The fanatical commissar of killing

An engaging and thoroughly readable new biography on Boris Savinkov

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Fear the man who says he knows how things should be,” sang the Soviet dissident Alexander Galich. “He doesn’t know.”

Boris Viktorovich Savinkov — terrorist, novelist, revolutionary and would-be regicide — certainly believed that he knew how Russia should be. During his short but extraordinary life, Savinkov was a condemned murderer, a friend of Amedeo Modigliani and Diego Rivera, a minister in Russia’s provisional government, an army commander, and an advisor to Winston Churchill. He spent his career energetically scheming, plotting and killing for the sake of the betterment of humanity.

To Break Russia’s Chains: Boris Savinkov and His Wars Against the Tsar and the Bolsheviks by Vladimir Alexandrov (Simon & Schuster, £22)

But like most of the busy legion of self-proclaimed saviours of the Motherland who sprang up among the ruins of Tsarism, every one of Savinkov’s attempts to break Russia’s chains ended in acrimonious (and usually bloody) failure.

In this engaging and thoroughly readable new biography, Vladimir Alexandrov paints Savinkov as a man with a “steadfast commitment to two principles … loyalty and honour”. But the actual story of his violent life suggests that Savinkov was also a delusional narcissist who, like many fanatics before and since, believed that his own elevated principles gave him the right to take human life.

“I love Russia and that is why I do what I do. I love the revolution and that is why I do what I do,” wrote Savinkov in 1917 during a brief stint as an army commander during the disastrous death throes of Russia’s war effort. Yet in practice every action of this Russia-loving patriot — whether organising teams of young desperadoes to throw bombs at Tsarist ministers and members of the Imperial Family or frantically cajoling peasant soldiers to face German or Bolshevik bullets — involved sending other men to their deaths.

The chapters on Savinkov’s terrorist career read like a darkly comic version of Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Dostoyevsky’s The Devils

Savinkov, the son of a Kharkov judge, was — like his arch-enemy Vladimir Lenin — a child of the bourgeoisie. Rough handling by the police as a result of idealistic student activism radicalised him, and Savinkov quickly gravitated to the most violent fringes of the Social Revolutionary movement. Bomb attacks on carriages bearing senior Tsarist officials became his forte — with the deadly devices triggered by acid contained in a fragile glass fuse designed to shatter on impact.

The chapters on Savinkov’s terrorist career read like a darkly comic version of Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Dostoyevsky’s The Devils. Angry young men and even more fanatical young women intoxicated by homicidal romanticism meet in garrets, dodge police raids and print revolutionary pamphlets.

Like actors in a grand drama of their own invention, Savinkov and his comrades often don disguises — sometimes as paint-smeared workers, sometimes as an English businessman and his servants. Very regularly, they accidentally blow themselves (and dozens of innocent bystanders) up. Occasionally, Savinkov’s team get their man — notably Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve and Grand Duke Sergei, the Tsar’s brother. Savinkov’s prison breaks, including escaping from Odessa jail after being sentenced to death for the Plehve murder, would be unbelievable if written as fiction.

Yet for all his apparent prowess as a conspirator, Savinkov fell victim to not one but two of the greatest deceptions in the annals of Russian political skulduggery. The first was to trust Yevno Azef, a senior socialist revolutionary and terrorist mastermind who was also a double agent for the Tsarist secret police. For years, Azef selectively betrayed the plans of Savinkov and other revolutionaries, sending dozens of his supposed comrades to prison. The second mistake that cost Savinkov his life was falling for a carefully-planned trap cooked up by the newly-formed Soviet secret police.

One problematic aspect of this otherwise excellent book is Alexandrov’s attitude to the trail of corpses that lie in the wake of all Savinkov’s derring-do and high rhetoric. “Savinkov and his fellows chose terrorism out of altruism — they wanted to free the Russian people — and did everything they could to avoid harming innocents,” Alexandrov said in a recent interview, citing an attack on Grand Duke Sergei aborted because the bomb-thrower spotted a woman and children riding in the same carriage. “Savinkov and his fellow terrorists could also never get over their sense of guilt for the assassinations they did carry out … they were, paradoxically, ‘moral’ terrorists.”

But that misses the point. All terrorists are motivated by what they — if nobody else — consider a higher morality. Savinkov “closely supervised teams of terrorists and agonized over the morality of his actions, but never killed anyone himself,” writes Alexandrov by way of exoneration. The argument is unconvincing.

Savinkov was more than just a revolutionary and terrorist. Taking an enforced break from murder and mayhem on the French Riviera in 1908, Savinkov decided to make a foray into literature. The Pale Horse, his curiously hostile portrait of a fictional group of terrorists, borrows heavily from Dostoyevsky for its themes and the currently fashionable symbolism of Andrei Bely for its style. The novel caused a sensation on publication, less for its quality than for the notoriety of its author — as if Osama bin Laden had released an autobiographical novel (later, Savinkov would pen the unforgettably-entitled Memoirs of a Terrorist).

Savinkov’s literary and criminal fame propelled him into Parisian artistic circles — including the studios of Picasso, Modogliani and Rivera. “There is no morality. There is only beauty,” Savinkov expounded to a friend during this period. “And beauty consists in the free development of the human personality, in the unhindered development of everything that is placed within it — placed in the form of a divine spark.” W. Somerset Maugham would later describe Savinkov as “the most extraordinary man I have ever met”.

At the same time as savouring his new-found literary fame he was also — in an extraordinary anticipation of the methods of later generations of terrorists — collecting money to acquire an aeroplane which he planned to load with explosives and fly into the Winter Palace. He supervised the creation of a dynamite factory on the island of Jersey. He also maintained two families and spent much time and considerable sums of his friends’ borrowed money at the casino at Monte Carlo.

The outbreak of the First World War turned Savinkov — now a war correspondent — into an ardent patriot, cheering on the Russian Imperial Army in its early successes against the Germans. But it was in the chaos that followed the Russian revolution that Savinkov was finally to achieve something like power, and come within an ace of the moment of destiny he always craved.

Alexander Kerensky, the morphine-addicted lawyer who headed the Provisional Government that ruled Russia between the February 1917 overthrow of the Tsar and the Bolshevik coup in October, appointed Savinkov commissar of the Southeastern front. Later, for ten days, he was deputy Minister for War.

Savinkov’s literary and criminal fame propelled him into Parisian artistic circles — including the studios of Picasso and Modogliani

But Savinkov became embroiled in Kerensky’s fateful power struggle with the powerful general Lavr Kornilov — an affair so complex and impenetrable that even a deft historian like Alexandrov briefly loses control of his material. In short, Savinkov lost his job — followed shortly thereafter by Kerensky, overthrown by Lenin with just a handful of men.

Savinkov would devote the rest of his life — he died in prison in 1946 — to struggling with the Bolsheviks, first fighting them in the field both as commander and soldier, then in later exile hatching various schemes to inveigle the Allies into intervening.

Winston Churchill, as prescient about the danger of Bolshevism as he would be about Nazism, enrolled Savinkov as an adviser. But Savinkov’s talents for both intrigue and organising political murder failed him. “If any of the extraordinary plots [Savinkov] hatched against the Bolsheviks had succeeded, the world we live in would be unrecognizable,” writes Alexandrov. A big “if”.

“Few men tried more, gave more, dared more and suffered more for the Russian people,” wrote Churchill of Savinkov. But the real message of this important and fascinating book is that for all Savinkov’s efforts — and in many case, because of them — it was the Russian people who ended up doing most of the suffering.

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