Kolchak’s Gold: The End of a Legend

“Kolchak’s gold” was the name given to a major portion of the Russian Empire’s gold reserve which came into the possession of Admiral A. V. Kolchak’s government during the Civil War. Originally housed in Petrograd, the gold was evacuated to the city of Kazan in 1915 owing to the threat that the capital city might be occupied by German troops. For various reasons, gold stored in the Moscow and Samara offices and the Tambov branch of the State Bank was also moved to Kazan’. By the summer of 1918 the State Bank’s vaults in Kazan’ held more than half of all Russian gold reserves. In time, however, the Volga region, which had been deep in the rear during the First World War, became a major epicentre of the Civil War. Fearing that the bullion would be seized by troops loyal to the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly (Komuch), the Bolsheviks tried to move the reserves, but only managed to ship 100 boxes of gold (valued at 6 million rubles) from Kazan’. At the beginning of August 1918, Kazan’ was captured by units of the Czechoslovakian Legion and portions of the Komuch People’s Army under the command of Lieutenant Colonel V.O. Kappel’ (who would later became one of the most celebrated White Army commanders). The gold was brought to the State Bank’s Omsk branch on 13 October 1918. Just over a month later (18 November), Admiral Kolchak was pronounced Supreme Ruler of Russia. The gold that had previously arrived in Omsk would henceforth be known as “Kolchak’s gold.”

The total amount of gold at the admiral’s disposal was valued at 645.4 million rubles. In physical terms the gold, consisting mostly of coins and ingots together with a small quantity of blanks, weighed approximately 1,080 lbs (490.448 kg). Along with Russian currency, the horde was comprised of coins from fourteen other nations including 24,080 German marks (valued at 11.2 million rubles), Spanish alfones, and 532,000 British sovereigns (equivalent to 5.02 million rubles). American dollars, French and Belgian francs, Japanese yen, and Greek drachmas were also present. The most “exotic” part of the collection were 36,000 Chilean condors valued at just over 2.78 million rubles.1

At 9:55 pm on the night of 15 January 1920, Allied forces at the Innokent’evskaia railway station delivered the former “Supreme Ruler of Russia,” Admiral A.V. Kolchak, to the plenipotentiary representative of the Irkutsk SR-Menshevik Political Center. In addition to the admiral, the Polical Center also took possession of “Kolchak’s gold.” Soon, both the admiral and the gold were in Bolshevik hands.

Kolchak was shot on the night of 7 February 1920. The gold that had reached the Bolshevik (approximately 409.6 million rubles worth) was transferred to Kazan’.

But what had become of the remaining gold, valued at almost 236 million rubles?

This question has given rise to a substantial non-academic literature. “Kolchak’s gold” has been sought in an abandoned mine and in the vaults of Japanese, British, and American banks. Both the Czech Legion and Japanese militarists have been accused of stealing it. Russian and British novels have been written about it. Films have been dedicated to it and dozens (if not hundreds of articles) have been written on the subject. There has probably never been a feature about Admiral Kolchak in the Russian mass media that does not mention the riddle of “Kolchak’s gold.”

Indeed, what could be more intriguing than a real-life story about lost treasure?

What have historians had to say about the matter? Unfortunately, historians in Russia never had access to all the documents that would allow the story of “Kolchak’s gold” to be told. Available information concerning the funds raised via the sale of the gold or received in the form of gold-backed loans, indicated that toward the end of December 1919, P.A. Buryshkin (the last Minister of Finances for the Omsk Government) transferred money to the accounts of Russian financial agents located abroad. When Soviet special forces and archivists obtained the émigré Prague Archive in 1945, they discovered information concerning all sorts of things...but learned nothing about the missing gold. As it turned out, Russian diplomats and financial agents had been in no hurry to transfer their documents about financial operations to archives. When they did, they often sent them to archives far removed from Moscow. Some, like the former ambassador in Paris Vasilii Maklakov, kept the documents in their possession until death.

As a result, documents that would help us understand what happened to “Kolchak’s gold,” or, more accurately, the funds obtained from sales of the gold and gold-backed loans, ended up scattered in archives in Russia, the United States (the Hoover Archive at Stanford University and the Bakhmetev Archive at Columbia University) and Great Britain (the Leeds Russian Archive). Working in these archives, I have managed to piece together “the money trail.”

According to my calculations, Kolchak’s financiers sent a total of nearly 195 million rubles in gold abroad. Part of the gold, worth approximately $35.18 million, was sold between May and September 1919 to French, Japanese, and British banks. The bulk of the gold was deposited in Japanese, British and American banks to serve as collateral for loans. The largest loan (valued at 75 million gold rubles) was provided jointly by the British bank Baring Brothers and the American bank Kidder, Peabody & Co. The British portion of the loan was delivered in pounds sterling (£3 million). The American portion totalled $22.5 million. The gold also served as collateral for a Japanese-backed loan in the amount of nearly 30 million yen (the ruble-yen exchange rate at the time was virtually 1:1). The gold was also used for the acquisition on credit of rifles from the US government and the Remington company as well as Colt machine guns supplied by the Marlin-Rockwell Corporation. One gold shipment valued at $43.55 million rubles sent by rail from Omsk to Vladivostok was seized by Ataman G.M. Semenov. The ataman spent the bullion maintaining his troops and engaging in exotic missions such as trying to persuade the Mongols to fight against the Third International. For this latter mission, the ataman dispatched Baron R.F. Ungern to Mongolia along with seven million gold rubles.

The lion’s share of the money received by the government of Admiral Kolchak and later “inherited” by his successors - Generals A.I. Denikin and P.N. Wrangel – was used for the purchase of arms, uniforms, and other military supplies. A sizable sum of money (over $4 million) was used to order bank notes in the USA. (The financiers of the White movement hoped to use the reliable American currency to stabilise the money supply in the regions under their control.) Ultimately, however, in order to avoid the high costs associated with storing the currency, the American notes were incinerated. The money was literally thrown to the wind.

Russian financial agents sold part of the gold to pay off loans. The last transaction was made in spring 1921 by S.A. Uget, a financial agent in the USA. Part of the gold used as collateral was released after the account with the Remington company was settled. This gold was then sold to the Japanese Yokohama Specie Bank for a sum equivalent to $500,000. Interestingly, Russia’s foreign-based diplomats planned to keep this money for use by the future government of a post-Bolshevik Russia. In order to hide these funds from Russia’s tireless creditors, the money was invested in shares and bills of exchange issued from the London and Eastern Trade Bank; a British bank backed by Russian capital that had been created by Russian entrepreneurs who found themselves in emigration after 1917. The person entrusted to hold the shares Gustav Nobel, nephew of the world famous chemist and prize-founder Alfred Nobel.

“Kolchak’s gold,” or, more precisely, the money obtained from it, was destined to have an unexpectedly long life following the end of the Civil War. The Russian diplomats who formed the Council of Russian Ambassadors in Paris and its Financial Council took responsibility for the treasure. They used the money to fund the resettlement of Wrangel’s army in the Balkans and to help Russians in emigration. The tiny stream of funds gradually diminished but did not dry up until the late 1950s. I have managed to trace the history of “Kolchak’s gold” up to the death, in 1957, of the last member of the Council of Ambassadors, V.A. Maklakov.

The story of “Kolchak’s gold” is an intriguing chapter in the history of Russia’s Great War and Revolution and the subject of my book, Money of the Russian Emigration: Kolchak’s Gold, 1918-1957 (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2008) [Деньги русской емиграции: Колчаковское золото, 1918-1957. Москва: Новое литературное обозрение, 2008]. Newly uncovered archival materials have finally allowed us to put to rest debates that had lasted for almost ninety years.

Oleg Budnitskii, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, Russia)

  • 1According to the “Coin Statute of 1899,” the amount of pure gold in a ruble was set at 0.77423 grams. Ten gold rubles were equal to 1pound sterling. Two gold rubles were equal to 1 US dollar. Adjusted for inflation, “Kolchak’s gold” was roughly worth $4.45 billion in 2009 US currency.

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