This post comes from a paper I wrote for my History of the Soviet Union class at the University of South Florida.
Early in his career Boris Savinkov was a passionate, courageous fighter for a radical cause that he believed in. He built a reputation as a “man of action” among social revolutionaries as he took the helm in their terrorist activities. Disillusionment and depression set in after the betrayal of a comrade and again with the Bolshevik takeover. His own writings are suggestive of someone struggling but still fighting. The man of action seemed unable to succeed at anything but was still an influential figure in the battle for Russian freedom.
Savinkov was born in 1879 in Ukraine and received his secondary education in Warsaw. He had his first encounters with protest and law enforcement as a student, when he was arrested three different times and expelled from Petersburg University for his participation in disturbances and distribution of manifestoes. He was finally exiled to Vologda in 1902, where he came under the influence of Breshko-Breshkovskaia and became interested in populist socialism. After his escape in 1903, he made his way to Geneva, where he joined the Battle Organization of the Social Revolutionary Party, serving under a man named Evno Azev (Biggart, 1983). Savinkov occupied a bit of an odd niche among his new comrades. His father had been a military court judge, which left him as one of few revolutionaries who was familiar with military life. His education in Poland also made him sympathetic to the cause of Polish nationalism (Footman, 1958).
Once in the SR’s Battle Organization, Savinkov rose to a leadership position and became responsible for planning their terrorist activities (Florinsky, 1961). He wandered illegally in and out of Russia for years on SR business. He orchestrated the assassinations of Interior Minister Plehve in 1904 and the Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, in 1905. He organized the execution of a police informant in 1906, the same year he made a spectacular escape after he was arrested in Sevastopol (Footman, 1958). His activities at this time in his life gave him a reputation as a “man of action,” and he eventually rose to the ranks of the SR Central Committee (Biggart, 1983). Savinkov seems to have been a happy and passionate true believer in these early years – the kind of revolutionary who wrote poetry over dinner to win a bet. His first book, Memoirs of a Terrorist, reflects this perspective – it is full of idealist hero-terrorists who abandon their missions rather than throw bombs at children (“Portrait,” 2009).
The golden age of the Battle Organization came to a halt in 1908 when its leader, Azev, was revealed to be an agent of the tsar’s secret police force. With their terrorist activities discredited, the group was in shambles and never recovered. Savinkov finally gave up trying to rebuild it in 1911 (Biggart, 1983). Savinkov himself appears to have had a hard time recovering his idealism and belief in the revolutionary cause. Tired and disappointed with his comrades, he shocked other members of the SR in 1909 when he asked “If it’s all right to kill a person, then what difference does it make who and with what motive? (“Portrait,” 2009)” The two novels he wrote in exile in France following Azev’s betrayal suggest a man struggling with depression and disillusionment. The Pale Horse depicts a passionate, ruthless hero, but one who is not a true believer. The idealist in the group is shown with sympathy, but the narrator-protagonist is not driven by the same sense of righteousness – he is merely doing his job. David Footman refers to the novel as “Savinkov as Savinkov liked to see himself.” The second novel, That Which Was Not, is a miserable work that finds hope only at the end, in the wisdom of peasants and workers. Later at his trial, Savinkov admitted that he was a member of the SR, “though a bad one,” and this sense of disconnection readily comes though in his fictional work (Footman, 1958).
Savinkov found purpose at the outbreak of war in 1914, when he saw a new chance to fight for freedom and volunteered for the French army. He had fought against the oppressive regime of the tsar, and upon his return to Russia in 1917 he turned to fighting the oppressive regime of the Bolsheviks. He told Winston Churchill, “I know them well, Lenin and Trotsky. For years we worked hand in hand for the liberation of Russia. Now they have enslaved her worse than ever (Churchill, 1973).” His reputation led Prime Minister Kerenski of the Provisional Government to give him a post as the commissar of the 7th Army on the southwestern front and later to appoint him as the Assistant Minister of War. The SR was unhappy with his advancement, but by then he was too disappointed in them to care (Biggart, 1983). Even his comrades in the government were surprised by the appointment of the assassin to such a post, but no one could deny his abilities (Churchill, 1973).
Savinkov’s reputation and passion gave him the ability to restore order to the chaos of the front, even among those soldiers who had murdered their own officers. His organizational abilities soon had the administration repaired and the army was able to win a battle at Brzezany in July. After the disastrous battle at Tarnopol later that month Savinkov requested that the general, Gutor, be replaced by a popular commander named Kornilov. This tough, rigid, capable soldier seemed like the perfect compliment for the smart, scheming Savinkov. Together with Kerenski, they might have been able to keep Russia out of Bolshevik hands, but it was not to be (Churchill, 1973).
What came to be known as the Kornilov Affair is debated by historians. Some see it as an attempted coup, others as a terrible misunderstanding. According to Richard Pipes, paranoia of a right-wing takeover on Kerenski’s part led him to distrust Kornilov far more than he should have, and potentially set him up to appear as though he were attempting a dictatorial coup. Savinkov, then Kerenski’s Deputy Minister of War, saw the disconnect between the two men: “[Kornilov] loves freedom…but Russia comes for him first, and freedom second, while for Kerensky…freedom and revolution come first, and Russia second.” When Savinkov came to Kerenski with information that the Bolsheviks were going to support a German advance in September, Kerenski sent Kornilov to Petrograd and told him to impose martial law there to stamp out the uprising, an odd move on his part since he did not take the Bolshevik threat seriously. In fact, he may have been orchestrating Kornilov’s downfall (Pipes, 1995).
At this point, a conservative former Duma member named Vladimir Lvov stepped into the situation and created a perfect storm for Kornilov’s dismissal. He went back and forth between Kerenski and Kornilov telling each that he represented the other and driving a wedge between them. Savinkov suspected a misunderstanding when Kerenski thought Kornilov was demanding dictatorial power and begged the Prime Minister to talk to the general again, but by then he was demanding his own dictatorship to crush Kornilov’s imaginary coup. Meanwhile Kornilov advanced on Petrograd against an imaginary Bolshevik coup and asked for the city to be placed under martial law, in Kerenski’s mind confirming his fears. In the end, both men tried to motivate the Russian peasantry to rise up against the other. Kerenski had Kornilov charged with treason, despite Savinkov informing him of Lvov’s interference (Pipes, 1995).
The Kornilov affair alienated the Prime Minister from people on both ends of the political spectrum and benefitted the Bolsheviks immensely. Many of them were released from prison, they made huge gains in the municipal elections at the expense of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, they ended up with thousands of weapons that Kerenski himself had given them to help him defend Petrograd against Kornilov, and Kerenski lost the support of the military, who then did nothing to save him from the October Revolution (Pipes, 1995). For his part, Savinkov was given the post of Military Governor of Petrograd for all of three days before Kerenski dismissed him (Footman, 1958). When he was summoned before the SR Central Committee to account for his role in the affair, he didn’t even care about what they thought enough show up, ending his relationship with the party (“Portrait,” 2009). Other authors have characterized the Kornilov Affair as a failed mutiny (Florinsky, 1961; “Portrait, 2009) or a confusing result of the chaos of war (Churchill, 1973). According to John Biggart, Savinkov blamed Kerenski for betraying the army (Biggart, 1983).
Savinkov spent the rest of the Russian Civil War fighting with whichever counter-revolutionaries would have him. He joined a group of Cossacks in a failed attempt to take the Winter Palace from the Communists, a venture that might have changed everything had they been successful. Along with General Kornilov, he helped to establish the White Army. He tried and failed to found the Union for the Defense of the Motherland and Freedom (“Portrait,” 2009). Under General Alekseev, he recruited 5,000 officers and sought financial and political help for a unit of the White Army that was supposed to wait in Yaroslavl for the rest of the army to make their approach and then lead an uprising. It might have gone better had not the mistress of one of his officers betrayed them to the Cheka and gotten 100 people arrested and executed. Afraid of losing his men and short on cash, Savinkov made his move, taking Yaroslavl and two other nearby cities. He later claimed that the Allies had promised help and may have believed that success for his group would inspire a popular anti-Communist rebellion, but neither the help nor the rebellion ever came and the Communists took back Yaroslavl after sixteen days of fighting. Savinkov escaped, but 350 of his men were executed (Pipes, 1995). His books from this time suggest that he had fallen back into despair (“Portrait,” 2009).
Savinkov next participated in an anti-Bolshevik raid from Kazan under General Kappel before moving on to Omsk, where he fell in with Minister of War Kolchak and Avksentiev of the Omsk Directorate. By then his many failures kept him from any real responsibility. The Omsk authorities sent him as an envoy to Paris, where he worked with the British Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, to send British supplies back to Russia (Footman, 1958). He found himself quite popular among Russian émigrés in France, who seemed to have forgiven him for his past misdeeds as a terrorist as well as his role in the Kornilov Affair (“Portrait,” 2009).
In 1919, with the White Army defeated, Savinkov was invited to Warsaw to discuss the possibility of him raising army units comprised of Russian refugees living in Poland. At the outbreak of the Russo-Polish War and the failure of Ukrainian separatists to come to Poland’s assistance, he finally got the chance to organize his men. At this point in his life, Savinkov seems not to have found anyone worthy of his effort. He did not get along with anyone, did not like any of the possible commanders, wanted the Russian units to be independent even though Poland was footing the bill, treated his deputy Derenthal poorly, and there were even rumors about his relationship with Mrs. Derenthal. With an armistice signed while they were still in camp, the Russian units decided to fight alone. The Russian National Army of Liberation advanced to Mozyr before meeting Red opposition and was subsequently decimated in fighting that was nasty even against the atrocities of the Russian Civil War. Savinkov blamed the commanders that he had not liked in the first place (Footman, 1958).
With this final disappointment, Savinkov came the conclusion that the Bolsheviks could not be overthrown by an external force, but would have to be taken down from within, by the Russian workers and peasants he had praised a decade earlier in That Which Was Not. Even so, he kept fighting. He launched the Green Movement, which demanded the abolition of the Cheka, free elections in the Soviets, and the right to private property, in an attempt to unify opposition. He formed the Russian Political Center in Warsaw, and wanted a return to the use of assassination and sabotage. Financed by Poland and France, he recruited agents from what was left of the Russian National Army of Liberation and sent them into Russian territory, where they probably gathered some intelligence but never managed to whip up enough fervor among the peasantry for an uprising. A lack of loyalty and control among his agents resulted in double-crossing and banditry, and yet another failure. Finally, he was expelled from Poland at Russia’s request, and returned to France (Footman, 1958).
Ever the schemer, Savinkov kept in touch with his revolutionary organizations, talked with Mussolini, and visited Czechoslovakia. He wrote The Black Horse in 1923, about a disillusioned hero who kept fighting anyway. Lured back to Russia with the promise of an underground group there waiting for him to lead them, Savinkov was arrested at the border on August 20th, 1924. His trial, one which lacked the trappings typical of Soviet state trials, ended in the middle of the night on August 29th, and his death sentence was commuted to imprisonment that evening. He spent most of his trial describing his own disillusionment, but did manage to say that he had found that the Russian people liked the Soviet regime, despite not having seen or talked to any of them (Footman, 1958).
Imprisoned at Liubianka, Savinkov was kept comfortable with books, newspapers, visitors, and occasional car rides through the city. He continued writing short stories and open letters to his left-wing comrades, telling them that the Russian people were working hand-in-hand with the government to fix the problems with the regime. His friend Burstev, the man who had outed Azev as a double agent back in 1908, called him a liar. Soviet authorities announced Savinkov’s death five days after it had occurred, on May 12th, 1925 (Footman, 1958). They claimed he threw himself out of a prison window, but to this day no one knows if that is actually true. Many of his former SR comrades were now working for the Cheka, and could easily have gotten rid of him. It has even been claimed that he was murdered at the border in 1924 and everything else was staged (“Portrait,” 2009).
Savinkov’s trial and death created much controversy among his Russian émigré friends. Some kept faith with him, but others believed that he had set everything up with the Soviets himself before his return and considered him a traitor. According to David Footman, the precarious position of the Soviets in the 1920s would have led them to seek the cooperation of men like Savinkov. If they could get him, someone so central to the counter-revolutionary cause, to turn on his friends, it would help solidify their situation. Burstev wrote that Savinkov probably never believed the promises of acquittal and government jobs that were being made in exchange for his confession and support, but thought himself crafty enough to outwit the Soviet authorities, if he played his cards right. For their part, the Soviets did not believe a word he said either, so his plans failed one last time (Footman, 1958).
Opinions of Savinkov’s life differ. British agents who knew him during and after the revolution had an intense admiration for him. Winston Churchill thought highly enough of him to include an essay on him in Great Contemporaries, saying “…few men tried more, gave more, dared more and suffered more for the Russian people (Churchill, 1973).” R.H. Bruce Lockhart called him “the famous Social-Revolutionary.” Savinkov visited Lockhart in Prague in the company of another Brit, Sidney Reilly, the two of them scheming together to bring down the Bolsheviks (Lockhart, 1934). Likewise Oliver Radkey, an American writing about them later, thought the true believers among the SR terrorists to be brave, hard-working souls with a difficult task (Radkey, 1958). The Polish-American historian Richard Pipes called him “efficient and courageous (Pipes, 1995).” On the other hand, Russian Life magazine, controlled by Russian Information Services, calls him “a disillusioned decadent who had seen and done so many awful things in his life (“Portrait,” 2009).”
Boris Savinkov was instrumental in the effort to depose the tsar, and had he succeeded in any of his many ventures against the Bolsheviks, he might have changed the history of the world. He was influential enough among counter-revolutionaries for the Soviet authorities to set an elaborate trap for him. Today, he is viewed as either a courageous patriot or a bloodthirsty killer, depending on the writer’s feelings about Russia and Communism. In a meeting recounted by Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister Lloyd George said he believed the worst of the Communist revolution to be over and that the Bolshevik regime would soon collapse. “’Mr. Prime Minister,’ said Savinkov in his formal way, ‘you will permit me the honour of observing that after the fall of the Roman Empire there ensued The Dark Ages (Churchill, 1973).’” Given the problems encountered by Eastern European and Central Asian countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union, maybe he was right.
Biggart, John, “Savinkov, Boris Viktorovich,” in The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History, Vol. 33, Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1983, 113-16 (available in some academic/library settings)
Churchill, Winston S., “Boris Savinkov,” in Great Contemporaries, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1973, 125-33
Florinsky, Michael T., M.A., Ph.D., ed, “Savinkov, Boris Viktorovich,” in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1st ed, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1961, 496-97
Footman, David, “Boris V. Savinkov: 1879-1925,” in History Today, February 1958: 73-8 (requires membership/subscription)
Lockhart, R.H. Bruce, Retreat From Glory, New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1934
Pipes, Richard, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, 1st ed, New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, 130-132
“Portrait of a terrorist: Boris Savinkov (born January 19, 1879),” in Russian Life, 2009, 24, Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost: 24-25 (requires membership/subscription)
Radkey, Oliver Henry, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism: Promise and Default of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries February to October 1917, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1958.