Boris Savenkov: Russia’s Knight at the End of the World

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to: Ulrich Roednauer

split, rip

Boris Savenkov fought against the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. (Illustration) © Imago Images

Saying goodbye to the world while resting peacefully in bed: Not everyone can do that.

“An executioner with Karamazov’s disease but not without lyricism”. This is how Maxim Gorky described the terrorist, politician and writer Boris Savenkov. Savenkov was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in 1879 – the same year, by the way, like Leon Trotsky, who saw him as an “adventurer” – Savenkov led an eventful life: for a long time he was one of the leaders of the anti-terrorist organization of the Socialist Revolutionary Party; He carried out several assassinations in Tsarist Russia in order to dismantle it. In the background, he participated in the assassination of Russian Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Blehoy in 1904, and a year later in the assassination of Grand Duke Sergei Romanov. These actions brought him fame – as well as hate. He himself wrote about it in his memoirs about a terrorist.

In 1906, the first enemy was captured and sentenced to death. In Odessa he was supposed to await his execution, but things turned out differently. The delinquent managed to escape to France, and in exile there he swayed like a bloodthirsty celebrity in the circle of intellectuals and authors and became a poet himself, one of the “beautiful spirits of terror” about which Hans Magnus Enzensberger once wrote. After the February Revolution of 1917, Savenkov returned to Russia, became Deputy Minister of War in the Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky, and after the October Revolution he fought against the Bolsheviks. At one point he fled to Paris and from there made plans for a counter-revolution. He was lured into the Soviet Union by a hoax, was arrested across the border and taken to Moscow. It is possible that he was tortured during his arrest; In any case, the Chics forced him to state that he wanted to abandon his thoughts and actions.


Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Beautiful horror souls. In: Politics and Crime. Frankfurt am Main 1978.

Boris Savenkov: Terrorist notes. Translated from Russian by Arkady Maslow. Revised and supplemented by Barbara Conrad. With a preliminary report and follow-up by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Noerdlingen 1987.

Boris Savenkov: Pale horse. A terrorist novel. Translated from Russian and explained by Alexander Nitzberg. With a file on Boris Savenko by Alexander Nytzberg and Jörg Babrovsky. Berlin 2015.

Boris Savenkov: Dark Horse. A novel from the Russian Civil War. Translated from Russian, annotated and supplemented with supplementary material by Alexander Nitzberg. Berlin 2017.

On May 7, 1925, Boris Savenkov jumped or fell out of a window at the terrifying headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service in Lyubianka. The official files point to suicide – which doesn’t seem so far-fetched: the prospect of years in prison must have made the restless Savenkov more disturbing than a quick death. However, there were quite a few contemporaries who assumed that the murder was carried out on the order of Felix Dzerensky, the founder and head of the Bolshevik secret police Cheka. The case remains unresolved to this day. Just as this life also shows somewhat ambiguous traits: Savenkov probably acted less than pure idealism and more than an unconditional will to act. Historian Jörg Babrovsky notes that he was a “passionate terrorist”. He liked what he was doing so much “that he didn’t care who would kill anyone for him”. After the expulsion of Savinkov, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva wrote: “Funeral mass for terrorist – communist – suicide bomber Savenkov. How Russian is this!”

hold bombs

Savinkov’s death was not only Russian, but also the story of his entire life. From several books – his memoirs and some novels – they can be collected well. Turbulent political times formed its backdrop. At the end of the 19th century, radical anarchism wanted to destabilize society – with symbolic assassination attempts on representatives of the old power. This period has been recorded in history as the “decade of the bombs” and Boris Savinkov was one of the active thinkers and bombers in Tsarist Russia. He was described as a “brilliant technician of violence”, a murderous rioter described by Trotsky as a “revolutionary of the mathematical kind”, endowed with much derision and contempt for death.

But Savenkov, motivated by his actions, also became a recorder and poet. And in 1908, in his autobiographical novel “The Pale Horse”, he gave a glimpse into the internal structures of terrorist cells, which, incidentally, can also be applied to other times and situations. “The Pale Horse” is a fascinating modern novel, written in the form of a diary and playing with many religious and evangelical motifs. In it, the author introduces us to different types of terrorists and what drives them. There are attributes of Savenkov himself in the main character George, a professional killer who does not believe in anything. However, the two should not be completely confused, warns Alexander Nitzberg. The translator is considered a well-known expert in modern Russian literature and sees Savenkov very consciously blending reality with fiction. He wears a mask that looks like him, but it’s a mask. In an interview with Wiener Zeitung, Nitzberg suspected Savenkov put words in George’s mouth that he would never have said himself. “For me, this is above all a technical process,” says Knitsberg, “and I think the question of his actual bad deeds needs to be reopened from scratch. He has not been shown to have killed people with his own hands.”

White and green versus red

Happy George reappeared years later in Savenkov’s last novel, The Dark Horse. “Do not kill! Once upon a time these words struck me like steel. But now … but now I think they are lies. Do not kill, but everything around you kills. The juice of the berries flows, its floods almost reach the necks of the horses. Man lives and breathes killing, and wanders in the Bloody darkness, and dies in bloody darkness. A beast of prey, tormented by hunger, kills man from fatigue, laziness and melancholy. Such is life.”

According to Savenkov, the novel The Black Horse, written in 1923, is neither autobiographical nor fictional. In fact, he mixes the experiences that he and some of his companions have had or may have gone through. The book is set during the Russian Civil War of 1917/1918, when conservatives of all kinds, moderate socialists, nationalists and the White Army were fighting against the communist Bolsheviks. Savenkov, like his questionable ego, sided with the whites, and later led the Green Gangs – an anarchist movement that saw itself as representing the peasants, who believed them to be the real power of Russia. Boris Savenkov or George becomes a fighter in Moscow. His previous fight against the tsarist regime as a cold terrorist gave way to the fight against the communists – all for the benefit of the Russian people. What connects young people with the older Savenko with Jorge Babrovsky can be summed up as follows: one isolated oneself from reality and everyone assured each other that “they were living the right life and the others were living the wrong life.”

About the series

In our series, we look at authors who died not in their bed, usually not at their desks and pen in hand, but in an unusual and disturbing way. We ask ourselves: Does death tell us anything about her life and work? Posted so far:

Udon von Horvath And his early death in Paris: Even trees kill the exiled poets

Johann Joachim Winkelmann: Assassination in Trieste

Robert WalserSilent Disappearance: “A snowflake flew over my mouth”

Wolfgang Herndorf: Facts of a suicide announcement

Caroline von Gunderode: love is everywhere

Rolf Dieter Brinkmann: Older, deeper and dead day

Danny Joel: Tired indifference to movement

George Himm: Most Satanic Contemporary Poets

“What am I fighting for? I do not believe in all programs and of course I do not believe in any leader. I am also fighting for life, for the right to live on earth … I fight like an animal – with my claws, with my teeth, with my blood … I said: on the ground This is not true. Not on earth, but in Russia, only in Russia. Everyday life is from me. From me crap. From me Twilight. But I trust and love her. Also Olga trusts and loves me.” Olga is a Russian noblewoman who stands by the team The Reds – She is George’s mistress. The contradictions of those years, the fronts running through all classes, the impenetrability of historical dynamics, the brutality of events, betrayal, torture, murder – all this Savenkov tried to captivate in a vulgar way and then again in lyrical language. By the way, the central image of the novel comes from the Bible: the Knight of the Apocalypse and the scales in his hand. Dark Horse. You are acting on divine orders.

The meaning and meaning of history

Savenkov was a paradoxical player in that era that is perhaps closer to ours than we think: colossal upheavals loomed; Terrorism, in whatever form it took, was an effective political tool. The fronts are no longer as clear as they once seemed. There is something almost symbolic about Savenkov. It’s awesome and disgusting. The fact that he has made a paradoxical search for the meaning of history seems as ancient as it is topical. A talent for assuming different identities, depending on mood and climate, due to his intellectual ability and elegant and simple demeanor, also makes him almost contemporary. He led the “modern presence of a businessman to violence” (Babrovsky). Violence is now ubiquitous again in Europe, and the man of action who has been dumped in the dustbin of history is once again among us. Savenkov is a certain, doubtful, dangerous and extreme character in life as in death. (Ulrich Roednauer)

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