How Bolsheviks Conducted Executions

Kolchak in 1919 in Siberia.
Kolchak in 1919 in Siberia.

Have you ever read something that was so chilling that even though the person who wrote it is long dead, it was still sort of frightening to read due to the sheer level of evil present? I had such an experience last week on Tuesday. I was reading about Alexander Kolchak during my lunch break (if you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, this probably won’t surprise you) and encountered a short description of his execution, written by someone present, that is so chilling to read.

Admiral Kolchak was a famous polar explorer in the early twentieth century. He served in World War I in the navy of imperial Russia (so I’m pretty sure he personally knew the last tsar, Nicholas II, which is awesome). After the tsar and his family were forced from power and eventually executed, Kolchak became a leader in the counterrevolutionary White movement, fighting against the Reds (i.e. the Bolsheviks who went on to tyrannize Russia, the rest of the former Soviet Union, and the world for seventy years). Kolchak eventually held the title of Supreme Leader and was the head of a government in Siberia before it eventually fell and he was executed.

History—or Western scholarship, at least—has not been kind to Kolchak. (Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians have done some excellent work on him, which is great. Unfortunately, since the Leftists have such a hold on academia in the West, such a change probably won’t occur here.) I’ve always liked him, though, ever since I found out about him. When I was still planning on going to graduate school for history, I planned to write my dissertation on him. Basically, I’ve been a White Guardist since I was too young to know the term. 🙂

Which brings us to the chill passage I read last week. Eventually, Kolchak was betrayed by people fighting on his own side (a bunch of Czechs who wanted to go home so badly that they decided to sacrifice their commander, Admiral Kolchak, in exchange for safe passage home. The Reds wanted him badly, so they agreed to this deal. The Reds put Kolchak on trial—and I use that term loosely, because everyone knew from the start what the outcome would be—and after interrogating him, executed him on the night of February 7, 1920, along with a man named Viktor Pepelyaev who served in Kolchak’s government in Siberia.

One of the executioners was a man named Ivan Bursak. He wrote a memoir that contains the excerpt I’m going to show you in a bit. But first, let’s talk about him a bit. His real name wasn’t even Ivan Bursak. It was Boris Yakovich Blatlinder and he was from what is modern-day Estonia. He participated in the October Revolution and fought in Siberia during the Russian Civil War. The only notable thing he ever did was participate in Kolchak’s exeuction, which he describes here. The translation is mine.

There’s a full moon: a bright, frosty night. Kolchak and Pepelyaev stand on the mount. Kolchak refuses my offer to blindfold him. The troops are ready, rifles aimed. Chudnovsky [another high-ranking Bolshevik in Siberia] says to me in a whisper: “It’s time.”

I give the command: “Troops, fire on the enemies of the revolution!”

Both men fall. We drag the corpses to a sledge, drag them to the river, and lower them into the hole in the ice. And that is how Admiral Kolchak, “the supreme ruler of all the Russias,” leaves on his final voyage.

There’s so much wrong with that passage I don’t even know where to start. First off, Kolchak’s title was “Supreme Ruler” (Верховный правитель [Verkhovniy pravitel] in Russian), not “supreme ruler of all the Russias.” That title sounds more similar to how the tsars styled themselves: Nicholas II’s title was officially “Emperor of all the Russias.” Even that isn’t precisely what Bursak called it, though. Nicholas II’s title in Russian is Император Всероссийский [Imperator Vserossiskii], while Bursak called Kolchak верховный правитель всея Руси [verkhovniy pravitel vsya Rusi]. Rus is usually used as the old name of Russia, like in the medieval period. Again, I don’t know if Bursak meant to be mocking with this phrase, or was just really that stupid.

Also, the part about Kolchak leaving on his final voyage struck me as particularly obnoxious. Bursak uses the word плавание [plavanie] for voyage here, which specifically refers to a trip taking place by water—recall that Kolchak had a distinguished career in the navy, where he went on many such voyages by water. Using such language to refer to an instance when these Bolsheviks executed two people in cold blood, then dumped their bodies in a freezing river just because they hated them that much is actually frightening.

By this point, you’re probably wondering what happened to Bursak. He was killed in Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937, a victim (I don’t know if he deserves that appellation, to be honest) of the system he helped create. While I recognize that Stalin killed many, many innocent people in his Purges, this is one person who wasn’t innocent and one that I certainly will never mourn.

And, of course, the Soviet system itself did not last. Admiral Kolchak has been rehabilitated—there’s a monument in his honor in Irkutsk that I’d love to see, but Irkutsk is so difficult to get to. Hopefully someday I’ll make it there.

For reference, here is the original Russian:

Полнолуние, светлая, морозная ночь. Колчак и Пепеляев стоят на бугорке. На мое предложение завязать глаза Колчак отвечает отказом. Взвод построен, винтовки наперевес. Чудновский шепотом говорит мне:
– Пора.

Я даю команду
– Взвод, по врагам революции – пли!
Оба падают. Кладем трупы на сани-розвальни, подвозим к реке и спускаем в прорубь. Так «верховный правитель всея Руси» адмирал Колчак уходит в свое последнее плавание.


8 thoughts on “How Bolsheviks Conducted Executions

  1. I think using “плавание” was completely justified. It’s just many Russians remember Chekhov and Turgenev and want to sound poetic, and this passage was written in a meditative style. Maybe you should have translated it as “his final sailing”?
    Wasn’t there a TV series about him, titled “Адмирал”?
    Also, what is your motivation for writing “tsar” while everyone else writes “czar”? Tsar is a more clear word, and (for bonus points) can be read unambiguously.


    1. Nothing wrong with being poetic, but we’re talking about a murder here! I’ve seen that series and plan to watch it again because I like it a lot. 🙂 I always write tsar because that’s the proper transliteration from Russian. As far as I’m concerned, czar is just the wrong way to spell it in English, haha.


  2. Молодец! This is a very interesting and tremendously sad period in Russian history. It was but a precursor to the brutality to come. Collectivization, the exportation of food, while people at home were starving, the systematic eradication of the tight-fisted (кулак) farmers, and the kholodomor.

    But, in reading this account, I thought of something I recently read from a book called Witness, by Whittaker chambers.

    … man without God is just what Communism said he was: the most intelligent of the animals, that man without God is a beast, never more beastly than when he is most intelligent about his beastliness.

    Yet there is one experience which most sincere ex-Communists share, whether or not they go only part way to the end of the question it poses. The daughter of a former German diplomat in Moscow was trying to explain to me why her father, who, as an enlightened modern man, had been extremely pro-Communist, had become an implacable anti-Communist. It was hard for her because, as an enlightened modern girl, she shared the Communist vision without being a Communist. But she loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her. “He was immensely pro-Soviet,” she said, “and then—you will laugh at me—but you must not laugh at my father—and then—one night—in Moscow—he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.” A child of Reason and the 20th century, she knew that there is a logic of the mind. She did not know that the soul has a logic that may be more compelling than the mind’s. She did not know at all that she had swept away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, the myth of the 20th century, with five annihilating words: one night he heard screams.

    Why does the Communist ever hear them? Because in the end there persists in every man, however he may deny it, a scrap of soul. The Communist who suffers this singular experience then says to himself: “What is happening to me? I must be sick.” If he does not instantly stifle that scrap of soul, he is lost. If he admits it for a moment, he has admitted that there is something greater than Reason, greater than the logic of mind, of politics, of history, of economics, which alone justifies the vision. If the party senses his weakness, and the party is peculiarly cunning at sensing such weakness, it will humiliate him, degrade him, condemn him, expel him. If it can, it will destroy him. And the party will be right. For he has betrayed that which alone justifies its faith—the vision of Almighty Man. He has brushed the only vision that has force against the vision of Almighty Mind. He stands before the fact of God.

    One thing most ex-Communists could agree upon: they broke because they wanted to be free. They do not all mean the same thing by “free.” Freedom is a need of the soul, and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom. God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. Necessity is the only ultimate justification known to the mind. Hence every sincere break with Communism is a religious experience, though the Communist fail to identify its true nature, though he fail to go to the end of the experience. His break is the political expression of the perpetual need of the soul whose first faint stirring he has felt within him, years, months or days before he breaks. A Communist breaks because he must choose at last between irreconcilable opposites—God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism. Communism is what happens when, in the name of Mind, men free themselves from God. But its view of God, its knowledge of God, its experience of God, is what alone gives character to to a society or a nation, and meaning to its destiny. Its culture, the voice of this character, is merely that view, knowledge, experience, of God, fixed by its most intense spirits in terms intelligible to the mass of men. There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.


    1. Interesting! The one bit about ex-communists breaking because they wanted to be free reminds me of Viktor Kravchenko. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but he was a prominent defector who wrote about the brutalities of the Soviet regime, then had to defend himself against a libel suit in a French court (I think it was French, but I could be wrong). Anyway, definitely some interesting stuff.


  3. Your blog is interesting and helpful to me in studying the Russian language and history and current events. Although not a musician, I also enjoy classical music. Thank you!


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