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Savinkov’s Fatal Flaw

The life of the Socialist revolutionary and Bolshevik fighter spans a large and important chapter in Russian history.
SavinkovViceministroDeDefensa1917

Break Russia’s Chains: Boris Savinkov and his Wars Against the Tsar and the Bolsheviks, by Vladimir Alexandrov (Pegasus Books, 2021), 576 pages. 

It was 1904 and Boris Savinkov was planning terror. The target? Vyacheslav von Plehve, the Minister of the Interior under Nicholas II. The incompetence of the Russian police had allowed Savinkov to escape his internal exile in Volgoda in his younger years. Fleeing north via the White Sea, he had managed to reach Geneva. From Yevno Azef, he learned how to be a terrorist. The head of combat organization for the Social Revolutionaries and a double agent for the ​​Okhrana, Azef set up Savinkov for his initial career despite some double dealing—the assassination of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. 

To Break Russia’s Chains: Boris Savinkov and his Wars Against the Tsar and the Bolsheviks is a biography of Boris Savinkov stretching from his days as a terrorist in the combat unit of the left-Socialist Revolutionaries to fighting on the side of the White Army in the Russian civil war against the Bolsheviks. A relatively obscure figure outside of Russia, within Russia he is still held in controversy despite his death nearly 100 years ago. So much controversy, in fact, that documents about his personal life are held under lock and key by the FSB. This biography is a well written attempt to provide the story of Savinkov’s life to a Western audience that has most likely never heard of him, but want to gain greater insight into the period from late Tsarist Russia to the chaotic rise of the Bolsheviks.  

While painting Savinkov in a heroic light, considering his enemies, Alexandrov does not shrink from portraying the day to day horrors of life as a terrorist. A problem with revolutions is, as the quip goes, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Savinkov quite literally jumped that divide, depending on who he was facing in a given year, and Alexandrov does a good job of understanding that particular issue. Gore, blood, and lives shattered are all part of the day to day of a successful Russian terrorist. In contrast stand the terrorism and wars is Savinkov’s private life. One can only imagine how Vera, Savinkov’s wife, struggled raising two kids by herself for years while Savinkov was scheming across Russia and Europe. Terrorism may garner you a legacy in history and in the corpses of your enemies, but it’s not conducive to domesticity of any sort.  

In one showing of incompetent border security by the Tsarist regime, Savinkov managed to flee to Paris (yet again) after escaping the police in Odessa. He managed a quiet life between Paris, the Western Front, and gambling on the French Riviera. It took the revolution, much like another revolutionary son of Russia, to bring him back in 1917 and return him from political marginalization in exile to a rapidly growing position in post-Tsarist Russian politics. 

Savinkov’s disdain for the Bolsheviks—due to their undemocratic views as well as deeper disagreements between the Bolsheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries—had led him to ally with figures that would not match his politics. The first of these partnerships was with General Lavr Kornilov, commander in chief of the Russian army, with whom Savinkov worked while an assistant minister of war. Savinkov soon left the position to plot a coup with Kornilov against the provisional government. Alexandrov does not suggest that Savinkov’s socalist principles ever changed; rather, beyond an allegiance to a socialistic economy, he would adopt methods of any type to achieve his first goal of a Russia free of the Tsars, and then of a Russia free of the Bolsheviks. 

This habit of allying with people not sharing his inclinations continued during the rest of the Russian civil war. After the failures of his new organization, the Union for the Defense of the Motherland and Freedom, in setting up uprisings and plots against the Bolsheviks, he fled east, first to Kazan and then to Omsk, following the gradually collapsing White Army. In Omsk, he was appointed on a military mission by the directory as a de facto exile in Paris—in theory, to gather Western support, but in practice, it was a way to resolve a inter-doctrinal dispute between him and Nikolai Avksentiev, another left-Socialist Revolutionary. The exile aspect was soon dropped as the left-SRs were couped by Cossack officers, who elected Admiral Kolchak, a monarchist, as supreme commander. (Only after the Peace Treaty was signed was Savinkov offered an official position in the delegation by Kolchak. He served on, despite this, during the intermediary period.)

Back in Paris, Savinkov desired simply to do more for the Russian people, rather than try and fail to negotiate for Russia in the West. Returning to his old trade, albeit on the opposing side, he went to Warsaw to fight against the Bolsheviks with General Jozef Piłsudski. During the Polish-Bolshevik war, Savinkov led an army of former Red Army prisoners of war and other volunteers to fight against the Reds. While the Poles managed to stand their ground, Savinkov’s goals did not come to pass, and, being viewed as a political liability, at the end of hostilities he was shipped back to Paris. 

Like many a man motivated by love of country, that same love would be his downfall. In the mid 1920s, Savinkov was lured to the Soviet Union under false pretenses of an underground revolutionary organization plotting the overthrow of the Soviets from the inside. Unsurprisingly, it was actually a plot by the State Political Directorate (GPU) to lure him back to the Soviet Union to put him on trial. He soon was imprisoned, and while treated surprisingly well in a Soviet prison, he knew he would never be allowed to have the freedom he had in the past. Whether his death was an execution or suicide—a last flight for freedom from the Soviets—Alexandrov considers both theories. Regardless, a life in extremes led to its logical conclusion.  

Though Savinkov may be unfamiliar to you, Alexandrov’s biography is well worth reading for its depiction of the real feel of the historical situation and for the complexity of a historical character like Savinkov, whose life spanned a whole chapter of Russian history. It is worth pondering what Churchill said about Savinkov, that “few men tried more, gave more, dared more and suffered more for the Russian people.” As a descriptor, Alexandrov writes carefully that Savinkov did indeed care about the Russian people dearly, but that through historical circumstances outside of his control, it was all for nought in the end. One can have passion and talent in the service of admirable goals, but when conditions of the time are against you, it will more likely than not end tragically. 

Lars Schonander is a software engineer at Lincoln Network.

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