Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 16
The Kornilov Coup

A Plot of the Extreme Right

The Moscow State Conference clearly demonstrated that however hard the compromisers tried, the conditions of dual power were inevitably leading to civil war, to the elimination of one part of the diarchy by the other. The showdown was accelerated by events at the front. Whereas the 18 June offensive had led to the spontaneous armed demonstration by the left on 3-4 July, defeats at the front now fuelled the plotting of the right.

On 21 August Riga fell into the hands of the Germans. The fulfilment of Kornilov’s prediction at the Moscow conference became a signal for a general attack by the bourgeois press against ‘soldiers who will not fight’, and ‘workers who will not work’.

‘The Bolsheviks’, writes Stankevich, ‘had already begun to spread rumours that the city was surrendered to the Germans on purpose, because the officers wanted to get rid of that nest and nursery of Bolshevism. These rumours could not but win belief in the army, which knew that essentially there had been no defence or resistance.’ The fact is that as early as December 1916, Generals Ruzsky and Brusilov had complained that Riga was ‘the misfortune of the northern front’, that it was ‘a nest of propaganda’, which could only be dealt with by the method of executions. [1]

Both workers and soldiers suspected that the counter-revolutionaries would be happy to sacrifice Petrograd – the heart of the revolution – to the Germans. And they had evidence for their suspicions. Thus Rodzianko, a former chairman of the Duma, declared in Utro Rossi that the taking of Petrograd by the Germans would be a blessing, because it would destroy the Soviets and get rid of the revolutionary Baltic fleet:

Petrograd is in danger. I say to myself, ‘Let God take care of Petrograd.’ They fear that if Petrograd is lost the central revolutionary organizations will be destroyed. To that I answer that I rejoice if all these organizations are destroyed; for they will bring nothing but disaster upon Russia ...

With the taking of Petrograd the Baltic fleet will also be destroyed ... But there will be nothing to regret; most of the battleships are completely demoralized. [2]

John Reed, a most reliable witness of the revolution, testified that a considerable proportion of the propertied classes did express their preference for a German victory over that of the revolution. ‘One evening I spoke at the house of a Moscow merchant,’ he related, among other examples. ‘During tea we asked the eleven people at the table whether they preferred “Wilhelm or the Bolsheviki”. The vote was ten to one for Wilhelm.’ [3] He also spoke to an officer on the northern front who ‘frankly preferred a military defeat to working with the soldiers’ committees’.

On 19 August Kornilov telegraphed Kerensky: ‘I insistently assert the necessity of subordinating to me the Petrograd district.’ The general was openly stretching out his hand towards the capital.

‘On 22 August’, writes Kerensky, ‘Savinkov went to headquarters at my direction in order, among other things, to demand of General Kornilov that he place a cavalry corps at the disposal of the Government.’ Savinkov explained his mission to Kornilov thus:

To get from General Kornilov a cavalry corps for the actual inauguration of martial law in Petrograd and for the defence of the provisional government against any attempt whatever, in particular an attempt of the Bolsheviks who ... according to information received from a foreign intelligence service, were again preparing an attack in connection with a German siege and an insurrection in Finland. [4]

The fact that Kerensky was plotting with Kornilov to bring military rule into Petrograd can hardly be better substantiated than by General Alekseev, who was a party to the plot. In a letter to Miliukov on 12 September he wrote:

Kornilov’s action was no mystery for the members of the government. The question was discussed with Savinkov, with Filonenko – and through them, with Kerensky ... The participation of Kerensky is beyond question ... The advance of the 3rd Cavalry Corps’ division on Petrograd was made upon Kerensky’s instructions, which had been transmitted by Savinkov. To what degree the agreement (which finds its explanation in the expected action of the Bolsheviks) had been worked out and established can be demonstrated to you by the following brief telegram:

‘27 August. 2hr. 30min. To the Assistant Minister of War. The corps will concentrate in the outskirts of Petrograd toward the evening of 28 August. I request you to declare Petrograd under martial law on 29 August 6394. General Kornilov.’

I think that it would be superfluous to explain the significance of this telegram. The members of the government who participated in the action and who, for some reason, withdrew from it at the decisive moment had decided during the night of 26-27 August, i.e., almost on the very hour when Kornilov was writing his telegram No.6394, to remove him from the post of Supreme Commander. But then it was already impossible to stop the movement of the troops and to abandon the action. [5]

Prime Minister Kerensky, behind the back of part of his government, behind the back of the Soviets that had given him power and in secrecy from the SR Party to which he belonged, had conspired with the highest generals of the army for a radical change in the regime. But at the last minute he began to fear that the military dictatorship would deliver him into the hands of the general.

Kerensky, just like Kornilov [writes Sukhanov], had set himself the goal of introducing a bourgeois dictatorship (even though, also like Kornilov, he didn’t understand this).

These two ... had fallen out over the question of which could be the bearer of this dictatorship. One represented the stock exchange, capital, and the rentiers; the other the same, plus the still to a large extent indeterminate groups of petty-bourgeois democratic artisans, intelligentsia, the third estate, and the paid managers of home industry and commerce.

But Kornilov and Kerensky each needed the other ... Each was trying to use the other for his own aims. Kornilov was striving for a pure dictatorship of finance, capital and rentiers, but had to accept Kerensky as hostage of the democracy. Kerensky was aiming at a dictatorship of a bloc of the big and petty bourgeoisie, but had to pay heavy tribute to his ally as the wielder of the real power. And each was trying to ensure that at the finishing post he would be the actual and formal master of the situation. [6]

Kerensky ‘was a Kornilovite – on condition that he himself head the Kornilov rising’. [7]

Unfortunately for the plot, at the last moment, before Kornilov’s troops got the order to march on Petrograd, Kerensky stepped out of the general’s embrace and turned against him. On 27 August he issued the following national declaration:

On August 26 General Kornilov sent to me a member of the State Duma, Vladimir Lvov, with a demand for the surrender by the provisional government of all civil and military power, so that he may form, at his personal discretion, a new government to administer the country ...

I am taking all necessary measures to protect the liberty and order of the country, and the population will be informed in due time with regard to such measures ...

I order herewith:

General Kornilov to surrender the post of Supreme Commander to General Klembovskii, the Commander in Chief of the northern front, which bars the way to Petrograd; and General Klembovskii to assume temporarily the post of Supreme Commander, while remaining at Pskov.

The city and uezd of Petrograd under martial law, extending to it the regulations for regions declared under martial law. [8]

General Kornilov’s response made it clear that his efforts were directed to ridding Russia not only of Bolshevism, but also of the Soviets. He issued a declaration to the people:

People of Russia! Our great motherland is dying. The hour of her death is near. Forced to speak openly, I, General Kornilov, declare that under the pressure of the Bolshevik majority of the Soviets, the provisional government acts in complete harmony with the plans of the German general staff, and simultaneously with the forthcoming landing of the enemy forces on the Riga shores, it is killing the army and undermines, the very foundation of the country. [9]

The general was confident that he would easily win: after all, all the top generals supported him, as well as big business and the foreign embassies, headed by the British and French.

On 28 August, Prince G.N. Trubetskoi, the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Stavka, telegraphed the following to the minister:

A sober appraisal of the situation forces us to admit that the entire commanding personnel, the overwhelming majority of the officers, and the best combat units of the army will follow Kornilov. In the rear the entire Cossack host, the majority of the military schools, and the best combat units will go over to Kornilov’s side. Added to the physical strength is the superiority of the military organization over the weakness of the government organs, moral support of all non-socialist elements of the population, a growing discontent among the lower classes with the existing order. The majority of the popular and urban masses have grown indifferent to the existing order and will submit to any cracking of the whip. Undoubtedly, the overwhelming number of the March socialists will not hesitate to go over on their side. [10]

General Krasnov, who was to command the Fifth Caucasian Cavalry division, one of the units involved in the expedition on Petrograd, was assured before he left Moghilev that ‘no one will defend Kerensky. This is only a promenade.’ [11] Had it been merely a question of defending Kerensky, Kornilov might have encountered very little resistance. But Prince Trubetskoi, in the seclusion of Stavka, completely misjudged the mood of the masses. So did General Krasnov.

Lenin’s Clear Lead

The Bolshevik Party, in a state of semi-legality, suppressed and persecuted by the Kerensky government, and with its leaders viciously slandered as German agents by the same body, did not hesitate for a moment to take steps to form a practical alliance with its gaolers and slanderers – Kerensky, Tsereteli and company – in order to fight Kornilov.

Lenin’s writings during these decisive days are his clearest and sharpest by far. In a letter to the Central Committee, he wrote:

The Kornilov revolt is a most unexpected (unexpected at such a moment and in such a form) and downright unbelievably sharp turn in events. Like every sharp turn, it calls for a revision and change of tactics. [12]

However, when a radical change in tactics was needed, Lenin warned, one ‘must be extra cautious not to become unprincipled’. There must be no concealment of principled disagreements, no weakening of the criticism of the position of the temporary ally, no covering up of differences.

It is my conviction that those who become unprincipled are people who (like Volodarsky) slide into defencism or (like other Bolsheviks) into a bloc with the SRs, into supporting the provisional government. Their attitude is absolutely wrong and unprincipled. We shall become defencists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat, after a peace offer, after the secret treaties and ties with the banks have been broken – only afterwards. Neither the capture of Riga nor the capture of Petrograd will make us defencists. (I should very much like Volodarsky to read this.) Until then we stand for a proletarian revolution, we are against the war, and we are no defencists.

Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.

We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There is the difference. It is rather a subtle difference, but it is highly essential and must not be forgotten ... We must relentlessly fight against phrases about the defence of the country, about a united front of revolutionary democrats, about supporting the provisional government, etc. etc., since they are just empty phrases. We must say: now is the time for action; you SR and Menshevik gentlemen have long since worn these phrases threadbare. Now is the time for action; the war against Kornilov must be conducted in a revolutionary way, by drawing the masses in, by arousing them, by inflaming them (Kerensky is afraid of the masses, afraid of the people).

What then constituted the change in Bolshevik tactics brought about by the Kornilov revolt?

We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky. Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him, we say that we must take into account the present situation. We shall not overthrow Kerensky right now. We shall approach the task of fighting against him in a different way, namely, we shall point out to the people (who are fighting against Kornilov) Kerensky’s weakness and vacillation. This has been done in the past as well. Now, however, it has become the all-important thing and this constitutes the change.

The change in Bolshevik tactics in response to the Kornilov revolt must involve the putting forward as the central theme of party agitation a number of

‘partial demands’ to be presented to Kerensky: arrest Miliukov, arm the Petrograd workers, summon the Kronstadt, Vyborg and Helsingfors troops to Petrograd, dissolve the Duma, arrest Rodzianko, legalize the transfer of the landed estates to the peasants, introduce workers’ control over grain and factories, etc., etc. We must present these demands not only to Kerensky, and not so much to Kerensky, as to the workers, soldiers and peasants who have been carried away by the course of the struggle against Kornilov. We must keep up their enthusiasm, encourage them to deal with the generals and officers who have declared for Kornilov, urge them to demand the immediate transfer of land to the peasants, suggest to them that it is necessary to arrest Rodzianko and Miliukov, dissolve the Duma, close down Rech and other bourgeois papers, and institute investigations against them. The ‘left’ SRs must be especially urged on in this direction.

In all these tactical changes Lenin repeatedly emphasized that the central issue of the revolution must never for a second be forgotten:

It would be wrong to think that we have moved farther away from the task of the proletariat winning power. No. We have come very close to it, not directly, but from the side. At the moment we must campaign not so much directly against Kerensky, as indirectly against him, namely, by demanding a more and more active, truly revolutionary war against Kornilov. The development of this war alone can lead us to power, but we must speak of this as little as possible in our propaganda. [13]

With such simplicity and economy of expression, the most fundamental and sharpest turn in strategy was enunciated.

The Bolshevik agitation, following the line put so clearly by Lenin, was crucial in the defeat of the Kornilov coup. On 27 August the Bolshevik fraction in the Executive Committee of the Soviet declared that the current struggle between the coalition government and the Kornilov generals was a struggle between two methods of liquidation of the revolutionary conquests. The declaration listed a number of demands: the removal of all counter-revolutionary generals, and their replacement by elections carried out by the revolutionary soldiers; the immediate transfer of all landlords’ land to the peasants’ committees; 8 hours a day by law, and the organization of democratic control over factories, plants and banks; immediate abolition of all secret treaties, and the offer of terms for general democratic peace; and last, but not least, the transfer of all power to the revolutionary workers, peasants and soldiers. [14]

Opposing Kornilov did not in any way mean supporting Kerensky, argued the Moscow Bolshevik daily, Sotsial-Demokrat, on 30 August. ‘The revolutionary proletariat cannot tolerate either the dictatorship of Kornilov or of Kerensky.’ [15]

The Collapse of the Kornilov Coup

At first it looked as if Kornilov was moving from one success to another.

From hour to hour came the messages [writes Trotsky], one more threatening than the other, of the approach of Kornilov’s troops. The bourgeois press seized them hungrily, expanded them, piled them up, creating an atmosphere of panic. At 12.30 p.m. on 28 August: ‘The troops sent by General Kornilov have concentrated themselves in the vicinity of Luga.’ At 2.30 in the afternoon:

‘Nine new trains containing the troops of Kornilov have passed through the station Oredezh. In the forward train is a railroad engineering battalion.’ At 3 p.m.: The Luga garrison has surrendered to the troops of General Kornilov and turned over all its weapons. The station and all the government buildings of Luga are occupied by the troops of Kornilov. At 6 in the evening: Two echelons of Kornilov’s army have broken through from Narva and are within half a verst of Gatchina. Two more echelons are on the road to Gatchina.’ At two o’clock in the morning of the 29th: ‘A battle has begun at the Antropshino station (33 kilometres from Petrograd) between government troops and the troops of Kornilov. Killed and wounded on both sides.’ By nightfall comes the news that Kaledin has threatened to cut off Petrograd and Moscow from the grain-growing south of Russia. [16]

But, at a meeting of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, frightened for his own skin,

the right Menshevik Weinstein had proposed, in the name of his fraction, that a special ‘committee for the struggle against the counter-revolution’ be formed ... The Menshevik resolution was of course passed. Later the new body received the name of Military Revolutionary Committee. It was this institution that bore the whole brunt of the struggle against the Kornilov campaign.

What should this committee do? ‘Its initiators were not quite clear about that. In any case it must give every kind of technical aid to the official organs of government in the struggle against Kornilov.’ [17]

The Bolsheviks’ attitude was decisive.

It was precisely the Bolsheviks who were to define its whole character, fate, and role ... The Military Revolutionary Committee, in organizing the defence, had to set in motion the masses of workers and soldiers, and these masses, in so far as they were organized, were organized by the Bolsheviks and followed them. At that time theirs was the only organization that was large, welded together by elementary discipline, and united with the democratic rank and file of the capital. Without them the Military Revolutionary Committee was impotent ... With the Bolsheviks ... the Military Revolutionary Committee had at its disposal all organized worker-soldier strength, of whatever kind. [18]

... despite their being in the minority it was quite clear that in the Military Revolutionary Committee control was in the hands of the Bolsheviks. This followed from the nature of things. First of all, if the committee wanted to act seriously, then it had to act revolutionarily, that is, independently of the provisional government, of the existing constitution, of the acting official institutions. Only the Bolsheviks could operate like this, not the Soviet compromisers. Secondly, only the Bolsheviks had the material means for revolutionary activity, in the form of control of the masses. [19]

The most effective measure taken by the Military Revolutionary Committee was the arming of the workers.

It goes without saying not only that this was on the initiative of the Bolsheviks but also that they issued an ultimatum on the subject. As far as I know it was a condition of their participation in the Military Revolutionary Committee. The majority of the committee could not help accepting this condition . . . The democratic, military, and trade union organizations in the suburbs of Petersburg wired the Military Revolutionary Committee their readiness to place themselves completely at its disposition. Without any superfluous words that Kronstadt Soviet eliminated the post-July authorities and installed their own commander in the fortress. The Central Committee of the fleet also went over to a revolutionary position and was ready for battle – on sea or land – at the first demand from the Central Ex. Com.

That same night [28 August] and early morning the Bolsheviks had begun to display a feverish activity in the workers’ districts. Their military apparatus organized mass meetings in all the barracks. Everywhere instructions were given, and obeyed, to remain under arms, ready to advance. By and large Smolny was meeting Kornilov with all its lights blazing. [20]

Factory committees all over Petrograd swiftly organized detachments of Red Guards consisting largely of Bolsheviks – encompassing as many as 40,000 workers. The Shlüsselburg Gunpowder works sent a barge-load of grenades to the capital, which the Central Council of Petrograd Factory Committees distributed among the workers of the Vyborg district. [21]

The giant Putilov factory became the centre of resistance in the Peterhoff district. Here fighting companies were hastily formed; the work of the factory continued day and night; there was a sorting out of new cannon for the formation of proletarian artillery divisions. The worker, Minichev, says: ‘In those days we worked sixteen hours a day ... We got together about 100 cannon.’ Without resort to force, with not a shot fired, Kornilov’s conspiracy disintegrated, crumbled.

The newly formed Vikzhel [the All-Russian Executive of the railwaymen’s trade union] received a prompt baptism of war. The railroad workers had a special reason to dread the victory of Kornilov, who had incorporated in his programme the inauguration of martial law on the railroads ... The railroad workers tore up and barricaded the tracks in order to hold back Kornilov’s army. [22]

The railroad workers in those days did their duty. In a mysterious way echelons would find themselves moving on the wrong roads. Regiments would arrive in the wrong division, artillery would be sent up a blind alley, staffs would get out of communication with their units. All the big stations had their own Soviets, their railroad workers’ and their military committees. The telegraphers kept them informed of all events, all movements, all changes. The telegraphers also held up the orders of Kornilov. Information unfavourable to the Kornilovists was immediately, multiplied, distributed, pasted up, passed from mouth to mouth. The machinists, the switchmen, the oilers, became agitators. It was in this atmosphere that the Kornilov echelons advanced – or what was worse, stood still. [23]

The coup collapsed after four days. ‘The insurrection’, Trotsky wrote, ‘had rolled back, crumbled to pieces, been sucked up by the earth.’ In the army itself Kornilov and his co-plotters found themselves completely isolated.

The fronts did not support headquarters. Only the south-western made a somewhat serious attempt. Denikin’s staff had adopted preparatory measures in good season. The unreliable guards at the staff were replaced by Cossacks. The printing presses were seized on the night of the 2/th. The staff tried to play the role of self-confident master of the situation, and even forbade the committee of the front to use the telegraph. But the illusion did not last more than a few hours. Delegates from various units began to come to the committee with offers of support. Armoured cars appeared, machine guns, field artillery. The committee immediately asserted its control of the activity of the staff ... By three o’clock on the 28th the power on the south-western front was wholly in the hands of the committees. ‘Never again’, wept Denikin, ‘did the future of the country seem so dark, our impotence so grievous and humiliating.’ [24]

Things were not very different on the other fronts.

All in all, as Miliukov had to admit in his History of the Russian Revolution, Kornilov failed because he was isolated from the soldiers.

The question was actually decided not so much by troop movements, or by the strategic and tactical successes of either the government’s or Kornilov’s detachments, as by the mood of the troops. The question was decided – here, as well as on the front – not by the leaders of regiments, but by the soldiers. [25]

After Kornilov, A Peaceful Way to Workers’ Power?

The day after the collapse of Kornilov’s coup Lenin called for an examination of the new situation. And in an article entitled, On Compromises, he argued:

The Russian revolution is experiencing so abrupt and original a turn that we, as a party, may offer a voluntary compromise – true, not to our direct and main class enemy, the bourgeoisie, but to our nearest adversaries, the ‘ruling’ petty-bourgeois-democratic parties, the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks.

We may offer a compromise to these parties only by way of exception, and only by virtue of the particular situation, which will obviously last only a very short time. And I think we should do so. The compromise on our part is our return to the pre-July demand of all power to the Soviets and a government of SRs and Mensheviks responsible to the Soviets.

Now, and only now, perhaps during only a few days or a week or two, such a government could be set up and consolidated in a perfectly peaceful way. In all probability it could secure the peaceful advance of the whole Russian revolution, and provide exceptionally good chances for great strides in the world movement towards peace and the victory of socialism. [26]

What compromise should the Bolsheviks offer?

The Bolsheviks, without making any claim to participate in the government (which is impossible for the internationalists unless a dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasants has been realized), would refrain from demanding the immediate transfer of power to the proletariat and the poor peasants and from employing revolutionary methods of fighting for this demand. A condition that is self-evident and not new to the SRs and Mensheviks would be complete freedom of propaganda and the convocation of the constituent assembly without further delays or even at an earlier date.

The Mensheviks and SRs, being the government bloc, would then agree (assuming that the compromise had been reached) to form a government wholly and exclusively responsible to the Soviets, the latter taking over all power locally as well. This would constitute the ‘new’ condition.

The compromise Lenin suggested could work only on condition that both parties – the Bolsheviks on the one hand and the compromisers on the other – saw some benefit in it for themselves.

The Bolsheviks would gain the opportunity of quite freely advocating their views and of trying to win influence in the Soviets under a really complete democracy ... The Mensheviks and SRs would gain in that they would at once obtain every opportunity to carry out their bloc’s programme with the support of the obviously overwhelming majority of the people and in that they would secure for themselves the ‘peaceful’ use of their majority in the Soviets.

‘Would it work?’ Lenin asks, and he answers: ‘We cannot know, experience will show.’

No matter how difficult this compromise may be at present (after July and August, two months equivalent to two decades in ‘peaceful’, somnolent times), I think it stands a small chance of being realized. This chance has been created by the decision of the SRs and Mensheviks not to participate in a government together with the Cadets! ... if there is even one chance in a hundred, the attempt at realizing this opportunity is still worthwhile. [27]

In all tactical changes one must avoid sacrificing principle and falling into opportunism. One of the main dangers involved in the slogan ‘Power to the Soviets’, was that it could degenerate simply into a call for a ‘Cabinet of the parties of the Soviet majority’. It must mean much more than that. It must entail a radical change in the nature of state power:

A ‘Cabinet of the parties of the Soviet majority’ means a change of individual ministers, with the entire old government apparatus left intact – a thoroughly bureaucratic and thoroughly undemocratic apparatus incapable of carrying out serious reforms, such as are contained even in the SR and Menshevik programmes.

‘Power to the Soviets’ ... means removing this apparatus and substituting for it a new, popular one, i.e., a truly democratic apparatus of Soviets, i.e., the organized and armed majority of the people – the workers, soldiers and peasants. It means allowing the majority of the people initiative and independence not only in the election of deputies, but also in state administration, in effecting reforms and various other changes. [28]

The slogan must mean confidence in ‘people’s initiative and independence’.

Put your faith in their revolutionary organizations, and you will see in all realms of state affairs the same strength, majesty and invincibility of the workers and peasants as were displayed in their unity and their fury against Kornilov. [29]

In line with the compromise offered by Lenin, at the Democratic Conference on 18 September the Bolshevik group made a statement including the following:

we consider it necessary to declare once again, here in the hearing of the whole country, that in fighting for power so that its programme can be carried out, our party has never sought and is not seeking to take power against the organized will of the majority of the working masses of the country. If all power passed to the Soviets, neither the class struggle nor the struggle between parties within the democratic camp would be abolished. But under conditions of full and unlimited freedom of agitation and with the Soviets constantly renewed from below, the struggle for influence and power would take place within the boundaries of Soviet organizations. [30]

After Kornilov

However, a week later Lenin could justifiably write: ‘the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks had rejected our offer of a compromise’. [31] They continued to support the provisional government even after the defeat of the Kornilov coup.

The policy of the government was as reactionary as ever. Kerensky tried energetically, although very unsuccessfully, to restore discipline in the army and to suppress peasant rebellion, as if the events of 26-31 August had never happened.

On 30 August, he was compelled to dismiss Savinkov as Governor General of Petrograd, because he was deeply implicated in the Kornilov plot and had been expelled a few days earlier from the SR Party. But a political equivalent of Savinkov was immediately appointed to the post – Palchinsky, who started his term of office by closing down the Bolshevik paper Rabochii and Maxim Gorky’s paper Novaia Zhizn.

On 3 September, as Supreme Commander (replacing Kornilov), Kerensky issued an order to the army and the fleet in conjunction with General Alekseev, formerly Chief of Staff under the Tsar and now holding the same office again, stating:

As a result of General Kornilov’s revolt, normal life in the army is completely disrupted.

For the restoration of order I command: The cessation of all political struggle among the troops ... All troop organizations and commissars to function in a correct manner, free from political intolerance and suspicion and from any interference ... The cessation immediately of arrests of superiors, inasmuch as the right to such action belongs exclusively to investigative authorities, prosecutors, and the Extraordinary Investigating Commission, organized by me, which has already begun its work. The cessation altogether of the replacement and dismissal of commanders from their posts, inasmuch as this right belongs only to the authorized organs of authority and is by no means within the competency of committee organizations. The discontinuation immediately of the arbitrary formation of detachments under the pretext of combating counter-revolutionary action. [32]

Kerensky’s order brought a protest from the moderate paper of the compromisers, Izvestiia.

What shall we say to yesterday’s order by Kerensky to disband at once all the committees that waged war on counter-revolution, the same committees that came to life in those terrible days and became at once the centre of all the public forces that were loyal to the revolution? ...

To disband them now, when there is yet so much to do to quiet the soldier and to inspire him with confidence that no one will cover up counter-revolutionary plots ... to disband them now, when only thanks to them the revolutionary masses are organized and disciplined, to disband them now shows little understanding of conditions. [33]

An inter-district conference of the Soviets in Petrograd adopted a resolution: “Not to dissolve the revolutionary organizations of struggle with the counter-revolution.’ The pressure from below was so strong that the compromising Military Revolutionary Committee decided not to obey the order, and summoned its local branches ‘in view of the continued alarming situation to work with their former energy and restraint’. Kerensky took this in silence. ‘There was nothing else for him to do.’ [34]

On the other hand, the top compromising leadership – the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets – gave the order open support on 3 September.

Soldiers of the Russian revolution. Control your wrath. Let there be no reprisals or lynchings of officers. The vast majority of them are our comrades of the revolution ...

In the interest of the revolution, refrain from lynchings.

Use self-restraint, soldiers!

Put an end to lynchings! [35]

The peasant movement was growing fast. How did the government deal with it? On 7 October a new Minister of the Interior, the Menshevik A.M. Nikitin, issued a circular calling for the strengthening of the militia by ‘reliable elements’.

The ever-worsening internal situation of the country induces me to address myself to the [oblast, gubernia, and municipal] commissars with an appeal to rally all the sound elements of the population for the purpose of fighting the anarchy which is developing and which is irrepressibly driving the country to ruin! ... If you consider that local conditions render it expedient, I suggest that you create and attach to yourselves a special committee for fighting anarchy, consisting of the representatives of the town and Zemstvo self-government, of the commander of the local garrison, and the representative of the judicial authority. Take urgent measures for an adequate organization of the militia; reinforce its cadres by selected reliable men [drawn] from the servicemen now being discharged from the service or released for the purpose of reinforcing the militia, in accordance with the order issued to the commanders of the military districts by the Minister of War. [36]

Four days later, on 11 October, the new Minister of War, Major General Verkhovskii, issued a further order to supplement Nikitin’s:

The militia now existing is not in a position to guarantee this foremost preoccupation of the state. The army has the duty to come to the assistance of the government commissars and the town and Zemstvo organizations with all its means and all its experience.

The anarchy which grows in the country compels the urgent execution of the task, without the delay of even one day ... I authorize the assignment for duty in the militia, at the request of town and Zemstvo self-governments, of the best soldiers, preferably Cavaliers of St George and those who have been wounded.

The Cavaliers of St George had been among Kornilov’s few reliable supporters!

For the purpose of guarding the railways, the best officers and men, preferably Cavaliers of St George who have been in battle and received wounds, are to be placed at the disposal of railway authorities ... For the purpose of organizing mounted guards, I authorize the district commanders to assign from cavalry units, at the request of government commissars or the local self-governments, the best officers and men (with horses), preferably Cavaliers of St George having been in combat action and having been wounded.

The officers and men assigned for this service shall be immediately returned to the ranks of the army at the slightest evasion of duty or the slightest infringement of strict order or military discipline. [37]

Unfortunately, the government had little power to impose real discipline.

The Disintegration of the February Regime

The process of disintegration of the army was greatly accelerated by the events of the last days of August. Stankevich summed up the situation in the days after the Kornilov coup:

The authority of the commanders was destroyed once for all. The masses of soldiers, seeing how a General, Commander in Chief, had gone against the revolution, felt themselves surrounded by treason on all sides and saw in every man who wore epaulettes a traitor. And whoever tried to argue against this feeling also seemed a traitor. [38]

The Menshevik commissar in the army, Voytinsky, gave a similar account:

The Kornilov affair had a disastrous effect on the morale of the army. It opened the old wound – distrust between the enlisted men and officers. All our efforts to reconcile the two groups had been wiped out! ... Soldiers made no distinction between Kerensky and Kornilov, between their immediate commanders and generals playing politics in Mogilev. To them, all officers were members of the same gang. [39]

A military intelligence report from the commander of the Sixth Siberian corps and the Third Siberian division for the days 7-18 September stated:

open hostility and animosity are manifest on the part of the soldiers; the most insignificant event may provoke unrest. Soldiers say among themselves that all the officers are followers of General Kornilov and partisans of the old regime, and that for this reason they should be destroyed ... There is a complete lack of authority and no force that could compel the fulfilment of service duty. [40]

On 11 September the Minister of War addressed the Central Committee of the Socialist Revolutionary Party:

General Verkhovskii gave a vivid picture of the disintegration of the army as a result of the Kornilov action, particularly in the light of the fact that on the heels of declaring Kornilov a rebel, the army received instructions from the government to continue to execute his operative orders. Nobody wanted to believe that an order in such contradiction to the preceding instruction could be true. In general there was an increase of attacks on officers by soldiers, shootings, and throwing of grenades through the windows of officers’ meetings, etc. [41]

But like King Canute, Kerensky had an answer to the rising tide of soldiers’ revolution: discipline. On 18 September he sent an order dissolving the Central Committee of the Baltic fleet.

The sailors answered: ‘The order dissolving the Centroflot, being unlawful, is to be considered inoperative, and its immediate annulment is demanded.’ The Executive Committee intervened, and supplied Kerensky with a formal pretext for annulling his decision three days later.

Kerensky’s quixotism knew no bounds. Five days before he was swept away by the October revolution he wrote a decree on Stricter Disciplinary Measures:

Those individual military units and their subdivisions (companies, battalions, etc.) in which serious repeated or mass breaches of duty, order and military discipline occur, in the form of refusal to obey the lawful authorities, failure to carry out battle orders, unwillingness to discharge duties, acts of violence or similar acts, are placed, in view of the overt and grave nature of the aforesaid breaches, on a special disciplinary footing by authority of the commander of the army (Chief Commander of the Military District) or the Commander in Chief of the armies of the front, by agreement with the corresponding military commissars and appropriate army committees, or by authority of the Supreme Commander and War Minister. A unit or command placed on a disciplinary footing receives, in addition to its name, the term of ‘penal’ unit and shall be deprived of the right to have elective military organizations, as a result of which all committees and disciplinary courts of this unit end their activity, and disciplinary authority is handed over to commanders. [42]

This was farcical. Those whom the Gods condemn they rob of their senses first!

The Farce of the Democratic Conference

To paper over the cracks in the government and in an attempt to demonstrate the existence of popular support for it, the compromising leaders decided to call a Democratic Conference on 14-19 September.

The Bolsheviks were gaining more and more support in the Soviets, and as their struggle for a Soviet government was gaining in popularity, the Menshevik and SR leaders decided to establish this Democratic Conference to rival the Congress of Soviets. They were trying to create a new base for themselves – by an artificial combination of all kinds of organizations. The delegacies were a portioned very arbitrarily, but following one rule – that the organisations of the higher strata of society were far better represented than the lower. The Zemstvos and cooperatives enormously outweighed the Soviets.

However, even the Democratic Conference could not prevent the collapse of the February regime. It rather demonstrated its utter bankruptcy.

At the conference 766 deputies voted for a coalition government, against 688 with 38 abstaining. [43] The two camps we evenly balanced. An amendment excluding the Cadets from the coalition got a majority of 595 to 493, with 72 abstentions. Without the Cadets, however, as the SR leader Gots stated, ‘a coalition is impossible’.

The collapse of the policy of the compromisers is clearly shown by the votes of the Soviet representatives at the conference on the question of the coalition.




Not Voting

Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies




Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies








Among the ‘non-Russian groups’ opponents of coalition constituted a majority of 40 votes against 15. Kerensky’s policy of violence towards the oppressed nationalities had borne fruit.

Before dispersing, the conference set up a permanent body composed of 15 per cent of the membership of each of its constituent groups – about 350 delegates in all. The institutions of the property-owning classes were to receive an additional 120 seats The government in its own name added 20 seats for the Cossacks. All these together were to constitute a Council of the Republic, or pre-parliament, which was to represent the nation until the constituent assembly. This pre-parliament was destined to stagger along until the October revolution got rid of it, together with all the other institutions of the February regime.

Bolshevism Sweeps All Before It

On 31 August the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. Trotsky became its president. On 5 September the Moscow Soviet, the second strongest in the country, passed into the hands of the Bolsheviks, and a vote of no confidence in the provisional government was passed by 335 votes to 254. Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, followed suit a few days later, and so did Kazan, Baku, Nikolaev and a host of other industrial towns. Finnish Soviets gave even more wholehearted support to the Bolsheviks.

As early as 1 September the Bolshevik newspaper Rabochii announced that 126 Soviets had requested the Soviet Central Executive Committee to take over power. The Committee, elected at the first Congress of Soviets and dominated by Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, had no intention of complying with this request; but the mood of the local Soviets was none the less significant. On 5 September a Congress of Soviets in the radical Siberian centre of Krasnoiarsk revealed a Bolshevik majority; on the following day a message from Ekaterinburg, the main city of the Urals, announced that power had passed into the hands of the Soviets in this important mining and industrial region. In the large Briansk factory in Ekaterinoslav, in the Ukraine, the workers were passing a resolution to the effect that ‘we cannot recognize the provisional government’. The same swing of the pendulum to the left was evident in the Volga towns in the Donetz basin. It was no longer possible to assume, as it had been in the summer, that the more conservative provinces would oppose a revolutionary blow struck in Petrograd.

Still more significant, because closer to the nerve centre of the Kerensky regime, was the trend in the Baltic fleet and in Finland. On 10 September a regional congress of Soviets in Finland adopted Bolshevik resolutions by big majorities. The Socialist Revolutionaries who were elected to the congress were almost all members of the left wing of the party, which was now growing steadily in strength and often voted and acted with the Bolsheviks.

The Baltic fleet, always a pacemaker in agitation against the provisional government, took a stand of sharp opposition after the Kornilov affair. Its attitude toward its nominal Commander in Chief, Kerensky, was pungently expressed in a published resolution of a congress of the Baltic fleet, which contained the following sentiments:

We demand the removal from the ranks of the provisional government of the political adventurer, Kerensky, as a person who, by his shameless political trickery in favour of the bourgeoisie, disgraces the great revolution, and, along with it, the whole revolutionary people. To you, betrayer of the revolution, Bonaparte Kerensky, we send our curses. [44]

In Saratov the soldiers’ section of the Soviet before the Kornilov coup was represented by 260 SR delegates, 90 Mensheviks and 50 Bolsheviks. After the Kornilov affair, they were represented by 60 SRs, 4 Mensheviks and 156 Bolsheviks.

Perhaps the most drastic turnaround in the country took place among the soldiers of the Moscow garrison in the interval between the two municipal elections of June and September. On the first occasion, the garrison had given 70 per cent of its vote to the SRs; on the second, 90 per cent went to the Bolsheviks. [45]

Millions were moving towards a spontaneous Bolshevism.

In the reports of local authorities, both military and civil [wrote Trotsky], Bolshevism had become in these days a synonym for every kind of mass activity, every decisive demand, every resistance against exploitation, every forward motion – in a word, it had become another name for revolution. Does that mean that all these things are Bolshevism? the strikers would ask themselves – and the protesting sailors, and the dissatisfied soldiers’ wives, and the muzhiks in revolt. The masses were, so to speak, compelled from above to identify their intimate thoughts and demands with the slogans of Bolshevism. Thus the revolution turned to its own use a weapon directed against it. [46]

If the July Days jolted the counter-revolution forward, the failure of the Kornilov coup provided a spur for Bolshevism. As Sukhanov put it: ‘after the Kornilov revolt Bolshevism began blossoming luxuriantly and put forth deep roots throughout the country’. [47]




1. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p.694.

2. Reed, op. cit., pp.22-23.

3. ibid., p.7.

4. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, op. cit., pp.704-705.

5. B&K, Vol.3, p.1604.

6. Sukhanov, op. cit., p.503.

7. ibid., p.509.

8. B&K, Vol.3, pp.1572-1573.

9. ibid., p.1573.

10. ibid., pp.1573-1574.

11. Chamberlin, op. cit., Vol.1, p.213.

12. Lenin, Works, Vol.25, p.285.

13. ibid., pp.285-289.

14. Sidorov, op. cit., Vol.5, pp.476-477.

15. ibid., p.572.

16. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p.724.

17. Sukhanov, op. cit., p.504.

18. ibid., p.505.

19. ibid., p.506.

20. ibid., pp.507-508.

21. Amosov, op. cit., Vol.2, p.48.

22. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p.736.

23. ibid., pp.744-745.

24. ibid., pp.746-747.

25. Miliukov, op. cit., Vol.2, p.263.

26. Lenin, Works, Vol.25, p.306.

27. ibid., pp.306-308.

28. ibid., p.368.

29. ibid., p.370.

30. CC Minutes, op. cit., p.54.

31. Lenin, Works, Vol.26, p.49.

32. B&K, Vol.3, p.1614.

33. Izvestiia, 19 September; Golder, op. cit., p.547.

34. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p.829.

35. B&K, Vol.3, p.1615.

36. ibid., p.1649.

37. ibid., pp.1650-1651.

38. Stankevich, op. cit., p.122.

39. Woytinsky, op. cit., pp.355, 357.

40. B&K, Vol.3, pp.1634-1635.

41. ibid., pp.1620-1621.

42. ibid., pp.1634-1635.

43. Golder, op. cit., p.547.

44. Chamberlin, op. cit., Vol.1, pp.278-279.

45. Radkey, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism, op. cit., pp.429-430.

46. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, op. cit., pp.783-784.

47. Sukhanov, op. cit., p.523.


Last updated on 25.10.2007