Pyotr Nikolaievich Wrangel, known popularly as the "Black Baron", is a famous Russian general and hero of the Russian Civil War. Widely-regarded as a political moderate and dedicated military man, Wrangel is arguably one of the least divisive figures in Russia's increasingly unstable political scene. If circumstances take a dramatic turn for the worse, it seems likely that the Black Baron will once again step forward to save Mother Russia from the depredations of radicalism...
Pyotr Wrangel was born on August 27, 1878 to a Baltic German noble family in what was then Russian Lithuania. A graduate first of the Rostov Technical High School, and later the St. Petersburg Institute of Mining Engineering, Wrangel would earn his first military commission in 1902, after volunteering for the Life Guards cavalry. Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to Irktusk to command a unit of Transbaikal Cossacks, the first of many experiences with Russia's bellicose warrior caste.
Russo-Japanese War & Revolution
Wrangel's first taste of combat would be against the Japanese in 1904. Wrangel distinguished himself as a lieutenant with the Cossacks, but was ultimately transferred to a Dragoon unit upon the war's end. Wrangel saw service in the 1905 Revolution in much the same way he'd see service in the second; commanding a fast-moving, punitive expedition of cavalrymen. After the Revolution's end, Wrangel returned to St. Petersburg and married Olga Mikhaylovna Ivanenko, with whom he had two children.
Having studied at the Nicholas Imperial General Staff Academy in 1910 and the Cavalry Officers School in 1911, Wrangel began service in 1914 as a cavalry captain. After distinguishing himself early on and earning the Order of St. George, he was promoted to colonel and transferred to once again command Transbaikal Cossacks. It was here that Wrangel first met Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg and Grigory Semyonov, two already unstable men whose true colours would be revealed in the Civil War.
Wrangel continued to earn distinctions, particularly during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916. He soon earned the rank of major general, and was ultimately placed in command of the Consolidated Cavalry Corp, an amalgamated unit of many different Cossack regiments. However, his strong personal distaste towards the February Revolution and Russia's de facto withdrawal from the war against the Central Powers led him to retire to his dacha in the Crimea.
The Russian Civil War
Though his retirement kept him from participating in Lavr Kornilov's abortive march on Petrograd, Wrangel was rudely thrust into the Civil War by the attempted execution of himself and his family by Bolshevik agitators in Yalta. Incensed, Wrangel travelled to Kiev to enlist with the forces of the newly-declared "Ukrainian State." An ardent, if pragmatic, Russian nationalist, neither Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky nor his German backers were under any illusion of Wrangel's true loyalties. However, Wrangel's natural charisma, command of languages, and extensive military experience made him not only a very competent general, but a vital liaison between the disparate anti-Bolshevik forces coalescing across the former Russian Empire.
Wrangel's first military actions in the Civil War, however, were not against Bolsheviks, but rather the Ukrainian "Sich Riflemen" and "Greycoats," two military units who resisted serving under Skoropadsky. Skoropadsky took an instant liking to Wrangel, not in the least because of their shared aesthetic sensibilities in long, Cossack coats and fur hats, while the Germans appreciated Wrangel's command of German and strict, disciplined attitude. Wrangel, along with many other White Russian officers in the Ukraine, were gathered into a "Special Corps" and attached to a Ukrainian division under the command of General Natiev. The year 1918 would dawn with Wrangel, alongside thousands of Russians and Ukrainians, marching eastward into the Don Cossack's oblast.
The Volga Campaign
Wrangel would ultimately, with the consent of the Ukrainians and Germans, transfer his command over to General Lavr Kornilov's Volunteer Army. Though Wrangel was privately critical of Kornilov's barely-concealed republicanism and willingness to spill blood, he nevertheless respected him deeply for his military abilities and selfless dedication to Russia. Wrangel's commission as a major-general was re-instated, and he was granted command of the Caucasian Army. Despite their initial frostiness, Wrangel and Kornilov would soon bond over a shared antipathy to the many nationalists within the ranks of the White Cossacks. Much to Kornilov's relief, Wrangel's immense popularity with the Cossacks soon won over many of them to the cause of a united Russia.
The liberation of much of southern Russia over the course of 1918 left the Volunteer Army in good shape. The fall of Tsaritsyn had secured control over the southern stretch of the Volga, and most importantly, now gave the Southern Whites a direct route to link up with the forces of Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, who had become bogged down in a gruelling stalemate across the Volga line. In a move which earned him much enmity from fellow general Anton Denikin, Wrangel successfully convinced Kornilov to march eastwards to relieve Kolchak, rather than strike directly towards Moscow in a risky gamble. Wrangel's prudence would soon be vindicated.
With much of the Red Army's reserves scrambling to build a defensive line in anticipation of a direct White thrust to the capital, they were utterly unprepared for a fast-moving assault up the Volga. The Volunteer Army, now flush with German arms, equipment, and advisors, routed the Reds in a matter of months, ultimately leaving the cities of Kazan, Saratov, and Samara decisively in White hands. Meanwhile, the Reds' planned counter-offensive under Alexander Yegorov, which could have cut the White's advance in half, was stopped before it could even begin by the sudden offensive of Ukrainian forces under the directive of their German masters.
Ufa and the Fall of Moscow
Though the Ufa Conference of 1919 left a bad taste in the mouth of many Whites, who blamed Kerensky personally for his role in the Bolsheviks rise to power, Wrangel was practical enough to realize the need to bring a civilian head of state back into prominence, as well as regain the trust of the peasantry with the SR-backed reform policies proposed by Boris Savinkov. As befitting his status as one of the key White commanders, Wrangel and his cavalrymen played a vital role in the capture of Moscow, and he was one of the chosen few who accompanied Kornilov in his triumphant entry into the Kremlin to accept the Bolsheviks' surrender.
Despite not serving as the Whites' overall commander, Wrangel was arguably the most mythologized of the anti-Bolshevik leaders. While men like Kornilov boast greater popularity among certain political factions due to their own unabashed political loyalties, Wrangel's staunch neutrality earned him admiration across the Russian political spectrum.
With Russia continuing to spiral down into ignominy, Wrangel's legend endures, and with it, the secret hope of many that he can restore Russia to greatness where radicals have failed.