Alexander Kolchak: The only Supreme Ruler of Russia in history

Russia Beyond (Photo: Legion Media)
During the Civil War in Russia, Admiral Alexander Kolchak tried to become the head and symbol of the anti-Bolshevik movement. Yet, all of his ambitious plans ended in complete failure.

Despite being one of the main opponents of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, Admiral Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak never wanted to go into politics. In the early 20th century, he became famous as an oceanographer and polar explorer and, during World War I, rose to become commander of the Black Sea Fleet.

The revolutionary events of 1917 turned the life of the naval officer upside down. Thus, he not only led the White movement against the Reds, but also went down in history as the one and only Supreme Ruler of Russia.

The way to the top

Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak.

After the overthrow of autocracy and the establishment of the provisional government in March 1917, Kolchak continued to engage in fleet affairs. In the summer of the same year, he went to the United States as head of the Russian military mission to learn from local sailors. News of the Bolshevik coup caught the admiral halfway home in Japan.

Shocked by the Lenin government’s conclusion of the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans in March 1918, under which Russia lost about a million square kilometers and 56 million people, he changed his mind to return home and decided to join the British forces.

However, Kolchak’s figure was too prominent to be allowed to get lost somewhere in Mesopotamia. Both the growing anti-Bolshevik White movement in Russia and the Western powers preparing to intervene in the country decided to attract the admiral into their ranks. 

Alexander Kolchak (3rd from the right) during one of his scientific expeditions.

“The British government found it necessary to use me in Siberia as an ally and in Russia…,” Alexander Vasilyevich wrote to his partner Anna Timireva from Singapore in March 1918. After his unsuccessful cooperation with Cossack atamans Grigory Semyonov and Ivan Kalmykov in the Far East, Kolchak found himself in Siberia.

In the summer, a vast region was engulfed by a large-scale anti-Bolshevik uprising. The Directorate, which declared itself the Provisional All-Russian Government, representing the interests of various white forces, was set up in Omsk. On November 5, Kolchak took the post of its Military and Navy Minister.

The Supreme Ruler of Russia

“He is a big and sick child, a pure idealist, a convinced slave to duty and service to the idea and to Russia…” is how his associate, Baron Alexei Budberg, portrayed Kolchak. Yet, this “child” could show harshness and even cruelty when needed.

Admiral Kolchak (R) reviewing the troops.

As early as November 18, the military overthrew the weak Directory and suggested that the admiral concentrate all military and civilian power in his hands, assuming the position of Supreme Governor of Russia. Kolchak gave his consent.

“My main aim is to create a combat-ready army, to defeat Bolshevism and to establish law and order, so that the people may freely choose for themselves the form of government they want and fulfill the great ideas of freedom, now proclaimed throughout the world,” said the Supreme Ruler in his first official address to the nation: “I’m calling on you, citizens, to unite, to fight Bolshevism, to labor and sacrifice.”

The figure of the admiral became a unifying symbol for the White movement not only in Siberia and the Far East, but also in other regions of Russia, where the struggle against the Bolsheviks was going on. The authority of the Supreme Ruler was soon recognized by the White generals in the south, north and northwest of the country.

Kolchak decorating his troops.

Despite providing military assistance to Kolchak, the entente powers were in no hurry to recognize his special status. “The obvious purpose of the coup - to replace all but parliamentary power, which ruled the region for five months, with a military dictatorship in the Russian style, that is, with the same power as the late tsar’s… It is clearly a coup preparing for the restoration,” French military mission officer J. Legras noted in his diary with apparent displeasure. 

In reality, Kolchak, as well as his ministers, did not think about the restoration of the monarchy at that time. The solution of this issue, as well as all the most burning issues of domestic policy, was postponed until the ultimate victory over the Bolsheviks. In the meantime, the admiral’s power at the local level was exercised mainly by the military, who did not hesitate, at times, to severely punish rebels.

The end of the dictator

It was this brutality of the regime that was one of the main reasons for his downfall. In the Fall of 1919, the admiral had not only to resist the large-scale offensive of the Red Army, but also to suppress large-scale mutinies in his own rear.

Armored train of the Czechoslovak Legion, July of 1918.

On November 15, the Soviet troops occupied Omsk, the capital of White Siberia. Kolchak was on his way to Irkutsk when he learned that an uprising had taken place in the city and that the so-called Political Center, which brought together representatives of the Social Revolutionary and Menshevik parties, had taken power there.

The security of the Supreme Ruler’s train, which stopped on the outskirts of Irkutsk, was provided by the Czechoslovak Legion, under the command of French General Maurice Janin. Formed during World War I from Czech and Slovak prisoners, it was to leave Russia and go to fight on the Western front, but, eventually, became one of the main forces when the Civil War broke out.  

Janin negotiated a safe passage through the city for himself and his troops by surrendering Kolchak, who had become useless, to the Political Center. Left unguarded, the admiral was arrested on January 15, 1920, together with Viktor Pepelyaev, chairman of the Council of Ministers, at the Irkutsk railway station.

General Maurice Janin.

Back in December, sensing the approaching tragic finale, Alexander Vasilyevich issued a decree transferring the all-Russian supreme power to General Anton Denikin, who led the White forces in the south of the country. The latter, who was experiencing no less problems at the fronts, refused to call himself by that name. 

“Claims to an ‘all-Russian’ scale would have been completely inappropriate at the time, power - a fiction, and the connection between the fate of the White movement with the South on the threshold of disaster would have been very dangerous in political terms,” the military commander wrote in his memoirs.

Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak was shot on February 7, 1920. He, thus, remained the first and only Supreme Ruler of Russia in history.

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