Although Vladimir Lenin and his communist allies were able to come into power in the October Revolution of 1917, many other factions still vied for the determination of Russia’s political future. The largest faction besides the Soviets was the White Army, led by Alexander Kolchak. Needless to say, the Soviets won the war, and decades of Russians grew up learning propaganda-heavy stories about the glorious defeat of the evil Kolchak by the heroic Soviet Army. Since the fall of the USSR, that’s all changed. Kolchak’s reputation has been complicated, with some now asserting his true role as a brave hero making one last stand against the crushing Soviet might.
These sympathies are on full display in “The Admiral,” a 2008 Russian film about the life of Alexander Kolchak (with Russian action hero Konstantin Khabensky in the title role). The two-hour film steers the propaganda machine as far to the opposite of the Soviets as it can get. The Alexander of “The Admiral” is a hero down to his bones. He fights from an unassailable base of honor and pure intention. His losses are tragic and his victories are thrilling. Most telling, though, is the film’s choice of primary storyline. “The Admiral’s” focus is not on the economic and political disagreements causing the Russian Civil War, or even on the battles of the War itself.
The life of Alexander Kolchak, according to “The Admiral,” was not one of politics and war, but of love. Specifically, romantic love, and even more specifically, passionate desire for Anna Timiryova (Elizaveta Boyarskaya), his best friend’s beautiful wife. It is this passion which forms the majority of the film. The few plot-necessary battle scenes which exist are rushed through so that the camera can instead linger on Alexander and Anna staring longingly at each other, forever in love yet forever kept apart. The great triumph of this story is Anna’s look of pride when Alexander commands the White Army. The great tragedy of this story is the lovers not being granted a final kiss before Kolchak’s execution.
In doing so, “The Admiral” certainly presents a very different version of Kolchak’s story than the preceding Soviet tale, yet one that is ultimately no less propaganda. In reducing the Soviet army to a cruel, nameless mass out to prevent a great romance, the film ignores the real pressures and desires that made Lenin’s revolution so initially attractive to the Russian people of 1917. In keeping all the deaths that result from Kolchak’s revolt either offscreen or highly abstract, the film ignores why another group could come to hate Kolchak in the first place. “The Admiral” claims to refute propaganda with truth, but ultimately offers a skewed portrayal, merely with a reversed face.
Thanks to St. Olaf’s Russian department for showing “The Admiral” as part of their 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, and to Professor Rita Safariants for her knowledge on Kolchak’s life and subsequent treatment.