When the Tsar of Holy Russia was kicked from the throne by his own act of abdication in March 1917, he set in motion a chain of events that led to a short-lived democratic government swept away by the later Red October revolution. This, in turn, sparked an almost immediate civil war and famine that left the country fractured and largely turned to ash. You know, the last half of Dr. Zhivago.
After the anti-communist Whites lost the Civil War (1917-22), some two million Russians fled to all points of the globe. If they didn’t leave, certain death was sure to follow.
In short, they lost their Russia privileges when they lost the war.
Nearly a quarter of these were military men who quite naturally formed veterans groups such as the Society of Gallipoli and the Russian Common Military Union (ROVS). This latter organization, founded in 1924 and led by former General Grand Duke Nicholas, then Lt-Gen Baron Wrangel, numbered some 100,000 members spread around the world within just a couple of years. These organizations were officer-heavy, as many of the rank and file of the White volunteer armies were either professional military officers under the Tsar, or were officer cadets at one of more than 100 military schools spread across the country. These officers in exile tended to band together.
For a generation in the 1920s and 30s, ROVS formed an exile Army in waiting and held large training camps and schools in which battalion and even regimental size units participated. The old generals had troops to salute. The young children born overseas who had never seen Russia were given an idealized account of life in the good old days under the father Tsar. Most of all, the exiles maintained some sort of legitimate military cohesion. In 1934 its rolls held some 300,000 members around the globe.
Indeed, in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, a nearly division-sized force of Whites patrolled the borders of that country looking for smugglers. The 1st Cavalry Regiment of the French Foreign Legion (1er REC), a unit that still survives today, was formed in Northern Africa in the 1920s from former Cossacks and guards cavalry of the Tsar. The foreign legation in Shanghai was patrolled by a White Russian regiment employed by the Shanghai police until 1942.
These veteran groups also formed underground units to send sabotage and intelligence gathering teams into the Soviet Union. Under the auspices of such names as the Brotherhood of Russian Truth and the Fighting Organization General Kutepov, (which in Cyrillic has the unenviable abbreviation BORK), they gave the Reds a series of bloody noses. This got the attention of the Soviets and the OGPU/NKVD soon started rubbing out influential White Russian officers in the West, including Gen. Kutepov himself, bundled out of France in a trunk by three OGPU agents back to Moscow, his ultimate fate still unknown for sure. Kutepov’s replacement, Lt-Gen. EK Miller, was likewise liquidated.
Other Russian officers became soldiers of fortune. They appeared in Mexico during the government oppression of the Cristeros and as well as in the Chaco Wars in Latin America in the 1930s where Maj-Generals NF Erna and IT Belyaev helped keep the Paraguayans in the fight against, ironically, German-led Bolivians.
Whites, in a unit some 75-members strong led by Maj. Gen. Nikolai Shinkarenko Brusilov, then showed up in the Spanish Civil War carrying the torch for Franco, with some 34 émigrés, including former Maj. Gen Anatole Fock, killed in action.
Many a Chinese warlord of the period owed their military might to the assistance of a former Tsarist commander.
A smaller unit of Whites, operating under the protection of the British, passed on to Japanese control in 1939 and only vanished when the Soviets appeared at the end of the war.
In 1934, one infamous Boris Skossyreff, a self-styled former White Russian officer, once an adviser to the Japanese Army and full-time con man seized power in the tiny nation of Andorra (pop 20,000), calling himself “Boris I, Prince of the Valleys of Andorra, Count of Orange and Baron of Skossyreff, sovereign of Andorra and defender of the faith.” Spain, it would seem, who is jointly in charge along with France of Andorra’s defense in times of war, two weeks later sent a group of military police into the country to politely show Boris I the fastest way over the Pyrenees. This did not stop him from serving later in the German Army in World War II.
The image of a scarred White Russian officer, wandering the globe from conflict to conflict like a Ronin of Old Japan, or a Mandalorian of a galaxy far, far, away became a familiar trope between the World Wars.
Kinda like this but more vintage:
When WWII came, many of these now elderly officers dusted off their spurs and helped to form the 30,000-strong XV Cossack Cavalry Corps in the German Army (who began the war often in the uniform of the Russian Imperial Army!). Leaders, in spirit, if not in deed, included Kuban Cossack Maj-Gen. Pytor Kransov, the swashbuckling White bandit Andrei Shkuro, Sultan Kelech Ghirey, and Timofey Domanov among others. While the corps mostly fought against Yugoslav red partisans and was able to withdraw in good order to Austria at the end of the war to surrender to the British, they were handed over to the Soviets for execution and exile in Siberia.
Don’t get the idea that the Whites just worked for the Germans or Japanese.
They also carried water for the Allies as well.
It should be noted that most professional European armies, especially countries in the east such as Poland and Greece, before 1939 contained cadres of field-grade officers who cut their teeth in the service to the Tsar.
Imperial Guards cavalry Col. Pavel Pavlovich Rodzianko– who rode for Russia in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm– helped teach the young Windsors how to ride immediately after making it out of Siberia after the Civil War and in 1926 formed the Irish Army Equitation School. The jumping team got good in just a few years. In fact, in the 1930s they scored 20 Nations Cups wins. The school still exists today.
One former Imperial Russian naval officer, George Ermolaevich Chaplin, fled to England to exile and became a major in the British Army, even leading a group of engineers ashore at Normandy on D-Day. He later retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel as the head of the Royal Pioneers. Moreover, of course, you cannot forget exiled Georgian Prince Dimitri Zedguinidze-Amilakhvari, who died as a colonel in the French Foreign Legion during the Second Battle of El Alamein against the Germans.
Heck, even Finland’s Field Marshal Carl Mannerheim had learned his military service in the Imperial Guards– and was such a fierce monarchist, he was forced to leave Russia at the onset of the Revolution for Finland under penalty of prison.
Immediately following the war, the CIA made careful efforts to revitalize the vehemently anti-communist White officer groups by using them as a backdoor into the old country. However, this was only marginally successful as whatever contacts they had that Stalin had missed, time soon claimed.
By the 1960s, with even the youngest of these exiled, stateless officers in their seniors, the veterans’ groups became smaller and smaller. The battalion-sized gatherings were no more.
Typically, meetings would be held with only a handful of veterans from the First World War/Russian Civil War at the head, with the bulk of attendees instead being sons and grandsons of such men.
With this, the group lost its last semblance of a military force in exile and became more of a historical and genealogical association.
The final Imperial Army general in exile, Alexei von Lampe– who had served in the Russo-Japanese War, was a member of the Tsar’s General Staff at Stavka during WWI, and had led ROVS for the last ten years of his life– died in Paris in 1967 at age 81.
Old von Lampe had served as an intelligence organizer during the Russian Civil War and the Nazis thought him such a threat that they threw him in prison in Germany in the 1930s. Odds are he likely remembered where a lot of bodies were buried. Indeed, the Nazis let him go and he continued to live in Berlin until 1945 when he beat feet.
The last of the White Russian generals, Vladimir G. Harzhevsky, had started World War I as a reserve ensign in the 47th Infantry Regiment. Advancing through the ranks, he was a captain by the time the Tsar fell and later rose meteorically through the officer list of the Southern White Russian army under Denikin and later Wrangel, making Maj. Gen. in Sept 1920 at the age of 28.
However, just three months later, he was exiled when the shattered remnants of Wrangel’s forces were evacuated from Crimea. Bouncing around Europe for decades, he settled finally in New Jersey. Picking up the helm of ROVS on von Lampe’s death, being the senior-most officer left, he died in 1981 at age 89.
The last of the old guard who wore the epaulets of an officer in the Tsar’s military was one Boris Smyslovskiy.
Born in 1897, Boris was a military academy cadet (junkers) in the 1st Moscow Cadet Corps (Mikhailovsky academy) when the First World War erupted. As a young Lieutenant, he was wounded in the Russian Revolution, fighting against the Reds in Moscow in October 1917. He went on to serve in the White Army under Denikin, as a captain, then a major, before the exile in Germany. Taking up with various underground groups there, he found himself working for the Abwehr (German army intelligence), helping to run agents in Poland and Ukraine.
During WWII, Smyslovskiy took a commission in the German army as a Major in the Wehrmacht and was leading a battalion of Russian troops on the Eastern Front by the end of the war.
In March 1945, he led some 500 Russian veterans of the German army into exile once again, crossing over into tiny but neutral Liechtenstein where he surrendered to the principality’s 33-man army. While the Soviets steadfastly petitioned the Liechtenstein government to hand over Smyslovskiy on war crimes, they did not. He then wandered to Argentina in 1947 and became an adviser to Peron’s army before returning to Liechtenstein in 1966. Smyslovskiy died there in 1988, just before the Berlin Wall came down.
The ROVS organization continued in the West for another decade, its commanders being chosen from men who were officers in White Russian units in WWII, as all of the Tsar’s few good men were gone.
The last commander of ROVS in the West was Cadet Vladimir Vishnevsky. Born in 1917 and leaving the country of his birth for the last time in 1922, he had served in the Yugoslav Royal Army before joining the German/White Russian Corps during World War Two, rising to the rank of an officer cadet in the organization. With no more regular meetings due to declining membership, Vishnevsky was informed of his new post via correspondence that Capt. Vladimir Butkov, who himself was only a year old when the Winter Palace fell, had died in New York, leaving the former cadet as the seniormost ranking officer.
Finally in 2000, after 76 years, ROVS dissolved (after Vishnevsk’s death of cancer) as even this pool of WWII veterans had dwindled. However, with the recent resurgence of Tsarist love in the new Russia, a Moscow-based version has taken its place.
In a final gesture of homecoming, the remains of General Anton Ivanovich Denikin and his wife, who were buried in the Orthodox Cossack St. Vladimir’s Cemetery in New Jersey, were repatriated to Russia in 2005.
He was buried with military honors and is now seen as something of a patriot there, bringing the saga to a full circle.
Today in modern Russia under Tsar Vladimir IV of the House of Putin, it’s become fashionable once again to be a White Russian.