackness, grumbling and criticism implanted from above.’ These shortcomings in the Red Army were gradually dealt with, partly as a result of Trotsky’s victory at the Eighth Party Congress.
On the other side of the battlefield, the lines of advance and timing of the White Siberian armies have been much criticized. Kolchak on 6 January 1919 did order a halt at Perm and a shift of the main axis of advance from the north to the centre of his front. This was, however, sound strategy. To have tried to develop the December victory and chase the Red Third Army west along the Perm–Viatka railway line would have been senseless. If Arkhangelsk was the objective, then the nearest rail route meant an advance of 600 miles to Vologda, and another 250 north from Vologda to the Allied-White lines; even the rail-river route via Viatka, Kotlas, and the Northern Dvina was a distance of 600 miles. Any deep thrust on the Perm-Viatka line alone would have been threatened on its southern flank from the Soviet heartland. The northern region, moreover, was thin in people and supplies, and it was the middle of winter; the frozen port at Arkhangelsk would not open until May 1919, and it would be some time later that (unpredictable) supporting operations by the Allies could develop from there.
More important, in January 1919 Kolchak’s front was most seriously threatened in the centre – from the Ufa direction – where the Reds were approaching the Urals passes. The situation demanded as a first step a counterattack in this central area. Khanzhin was originally only given limited goals, but Kolchak’s Stavka (GHQ) was right to develop his initial success and urge him early in April, as a second step, on to the Volga. It was necessary to take control of the region between the Urals and the Volga–Kama river system, whether Kolchak moved on Arkhangelsk, Saratov, or directly to Moscow; only with the centre of the White front covered by the great rivers, with rail links from the Urals to the crossings at Samara, Simbirsk, Sarapul, and Perm, could a further advance be considered. And an advance to the Volga line would give the Whites manpower and food, take those things from the Reds, and cut the most important Soviet river communications line.
A more telling criticism of the White line of advance is that a weak area was allowed to appear on the southern flank. The Bashkir Corps changed sides in February 1919, and the Orenburg and Ural Cossack forces were badly organized after the fall of Uralsk and Orenburg in January – which made it possible for Frunze to burst the White bubble from the south in late April. And poor overall coordination made it difficult to shift troops from Siberian Army (around Perm) to Western Army. But the general conception of the attack was sound enough.
The timing of the offensive was more debatable; it came before the White army had been properly organized. Knox summed up the faults of Stepanov, Kolchak’s Minister of War – in charge of the rear – and Lebedev, Kolchak’s Chief of Staff, in charge of the front-line armies. ‘Stepanov thought he had ten years to beat the Bolsheviks. Lebedev wanted to do the job in ten minutes. Both were excellent fellows in their own way . . . but together they were enough to ruin any Empire.’ Knox was annoyed at Stepanov’s plodding approach to the formation of new units in the rear, and in March bluntly told Kolchak as much: ‘People are so occupied by talk and paper schemes that decisions are indefinitely postponed. The plain truth is that we will have to fight this year for our lives and every hour is of value.’ Stepanov concentrated his resources on raising five new infantry divisions in central Siberia, and these were still only skeleton formations when the Ufa offensive began. Lebedev, however, attacked before the army was formed and trained, and he soon found himself without reserves. Kolchak’s most experienced formation, Kappel’s Volga Corps, was still refitting in early March and trying to incorporate Red POWs; it was thrown into battle piecemeal at the beginning of May and defeated. But what else could the Whites have done? In theory they moved too late, rather than too early. Two full months passed between Kolchak’s January directive and Khanzhin’s offensive, and an earlier start might have brought Khanzhin to the Volga before the rasputitsa. But it was winter, and his troops had had to be redeployed and refitted after a long campaign.