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Prominent Russians: Lavr Kornilov

August 18, 1870 – April 13, 1918

Lavr Kornilov was an outstanding military commander in the Imperial Russian Army as well as a talented scientist and translator. In 1917 he participated in the failed coup d’état aimed at overtaking the Provisional government and saving Russia from the Bolsheviks.

Son of the steppe

Lavr Kornilov was born in 1870 in the Ust-Kamenogorsk Region in Turkestan (modern day Republic of Kazakhstan). His father was a Cossack officer who served as a scribe in the administration of the region after retirement. His mother was Kazakh. Siberian Cossacks had strong ties with all the peoples who inhabited the area. As a result, mixed marriages were a common occurrence as were the Asian looks Lavr inherited from his mother.

Lavr’s father paid special attention to the religious upbringing of his children. Bible studies became a favorite subject of young Lavr at school and later in life he always donated money to the Orthodox Church.

Lavr learned to write at the age of four. He loved stories about famous Russian military commanders like Aleksandr Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov. He also enjoyed reading “The Niva” magazine that featured stories and illustrations from the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

After Lavr finished primary school, his family moved to the military border post of Zaisan on the border with China. His father Grigory worked as an interpreter, a fact that influenced Lavr’s love for military service and adventures. Like his father and grandfather, he was especially good at foreign languages. He dreamed of entering the Cadet Corps in Omsk. As there were no teachers at the border post, he was mainly self-educated, with the exception of mathematics which one of the border officers taught him.

Artillery school and exploring Central Asia

At the Cadet Corps School Kornilov was the best student – he passed all his exams with flying colors. In 1889 that gave him the right to choose any military college he wanted. He chose the Nikolaevsky Academy of Artillery in St. Petersburg.

Apart from his studies, young Lavr had to earn his living. He gave mathematics lessons and published articles on zoological geography and even managed to send some money home to help his parents. His work did not interfere with his studies. He passed all his subjects with honors.

Lavr’s behavior, though, was far from perfect – he was always ready to fight when he heard insults or saw injustice. He was almost expelled once, but the Chief of the Academy pardoned him, as he was a well-respected figure among the officers.

In 1892 Lavr Kornilov graduated from the academy with the rank of second lieutenant and chose to resume his military career in Turkestan. At that time the southern borders of Russia were strategically important as there were several conflicts brewing in the area with Persia, Great Britain and Afghanistan.

While serving in Turkestan, Kornilov actively explored the region around Persia and Afghanistan and mastered the local languages, which came in handy later in the military campaigns he took part in. In 1895 Kornilov realized that he needed to further his education and applied to the St. Petersburg Military Academy of the General Staff.

While finishing his studies, he started a family. He married Taisia Markovina, the daughter of a high-ranking St. Petersburg city official. In 1897 they had a daughter, Natalia. That same year Kornilov graduated from the Academy with a Silver Medal of Honor and received the rank of captain. As before, he didn’t want to stay in St. Petersburg - he was still lured by Central Asia.

Mapping Asia

From 1898 to 1904 Kornilov served in the staff of the chief military commander of Turkestan, particularly in the intelligence department. His knowledge of languages (he was fluent in German, French, English, Persian, Kazakh, Urdu and Chinese) and Asian looks helped him to carry out many daring intelligence missions in the area as well as in China and India. He could easily pretend to belong to a local tribe and gain the kind of information and protection that would be impossible to access for an outsider.

At the time Russia competed with Great Britain for influence in Asia and both countries were carrying out intelligence missions in the territories of their respective jurisdiction. Kornilov had to map out the lands bordering Russia, study the fortified settlements and explore the possibility of bringing Russian troops to those areas.

Kornilov also created detailed plans with scientific geographic description of the area, studying the deserts, the mountains, wells and the ancient caravan routes that lay between Turkestan and China. His 1903 research entitled Eastern Turkestan was published. It was particularly valuable because the area had been a mystery for very long period, making it hard to access and dangerous to explore. The land was even nicknamed “the steppe of despair” for its harsh natural conditions of extreme heat and absence of water.

Eastern Turkestan was highly appreciated by the British and was translated into English and published in London in 1907.

Serving in the Far East

In 1904 Lavr Kornilov went to St. Petersburg where he was promoted to Deputy Chief of Staff of the brigade that took part in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Towards the end of the campaign his unit was encircled by Japanese troops near Mukden. But in a hand fight he managed to break through all the enemy fortifications, saving the lives of thousands of fighters.

It was quite a surprise for many Russian commanders who thought the brigade had been destroyed. For this heroic deed Kornilov was awarded the Cross of St. George and promoted to the rank of colonel. This war was quite a disaster for the Russian Empire but Kornilov managed to prove that his battle experience would enable him handle even broader responsibilities.

For four years, from 1907 to 1911, Kornilov served as a military attaché in China and continued to master Chinese. He put all his observations about China on paper. All his reports to the General Staff and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were quite informative.

He did much to strengthen relations between Russia and China. Kornilov was on good terms with a Chinese officer named Chiang Kai-shek – the future president of the country. After China Kornilov was put in charge of several regiments and one brigade along the banks of the Amur River, which borders Russia and China.

World War I

At the very start of World War I Kornilov became the commander of an infantry division. During the first fight of the war Kornilov broke the defense of the Austro-Hungarian troops in Galitsya (now Western Ukraine). Anton Denikin, one of the most prominent generals of the Russian army at that time, had a very high opinion of Kornilov. “It’s amazing how one man like Kornilov can turn second-rate soldiers into a powerful force that can completely crush any opponent,” he said. After these victories Kornilov received the rank of the major general.

However, even the genius commander had his bit of bad luck – in 1915 while fighting the Austrian regiments, Kornilov’s division was cut off from the rest of the forces. Multiple efforts to break through proved unsuccessful and eventually some 3000 Russian men were captured by the Austrian-German forces. Kornilov, who had been injured twice in the battle, tried to hide in the woods with some of his companions, but soon was captured too.

After his capture, the Chief Commander of the Austro-Hungarian forces, Field Marshal Conrad, received the Russian general in person. It was clear to the Austrians that Kornilov would not accept life in captivity and after two failed attempts to escape he was put under even stricter watch.

Kornilov simulated an illness by drinking a lot of black tea, which increased his heart rate. He was transferred to a hospital ward, where the guards were much more lenient. Kornilov convinced a hospital staff member to help him escape, which they did together. By the time his absence was noticed, he was not far from Romania – an ally of Russia at the time.

He was received back as a hero and his name became known all over the country. In September 1916 he was given the rank of Lieutenant General and appointed Commander of the Corps on the Southwestern Front.

The Kornilov affair

While Kornilov was away from the capital, critical changes had been taking place in the government. In 1917 the Russian Emperor Nicholas II was forced to abdicate – news Kornilov welcomed, as he was critical of the monarchy. Under the Provisional government, Kornilov was put in charge of the St. Petersburg military district in March 1917. In June, however, after the total collapse of the Russian offensive on the Western Front, Kornilov became Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces that were controlled by the Provisional government.

He sincerely and passionately loved his country and the army. It was the sole motive behind all his decisions and actions, respected even by his enemies. He firmly believed that Russia was falling into anarchy and that its defeat in the WWI would be disastrous for its future. He was especially critical of the attempts of the Bolsheviks to take control of the Soviets (regional councils of workers and peasants).

Kornilov considered Bolsheviks “German spies” because they did not support the endeavors of the Russian army to hold the attacks of the German troops. He was also concerned with the unrest and discord the Bolsheviks were stirring up in the country and the army, depriving it of the ability to fight effectively at the front. He suggested to the head of the Provisional government, Aleksandr Kerensky, that measures be taken to restore order.

While Kerensky agreed that only extreme and harsh measures would save the country’s economy and rescue the army from anarchy he could not administer his plan, because by doing so, he would have to share his power with the military regime, represented by Kornilov. Kerensky simply was not prepared to do so, even for the good of Russia.

Kornilov attempted to impose martial law, alleging he was acting under Kerensky’s directions. He wanted to overthrow both Kerensky and the Bolsheviks and restructure the Provisional government.

During the last days of August and the first week of September 1917, Kornilov concentrated his troops near Petrograd (modern day St. Petersburg). His striking force, according to the plan, would be the so-called “Savage Division” that consisted of experienced fighters from the Caucasus. During the beginning of the coup Kornilov made an announcement: I do not need any personal benefits. My job is to save Russia and rule it until the people elect their Assembly – the body that will determine the future development of the Russian state. It is the only way to save Russia from the German invasion.”

However, his plan was stopped by the Soviets of workers. They managed to convince the population that Kornilov’s assault was the way to dictatorship. For this reason they armed themselves to block telegraph and railway communication between the location of Kornilov’s troops and Petrograd. The Bolsheviks also unfolded a huge propaganda campaign among Kornilov’s soldiers – making some of the latter switch sides. This coup showed that the Provisional government of Russia could not control the military might of the country and it was even ready to negotiate with the Bolsheviks to save itself.

Kerensky dismissed Kornilov from his post of commander-in-chief and accused him of attempting a coup d’état. Kornilov and his supporters were arrested and jailed. But at the end of November, less than a month after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Kornilov escaped with other generals of the Russian army to the south of the country where he set up the “Volunteer Army” that managed to take control of very important areas in the south.

Fighting for the White Guard

Kornilov wanted revenge on the Boslheviks as soon as possible. And at that time his views became quite radical. He believed the Bolshevik’s sole goal was to rule by terror and decided the only way to counteract would be by equally brutal measures. He formed a triumvirate with General Kaledin, who headed the Cossack army in the Don Region and General Alekseev, who undertook the leadership of the whole mission. Kornilov was to command the Volunteer Army.

The fight was truly bitter, as Kornilov commanded that no captives be taken and no injured be rescued from the battlefields, to match the cruelty of the Bolsheviks. However, even these extreme measures were not enough to fight the ever-strengthening Red Army.

Kaledin’s Cossacks eventually sided with the Bolsheviks, believing their efforts were aimed at eliminating only the rich classes, the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia.

On 24 February the cities of Rostov and Novocherkassk, the centers of the Cossack movements, fell to the Bolshevik units. Eventually Kaledin shot himself to death because his army no longer followed him.

Kornilov was left alone to fight the Bolsheviks with his Volunteer Army, which he led to unite with the Kuban units further south. The so-called “Ice March” was a one-month long journey along the winter steppes of Southern Russia to the city of Ekaterinodar (now Krasnodar).

In spite of all these hardships Kornilov managed to reach Ekaterinodar by 10 April 1918 and unite with some of the White Guard forces. But the Bolsheviks were well prepared for the defense of the city.

Death and legacy

After seven days of Kornilov’s siege, on the morning of 13 April, an artillery shell hit the farmhouse where Kornilov was based. He died instantly and fellow soldiers buried him in the nearest village.

However, the grave was later found by the Bolsheviks and one of the local commanders was afraid that some people would come and pay respect to the famous general, so the Bolsheviks unearthed his corpse. After dragging his remains along the main square they burnt his corpse. The ashes of Lavr Kornilov were scattered in the steppe near Ekaterinodar.

There was one more attempt to place a cross on the place of his burial – this was done when the officers of the White Guard re-took the village, however, the moment the Red Army regained it, they burnt the cross again.

After these tragic events Kornilov’s family immigrated to Europe. The general’s son, Pyotr Kornilov, went on to found the White Guard museum near his home in Brussels. In 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, a monument to General Kornilov was erected in the city of Krasnodar.

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