Aleksandr Fedorovitch Kerensky
's prime minister for much of the time between the two revolutions of 1917
. The ambitious and flamboyant Kerensky was the only man to take part in both halves of the revolutionary political system, the Provisional Government
and the Petrograd Soviet
, from the start, and came to symbolise the February Revolution
The Imperial Theatre
Kerensky was born in 1881
in the central Russian town of Simbirsk
, where his father was the headmaster of the local school. Kerensky senior obtained a promotion when his son was eight years old and moved the family to Tashkent
, which at least freed him from teaching the Simbirsk gymnasium's most famous alumnus
, a certain Vladimir Ulyanov Lenin
Young Kerensky's exposure to radical student politics during his history course
at St. Petersburg University
where he took part in several demonstrations fired upon by the tsarist police, persuaded him to switch to a law degree and to abandon his boyhood dreams of acting: at the age of 14, he had signed a letter to his parents 'The future artist of the Imperial Theatre
. His love of the limelight
, however, would not leave him throughout his political career.
Kerensky, still at university, was present at the Bloody Sunday
massacre on Nevsky Prospekt
which catalysed the attempted revolution of 1905
. A moderate socialist by Russian standards, he joined the small, agrarian Trudovik
party and became one of its representatives in the Duma
, the parliament wrung from Tsar Nicholas II
Meanwhile, he raised his profile as a lawyer by joining a protest in 1913
against the framing of Mendel Beiliss
, a Jewish clerk, for the murder of a 13-year-old boy in Kiev
After war had broken out in August 1914
, Kerensky was one of the most vocal opponents of the war minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov
. The radicals in the Duma blamed Sukhomlinov for the crippling shortages of shells and rifles which they believed had forced the Russian army into the Great Retreat
Although the Tsar gave in on this occasion and sacked his war minister, the contempt he and the Tsarina
displayed towards the Duma finally alienated liberals even some way to Kerensky's right, not least after Nicholas had assumed personal command of the army.
A palace coup
organised by Aleksandr Guchkov
and trusted officers had been pencilled in for the spring of 1917, even before the outbreak of popular discontent which was joined by war-weary soldiers from the Petrograd garrison
and became the February Revolution.
Man of the People
As the first revolution progressed, the socialists of Petrograd quickly organised themselves into the Soviet, a council of workers, soldiers, and sailors from the nearby naval base at Kronstadt
. The Duma's uneasy liberals, holed up in their meeting place at the Tauride Palace
, initially debated whether to take power at all, much to Kerensky's chagrin
In fact, the Provisional Government
did not come about until the Soviet took up residence in another wing of the Tauride and convinced them that, if they did not assume command of the revolution, other forces were only too willing to do so instead.
During those first crucial days, Kerensky dashed between the meetings of the two authorities, wearing a morning coat
and starched collar for the benefit of the liberals and removing both when he came to address the Soviet, displaying a talent for a quick change
that would not have served him too badly had he fetched up at the Imperial Theatre after all.
The Soviet's official policy was not to join a bourgeois
government, but Kerensky had no such qualms, and enthusiastically took up the offer made to him by the first prime minister, Prince Lvov
, to become Minister of Justice. True to form, Kerensky ran straight to the Soviet, letting them know that his first ministerial act had been to free all the Tsar's political prisoner
s and only then asking them for their rubber stamp
on his appointment. The impromptu
speech allowed him to show off the emotional style of oratory
which quickly became his trademark.
Other members of the Soviet joined the Provisional Government too after the Miliukov Note
crisis in April, which made the liberals anxious to co-opt popular support, but Kerensky still supposed himself the linchpin
between the two institutions. As it became apparent that only the Soviet, and not the Government, commanded the loyalty of the soldiers, Kerensky was no doubt pleased to be appointed Minister of War
Levée En Masse
As War Minister, Kerensky was able to fully indulge the parallels that he, and the educated liberals with whom he found a natural affinity, saw between revolutionary Russia and revolutionary France
. Under attack from Prussia
, the French people had mobilised themselves in the levée en masse
to repel the invaders and, with the help of one Napoleon Bonaparte
and lashings of élan
, gone on to spread the word across most of Europe.
Kerensky encouraged volunteers to sign up for his new shock battalion
s, which tended to attract middle-class men infected with a sudden bout of patriotism and soldiers in support roles anxious to have a crack at the Boche
. Among the more remarkable units the recruitment drive produced was the Women's Battalion of Death
, one of the few detachments of the revolutionary army to stay loyal to Kerensky's government until the bitter end
Such subtleties, however, were lost on the soldiers and workers for whom Kerensky still theoretically spoke. The rank and file of the army, in particular, could only with difficulty be persuaded to stay on the front line
rather than dash home to their villages for the land reform
which the peasant soldiers assumed would automatically follow the revolution. However, Kerensky expected that morale would be galvanised with the grand offensive, to be spearheaded by his favourite battalions, which was to take place in June.
In preparation for the June Offensive
, Kerensky set off on a grand tour
of the front, receiving a warm and attentive reception from the soldiers who turned up to his walkabout
s. His audience was composed of the junior officers active in the soldiers' committees
, so that he was quite literally preaching to the converted
; the common soldiers, as was increasingly their wont, played truant
, a sentiment which brought them closer, throughout the spring and summer, to Lenin's Bolshevik
Still, Kerensky revelled in the adulation he was accorded by patriotic society, which verged at times on a personality cult
said to rival the Tsar's; the poet Marina Tsvetaeva
was only one of a number of writers to compare him overtly to Napoleon. Neither did it go unnoticed that, soon after taking on his responsibilities as Minister of War, his coats quickly took on a quasi-military cut.
Peacock of the Palace
The offensive in which Kerensky had invested so much emotion quickly collapsed, to the alarm of Russia's allies, under the weight of more than 170,000 deserter
s. In the wake of the July Days
, a violent demonstration against the war in Petrograd, Lvov's government collapsed, and Kerensky, the only figure whose support base still reached some way into the working class and bourgeoisie alike, became Prime Minister.
Kerensky moved his offices and the Government into the Winter Palace
, lately the residence of the abdicated Tsar, and even retained a number of the palace servants. The premiership may well have gone to his head, and Sergei Eisenstein
, in his 1927
propaganda film October
, tellingly intercut scenes of him ascending the palace stairs towards the balcony with shots of a peacock
flexing its tail.
Alarmed by an almost total collapse of discipline in the army, Kerensky attempted to reverse the tide with his new commander in chief, the martinet
General Lavr Kornilov
. Kornilov had become the darling of business leaders and disaffected liberals alike, and tried to march on Petrograd in late August after a chain of events known as the Kornilov Affair
, which Kerensky always described as an attempted coup.
While many of Kornilov's backers would surely have been glad to see the Government deposed, Kornilov himself may only have been trying to pressure Kerensky to declare what amounted to martial law
. Kerensky had initially approved the Kornilov reforms, but had had second thoughts after the demands became too extensive - or perhaps after the general upstaged him at the Moscow State Conference
During a bizarre conversation with Kornilov over a Hughes apparatus
, an elementary telegraph
, Kerensky pretended to be V. N. Lvov
, who had previously been negotiating with the commander. He obtained enough proof of the conspiracy to be able to dismiss Kornilov, at which the latter then chose to mutiny after all. A motley coalition of Kronstadt sailors and Bolsheviks released from prison rallied round Kerensky in Petrograd, and railway workers blocked the advance of General Krymov
Although Kerensky was not unseated after the Kornilov crisis, his authority had become fatally weakened, as working-class support had ebbed towards the Bolsheviks and their simple slogan of 'Peace, Bread, Land
'. Scurrilous propaganda suggested that he was sleeping with the cousin of his wife, was Jewish or liked to dress in women's clothes.
Kerensky had been warned on several occasions during the autumn that Petrograd was at risk of a Bolshevik takeover bid
, once by his last Minister of War. However, he still took no substantive action, perhaps out of confidence that he could weather the attempt.
On October 25, the night before the All-Russian Congress of Soviets
was due to meet, Bolshevik Red Guard
s cut off telephone wires to the Winter Palace, defended by 3,000 soldiers, many of whom sloped back to their barracks as midnight approached: no 'storming', as the Bolshevik legend suggests, was necessary. Kerensky's last defenders were a couple of cadet detachments and 200 women from the Battalion of Death, who remained at their posts until the cruiser Aurora
fired on the Palace.
Kerensky was ushered to Gatchina
, where he set up his new headquarters but had little success in attracting troops to his cause. The Russian Civil War
would last until 1921
, but Kerensky escaped to exile in Paris
, and later lived in America - where he spent some time at the Hoover Institution
- and Birmingham
. With several books on the events of 1917 to his name, he outlived most of his revolutionary contemporaries and died, at the age of 81, in 1970
Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy
Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution
Allan K. Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army