Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak

[Admiral Kolchak]

This originally appeared on the MARHST-L list 29 June, 1998, and appears by permission of the author, Steve McLaughlin (

A few weeks ago someone asked a question about Admiral Kolchak, and in sending along some pointers for biographical information on him, I completely forgot that I had compiled a fairly detailed biography of him in the course of another project. I append that biography here, in case anyone is interested in this intriguing -- and in many ways admirable but flawed -- man.

I should explain that I wrote this up a part of a "Biographical Directory of Russian Naval Officers, 1850-1918" -- a sort of do-it- myself reference book, since at the time I was very annoyed at the lack of reliable biographical information on Russian naval officers. By the time I lost interest (since good stuff started to become available in Russian), I had compiled about 2000 mini-bios, some only a line or two, others -- like this one -- quite extensive. I've tried to interest a couple of publishers in the idea of a "Directory of Russian Flag Officers, 1850-1918" based on this information, but none of them were foolish enough to take me up on it. Rather than let this information sit silently on my hard drive, I would be very glad to share data with anyone interested in Russian naval officers. If you've always wondered about Rozhestvenskii or Nebogatov or Essen or Ebergart, well, I've got bios of them. Just tell me whom it is you're interested in and I'll send you what I have.

A couple of last notes. Names in UPPER CASE are cross-references to other officers in the directory. Source notes in an abbreviated form are attached at the end. Transliteration of Russian names and words is according to Library of Congress standard. Dates are given in the form Old Style (used in Russia uneil 1918)/New Style (Western calendar, twelve days ahead of the Russian calendar in the nineteenth century, thirteen days ahead in the twentieth century).

I hope this will be of interest to some Marhsters.... Steve McLaughlin

KOLCHAK, Aleksandr Vasil'evich. Admiral. Kolchak's family reportedly descended from a Bosnian Muslim, Kolchak Pasha, captured by the Russians in 1739. Aleksandr Vasil'evich was born on 4/16 November 1874 in St. Petersburg, the son of a naval artillery officer, Vasilii Ivanovich KOLCHAK; his mother came from a gentry family from the southern Ukraine (reportedly from Odessa). Kolchak was graduated from the Naval College in 1894, second in his class. He was then posted to the Seventh Petersburg Naval Battalion. After a few months he was sent to the armored cruiser Riurik, which soon sailed for the Far East. Soon after Riurik's arrival at Vladivostok Kolchak was transferred to the old iron- hulled sloop Kreiser.

Kolchak served in the Far East from 1895 to 1899; he then returned to European Russia, and was stationed for a while at Kronshtadt. Kolchak had always had a strong interest in polar exploration, and had studied both oceanography and hydrology; he hoped for a place in an Arctic expedition, but instead found himself posted to the new battleship Petropavlovsk, bound for the Pacific. But at Suez Kolchak received word that he had been accepted in Baron Toll's Arctic expedition; he was soon journeying back to St. Petersburg. There he devoted his time to study at the Main Physical Observatory, and also at the Pavlovsk Magnetic Observatory. The expedition departed in 1900, with Kolchak in one party, while Baron Toll led a second group. Kolchak's group returned to St. Petersburg in December 1902, where they learned that Toll's party had disappeared. Kolchak volunteered to lead an expedition in open boats to try to find them; he eventually discovered enough evidence to prove that Toll's group had perished. He was awarded the Konstantin Medal by the Imperial Geographic Society for this effort.

Kolchak was in Yakutsk recovering from the rigors of this expedition when the Russo-Japanese War broke out in February 1904. In spite of his injured health, he volunteered for service in the war zone and was accepted; he delayed leaving, however, long enough to arrange for his father and fiancee (they had been engaged for four years) to meet him in Irkutsk so that he could be married. Kolchak arrived in Port Arthur in March 1904. He hoped for command of a destroyer, but was instead assigned to the cruiser Askol'd, probably because the state of his health was still somewhat uncertain.

Although he was still far from fully recovered, Kolchak was eventually given command of the destroyer Serdityi. The ship and her commander distinguished themselves during the final stages of the siege of Port Arthur, during the defense of Captain N.O. von ESSEN's battleship, the Sevastopol', which anchored outside the port to escape the Japanese 11in. howitzers firing into the harbor. Serdityi laid a minefield that was responsible for the loss of the Japanese cruiser Takasago. For this action Kolchak was awarded the Sword of the Order of St. George.

As the seige closed in about the city, Kolchak commanded a 75mm land battery on the north-eastern front, despite the fact that he suffered from bouts of pneumonia and rheumatism, aftereffects of his years of Arctic exploration. He was wounded and became a prisoner of war after the surrender of the city; he in remained in hospital in Port Arthur until April 1905, when he was finally well enough to travel to a prisoner-of-war camp at Nagasaki. He was well-treated by the Japanese, and, due to his illness, was repatriated to Russia via Canada before the end of the war.

Returning to St. Petersburg, Kolchak became a leading figure in the "St. Petersburg Naval Circle," a group of progressive young officers who were trying to bring about reforms in the navy. From 1906 to 1909 he was on the Naval General Staff, and as a captain 2nd rank in 1910 he briefly commanded the icebreaker Vaigach on another Arctic expedition; he was soon recalled to St. Petersburg, however, being succeeded on Vaigach by Senior Lieutenant K.V. LOMAN. From 1910 to 1912 he was again on the Naval General Staff. During his spells with the Naval General Staff Kolchak lobbied the Duma for increased naval funding, developing a good working relationship with the legislature. Among the political leaders Kolchak impressed favorably was the liberal Duma member P.N. Miliukov.

Kolchak went on to command the destroyer Ussuriets until 1913, when he was transferred to the destroyer Pogranichnik, simultaneously acting as flag-captain for operations in the Baltic Fleet. Just before the First World War he chaired a committee that recommended the construction of 30 submarines.

During the First World War Kolchak was one of the Baltic Fleet's most active officers. Admiral N.O. von Essen often delegated the planning and command of difficult offensive mine- laying operations to him, and Kolchak gained considerable expertise in these missions. D.N. FEDOTOV, who was a lieutenant on the armored cruiser Rossiia when Kolchak was quartered aboard her in the latter part of 1914, described Kolchak as a "great favorite with the younger officers, he was not averse to chatting with us in the evenings and would come to the Wardroom for a smoke or a drink whenever he had a minute to spare."

While aboard Rossiia in the winter of 1914/1915, Kolchak planned and took part in a minelaying expedition deep into German waters. On the evening of 30 December 1914/12 January 1915 the cruisers Oleg, Bogatyr', Riurik and Rossiia (flying the flag of Admiral V.A. KANIN, commander of the mine forces) steamed out of Ute. While Oleg and Bogatyr' laid two minefields west as Bornholm, Rossiia went even further west, laying 98 mines north of Rugen Island. As Rossiia proceeded toward her destination, she picked up radio signals from nearby German warships; Kanin and the ship's captain, POGURSKII, considered turning back, but Kolchak, roused from a nap, curtly said "I see no reason to make any change in plan. We must proceed to the appointed place." The minefield was laid without incident. The German cruiser Gazelle was later damaged when she struck a mine in this field, and two freighters were lost there.

When Rear Admiral P.L. TRUKHACHEV fell ill in September 1915, Kolchak took temporary command of the Baltic Fleet's Mine (i.e., Destroyer) Division, a post he held until Trukhachev's recovery in late November. He was simultaneously commander of naval forces in the Gulf of Riga. By this time Kolchak was a rear admiral, and on 5 January 1916 (N.S.?) he was appointed commander of the Mine Division, often flying his flag in the large destroyer Novik.

Kolchak was promoted to vice admiral in June 1916 -- the youngest officer of that rank in the Imperial Navy -- and appointed to command the Black Sea Fleet, replacing Admiral A.A. EBERGARD, who had lost the confidence of Stavka. Kolchak was given two main tasks by the high command: defeat the U-boats and, as the tsar himself informed him, plan an amphibious assault on the Bosporus.

One of Kolchak's first tasks as fleet commander was the organization a new fleet staff; the animosity between Admiral Ebergard's staff and Stavka was seriously affecting the communications between the two. One of the most prominent members of the new staff was Captain M.I. SMIRNOV, who had worked with Kolchak in the Baltic. In November and December Kolchak also made some changes in the commanders of the various units of the fleet; he was particularly dissatisfied with Rear Admiral M.P. SABLIN's leadership of the Black Sea Fleet's destroyers. Kolchak replaced Sablin with Admiral Prince V.V. TRUBETSKOI. (Kolchak's dislike of Sablin was no passing matter; in the fall of 1919, when White General A.I. Denikin's Navy Minister, Admiral GERASIMOV, proposed Sablin for the post of fleet commander, Kolchak rejected him, and Admiral D.V. NENIUKOV was appointed instead.)

Of the two tasks assigned him by Stavka -- defeating the U- boats and an amphibious assault on the Bosporus -- Kolchak accomplished the first brilliantly; an aggressive mine-laying campaign outside the U-boat bases at the Bosporus and at Varna in Bulgaria soon led to the loss of three U-boats (and perhaps a fourth as well; one boat simply disappeared, perhaps the victim of mines). By the end of 1916 the Germans had abandoned Varna as a submarine base, and U-boat activities in the Black Sea had become almost negligible.

Kolchak's second task, the landing at the Bosporus, was postponed by the entry of Rumania into the war on 14/27 August 1916; the rapid collapse of the Rumanian army forced the Russians to commit the troops intended for the Bosporus operation to the shoring-up of the Rumanian front.

There were other set-backs. On 7/20 October 1916 the dreadnought Imperatritsa Mariia suffered a magazine explosion while anchored in Sevastopol' harbor. Soon after the explosion, Kolchak came aboard the ship, and although he left it to the ship's officers to manage the damage control operations, he made sure everything possible was being done to save the ship. As the ship continued to sink, Kolchak gave the order to abandon ship, thus sparing the senior ship's officer, Commander GORODYSSKII, the onus of this sad duty.

While serving in the Baltic Fleet, Kolchak had become aware of the potential of naval aviation, and during his tenure with the Black Sea Fleet he continued and intensified Admiral Ebergard's tactics of using his seaplane carriers for raids along the enemy's coasts; the seaplanes carried out bombing missions and also spotted for ships bombarding enemy positions.

In early 1917, as political and social turmoil was brewing in Petrograd, Kolchak traveled to Tiflis to meet with the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, viceroy of the Caucasus and commander-in-chief of the Caucasian front. When Kolchak realized how serious the situation was becoming in the capital, he rushed back to Sevastopol'. By the time he arrived the February Revolution had overthrown the tsar and the Provisional Government had declared itself. Kolchak took the fleet out to sea as a precautionary measure, but at this point the crews showed little revolutionary consciousness. For a while operations continued at something like their pre-revolutionary pace, and in March Kolchak even pressed Miliukov, now a prominent member of the Provisional Government, to carry out the Bosporus landing; but over the next few months the supporting structure of the fleet -- the shipyards, dockyards and factories manufacturing war material -- began to slow down as the workers formed soviets and political chaos, strikes and desertion gripped these vital industries. The repair of ships became increasingly difficult, and there was a backlog of destroyers that were awaiting repairs of damage and defects; the vital supply of mines slowed to a trickle. As summer drew on, revolutionary agitators from the Baltic Fleet began to stir up the crews. Kolchak attended meetings of the various soviets, and sometimes swayed the men; but he nevertheless had to make several gestures -- some no doubt personally distasteful to him -- to hold the loyalty of the sailors. He had to remove some officers -- notably Admiral POGULIAEV and Admiral Prince V.V. Trubetskoi -- from their commands because of their association with the imperial court or their noble titles, and he even participated in the ceremonies surrounding the re-burial of the 1906 revolutionary mutineer Lieutenant P.P. SHMIDT.

In April 1917 War and Navy Minister Guchkov had offered Kolchak command of the Baltic Fleet, perhaps hoping that this efficient officer could restore some fighting capability to the revolution-ridden fleet. Kolchak declined, deciding to stay with the Black Sea Fleet. In April, as Russia's military situation continued to grow worse almost by the hour, with troops "self- demobilizing" and heading for home, Kolchak supported the formation of "shock battalions" made up of volunteers. The idea was that these volunteers would inspire the rest of the army by their bravery and dedication. The shock battalions did help to stiffen the troops, but the effect was short-lived.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Black Sea Fleet had grown increasingly difficult, and on 12 May (N.S.?) Kolchak sent a letter of resignation to the head of the Provisional Government, Prince G.E. L'vov; he felt he could no longer command the fleet. A few days later Aleksandr Kerenskii, Guchkov's successor as War and Navy Minister, visited the Black Sea Fleet as part of his tour of the fronts. He found Kolchak very upset. "To them [the sailors] the Central Committee means more than I do," Kolchak reportedly said. "I don't want anything to do with them. I don't love them any more!" If this statement is accurate (one has to wonder, as there was no love lost between Kerenskii and Kolchak), it reflects a side of the admiral's personality that he normally kept concealed; for although he was credited with a certain coolness and reserve, there is ample evidence that he was capable of deep emotions and was possessed of a fierce dedication to the navy. With Kerenskii's intercession, the situation was repaired, for the moment, and Kolchak continued in his command.

But this reconciliation between the admiral and his sailors lasted only about a month. In June the Council of Soldiers, Sailors and Workers passed an order disarming officers. Kolchak, normally reserved, lost his temper; taking the order as a personal insult, he gathered the crew of his flagship together, gave the men a scathing lecture, and then said "The Japanese left me this sword when we evacuated Port Arthur and I will not give it to you!" With that he tossed his golden sword -- awarded to him for bravery in the Russo-Japanese War -- over the side. He resigned his post there and then.

Kolchak was recalled to Petrograd by an angry Kerenskii, who wanted to know by what right the admiral had resigned his command in the middle of a war. Traveling to the capital by train, Kolchak soon showed signs of strained nerves; seeing a sailor lounging near by, Kolchak, convinced the man was a revolutionary spy, "whipped out an automatic he was carrying in his pocket and rushed at the seaman...." The sailor ran for his life.

During this train trip Kolchak met by chance Admiral James Glennon of the American Root Mission, which had arrived in Sevastopol' the same day Kolchak had so dramatically resigned. In a spirit of friendship, Glennon suggested that Kolchak visit the United States to share with this new ally his experiences in mine warfare and amphibious operations. (This offer led to rumors in Russia that Kolchak had been offered command of the United States Navy!) Kolchak was uncertain whether the Provisional Government would let him go; but they seemed happy to get rid of him at this time, and so Kolchak traveled to the United States via Britain, meeting along the way Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and Admiral Reginald Hall (of British Naval Intelligence); he also demonstrated his continuing interest in aviation by visiting British seaplane carriers.

In the United States he gave a series of lectures at the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island -- among other things, he outlined a plan he had devised to use burning oil spread on the surface of the sea to cover a landing in Thrace. He had entertained some hopes that his detailed knowledge of Russian plans to capture the Turkish Straits would lead the Americans to undertake an invasion of the Dardanelles, but this sort of expedition formed no part of American plans. Disappointed, Kolchak made ready to return to Russia, traveling across the United States with the intention of sailing from San Francisco for Vladivostok. He reputedly deposited a million dollars in a San Francisco bank, although there are no indications of where the money came from or what it was to be used for (the story is probably apocryphal).

Kolchak was in the United States when the Bolsheviks seized power; he was deeply upset by their avowed goal of dropping out of the war, and so, making his way to Tokyo, he offered his services to the British on 23 November/6 December 1917. He offered to fight as a private soldier, because he considered himself still bound to fight in the Allied cause and knew that the Royal Navy had little need for a Russian admiral. At first the British didn't know quite what to do with him; they decided to send him to Mesopotamia for obscure reasons, but when he reached Singapore he was rerouted to Manchuria, to work with the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER), a Russian company with major holdings in northen China and Mongolia which required constant protection from bandits. The CER was to be a sort of a cover; his real purpose, so he was told, was to organize an anti-Bolshevik political force in Siberia, using the wayward Czech Legion as its nucleus. The British intention at this point was directed more toward re-establishing an eastern front against the Germans than fighting against the Bolsheviks per se; but to get at the Germans, it was necessary to defeat the Bolsheviks. It was widely believed in Allied governments that it would take a military dictatorship to defeat the Reds, and Kolchak, relatively liberal, well-known in Russia and with a solid record of accomplishment during the war, seemed an ideal choice.

Kolchak went to Kharbin, headquarters of the CER, and was appalled by the pettiness and mutual hostility of the various groups there. He soon realized that no real political movement could be founded there; while there he also met the Cossack Ataman Grigorii Mikhailovich Semenov, a brutal anti-Bolshevik bandit who was heavily subsidized by the Japanese. The two men disliked each other from the start, and Kolchak was equally disliked by the Japanese, who were not inclined to see a strong Russian government set up in Siberia.

Kolchak returned to Japan and met with General Sir Alfred Knox, who had been head of the British military mission to Russia during the war. Both men felt that strong measures were needed to destroy the Bolsheviks and restore order in Russia. The British proposed establishing a White army that would be furnished with British equipment and trained by British officers. Kolchak and Knox, having agreed on what needed to be done, then set out for Omsk. Traveling with him was his mistress of many years, Anna Vasil'evna Timireva, the wife of Admiral S.N. TIMIREV; Kolchak's wife and nine-year old son were living in France at this time.

Omsk in October 1918 was led by a nebulous liberal-socialist government with anti-Bolshevik leanings. Kolchak was swiftly appointed Minister of War and of the Navy by this Directory of the Siberian Government on 4 November 1918. He accepted the post reluctantly, still uncomfortable with the political role he was increasingly being pushed into by his British and White Russian sponsors. He also soon fell out with the Czechs, then the only effective military force in the region.

The poorly-organized Directory was unable to direct any sort of a war effort -- or even decide upon a general policy -- and it received a rude shock in late November when a minor military coup was staged by a Cossack officer named Krasilnikov, who was dissatisfied with the indecisiveness of the military campaign against the Bolsheviks; although Kolchak probably had no part in planning this coup, he was soon drafted as the leader of a new government. Honest, ethical and able, and with no political ambtions, he seemed the ideal choice for a military dictator. He was given the title of "Supreme Ruler of the Russian State."

However, if Kolchak had little political ambition he also had little political acumen. His government was just as unable as the Directory to carry out a war effort, and just as unable to formulate a set of political goals that would gather support for the anti-Bolshevik cause. D.N. Fedotov, who served in Kolchak's Siberian forces, desribed him at this time as looking "aged and different from the active, energetic man he was when I knew him in the navy in the old days. There was something fatalistic about him which I had never noticed before. [He looked] thoroughly tired of groping and struggling in an unfamiliar environment."

Kolchak was indeed groping in an unfamiliar environment. In November 1918 he issued his "Omsk platform," a complex document that called for the end of Bolshevism and the renewal of the war against Germany. (By this time the armistice between the Allies and Germany had already been signed, but it was only an armistice, not a peace treaty, and German forces still occupied vast areas of western Russia.) To carry out these tasks, the platform called for the creation of a "Unified Russian Army" free from "political influence" -- apparently a reference to political commissars and perhaps soldiers' soviets as well. Civil government was to be free from military control except in war zones. The platform promised to establish local self-government and grant autonomy to "small nationalities in their manner of living" -- a point of contention with many subject peoples, especially the former Baltic provinces, which desired to be sovereign nations. Civil liberties would be guaranteed. In economic affairs, the platform advocated the use of foreign captial to aid development, elimination of fixed prices, and a guarantee of the right of workers to form labor unions.

All of this was very liberal, but it was also a complex and wordy program that did not lend itself to the sort of simple slogans so skillfully used by the Bolsheviks. Worse, Kolchak's government badly fumbled on the issue of ownership of the land, promising only to refer the issue to a constituent assembly. By this time the peasants had already seized the lands; for all they knew, Kolchak's "constituent assembly" might try to take it back from them. So Kolchak's platform gained him few, if any, supporters among any of the classes of Russia.

At the same time his armed forces showed a mixture of military ineffectiveness and brutality that further alienated the common people. His forces were defeated by late 1919, and in December 1919 he fled from Omsk to escape the Red advance. His train was halted near Irkutsk by the Czechs, who by this time disliked Kolchak intensely and who were willing to make a deal with the Reds if they would let them leave the country in peace. And so Kolchak was handed over to the Socialist Revolutionaries of Irkutsk on 15 January 1920, and then turned over to the Bolsheviks when they arrived. Kolchak was rather politely interrogated by a panel of revolutionary political leaders for nine days; then, fearing that a White advance might lead to his liberation, the Bolsheviks had him taken out to the river and shot on 7 February 1920. Kolchak reportedly faced his execution with great courage, and even his enemies commented upon his composure and "culture." Although he has been villified in subsequent Soviet literature, the revolutionaries who questioned him in Irkutsk treated him with courtesy. (Madam Timireva, his mistress, was also imprisoned, but was eventually released.)

The American Admiral Newton A. McCully described Kolchak as "medium size, very dark with piercing eyes and a determined expression... [which] gave every indication of the resolution for which he was noted. He was simple, practical, broad minded, and full of intense patriotism for Russia." McCully also noted Kolchak's "personal affection for the officers of his staff as well as for his sailor orderly, not usually credited to the Russian official character." (Graf, Novik, pp. 63, 73, 77, 90-91; Testimony of Kolchak, passim; Kassell, p. 845; Saul, p. 90; Luckett, pp. 213 et seq.; GSE, vol. 12, p. 575; Modern Encyclopedia, vol. 17, pp. 110-113; Mitchell, pp. 231, 306, 316, 342-343, 352, 597 n.7; Fleming, passim; Miliukov, Political Memoirs, p. 215; Starokadomskiy, p. 277; Nekrasov, pp. 96-103, 110, 114-115, 121- 126; Riha, Russian European, pp. 312-313; Kerensky, Russia and History's Turning Point, p. 280; Mohrenschildt, Russian Revolution of 1917, p. 185, 187; "Admiral Kolchak's Mission," passim; Weeks, American Naval Diplomat, pp. 116, 123-128, 152; Fedotoff White, Survival, pp. 34-38, 154-155, 216; Brinkley, Volunteer Army, p. 381 n.109)

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