To Break Russia’s Chains; Boris Savinkov and his Wars Against the Tsar and the Bolsheviks

Book cover, photo by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

This weighty tome (500 pages) by Vladimir Alexandrov provides a long and fascinating account of the life of an outstanding man who worked tirelessly to overthrow first tsarist rule in Russia and then the Bolshevik regime which replaced it early in the twentieth century. The author’s extensive research enables him to give a detailed description of the life and times of the individual concerned, Boris Savinkov, who also happens to be a very distant relative of mine through my cousin, Serge Savinkov. Along the way, the author paints a vivid picture of the complex and convoluted contemporary events which affected society and politics in Russia and Europe.

At the turn of the twentieth century the Savinkov family, part of the minor Russian nobility, was situated in Warsaw, Poland (then part of Russia), where Savinkov senior held an administrative post. Victor and Sofia Savinkov’s two eldest sons, Boris and Alexander, both radical students at the university of St. Petersburg, were arrested, imprisoned and exiled for varying terms, with grave effects on Alexander’s mental and physical health. Once released, Boris continued to pursue his revolutionary agenda and was involved in organising the assassination of several key figures in the tsarist regime through an anti-Bolshevik organisation known as the Socialist Revolutionaries. Unbeknownst to him, however, the organisation had been infiltrated by a tsarist agent, and he was shadowed by government spies.

Unable to complete his studies in St. Petersburg, Boris moved between various places in Europe, among them Paris, Geneva, Warsaw and Norway, and began engaging in terrorist activities, organising assassinations, raising funds for the Socialist Revolutionaries and meeting like-minded individuals, among them writers and artists. He spent long periods of time in Paris, where he haunted the famous La Rotonde café, which was also frequented at the time by such luminaries as Diego Rivera, Modigliani and others, with whom he established lasting friendships.

The revolution of 1905, when workers gathered in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in a peaceful protest and were fired upon by the soldiers there, was repressed, but the embers lit then continued to burn, eventually erupting in the October Revolution of 1917, at a time when czarist Russia was embroiled in the First World War, or Great War, as it was then known. Defeats on various fronts and the German-aided insertion of Lenin and Trotsky into Russia enabled the Bolsheviks to seize power, and although armed resistance to their authority – initiated by Savinkov and others – persisted in various forms for several years, ultimately Lenin and the Bolsheviks managed to hold on to power, signing the hated Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany in which Russia ceded control of Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine, thus ending Russian involvement in the war and embarking on a course that tightened Bolshevik control over Russia’s economic, social, agricultural and political life.

Boris Savinkov sought to make Russia a truly democratic, humane and enlightened country, and to achieve this end he spent many years travelling the length and breadth of Europe, meeting with statesmen and financiers, in various attempts to raise armies to attack the Bolshevik regime. Whenever he seemed to be nearing his aim, however, fate would appear to intervene and foil his plans, During these years, which he spent mainly in France, he managed to meet, impress and gain the support of such statesmen as Pilsudski, the Polish prime minister, Masaryk, the Czech premier, and Winston Churchill, then Great Britain’s Minister of Colonial Affairs.

At various points in his life Boris Savinkov also wrote novels and poetry, which provide insights into the workings of his mind and the ideals that guided many of his actions. In order to entice Boris to return to Russia and face trial the Bolshevik secret service, the Cheka, devised an elaborate plan, and over the course of a year and a half invented a ‘clandestine organisation,’ the Liberal Democrats, that supposedly sought to overthrow the Bolsheviks from within Russia. Although advised by colleagues not to trust this plan, Boris agreed to return to Russia to play a leading role in this so-called organisation, but once across the border was arrested and taken to the renowned infamous prison in Moscow.

While itn prison and during his subsequent trial Savinkov rescinded all his previous beliefs and praised the Bolshevik regime. Whether he did this willingly or in return for certain benefits is not known. In Lubyanka prison Boris Savinkov was given a most luxurious cell, allowed conjugal visits and even taken under guard to theatre performances. After having enjoyed an evening stroll in a park he was waiting with his guards in the Cheka office on the fifth floor before returning to his cell. Suddenly, before anyone could stop him, he rushed to the window and threw himself out, being killed the instant he reached the ground.

The news of his death was kept secret for five days, but eventually a notice appeared in the Moscow newspaper and his few personal effects were returned to his wife. The news of his demise was met with suspicion and it was widely believed that he had been murdered by the Cheka, but according to research by Alexandrov and others, this was in fact what happened. Whether Savinkov felt that he had betrayed the cause he had fought for most of his life, had been the victim of a ruse, or feared lifetime imprisonment his end marked the demise of the search for a more enlightened Russia – one that continues to this day.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone interested in the history of Russia, or history in general, and have found it to be a well-written, accurate and gripping account of events that have served to create the world we are living in today.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.