The tragedy of Russia at Drouot
Soon coming up for sale for the first time at auction are the family archives of the man who was a brilliant officer in the tsarist navy before leading the provisional government and the White Army.
Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak (1874-1920), photograph of the admiral as supreme commander of the armed forces, belonging to the association of former officers of the imperial navy in Paris, 34 x 26 cm.
The name of Admiral Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak is not well-known, at least in France, but he was a front-line player in Russian history during the collapse of tsarism. On 21 November, his descendants will be selling his archives at Drouot, aided by the experts Ivan and Alisa Anastasia Birr, with Vincent Sarrou as auctioneer. None of these documents and mementoes (which include the family silver and a box of imperial navy gilt buttons) have gone to auction before.
Born into a family of officers, a sub-lieutenant at the age of 19, and awarded St George's Cross by Nicholas II (proposed for €4,000 to €7,000), he became a member of the naval staff at 31, a few months before attaining the rank of rear admiral, and subsequently became the youngest vice-admiral in Russian history. In 1900, he joined Eduard von Toll's polar expedition to the New Siberian archipelago, which contributed to the opening of a new sea route half a century later thanks to powerful ice-breaker ships.
The bitterness of defeat
But his career took a very different turn when the Russo-Japanese war broke out. In 1904, learning that the Japanese had attacked Port Arthur, he headed for the Chinese city to support the siege on board a torpedo boat, stopping off briefly at Irkutsk to marry his fiancée of four years, Sophia Fedorovna Omirova. On offer at €3/5,000, the marriage certificate is the first item in the sale. In the hundred-odd letters he wrote to his wife, he expressed little of his feelings, telling her rather of his thoughts on the advantages of fog for destroyers. She barely saw her husband (who was constantly on various missions and preferred to live with his mistress) and eventually fled to France with her family at the height of the civil war.
After being wounded, the young officer was imprisoned in Nagasaki. Once he was released, he organised the repatriation of prisoners with another naval officer, Alexander Razvozov (some of whose archives are included in the sale, as the two families were related). The collapse of the Russian fleet, his country's lack of preparation and the incompetence of the naval staff affected him deeply. After returning to his scientific studies for a while, he was put in charge of operations in the Baltic Sea in 1913.
A sword in the sea
In 1916, handing over to his friend Razvozov, he took command of the fleet in the Black Sea, where he laid a defensive mine system that destroyed several German submarines. With support from Kerensky's government, he endeavoured to restructure the military command, but internal rivalries and military setbacks made this problematic. The presence of Soviets in the army had a disruptive effect. In a speech (a typescript: €1,000/2 000), he exhorted the officers and workers "to continue the fight at a time when the homeland is in danger."
When the officers were ordered by a Sailors' Soviet to hand over their weapons, Kolchak threw his ceremonial sword into the sea from his flagship, saying: "Even the Japanese left me my sword when we evacuated Port Arthur. I shall certainly not hand it over to you." This anecdote is found in an account written by a captain much moved by the scene (€300/400). Kolchak left his command immediately, to Kerensky's intense annoyance. He was sent to the US for several months, where he gave a series of talks and tried to convince the Americans to take action in the Dardanelles. In late 1917, after the Bolsheviks took power, he travelled to Asia to obtain the support of the British, where he was briefly in charge of protecting the railway lines in China, stressing the importance of this aspect in a memorandum (€1,000/1,500). Encouraged by the British, he returned to Omsk, the headquarters of the provisional government, and in November 1918 became the War Minister for a liberal-socialist coalition. Undermined by dissension, this was overthrown by the Cossacks, who pressed for all-out war against the Bolsheviks. Kolchak never forgave them for signing a separate peace agreement with Germany. "His honesty, ethical standards and abilities" (to quote McLaughlin) and support from the Allies made him the strong man of the regime. Protected by a British battalion, he proclaimed himself "Supreme Ruler of the Russian State", with back-up from international powers. He endeavoured to impose a single command on the White forces throughout the empire. His Omsk proclamation (€30,000/40,000) is the outstanding lot of the sale. In it he calls for the "restoration of law and order" and the army, free from political influence. He advocated free elections, in view of introducing a new Constituant Assembly, union rights and agrarian reform.
In the spring of 1919, when his troops had managed to occupy virtually the whole of Siberia, he could congratulate himself on the retreat of an "enemy defeated and demoralised", with the hope of crossing the Volga. At this point the White forces were very close to victory. But they were weakened by intrigue, corruption and the double-dealing of the Czechoslovakian legionnaires and revolutionary socialists. The lack of a clear programme and the acts of violence, pillaging and atrocities committed by the Cossacks and allied militias turned the people against them. The successive uprisings of several regiments and peasant rebellions struck the hour of defeat, just as Trotsky succeeded in relaunching the Red Army offensive. Kolchak's army then began what the historian Jean-Jacques Marie dubbed "a death march". On 12 November 1919, the supreme commander of the armed forces evacuated his government from Omsk, taking the public treasury gold, in a train guarded by Czech legionnaires. These then pillaged the convoy and handed over the admiral to the Bolsheviks in exchange for trucks of coal. He was imprisoned and tried at Irkutsk, then executed on Lenin's personal orders on 7 February. A friend told his widow how the firing squad refused to shoot him. This first-hand account (€2,000/3000) could be the last lot in the sale.