One Hundred Years Ago: the Kornilov-Kerensky Putsch
Michael Jabara CARLEY | 01.09.2017 | WORLD

One Hundred Years Ago: the Kornilov-Kerensky Putsch

In August 1917, Russia was at war with the German-led Central Powers and at war with itself. A great revolution had been launched in February/March 1917 by workers and soldiers in the Russian capital of Petrograd. That revolution had spread quickly across the country. Soviets (or popular councils) of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies were established from Petrograd to Vladivostok. A Provisional Government was established under the watchful eyes of Soviet authorities. Red Petrograd became the heart of the Russian revolutionary movement. Paradoxically, neither the leadership of the Provisional Government nor even of the Petrograd Soviet was interested in harnessing and developing the energies of the revolutionary masses. The Provisional Government was at first controlled by members of the tsarist elite who abhorred the revolution. Their objective was to stop the koshmar before it went out of control.

In the Petrograd Soviet Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks, who held a majority of votes, were too insecure to take power themselves and feared the revolutionary masses whose interests they claimed to represent. The Bolsheviks were only a minority party, and even they were not united on the big issues of war and peace. The tsarist elite of the Provisional Government and milquetoast socialists of the Petrograd Soviet were like a cork in the bottle holding back the revolutionary masses. No wonder there were continuous crises and tensions in Russia during the spring and summer of 1917.

Officers nursed a deep loathing for the mutinous soldiers, and bided their time until they could halt the revolution and shoot the mutineers

In the Russian army too there were deep animosities between peasant soldiers and the former tsarist officer corps. Desertion was rift amongst soldiers who wanted to return home to take advantage of the redistribution of agricultural lands set off by the revolution. Officers could do nothing to stem what amounted to a vast mutiny of common soldiers, and those who attempted to enforce discipline were defied, insulted, beaten, or lynched. Officers therefore nursed a deep loathing for the mutinous soldiers, and bided their time until they could halt the revolution and shoot the mutineers.

A continuation of the war for the officer corps and for the Provisional Government was the key to stopping the revolution and punishing the militant soldiers of the Petrograd garrison. The SRs and Mensheviks went along with the policy of continuing the war all the while saying it should be ended by negotiations. This was an unrealistic policy since the western «allies», notably France, Britain and the United States, would not agree to a negotiated settlement of the war except perhaps «on the back of Russia». The SRs and Mensheviks played into the hands of those for whom a continuation of the war was the key to stopping the revolution. They forgot apparently that it was the revolutionary masses who had given them power in the Soviets and that repression would lead to the disappearance of the Soviets and to the loss of their own authority and perhaps even their own lives.

Hoping thus to turn soldiers from revolution back to the war, the Trudovik, or right-wing socialist Aleksandr F. Kerensky, then minister of war, launched a major offensive on the southwestern front on 18 June (o.s.)/1 July (n.s). After some initial gains the offensive turned into a calamitous rout leading to a general retreat of some 250 kilometres. According to French officers attached to the Russian army, if the Germans had had sufficient resources, they could have walked through Russian defences and ended the war. It was only a matter of time, winter at the latest, these officers believed, before Russia would have to ask for an armistice.

It was with this intention that the Trudovik, or right-wing socialist Aleksandr F. Kerensky, then minister of war, launched a major offensive on the southwestern front

In Revolutionary Petrograd, workers, soldiers and sailors were restless and went out into the streets during the «July Crisis» (3/16- 7/20 July) to disperse the Provisional Government and hand power over to the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks hesitated between supporting the demonstrations and encouraging workers and soldiers to wait for a more opportune time to take power. The Mensheviks and SRs opposed the passage of power to the Soviets and supported the repression of the militants. A number of Bolshevik leaders were arrested. It looked for a few weeks like Kerensky had taken the upper hand. In fact, his upper hand was only an illusion.

Russian army officers and elements of the tsarist political and economic elite planned a coup d’état against the Provisional Government if it failed to follow through on the repression of the Bolsheviks and militant workers, soldiers and sailors. The planning for the coup d’état was an open secret. Groups of businessmen and bankers, landowners and officers sought to form an alliance to establish a dictatorship to eliminate the Soviets, crush the revolutionary masses and keep Russia in the war. Some elements sought to establish the dictatorship with the backing of the Provisional Government and even the Petrograd Soviet; others did not care a pin about such support. From the early days of the revolution Kerensky himself had openly discussed the establishment of a dictatorship with himself as strongman. His idea was to break the power of the Soviets and to re-impose strict military discipline in order to crush mutinous soldiers. This was always the formula to break the revolutionary movement. As the tsarist elites put it, in a convenient, self-interested formulation, the choice was between the country and the revolution.

Becoming prime minister on 8/21 July Kerensky and his closest associates sought the collaboration of the army high command without which it would be impossible to establish the dictatorship. The general officer who rose quickly to the top as a candidate to lead a coup d’état against Petrograd was General Lavr G. Kornilov. One colleague said he had «a lion’s heart and the brains of a sheep». He was brave without a doubt but not stupid being a polyglot and in his younger days an explorer in Central Asia. Another colleague said that Kornilov was an «absolute ignoramus in politics» and this appears to have been true. In July and August 1917 he had meetings with Kerensky and his closest collaborators to establish the terms of an agreement to set up a dictatorship, to crush militant soldiers and sailors in the capital and to re-impose military discipline in the armies using machine guns if necessary.

One colleague said General Lavr G. Kornilov had «a lion’s heart and the brains of a sheep»

The only big question which could not be resolved was who would be dictator, Kerensky or Kornilov? Kerensky worried about controlling Kornilov; while Kornilov worried about Kerensky sticking to a firm programme of repression. At one point Kerensky claimed to want to take a middle road, but in fact he was deluding his interlocutors. His programme differed little from Kornilov’s, and if implemented, would have led to the destruction of the revolution in all but name.

French diplomats reported the troubles between Kerensky and Kornilov and did not think they could come to terms. A crisis was brewing, they advised: the «bourgeois» elite and officers’ groups were lining up behind Kornilov. That would not be enough to carry him, however, for he could expect to meet a «furious resistance» of the revolutionary masses. They were always the problem. Another French report advised that the Bolsheviks were gaining in popularity which underlined the urgency for government action against militants in Petrograd. The idea was to pre-empt surging Bolshevik popular support.

What happened next between Kerensky and Kornilov was essentially a failing out amongst thieves, each misconstruing the intentions of the other. This confusion led in the very last days of August (o.s.) to a rupture of relations and an attempt by Kornilov to seize control in Petrograd. Amongst French officers serving in Russia, there were cautious expectations that Kornilov might win. The Provisional Government, opined the chief of the French military mission, «is discouraged, irresolute, weak, and a slave of the extreme parties of the left». The latter comment about a «slave» of the Petrograd Soviet in effect was a slur and an expression of contempt. The revolution had to be stopped to keep Russia in the war. That much was clear.

Confusion led in the very last days of August (o.s.) to a rupture of relations and an attempt by Kornilov to seize control in Petrograd

«We are in the midst of a coup d’état», reported a French brigadier: «I have to say that Kerensky himself had the idea to launch a coup d’état in his own interests. He wants to get rid of the Soviets. He came to agreement with Kornilov. At the last moment he lost his nerve and panicked. He then made accusations against Kornilov, and that is how everything started…»

In Paris there also were hopes that Kornilov would be victorious. For the French government, Russia’s «well-being» was calculated in terms of «fulfilling its obligations to the allies» and staying in the war. «French public opinion is unanimous», said Quai d’Orsay official Pierre de Margerie, «in hoping that a regime of order and authority wins out in Russia… Everyone… from the first day wished instinctively for the success of General Kornilov…» Margerie’s only concern was that the coup d’état appeared premature and poorly organised. «To speak like Kornilov», Margerie concluded, «may God bless Russia. It desperately needs divine intervention for it appears to have been abandoned by Providence».

Pierre de Margerie, a French diplomat

Officers of the British military mission held views similar to those of their French counterparts. Except that while the French were relatively prudent in their relations with Kornilov and other Russian officers, the chief of the British mission, General Sir Charles Barter, appears to have gone beyond his instructions from London. His nominal subordinate, Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson, who was in charge of an armoured car squadron, planned to put his armoured cars at the disposal of Kornilov with whom he was in direct contact. Senior officers of the British military mission were thus compromised in the abortive coup d’état. Their activities became news trumpeted in the Bolshevik press.

Defences were prepared in the capital: workers were armed, trenches dug and barricades erected

It was therefore not Providence which had abandoned Russia, as Margerie saw it, but the revolutionary masses who united to oppose Kornilov’s attempted coup d’état. In a remarkable demonstration of spontaneous, effective resistance, workers, soldiers and sailors halted Kornilov’s forces on railway sidings and in stations on the approaches to Petrograd. Defences were prepared in the capital: workers were armed, trenches dug and barricades erected. Agitators descended en masse upon Kornilov’s troops and either brought them over to the side of the revolution or obtained their neutrality. As for the Bolsheviks, Lenin was still in hiding in Finland as a consequence of the «July crisis»; other Bolsheviks remained in prison, though they began to be released as the emergency passed. Lenin gave his belated advice from Finland, but the revolutionary masses did not need the Bolsheviks and still less the Mensheviks and SRs to tell them how to organise the defence of «Red Peter» against Kornilov. What extraordinary Russians, these men and women, who rose as one to defend their revolution!

Kerensky was compelled to turn to the very elements he had hoped to crush in order to save his own skin. Even as arms were distributed to workers, Kerensky tried to stop it. As soon as the emergency had passed, he reverted to his plans to organise a dictatorship in coalition with right wing «socialists» and members of the former tsarist «liberal» elite. Kerensky had learned nothing from the popular defence of the capital. His political reputation was ruined though it never amounted to much outside the groups which wanted to end the revolution. The Provisional Government had no popular support, representing as it did, only the former tsarist elite and milquetoast socialists. The SRs and Mensheviks rapidly lost their constituencies. The Bolsheviks won a first majority in the Petrograd Soviet on the evening of 31 August/1 September (o.s.). SR and Menshevik deputies were being recalled and replaced by workers and soldiers more disposed to support the Bolsheviks. On 25 September (o.s.) the Bolsheviks formed a narrow majority in the presidium of the Petrograd Soviet (4 to 3), and Lev Davidovich Trotsky became its chair for the second time, the first having been during the revolution of 1905. When he went to the podium to preside over the meeting of the Soviet, delegates greeted him with tumultuous applause.

Lev Davidovich Trotsky

The writing was on the wall. Kerensky’s days were numbered. Kornilov and other officers were arrested. «As to the war with Germany», said one French report, «no one wanted to hear any more about it. They [the Provisional Government] continue it [the war] because they don’t have the strength to do otherwise…». No one knew then how the revolution would develop or how to end the war, but if Kerensky’s days were numbered, so were those of the Provisional Government.