By Colin Sullivan

Admiral Alexander Kolchak was a true patriot of Russia and a hero to those of the White forces during the Russian Civil War. As their Supreme Ruler, Kolchak led the Whites in a fight to end Bolshevism, and free Russia and its people. At least this is the narrative contained in a 1919 pamphlet from the White perspective during the Russian Civil War that gives a very flattering interpretation of Kolchak and how he was viewed by those of the anti-Bolshevik movement. The pamphlet portrays Kolchak as a hero of Russia. Instead of trying to restore the Tsarist regime, Kolchak wishes to destroy the Bolshevik movement and let the Russian people decide for themselves the type of government they desire. Kolchak might be considered one of Russia’s tragic heroes. His passion for his country led him to accept the role of Supreme Ruler of Russia in 1918. It is this passion and patriotism that made him such a popular commander among his men. However, this passion and love for Russia ultimately led to his tragic death and the end of the White force’s fight against Bolshevism.

What made Kolchak the man to lead the Whites against the Bolsheviks? Out of all of the other anti-Bolshevik generals and officials, why him? A series of stories written in the  pamphlet gives a good explanation for why the government in Siberia chose Kolchak as Supreme Ruler. Before Kolchak fought in military engagements for Russia’s Imperial Navy, he gained popularity as an Arctic explorer. In 1900, he sailed on the yacht Zaria on an expedition to the Arctic Ocean. Three men, including the leader of the expedition, took off on foot to explore an island a distance from where their boat was stuck in the ice. Once the summer would come and the ice would thaw, Kolchak and the rest of the men planned to sail to the island and pick up the three men. There was a problem, however. The ice did not thaw completely and Kolchak could not reach the island and the men. He was forced to return to Russia but did not forget about the comrades he left behind. Determined to not leave behind his friends, Kolchak “decided to take a small boat across the ocean” to retrieve his three comrades (Morskoi 4). Over the course of the 42-day trip, Kolchak found that the men had decided to not wait for rescue, but take their chances on foot. “They probably died on the way, having fallen through the ice or having met a polar bear” (Morskoi 5). Even though Kolchak did not return with the lost men, “his action proved that he doesn’t leave friends in hardship and will do anything, even the impossible to help those in need, he won’t hesitate to risk his own life to achieve his goal” (Morskoi 5). The story in the pamphlet describes Kolchak’s bravery, courage, and selflessness. Kolchak was depicted as a hero who would gladly sacrifice himself for one of his Russian brothers. Later in his short life, this same sacrifice and selflessness would come to life again as he engaged in his attempt to save Russia from the Bolsheviks. His love for his country, the pamphlet makes clear, much like the love he had for his comrades left behind, drove him to take action and responsibility.

Admiral Kolchak gained fame as a hero not just from his actions but from his character. He was a leader, the pamphlet explained, who would not ask his men to do something he would not do himself. Kolchak “did everything himself” (Morskoi 7). His reputation continued to grow during the Great War as he led successful naval mining operations against the Germans. After many triumphs, Kolchak was given the command of the entire Black Sea fleet. The Admiral was seeing great success in the Black Sea when the Russian revolution broke out in March 1917. He was a leader of immense pride. A biographical account published in a 1933 issue of The Slavonic and East European Review written by Kolchak’s subordinate, M.I. Smirnov, also provides a perfect example of Kolchak’s immense pride. For three months after the outbreak of the revolution, Kolchak was amazingly able to keep order in the Black Sea. “At the time when in the North, on the Baltic Sea, the sailors bought with German money, were slaughtering officers — on the Black Sea there was quiet peace” (Morskoi 8). However, after Bolshevik agitators instigated an uprising in his fleet, his sailors demanded the weapons of all officers. When Kolchak was asked to give up his arms, he refused and ordered his men to form up on the deck of the ship where he gave a speech. As Smirnov recounted, “He said that even the Japanese, after the fall of Port Arthur, respected the sword given to him for military courage, but they, his own men, wished to take it from him” (Smirnov 382). Kolchak continues in saying “‘Well, you shall not get it,’ said he, ‘I shall not give it up to you, either alive or dead,’ and he threw his sword into the sea” (Smirnov 382). Kolchak was so prideful that even the thought of handing over his arms to his Bolshevik-influenced men was lunacy. His pride would be attractive to White army officials who wished him to rule, but would ultimately lead to his demise.

Not surprisingly, the Bolsheviks declared Kolchak a counter-revolutionary. In late 1917, he left Russia for the United States. The White pamphlet alludes to how Kolchak felt about Russia after leaving his country behind: “And when he heard that Russia has reached the end of devastation, that the people are starting to realize their stupidity and regret their crimes and only seek peaceful life from all the troubles brought by Bolsheviks — he returned to Russia with an aching heart, but also with hope” (Morskoi 10). Kolchak’s passion and patriotism brought him back to Russia. He could have easily stayed in the United States and lived a happy, peaceful life. Instead, the pamphlet suggests, the call of duty was overwhelming for him. His desire to save his country from Bolshevism brought him to Siberia to join the White movement and unfortunately it was this decision that set him on a path for destruction.

Kolchak, according to this vision, “didn’t see people as left or right, only the desire to save Russia” (Morskoi 10). The people Kolchak commanded were all anti-Bolshevik, but were a mix of different political views. He had no interest in politics, the leaflet extolled, he simply wanted to free Russia from the Bolsheviks so that the people could have the freedom of choice for their government. N.G.O. Pereira, a historian who has studied Kolchak and the White forces,  concurs that his love for Russia and his desire to save the Motherland drove him. Pereira writes, “By insisting that their patriotism was somehow above politics, the Admiral and his fellow ex-Imperial officers tried to get around the second dilemma that had been posed originally by the overthrow of the Romanovs — they were ‘after all, serving, not one form of government, but [the] country’” (Pereira 52).

Ultimately, Kolchak proved to be a tragic hero of the anti-Bolshevik movement. His bravery, courage, and experience as a skilled military officer helped bolster his chances of becoming leader of the Whites. But, it was the kind of person he was and the intangible qualities that he possessed that led to his position as Supreme Ruler. The pamphlet concludes:  “They spent some time working with Kolchak and saw what kind of a person he is: not forcing anyone’s hand, only thinking about doing good, how to bring peace to Russia, and they decided to give him all power in Siberia” (Morskoi 11). Kolchak wanted freedom for Russia and its people. Despite his good intentions, his qualities and character that placed him in his position of power also placed him in a position to die. On February 7, 1920, Kolchak was placed in front of a firing squad and executed. Even at his execution, Kolchak held true to his values, refusing a blindfold and standing stoically in the face of death. Kolchak was a man of principles, but unfortunately, it was his principles that led to the death of Russia’s tragic hero, Admiral Kolchak.


Works Cited (Secondary Sources)

  1. I. Smirnov. “Admiral Kolchak.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 11, no. 32, 1933, pp. 373–387.


PEREIRA, N. G. O. “White Power during the Civil War in Siberia (1918-1920): Dilemmas of Kolchak’s ‘War Anti-Communism.’” Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne Des Slavistes, vol. 29, no. 1, 1987, pp. 45–62.

Colin Sullivan is a senior History major.

About Stephen Norris