Sunday, July 29, 2007

Kolchak's Rehabilitation - Coming to Terms with the Russian Civil War

Interesting opinion piece by Mark Teeter for the Moscow Times, regarding Admiral Alexander Kolchak. Teeter draws a comparison between the U.S. and Russian civil wars, and how each country has resolved their post-civil war legacy. In his examination, he draws the conclusion that the time is ripe for setting the record straight regarding heroes who fought for both the Red Army and the White Army. He hopes that Admiral Kolchak would be a worthy candidate for respect, much as General Robert E. Lee is respected by both North and South in the United States.

A new forthcoming film about Kolchak certainly couldn't hurt at swaying the masses.
By accident or design, Americans have allowed a "dual narrative" of their Civil War to develop by tacitly acknowledging certain nonconflicting claims. The North was right: Preservation of the Union was essential and its citizens should not own one another; yet honorable people could and did believe in the principle of states' rights and could serve the Southern cause with real nobility. This two-track heritage may not have been the shortest route toward overcoming the war's divisions: "Birth of a Nation" provoked race riots in 1915, and "Gone with the Wind" encourages stereotypes to this day. That said, the salient fact remains -- Americans have come to terms, at length, with what will always be a divided legacy.

The history of the Russian Civil War was told along lines that could neither intersect nor coexist. Red narrators spent decades omitting, altering or justifying the mass terror applied toward an "inevitable" victory and recasting their side's roster to fit Party rolls later decimated by mass repressions -- sic transit gloria -- when the bad guys win.

The Whites, of course, told a different story -- or rather, many different stories, reflecting the diversity that was the signal weakness of the anti-Bolshevik movement. The White version could only be relayed in discrete sections, and only outside the Russian heartland, whose borders were zealously guarded for 70 years against "bourgeois falsifiers of history."

In the new world of post-Soviet historiography, however, all this can change. If President Vladimir Putin is serious about his recent claims that young Russians should take pride in their country's modern history, he should encourage the study of historical figures worth being proud of -- from all parts of the spectrum. One such figure is Admiral Alexander Kolchak, an accomplished polar researcher, decorated hero of two foreign wars and an outstanding military mind. He was also a martyred supreme commander of the White cause.

Kolchak would seem an excellent fit for Putin's "new approach" to Russian history, with its emphasis on patriotism and strong-willed leadership and its rejection of Soviet-style ideology for something called "sovereign democracy." But there is a catch. To praise Kolchak is to unbury him, and reviving such an implacable foe of Soviet power remains problematic. The Red victory led directly to the establishment of the U.S.S.R. --whose collapse, Putin maintains, was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the century. Someone who worked against the Soviet triumph was, by inference, a bad guy. Except that Kolchak wasn't: Whatever his mistakes as commander in Siberia, he was and remains a Russian national hero. Thus, while his formal rehabilitation has now failed twice, public monuments to him have been erected in St. Petersburg and Irkutsk. Is this schizophrenia, stalemate or both?

Americans can't tell Russians or anyone else how to come to terms with their own history. Still, there is an implied principle worth considering within the imperfect American experience: Civil wars can have parallel stories involving valor and nobility on both sides. When the major new movie "Admiral Kolchak" opens across Russia soon -- with or without screenplay revisions by the Kremlin -- perhaps the admiral will take a step toward the rehabilitation never needed by Robert E. Lee.


Michael Averko said...

Despite qualms from some leftist idiotlogues (every political grouping has their not so bright elements), the coming to terms with the Russian Whites is an ongoing reality.

In 2003, there was the release of a Russian produced documentary entitled "Russians Without Russia" (I hope I've the translation as near correct as it can be) about the White generals Denikin, Wrangel and Kolchak.

Back in the early 19 eighties, I recall reading the Great Soviet Encyclopedia's biography of Denikin. It lauded his sincerity and praised his WW II declaration calling for Russians to not support Nazi Germany.

An excellent book on the Russian Civil War is Dimitry Lehovich's "White Against Red", W.W. Norton & Co., NY, 1973

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ciaobella said...

the author has a perverted view of Putin's words: the USSR was not just some communist state. It comprised the historic territories of the Russian Empire (republics), which were economically and socially interdependent. Hence, the break up of the Union by Yeltsin and his cronies, was catastrophic for all of its members (ok except the Baltic states); and the results we are reaping to this day. (and, no, I am not a supporter of Putin)