- The Last of the White MoustachesRecent Books on the Anti-Bolshevik Commanders of the East
In the great clash of whiskers of the Russian Civil War, the Reds were good, but the Counterrevolution was bushier. With the exception of Admiral Kolchak, who persisted in shaving, almost every White commander made a habit of crowning his upper lip with an ample swatch of facial hair, from shaggy toothbrushes and walruses to elaborate handlebars that rolled out to [End Page 595] the edge of the cheek and then, with just the right dab of wax, soared optimistically upward. Some of the most luxuriant growths bloomed in eastern Siberia. The military ruler of the Trans-Baikal, Ataman Grigorii Mikhailovich Semenov, and his lieutenant and erstwhile conqueror of Urga, Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, were both well-moustached men, and so too were commanders like Andrei Stepanovich Bakich, who ended up on the Mongolian slopes of the Altai, and Ivan Pavlovich Kalmykov, who led Cossacks on the Amur and the Ussuri. Based in remote regions, most of these men were able to continue fighting against the Bolsheviks long after their counterparts in European Russia and western Siberia had been overcome. Their moustaches were not only the best in the anti-Bolshevik gallery—they also lasted the longest.
Writing on the White commanders of eastern Siberia and the Far East has tended to emphasize political and military events. The books under review here follow this tradition. They have little to say about the cultural identities of Semenov and Co., less still about moustaches. But by reading the books as a group, one gets some sense of the White commanders’ collective world—and of the meanings hidden in appearances. The firmament of the late tsarist empire was studded with constellations of imperial subcultures—discrete groupings of like-minded individuals shaped by the particular configurations of ethnicity, ideology, and imperial power that coalesced in different environments. The early Georgian Marxists described in a rich recent study are one such subculture.1 The White commanders between Chita and Vladivostok are another. Compared to the Social Democrats of Tiflis, they were a much less subtle group; and their ethos—a brew of authoritarianism, militarism, opportunism, antisemitism, apocalyptic messianism, geopolitical dreaming, and sheer ruthlessness, with an added dash of frontier ethnophilia—was, to say the least, unappealing.2 The question is to explain [End Page 596] how and why the ethos took shape on the Russo-Asian frontier and to make sense of its implications.
Of the four books here, Jamie Bisher’s provides the broadest overview of the general landscape, focusing on the “rule of the atamans” (atamanshchina) identified with Semenov’s power in the Trans-Baikal and the work of his partners in Mongolia, Manchuria, and the Russian Far East, in particular Ungern-Sternberg and Kalmykov. Bisher declares that his goal is to present “a coherent and accurate picture” of “the Cossack warlords,” who have been identified by historians as a “nasty lot” but otherwise insufficiently explained (xvi). He then sets out to do this in eleven chapters that cover the eastern war from Semenov’s takeover in the Trans-Baikal in November 1917 to “White Russia’s Last Spasms” in Vladivostok five years later, followed by a brief investigation of the White emigration...