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In the early 1900s, Lavr Kornilov was a hero to the Russian people, and Commander in Chief of the Russian army. Unlike most Russian generals, who were first and foremost politicians, Kornilov was a fighting man, and had no defence against political trickery.

In 1917, shortly after the overthrow of the Tsar, Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government, fearing General Kornilov's great support from the people, decided to paint him as a traitor. Kerensky ordered Kornilov to move troops into Petrograd for defence, yet claimed that Kornilov was attacking Petrograd as a rebellion, and had him arrested.

There are two great ironies in the supposed rebellion. Firstly, after Kornilov was arrested, Kerensky decided to temporarily reinstate Kornilov as leader of the armed forces for lack of a better general to take his place. Who in their right mind would put a man who they personally claimed to be a traitor trying to establish a dictatorship in charge of the military?! The second irony is the fact that though this entire ploy was designed to increase Kerensky's strenght, it actually gave the Communists the chance they needed to establish the Red Army -- supposedly to defend Petrograd.

Lavr Georgyevich Kornilov

The general who became identified with resistance to the Russian revolution in 1917. When the Provisional Government seemed unable to keep order or maintain military discipline, the conservatives and nationalist liberals who had rejoiced at the fall of Tsar Nicholas II looked to the dashing Kornilov to take a stand against the socialists they blamed for Russia's inability to continue fighting. His attempted coup, however, only succeeded in strengthening the Bolsheviks, as the workers of Petrograd rallied in the revolution's defence.

Kornilov was born in Siberia in 1870. His father was a Cossack officer, and the young Lavr followed in his footsteps, spending his military career until World War I in central Asia, apart from four years when he served as the military attaché in Beijing. The image that the general propagated in 1917 frequently played on his central Asian origin, and he was accustomed to surround himself with a bodyguard of Turkoman soldiers in their traditional scarlet robes.

The Great Escape

While Kornilov's bravery could not have been doubted during the war, a cool head was not one of his attributes. He first came to the attention of the Russian public after he escaped from an Austro-Hungarian prisoner of war camp, where he had spent nearly a year, in 1916. Disguised as a Hungarian soldier, he made his way back to the Russian border, the event which cemented his reputation as a man of courage. The flurry of publicity provoked by his return played down the fact that he had only been captured because he had disobeyed the order of his superior officer, General Alexei Brusilov, to pull his division back from the front.

Kornilov's exploits, which in more recent times would have merited a TV movie of their own, were gratefully received by those sections of Russian society who still looked favourably on the war. The Russian army had been forced into a chaotic retreat in 1915, the rather more successful Brusilov Offensive the next year had not been properly followed up, and the military reported calamitous shortages of ammunition, clothing and boots.

Popular opinion pinned all the army's deficiencies on Nicholas and his German-born wife Alexandra, who enjoyed nothing more than continually rotating ministers at Rasputin's behest. If the February Revolution had not taken place when garrison soldiers in Petrograd mutinied, it is likely that conservative politicians like Aleksandr Guchkov would have organised a palace coup to be rid of the incompetent, or traitorous, Tsar.

Although the workers, soldiers and peasants expected the February Revolution to improve their own conditions, privileged society supported it, and put up with the socialists of the Petrograd Soviet purporting to oversee it, primarily because they expected it to improve Russia's prosecution of the war. Kornilov shared this opinion, and himself helped to arrest the Tsarina, the old régime's most hated figure. As the self-proclaimed 'son of a Cossack peasant', his less than exalted background might have made him a democratic poster boy.

A Whiff of Grapeshot

Kornilov's revolutionary honeymoon ended in April, during the crisis over the Miliukov Note. This letter, written by the liberal foreign minister Pavel Miliukov, appeared to commit Russia to the Tsar's old war aims, chiefly the annexation of Constantinople, and was the first suggestion to Petrograd's workers that they and the liberals of the Provisional Government were at cross-purposes. Although the workers were prepared to support a defensive war at this stage, they rejected expansionism outright.

As the new commander of the Petrograd garrison (an appointment which Guchkov may have secured), Kornilov intended to fire on crowds at the height of the demonstrations, but the Soviet - which in practice had the allegiance of the garrison's rank and file - immediately forbade him from so doing. A devotee of Napoleon, whose works he had apparently spent his prison time reading, Kornilov put much faith in the idea of a whiff of grapeshot, and the Soviet's interference convinced him that the revolution would end in anarchy and - more importantly to him - Russia's submission to Germany.

He resigned his position and was assigned to the South-Western Front, where his own unit acquitted themselves well during the generally disastrous June offensive, which the war minister Aleksandr Kerensky had ordered in an ill-judged attempt to inject Russia with French-style revolutionary élan.

As perhaps befitted a man who had spent his entire upbringing in the barracks, Kornilov paid little attention to politics for their own sake, but was passionately concerned with the restoration of army discipline. The notorious Order No. 1, issued by the Petrograd Soviet during the February insurrection, had undermined officers' authority by referring all orders to committees that soldiers themselves set up in every unit.

The order may only have been intended to apply to Petrograd's immediate circumstances, but was quickly circulated throughout the army, where common soldiers resented the condescension and brutality with which they were customarily treated. In practice, as Kornilov had seen first-hand in April, these provisions gave the Soviet, rather than the provisional government, authority over the army.

Commander in Chief

Kornilov refused to allow committees in units under his command, a stance which earned the approval of business leaders and nationalists who, after Kerensky's offensive had failed, despaired of the Provisional Government. Indeed, it even won him respect from the unlikely source of Maria Bochkareva, the founder of the Women's Battalion of Death, an idea which Kerensky had embraced in May under the impression that the revolutionary vision, and his personal charisma, would mobilise the entire population. Her support for Kornilov was but one indication that Kerensky's idealism had become bankrupt.

Indeed, Kerensky himself was so alarmed by the collapse of his offensive that he appointed Kornilov his new commander-in-chief in late July; Kornilov accepted on condition that the army reintroduced the death penalty. He had probably been recommended to Kerensky by Boris Savinkov, the political commissar of Kornilov's front during the offensive, who was not entirely opposed to a military dictatorship if this were the only way to restore order to the army and society.

The extent of Kornilov's demands once the controversial appointment had been publicised appeared to give Kerensky second thoughts, but he could not have reversed the decision without ruining the coalition he was attempting to form with the so-called Kadets, Miliukov's liberals.

Right-wingers had already approached Kornilov as a potential strongman in April, and one, Vasili Zavoiko, had himself appointed Kornilov's orderly and speechwriter. The hard-liner became all the more attractive to Russian nationalists now that the entire army was under his command, while they attributed the collapse of the army to the committee system and therefore to Kerensky, who had identified himself thoroughly with the dual authority of the Government and the Soviet.

The animosity between the prime minister and his commander was increased after the Moscow State Conference in mid-August, at which Kornilov thoroughly upstaged Kerensky, both on the podium and with the entrance he made. A rapturous assortment of Cossacks, Turkomen and the Moscow detachment of the Women's Battalion attended his arrival in the city, a level of pageantry in which Kerensky would have taken great pleasure in other circumstances. Meanwhile, rumours that Kornilov might use the occasion to stage a coup were so widespread that the Soviet in Moscow started a committee to organise armed opposition should it be necessary.

The Kornilov Affair

The Moscow workers' fears were confirmed two weeks later, after what became known as the Kornilov Affair, in which - according to Kerensky - the general finally attempted his coup by sending the loyal Third Corps to Petrograd. Under the command of General Aleksandr Krymov, the Corps had been informed that the capital was in the grip of a Bolshevik uprising. Kornilov, in fact, may only have been trying to pressure Kerensky into declaring martial law after the fall of Riga on 21 August suggested that extreme measures were urgently required.

By now, Kerensky had convinced himself that Kornilov hoped to unseat him, and tried to elicit a confession from him during a bizarre conversation by telegraph in which Kerensky pretended to be a minor minister, V. N. Lvov, who had been the two men's intermediary. The inconclusive 'evidence' empowered Kerensky to dismiss Kornilov, which he announced on 27 August.

In response, Kornilov issued a now celebrated communiqué in which he accused Kerensky's government of collaborating with Germany and attempted to present himself as a man of the people in his own right. (He did, indeed, like to ride a white horse.) If Kerensky was going to accuse him of a coup, a coup was what he resolved to carry out. The declaration was a telling reflection of the gulf in understanding between Russian society and the workers and peasants, who by now could hardly have cared less for the war effort or Kornilov's love of the Great Russian motherland.

Petrograd too had been rife with rumours of a Kornilov coup ever since his appointment as commander, and workers and soldiers enthusiastically responded to the alarm whistles which called them to defend the city. The Bolsheviks' experience in organising an armed uprising was of particular value in mobilising the workforce, and the party regained the credibility it had lost after the July Days demonstrations when Kerensky had had it rumoured that they were German agents. Indeed, Kerensky now released the Bolsheviks he had imprisoned in July, and furnished the defenders with arms they would use in the October Revolution.

Sailors from the nearby Kronstadt naval base, a Bolshevik stronghold, joined in, and the railwaymen's union instructed its members across the country to obstruct counter-revolutionary troop movements in any way they could. Agitators blocked the railways with timber-filled carriages, and local agitators informed the waiting soldiers of the real reason why they had been sent to Petrograd, at which several divisions refused to advance. By the time Kornilov arrived in Petrograd on 30 August, the city was quiet and Krymov had received such a dressing-down from Kerensky that he had shot himself with his service revolver.

The Ice March

Kornilov himself was imprisoned in the Bykhov monastery, although his gaolers gave him the run of the prison, allowed him to retain his Turkoman bodyguard and even turned a blind eye to his continued contacts with some of the General Staff. His fellow inmate, Anton Denikin, had berated Kerensky in July regarding military discipline, and the men imprisoned in Bykhov became the nucleus of the Volunteer Army, one of the largest 'White' forces opposing the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war.

The Volunteers were released from Bykhov in the chaos after the October Revolution, and fled to Novocherkassk, a town on the Don from where Cossacks, Kornilov's kinsmen, were traditionally recruited. Most of the officers had travelled incognito, but Kornilov had typically refused to conceal his identity until his regiment came under fire from a Bolshevik armoured train which shot away his white horse. He completed his journey in peasant dress.

Kornilov was responsible for much of the growth of the Volunteer Army, and inspired an almost fanatical devotion in soldiers who were similarly inclined. In 1917, some of his officers had taken to tattooing his portrait on their arms. In command of the army, however, he frequently clashed with General M. V. Alekseev, who had replaced him as Kerensky's commander in chief; unlike Alekseev, Kornilov believed that any form of terror tactics would be acceptable if it defeated the Bolshevik revolution. His narrow military outlook, and the extent of repression that he countenanced, are reminiscent of the Spanish insurgent officers of 1936.

In February 1918, the Bolsheviks advanced along the Don, and the Volunteers were forced to retreat to the Kuban across the frozen steppe. With the bourgeoisie of the city of Rostov trailing behind them, 4,000 of Kornilov's soldiers embarked on the so-called Ice March, torching a number of supposedly Bolshevik villages as they went. The arduous expedition was perfectly suited to Kornilov's suicidal heroism, as was the final operation he commanded, besieging Ekatarinodar when the Volunteers were outnumbered two to one. His only regret might have been that he died, not in the heat of battle, but when his headquarters were hit by a shell.

Had Kornilov managed to establish his dictatorship, in 1917 or thereafter, he would hardly have been alone. The failed Communist revolution in Hungary in 1919 was followed by the rule of the authoritarian admiral Miklós Horthy, and Miguel Primo de Rivera came to power in Spain after several years of left-wing unrest. It cannot be known, however, whether the Spanish or Hungarian leftists, would have been so active or so feared if the Russian Revolution had been interrupted.

Read more:
Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 1899-1919
Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power
Yes, there's a General Kornilov floating around. But ease of use.

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