Admiral Kolchak Trans-Siberian Railroad Photo Gallery Further Reading Maps
In the aftermath of the revolutionary changes that took place in Petrograd and Moscow between the Trotsky government and the Lenin led Bolsheviks aftershocks ripped through the Russian empire leading to massive political and economic change. The complexity of life and politics in Siberia, not to mention the harsh terrain and weather, made the urban revolution simple in comparison. The anti-Bolshevik or White counter-revolutionary Russian forces were led by the Kolchak government. In their ill-fated struggle to preserve a monarchy that had already failed, the White forces involved not only Russians, Czechs, and the diverse population of Siberia but several nations from around the world. The Russian civil war spread from Petrograd eastward along the Trans-Siberian railway through Siberia. Along the way it encountered resistance from Allied soldiers, Czech prisoners of war, White resistance, and internal Bolshevik struggles.
To understand how the civil war spread through Siberia, some things must be known about the land between the Ural Mountains and the Pacific Ocean and the border of China/Mongolia and the Arctic Ocean. Siberia is larger than most countries and considerably less populated. It covers more than 5 million square miles and makes up more than 3/4 of Russias total land mass. Although Siberia is popularly known for the political prisoners and criminals exiled there, the largest population group at the time was made up of Slavic peasants. From 1885 to 1914 more than 4 million of them settled in the south along the main transportation routes. The Trans-Siberian railway connects the major industrial centers. It runs from Moscow, through Samara, Omsk, Krasnoirsk, and Irkutsk. Around the massive Lake Bakal, through Chita, into Manchuria and through the town of Harbin and terminates at the cosmopolitan port city of Vladivstok.
Plans for the Trans-Siberian railway were first drawn up in 1857 and given to the Czar. For the next twenty years numerous men took up the cause of the railway without success. The prohibitive cost of construction to a poor Russia and the formidable task of the railway itself ensured that no progress was made. Russia did not have enough rails to connect its mining, manufacturing and urban centers and priority had to go to its vital interests. The first real step was taken in 1873 when the Ural Railway Company was established to link iron and coal rich Ural mines with Central Russia. Now that the borders of the Russian frontier had been reached, planning began in earnest for the Trans-Siberian railway. Government study groups and committees - - and sub-committees - - discussed the matter at great length. The Czars empire did not have limitless assess to funds, so budget cutting measures were discussed. Lighter and cheaper rails, wooden bridges instead of stone, and limited traffic with restrictive speed limits were bandied about. The death of Alexander II and subsequent succession of Alexander III as Czar kicked the project into high gear. He knew that Siberia was at the mercy of strong Asiatic powers if there wasnt a reliable communication and transportation system linking the empire with Siberia.
Guarding the frontier was one of the major reasons for the railroad and would now be even more important as the new railroad would increase the value of the area. With the completed railway, immigrants would not be subject to the dangers, uncertainties and rigors of the open road. Cities and villages could be planned along the rail line both to increase settlement and for protection. With this in mind, the government encouraged Cossack communities to settle in vital areas and granted concessions of land to villages. This eastward expansion was quite different from Americas Westward expansion. Migration was limited to those people the government found acceptable - - Siberia was not to be a new home of the free. Terrain and weather set other limitations for the line. It needed to follow close to the natural resources of the Urals and connect the existing settlements. It could not be built too far north, in the heaviest marshes and swamps, nor could it be built in the large forested regions. In the final decision the railroad would be built to follow the traditional tract or carriage and sleigh route of Siberia.
Full time construction on the Trans-Siberian Railway began in 1881. Similar to Americas 1867 Trans-Continental Railroad, the Trans-Siberian started construction at both ends and worked towards the center. From Vladivstok the railway was laid north along the right bank of the Ussuri River to Khabarovsk at the Amur River becoming the Ussuri railway. Convict labor, from Sakhalin Island and other places, and Russian soldiers were drafted into railway-building service. Problems were met and overcome, although more often than not Russian engineers would by-pass obstacles rather than engineer their way through them. One of the largest obstacles was Lake Baikal, some forty-one miles east from the Irkutsk station. Lake Baikal is about the size of Switzerland. It is more than 400 miles long and almost 6,000 feet deep. The train line ended on each side of the lake and a special icebreaker ferryboat was purchased from England. The boat was disassembled, transported over the long distance to Lake Baikal, and reassembled with what few parts were not lost or stolen. It was much easier in the winter months to use one of Siberias hard surface highways, the hard ice of the lake. Sleighs were used to move passengers and cargo from one side of the lake to the other until the completion of the Lake Bakal spur along the southern edge of the lake. With the completion of the Amur River line north of the Chinese border in 1916, there was a continuous railway from Petrograd to Vladivostok that remains to this day the worlds longest railway line.
The importance of the Trans-Siberian railway can not be under emphasized. Control of the railroad meant control of the only major logistics and communication line. It also meant access to massive stockpiles of munitions, food, fuel, coal, and other war supplies that the Allied shipping had stockpiled in the ports of both Archangel and Vladivstok. At the end of 1914, there was over 330,000 tons of coal alone sitting in Archangel. US War Department estimates of the tonnage of supplies sitting in Vladivstok are 400,000 tons of steel, copper, brass, lead, barbed wire, rails, automobiles and trucks, machine tools, and munitions, all worth over $1 billion. It can best be visualized with a description of someone who was there. One of the officers, Mr. Ole A. Bjonerud kept a diary of his experiences. He wrote, "warehouses were loaded to the roof and large piles of supplies piled outside sheltered from the weather by tarpaulins. Some of those supplies have been here for over two years awaiting movement over the Trans-Siberian Railroad." After the Tsars government fell, the US promptly recognized the new pro-western Provisional Government and extended a $100 million credit to them for purchase of supplies, set aside huge stocks of railway material for shipment to Russia, and sent John F. Stevens, a distinguished railroad engineer, and several other prominent railroad operators and engineers to Russia to assist in their operations. Stevens spent several months in Russia studying the railroads between Petrograd and Vladivstok. They reported that almost all of the equipment was outdated, in poor repair, and poorly managed; but the lines themselves were in surprisingly good condition. The November revolution prevented him from inspecting the northern lines between Moscow and Archangel When American troops arrive they discovered that the single-track, narrow-gauge railroad to Archangel was primitive by any standard. One soldier, a Wisconsin railroader before enlisting, complained that Russias railway system hadnt changed since the days when Noah built the Ark.
In September 1917, the Provisional Government asked the US for help in maintaining the Trans-Siberian railway. Three hundred men from American railway companies were selected to form the Russian Railway Service Corps. It was directed by the general manager of the Great Northern Railway, George Emerson. All the men were given Army commissions for the essentially non-military project, but were not really considered part of the regular Army. Ole Bjonerud wrote in his diary on December 17, 1917, "Owing to a lack of a staple [sic] government, the prospect of our landing and starting to work is doubtful." Seeing the chaos in Vladivostok when they arrived, Emerson made the decision to sail for Nagasaki, Japan and wait for calmer political conditions.
In February 1918, they began their return to Siberia, setting up headquarters in Harbin. The team started inspecting the railway in late May in Vladivostok. They covered the railway to Petrograd and other lines. After seeing the overall condition of the lines, the conclusion was made that the Trans-Siberian was the only usable railway into Russia from the outside world. Years of war had weighed heavily on the railway and the equipment. Locomotives were worn, fuel was poor, and brakes often failed. Benjamin Rhodes quotes John Stevens in his article The Anglo-American Railroad War at Archangel, 1918-1919 as characterizing the trains as "strings of matchboxes coupled with hairpins and drawn by samovars." Most of the trains used in Russia were constructed in the United States back in the 1860s and 70s. One of the two manufacturing companies, Baldwin, claimed in 1902 to have sent a total of 419 locomotives to Russia. The other, Grant, had shipped 22 of an order of 64 in 1874, but went bankrupt soon after loosing almost $300,000 when Russia canceled the order. Locomotives were also built in Petrograd in the mid-1840s and near Moscow in the early 1900s
The Inter-Allied Railway Agreement was the result of chaotic conditions along the railway and tensions caused by the Allied Intervention and the civil war, not to mention the Czech control over a large portion of the railway. In November 1918, the US developed a plan for a commission that would operate the railway until the Russians were able to resume control. The commission was composed of representatives from each allied government participating in the Siberian intervention and headed by John Stevens. Faced with increasing partisan activity, the plan was implemented in April 1919. Three of the Allies, the US, Japan, and China were given a sector of the Trans-Siberian railroad to guard.
The Czech legion was formed of thousands of Czech and Slovak who had been fighting along side the Russian Army against the Austrians and Hungarians on the southwestern front. With the disintegration of the Army and the outbreak of civil war, the legion was ordered to evacuate from the Ukraine to Vladivstok. Allied ships were scheduled to transport them to England so they could be redeployed on the Western front. The Moscow government expedited their movement Eastward until, as part of the peace process with Germany, Berlin demanded that the Czechs be sent out of Russia through Archangel instead of Vladivstok. Over 12,000 Czechs had already reached Vladivstok by April 21, 1918 when Moscow sent out instructions to stop the eastbound legion. Forty-five thousand armed Czech legionaries were ordered to stop along the rail lines by local soviets, but instead fought eastward seizing railway stations along the way. The overthrow of soviet rule allowed local peasant cooperatives and town dumas to reestablish themselves.
The peasants were never asked their opinion of Kolchaks government. If they had been the result would have been like the comments recorded by Anton Zakharovich Ovchinnikov, a drafted member of the First Czech Volunteer Regiment. His regiment was in the village of Talovskoe, near the Trans-Siberian Railroad, for rest and reorganization. He states that where there had been no fighting, the peasants had only rumor that there was fighting somewhere beyond the Urals. Peasants in the village asked him, " Who is that man Kolchak or whatever his name is, and what does he want? the soldiers have told us that he was against the Reds, but he wants Russia to have a Tsar again."
Grass-roots sentiment led a few hundred poorly trained boys to start an army of partisans. These secret partisan detachments were dominated by Bolshevik members although several were independent. All were related by a common cause, Kolchaks defeat. Partisan support was not universal and grew slowly at first. Villages with strong sectarian and Cossack populations stayed aloof from the movement, but villages around the Suchan mines and hamlets from the Olga and Iman areas provided a steady number of recruits. The overall numbers stayed low during the first few cold months of 1918 but dramatically went up during February and March 1919. White Russians had been raiding many settlements and the word was getting around. Cossack bands rode into villages beating, abducting, torturing, and murdering villagers. Friends and relatives of loved ones killed by the rampaging bands became instant converts for the Red partisans. A US Army Intelligence officer remarked that "a lot of people who did not necessarily coincide with Bolshevik beliefs, and did not necessarily coincide with the other forces, were obliged to take one of those two sides because the only two military forces existing were of the two extremes."
Colonel C. H. Morrow, the commander of the 27th Infantry Regiment, heard reports that Generals Semenov and Kalmykov were indiscriminately killing people up and down the railway line. He dispatched investigation teams to determine the validity of persistent rumors and reports that it was the Cossacks committing the atrocities. One teams investigation near the village of Bobinka collected considerable evidence that one of Semenovs commanders, General Levitsky had gone on a bloody rampage. In his report lieutenant E. Davis wrote that there were "a dozen corpses with their hands cut off lying in a heap." He went on to describe that many showed that they had been burned while still alive. None of the numerous saber cuts on all the bodies "proved to be immediately fatal." One of the bloodiest raids took place in the spring of 1919. General Ivanov-Rinovs forces attacked a village using among other weapons, heavy artillery from one of the Destroyer trains. Destroyer trains were heavily armored trains. Provisions were made in each railcar for small firing slots for rifles while 1 or 2 flatbed cars were modified to have a armor protected artillery piece. One of the shells hit a schoolhouse, killing the teacher and 27 of the children inside. The armored trains ran up and down the railway at the whim of the White Russian officer in charge. The crew or sometimes local officials would arrest someone and bring them aboard the train where they could be whipped, tortured, or taken somewhere they could be shot. The charge of suspected Bolshevik was incapable of being disapproved.
After Kolchaks capture in January 1920 he was thoroughly interrogated by a committee in Irkutsk. The committee was originally formed by the Social Revolutionist-Menshevik Political Center which later became a Cheka under the Revolutionary Committee who preserved the record. During the process, Kolchak was asked how many persons were shot in the village of Kulomzine. Kolchak responded, "About seventy or eighty persons." Charges that he knew of mass floggings and torture were then denied. He was asked about the activities of Semenov. Semenov was considered by General Graves to be a "murderer, robber and a most dissolute scoundrel." Kolchak described Semenovs duties as simply guard duty with no police duties. When questioned as to why Semenovs detachment assumed the functions of police, made arrests, and abducted and murdered people, Kolchak responded that "abductions occurred all the time." He went on to say that the detachments "in a wholly arbitrary fashion...inspected trains, and when they found someone who in their opinion was party to Bolshevism, or suspected of it, they arrested that person." Those people arrested were "dealt with entirely as they pleased" by the detachments.
This is not to say that only the White forces were committing atrocities. Professor John Stephen explains in The Russian Far East, White atrocities were more visible to American forces and because the victors write the history books. Red Russian atrocities were purged from the records. Even the allied forces are not free from the charge of atrocities. The Japanese were observed arresting five Russians without cause, marching them to a shallow grave site, and ceremonially decapitating them with his sword. On one occasion they leveled an undefended village using artillery. There are unconfirmed reports from the Soviets that American forces committed numerous brutal raids, leveling several villages, tortured and murdered pregnant women, and beat newspaper editors. While the Soviet report, published in 1945, may have been purely for political purposes there is at least some evidence that American forces attacked non-combatants near Kazanka in revenge for an attack near the village of Romanovka on the Trans-Siberian railway where several hundred Americans from the 31st Infantry were killed or injured. The US forces would later name the battle the "Romanovka Massacre." It was the bloodiest day for the US during its stay in Siberia. Of the 74 men in the unit, 23 were killed or died of wounds and 20 were injured. After these battles, General Graves reported in a letter to General Harris, the Adjutant General in Washington D. C. that it had now become "bitter guerrilla warfare. The 31st Infantrys Regimental History records that the battle of Kazanka was against some 300 well concealed partisan defenders and snipers. A 37mm cannon was used to shell the Bolshevik headquarters before the American soldiers entered the town. Once in the town fierce street fighting took place. It is unlikely, from a military standpoint, that from the light casualties (1 killed in action and 2 wounded) inflicted on 3 companies of infantry soldiers that they faced the number of armed opponents the history claims. Undoubtedly, they faced some armed resistance although the actual number of the enemy has been inflated over the years to make the battle look more impressive.
At one point General Kalmykovs (he and General Seminov were Kolchaks right hand men) atrocities went so far that a regiment of Cossacks killed their officers and surrendered to US soldiers in Khabarovsk. When asked what they were doing, they replied that they had mutinied and would prefer to" die fighting in the streets" if they had to serve under Kalmykov or any of his officers again. In an eyewitness account written in a letter to the 27th Infantrys commander in 1971, Nick Hociota of the 27th Infantry states that the Cossacks were disarmed, fed, and given firewood while officers decided what to do with them. While there is little doubt that Hociota was indeed part of the regiment at the time, his letter does vary both in details and the broad issues from the official regimental history. The letter puts Kalmykov arriving 3-4 hours after dark with 2,500 Cossacks, and after a stand-off, Colonel Morrow turned over to him all the arms and horses that the rebels brought with them. The regiments history is less dramatic. Five-hundred deserters (the number increased to 800 in the next two days) were disarmed and conducted to Krasnays-Retchka on February 1st. An assembly of the sixth Ussuri Cossack Krug or citizens committee conducted investigations into the matter. In mid-March it disbanded without making a decision and the deserters departed for their homes, taking their horses with them. The arms were claimed by Japan who reported they had supplied them to Kalmykov. The end result of both stories is the same, Kalmykov turned on the Americans and the relationship between the US and White forces degraded further.
Kolchaks army was beset by individual greed, poor generalship, sheer banditry, and widespread insubordination. In April 1919, Kolchak decreed that all captured "Red" soldiers or deserters would be given retraining and incorporated into the White army. In practice, he allowed mass executions, torture, and inhumane treatment. Jonathan Smele relates several instances in his book, Civil War in Siberia. In one instance, observed by British officers, starving prisoners from the 3d Red Army were summarily executed as Bolsheviks. Other units were stripped and thrown into overcrowded concentration camps. Abuse, overcrowding, cold, and typhus soon killed off but a few. Undoubtedly the White leadership could have used many of these men in their own army. Even during the White retreat in May-June 1919, the officers continued their wholesale slaughter. Thousands were put on Trains of Death and spent months traversing up and down the Trans-Siberian railway. The few that survived months of this treatment were executed by White officers as they commandeered every train they could escaping the advancing Red Army.
The fall of the White forces and the Kolchak government could have been predicted from the beginning. They represented all that was unpopular with the regime of the Monarchy. The Whites did not have the industrial capacity or the population base to fight a war, even though there was a massive supply of war goods sitting right in their own back yard. Widespread corruption, brutality, greed, and incompetence in Kolchaks government and the White Army ensured that the support of the people would not be forthcoming. The government in Moscow had been correct in its fears of armed Czechs in its country. If the Czech Legion had not seized the Trans-Siberian railway when they revolted against the mistreatment by the Bolshevik government- - and to a lesser extent the intervention by the allies, the White government would never have been formed and the domination of Lenin and the Soviet would have been unopposed.
Much Ado About Nothing: Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War
World War I Document Archive Kolchak
Admiral Kolchak Trans-Siberian Railroad Photo Gallery Further Reading Maps