Tag Archives: Kerensky

1917: Into the Dustbin of History

Trotsky speaking in Red Square

Leon Trotsky speaking before a crowd in Petrograd, October, 1917.

“I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” -Vladimir Lenin, in conversation with Valeriu Marcu while exiled in Switzerland.

On this day, one hundred years ago, the October Revolution began. In the Gregorian Calendar, the Revolution started on November 7, but in the old Russian Julian calendar, it was October 25. In memory, it marked the beginning of the state that would become the Soviet Union. For those involved, it was something more important: the end of the Provisional Government and what might be called a de facto state of anarchy.

The word anarchy is worth interrogating. Recent abuses of the word in popular culture suggest that anarchy is a kind of directionless physical violence, which removes it from its more valuable political usage. Anarchy was a widespread political ideology at the turn of the century, seen as the antithesis to monarchy, oligarchy, and above all, hierarchy. These words stem from the Greek arkhon, meaning “ruler,” and in the Athenian Democracy indicated certain offices that one could hold as religious kings, generals, or administrators. Anarchy, then, is the absence of rulers, but specifically the absence of hierarchy, or the stratification of rulers over the ruled. In the context of an oppressive Tsarist empire whose police shot protestors while stoking antisemitism and nationalism and fought a useless war for political ambitions and allegiances, the concept of anarchy would have been quite appealing.

The problem with the Provisional Government that formed after February, 1917, was not that it was explicitly authoritarian. The problem, from its inception, was that it was a balancing act between traditional hierarchies and the growing desire for the end of those hierarchies. Alexander Kerensky came to control the Provisional Government, sharing power with the soviets while trying to maintain the war.¬† What Trotsky called “dual power” between Kerensky’s Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet (representing workers, peasants, and soldiers), Lenin called “Bonapartism,” in reference to Napoleon Bonaparte. In mid-1917, Lenin wrote that Kerensky was maneuvering “state power, which leans on the military clique (on the worst elements of the army) for support, between two hostile classes and forces which more or less balance each other out.” Lenin was not alone in criticizing the Provisional Government, which was a primary point of contention among Russia’s revolutionaries.

Apart from Kerensky’s perpetuation of the war effort, he was shown to be an unhelpful leader in August, during what became known as the Kornilov Affair. Lavr Kornilov was a general who, in August, attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government and install a right-wing military dictatorship, a proto-fascist regime that would have undermined the February Revolution and reinstated a new Tsarism. As China Mieville writes of the affair, “. . . there was more than one conspiracy simmering away on the right. Various shadowy groups–the Union of Officers, the Republican Centre and Military League–were meeting to discuss plans for martial law” (213). Add to these the threat of the antisemitic Black Hundreds, responsible for mass murders and pogroms across Russia, as well as counterrevolutionary efforts to win the war, the bleak regime Kornilov almost created would have been as oppressive, if not more so, than the regime of Tsar Nicholas II. But the coup failed because Kerensky managed to work alongside the Petrograd Soviet in time to stop Kornilov’s renegades from invading the capitol.

There was leadership, then, but no ruler. Christopher Read writes that one consequence of the Kornilov Affair was “a sort of reverse of the July Days,” that the “right had discredited itself and restored the ascendancy of the left.” He also writes that there were consequences for Kerensky, too, who “made an agreement with the Petrograd Soviet, armed it, withdrew the ban on its members, primarily the Bolsheviks, and released Soviet prisoners from jail. . . But it was not enough. Kerensky was seen to have cultivated Kornilov in the first place, not least in appointing him C-in-C” (Read 92-93). Indeed, Kerensky was seen as having worked with Kornilov, and many believed that he was sympathetic to an authoritarian coup that would relieve him of his duties. If nothing else, the affair proved that the Provisional Government had become dysfunctional, barely clinging to life.

In the months that followed, popular support for the Bolsheviks rose while support for Kerensky plummeted. It is important to note that the goal of most on the far left, including some Mensheviks, was to pass power to the soviets completely, and end the power of the Provisional Government. As early as September, “eighty soviets in large and medium towns backed the call for a soviet government. In towns such as Tsaritsyn, Narva, Krasnoiarsk, and Kostroma soviet power was already a reality” (Smith 147). During this time, the Bolsheviks were actively campaigning from the ground up, organizing factories, speaking in public, and stoking public support for a soviet antithesis to the Provisional Government. It was around this time that Lenin suggested that the Bolsheviks, “‘having obtained a majority in the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in both capitols, can and must take state power into their own hands‘” (Mieville 246), and should make no compromise with the Provisional Government by simply walking away from it.

Here, Lenin believed that the time was ripe for the soviets to lead the soviets in taking power. Earlier, he had encouraged the Bolsheviks to refrain from leaving the Provisional Government in July because they were not popularly supported, and it was important for him to recognize that the support of the workers, peasants, and soldiers was more important than overthrowing a weak Provisional Government. It had to be done for the soviets and all they represented. Now that it was clear the Bolsheviks were going to gain popular recognition in an upcoming pre-parliament session (which would begin October 7), the Bolsheviks would declare their legitimacy among the soviets and then walk out.

The Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, who helped exiled leaders like Lenin correspond with the party and without whom the revolution would not have succeeded, articulated the main argument against working with the Provisional Government in her text “Why the Bolsheviks Must Win.” She wrote that the “February revolution could remove none of the factors which caused it, namely war, rising prices, famine and privation. At the same time, the Russian bourgeoisie calmly continued their rule” (Kollontai). In other words, the horrors that motivated widespread protests across Russia continued to inflict damage, and needed to be addressed with different means. For many Bolsheviks, this meant an armed insurrection to precipitate the transfer of power to the soviets.

After walking out on the pre-parliament, the Bolshevik Central Committee met in secret on October 10 to vote on whether or not to implement an insurrection. By ten to two, after numerous speeches from numerous members, they voted in favor of insurrection. They were now popular representatives of the peasants and workers, and the time had come for another, more radical change necessitated by the moment’s urgency. For the Central Committee members, waiting for more elections would result only in more casualties as the German army approached and increase the chance of another Kornilov-inspired coup. If they waited any longer, the comatose Provisional Government might be toppled and a military dictator might be installed.

The insurrection began on October 25. Fittingly, this was also Trotsky’s birthday.

That day, Trotsky spoke to an “emergency session of the Petrograd Soviet” and announced, “‘On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the Provisional Government no longer exists‘” (Mieville 289). The Second Congress of Soviets opened to debate a new soviet-led government. Meanwhile, Red Guards (a paramilitary branch of the Bolsheviks), seized key areas of Petrograd, including bridges, train stations, the post office, and eventually the Winter Palace, where they arrested the remaining members of the Provisional Government, who surrendered peacefully. All except Kerensky, who had long since fled the city.

A number of elected officials who opposed the insurrection walked out of the Second Congress of Soviets, while Trotsky pontificated on the legitimacy of the move he and the Bolsheviks made: “A rising of the masses of the people requires no justification. What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy.” While those who dissented walked up and left, just as the Bolsheviks had at the pre-parliament weeks before, Trotsky denounced them, shouting, “you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: to the dustbin of history” (298-299). On those words, the opposition left the Congress to continue debating a new regime, one without monarchy, oligarchy, or hierarchy.

By early morning on October 26, after tense nightlong debates, the Second Congress of Soviets passed a resolution drafted by Lenin to build a soviet-exclusive government, end the war, grant self-determination to nations Russia had subjugated, and transfer land to the peasants (303-304), thus creating an all-soviet state.

The October Revolution occurred without a single loss of life. It was armed, but bloodless. A ship controlled by the Red Guards, the Aurora, fired a blank shot, and some shots were fired periodically during the arrest of the Provisional Government, but nobody died in the October Revolution, partly because of how well organized the Red Guards were, but mostly because the government in place was apathetic to its own demise. It did not resist arrest and cancellation, which suggests that the October Revolution was not a coup, as some historians contest. As S. A. Smith puts it, “. . . a coup implies the seizure of a functioning state machine. Arguably, Russia had not had this since February” (43).

It is telling that the document announcing the insurrection’s success, titled “To the Citizens of Russia,” begins not by declaring a new soviet regime but by iterating that “The Provisional Government has been deposed” (Lenin). A bottom-up regime change was important, but it was more important to end what was in place, a doomed, if not failed, attempt to sustain a fraction of the old guard through the exhausted imitation of the old guard’s strategies. It was not a state of anarchy the way contemporary anarchists would have preferred. Kerensky held together a stitched-up government of poorly balanced provisions and hierarchy beyond its health. He was not a competent ruler, but he still ruled, and as such, he presided over a kind of anarchy by leaving the Provisional Government open to coups that favored hierarchy, which would have been a return to pre-revolutionary Russia.

The October Revolution was an attempt to replace the lasting remains of the Tsarist regime with something new, something untried, something that could create a state without hierarchy. It was a somewhat democratic effort to reaffirm the rule of the soviets, to make every worker, peasant, and soldier free of status. It seems that in the moment, the only other option was a cynical return to military dictatorship, well-known to those many who survived it before. The Bolsheviks wanted to give the Congress an alternative, however strange and frightening it may have been, to what Russians had spent decades suffering through. After the bloody Civil War, Lenin’s too-soon passing, and Stalin’s hijacking of the state, the Second Congress is easily obscured in its long, cold aftermath.

One step forward, one step back.

Trotsky condemned those who refused to try for an alternative to hierarchy to the “dustbin of history,” where, now that Russia is under a new brand of right-wing authoritarianism, the entire Soviet Union now rests, sometimes even in peace.

Mieville, China. October. Verso, 2017.

Read, Christopher. War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Smith, S. A. Russia in Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Smith, S. A. The Russian Revolution. Sterling, 2011.

Thorley, John. Athenian Democracy. Routledge, 1996.

1917: To Free Russia

Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, Viktor Vasnetsov, 1887.

The American journalist and socialist John Reed, who went to Russia to cover the revolution, interviewed Alexander Kerensky in late 1917, though the interview was published in The Liberator in 1918, after the October Revolution, which may have shaped its publication. Kerensky’s role as the de facto of the Provisional Government, a political body formed to stabilize the country in the wake of the February Revolution. Kerensky took power in spring, survived a coup and military defeats in summer, and by autumn he had come to embody the political and economic stagnation that led many Russians to revolt against Tsar Nicholas II in the first place. Kerensky continued the war effort (with disastrous results), censored critics by shutting down newspaper presses, exiled Bolsheviks whom he then appealed to for help after the failed Kornilov coup, and devoted most of his energy to sustaining his government at the cost of reforms and peace.

Reed writes of the interview that, as of its writing on “October 23, Kerensky is alone. . . In the midst of the class-struggle, which deepens and grows bitterer and bitterer every day, his place becomes more and more precarious” (Reed). Noting that Kerensky has become a symbol of the revolution’s failure for the working classes and a symbol of the failed war effort for the Allies, Reed adds grimly that “Kerensky will fall, and his fall will be the signal for civil war.”

It is interesting to note Reed’s carefully sympathetic treatment of Kerensky, presenting him as optimistic but naive. At one point in the interview, he asks Kerensky what he thinks his “purpose” is in the Provisional Government, to which he responds, “Just to free Russia.” This statement contrasts his continued, if not obsessive, involvement in World War One as well as his stagnant approach to Russia’s colonies, from Ukraine to Chechnya, from Scandinavia to Central Asia, vying for autonomy after centuries of Tsarist control.

Russia’s colonies fared variously, if not disproportionately, between February and October under the Provisional Government. Treadgold and Ellison note that historically, the “tsars had recognized no such entity as Ukraine. During the nineteenth century Ukrainian intellectuals had gathered to work for the cause of their new nationalism” (Treadgold & Ellison 108), and that the Provisional Government halfheartedly recognized but questioned an autonomous Ukraine. Central Asian communities pushed for greater autonomy as well. In May, 1917, an all-Russian Muslim Congress organized and met in Moscow, where they “proclaimed the emancipation of Muslim women, and established a religious administration independent of state control for all Russian Islam” (110), viewing the revolution as an opportunity to reevaluate and reaffirm post-Tsarist identities.

Historically, the Tsarist regime exercised a frontier settler colonialism, comparable to the settler colonialism the US exerted over Native American land, with similar tensions. In 1916, an “anti-Russian uprising took place” between Kazakhs in modern-day Kazakhstan and Russian colonists, “which the Russian tsarist military suppressed brutally, forcing some 300,000 Kazakhs to flee” into China (Peimani 124). While this kind of behavior was typical of imperial Russia, Kerensky’s hesitation to grant full autonomy was perceived by many Kazakhs, among others, as a continuation of the old guard. The bloodletting between Russian settlers and Kazakhs returning from China continued well into 1917, long after Kerensky stepped in to free Russia.

Russia’s southern colonies were not at the forefront of revolutionary discussions. Even the Bolsheviks did not explicitly prioritize the autonomy of Central Asian territories. In his 1916 essay “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin writes that “Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc. etc.–are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained monarchies and the imperial bourgeoisie” (Lenin), and though Kazakhs, Chechans, Tartars, and other Central Asian groups might be included in Lenin’s use of “etc. etc.,” and though their freedom is logically consistent with Lenin’s argument from the same essay that “Imperialism is the highest stage of development of capitalism,” their absence is disappointingly consistent with the attitude of most Russian revolutionaries at the time.

It is certainly consistent with the attitude Kerensky had toward Russia’s colonial borders, who were not wholly unrepresented in the Soviets, but their calls for autonomy were overridden and often ignored. Kerensky’s Provisional Government was intended to restore order, which for starving urban workers was at least briefly productive. But for displaced, colonized peoples, restored order meant a reinstatement of the colonial status quo. And the bloodletting, much like the war, continued.

John Reed writes that Kerensky called himself a “doomed man” in late October, while simultaneously claiming his role was to free Russia. To free Russia from what? Himself? The stalled change he oversaw? The war he perpetuated? If Reed’s portrayal is accurate, Kerensky became a variation of his own stagnation, able to recognize that he, like his regime, was temporary, even doomed. That his fall would precipitate the Russian Civil War, which it eventually did.

Did Kerensky know he would fall? Did he think he could sustain the Russia he presided over? Did he believe he could save Russia by remaining in power, or did he believe that he could save it by finally beginning to dismantle the state’s violence after three years of war and three centuries of imperialism? What does it take to show political leaders that they are poisonous to the countries they oversee? Kerensky, like most inept, corrupt, or failed leaders, chose to stay in power, and the ensuing frustration with what was perceived as his cryptic neo-tsarism precipitated the October Revolution, not an act of taking power but recreating it where it was stalled, stored, rendered useless beyond repair.

Peimani, Hooman. Conflict and Security in Central Asia and the Caucuses. ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000

1917: Kerensky’s Sidestep

Alexander Kerensky and Map

Alexander Kerensky, briefly Prime Minister, 1917. Via Keystone/Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In early 1917, rebelling Russians wanted three things: political reform, economic reform, and for Russia to withdraw from the Great War. The Provisional Government that took over many of the Tsar’s administrative tasks attempted to satisfy the various Soviets that appeared throughout Russia, which represented the interests of soldiers, workers, and peasants (often in that order). Without mutinying soldiers, the February Revolution would likely not have happened, but many soldiers were divided about whether or not to continue a war that had proven disastrous for them under the Tsar.

The crisis of leadership following the February Revolution placed several key figures into powerful positions. Pavel Miliukov, a pro-monarchy and pro-war politician, became the Provisional Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, and in contrast, the moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky simultaneously held positions in the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government, as the vice chairman and Minister of Justice, respectively. Kerensky’s role in the chaotic time between March and November of 1917 shaped Russian policy between the year’s revolutions.

At the start of the war, Kerensky was the leader of the center-left Trudoviks. After the February Revolution, he came to power in both the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government against official Soviet policy, which made it illegal for Soviet members to hold government positions. Kerensky occupied  a position comparable to a US Senator who somehow managed to also hold a seat in the US House of Representatives.

Led by the Mensheviks, the Petrograd Soviet held a firm grip over the capital, but refused to act as a new government because Mensheviks predominantly believed that “the February Revolution was a ‘bourgeois revolution.’ . . it was the task of the workers’ party to refrain from compromising itself in the workers’ eyes by taking power” (Treadgold & Ellison 96). As a result, the Petrograd Soviet and Provisional Government created a power vacuum that could not be filled, preventing elites from exercising power but also making it difficult to pass economic or military reforms, what Trotsky called “dual power.” Kerensky managed to bridge that gap.

Kerensky was liked by those to the political right of him. In isolation, Tsar Nicholas II wrote in his journal that the “more power [Kerensky] gets, the better” (91), and Miliukov said in a speech to the Provisional Government shortly after its formation that he “just received the consent of [his] comrade A. F. Kerensky to assume a position in the first Russian public cabinet. We are eternally joyful to place into the trusty hands of this public activist the ministry that will mete out out just retribution to the servants of the old regime” (Daly and Trofimov 51).

He continued to rise to power as the year progressed and the Bolsheviks continued to attempt to stir up support after their mid-April return from exile. In late April, Miluikov’s pro-war policy found little support, and he resigned from office on May 2, days after the Minister of War, Alexander Guchkov, resigned. Once again, Kerensky filled the power gap by replacing Guchkov as War Minister on May 5. However, Kerensky adopted a similar stance on the war, and rededicated the Russian military to the Allies. Kerensky slid to the center and Russia stayed in the war.

After a failed coup in summer, he would replace Prince Lvov (appointed by the Tsar) as Prime Minister. In four months, Kerensky would rise to power by moderation, rhetorical savvy, and his continual sidestep closer to the right. The stalled gears of “dual power” in the capital made it possible for one person straddling both branches to exert more and more influence, foreshadowing Stalin’s power grab a decade later. But Kerensky was neither a dictator nor a cynic. His politics were pragmatic, though increasingly conservative. His betrayal of leftist idealism makes sense in the wake of leftist hesitation while his rise to power was possible only through the failure and resignation of other powerful figures. Because his lack of immediate shortcomings contrasted the inadequacies of those he continually replaced, his rise to power was seen as stabilizing rather than centralizing. But his military failures and insufficient land and economic reforms imitated the same failures that led to the Tsar’s ousting. If February was a bourgeois revolution against Tsarism, October was an intelligentsia’s revolt against Kerenskyism, which was a bourgeois liberal’s attempt at restoring order without changing the order of things.

Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.