Thursday 30 July 2009

Remembering the White Guard

All this is simple, as blood and sweat are:
A Tsar for a people, a people for a Tsar.
All this is clear as two's secret, shared:
Two together--the Spirit's third.
The Tsar's raised from heaven upon his throne.
This is as pure as sleep and snow.
The Tsar will climb to his throne again,
yet--All this is holy, as blood and sweat.

From The Swan’s Encampment by Marina Tsvetaeva

Having written about the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and prior to that Lenin, I now intend to let my lush romanticism fly over another of my favourite topics-the Russian White Guard. The story of the men and women of the Volunteer Army deserves to be better remembered; their courage deserves to be remembered; their determination to save their country from the likes of Lenin and Trotsky deserves to be remembered; their tragedy deserves to be remembered.

Most people, I suppose, know little about the Russian Civil War, and what little they know tends to be inaccurate. What I should say, first off, is that Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 was not a revolution, as commonly described, but a military putsch by a gang of murderous desperados. The real Revolution, the democratic revolution, if you prefer, came in March of that same year. A Provisional Government was formed pending the election of a Constituent Assembly, the first fully democratic body in Russian history. But when it met it was immediately dismissed by the Communists, who had received half of the vote of their nearest rivals. A new dictatorship, based on force and terror, was then put in place.

The Volunteers, a tiny band of officers of the old army, based in the far south seemed from the start to be in a hopeless position. Lavar Kornilov managed to organise a core of resistance in the city of Rostov-on-Don; but, under attack by the Reds, he was forced to abandon his position, as the White Guard retreated into the Kuban in the deep of winter. This was the beginning of the Ice March, one of the true epics of Russian history. Anton Denikin, Kornilov’s second-in-command, said of this, “We went from the dark night of spiritual slavery to unknown wandering in search of the bluebird.” In Russian folklore the bluebird is the symbol of hope.

Kornilov was killed on the march but the White Guard survived under the command of Denikin. Thousands joined, including Sergei Yakovlevich Efron, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva’s husband. The tide washed almost to the walls of Moscow. Unfortunately for Russia, unfortunately for the people of Russia, the Reds had a commanding control of the centre of the country and the rail network. The Putschists survived; the bluebird died.

On that same visit to Moscow, when I went to gawp at Lenin, or what purports to be Lenin, I also visited the grave of Anton Denikin at the Donskoy Monastery, this time in a spirit of quiet reverence.


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  2. I'm a great one for lost causes, all imbued with my incorrigible sense of romance. :-)

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  4. Thank you for posting this. As a historian of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, I know only too well the truth of your observation that most people know very little about this intense and complicated period. As a strong sympathizer with the White cause, I deeply appreciate a blog that honors their courage, struggle and ultimate tragedy.

    1. Thank you so much, RH. Your comment delights me.

  5. You're right to re-dress the balance a bit, Ana, but you are truly a romantic if you can manage to get close to the White Guard and maintain your desire for further intimacy . . . personally, I recoiled. I'm afraid they're representatives of one of those times and places where the sad, sound judgment is probably something approximating "A plague on both your houses!" I think of the Red and the White sides as monstrously enormous counterparts, ideologies etc. mutatis mutandis, of the IRA and the Ulster "Loyalists" . . .

    Personally I mourn for Gumilov, quite a different type who was eliminated earlier, before the full blown confrontation between the Reds and Whites, as I know that you know. Were I woman, or a differently oriented man, it is he for whom I would carry a torch, and I would be retrospectively jealous of Anna Akhmatova, although GOD knows she suffered for whatever happiness she was able to experience on this earth . . . as did, as again I know that you know, the tragic Tsvetaeva

    1. Ah, Chris, they were tragic times. The White Guard certainly wasn't flawless but their victory would have saved Russia from the appalling suffering to come. I would far rather have Kolchak than Stalin. Gumilov - that's another topic I must touch on.

    2. Hi Ana, regarding Kolchak, here's a speculative counter-factual:

      Had the White Russians won, would Hitler have made common cause with a White Russia and formed a trans-European Fascist Superstate?

      Or would Hitler's Lebensraum and anti-Slavic ideology determined an Operation Barbarossa in any event, but against a White Russia not debilitated by Stalin's Purges of the senior ranks of the army and fully capable of defending itself and annihilating the Wehrmacht? Having defeated Germany, would an imperialist White Russia have pushed on to roll up Europe without any possibility of an America obtaining a foothold? Would the family relations between what was left of the Romanovs and the Saxe-Coburgs have delivered Great Britain any mercy when negotiating with its triumphant competitor in the Great Game? Surely, India would have been handed over, forthwith, at the very least . . . and Great Britain would have lost almost all its functional sovereignty

      You may recall that the inventor of poison gas in World War I was Fritz Haber, a chemist of genius and a patriotic German of Jewish descent. Would a more sophisticated White Russia, newly in control of Europe, and despite its own anti-Semitic tendencies, skillfully have co-opted the European Jewish community--and most of the best scientists--and built themselves, uncontested, White Russian atomic and then hydrogen weapons? America, of course, would be on the wrong side of a big ocean and not yet fertilised with the best and the brightest of European Jewry . . .

      The Yin and the Yang of Fascism and Communism was probably a great blessing amidst the maelstrom of evil those two movements unleashed, at least they largely counter-balanced one another . . . The 20th century was a bloodbath, indeed, but there are ways in which that bath could have been much wider and deeper . . .

      By the way, I'm still licking my wounds over your brisk dismissal of my foray into political aesthetics, but if I'm honest with myself I suppose I wrote that pensee more for myself than for you, and so should have kept it in safe seclusion on my computer, and accordingly have received an entirely appropriate and perhaps inevitable reminder along those very lines . . .

    3. Chris, sorry, I missed this last night.

      I love counter-factual speculations! The answer seems fairly clear, though, at least in the case of Hitler. There were those like Alfred Rosenberg who actively promoted co-operation with anti-Stalin factions after Barbarossa. Across much of the country, particularly the Ukraine, the Germans were greeted as liberators. If this well had been tapped it would have made an important, perhaps even decisive, contribution to the defeat of the communists. But it was a wave that crashed against the rock of Hitler's racism. When it was coupled with German occupation policy, brutal and stupid, it united all patriotic elements behind Stalin.

      I do not see that a White Russia would have any more imperialist design on the West than Imperial Russia or even, for that matter, Communist Russia.

      Did I dismiss your foray 'briskly'? Then I'm truly sorry!

  6. How exciting, Ana, I've unwittingly stumbled upon one of your secret vices--and it happens to be a vice we share!

    Ok, so let's get it into it a bit further: your analysis of the policy of Rosenberg and his faction, versus the unbelievably stupid cruelty of the Wehrmacht invasion of 1939 and the way it forced their enemies to fight instead of to welcome the Germans as they were almost universally inclined to do is all, of course, absolutely true--but you're not being fundamentally speculative enough, in my view, for your analysis unfolds beginning in the mid- and late 1930s--was Hitler even possible without a Bolshevik victory in Russia followed by a defeat of the Whites?

    You've just read MEIN KAMPF (a pleasure I blush to admit that I've denied myself--we don't share every vice!), so you know that Hitler blamed the 1918 Revolution in Germany on the military defeat of Germany in WWI. This isn't true, of course, but (a) it was a misconception that Hitler shared with many Germans and (b) it would have been a much less catalysing call to action if the Russian Reds had been subsequently defeated in the early 1920s by the Whites. It's hard to imagine it as a cause still inspiring average Germans in the late 20s and early 30s.

    Hitler's whole nightmarish fantasy of Judeo-Bolshevism and its sinister convergence between Jewish capitalists and Jewish revolutionaries would have been much less persuasive to even its most susceptible consumers, but a White victory would have produced dramatically different, and quite interesting conditions in Europe, not least in Germany.

    For example, instead of a wave of White Russian emigres fleeing to Berlin, Paris, and a very few to London, there would have been a wave of Red Russian emigres, many of them Jewish across Europe and to the United States. How would the demoralised and teetering European governments have handled them? Can you imagine, for example, Trotsky, defeated on the battlefield, and attractively bloodied but entirely unbowed, addressing crowds in Trafalgar Square, the Champs, or Alexanderplatz?

    These exiled revolutionaries would have been like sparks landing in dry tinder, if not dry gun powder.

    First, there would be a highly sympathetic but now martyred example in Russia to inspire the European Socialist masses and their leaders.

    Second, the White Russians would no doubt have indulged in wide spread reprisals, mass executions, and pogroms.

    I don't know if you're familiar with the very interesting figure of Stauffenberg and the Stefan Georg Kreis. Stauffenberg was a principled and unusually courageous man, both physically and morally, but he wasn't even remotely democratic. One of the great puzzles that even upper class English and well-borne Americans had in the 20s and 30s was trying to understand Germans like Stauffenberg and Adam von un zu Stolz (who as I recall was up at your very own alma mater). The problem was that these Germans were just too right wing.

    Imagine Gumilov having escaped the Bolsheviks' death squads--I can imagine him, Vladimir Nabokov's father, and Stauffenberg all getting along famously. (continued in next Comment)

  7. (Continued from previous comment)

    I assume, by the way, that the European Right would have crushed the Socialists, but that might not have happened in France or England--there might have been successful Socialist / Bolshevik revolutions in those countries, or elsewhere. So that's another speculative line for a further counterfactual than the one I'll continue to present.

    I imagine that the German Right would have succeeded in repressing the German left, and would have come back much stronger, much prouder, and without the poisoned chalice of Hitler as Chancellor.

    In the late 1920s and early 1930s the German right wing simply didn't know what it wanted, because what it really wanted was the status quo ante and it knew it couldn't have that. If the White Russians had defeated the Reds, the German right wing would have been able to organise around a repression of a highly motivated and impassioned German socialist movement, esp. if the German Right Wing had been able to draw inspiration from a resurgent White Russia.

    In such a case, the German Right would have had a clear agenda, and would not have milled around aimlessly and ineptly until Hitler's crystal-clear, albeit insane, agenda attracted enough supporters. The reality is--and I write this with personal embarrassment as a half-German--despite the essential vulgarity and anti-intellectual thuggery of Hitler's Nazi Party, the Nazi Party attracted strong support from well-born Germans of the upper bourgeois and aristocratic classes (Fritz Stern's essay "National Socialism as Temptation" is an interesting insight into the attraction the Nazi Party exerted even on assimilated German Jews). But without a Red victory over the Whites, there were plenty of establishment Germans ready to lead an energised Right Wing Germany, a White victory would have given them a programme, and Hitler would never have been able to manoeuvre from the margins to close enough to the centre, and the top, to strike and achieve his coup.

    This is the jump-off point for my counterfactual about a trans-European Fascist Superstate, far more powerful and deadly than the Axis of Germany and Italy.

    Remember, Hitler didn't have a real foreign policy; the point of attacking Russia, aside from his racial ideology, was to cleanse the Bolsheviks and then open up Lebensraum. You and I met after I read your outstanding review of THE KAISER'S HOLOCAUST, so you know that the German Right could have been easily re-directed back to their colonies, and easily persuaded, in my view, that they first had to take down those pesky democracies who had stripped them of their colonies (and the Ruhr, parts of Poland, France and the Czech Republic) helped by, who? None other than their new Fascist Friend, White Russia. The Drei Kaiser Bund restored . . . Russian would get another chance at the Great Game, this time actively helped by their bosom mates in Right Wing German--sadly, the most recalcitrant aristos left in Europe, and ready to kill to defend their privileges, unlike your friends and family in England.

    Your turn, Ana, with the opium pipe . . .

    1. OK, Chris. There are some absolutely fascinating speculations here, a lot for me to think about. In answer to your first question, no, Hitler was not possible without a Bolshevik victory in Russia, something I’ve argued time and again. You see, Lenin was the father of all of the great isms of the twentieth century, not just communism but fascism and Nazism. Look for Lenin’s Century (24 June, 2009) and England and the First World War (26 July, 2009). The later, in particular, is counter-factual with wings!

      I have no need to imagine Trotsky defeated in battle because he was! I can picture the prophet unarmed in Turkey, France, Norway and Mexico. If the circumstances had been different there is no reason to suppose that the nature of his exile would have been different. Of course he may have been arrested and returned to Russia to be put on trial for his many crimes during the Civil War.

      I do not think there is any reason to suppose that a White Russia would have been a fascist Russia, authoritarian, yes, but not fascist. People like Anton Denikin never embraced fascism in exile. There would either have been a restoration of the monarchy or a form of government along the lines established by Admiral Horthy in Hungary.

      I’m not sure if a White victory would have made any difference to the course of German politics in the 20s and 30s. Remember the principle grievance was over Versailles and the stab-in-the-back myth. Judeo-Bolshevism was just Hitler’s gloss. The Slavs were still racial inferiors and the wide plains of Russia, red or white, still the arena for Lebensraum. I do not think it correct to say that Hitler did not have a real foreign policy; he did, set out quite clearly in Mein Kampf and his so-called Secret Book.

      Oh, I know all about Stauffenberg and the conservative right in Germany, something else I’ve written about. They wanted Hitler’s gains, at least up to 1939, without Hitler, which is why the 1944 Bomb Plot was always going to fail, even if it had hit the target.

      Anyway, must go and update my blog. :-)