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Tragedy of Russian Bonaparte

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Tragedy of Russian Bonaparte


Vladimir Kappel is traditionally described as a White Guard General. Although he was neither a full-fledged general, nor warred under the virgin white banner, this is an easier way of defining the functionality of the talented staff officer who was valorous on the Civil War fronts.

Varangian offspring

Vladimir, son of Oskar, had always been suspected by pseudo-patriotic historians to be of the German origin, which was out of tune with reality. In fact Vladimir's father Oskar was a descendant of Swedish natives who settled in Kovenskaya gorvernorate and served their way to nobility. It should be noted that Oskar began serving in Turkestan among "the lower ranks", but deserved promotion to officer ranks by years of loyal service. For outstanding merits manifested on April 5, 1866 in the battle at Murza-Rabat tract, the apprentice of a light battery under the Orenburg Artillery Brigade Oskar Kappel was decorated with soldier's Order of St. George, 4th class. Followed later were other exploits and other awards. By the end of his service he was promoted to the rank of cavalry captain and transferred to the Constable Corps. As you may guess, this was just a gift for Bolshevist propaganda.

Vladimir's mother Elena (born Postolskaya) was daughter of a general who participated in the Crimean war, was hero of Sebastopol's defense and Chevalier of St. George order, 4th class. Curiously enough, his mother lived much longer than her son and died in 1949 – not in Paris or Kharbin, but in her native Moscow. To protect herself from the persecution of the punitive bodies, Elena Kappel changed one letter in her last name in all official papers to Koppel.

National cinematographers had no pity on Kappel. But while legendary brothers Vaisliev, as they created the greatest general of the Civil war Chapay, had to portray a certain conceited image of the overthrown hostile Prussian warrior in the person of Kappel, Sergey Bezrukov created the popular Russian hero, even if rather odd and dim-witted. Now he is embarrassed at Kolkchak's flirting on an ice rink, and now forces his poor horse to plunge into ice-cold water at full gallop. It's not actor Bezrukov's fault, to be sure...

True hussar

Vladimir Kappel was a true hussar in his youth, even though he served first at dragoon and later at lance regiments (his Novomirgorod regiment was renamed). In January 1909 lieutenant Kappel simply ran away with his beloved Olga and secretly married her at a rural church, as it often happens in good old novels. The bride's parents resolutely objected to their daughter's marrying a young and poverty-ridden officer. Olga's father was chief of the famous Imperial cannon works in Perm and had the rank of actual state councillor. It should be noted for the sake of justice that when his "unpromising" son-in-law entered the Imperial Nikolayevskaya Academy of General Staff, he changed his attitude towards him. Isn't this an outstanding stroke to the portrayal of a Russian military back in tsarist days?

It can also be added that while Kappel was bludgeoning Chapaev's regiments and other "red" squads, Bolsheviks retained his spouse as a hostage.

Staff experience

They tried to blackmail Kappel with his family, but to no avail. Olga renounced her husband for the sake of children. Like Kappel's mother, the general's widow remained in Russia and took her maiden last name. The trick with letters was exposed and in March of 1940 Olga was sentenced to five years of incarceration as a socially dangerous element. She survived Stalin's Gulag and died in April of 1960.

Vladimir Kappel passed through the fronts of WWI. First he served at the Staff of the Army Corps, and from February of 1915 he served on the front at the headquarters of Fifth Division of Don Cossacks where he stayed until being promoted to the rank of staff captain. Kappel's rich experience in staff work allowed him to figure out and develop military operations of his forces in times of the Civil war, where he was already commander-in-chief.

Psychological attack

Incidentally, this puts into question another cliche used by brothers Vasiliev, according to whom it was Chapaev who widely resorted to the maneuver both at a supper using potatoes and cigarettes and on the battlefield. Already the first combats waged by Kappel demonstrated that the General Staff officer who spent the entire WWI in the headquarters of cavalry divisions first and then at the headquarters of the South-Western front, was capable of brilliantly applying the obtained knowledge in practice. His successful action was pivoted on the accurate calculation of the enemy's and his own forces. He scrupulously weighed the degree of admissible risk right on the battlefield and it is for this reason that his strikes were so overwhelming.

History knew indeed the famous psychological attack of "kappelevtsy" as Kappel's volunteer officers were silently walking up to the hilt towards the "red" machine guns.

As recollected by his biographers, Kappel was a very brave man: "... A modest military man slightly taller than average, dressed in a khaki battle shirt and lance's pantaloons, wearing officer's cavalry boots, carrying a pistol in his hand, with a sabre on his waist, without shoulder straps, having only a white arm band," this was Vladimir's image imprinted on the memory of his contemporaries.

Commander and private

Every commander, including Kappel, was at the same time an ordinary combatant. On the Volga Kappel repeatedly had to lie in a circuit with his volunteers and shoot at the red. Perhaps for this reason he knew the mood and needs of his soldiers so well. As was the custom, the ranks in the detachment were to have rifles or carbines. In this respect Kappel was the most exemplary officer as he never parted with his rifle, even when being Commander-in-Chief.

"His detachment fed mainly on canned food or ate something from common soldier's kitchens. Cavalry officers had lacked saddles for quite a long time. Everybody had soldier's saddles which were more convenient for a backpack. The volunteers, always seeing in front of their eyes their commander who lived one life with them, felt ever greater affection for him with each passing day and were willing to do everything for their commander, sparing not their lives..." (from Kappel and Kappelevtsy by V.O. Vyrypaev).

A few words about cinematographic cliches. Soviet historians created the image of incomplete (to put it mildly) equipage of the Red Army and more than complete White Army that was allegedly equipped by foreign invaders. This is certainly far from a correct assessment. The point is that nearly the entire warehousing equipment of the warring Russian Army was grabbed by the "Red" after the Bolshevist coup. It's quite another story that discipline in the Red Army was so lax that even the best outfit soon looked more like the rags of villains. The white arrayed themselves as they could. Therefore the legendary frames of Vasilievs about the "psychological attack" in black Class A jackets and white gloves should better be attributed to the fantasy of ideologists and the features of the black-and-white film, or else to historic ignorance: this uniform was typical of the forces under the command of general Markov. And the flag used for "psychological" attacks in the movie was flying over the regiments of general Kornilov.

But these are minor details. After all, even in Lioznova's famous series Gestapo agents walk in black, although in reality Nazi wore brown monkey-suits.

The volunteers led by lieutenant-colonel Kappel were putting to rout the "Red" near Samara in 1918, and so successfully that Kappel himself was named "small Bonaparte" in the Bolshevist press. This sounds strange: to begin with, Napoleon was about 170 cm tall and Kappel was definitely taller. Trotsky promised 50,000 rubles for his head. This fact exhilarated Kappel: "... I am dissatisfied: Bolsheviks put too low a price tag on us... But very soon we'll make them loosen their purses..."

In July of 1918 the detachments of Kappel's volunteers took by assault the home city of the world proletariat's leader – Ulyanovsk (in those days its name was still Simbirsk) – vanqueshing the superior forces of the Red by means of maneuver and courage...

Great Siberian Ice March

The successes of Denikin and Kolchak in 1918 gave way to a string of heavy defeats. From the fall of 1918 Vladimir Kappel, already in the rank of lieutenant general was subordinate to Alexander Kolchak. His heroically resisting forces were retreating along the Trans-Siberian railway line to the east of Russia.

... In the last days of his reign over Siberia, actually being already under the arrest of Czech and Slovak soldiers in the train heading from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk, Admiral Kolchak had the intention to assign the full-fledged general title to Kappel, but did not have enough time to do this. On station Zima, where 13 years later poet Evgeny Yevtushenko was born, Kolchak was arrested on January 15, 1920, and taken to the Menshevist authorities of Irkutsk.

After Kolchak was arrested Kappel took charge as Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the remnants of the White Army whom he led out of the entrapment near Krasnoyarsk with great talent. The retreat of the army led by Vladimir Kappel from Omsk to Trans-Baikal region is described by annalists of the White movement as the Great Siberian Ice March.

This 1000-verst accelerated winter march exemplifies the courage of the Russian soldier, but it was the model which Soviet military historians preferred to silence.

This Ice March ended in a tragedy for Vladimir Kappel, though. Crossing a river in a severe frost, Kappel indeed fell under the ice, but not as it was acted by Sergey Bezrukov. Kappel led his horse by the reins and fell into an ice hole. He did not let this episode known to anybody and only a day later the general was examined by a medical doctor in the village of Barga. The physician stated a severe frostbite of both feet that already caused a gangrene.

Abscission was needed, but the local doctor did not have the essential instruments or medicines for a full-scale surgery; as a result the abscission of Kappel's left foot and right foot's fingers was done with a simple knife without any anesthesia. On Jan. 26 of 1920, at Utai junction near the station Tulun not far from the city of Nizhneudinsk, Vladimir O. Kappel died of a double pneumonia.

The general's last words were: "Let my soldiers know that I've always been committed to them, loved them and proved it by my death."

After the general's death his brothers-in-arms decided not to leave their commander's body for the Red to mock and carried his bones to the city of Chita first. But already in the fall of 1920, when the Red Army was approaching that place, the coffin with the general's body was carried to Kharbin. In 1955 Chinese Communists desecrated the grave of the late commander.

And only in 2006 were the remains of Vladimir Kappel brought to Moscow and interred at Donskoy Monastery...

Andrei Severtsev


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