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It is the clear and fixed judgment of the Government of the United States … that military intervention there would add to the present sad confusion in Russia rather than cure it, injure her rather than help her, and that it would be of no advantage in the prosecution of our main design, to win the war against Germany. It cannot, therefore, take part in such intervention or sanction it in principle. Military intervention would, in its judgment, even supposing it to be efficacious in its immediate avowed object of delivering an attack upon Germany from the east, be merely a method of making use of Russia, not a method of serving her. Her people could not profit by it, if they profited by it at all, in time to save them from their present distresses, and their substance would be to maintain foreign armies, not to reconstitute their own. Military action is admissible in Russia … only to help the Czechoslovaks consolidate their forces … and to steady any efforts at self-government or self-defense in which the Russians themselves may be willing to accept assistance.148

These instructions suffered from an obvious contradiction inasmuch as the mere presence of U.S. troops in areas controlled by anti-Communist forces involved them in the Russian Civil War. Nevertheless, Graves would persevere in the effort to maintain the strictest neutrality and to function purely as a technical expert in a region where the contending parties were fighting for their very lives. He and his government received little gratitude for this behavior, the Bolsheviks treating the Americans as hostile interventionists and the Whites regarding them as Bolshevik sympathizers. Graves by his own admission knew nothing of Russia or Siberia, into which he writes he had been “pitch-forked,” and he had scant idea what the Civil War was about: he felt “no prejudice against any Russian faction.” After landing in Vladivostok, he was appalled to learn that the British and French actually sought to destroy the Bolsheviks, whom he understood to be Russians opposed to the restoration of autocracy.149

Until the spring of 1919, American troops in Siberia carried out ordinary garrison duties: subsequently, they assumed responsibility for the operations of the Transsiberian Railroad between Lake Baikal and the sea. U.S. transportation experts, originally invited by the Provisional Government, undertook, by the terms of an agreement concluded in March 1919, to maintain Siberia’s railroads “for the Russians” regardless of whether they were Bolsheviks or anti-Bolsheviks. Graves announced publicly that no distinction would be drawn among the passengers (they would be carried “irrespective of persons … or politics”) or the destinations of freight.150 This sounded as if the Americans were prepared to transport Bolshevik partisans and their equipment, which astounded the British and infuriated the Whites. Whatever his professions of impartiality, Graves intensely disliked Kolchak’s government, believing it to be made up of incorrigible reactionaries and monarchists. On the Bolsheviks, whom he had never encountered, he kept an open mind (“I was never able to determine who was a Bolshevik or why he was a Bolshevik”151).

Kolchak conceived his role in strictly military terms. He believed that Russia had been brought to her sorry state by the collapse of her army and would rise again only by the army’s intercession: the army for him was the heart of Russia.152 As he told the Bolshevik commission of inquiry after his arrest:

I did not intend to make any sweeping, complicated reforms, because I regarded my power as temporary.… The country needed victory at any cost, and every effort had to be exerted to secure it. I had absolutely no definite political objectives; I should not side with any parties, should not aim at restoring anything old, but should try only to create an army of the regular type, since I believed that only such an army could gain victories.153

On assuming power, Kolchak issued a succinct declaration:

On November 18, 1918, the All-Russian Provisional Government fell apart. The Council of Ministers assumed full authority and transferred it to me, Alexander Kolchak, Admiral of the Russian Navy. Assuming the cross of this authority in the exceptionally difficult condition of Civil War and the complete disintegration of political life, I declare:

I shall take neither the path of reaction nor the ruinous course of party politics [partanost’]. My principal objective is to create an army capable of combat, victory over Bolshevism, and the introduction of legality and the rule of law, which will make it possible for the nation to choose for itself, unhindered, the kind of government it desires and to realize the great ideals of freedom that have now been proclaimed throughout the world.

I call you, citizens, to unity, to the struggle against Bolshevism, to work, and to sacrifices.154

On November 28 Kolchak acknowledged Russia’s obligation for her foreign debts and pledged repayment.155 On another occasion he stated that he considered himself bound by all the commitments and laws of the Provisional Government of 1917.156 Beyond this he would not go. In common with the other White leaders, he believed that political and social manifestos, especially in a country as contentious as Russia, unnecessarily complicated the task of fighting the Bolsheviks: “only the armed forces, only the army, can save us,” he told the officers on assuming command. “All else should be subordinated to its interests and its mission.”157

The Supreme Ruler of Eastern Russia and Siberia was born in 1873 into a military family.158 He pursued a military career as well, enrolling in the Naval Academy. He took part in three Arctic expeditions in the course of which he displayed notable courage, earning the sobriquet “Kolchak-Poliarnyi”—“Kolchak of the [North] Pole.” He fought at Port Arthur against the Japanese, following which he accepted appointment to the Naval General Staff. During World War I he served in the Baltic until 1916, when he was promoted to command the Black Sea Fleet: his mission was to prepare and lead a naval expedition against Constantinople and the Straits planned for the following year. In the summer of 1917 the Provisional Government sent him on a mission to the United States. His return was disrupted by the Bolshevik coup. He tried to get back to Russia by way of the Far East. In Japan he met General Knox, on whom he made a powerful impression: the English general thought he had “more grit, pluck and honest patriotism than any Russian in Siberia.”159 After the conclusion of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, which he viewed as the beginning of Russia’s subjugation by Germany, Kolchak offered his services to the British Army. He was at first assigned to Mesopotamia and was en route there when his English superiors changed their minds (almost certainly on the recommendation of Knox) and asked him to return to East Asia. He spent the early months of 1918 in Manchuria in charge of security of the Chinese Eastern Railway. In October 1918, traveling to the Don to join Denikin’s forces, he was passing through Omsk when General Boldyrev invited him to take over the Directory’s Ministry of War.

7. Kolchak.

Kolchak had admirable qualities: he was a man of great integrity, of proven courage, of selfless patriotism—in many ways, along with Wrangel, the most honorable White commander in the Civil War. Whether he had the traits required of a leader in such a war is another matter. For one, he was a complete stranger to politics: by his own admission, he had grown up in a military milieu and had “hardly interested himself in any political problems and questions.” He saw himself simply as a “military technician.”160 As he stated in the declaration of November 18, he regarded his new duties as a “cross.” To his wife, he complained of the “terrifying burden of Supreme Power” and confessed that as “a fighting man [he was] reluctant to face the problems of statecraft.”161 Politically untutored, he sought simplistic conspiratorial explanations for contemporary events: his favorite reading is said to have been the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.*