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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kolchak's Rehabilitation

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Civil war is a terrible business and recording it for posterity is a contentious issue. Americans and Russians have produced widely varying accounts of their great national insurrections of 1861-65 and 1918-22, respectively, and each has paid a price for this diversity of views. Whose price has been higher and who will pay longer is only now becoming possible to judge.

If history is written by the winners, the U.S. Civil War is an exception. Although the story has always been told by both sides, the losers made better movies. Competing accounts of the war, both scholarly and popular, have never stopped appearing in print. Hollywood has framed the conflict many times from both perspectives, yet two of it's undisputed classics, "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone with the Wind," are distinctly sympathetic to the Southern cause.

Beyond books and films, thousands of U.S. Civil War buffs have turned the conflict into a hobby, and legions of uniformed "re-enactors" recreate whole battles on-site. Indeed, the first great re-enactment took place in 1913, when aging veterans from both sides observed the 50th anniversary of the crucial Battle of Gettysburg by recreating its bloody apex, Pickett's Charge -- ending this time with the former combatants embracing one another in the middle of the field they hallowed.

By accident or design, Americans have allowed a "dual narrative" of their Civil War to develop by tacitly acknowledging certain nonconflicting claims. The North was right: Preservation of the Union was essential and its citizens should not own one another; yet honorable people could and did believe in the principle of states' rights and could serve the Southern cause with real nobility. This two-track heritage may not have been the shortest route toward overcoming the war's divisions: "Birth of a Nation" provoked race riots in 1915, and "Gone with the Wind" encourages stereotypes to this day. That said, the salient fact remains -- Americans have come to terms, at length, with what will always be a divided legacy.

The history of the Russian Civil War was told along lines that could neither intersect nor coexist. Red narrators spent decades omitting, altering or justifying the mass terror applied toward an "inevitable" victory and recasting their side's roster to fit Party rolls later decimated by mass repressions -- sic transit gloria -- when the bad guys win.

The Whites, of course, told a different story -- or rather, many different stories, reflecting the diversity that was the signal weakness of the anti-Bolshevik movement. The White version could only be relayed in discrete sections, and only outside the Russian heartland, whose borders were zealously guarded for 70 years against "bourgeois falsifiers of history."

In the new world of post-Soviet historiography, however, all this can change. If President Vladimir Putin is serious about his recent claims that young Russians should take pride in their country's modern history, he should encourage the study of historical figures worth being proud of -- from all parts of the spectrum. One such figure is Admiral Alexander Kolchak, an accomplished polar researcher, decorated hero of two foreign wars and an outstanding military mind. He was also a martyred supreme commander of the White cause.

Kolchak would seem an excellent fit for Putin's "new approach" to Russian history, with its emphasis on patriotism and strong-willed leadership and its rejection of Soviet-style ideology for something called "sovereign democracy." But there is a catch. To praise Kolchak is to unbury him, and reviving such an implacable foe of Soviet power remains problematic. The Red victory led directly to the establishment of the U.S.S.R. --whose collapse, Putin maintains, was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the century. Someone who worked against the Soviet triumph was, by inference, a bad guy. Except that Kolchak wasn't: Whatever his mistakes as commander in Siberia, he was and remains a Russian national hero. Thus, while his formal rehabilitation has now failed twice, public monuments to him have been erected in St. Petersburg and Irkutsk. Is this schizophrenia, stalemate or both?

Americans can't tell Russians or anyone else how to come to terms with their own history. Still, there is an implied principle worth considering within the imperfect American experience: Civil wars can have parallel stories involving valor and nobility on both sides. When the major new movie "Admiral Kolchak" opens across Russia soon -- with or without screenplay revisions by the Kremlin -- perhaps the admiral will take a step toward the rehabilitation never needed by Robert E. Lee.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.