The Bloody Spectacle: On Vladimir Alexandrov’s “To Break Russia’s Chains”

December 18, 2021   •   By Douglas Smith

To Break Russia’s Chains: Boris Savinkov and His Wars Against the Tsar and the Bolsheviks

Vladimir Alexandrov

SHORTLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT on May 7, 1925, a body fell from a fifth-floor window of the Lubyanka, the Moscow headquarters of the OGPU, the Soviet secret police, smashing onto the pavement below. The man died instantly. The back of his skull had been crushed. Several days later, Pravda published a brief notice on the incident but made little of the affair, even though the deceased, Boris Savinkov, had for years been the Soviet Union’s enemy number one. The death of Savinkov marked the sad end to one of the more remarkable lives in an era of remarkable lives. Beyond his mistress, his family, and a few remaining friends, however, no one mourned his death. To the Russian émigré community in the West, Savinkov died a traitor and a turncoat. To his Soviet captors, Savinkov died a spent force, a superfluous shadow.

For nearly a century, the figure of Savinkov has occasioned all manner of debate and speculation. This implacable foe of both the tsars and the Bolsheviks left no one indifferent, and his historical significance remains contested. In this latest biography, To Break Russia’s Chains, Vladimir Alexandrov, an emeritus professor of Slavic literature at Yale University and the author of several books, portrays Savinkov as a man who “dedicated his entire life to fighting to make Russia into a free, democratic republic.” In his foreword, Alexandrov writes that the path from Romanov autocracy through Soviet totalitarianism and on to Putin’s authoritarianism had never been preordained. A different historical trajectory had been possible, notably the one to which Savinkov had devoted his life, that of “transforming his homeland into a uniquely democratic, humane, and enlightened country.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Russia ever could have become a true democracy at any point in its troubled history, it is safe to say, pace Alexandrov, that such a transformation never could have been brought about by Boris Savinkov. Days before his death, Savinkov wrote in his diary: “In essence, I defined my entire life not by family and personal happiness, but by what is called ‘an idea.’ Even if I took the wrong path with this ‘idea,’ no one can reproach me that I was trying to secure personal welfare.” Alexandrov doesn’t elaborate on what this “idea” was, but based on what he lays out in his thorough and detailed study it is best expressed by a single word: murder.

Born in 1879 into the hereditary nobility, Savinkov grew up in Warsaw, where he attended an elite gymnasium. Drawn to radical politics at a young age, he was arrested for the first time in 1897 for his involvement in student protests. In 1901, he was arrested again and exiled to Vologda. It was here, surrounded by other exiled revolutionaries, that Savinkov made the decision that would determine the course of his life. Protests and agitation, he concluded, would never bring down the tsarist state. For that, only one thing would work: terror. The following year, he joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party and after further trouble with the authorities escaped to Switzerland. Savinkov impressed the leadership of the SRs in Geneva, and by 1904 he was back in Russia in charge of a plot to assassinate Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve. After a botched initial attempt, Savinkov and his co-conspirators managed to blow the minister to pieces with a bomb as he drove through the streets of St. Petersburg.

Savinkov returned to a hero’s welcome in Geneva. He was made the second-in-command of the “Combat Organization,” the SRs’ terrorist outfit, under its powerful, and later notorious, chief, Evno Azef, who was secretly working for the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police. Savinkov was soon in Russia again for an even bigger job: the murder of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the tsar’s uncle. In early 1905, Savinkov’s team of assassins managed to blow his body to pieces as well.

Thrilled by this success and energized by the revolutionary violence shaking Russia that year, Savinkov could not believe it when the Socialist Revolutionary Party decided to renounce terror and disband the Combat Organization. A life without terrorism was unimaginable. “In my soul there is darkness. I have no desires. Almost indifference to everything,” he wrote. The only answer for such emotional pain was more killing.

By the end of 1905, Savinkov had returned to Russia. He planned several terrorist operations, all of which failed. Never one to be deterred, he kept on. Together with Azef, he relaunched the Combat Organization and devoted himself to further assassinations over the next several years, culminating with a plot to murder Tsar Nicholas II in 1908. None of Savinkov’s plans succeeded, however, in part because Azef kept tipping off the authorities. Suspicion of Azef had been growing for years before he was outed as an Okhrana agent in May 1908. The SR leaders were stunned. At first, no one wanted to believe it — especially Savinkov, who had been totally taken in by Azef. Once he opened his eyes to the truth, Savinkov wanted to kill Azef with his own hands, but before he could, Azef had made his escape. The entire affair is indicative of a major flaw in Savinkov’s makeup: he was a horrible judge of character. It was a flaw that would cost him his life.

The intervening years leading up to the revolution of 1917 found Savinkov adrift in Europe. He tried his hand at fiction, publishing a mediocre novel, gambled, and frequented the racetrack. “I am possessed by one of the worst demons: the demon of boredom,” he wrote at the time. Booze became his preferred weapon in the struggle with the demon. “All his efforts and sacrifice,” Alexandrov comments, “had come to nothing.”

Overjoyed at the fall of the monarchy, Savinkov arrived in Russia in early April 1917. Just as he had misjudged terrorism’s power to bring down the autocracy, Savinkov now misjudged the fast-evolving mood in the country. As the mass of peasant soldiers were becoming disillusioned with years of fighting, Savinkov threw himself into the war effort, fully convinced that the primary task facing Russia was the defeat of the Central Powers. He was appointed commissar of the 7th Army on the Southwestern Front, determined to raise the troops’ fighting spirit. For the first time in his life Savinkov was introduced to the Russian peasant. He was shocked: before him he saw nothing but a sea of “impenetrable darkness.”

As the front crumbled, Savinkov demanded the return of capital punishment in the army. When this failed to do the trick, he campaigned for martial law and the death penalty to civilian personnel on the home front. He quickly came to believe that only a strong man could save the day. Convinced of his own historic role, Savinkov tried to put together a dictatorial triumvirate of Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky, commander-in-chief General Lavr Kornilov, and himself to save Russia and the revolution. Meanwhile, just as Savinkov was badmouthing Kerensky behind his back as a do-nothing “phrasemonger,” the prime minister was, in fact, deftly using Savinkov to help bring down Kornilov and seize even greater authority. No sooner had Kerensky dispatched Kornilov than he fired Savinkov.

In a rare moment of honesty, Savinkov admitted he had been a fool. His downfall was the result of his having been “stubbornly and truthfully stupid.” Alexandrov puts it well: “As in his involvement with Azef, he once again became the unwitting tool of someone else’s machinations.”

W. Somerset Maugham met Savinkov in Petrograd that August. “The deliberation of his speech, the impressive restraint of his manner, suggested a determined will which made his ruthlessness comprehensible,” he wrote decades later.

I have never come across anyone who filled me with a greater sense of confidence. […] Boris Savinkov might easily have become a man of tremendous authority in Russia; I do not know whether he failed owing to some defect in his character or because the circumstances of the time were such that no man could have altered the course of events. There is no more sometimes than the trembling of a leaf between success and failure.

It’s an arresting image, that trembling leaf, but in Savinkov’s case it’s misplaced. The defect in his character ensured that the leaf always trembled in the direction of failure.

Savinkov was among the first to try to resist the Bolshevik coup in October. He rallied a group of Cossacks to defend the Winter Palace, but, as always, his plans foundered, and he was forced to flee south to join up with the White resistance. He created the Union for the Defense of the Motherland and Freedom, which by June 1918 counted a force of over 5,000 men. His plan was to unleash uprisings in a few key cities, assassinate the entire Bolshevik leadership, and then establish a military dictatorship. But the Cheka, as the early Soviet secret police were known at the time, had already infiltrated the Union and were aware of its plans. Red Army forces easily crushed rebellions in Rybinsk and Yaroslavl that summer. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Savinkov’s rebels were executed. “As is often the case,” Savinkov remarked, “what happened was the exact opposite of what we expected.” Reading that, one can’t but recall the famous words of the late politician Viktor Chernomyrdin after yet another government snafu in the 1990s: “We tried our best, you know the rest.”

Savinkov’s ill-advised adventure angered the leaders of the anti-Bolshevik forces. Determined to get him out of the way, they gave Savinkov a pile of money and packed him off to Paris (“a kind of honorable exile,” in Alexandrov’s estimation) to act as the representative of the Ufa Directory, then the main anti-Bolshevik movement. His authority was symbolic, but this did not stop him from putting on airs, what Alexandrov describes as “evidence of his fondness for empty posturing.” He set himself up in luxury, hired servants, dressed in a tuxedo, and went about presenting himself as “General Savinkov” and Russia’s “Acting Minister of War.”

Savinkov shifted his focus to the Allies in the hope of fashioning an international anti-Bolshevik crusade. The only politician willing to listen was Winston Churchill, who shared his love of violence for political ends. The two met on several occasions in 1919, during which Savinkov managed to win Churchill over to his plan for a massive military intervention to topple the Soviet regime. The government of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, however, refused to endorse their plans. Following failed attempts to foment peasant uprisings in Russia and unleash a new campaign of terror via an underground cell in Moscow, Savinkov next pinned his hopes on Europe’s latest strong man, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, whom he met in Lugano in March 1922.

“Fascism is close to me psychologically and ideologically,” Savinkov wrote two years later.

Psychologically — because it stands for action and total effort in comparison to the lack of will and the starry-eyed idealism of parliamentary democracy; ideologically — because it stands on a national platform and at the same time is deeply democratic because it relies on the peasantry.

The quote is revealing as to Savinkov’s true political credo, and it’s rather surprising that Alexandrov quotes it here in his book. These are not the words of a man committed to freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Mussolini heard Savinkov out but ignored his suggestion to take part in some vaguely defined anticommunist “Nationalist International.”

After yet another failed assassination attempt by Savinkov, this time on the life of Commissar of Foreign Affairs Georgy Chicherin, who was on an official visit to Europe, the Soviet government decided it had had enough. Savinkov had to be stopped for good. The secret police put together an operation dubbed “Syndicate-2” in the spring of 1922. Carefully conceived and brilliantly executed, the plan was to feed Savinkov disinformation via undercover agents about an anti-Soviet organization known as the “Liberal Democrats,” which, though growing in size and potential, found its members divided and in search of a leader. “Syndicate-2” spoke to Savinkov’s vanity and ego, and he swallowed the bait. In April 1924, Savinkov informed his handlers that he was ready to be smuggled into the Soviet Union and take charge of the Liberal Democrats. Terrorism, he told them, was still his preferred tactic, and he presented a list of five targets, which included Mikhail Kalinin, the official head of state, and Joseph Stalin.

Savinkov’s friends could not believe his stupidity. Vladimir Burtsev, who had played the decisive role in outing Azef years before, was dumbfounded and tried to talk Savinkov out of it, insisting that the existence of a large, clandestine organization like the Liberal Democrats was the stuff of fantasy. Savinkov was being set up, such a mission was suicide, Burtsev said. Savinkov, however, claimed he knew what he was doing.

Late on the night of August 15, Savinkov and his two co-conspirators snuck over the Soviet frontier and straight into the arms of the secret police. Two days later, they were delivered to the Lubyanka. At his trial, Savinkov shocked the world by renouncing his life’s mission: “I acknowledge without reservations the Soviet regime and no other. […] If you are Russian, if you love your motherland, if you love your people, then bow to the workers’ and peasants’ rule and acknowledge it without reservations.” Alexandrov calls this volte-face “the ultimate mystery” at the heart of Savinkov’s final act. Did he say these words to save his life? Had he made some sort of deal with the regime to avoid a firing squad? Alexandrov believes this must have been the case, and he is most certainly correct. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to death, although the sentence was commuted to 10 years’ imprisonment later that very day.

Savinkov allowed himself to be used as a propagandist in the final months of his life, publishing articles with titles such as “Why I Recognized the Soviet Regime.” His friends in Europe turned their backs on him. One labeled Savinkov “a renegade, the likes of which world history has not known since the time of Judas.” There is evidence to suggest Savinkov had been planning to take his own life by the spring of 1925 and that he did indeed jump to his death that night at the Lubyanka. Alexandrov is convinced this is what happened, although others, such as Savinkov’s mistress, who spent much time with him in his cell, refused to believe it. “It’s not true!” she screamed upon being informed of his death. “It can’t be! You killed him!” Savinkov himself had told his son Victor during a visit to the Lubyanka: “If you hear that I’ve laid hands on myself — don’t believe it.” Whether he jumped or was pushed from that window will never be known for certain.

As to Savinkov’s legacy, Alexandrov feels that it is time to grant him “his due for his conception of a free Russia and his remarkable struggle to bring it to life.” While Savinkov’s commitment to “struggle” can’t be denied, his commitment to “a free Russia” seems much less certain. There is little in To Break Russia’s Chains to suggest that had any of Savinkov’s farfetched schemes and plots ever succeeded Russia under his leadership would have been any less authoritarian than the regimes of either the Romanovs or the Bolsheviks. Savinkov knew how to kill, but did he know how to build without resorting to violence?

At the end of his book, Alexandrov wonders just what might have been had Savinkov’s last plot to assassinate a high-level official not been thwarted. “[I]t is hard to overestimate the impact this could have had on the Soviet state and therefore the world. And what if his target had been Stalin?” A question worth asking. Would another murder have changed anything? The history of 20th-century Russia is filled with political murders, from Rasputin and the Romanovs to Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, and too many other old Bolsheviks to name. It’s a feature of Russian political culture that lives on, as the killings of Boris Nemtsov and Alexander Litvinenko and the attempt on the life of Alexei Navalny show. If we are to take anything from the life of Boris Savinkov, and the bloody spectacle of recent Russian history, it must be that terrorism is a worthless tool for building a better world.

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