Sunday, 27 August 2017

The Russian Revolution 3: April to September 1917

Kerensky - only 36 in 1917.
Hero to zero in months
What happened in Russia between the February and October revolutions of 1917? Chaos, uncertainty, hesitation, machinations, anarchy, suffering, bloodshed – and in the meantime WW1 continued on the Eastern Front and in the Caucasus. The Tsar was in custody. Efforts by his supporters to find a safe and friendly exile location were rebutted in England and France. Leaders in both were afraid his presence would provoke further revolutionary activity. King George V was obliged virtually to disown his cousin, who – along with his family – was sent away to a family house at Tobolsk in the Urals. The forces that might have come to the Tsar’s rescue were split. Discipline in the bureaucracy and the police had collapsed under the weight of the February rebellions. The church was split between authoritarian orthodoxy and a post-Rasputin move to re-connect with the people. The army was split between the forces of reaction, the progressives and the demoralized majority, and the navy was out of central control. The largest naval garrison was holed up in Kronstadt island in the Baltic sea run by revolutionary zeal, and acting as an independent soviet. Most of all, attempts to govern the country were split – riven by ideological and factional disputes. Grand Duke Michael’s resignation came pending a vote on the future of the monarchy by  a democratically elected constituent assembly. The Provisional Government (PG) was so named for that purpose: created from a Duma of such diversity of views that it was doomed from the start.

Finally there was the geographical split. Almost all of the decision making that counted took place in the tiny north west corner of the vast empire – in Petrograd. Word of the revolution had, of course, spread and around 700 Soviets had sprung up around the empire, replacing zemstvos and urban groupings. However, the primitive communications – even to Moscow – meant that it was impossible for these new soviets to keep up with the tide of events in Petrograd. Throughout Russia, the revolution stumbled on in myriad chaotic ways.

The Duma’s Provisional Government was now tempered by the views and actions of the Petrograd Soviet. The PG contained right wing elements notably Octobrists and Kadets (the latter orchestrating reactionary forces such as the Black Hundred mobs); liberals and socialists. The experienced moderate Prince Lvov was made its first Prime Minister, and it needed all of his diplomatic skills and optimism to make any headway at all. The Soviet contained Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and several other factions. Essentially, all the groupings agreed on the ends but not the means of the Revolution.  Mensheviks and SRs held to Marxist dogma. They looked at the failed revolutions of the mid-19th century and argued that it would require a long period of democracy and capitalism before a workers revolution. The Bolsheviks (very much a minority) wanted to hasten the proletariat revolution by insurrection and the violent seizure of power. Even among themselves though, there were hard divisions. Their leading spokesman in the Petrograd Soviet, Kamenev, wanted to wait for broader mass support because he feared a reactionary counter-revolution. Lenin led the extreme viewpoint – that now was the time for the soviets to take control of government. Back in Russia since March following his famous German assisted return from exile in Zurich, Lenin wanted to make up for lost time. “All power to the soviets” was his slogan, and his voice was powerful in Petrograd, but not in other cities (where Mensheviks were in the majority) or rural areas (where the SRs, led by Chernov, were in a large majority).
Initially it looked as if the PG and Soviet might rub along together in preparation for an election within six months (provided they didn’t discuss controversial issues like the war or the land). Then an early autonomous action by the Soviet spelt disaster for the PG. Aptly titled 'Order Number One', it was dashed off and issued on 14th March (26th March Gregorian) as a list of soldiers’ demands before returning to serve in their units. It made them subject to the rule of the Soviet rather than the Military Supreme Command (the Stavka). And it made the Soviet support for the PG conditional on its acceptance. The PG was snookered, and the already shaky discipline within the army was damaged irreparably. In the medium term this worked perfectly in Lenin’s favour.
However, these were the moments when the shooting star that was the cult of Alexander Kerensky burnt most brightly. As a member of the Trudoviks (a moderate splinter group of the SRs) he was the only person to hold position in both the PG and the Soviet. His barnstorming oratory made him appeal to all sides, and the crowds in the Petrograd streets (with not much precedent to work with) hailed him as a new Tsar. Unfortunately, Kerensky was to prove highly susceptible to flattery and idolatry. As Lvov’s War Minister he campaigned passionately for an offensive on the Eastern Front. This, he argued, would galvanise the army and the people; unify Russia and safeguard the democratic revolution. It was also, of course, music to the ears of Allied Governments. He managed to win over most of the Soviet (except the Bolsheviks) and obtained approval for what would be Russia’s last major military action of WW1. He rushed off to the front to rally the troops, and on his first meeting with Brusilov (fighting on in Poland) he made him Commander in Chief of the Army. Brusilov shared Prince Lvov’s patriotic optimism, and set about planning a breakthrough back to Lemberg, scene of his success in 1914. However, his appointment did not go down well with the top brass at Stavka. When Brusilov visited shortly afterwards, he found cold shoulders, defeatism and indiscipline, and began to realise the scale of his challenge.
Meanwhile the situation in Petrograd was worsening. Increasing industrial unrest (much of it provoked by deserting soldiers) added to news of peasant revolts against country landowners. At the same time, nationalist movements, particularly in Ukraine, Poland Latvia and Finland were seizing on the governmental weakness with demands for independent assemblies. Lenin was busy pushing his “Power to the Soviets” line, but his party was not strong enough to overrule the moderates, who hesitated – again.  
On 18th June (1st July Gregorian) the “Kerensky Offensive” was launched in Galicia. Brusilov’s leading General was the ultra conservative Kornilov, who had scoured the reserves for storm trooper material, and even had a female regiment of fanatics, (Maria) 'Bochkarev’s Battalion of Death', sanctioned by Brusilov. The main attack towards Lemberg in the south had initial success (as did supporting actions to the north and east). Joyous reports reached Petrograd, the mood lightened and a disappointed and exhausted Lenin left town for a recuperation spell in Finland. Had he stayed things might have turned out differently. There was no back up for Kornilov’s initial advances and within two weeks the Kerensky offensive had crumbled to a disaster. Hundreds of thousands of troops died or deserted (to the Germans or to the rear). Petrograd was in turmoil again, Prince Lvov resigned and Kerensky, oblivious to criticism, took his chance to become Prime Minister. He blamed the defeat on German agents and Bolshevik pacifism. There followed the ‘July days’ another feverish period of wildly swinging views, when anarchy and civil war were in the air. Yet again the Soviet leaders were caught between their fear that revolution would be unsustainable and that counter-revolution would destroy them.* Even Lenin missed the opportunity to force the issue. By the time he had returned to Petrograd he must have been as confused as everyone else about what was going on. A mass demonstration by visiting sailors from the Kronstadt soviet threated to invade the White Palace to seize power for the city Soviet. It fizzled out for lack of clear instructions.
Using this as justification, Kerensky now took the upper hand. With sufficient loyal troops to back him, he ordered the arrests of the Soviet leaders. His first trawl did not find Lenin, and he ordered extensive searches of known Bolshevik locations, stirring up wild anti-Bolshevik sentiments. In these raids over 800 Bolsheviks were detained, including Kamenev and Trotsky, but Lenin escaped – again to Finland. He would not be heard again in public until October .
By the end of August with civil unrest growing, Kerensky faced a counter revolution of his own. Kornilov had been persuaded to mount a military putsch, and organised forces to move on Petrograd from the Stavka for a coup d’etat. (all this time the Germans were advancing through Latvia to threaten Petrograd themselves, and Kerensky was considering moving the government to Moscow). Forewarned, Kerensky gave orders to arm the military and para-military groups defending Petrograd’s revolution. This include many who were emerging as Red Guards – the military wing of the Bolsheviks. It helped Kerensky dispose of the immediate threat – Kornilov’s shrinking group was intercepted with ease and he was imprisoned – but it played into Lenin’s hands by arming the proletariat.
In September, Kerensky named his new cabinet. It was a reactionary one, with only token representation for the soviet. Thereafter, he did a passable impression of the Emperor Nero, surrounding himself with sycophants, and indulging a luxurious lifestyle. He did not appreciate that his star had shot. With anarchy and violence bubbling on the streets, his days of leadership were numbered.

*The truth was that none of these men were real ‘leaders’ required by the situation. Intellectual and reasonable, they were used to opposing not leading.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Balkans 1917

Macedonia - coveted by the Ottomans, Serbia, Bulgaria
and Greece. Still an unresolved bone of contention in 2017.
Compared to the stalemate of the western Front, the unstable patchwork of nations contained within the Balkan Peninsula had seen tremendous movements across frontiers and reversals of fortune. In 1914 the Serbians humiliatingly repulsed Austria’s punitive invasion, and held their own until late 1915 when German intervention crushed their resistance and overwhelmed their country (see Post 29/9/2015). Vengeful Austria, alongside a Bulgarian intervention to the east pushed the remains of the Serbian army and much of the population over the mountains to the Albanian coast. Surviving soldiers were evacuated to Greek islands, to re-appear alongside Allied forces later in the war. Bulgaria’s opportunist entry to the war aimed to regain land she had lost during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. By joining with the Central Powers, Bulgaria had to put aside her claims to Western Turkey, but did take advantage of the pursuit of retreating Serbs to occupy northern Albania in December 1915.
The unfortunate Albania - only recognised as an independent state in 1912 – suffered more than any from the complexity of Balkan politics. Despite neutrality in the main conflict, it was steadily dismantled. Occupied in the north by Bulgarian and Austrian forces, it was invaded from the east by Greece as early as 1914, to support a Greek minority controlled region of Epirus. This, in turn was overtaken by an extension of the French front in Salonika, and an invasion of Italian troops in the south to create an ‘autonomous’ Albanian republic of Korce, which both parties squabbled over. By mid-1916 the small remaining independent central Albania was obliged to declare war on Austria-Hungary and await the outcome.
To the south east, the Greek tragedy continued gradually to unfold.

Like her neighbour Albania, Greece encountered more problems from a bogus neutrality than declaring for one side or the other. We have seen (Post 27/10/2015) how two strong individuals effectively split the country in two. Eleftherios Venizelos had continuously struggled against the Constitutional Monarch to bring Greece into the war on the side of the Allies.
A portrait of Constantine I
of Greece in 1914
King Constantine’s avowed neutral stance belied his Germanophile tendencies and his covert actions in favour of his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Ironically, his friendship with another cousin -  Tsar Nicholas - afforded him a degree of protection against overthrow. By the end of 1916 (see Post 23/12/2016) Greece was, effectively, partitioned, with Venizelos leading a pro-Allied government of national defence in the north, based in Salonika (Thessaloniki today), and the King and anti-Venizelists governing in Athens and the south. The Allied navies were blockading Athens to enforce the King’s promises re neutrality. This situation was not sustainable.
Sarrail’s garrison in Salonika, established in late 1915 as a vague strategic alternative to the failure at Gallipoli, had expanded over time. With Venizelos in close proximity, it was becoming active again in Macedonia - volatile but vitally important for communications in all directions. Unsuccessful initial moves in 1916 to the north east to support Rumania against the Bulgarians (see Post 2/10/2016) culminated in the capture of Monastir (today Bitola) in southern Macedonia in November. In early 1917 an expanded front was held by Sarrail’s forces from Monastir in the south, to the Struma Valley, leading up to Lake Doira, 90 miles north east of Salonika. The right (western) flank of this front was held by British forces, led by General Milne. In April Sarrail announced to his forces that they were going on to the offensive. There seemed no great strategic purpose, other than to join the Allied efforts on the Western Front and the presumed Russian offensive on the Eastern Front (although no-one knew what was really going on there). The French and Italians were to strengthen their positions in Albania and Milne’s forces were to move into Macedonia, pushing the Bulgarians back past the fortress at Doira, near the lake. An all too familiar pattern followed. The initial bombardment on 24th April enabled the Allied forces to gain their first objective almost everywhere. This was followed by slower progress against well prepared mountain defences, and accompanying heavy casualties. Anticipating summer heat, and the high risk of outbreaks of dysentery and malaria, Sarrail soon called off the offensive and consolidated his defences along the paltry new ground he had captured. Before long, large numbers of troops were recalled to northern Greece to monitor the rapidly changing political situation there.

Eleftherios Venizelos 1864-1936
A giant of modern Greek history
From the crisis at the end of 1916, Constantine’s Government in Athens was led by Lambros - under pressure from the allied shipping blockade to act with strict neutrality, and faced by a strengthening Venizelos government and army in the north. Still civil unrest continued, and the King encouraged pro-German propaganda. Lambros resigned, to be replaced by the equally ineffective Zaimis. As Venizelos grew stronger it appeared by the end of May that the King’s days were numbered. He was isolated, and could no longer rely on supportive moves from his cousins. By June the Italians occupied enough of Albania to block his only remaining direct communication route with the Central Powers. On 6th June, Jonnart, a high ranking French diplomat, was landed on the southern Greek coast as the presumptive High Commissioner for an Allied protectorate. He advanced to Athens where, on the 11th, he summoned Prime Minister Zaimis, issuing an ultimatum for a constitutional government that would guarantee the safety of the Allied forces in Salonika. Zaimis resigned in favour of Venizelos, who hurried south to Athens to assume his new role. Constantine was left with no choice but to abdicate, in favour of his son Prince Alexander. Constantine was expelled from Greece, joining a number of exiled monarchs in truly neutral Switzerland.
Venizelos set about uniting his country behind the Allies, and behind the new King. It was a remarkable achievement, and he would become Prime Minister several more times during Greece’s turbulent post-war times. Buchan, in his partial way, waxes lyrical about him: “His work lay in a narrow area, and his problems were on a small scale compared with those that faced his colleagues in Western Europe; but in the mental and moral endowments of the statesman he had no superior, and perhaps no equal, among living men”*

* Buchan: A History of the Great War. Vol 3 p505