Anton Denikin (1872-1947) led the White Volunteer Army which in nearly succeeded in defeating the "Red" Bolshevik forces in 1919, during the Russian civil war.
Anton Ivanovich Denikin was born on December 7, 1872, in Shpetal Dolnyi village near the city of Wloclawek, in Warsaw Province, a section of Poland that had been absorbed by the Russian Empire in the 18th century. His father, Ivan Denikin, had been born a serf in the Russian province of Saratov, yet had worked himself up to the rank of major in the Russian frontier guards. Two years after retiring, in 1869, Ivan married a poor Catholic seamstress, Elizaveta Vrjesinski, who was supporting her aged father.
The pension of a retired major was not sufficient to support a family in circumstances other than abject poverty. Yet Ivan Denikin always had a charitable hand for others in need. Anton, an only child, was technically a Russian Polish "half-breed," but his father's commitment to Russian patriotism and the Russian Orthodox Church provided the boy with a path eagerly followed. Indeed, at the age of 70, Denikin's father volunteered to fight in the Russo-Turkish War, and it seems clear that, from an early age, young Denikin had determined to become a soldier.
As a student, Denikin was capable, if not brilliant. He was admitted to secondary school at the age of nine. Four years later, after the death of his father, Denikin began tutoring younger boys so that the family could earn a tiny additional income. He became a proficient swimmer and local soldiers taught him how to use a rifle.
At the age of 18, Denikin began a course at the Kiev Junker School, a military college from which he graduated in 1892. As a newly commissioned officer, he was posted to the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade. During this initial assignment, Denikin prepared to take the entry examinations for the Academy of the General Staff, which he passed in 1895.
Life at the Academy in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg opened new vistas for this provincial young man in his early 20s. He met members of the intelligentsia, had occasion to read politically "subversive" left-wing material, and was able to make contact with persons from most walks of life and from all social classes. So much interested him outside the Academy that he graduated at the bottom of his class.
Due to an injustice in bureaucratic procedure, over which he petitioned Tsar Nicholas II, Denikin was not able to become an officer of the General Staff until 1902. Therefore, in 1900, he returned to his old artillery brigade in Warsaw Province and waited.
Two years later Denikin was transferred to the General Staff and was rotated through a series of positions considered beneficial for the development of his career. Serving at the lowest level as a squad leader in an infantry regiment, he was then attached to the headquarters of the 2nd Cavalry Corps, acquiring experience in each of the main branches of the army: artillery, infantry, and cavalry.
In 1904, when the Japanese staged a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in the Far East, Denikin immediately volunteered for frontline duty and, according to Dimitry Lehovich, in White Against Red: The Life of General Anton Denikin, soon "acquired a reputation for personal bravery and for the ability to make a quick assessment of combat situations." Action suited him better than staff work. In November, he distinguished himself during hand-to-hand attacks at Tsinchentchen and again the following year during a large cavalry raid behind enemy lines. In the course of the Russo-Japanese War, Denikin served with the border guards, the Trans-Baikal Cossacks, the Ural Trans-Baikal Division, and with the mounted troops of 2nd Army, rising to the rank of colonel.
Despite Denikin's personal success, the fate of the Russian military was tragic. Inadequate logistics and incompetent leadership robbed the gallant Russian soldiery of victory. Political unrest among soldiers and workers spilled over into the Revolution of 1905. After the war, it took Denikin one month to cross Russia from the Far East to St. Petersburg via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. At times, he and his traveling companions exchanged fire with revolutionary mobs as he made his way back to the 2nd Cavalry Corps near Warsaw.
By spring 1906, order had been restored in Russia. Before the close of the previous year, Tsar Nicholas II had proclaimed his October Manifesto which attempted to compromise with political dissidents by providing Russia with a parliament, or duma. For a military officer, Denikin's political views were atypical; he welcomed the Manifesto and a constitutional monarchy and advocated major political reforms.
From a military standpoint, this was a time for self-examination. From 1906 to 1913, Russian authorities replaced over half of the officer corps with abler men. Denikin introduced reforms while a member of the 57th Reserve Brigade at Saratov and as commander of the 17th Arkangelogorodsk Regiment near Kiev. While progress was measurable, domestic discontent and the pressure of international events conspired against the Tsar's government, which was never able to achieve a working relationship with the Duma. Radical left-oriented parties continued to grow, including the Social Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, and the Bolsheviks. In 1911, terrorists assassinated the Russian premier, Peter Stolypin, thereby ending perhaps the best opportunity for a compromise between Duma and Tsar. Two wars broke out in southeastern Europe in 1912 and 1913, and Russia was embroiled more deeply in the dangerously entangled web of European diplomacy. Finally, in 1914, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, pushed Europe into the First World War.
During the course of the four-year-long cataclysm, the Allies (Russia, France, Britain, Belgium, and Serbia) fought against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). Italy, Rumania, and the United States would join the Allies, respectively in 1915, 1916, and 1917, and Bulgaria would follow the Central Powers in 1915. The Russians found themselves fighting each of the Central Powers along the length of the Eastern Front.
Despite a few glorious moments, the Russian road was one of successive defeat—from the 1914 disaster at Tannenburg to the 1917 revolutions and the 1918 civil war. The personal record of Anton Denikin, however, was laudable. In 1914, he was promoted to major-general and reorganized the staffs of 3rd and 5th Armies. Briefly attached to Alexei Brusilov, as deputy chief of staff in August, he volunteered for and received a frontline assignment as commander of the 4th Rifle "Iron" Brigade, which was expanded to a division in April 1915. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, Denikin would say that his two years with the "Iron" Division were his most fulfilling. In the first months of war, he won both the Sword of St. George and the Cross of St. George, 4th Class, for bravery.
Throughout the first winter of World War I, Denikin's troops were deployed against the Austro-Hungarians in the snowy passes of the Carpathian Mountains. Not only was he able to maintain unit cohesion when so many other Russian units were breaking down, he also succeeded in invading Hungary, a feat which produced accolades from every corner of the Russian army.
In spring 1915, Russian morale was still high, but severe munitions shortages were threatening to make it impossible to continue the war. Sensing a military opportunity, the Germans threw their main offensive against Russian Poland and the "great retreat" of 1915 began. The Tsar, contrary to the advice of his chief counselors, assumed personal command of the armed forces. The talented and respected General M.V. Alexeev was appointed his chief of staff. By the end of 1915, however, many of the original and experienced Russian soldiers had been killed and the army primarily consisted of uniformed civilians who were already showing the strains of war. Denikin had fought two exemplary engagements at Lutsk and Chartoryisk, rising to lieutenant-general in the process.
1916 was a year of decision for the Russian military. In May, Brusilov led four armies in Russia's most famous offensive of the entire war. Denikin's "Iron" Division participated under General A.M. Kaledin's 8th Army and was instrumental in the breakthrough at Lutsk. In fact, Denikin was first into the town, an act of gallantry for which he would be awarded the rare Sword of St. George with Diamonds. In September, he was promoted to the command of 8th Corps and sent to help Russia's ally, Rumania. After spectacular gains, the Brusilov offensive lost momentum and suffered major reverses by the end of the year.
The fatal crucible for Russia and Denikin was 1917. The Royal Family had discredited itself through ineptitude and scandal so that political chaos and military defeat combined to herald the downfall of Tsar Nicholas. By February, a Provisional Government was established in the capital of St. Petersburg, the name of which had already been changed to Petrograd.
Appointed Chief of Staff
While taking a decidedly left-wing political turn, the Provisional Government, under Alexander Kerensky as minister of war, nevertheless sought to continue the war and fulfill treaty obligations previously contracted with the Allies. Denikin was appointed chief of staff to the supreme commander, a position he would hold for two tumultuous months. This elevation was sudden and unexpected. The government sought a talented combat general who had been critical of the old regime and who had welcomed the February Revolution. The government also reasoned that Denikin's peasant origins would endear him to the people.
Summer saw the end of the Russian army. A fresh offensive, carried out with more rhetoric than energy, was bathed in blood. Discipline and morale, already at a low point, vanished. Soldiers shot their own officers and entire regiments threw down their weapons and marched home to the Bolshevik rhythm of "peace, land and bread." V.I. Lenin's Bolsheviks (Communists) were already undermining the Kerensky government from within.
During these unhappy months Denikin served under a succession of supreme commanders: Alexeev, Brusilov, and finally, Lavr G. Kornilov. Denikin and Kornilov were in full agreement that discipline had to be restored in the army and civil order established in Russia. From July to October, a series of intricate political maneuvers unfolded wherein Kornilov was pitted against Kerensky, who was simultaneously at odds with members of his own government.
At the end of August, after a brief, abortive coup, Kornilov and his sympathizers, including Denikin, were arrested and imprisoned. In order to defeat Kornilov, Kerensky had armed Lenin's Bolsheviks. This act was the prelude to the end of Kerensky's reign as head of state. In October, Lenin—aided by Leon Trotsky and assorted bands of workers, soldiers, sailors, and politicos-succeeded in toppling the remnants of governmental authority in that epoch-turning event known to history as the Russian Revolution.
In December 1917, by escaping from prison or eluding capture altogether, Denikin and several key army officers— including Kornilov and Alexeev-managed to meet in Don Cossack territory in southern Russia. There, painstakingly, the first small units of the White Volunteer Army were born. Three years of civil war ensued, during which Lenin's followers became known as "Reds," while Denikin and other opponents were called "Whites."
Commanded White Volunteer Army
The original plan of the White Volunteer Army had been to unite with the Don Cossacks and liberate Russia. Unfortunately, the Reds overran the Don so that the Whites had to retreat south into the lands of the Kuban Cossacks in the hope of obtaining allies. For several weeks during the frozen winter and early spring of 1918, the Volunteer Army fought their "campaign of ice" against vastly superior numbers. When Kornilov was killed in the desperate siege of Ekaterinodar in April, Denikin assumed command and led the brilliantly successful Second Kuban Campaign that summer and the North Caucasian Campaign in the autumn. By the end of the year, the Volunteer Army had grown significantly, despite its extremely heavy casualties. When the Kuban and Don Cossacks agreed to participate under a joint leader, Denikin became the commander in chief of the Armed Forces of South Russia (AFSR).
The tide of international events also had been swift. In March, the Bolsheviks had surrendered much of Russia to the Germans in the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and the Central Powers, in turn, had surrendered to the Allies in November. But if World War I had ended, the Russian civil war was set to enter its most virulent phase. White armies had sprung up in northern and western Russia and in Siberia. Several of the Allies advocated limited aid to the various disparate and disunited White groups; the British and French offered military assistance to Denikin.
In the spring of 1919, Denikin decided to launch one of the most spectacular advances in military history. For six months, from May to October, the world watched, breathless, as the fate of Russia and the Communist Revolution hung in the balance. In the first weeks, the Whites captured several hundred square miles of enemy territory. Other units of the AFSR took the critical city of Tsaritsyn (later called Stalingrad).
Encouraged, Denikin issued his famous "Moscow Directive" in June. Three wings of the AFSR were to move in a massive fan-shape up the Volga in the east and to the Polish border in the west, then shift in unison toward the common goal of Moscow—the ancient capital of Russia and contemporary seat of the Red Bolshevik government. It was an ambitious thrust, yet by October, Volunteer units had reached Orel, only 200 miles south of Moscow.
That summer, Lenin had ordered the concentration of every resource against Denikin, including a special Red cavalry army led by S.M. Budenny. In October, at the critical point of Denikin's offensive, the Red cavalry struck the AFSR in flank at Voronezh and drove a deep wedge between the Volunteers and the Don Cossacks.
The White defeat rapidly became a retreat and then a rout. Disease and winter snows ravaged the remnants of Denikin's armies. Survivors were evacuated by ship from Novorossiisk to the Crimea in southern Russia in March 1920. What had begun with so much hope and promise had ended in failure. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Denikin resigned in favor of his sharpest critic, General Baron P. N. Wrangel, who reconstructed a White Russian army. After a remarkable comeback, however, the Whites were decisively defeated in November 1920 and were forced to leave Russia. Denikin's involvement in Russian public affairs ended; he would spend his final 27 years in exile.
Early in his military career Denikin had established a reputation as a skilled orator and writer, qualities that were not wasted. His earliest publications were vignettes of military life. In particular, he attacked harsh punishments and the lack of progressiveness in the officer corps. When he went into exile and retirement, he applied himself to a five-volume work concerning Russia in the First World War, the Revolution, and the Civil War. Translated into English, Volume I has been published as The Russian Turmoil, while Volumes II-V have been substantially abridged into one book, The White Army. These comprise his most valuable work, but his The Career of a Tsarist Officer: Memoirs, 1872-1916, published after his death, provides significant insights into the Russian imperial army.
As commander in chief, Denikin had worn tattered uniforms. In exile, his only revenue came from his many books and lectures, but this was not enough to save his family from penury. (In 1918, he had married Xenia Vasilievna Chizh; their daughter was born the following year.) During these years, the Denikins lived in England, Belgium, Hungary, and France. When the Nazis invaded Soviet Russia during World War II, he warned expatriate White Russians not to participate alongside the Germans.
After the war, the Denikins emigrated from France to the United States and lived in New York City. On August 7, 1947, at the age of 74, Denikin died while vacationing near Ann Arbor, Michigan. Originally buried in Detroit, his remains were transferred to St. Vladimir's Cemetery in Jackson, New Jersey.
Communist propagandists have claimed Denikin was a dictator and an enemy of the Russian people who was born into a family of wealthy estate-owners near Kursk. His memoirs, backed by the historical facts, prove these accusations false. On the contrary, according to Dimitry Lehovich: "In some ways Denikin invites comparison with Robert E. Lee, who in a different period and country, also suffered defeat in a civil war and emerged from it with his honor intact and with the respect of his contemporaries and of future historians." Indeed, until the end of his life Denikin hoped and believed that the Russian people would one day rise up and overthrow communism. In 1991, 44 years after his death, the Communist Party was outlawed in Russia.
Further Reading on Anton Denikin
Denikin, Anton I. The Career of a Tsarist Officer: Memoirs, 1872-1916. Translated by Margaret Patoski. University of Minnesota Press, 1975.
Denikin, Anton I. The White Army. Translated by Catherine Zvegintsov. Jonathan Cape, 1930.
Footman, David. Civil War in Russia. Faber and Faber, 1961.
Kenez, Peter. Civil War in South Russia, 1918: The First Year of the Volunteer Army. University of California Press, 1971.
Kenez, Peter. Civil War in South Russia, 1919-1920: Defeat of the Whites. University of California Press, 1977.
Lehovich, Dimitry V. White Against Red: The Life of General Anton Denikin. Norton, 1974.
Luckett, Richard. The White Generals: An Account of the White Movement and the Russian Civil War. Longman, 1971.
Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War. Allen & Unwin, 1987.
Stewart, George. The White Armies of Russia: A Chronicle Counter-Revolution and Allied Intervention. Macmillan, 1933.