Andrei Shkuro’s Carnival of Sorrows

Hey all just a quick reminder.
1. The Hollywood Trilogy is still running, part two set to drop this Wednesday
2. This blog post is available as a podcast minisode on my Patreon. A short video excerpt is below.

When thinking of the Kuban Peoples’ Republic in 1919, I get an image of a world sent topsy-turvy… or at the very least, a world in a sense of flux.
Historically, flux was normal for the Pontic region. In their past they had been under the rule of Turks, Kipchaks, Mongols, even a Lithuanian King for a while. Invasion and subjugation were nothing new. For centuries, the area was part of the great Crimean Khanate – where two million Ukrainians, Poles, Muscovites, and Balkans were ‘harvested’ from the fields then sold into slavery in the East. From these markets one Kipchak slave – Baibars – rose up to become Sultan of Egypt – and of course a young lady from Lviv, Ukraine, (then a region of Poland) named Roxelana, became empress of the Ottoman Empire… but for the vast majority of slaves, existence was a litany of horrors. 

This tale isn’t about these poor slaves, or the slave markets. By the late 17th century, a coalition of affected nations put a stop to that trade. One of these rulers, Peter the Great of Russia, eyed up the region – though a successor of his, Catherine the Great, finally annexed the Crimea and its surrounds in the 1780s. It was strategically important to Russia to take this land, as it gave them access to the Black Sea – which didn’t freeze over in winter as their Northern ports often did. 

If we’re talking flux – a significant group up in the mountains, known as the Circassians – engaged in a guerrilla war against Russia which ran for close to a century. Eventually, an army of 100,000 Cossacks were sent in to massacre them. A largely forgotten genocide occurred, with a number of Circassians escaping to the Ottoman Empire, and vast numbers of Circassians slaughtered in the land they had possessed since at least 1,500 BC. 

At this point, the flux calmed itself down somewhat. The Kuban Cossacks flooded in. Highly effective, highly valued shock troops of the Tsar, these men were often sent to quell discontent. By way of reward, they didn’t pay any taxes. Rightly or wrongly, I get a picture in my head of Dostoyevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov mixed with the movie Copland. It was a quieter, more respectful place under the Cossacks – with some horrid reasons for this tranquility. Of course the First World War broke out – and chaos would spread like wildfire again. The Tsar was forced to abdicate in March 1917. At the same time, the Germans put a cat amongst the pigeons by transporting exiled Communists like Vladimir Lenin, back into the country. It was part of a series of events which ushered in regicide and a Russian Civil War. The death toll of that war was dizzying – well upwards of 10 Million people died in the conflict – possibly more than 12 million. Most were civilian casualties. The Kuban region became part of a decisive, blood-soaked battleground in the conflict – a battleground which included the Caucasus, parts of Ukraine and the Crimea. 

So in this topsy-turvy world, I can imagine one’s surprise at hearing an armoured train full of musicians far off in the distance. Your town has been through a lot of late. The war got closer and closer, till one day the Bolsheviks arrived and took charge. They were cruel kleptomaniacs and repressers of the townspeople, and life was miserable under the Reds. There was then an almighty battle reverberating through the hills, in which many people were killed. The Reds legged it, for the time being – conserving what was left of their force.
As the train draws near, you notice there’s not just one group of musicians on board, but two – a full symphony orchestra AND a full brass band. Alongside the train, a large number of Cossacks on horseback are riding along. These men have such incredible control of their animals they could easily be trick riders in a circus.  On first impression you gaze in wonder. Has a circus really come to town in the midst of this insanity? 

As the train pulls up to the station, you see many Cossack soldiers on board also. Quite a few are blind drunk. In one carriage, drunken revellers are having a merry old time with a group of escorts or women press-ganged into sex work – it’s impossible to tell from your vantage point. A wild orgy is under way for all to see. It occurs to you, this isn’t a circus, it’s the feared ‘Wolf Company.’
A window is flung open and a drunken man sings loudly at you from that window. 

“With my gang I will loot 100 cities. Flow, flow my lovely vodka. You are my joy.” – obviously it’s a ditty better left untranslated to English?
He smashes his empty glass against the station floor, fetches himself another glass full of vodka, then rejoins in the bacchanalia. 

Andrei Shkuro

Word had reached your town from neighbours that these men are magnificent warriors, and definitely not to be messed with. Others outright came out and said it, they were a blight on the town, liberators or not. They, the Kuban Cossack division, are here to liberate the region back from Red to White. They have till now been very effective on the battlefield – but when the fighting stops… well, you better lock up your … well, everything.  

Their noisy, disruptive parties ran on for days on end. The bands kept playing. The alcohol never ran dry. They are a jarring counterpoint to the reality of many – struggling, fearful and suddenly too cash poor to afford a sack of flour.

These men also loot with abandon wherever they land. Their commander promotes the practice. This wins him the undying support of his men – and he genuinely couldn’t give a shit about you and yours. 
That loot, all kinds of cash and belongings taken from often starving people, would be loaded onto boxcars attached to these battle-trains. Trains like this could be pulling as many as 200 boxcars full of others’ prized belongings.

On liberating Rostov-on-Don, locals greeted this commander – the man who just drunkenly sang at you. His name Andrei Shkuro – with a large sum of money to thank him for his service. Unmoved, Shkuro passed the wad of rubles back to an underling, commanding

“Here, go visit the whores.”
He then addressed the crowd. 

“I am shedding blood here to give you a calm life. Do you really think this kind of money will be sufficient?”

Shkuro then went on to demand 10 million rubles from the locals, to ensure his ongoing protection. 

Andrei Shkuro was a dashing warrior who, if you were judging him solely by his battlefield conduct, would have made a great action hero. He was, however, also a sadist who enjoyed watching his men torture and kill, enemies and innocent bystanders alike. Whether inflicting, or watching, in fact, he got off on the suffering of others. Shkuro was also a gross antisemite, who played a prominent role in the more than 1,500 pogroms carried out by both sides against the Jews in Ukraine. Later in life, he wrote a memoir denying his involvement in the pogroms. Accounts of others, such as an officer who recalled Shkuro offered to deal to Britain’s Jews after the war if the politicians wanted him to – well, stories like that indicate otherwise.

By way of a short biography: Andrei Shkuro was born in 1886 to a Cossack family in Pashkovsyaka Village, Kuban. As a young man he was sent off to military school in Moscow, where he excelled. Just like fellow White Army warlord Baron Roman Ungern von Sternberg, Andrei Shkuro made a name for himself as a very capable cavalry officer during the First World War. Like the ‘Bloody White Baron,’ he took on many highly risky missions, from deadly battlefield clashes in Galicia, to ambushing and robbing Austrian contingents who were delivering weapons through enemy land. The young Platoon commander was consistently successful, in spite of picking up several nasty battlefield injuries. The top brass recognised his abilities, promoted him through the ranks. At one point top brass asked Shkuro how he thought his talents could best be utilised? His answer was to carry out hit and run attacks in enemy territory. This led to him carrying out a spate of guerrilla attacks on unsuspecting enemies, and acts of sabotage while far behind enemy lines. 

In the course of the First World War, Shkuro was promoted to Colonel. He was relocated to the Southern Carpathian Mountains, where cavalry units were still widely in use. His command grew to 600 men, and again, he distinguished himself. He was stationed in Persia when the revolution broke out back home. After some time back in the Caucasus, he joined up with Anton Denekin – a Lieutenant General who was forming a resistance movement to fight against the Bolsheviks. Shkuro signed up, later bribing his way up to the rank of Lieutenant General. 

A well-rounded essay would detail the back and forth nature of battle between the Reds and Whites in the region – and that by mid 1919 it looked like the Whites finally had the advantage – and this was all over bar the shouting. The Reds were being forced out of the Donbas, and Caucasus. Tsaritsyn (later renamed Stalingrad) was besieged and was predicted to fall any day now. At the same time, the Whites were pushing far into Ukraine. Moscow would soon be in the sights of the White army.

I might even write at length on the sound thrashing Shkuro dealt to Leon Trotsky’s forces – and how he took out the city of Yekaterinoslav – in a longer form essay. I could even detour to sum up the consecutive war he waged against anarchist and freedom fighter Nestor Makhno. With more column inches to fill I might talk of how Trotsky later rallied the Red Army, just as all seemed lost – and the tide turned against the Whites. If doing so, I’m sure I’d detail the manner in which pogroms against the Jews sharply increased.

The truth is, first, this is a short post focussed on the off-field actions of a man who was brilliant and daring, and behaved like a sociopath both on and off the battlefield. However good he was at fighting wars – standing over locals for protection money, ordering random public beatings and executions, committing hate crimes, press-ganging women into sexual slavery – and, least of all, participating in drunken, days long orgies with your personal harem, two bands and all your drinking buddies while the populace starved around you – is not a good strategy to win the peace. If the people detested him, how long would they put up with his authority? About as long as it took him to roll up to the next town in his armoured train?
Sadly, this was not the reason Shkuro was decommissioned and sent on his merry way. The two generals in charge of the White Army were constantly at loggerheads – and the reorganisation of their forces that led to his firing was much more about their own squabbling than the fact the man was a complete nightmare. In any case, Shkuro was stripped of his commission. His Bacchanalian carnival of sorrows was taken off the road for good. Ultimately the Whites would lose the war to the Reds.

Postwar, while some of the White leaders who escaped the Bolsheviks plied their trade as advisors or as hired muscle for Chinese warlords; others as mercenaries in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria – and one even set himself up as the de facto ruler of Mongolia -Andrei Shkuro found a new carnival. He joined a circus as a stunt rider. He moved to France, joined a troupe, and toured the continent. Like Pablo Fanque he performed tricks atop his horse, to the astonishment of onlookers. One presumes when their train now pulled up in Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Belgrade, they were no longer rolling drunk, full of machismo and demanding exorbitant cash bribes from the mayor? People who met Shkuro the performer observed he was full of fun, lively, still enjoyed a drink or two in company, and could tell one hell of a war story. 

An etching of Pablo Fanque, a Victorian stunt rider most famous now because of The Beatles ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite.’

War interrupted his circus career, as the Nazi’s took over swathes of Europe. The noted anti-Semite and hater of communists volunteered to fight for the Nazis. He was sent into Yugoslavia to wage a guerrilla war against Tito’s regime. In 1945, Shkuro was caught, and handed over to the Soviets – who executed him by hanging on 17th January 1947.  


1 thought on “Andrei Shkuro’s Carnival of Sorrows

  1. Pingback: Andrei Shkuro’s Carnival of Sorrows (Patreon Episode) is up! | Tales of History and Imagination

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