Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917

14. The Kornilov Coup

THE FALL OF RIGA into the hands of the Germans on 21 August became the signal for a general attack by the bourgeois press against ‘soldiers who will not fight’ and ‘workers who will not work’. Rodzianko, a former chairman of the Duma, declared in Utro Rossii 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.

Prime minister Kerensky, behind the back of part of his government, of the Soviets that had given him power, and of the Social Revolutionary party to which he belonged, conspired with the highest generals of the army for a radical change in the regime.

On 24 August General Kornilov, Supreme Commander in Chief, put General Krymov in command of the Petrograd region, including the Baltic Fleet, Kronstadt, and the 42nd Corps in Finland. Krymov was instructed to occupy and disarm the capital, and to dissolve the Petrograd Soviet.

Kornilov began to move his forces on 27 August.

But at the last minute Kerensky got a fight, figuring that the military dictatorship would deliver him into the hands of the generals. Sukhanov writes:

Kerensky, just like Kornilov, 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. [1]

Kerensky ‘was a Kornilovite – on condition that he himself head the Kornilov rising.’ [2]

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

General Kornilov’s response made it clear that his efforts were directed towards ridding Russia not only of Bolshevism, but also of the Soviets.

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, Tseretelli and company – in order to fight Kornilov. In a letter [1*] to the central committee of 30 August Lenin 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. [3]

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 cover-up of differences:

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 ... 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 ... 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.) [4]

Independently Trotsky, in the Kresty prison, took the same line: for united action with Kerensky against Kornilov but without fudging the political differences with this unreliable ally. Thus Trotsky describes how, when the cruiser Aurora entered the Neva River, the sailors sent a delegation to meet Trotsky in Kresty and ask him for advice:

... should they defend the Winter Palace or take it by assault? I advised them to put off the squaring of accounts with Kerensky until they had finished Kornilov. What’s ours will not escape us’.

‘It won’t?’

‘It will not.’ [5]

Trotsky made it clear that not for a moment should any trust be put in Kerensky. One should support Kerensky’s physical fight against Kornilov without supporting him politically. It was not a question of defending the government, but of defending the revolution.

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 liquidating 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 peasant committees; the eight-hour working day by law and the organisation of democratic control over factories, offices and banks; immediate abolition of all secret treaties, and the offer of terms for a general democratic peace; and last, but not least, the transfer of all power to the revolutionary workers, peasants and soldiers. [6]

The Bolsheviks’ attitude was decisive.

The Military Revolutionary Committee [of the Petrograd Soviet] in organising the defence, had to set in motion the masses of workers and soldiers, and these masses, insofar as they were organised, were organised by the Bolsheviks and followed them. At that time theirs was the only organisation 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 organised worker-soldier strength, of whatever kind. [7]

The most effective measure taken by the Military Revolutionary Committee was the arming of the workers. Thus in the Vyborg district of Petrograd the Red Guard received 940 rifles to supplement the 270 that they had before the Kornilov coup. [8]

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 organisations in the suburbs wired the Military Revolutionary Committee their readiness to place themselves completely at its disposition. Without any superfluous words the 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 executive committee [of the Soviet]. The same night [28 August] and early morning the Bolsheviks had begun to display a feverish activity in the workers’ district. Their military apparatus organised mass meetings in all the barracks. Everywhere instructions were given, and obeyed, to remain under arms, ready to advance. By and large Smolny [the Bolshevik headquarters] was meeting Kornilov with all its lights blazing. [9]

Factory committees all over Petrograd swiftly organised detachments of Red Guards consisting largely of Bolsheviks, encompassing as many as 40,000 workers. The influence of the Bolsheviks increased massively. As Sukhanov writes:

The Bolsheviks were working stubbornly and without let-up. They were among the masses, at the factory benches, every day without a pause. Tens of speakers, big and little, were speaking in Petersburg, at the factories and in the barracks, every blessed day. For the masses they had become their own people, because they were always there, taking the lead in details as well as in the most important affairs of the factory or barracks ... The mass lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks. It was in the hands of the party of Lenin and Trotsky. [10]

The coup collapsed after four days: Kornilov’s troops disbanded without firing a shot. Bolshevik agitators had done their work well.

After the coup

The Kornilov coup prepared the workers and soldiers for the future uprising. The masses, having lost confidence in the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, saw with their own eyes the danger of counter-revolution. They come to the conclusion that it was up to the Bolsheviks to overcome the political crisis.

On 4 September Trotsky was freed from prison. He went straight to Smolny to participate in a session of the Committee for Struggle Against Counter-Revolution, which had been formed on 28 August by the Soviet to fight Kornilov. This body was the prototype of the Military Revolutionary Committee that led the October insurrection.

If the July Days swung the political pendulum massively toward the counter-revolution, the defeat of the Kornilov coup swung it massively in the direction of the revolution. In the Soviet Trotsky and Kamenev asked for an investigation by the Bureau of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet of the events that led to the Kornilov coup, and of Kerensky’s role in the plot. [11] They argued strongly that the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries should part company with the Cadets, many of whom backed Kornilov.

On 9 September Trotsky demanded the unequivocal rehabilitation of himself and other Bolshevik leaders. He asked for the government’s long overdue report on the July events, and he tabled a motion of no confidence in the Menshevik president of the Soviet. The motion was carried. The Bolsheviks took over the leadership of the Soviet.


1*. This letter did not reach the capital until early in September, well after the end of Kornilov’s coup.


1. Sukhanov, page 503.

2. Sukhanov, page 509.

3. Lenin, Works, volume 25, page 285.

4. Lenin, Works, volume 25, pages 285-9.

5. Trotsky, My Life, page 317.

6. Sidorov and others, volume 5, pages 476-7.

7. Sukhanov, page 505.

8. V.I. Startsev, Ocherki po Istorií petrogradskoi krasnoi gvardii i rabochei militsii (Mart 1917-Aprel 1918 g) (Moscow 1965), page 167.

9. Startsev, pages 507-8.

10. Startsev, page 529.

11. Rabochii put, 10 September 1917; Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 1, pages 274-5.

Last updated on 18 July 2009