|Russia||Russian Revolution||Soviet Union 1920-45|
Alexander Kerensky was born in Simbirsk, Russia, on 22nd April, 1881. The son of a headmaster, Kerensky studied law at the University of St. Petersburg.
In 1905 Kerensky joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR) and became editor of the radical newspaper, Burevestik. He was soon arrested and sent into exile. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1906 and found work as a lawyer. Over the next few years he developed a reputation for defending radicals in court who had been accused of political offenses.
Kerensky joined the Russian Labour Party and in 1912 was elected to the State Duma. A socialist, Kerensky developed a strong following amongst industrial workers. He also played an important role in the exposure of Roman Malinovsky, one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks, as an undercover agent of the Okhrana.
In February, 1917, Kerensky announced he had rejoined the Socialist Revolutionary Party and called for the removal of Nicholas II. When Alexandra Fyodorovna heard the news she wrote to her husband and demanded that he be hung as a traitor.
When the Tsar abdicated on 13th March, a Provisional Government, headed by Prince George Lvov, was formed. Kerensky was appointed as Minister of Justice in the new government and immediately introduced a series of reforms including the abolition of capital punishment. He also announced basic civil liberties such as freedom of the press, the abolition of ethnic and religious discrimination and made plans for the introduction of universal suffrage.
In May, 1917, Kerensky became Minister of War and appointed General Alexei Brusilov as the Commander in Chief of the Russian Army. He toured the Eastern Front where he made a series of emotional speeches where he appealed to the troops to continue fighting. On 18th June, Kerensky announced a new war offensive. Encouraged by the Bolsheviks, who favoured peace negotiations, there were demonstrations against Kerensky in Petrograd. Leon Trotsky said of him during this period: "His strength in the period of dual power lay in his combining the weakness of liberalism with the weaknesses of democracy."
The July Offensive, led by General Alexei Brusilov, was an attack on the whole Galician sector. Initially the Russian Army made advances and on the first day of the offensive took 10,000 prisoners. However, low morale, poor supply lines and the rapid arrival of German reserves from the Western Front slowed the advance and on 16th July the offensive was brought to an end.
The Provisional Government made no real attempt to seek an armistice with the Central Powers. Lvov's unwillingness to withdraw Russia from the First World War made him unpopular with the people and on 8th July, 1917, he resigned and was replaced by Kerensky. Ariadna Tyrkova, a member of the Constitutional Democrat Party, commented: "Kerensky was perhaps the only member of the Government who knew how to deal with the masses, since he instinctively understood the psychology of the mob. Therein lay his power and the main source of his popularity in the streets, in the Soviet, and in the Government."
The British ambassador, George Buchanan welcomed the appointment and reported back to London: "From the very first Kerensky had been the central figure of the revolutionary drama and had, alone among his colleagues, acquired a sensible hold on the masses. An ardent patriot, he desired to see Russia carry on the war till a democratic peace had been won; while he wanted to combat the forces of disorder so that his country should not fall a prey to anarchy. In the early stages of the revolution he displayed an energy and courage which marked him out as the one man capable of securing the attainment of these ends."
Alfred Knox, the British Military Attaché in Petrograd, also argued that he British should give full support to Kerensky: "There is only one man who can save the country, and that is Kerensky, for this little half-Jew lawyer has still the confidence of the over-articulate Petrograd mob, who, being armed, are masters of the situation. The remaining members of the Government may represent the people of Russia outside the Petrograd mob, but the people of Russia, being unarmed and inarticulate, do not count. The Provisional Government could not exist in Petrograd if it were not for Kerensky."
Kerensky was still the most popular man in the government because of his political past. In the Duma he had been leader of the moderate socialists and had been seen as the champion of the working-class. However, Kerensky, like George Lvov, was unwilling to end the war. In fact, soon after taking office, he announced a new summer offensive.
Soldiers on the Eastern Front were dismayed at the news and regiments began to refuse to move to the front line. There was a rapid increase in the number of men deserting and by the autumn of 1917 an estimated 2 million men had unofficially left the army.
Some of these soldiers returned to their homes and used their weapons to seize land from the nobility. Manor houses were burnt down and in some cases wealthy landowners were murdered. Kerensky and the Provisional Government issued warnings but were powerless to stop the redistribution of land in the countryside.
After the failure of the July Offensive on the Eastern Front, Kerensky replaced General Alexei Brusilov with General Lavr Kornilov, as Supreme Commander of the Russian Army. The two men soon clashed about military policy. Kornilov wanted Kerensky to restore the death-penalty for soldiers and to militarize the factories.
On 7th September, Kornoilov demanded the resignation of the Cabinet and the surrender of all military and civil authority to the Commander in Chief. Kerensky responded by dismissing Kornilov from office and ordering him back to Petrograd.
Kornilov now sent troops under the leadership of General Krymov to take control of Petrograd. Kerensky was now in danger and so he called on the Soviets and the Red Guards to protect Petrograd. The Bolsheviks, who controlled these organizations, agreed to this request, but in a speech made by their leader, Lenin, he made clear they would be fighting against Kornilov rather than for Kerensky.
Within a few days Bolsheviks had enlisted 25,000 armed recruits to defend Petrograd. While they dug trenches and fortified the city, delegations of soldiers were sent out to talk to the advancing troops. Meetings were held and Kornilov's troops decided to refuse to attack Petrograd. General Krymov committed suicide and Kornilov was arrested and taken into custody.
Kerensky now became the new Supreme Commander of the Russian Army. His continued support for the war effort made him unpopular in Russia and on 8th October, Kerensky attempted to recover his left-wing support by forming a new coalition that included more Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. However, with the Bolsheviks controlling the Soviets, and now able to call on 25,000 armed militia, Kerensky was unable to reassert his authority.
John Reed claimed that Kerensky made a serious mistake: "The Cossacks entered Tsarskoye Selo, Kerensky himself riding a white horse and all the church-bells clamouring. There was no battle. But Kerensky made a fatal blunder. At seven in the morning he sent word to the Second Tsarskoye Selo Rifles to lay down their arms. The soldiers replied they would remain neutral, but would not disarm. Kerensky gave them ten minutes in which to obey. This angered the soldiers; for eight months they had been governing themselves by committee, and this smacked of the old regime. A few minutes later Cossack artillery opened fire on the barracks, killing eight men. From that moment there were no more 'neutral' soldiers in Tsarskoye."
On 7th November, Kerensky was informed that the Bolsheviks were about to seize power. He decided to leave Petrograd and try to get the support of the Russian Army on the Eastern Front. Later that day the Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace and members of the Kerensky's cabinet were arrested. Kerensky assembled loyal troops from the Northern Front but his army was defeated by Bolshevik forces at Pulkova.
Morgan Philips Price explained in the Manchester Guardian on 19th November, 1917, why the government of Alexander Kerensky fell: "The Government of Kerensky fell before the Bolshevik insurgents because it had no supporters in the country. The bourgeois parties and the generals and the staff disliked it because it would not establish a military dictatorship. The Revolutionary Democracy lost faith in it because after eight months it had neither given land to the peasants nor established State control of industries, nor advanced the cause of the Russian peace programme. Instead it brought off the July advance without any guarantee that the Allies had agreed to reconsider war aims. The Bolsheviks thus acquired great support all over the country. In my journey in the provinces in September and October I noticed that every local Soviet had been captured by them."
Kerensky remained underground in Finland until escaping to London in May 1918. He later moved to France where he led the propaganda campaign against the communist regime in Russia. This included editing the Russian newspaper, Dni, that published in Paris and Berlin. In 1939 Kerensky urged the western democracies to intervene against both communism in the Soviet Union and fascism in Germany.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Kerensky moved to the United States. He worked at the Hoover Institution in California and wrote his autobiography, The Kerensky Memoirs: Russia and History's Turning Point (1967).
Alexander Kerensky died of cancer in New York on 11th June, 1970.
(1) As a student Alexander Kerensky was deeply influenced by the writings of Peter Struve.
One day in the fall of 1902, someone brought into the university the second issue of the weekly publication Osvobozhdeniye (Liberation), which had first been published in Stuttgart the year before and was edited by the young Marxist, Peter Struve. We were amazed and excited, because until that moment we had been completely unaware of the secret work that had been going on since the mid-1890s to organize the movement of which this journal was the official organ, a movement which combined zemstvo liberalism with the ideas of the intellectual, liberal, radical, and socialist circles.
(2) Alexander Kerensky was a young man when the Social Democratic Labour Party was formed. He wrote about his impressions of the party in Russia and History's Turning Point (1965)
The Marxists (Social Democrats) propagated their economic doctrine, which demanded alienation from the bourgeois and petty bourgeois student body and called for the marshaling of all efforts to achieve the victory of the industrial proletariat. Very few of the students sympathies with this idea. To most of us in Russia the exclusive regard for the industrial proletariat and the contemptuous disregard for the peasantry was utterly absurd.
(3) Alexander Kerensky, The Kerensky Memoirs (1967)
On January 18, 1917, Goremykin, who had now lost the last vestges of restraining influence in Tsarskoye Selo, was dismissed.
On January 19, he was replaced by Sturmer, an extreme reactionary who hated the very idea of any form of popular representation or local self-government. Even more important, he was undoubtedly a believer in the need for an immediate cessation of the war with Germany.
Goremykin's ominous prediction had come true - "When I go they will make peace." Preparations for a peace settlement were soon in full swing.
(4) Alexander Kerensky, speech in the Duma (27th February, 1917)
There are people who assert that the Ministers are at fault. Not so. The country now realizes that the Ministers are but fleeting shadows. The country can clearly see who sends them here. To prevent a catastrophe the Tsar himself must be removed, by force if there is no other way.
(5) Alexander Kerensky, speech in the Duma (1st March, 1917)
Comrades, in entering the Provisional Government I remain a Republican. In my work I must lean for help on the will of the people. I must have in the people my powerful support. May I trust you as I trust myself? I cannot live without the people, and if ever you begin to doubt me, kill me. I declare to the Provisional Government that I am a representative of the democracy, and that the Government must especially take into account the views I shall uphold as representing the people, by whose efforts the old Government was overthrown.
(6) John Reed interviewed Alexander Kerensky soon after he formed his new government on 8th July, 1917.
The Russian people are suffering from economic fatigue and from disillusionment with the Allies! The world thinks the Russian Revolution is at an end. Do not be mistaken. The Russian Revolution is just beginning.
(7) Harold Williams, Daily Chronicle (22nd March, 1917)
Kerensky is a young man in his early thirties, of medium height, with a slight stoop, and a quick, alert movement, with brownish hair brushed straight up, a broad forehead already lined, a sharp nose, and bright, keen eyes, with a certain puffiness in the lids due to want of sleep, and a pale, nervous face tapering sharply to the chin. His whole bearing was that of a man who could control masses.
He was dressed in a grey, rather worn suit, with a pencil sticking out of his breast pocket. He greeted us with a very pleasant smile, and his manner was simplicity itself. He led us into his study, and there we talked for an hour. We discussed the situation thoroughly, and I got the impression that Kerensky was not only a convinced and enthusiastic democrat, ready to sacrifice his life if need be for democracy - that I already knew from previous acquaintance - but that he had a clear, broad perception of the difficulties and dangers of the situation, and was preparing to meet them.
(8) Alfred Knox believed that Alexander Kerensky was a vital member of the Provisional Government.
There is only one man who can save the country, and that is Kerensky, for this little half-Jew lawyer has still the confidence of the over-articulate Petrograd mob, who, being armed, are masters of the situation. The remaining members of the Government may represent the people of Russia outside the Petrograd mob, but the people of Russia, being unarmed and inarticulate, do not count. The Provisional Government could not exist in Petrograd if it were not for Kerensky.
(9) John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919)
The policy of the Provisional Government alternated between ineffective reforms and stern repressive measures. An edict from the Socialist Minister of Labour ordered all the Workers' Committees henceforth to meet only after working hours. Among the troops at the front, 'agitators' of opposition political parties were arrested, radical newspapers closed down, and capital punishment applied - to revolutionary propagandists. Attempts were made to disarm the Red Guard. Cossacks were spent order in the provinces.
In September 1917, matters reached a crisis. Against the overwhelming sentiment of the country, Kerensky and the 'moderate' Socialists succeeded in establishing a Government of Coalition with the propertied classes; and as a result, the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries lost the confidence of the people for ever.
Week by week food became scarcer. The daily allowance of bread fell from a pound and a half to a pound, than three-quarters, half, and a quarter-pound. Towards the end there was a week without any bread at all. Sugar one was entitled to at the rate of two pounds a month - if one could get it at all, which was seldom. A bar of chocolate or a pound of tasteless candy cost anywhere from seven to ten roubles - at least a dollar. For milk and bread and sugar and tobacco one had to stand in queue. Coming home from an all-night meeting I have seen the tail beginning to form before dawn, mostly women, some babies in their arms.
(10) Arthur Ransome was in Russia during the October Revolution.
Before the end of August it was obvious that there would be a Bolshevik majority in the Soviets that would be reflected in the composition of the Executive Committee. During the 'July Days' the weakness of the Government had been manifest. Kerensky had been weakened by the double failure, military and diplomatic, disasters in Galicia and failure to bring the warring powers together in conference at Stockholm. Both these failures had brought new strength to the Bolsheviks, and a swing to the left was inevitable.
(11) Rabochi Put, a newspaper published by the Bolsheviks (17 October, 1917)
The fourth year's campaign will mean the annihilation of the army and the country. There is a danger for the safety of Petrograd. Counter-revolutionaries rejoice in the people's misfortunes. The Kerensky Government is against the people. He will destroy the country. This paper stands for the people and by the people - the poor classes, workers, soldiers and peasants. The people can only be saved by the completion of the revolution and for this purpose the full power must be in the hands of the Soviets.
(12) Alexander Kerensky, order issued on 24th October, 1917.
I order all military units and detachments to remain in their barracks until further orders from the Staff of the Military District. All officers who act without orders from their superiors will be court-martialled for mutiny. I forbid absolutely any execution by soldiers of instructions from other organizations.
(13) Alexander Kerensky, speech made at the Council of the Republic ( 24th October, 1917)
I will cite here the most characteristic passage from a whole series of articles published in Rabochi Put by Lenin, a state criminal who is in hiding and whom we are trying to find. This state criminal has invited the proletariat and the Petrograd garrison to repeat the experience of 16-18 July, and insists upon the immediate necessity for an armed rising. Moreover, other Bolshevik leaders have taken the floor in a series of meetings, and also made an appeal to immediate insurrection. Particularly should be noticed the activity of the present president of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky.
The policy of the Bolsheviki is demagogic and criminal, in their exploitation of the popular discontent. But there is a whole series of popular demands which have received no satisfaction up to now. The question of peace, land, and the democratization of the army ought to be stated in such a fashion that no soldier, peasant, or worker would have the least doubt that our Government is attempting, firmly and infallibly, to solve them.
The Provisional Government has never violated the liberty of all citizens of the State to use their political rights. But now the Provisional Government declares, in this moment those elements of the Russian nation, those groups and parties who have dared to lift their hands against the free will of the Russian people, at the same time threatening to open the front to Germany, must be liquidated.
(14) In his book, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), John Reed described Alexander Kerensky and the Cossacks entry into Tsarkoye Selo on 29th October, 1917.
The Cossacks entered Tsarskoye Selo, Kerensky himself riding a white horse and all the church-bells clamouring. There was no battle. But Kerensky made a fatal blunder. At seven in the morning he sent word to the Second Tsarskoye Selo Rifles to lay down their arms. The soldiers replied they would remain neutral, but would not disarm. Kerensky gave them ten minutes in which to obey. This angered the soldiers; for eight months they had been governing themselves by committee, and this smacked of the old regime. A few minutes later Cossack artillery opened fire on the barracks, killing eight men. From that moment there were no more 'neutral' soldiers in Tsarskoye.
(15) E. H. Wilcox was very impressed with Alexander Kerensky and praised him in his book, Russia's Ruin (1919)
Kerensky became the personification of everything that was good and noble in Russia. He was no longer the leader of the political Party, but the prophet of a new faith, the high priest of a new doctrine, which were to embrace all Russia, all mankind. Whatever he may have been before or after, during this dazzling and intoxicating interlude he had in him true elements of greatness.
(16) Morgan Philips Price, Manchester Guardian (19th November 1917)
The Government of Kerensky fell before the Bolshevik insurgents because it had no supporters in the country. The bourgeois parties and the generals and the staff disliked it because it would not establish a military dictatorship. The Revolutionary Democracy lost faith in it because after eight months it had neither given land to the peasants nor established State control of industries, nor advanced the cause of the Russian peace programme. Instead it brought off the July advance without any guarantee that the Allies had agreed to reconsider war aims. The Bolsheviks thus acquired great support all over the country. In my journey in the provinces in September and October I noticed that every local Soviet had been captured by them. The Executive Committee of the All-Russia Council of Workers' and Soldiers' Delegates elected last summer clearly did not represent the feelings of the revolutionary masses in October. The Bolsheviks, therefore, insisted on a re-election and the summoning of a second All-Russia Soviet Congress, only the Right Wing of the Socialist parties opposing this. After the statement of Mr Bonar Law that the Paris Conference was only for military purposes, they seemed to have decided on armed rebellion.
(17) Lincoln Steffens, Autobiography (1931)
Alexander Kerensky, the Russian orator, like Madero, the Mexican agitator, came to the leadership of revolution because he expressed the feelings-fear, faith, hope-of the people. He was, however, like Miliukoff, the choice of a committee of liberals, and the mob knew that, and when Crane, Shepherd, and I called on the new, emotional leader, he complained that he was powerless. He could but follow; he could not lead; and he was astonished. The throne was nothing but a chair. I had never heard a man express with such searching frustration as Kerensky did his distress at the emptiness of "the palace of the Czars." Kerensky in Russia explained Madero in Mexico, and Madero, Kerensky They were the first leaders of revolution.
Not an executive and with no plan of his own, Kerensky did what Madero did. He turned for advice to his committee and to other prominent leaders, whose ideas had been formed in moderate, reform movements under the Czar. He was for a republic, a representative democracy, which in his mind was really a plutocratic aristocracy. Meanwhile he was to carry on the war. These were not the ideas of the mob in the street. The people were confused, too; they did not know what a republic was; democracy, as we have seen, was a literal impossibility; but they were definite and clear about peace and no empire. So Kerensky, like Madero, represented the people emotionally, but not in ideas, and like Miliukoff, he felt the revolution, which he named public opinion, sweeping him along and passing him by.
Kerensky could not even manage that public opinion. There were other orators trying to do that, and the people listened to them as they did to Kerensky The Russians heard everybody, anybody, heard and believed and - were lost in the conflict of counsels.