2 The Ghost of the Constituent Assembly

By comparison with the bread-starved cities of the Bolshevik north, the Volga city of Samara was a gourmand's delight. Peasant carts laden down with bags of flour and carcasses of meat, milk and vegetables trundled daily into its busy market. Food was plentiful and it showed in the rosy cheeks of the city's residents. Merchants grew fat on the booming trade: they dressed in the finery and jewels that had once belonged to the well-to-do of Petrograd and Moscow. Even the horses looked well fed.

Thousands of so-called 'former people' fled to the Volga city. Among the refugees were the remnants of the shattered Right SRs, seeking a new provincial base after their defeat in Petrograd and Moscow. The Volga region was a stronghold of their party. Its peasant population had voted overwhelmingly for it in the elections to the Constituent Assembly. The SR leaders naturally assumed the people of the Volga would rally behind their struggle against the Leninist dictatorship. If the Bolshevik drive to power had been based on the hunger of the urban masses, then the restoration of the democracy would depend on the well-fed peasantry. Bread and liberty went together.

But the Right SRs were soon to be disillusioned by their pilgrimage to the provinces. Their local party organizations were in total disarray. With the return of the peasant soldiers, many of them radicalized by the army, the Volga Soviets had swung to the far left. Soviet power had taken root in the villages as a system of local self-rule, the Constituent Assembly was now a remote parliament. The peasants had greeted its closure by the Bolsheviks with a deafening silence. It was hardly the outburst of popular indignation the SRs had expected. 'Unless', declared Klimushkin, one of the SR leaders in Samara, at the start of May, 'there is a spur from the outside in the near future, we can give up all hopes of a coup d'etat.'27

By one of those curious accidents of history, that spur came at the end of the same month in 1918 when a legion of Czech soldiers became embroiled in a conflict with the Soviets along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Czech Legion had been formed by Czech nationalists working inside Russia after the outbreak of the First World War. During the war it was enlarged by Czech and Slovak prisoners of war and deserters from the Austrian army, and by 1917 it was a force of some 35,000, most of them students and officers. As nationalists fighting for independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they had sided with the Russians against the Central Powers. Thomas Masaryk and Eduard Benes, the Czech Nationalist leaders, had agreed to the Legion's formation as an independent corps of the Russian army on the South-Western Front. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Legion resolved to continue its struggle as part of the Czech army fighting in France. Rather than run the risk of crossing enemy lines, they decided to travel eastwards, right around the world, reaching Europe via Vladivostok and the United States. On 26 March an agreement was made with the Soviet authorities at Penza, whereby the Czechs were allowed to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway as 'free citizens' with a 'specified number of weapons for self-defence'.


Had this agreement been adhered to by both sides, the civil war would have taken a very different course. But the passage of the Czechs was marked by increasing mistrust and tension. The trains were held up by the local Soviets, which barraged the Czechs with propaganda and tried to confiscate their weapons. The Czechs, in turn, became suspicious that the Bolsheviks were preparing to hand them over to the Germans — a suspicion increased by the order from Moscow in April for half the Legion to turn around and be evacuated through Arkhangelsk (the irony was that, unknown to the Czechs, the order had been given at the behest of the Allies). The Czechs resolved to fight their way, if necessary, through Siberia to Vladivostok. Events came to a head on 14 May, when the Cheliabinsk Soviet in the Urals arrested some Czechs who had been involved in a brawl with a group of Hungarian prisoners of war. The Czech soldiers occupied the town, released their comrades and disarmed the small Red Guard unit. Moscow ordered the local Soviets to disarm the Czechs in turn. 'Every armed Czech found on the railway', read Trotsky's telegram of the 25th, 'is to be shot on the spot.'28 It amounted to a declaration of war on the Czechs, and its effect was only to increase their determination to fight their way through to the East. This was a shame from the Bolsheviks' viewpoint, for there had been no real need to alienate the Czechs, and it was in everyone's interests to get them out of Russia as soon as possible. Trotsky's overreaction to the Cheliabinsk incident created a hostile army in the heart of Soviet Russia.

The Czech Legion, broken up into six groups along the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, captured one town after another: Novo-Niko-laesvk on 26 May; Penza and Syzran on the 28th and the 29th; Tomsk on the 31st; Omsk on 6 June; and Vladivostok on the 29th. The Red Army was still not properly organized, and the untrained and ill-disciplined Red Guards, made up of workers from the local towns, who often ran away at the first sign of danger, were no match for the well-trained Czechs.

This was the case with the capture of Samara on 8 June. With the Czechs in the nearby city of Penza, the underground SR leaders in Samara approached them with a request to help them overthrow Soviet power in the Volga capital. This was in contravention of the policy of the Right SRs (passed at the Eighth SR Party Assembly in May) that foreign troops should not be involved in the 'people's struggle' against Bolshevism. But the SR leaders in Samara managed to convince themselves — as did the Czechs themselves, who had declared their own pious intention not to get involved in the Russian civil war — that an intervention could be justified in this case. Their aim of continuing the war against Germany depended on removing the Bolsheviks from power. Certainly, the Allies, seeing how easy was the Legion's victory in Siberia, were coming round to the idea of using the Czechs against the Bolsheviks. Later that summer they would send them aid. Meanwhile, it was the SRs' alleged connections with the French Government — grossly exaggerated, as it turned out — that finally persuaded the Czechs to help them in Samara. The Volga city was in a strike-ridden state of chaos after an uprising by the unruly garrison in the middle of May. The Soviet could muster only 2,000 Red Guards, most of them Latvian workers evacuated during the war, out of a population of 200,000. Such was the ephemeral nature of Bolshevik power in the provincial towns. The Red Guards stood little chance against the 8,000 well-armed Czechs — and most of them ran away as soon as the Legion approached. A mere six Czechs and thirty Red Guards were killed in the 'Battle of Samara'.29

The new government took its name and legitimacy from the Constituent Assembly. The Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly — or Komuch — saw itself as the All-Russian Parliament in provincial exile. It called on all the members of the disbanded Assembly, with the exception of the Bolsheviks of course, to join it. Its five founding members were all SR members of the Constituent Assembly, three of them from Samara itself. By the end of its four-month reign, the ranks of the Komuch had been swelled by 100 members of the dissolved parliament, including Viktor Chernov, the chairman of its one and only session on 5—6 January 1918. This 'leader of the democracy' was treated as a VIP, with an armed guard outside his suite in the National Hotel and a series of banquets arranged in his honour. It was hoped he would become the figurehead of a national crusade.

The Komuch was basically an SR government with the addition of a few representatives from the national minorities (mainly the Tatars and Bashkirs, both quite numerous in the Volga region) and Mensheviks and Kadets who joined it in defiance of their respective Central Committees. Most of the leading Right SRs came to this Citadel of Liberty, including Zenzinov, Avksentiev and Breshko-Breshkovskaya, the 'Grandmother of the Revolution'. It was in many ways a resurrection of Kerensky's government — except that Kerensky himself was by this time in exile in Paris. The Komuch was a ghostly laboratory testing the central principle upon which the Provisional Government had stood and fallen: the idea that the provinces were not ready for Socialism and that the revolution should therefore not go beyond the democratic stage. This was the theoretical obsession which had prevented the SRs and the Mensheviks from establishing Soviet power in 1917; and it would now form the basis of their equally deluded effort to rally the provinces against the Bolsheviks.

'There can be no question of any kind of socialist experiments,' proclaimed the Samara press. The essence of the Komuch was the restoration of democracy, which meant postponing the social revolution until after the reconvocation of the Constituent Assembly, which alone could decide social questions. Like the Provisional Government, the Komuch saw itself as a temporary administration pending the re-establishment of parliamentary rule. All its pronouncements began with such self-limiting formulae as: 'Until the restoration of the legal authorities'; 'Until the return of normal relations'; or words to that effect. Its programme was dressed stiffly in the liberal pretence of political neutrality. Although freedoms of speech, press and assembly were restored, the civil war conditions made it difficult to respect them and the prisons of Samara were soon filled with Bolsheviks. Ivan Maisky, the Menshevik Minister of Labour, counted 4,000 political prisoners. The town dumas and zemstvos were restored and the Soviets, as class organs, barred from politics. The Komuch also declared its support for a 'democratic federation', which won it plaudits from the Bashkir and Tatar communities in the Volga region.30


THE CIVIL WAR

65 General Alexeev - the last chief of staff in the imperial army and, along with Kornilov, the founder of the White movement in south Russia.

66 General Denikin - leader of the White armed forces in south Russia between 1918 and 1920.

Admiral Kolchak - the main White leader in east Russia and, thanks to his connections with the Allies, the nominal head of the whole White movement.

68 Baron Wrangel, who led the last White campaign in the Crimea during 1920.


69 The Red Army was no match for the Czech Legion, pictured here during the capture of Vladivostok in June 1918. The aim of the Czechs was to travel eastwards to the United States, and from there return to the European war.

70 The White armies were top-heavy - too many generals and not enough soldiers. A group of White officers await the arrival of Admiral Kolchak during a military parade in Omsk, December 1918.


71 By contrast the Red forces were bottom-heavy - too many infantry and not enough commanders with expertise. The 'committee spirit' of 1917 lived on in the ranks of the Red partisan units such as Makhno's, pictured here in 1920, where tactics were decided by a show of soldiers' hands.

72 Armoured trains like this played a vital role in the civil war.


73 Part of the Red Army, the Latvian Division, passing through a village near the South-Western Front, 1919.

74 Two Red Army soldiers take a break during the fighting on the South-Western Front, 1919.


75-6 The Red Army served as an important channel for the spread of literacy and propaganda. Above: soldiers in Tula reading Red Army leaflets, spring 1919. Below: the Red Army brings its propaganda to the village. The mobile library of II Cavalry Corps, 1922.


77 Nestor Makhno in 1919. Facing annihilation by the Bolsheviks, Makhno and the remnants of his army left Russian territory in 1921. After brief periods of imprisonment in Romania and Poland, the anarchist leader lived in Paris until his death in 1935.


78-80 Terror was a weapon of all the armies in the civil war. Above: the Whites hang a peasant of Kursk province for the possession of an old hunting rifle, September 1919. Below: just one Jewish victim of a pogrom by a band of Ukrainian nationalists in Poltava province, 1920. Overleaf, the Reds kill a Polish officer during the war against Poland in 1920. The naked man was hanged upside-down, beaten, cut and tortured until he died.


 

In the industrial field, the Komuch, like the Provisional Government, tried to steer a middle course between labour and capital, and ended up satisfying neither. Class divisions were too strong. The workers rejected the Komuch as 'bourgeois' and passed defiantly Bolshevik resolutions in the Soviet. The factory committees were stripped of their powers and control of the factories was transferred to their former owners or (where they were absent) to government-appointed managers. The banks were returned to private control. Free trade was restored and a Council of Trade and Industry, dominated by industrialists, was set up to help formulate economic policy. But even this was not enough to convince the middle classes that the Komuch was not dangerously 'socialist'. They could see only that the eight-hour day was still guaranteed; that the trade unions and the Soviet were still in operation; and that the red flag still hung from the Komuch buildings. What, they asked, was the point of replacing the Bolsheviks with a 'semi-Bolshevik' regime like the Komuch? Why replace the Reds with these 'Pinks' when you could have the Whites instead?

During the early days of the Komuch the Samara middle classes, thankful for the overthrow of the Soviet, had approved a government loan. But they soon switched their support to the White counter-revolution in the east. The Komuch was forced to raise taxes from the sale of vodka — always unpopular with the workers. It also printed money which fuelled inflation. The peasants reduced their food sales to the cities, as money lost its value, forcing the Komuch to introduce bread rationing. Its urban base collapsed even further. Only the tiny provincial intelligentsia stayed with it to the end. During the August Duma elections the pro-government parties polled a derisory 15 per cent; two-thirds of the electorate did not even bother to vote. Democracy was resoundingly silent.31

Despite the SRs' expectations, the Volga peasantry proved no more supportive of their government. Had the SRs been willing to support the peasant revolution, things might have been different. But that would have meant recognizing the peasant Soviets — and the Komuch leaders were not prepared to go that far. They were determined to replace the Soviets with the volost zemstvos, in which all the rural classes, including the nobility, were represented on an equal basis. But as in 1917, the zemstvo elections were boycotted by the mass of the peasants, who were already committed to their Soviets as organs of direct village self-rule. Even where the zemstvos were elected, it was often difficult for them to function because the rural intelligentsia and officialdom had largely disappeared from the villages since the revolution, while the peasant communes refused to pay their taxes. In some villages the Soviet remained in power but referred to itself as the 'zemstvo' in communiques with the Komuch.* The Komuch was powerless to stamp out this charade, even when it sent in troops. The peasants were too firmly committed to the Soviets as the guarantors of their revolution on the land.

The Komuch was equally reluctant to sanction the peasants' seizures of the gentry's land. True, it upheld the land reform passed at the first and only session of the Constituent Assembly which had recognized the abolition of all landed property. But a subsequent decree, passed on 22 July, enabled the former landowners to reclaim any winter fields which they had sown. This in effect meant reversing one-third of the peasant requisitions of arable land. Troops often had to be called in to enforce the decree. Its aim had been to 'reinforce the rule of law' after the 'anarchic' peasant land seizures during the previous winter and spring, but instead the impression was created, especially among the poorest peasants, who had been given most of the gentry's fields, that the Komuch wanted to restore the old regime on the land. They could be forgiven for this interpretation since some of the local squires saw the decree as a licence to take the law into their own hands. With the help of an army brigade, or their own private militia, they would seize back their property; sometimes they even had the peasant leaders flogged in public to 'teach them a lesson'.32

* * * Of all the Komuch's policies, none was more unpopular than the call-up for the People's Army. In any civil war the success of the contenders depends on their relative abilities to mobilize the local population. This test the Komuch failed in no uncertain fashion.

During the summer, the Komuch and Czech forces were able to conquer territory almost at will. The Reds were chronically weak, without food supplies or a proper army. Ufa fell to the Czechs on 6 July; Simbirsk, Lenin's birthplace, on the 22nd; and Kazan, with its huge tsarist gold reserve, on 6 August. Two days later the munitions workers of Izhevsk, 150 miles to the north of Kazan, rose up against the Soviet and declared their sympathy for the Komuch. It was the biggest ever workers' uprising against the Bolsheviks — and a major embarrassment for the regime. The revolt soon spread to the neighbouring countryside, where many of the workers' families still lived. Volunteer detachments were formed to fight the Reds. This was the height of the Komuch's fortunes. It now controlled an area the size of mainland Italy, with a population of fourteen million people.

* Such deception was facilitated by the fact that in 1918 most of the Soviets were still using the old zemstvo stationery.


But the Komuch's military potential was always very fragile. The Czech Legion was unwilling to fight in Russia indefinitely. Its soldiers were tired and wanted to go home, and their morale declined further as the Reds became better organized. By the middle of August, the Czech units were falling apart. Some of the soldiers were socialists and they went over to the Reds, who barraged them with propaganda; others simply gave up fighting and sold off their supplies to the local population. The Czech Legion broke down into bands of petty profiteers.

It was all the more essential, then, that the Komuch should raise its own troops from the Volga population. One of its first acts had been to appeal for volunteers. In the towns some 8,000 people — most of them students and cadets, but also refugees and the unemployed without other means of support — responded to the call. But in the countryside the number of volunteers was tiny: the majority of the peasantry wanted nothing to do with the 'fratricidal' civil war. Whilst they were willing to defend the revolution in their own localities — and for this they formed their own peasant companies — most of them looked on the war as a remote struggle between the urban parties. 'The mood of the peasants is indifferent,' declared a recruiting officer of the People's Army; 'they just want to be left to themselves. The Bolsheviks were here — that's good, they say; the Bolsheviks went away — that's no shame, they say. As long as there is bread then let's pray to God, and who needs the Guards? Let them fight it out by themselves, we will stand aside. It is well known that playing it by ear is the best side to be on.' At the Samara peasant assembly, organized by the Komuch in September, the delegates declared that they would 'not fight their own brothers, only enemies'. They 'refused to support a war between the political parties' and urged the Komuch 'to come to an agreement with the Bolsheviks'. One delegate proposed that 'the continuation of the civil war ought to be decided by a referendum, and until we know the opinion of the whole population we do not have a moral right to vote on this resolution [to support the war]'.33

To the mass of the peasants, whose political horizons were limited to the narrow confines of their villages, the national goals of the Komuch were quite alien. The restoration of the Constituent Assembly meant little to them when they already had the land and their freedom. The Komuch's call for the renewal of the war against Germany, six months after the fighting had ceased, clashed with the peasantry's parochial pacifism. 'The war with Germany and all wars are bad,' resolved the peasants of one village. 'If we do not fight, then the German soldiers will not take our territory,' reasoned the peasants of another. The district police chief of Samara concluded that 'the population is poorly enlightened about the aims of the People's Army... The idea has taken root that the "bourgeois" have started a new war because the "peace" signed by the Bolsheviks is unfavourable to them; but that the peasantry "has suffered no loss" and will not do so if it allows the bourgeoisie to fight by themselves.'34

Such class antagonisms were worsened by the attitudes of the People's Army officers. The fate of the Komuch would have been different had it been able to find its own loyal corps of democratic officers; the army commissars of 1917 would have fitted the bill perfectly. But very few of them were now left: some, like Linde, had been engulfed by the revolution; others, like Os'kin, had joined the Reds. There were no more citizen-patriots of the type who had rallied behind Kerensky; the idea of the 'democratic officer' was now merely oxy-moronic* The Komuch had no choice but to make do with the officers who volunteered for it. Colonel Galkin, a typical military bureaucrat of the tsarist era, was placed in charge of the People's Army. His headquarters became a stronghold of Rightist and monarchist officers, a Trojan horse of White counterrevolution inside the democratic citadel. The Komuch leaders were fully aware of this but, as Klimushkin put it, 'we were so sure of the force of democracy that we were not afraid of the officers' plans'. Under Galkin, the tsarist system of military discipline was restored. Officers even wore a scaled-down version of their epaulettes. Many of them were the sons of local squires and sometimes wreaked a violent revenge on the villages that had seized their familes' estates.35 No wonder the peasants were not keen on the so-called People's Army.

The poor response to the appeal for volunteers forced the Komuch to resort to conscription at the end of June. Fearful that the older peasants would be infected by the Bolshevism which had swept through the army in 1917, it called up those aged under twenty-one. Yet even they showed the familiar symptoms of insubordination. Only one in three of the conscripted men turned up at the recruiting stations: the rest were 'deserters'. The appearance rate was lowest in the western districts bordering the Front, which says a great deal about the reasons for the Bolshevik victory. In contrast to their opponents, the Bolsheviks were usually able, at least at the critical moments of the civil war, to mobilize the peasantry just behind the Front. However much the peasants disliked the Reds, they feared a restoration of the old landed regime much more. Neither the Komuch nor the Whites were ever able to penetrate the central zone of Soviet power, where the peasant revolution was most firmly rooted.

All the civil war armies suffered from chronic problems of desertion, but the People's Army suffered more than most, largely as a result of having to improvise an army at the Front. Whereas the Bolsheviks had been in power for ten months before the major fighting began, the Komuch was barely ten weeks old when it faced the first Red onslaught. There was never enough time to build up a proper military infrastructure. Too often there were no uniforms or guns for the new recruits. Soldiers received little proper training before being put into battle, so that panic often broke out in the ranks at the first moment of danger. During August and September, the height of the harvest season, thousands of soldiers ran back to their farms, just at the moment when the Reds were launching their offensive. The Komuch tried to stem the desertions by sending punitive Cossack detachments into the villages. Military field courts, reminiscent of Stolypin's notorious tribunals in 1905—6, were given sweeping powers to punish the deserters and their families. Peasant leaders were publicly flogged and hanged; hostages were taken to force the deserters out of hiding; and whole villages were burned to the ground when soldiers failed to give themselves up. To the peasants, all this must have seemed like a return of the old regime with a vengeance.

* The Komuch did make an effort to recruit the services of Brusilov; but this came to nothing.


The effect of repression was merely to strengthen the peasantry's resistance and drive many of them into the arms of the Reds. Villagers formed brigades, often organized by the Soviet, in order to resist the People's Army and its punitive detachments. These village 'armies' went to war with rusty guns, pitchforks and axes, and odd pieces of artillery mounted on peasant carts. Some fought as partisan units alongside the Red Army and later became regular detachments of it. The Domashki village brigade was a classic example. It fought against the Cossacks on the southern steppelands of Samara before becoming the nucleus of the 219th Domashki Rifle Division, a regular detachment of the Fourth Red Army. The Pugachev, Novouzensk, Krasnokutsk and Kurilovo Regiments had similar origins. The soldiers in these regiments were relatives and neighbours. In the Kurilovo Regiment there was a father and six sons. This cohesion was unmatched by any other fighting force in the civil war, with the exception of the Cossack detachments, which were similar in many ways.36 This was the stuff of the legend of Chapaev, the main Red commander of these partisans, upon which three generations of Soviet children were to be brought up.

* * * Without an effective army, it was only a matter of time before the Komuch lost its hold on the Volga region. During the summer the Reds had gradually built up their forces for a Volga campaign: it was here that the Red Army took shape as a regular conscript army. Worker detachments were raised in Moscow and the other towns of the central Soviet zone and despatched to the Eastern Army Group on the right bank of the Volga. On Lenin's orders, 30,000 troops were transferred from the anti-German screens in the west. He gambled (correctly, as it turned out) that the Central Powers were too stretched in Europe to exploit the gap. By the beginning of September 1918, the Reds had amassed 70,000 troops on the Eastern Front — an advantage of two to one over the forces of the Komuch. This was the start of the real fighting of the civil war. Up to now only minor units, none numbering more than 10,000 men, had been involved. Kazan was taken by the Reds on 10 September. Colonel Vatsetis, who led the attack, was rewarded by being made the main Commander-in-Chief of the whole Red Army. Defeat would have brought its own kind of reward — Lenin had ordered him to be shot if the crucial city was not taken. Two days later the First Red Army under Mikhail Tukhachevsky broke through to Simbirsk. From this point, the resistance of the People's Army was effectively broken; the Czech forces fell apart. Samara fell on 7 October.

The SRs dissolved the Komuch and fled to Ufa. There they found themselves at the mercy of the White counter-revolution sweeping in from the east. Under the protection of the Czechs several rival power centres had emerged in Siberia: the Eurasian land mass was a patchwork of regional regimes. A Urals Government was based in Ekaterinburg and claimed jurisdiction over Perm. The various Cossack voiskos, Orenburg and Ural'sk the most westerly of them, formally recognized the Komuch but conducted themselves as independent 'powers'. The Bashkirs and Kirghiz also had their own 'states', while within the Komuch territory there was also a national government of the Turko-Tatar Tribes. Of all these rival power centres, by far the most important was the Siberian Government based in Omsk. It had been formed by Kadet and SR politicians in the Tomsk Duma before the coming of Soviet power; and reformed by them in Omsk in the wake of the Czech revolt. P. V Vologodsky, the jurist and advocate of Siberian autonomy, became its head of government on 23 June. Breshko-Breshkovskaya, who passed through Omsk in early July, took a dim view of its new leaders:

Omsk is dusty and dirty. The government leaders have neither intellect nor any conscience. There is nothing positive or hopeful in the composition of the 'Siberian Government'. Its so-called 'ministers' are nothing but question marks. Talking with them it is clear that they neither believe in themselves nor in the success of their own undertaking.''7

The Omsk government soon fell under the domination of the Rightist and monarchist officers in the Siberian Army. Lacking a close relationship with the Czechs, it none the less relied on them for military support. By September, the Siberian Army had 38,000 mainly peasant conscripts. Under the flag of Siberia — green for its forests and white for its snows — it had the support of those older Siberian settlers who favoured independence from the rest of Russia. Rightist officers from the Volga also flocked to it as an alternative to the 'socialist' Komuch. The domination of these Rightist elements in Omsk was enough to prevent the Siberian Government from reconvening the Duma. The Rightists wanted nothing less than a dictatorship.

The rivalry between Samara and Omsk had always been intense. It broke out in a customs war and a series of territorial disputes. But there were also growing pressures to find agreement: the military position of the Komuch was steadily weakening; and the Allies were concerned that such petty conflicts should not prevent a combined effort to repulse the advancing Reds. Such an agreement finally materialized at the State Conference held in Ufa from 8 to 23 September. There the Komuch leaders found their voice increasingly drowned out by the Rightists on their own side, who were calling for the sort of dictatorship favoured by the Siberians. The Kazan industrialist Kropotkin called for a 'strong and united military power to save Russia from those politicians [i.e. the socialists] who have ruined it'. According to V N. Lvov, the power-broker in the Kornilov fiasco, another 'military dictator' was essential.38

To appease the Komuch leaders a compromise of sorts was struck. The ultimate sovereignty of the Constituent Assembly, provided it could find a quorum of 250 members, was recognized by the Ufa Conference. But in the meantime the Komuch lost its claim to be the legal government of all Russia. In its place a five-man Directory was set up as the executive arm of the Provisional All-Russian Government based in Omsk. It was an alliance of two SRs (Avksentiev and Zenzinov), two Siberian liberals (Vologodsky and Vinogradov) and General Boldyrev, close to the SRs, who also acted as the Commander-in-Chief. Although the SRs thus had a nominal majority in the new government, they were the real losers. In the fragmented politics of the civil war it would be a Sisyphean task to raise the quorum needed to restore the Constituent Assembly. To all intents and purposes, their citadel of liberty was in ruins.

The Directory was a pale reflection of the French revolutionary government after which it was named. This was a government only on paper. It had no proper structure or means of financing itself. Until near the end of its eight weeks in power, it was accommodated in a railway carriage in a siding a few miles from Omsk, hardly a prestigious 'capital' for what claimed to be the only legal government of Russia. Avksentiev, its chairman, was a dilettante who played at politics. He 'surrounded himself with aides-de-camp, brought back the old titles', and, according to one contemporary, 'created a buffoon sort of pomp behind which there was nothing of any real substance'. It was a throwback to the last days of Kerensky. This Directory had even less authority than the Provisional Government. It did not even command the confidence of the factions it represented. Both the SRs and the Rightist circles plotted against it from the start. Each thought the alliance gave too much power to the other side. Omsk was full of intrigues and rumours of a coup. 'Mexico amidst the snow and ice', was how Boldyrev described it.39

The Rightist officers struck first. On 17 November a Cossack detachment broke into a meeting of the SRs in Omsk and arrested several of their leaders, including the two Directors, Avksentiev and Zenzinov. They were accused of plotting the overthrow of the Directory. It is true that the Chernov group had plotted against it from the start. But so too had the Rightists, and they now used the SR plot as a pretext for their own coup d'etat. The next morning the Directory's Council of Ministers gave its blessing to the coup and invited Admiral Kolchak to become the Supreme Ruler. There were hardly any forces prepared to defend the Directory. The Czechs had lost the will to fight since the declaration of Czech independence on 28 October. All they wanted was to go home. As for the People's Army, it was in a state of advanced decay.

For the next fourteen months Alexander Kolchak was the paramount leader of the counter-revolution, along with Denikin. It is somehow fitting that an admiral without a fleet should have been the leader of a government based in a town 4,000 miles from the nearest port; for Kolchak was one of history's misfits. Small but imposing with dark piercing eyes, he was an oddity, a mining engineer and an Arctic explorer in a tsarist Naval Staff dominated by the landed nobility. In 1916, when he was appointed Commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Kolchak, at only forty-one, was young enough to be the son of most of the other field commanders. In 1917 he refused to go along with the fleet committees and, in a dramatic resignation which made his name politically, broke his sword and threw it overboard. General Budberg described Kolchak as a 'big sick child':

He is undoubtedly neurotic, quick to lose his temper, and very stormy . . . He is a pure idealist, slavishly devoted to his sense of duty and the idea of serving Russia, of saving her from Red oppression .. . Thanks to this idea he can be made to do anything. He has no personal interests, no amour propre, and in this respect is crystal pure . . . He has no idea of the hard realities of life, and lives by illusions and received ideas. He has no plans of his own, no system, no will: he is like soft wax from which his advisers and intimates can fashion whatever they like.40

All these characteristics were reflected in Kolchak's behaviour during the overthrow of the Directory. He was a passive — almost accidental — figure in the coup. He merely happened to be in the right place at the right time, giving the conspirators a figurehead. At the time of the Bolshevik seizure of power Kolchak was on a military mission to the United States. After a year in Manchuria he made his way back to Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, reaching Omsk in mid-October, where Boldyrev persuaded him to become the Minister of War. There is no evidence to suggest that Kolchak played a direct role in the overthrow of the Directory, although historians to this day still refer to it as 'Kolchak's coup'. From what we now know of this murky episode, it seems that the Rightists in Omsk engineered the coup without Kolchak's knowledge to force him into taking power. Earlier that day several Rightist officers had pleaded with him to become dictator. Kolchak was hardly averse to the idea of dictatorship: his trips to the Front had convinced him of the 'complete lack of support for the Directory'. Nor was he unaware of the general plans for a coup d'etat: the salons and barracks of Omsk were full of talk about the need for an iron fist; they even talked about it in the offices of the Directory. Kolchak's close ally, General Knox, head of the British military mission in Siberia, also supported a dictatorship.* At first, on 17 November, the Admiral refused to take power: Boldyrev, he said, was the head of the army; and it was not clear if he could win the support of the Siberians and the Allies. But once the officers had taken power for him, Kolchak changed his mind. It seemed to him on the morning of the 18th that some dictator had to fill the vacuum if street violence was to be avoided. At the Council of Ministers he suggested Boldyrev for this role, but Boldyrev was absent and the ministers, in any case, preferred the Admiral to the 'socialist' Boldyrev. Urged by Knox to do his duty, Kolchak agreed and accepted the title of Supreme Ruler.41

* * * This was the end of the Right SRs and their 'democratic counter-revolution', as Ivan Maisky called it. Kolchak had the SR leaders imprisoned and then escorted to the Chinese border, where they were deported. Some of them made it back to Western Europe, where they lived a life of comfortable but regretful exile. Others returned to Russia, where they continued to organize themselves underground, adopting a stance of equal hostility to Reds and Whites. For several weeks after the coup, Kolchak's police carried out a series of bloody reprisals against SR activists. Hundreds were arrested — many as 'hostages' to be executed in the event of SR acts of terror against the dictatorship. Among the hostages in Omsk were twenty SR deputies of the Constituent Assembly, ten of whom were shot in December following a workers' uprising in the town. Kolchak, meanwhile, defined his regime's purpose in strictly military terms. Like Denikin, he was a narrow soldier: politics were beyond him. Apart from the overthrow of Bolshevism and the 'salvation of Russia' he had no real idea of what he was fighting for. He made some vague pronouncements about the restoration of law and order and the Constituent Assembly, although, judging by his own views, this last was clearly not to be restored in the democratic form of 1917.* But otherwise all politics were to be abolished in the interests of the military campaign. Denikin was to make the same mistake. Politics were themselves a crucial determinant of the military conflict. Without policies to mobilize or at least to neutralize the local population, his army was almost bound to fail. Moreover, by failing to make his own policies clear, Kolchak allowed others to present them for him: both from the propaganda of the Reds and from the conduct of his own Rightist officers, the population of eastern Russia gained the fatal impression that Kolchak's movement aimed to restore the monarchy.

* It is doubtful, however, whether Knox played any part in the preparations for the coup. This was the mischievous contention of the French at the time — that Kolchak had been installed by the British as 'their man' in order to build up their influence in Siberia.


The middle ground between the Reds and the Whites was thus eroded and eventually disappeared. The whole of the country was now engulfed in the civil war. There was no place in it for the fragile democracy whose roots had been laid down in 1917. Russia was too polarized, and the mass of its people too poorly educated, to sustain democratic institutions against enemies on both extremes. The anti-Bolshevik movement would not reassume a democratic form until the autumn of 1920, by which time it was too late to unseat the new autocracy. The tragedy of the Russian Revolution was that the people were too weak politically to determine its outcome.

* As Kolchak later acknowledged at his interrogation in 1920: 'The general opinion . . . was that only a government authorized by the Constituent Assembly could be a real one; but the Constituent Assembly which we got. . . and which from the very beginning started in by singing the "Internationale" under Chernov's leadership, provoked an unfriendly attitude ... It was considered to have been an artificial and a partisan assembly. Such was also my opinion. I believed that even though the Bolsheviks had few worthy traits, by dispersing the Constituent Assembly they performed a service and this act should be counted to their credit.' (Varneck and Fisher (ed.), Testimony, 106-7.)

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