|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.