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White History of the "Black Baron"

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White History of the "Black Baron"


He was called "the black baron" not because he epitomized the powers of evil, though this was how he was perceived by the Reds. Simply, like any dashing rider, baron Pyotr Wrangel wore a long, black, open fronted cherkesska coats with narrow bullet pockets and a black Cossack hat (swapping them for white ones on special occasions). The lyrics of a well-known revolutionary song going back to the times of the Civil war "White Army and Black baron are getting ready for us the tsar's throne again" referred to Wrangel, the last commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces in Russia's South.  

In spite of his German name, he came from an old Baltic clan that had long been Russianized – the name of one Wrangel was even inscribed on the walls of Christ the Savior's Cathedral. He was one of those who perished defending his Fatherland in 1812. And the name of his remote kin, the well-known polar researcher and admiral Fyodor Wrangel was given to an island in the Arctic. Another Wrangel captured the famous fortress Shamil. The history of the Wrangel family goes back to the 13th century: his ancestors had a very combative motto: "You can break us, but you won't bend us." It is this trait that was definitely inherited by arguably the most glorious representative of this clan.

Although Wrangel's both parents were art critics, their son followed in the footsteps of his ancestors, opting for a military career, but it took him some time to ponder on his calling: at first Wrangel intended to become an engineer after graduation from the Mining Institute in Saint-Petersburg. And he began his military service in times of the Russo-Japanese war where he was also conferred his first battle awards.

The First World War gave a strong impulse to the career of the ambitious military: at the beginning of the war Wrangel held the rank of cavalry captain while in the end he was already major-general and commander of the cavalry corps.

For understandable reasons Wrangel did not accept the revolution but he was slowly growing for his role in the turbulent events. After the coup he lived at his dacha in Yalta, but when the Germans invaded the Crimea, he left for Kiev, having staked on hetman Skoropadsky. Soon he was disappointed in the hetman and departed to Yekaterinodar where the Volunteer Army was being formed. Wrangel was appointed as commander of the First Cavalry Division.

The success of the White Army in 1918-19 was largely the merit of Wrangel's cavalry. Concentrating his forces at certain key sections of the front, the baron dealt an overwhelming blow, routing the enemy.

In June of 1919 Wrangel's cavalry seized Tsaritsyn that had been thrice attacked unsuccessfully by the forces of Cossack General Krasnov. Although he disagreed with the tactics of commander Anton Denikin, Wrangel was appointed in November of 1919 as commander of the Volunteer Army that was active in the direction of Moscow. However the conflict between the commanders was mounting.

After the Moscow offensive bogged down on December 20, Wrangel resigned his command and departed to Constantinople. He abandoned his post only to return on April 4th as the chief commander of the White Forces in Russia's South. Had the Whites, riding on recent successes, chosen the strategy of Wrangel, who proposed to move eastward to link up with Kolchak, rather than northward to Moscow, history might have taken a different turn. Maybe...

Yet there can be no subjunctive mood here: the Whites were smashed and routed, Denikin resigns. All that is left for Wrangel in this situation is the role of crisis manager. In fact it was talking only about the White holding out in the Crimea and Wrangel was quite aware of the true state of affairs. Rather than fighting the Reds, he believed his main objective was "to save the army from its predicament."

Having taken his office, the baron did his best. He managed to stop the offensive of the Reds by mobilizing the army. By consolidating his position in the Crimea he breathed hope in the possibility of general success in the military and civilians alike.

Wrangel was thinking in broader terms than could be expected from a military commander. He tried to win ordinary people and approved (contrary to the prevailing judgment among the White officers) an agrarian reform that implied the assignment of land to peasants, gave up on the principle of an indivisible Russia in favor of federalism and was even ready to agree with the independence of highlanders in the Caucasus and Ukraine.

Under Wrangel the Whites achieved their last success in the Civil War: in summer 1920 they forced their way from the Crimea to Northern Greater Black Sea region. In November the Red Army burst into the Crimea, Wrangel and his forces were unable to withstand the pressure, but he succeeded in organizing an orderly evacuation.

The "black baron" continued his struggle in emigration – he could not forsake his loyal officers and soldiers. In 1924 Wrangel founded the Russian General Military Union (ROVS) - the most powerful white emigrant organization, with former officers being its backbone. At its height ROVS numbered up to 100,000 people, though Wrangel ceded the leadership to his superior – Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

Yet time took its toll: the war was over and even the title of former chief commander could not guarantee subsistence. In 1927 Wrangel moved to Brussels with his large family, where he was employed as a civil engineer by a local company.

Alas, his days in this earth ended up early. On April 25, 1928, he suddenly died, having contracted tuberculosis. According to one version, he was poisoned by a Bolshevist agent. Wrangel's bones rest in Belgrade, at the Saint Trinity Church.

Alexander Ryazantsev


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