Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume Two: The Attempted Counter-Revolution

Chapter 31
Kerensky’s Plot

THE Moscow Conference damaged the position of the government by revealing, as Miliukov correctly states, “that the country was divided into two camps between which there could be no essential reconciliation or agreement.” The Conference raised the spirits of the bourgeoisie and sharpened their impatience. In the other hand it gave a new impulse to the movement of the masses. The Moscow strike opened a period of accelerated regrouping to leftward of the workers and soldiers. Henceforth the Bolsheviks grew unconquerably. Among the masses, only the Left Social Revolutionaries, and to some extent the Left Mensheviks, held their own. The Petrograd organization of the Mensheviks signalized its political shift leftward by excluding Tseretelli from the list of candidates for the city duma. On the 16th of August, a Petrograd conference of the Social Revolutionaries demanded, by 22 votes against 1, the dissolution of the League of Officers at headquarters, and other decisive measures against the counter-revolution. On August 18, the Petrograd Soviet, over the objection of its president, Cheidze, placed upon the order of the day the question of abolishing the death penalty. Before the voting, Tseretelli put this challenging question: “If as a consequence of your resolution, the death penalty is not abolished, then will you bring the crowd into the street and demand the overthrow of the government?” “Yes,” shouted the Bolsheviks in answer. “Yes, we will call out the crowd, and we will try our best to overthrow the government.” “You have lifted your heads high these days,” said Tseretelli. The Bolsheviks had lifted their heads together with the masses. The Compromisers had lowered their heads as the heads of the masses were lifted. The demand for an abolition of the death penalty was adopted by all votes – about 900 – against 4. Those four were Tseretelli, Cheidze, Dan, Lieber! Four days later, at a joint session of Mensheviks and groups surrounding them, where upon fundamental questions a resolution of Tseretelli was adopted in opposition to that of Martov, the demand for an immediate abolition of the death penalty was passed without debate. Tseretelli, no longer able to resist the pressure, remained silent.

This thickening political atmosphere was pierced by events at the front. On the 19th of August, the Germans broke through the Russian line near Ikskul. On the 21st, they occupied Riga. This fulfilment of Kornilov’s prediction became, as though by previous agreement, the signal for a political attack of the bourgeoisie. The press multiplied tenfold its campaign against “workers who wilt not work” and “soldiers who will not fight.” The revolution had to answer for everything: it had surrendered Riga; it was getting ready to surrender Petrograd. The slandering of the army – just as furious as two and a half months ago had now not a shadow of justification. In June the soldiers had actually refused to take the offensive: they had not wanted to stir up the front, to break the passivity of the Germans, to renew the fight. But before Riga the initiative was taken by the enemy, and the soldiers behaved quite differently. It was, moreover, the most thoroughly propagandized part of the 12th army which proved least subject to panic.

The commander of the army, General Parsky, boasted, and not without foundation, that the retreat was accomplished “in model formation,” and could not even be compared to the retreats from Galicia and East Prussia. Commissar Voitinsky reported: “Our troops have carried out the tasks allotted to them in the region of the breach honorably and irreproachably, but they are not in a condition long to sustain the attack of the enemy, and are retreating slowly, a step at a time, suffering enormous losses. I consider it necessary to mention the extraordinary valor of the Lettish sharpshooters, the remnant of whom, in spite of complete exhaustion, has been sent again into the battle Still more enthusiastic was the report of the president of the army committee, the Menshevik Kuchin: “The spirit of the soldiers was astonishing. According to the testimony of members of the committee and officers, their staunchness was something never before seen.” Another representative of the same army reported a few days later at a session of the bureau of the Executive Committee: “In the center of the point of attack was a Lettish brigade consisting almost exclusively of Bolsheviks ... Receiving orders to advance, the brigade went forward with red banners and bands playing and fought with extraordinary courage.” Stankevich wrote later to the same effect, although more restrainedly: “Even in the army headquarters which contained people notoriously ready to lay the blame upon the soldiers, they could not tell me one single concrete instance of non-fulfilment, not only of fighting orders, but of any orders whatever.” The landing force of marines engaged in the Moonsund operation, as appears in the official documents, also showed noticeable fortitude. A part was played in determining the mood of the soldiers, especially the Lettish sharpshooters and Baltic sailors, by the fact that it was a question this time of the direct defense of two centers of the revolution, Riga and Petrograd. The more advanced troops had already got hold of the Bolshevik idea that “to stick your bayonets in the ground does not settle the question of the war,” that the struggle for peace was inseparable from the struggle for power, for a new revolution.

Even if certain individual commissars, frightened by the attack of the generals, exaggerated the staunchness of the army, the fact remains that the soldiers and sailors obeyed orders and died. They could not do more. But nevertheless in the essence of the matter there was no defense. Incredible as it may seem, the twelfth army was caught wholly unprepared. Everything was lacking: men, arms, military supplies, gas masks. The communications were unspeakably bad. Attacks were delayed because Japanese cartridges had been supplied for Russian rifles. Yet this was no incidental sector of the front. The significance of the loss of Riga had been no secret to the high command. How then explain the extraordinarily miserable condition of the defense forces and supplies of the twelfth army? “The Bolsheviks,” writes Stankevich, “had already begun to spread rumors 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 rumors could not but win belief in the army, which knew that essentially there had been no defense or resistance.” The fact is that as early as December 1916, Generals Ruzsky and Brussilov 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. To send the Riga workers and soldiers to the training school of a German military occupation, must have been the secret dream of many generals of the northern front. Nobody imagined of course that the commander-in-chief had given an order for the surrender of Riga. But all the commanders had read the speech of Kornilov and the interview of his chief-of-staff, Lukomsky. This made an order entirety unnecessary. The commander-in-chief of the northern front, General Klembovsky, belonged to the inside clique of conspirators, and was consequently awaiting the surrender of Riga as a signal for the beginning of the movement to save the country. Moreover, even in normal conditions these Russian generals had a preference for surrender and retreat. On this occasion, when they were relieved of responsibility in advance by headquarters, and their political interests impelled them along the road of defeatism, they did not even make the attempt at a defense. Whether this or that general added some damaging action to the passive sabotage of the defense, is a secondary question and In its essence hard to solve. It would be naïve to imagine, however, that the generals restrained themselves from lending what help they could to destiny in those cases where their traitorous activities would remain unpunished.

The American journalist, John Reed, who knew how to see and hear, and who has left an immortal book of chronicler’s notes of the days of the October Revolution, testifies without hesitation that a considerable part of the possessing classes of Russia preferred a German victory to the triumph of the revolution, and did not hesitate to say so openly. “One evening I spent at the house of a Moscow merchant,” says Reed, among other examples. “During tea we asked eleven people at the table whether they preferred ‘Wilhelm or the Bolsheviks.’ The vote was ten to one for Wilhelm.” The same American writer conversed with officers on the northern front, who “frankly preferred a military defeat to working with the soldiers’ committees.”

To sustain the political accusation made by the Bolsheviks – and not only by them – it is wholly sufficient that the surrender o£ Riga entered into the plans of the conspirators and occupied a definite place in the calendar of their conspiracy. This was quite clearly evident between the lines of the Moscow speech of Kornilov. Subsequent events illumined that aspect of the matter completely. But we have also a piece of direct testimony, to which, in the given instance, the personality of the witness imparts an irreproachable authority. Miliukov in his History says: “In Moscow, Kornilov indicated in his speech that moment beyond which he did not wish to postpone decisive steps for the ‘salvation of the country from ruin and the army from collapse.’ That moment was the fall of Riga predicted by him. This event in his opinion would evoke ... a flood of patriotic excitement ... As Kornilov told me personally at a meeting in Moscow on the 13th of August, he did not wish to let pass this opportunity. And the moment of open conflict with the government of Kerensky was completely determined in his mind even to the point of settling in advance upon the date, August 27.” Could one possibly speak more clearly? In order to carry out the march on Petrograd, Kornilov had need of the surrender of Riga several days before the date settled upon. To strengthen the Riga position, to take serious measures of defense, would have meant to destroy the plan of another campaign immeasurably more important for Kornilov. If Paris is worth a mass, then Riga is a small price to pay for power.

During the week which passed between the surrender of Riga and the insurrection of Kornilov, headquarters became the central reservoir of slander against the army. The communications from the Russian staff printed in the Russian press found immediate echo in the press of the Entente. The Russian patriotic papers in their turn enthusiastically reprinted the taunts and abuse addressed to the Russian army by The Times, Le Temps and Le Matin. The soldiers’ front quivered with resentment, indignation and disgust. The commissars and committees, even the compromisist and patriotic ones, felt injured to the quick. Protests poured in from all sides. Especially sharp was the letter of the executive committee of the Rumanian front, the Odessa military district, and the Black Sea fleet – the so-called Rumcherod – which demanded that the Executive Committee “establish before all Russia the valor and devoted bravery of the soldiers who are dying by the thousands every day in cruel battles for the defense of revolutionary Russia ...” Under the influence of these protests from below, the compromisist leaders abandoned their passivity. “It seems as if there exists no filth which the bourgeois papers will not fling at the revolutionary army,” wrote Izvestia of its allies in a political bloc. But nothing had any effect. This slandering of the army was a necessary part of the conspiracy which had its center in headquarters.

Immediately after the abandonment of Riga, Kornilov gave order by telegram to shoot a few soldiers on the road before the eyes of others as an example. Commissar Voitinsky and General Parsky reported that in their opinion the conduct of the soldiers did not at all justify such measures. Kornilov, beside himself, declared at a meeting of committee representatives at headquarters that he would court-martial Voitinsky and Parsky for giving untrue reports of the situation in the army – which meant, as Stankevich explains, “for not laying the blame on the soldiers.” To complete the picture, it is necessary to add that on the same day Kornilov ordered the army staffs to supply a list of Bolshevik officers to the head committee of the League of Officers – that is, to the counter-revolutionary organization headed by the Kadet Novosiltsev which was the chief center of the plot. Such was this supreme commander-in-chief, ’the first soldier of the revolution!”

Having made up its mind to lift a tiny corner of the curtain, Izvestia wrote: “Some mysterious clique extraordinarily close to the high commanding circles is doing a monstrous work of provocation ...” Under the phrase “mysterious clique” they were alluding to Kornilov and his staff. The heat lightnings of the advancing civil war began to cast a new illumination not only upon today’s, but upon yesterday’s doings. Under the head of self-defense, the Compromisers began to uncover suspicious activities of the commanding staff during the June offensive. There appeared in the press more and more details of the malicious slandering by the staffs of divisions and regiments. “Russia has the right to demand,” wrote Izvestia, “that the whole truth be laid bare to her about our July retreat.” Those words were eagerly read by soldiers, sailors, workers – especially by those who, under the pretense that they had been guilty of the catastrophe at the front, were still keeping the prisons full. Two days later Izvestia felt compelled to declare more openly that: “Headquarters with its communiqués is playing a definite political game against the Provisional Government and the revolutionary democracy.” The government is portrayed in these lines as an innocent victim of the designs of headquarters, but it would seem as though the government had every opportunity to pull up on the generals. If it did not do so, that was because it did not want to.

In the above-mentioned protest against treacherous baitings of the soldiers, Rumcherod spoke with especial indignation of the fact that “the communiqués from headquarters ... while emphasizing the gallantry of the officers seem deliberately to belittle the devotion of the soldiers to the defense of the revolution.” The protest of Rumcherod appeared in the press of August 22, and the next day a special order of Kerensky was published devoted to the laudation of the officers, who “from the first days of the revolution have had to endure a diminution of their rights,” and undeserved insults on the part of soldier masses “concealing their cowardice under idealistic slogans.” At a time when his closest assistants, Stankevich, Voitinsky and others, were protesting against the taunting of soldiers, Kerensky demonstratively associated himself with this business, crowning it with a provocatory order from the War Minister and Head of the Government. Kerensky subsequently acknowledged that as early as the end of July he had in his hands “accurate information” as to an officers’ plot grouped around headquarters. ’The head committee of the League of Officers,” to quote Kerensky, “appointed active conspirators from its midst, and its members were agents of the conspiracy in various localities. They gave to the legal actions of the League the necessary tone.” That is perfectly correct. We need only add that “the necessary tone” was a tone of slander against the army, the committees, and the revolution – that is, the very tone of Kerensky’s order of August 23.

How shall we explain this riddle? That Kerensky had no consistent and thought-out policy is absolutely indubitable. But he must needs have been altogether out of his senses, in order with knowledge of an officer’s plot to put his head under the knife of the plotters and at the same time to help them disguise themselves. The explanation of the conduct of Kerensky, incomprehensible at first glance, is in reality very simple: he was himself at that time a party to the plot against the baffled régime of the February revolution.

When the time came for revelations, Kerensky himself testified that from the Cossack circles, from officers, and from bourgeois politicians, proposals of a personal dictatorship had come to him more than once. “But they fell upon unfertile soil ...” The position of Kerensky was at any rate, then, such that the leaders of counter-revolution were able without risk to exchange opinions with him about a coup d’etat. “The first conversations on the subject of a dictatorship, taking the form of a slight feeling out of the ground,” began – according to Denikin – at the beginning of June, that is, during the preparations for the offensive. Kerensky not infrequently participated in these conversations, and in such cases it was assumed as a matter of course, especially by Kerensky himself, that he would occupy the center of the dictatorship. Sukhanov rightly says of Kerensky: “He was a Kornilovist – only on the condition that he himself should stand at the head of the Kornilovists.” During the collapse of the offensive, Kerensky promised Kornilov and the other generals far more than he could fulfil. “During his journeys on the front,” relates General Lukomsky, “Kerensky would often pump up his courage and discuss with his companions the question of creating a firm power, of forming a directory, or of turning over the power to a dictator.” In conformity with his character, Kerensky would introduce into these conversations an element of formlessness, a slovenly, dilettante element. The generals, on the other hand, would incline towards military precision.

These casual participations of Kerensky in the conversations of the generals gave a certain legalization to the idea of a military dictatorship, a thing which, out of cautiousness before the not yet strangled revolution, they most often called by the name of “directory.” What rôle historic recollections about the government of France after the Thermidor played here, it would be difficult to say. But aside from questions of mere verbal disguise, the directory presented in the first place this indubitable advantage, that it permitted a subordination of personal ambitions. In a directory, places ought to be found not only for Kerensky and Kornilov, but also for Savinkov, even for Filonenko – in general, for people of “iron will.” as the candidates themselves expressed it. Each of them cherished in his own mind the thought of passing over afterward from the collective to the single dictatorship.

For a conspiratorial bargain with headquarters Kerensky therefore did not have to make any abrupt change: it was sufficient to develop and continue what he had already begun. He assumed, moreover, that he could give to the conspiracy of the generals a suitable direction, bringing it down not only on the heads of the Bolsheviks, but also, within certain limits, upon his allies and tiresome guardians, the Compromisers. Kerensky manoeuvred in such a way that, without exposing the conspirators completely, he could adequately frighten them and involve them in his own design. In this he went to the very limit beyond which the head of a government would become an illegal conspirator. “Kerensky needed an energetic pressure upon him from the right, from the capitalist cliques, the Allied embassies, and especially from headquarters,” wrote Trotsky early in September, “in order to enable him to get his own hands absolutely free. Kerensky wanted to use the revolt of the generals in order to reinforce his own dictatorship.”

The State Conference was the critical moment. Carrying home from Moscow, along with the illusion of unlimited opportunities, a humiliating sense of his personal failure, Kerensky finally decided to cast away all hesitations and show himself to them in his full stature. But whom did he mean by “them”? Everybody – but above all the Bolsheviks, who had placed the mine of a general strike under his gorgeous national tableau. In doing this he would also settle matters once for all with the Rights, with all those Guchkovs and Miliukovs who would not take him seriously, who made fun of his gestures and considered his power the shadow of a power. And finally he would give a good reprimand to “them,” the compromisist tutors, the hateful Tseretelli who kept correcting and instructing him, Kerensky, the chosen of the nation, even at the State Conference. Kerensky firmly and finally decided to show the whole world that he was by no means a “hysteric,” a “juggler,” a “ballerina,” as the Guard and Cossack officers were more and more openly calling him, but a man of iron who had closed tight the doors of his heart and thrown the key in the ocean in spite of the prayers of the beautiful unknown in the loge at the theater.

Stankevich remarked in Kerensky in those days, “a desire to speak some new word answering the universal alarm and consternation of the country. Kerensky ... decided to introduce disciplinary punishments into the army; probably he was also ready to propose other decisive measures to the government.” Stankevich knew only that part of his chief’s intentions which the latter deemed it timely to communicate to him. In reality the designs of Kerensky at that time already went considerably further. He had decided at one blow to cut the ground under the feet of Kornilov by carrying out the latter’s program, and thus binding the bourgeoisie to himself. Guchkov had been unable to move the troops to an offensive; he, Kerensky, had done it. Kornilov would not be able to carry out the program of Kornilov; he, Kerensky, could. The Moscow strike had reminded him, it is true, that there would be obstacles on this road, but the July Days had shown that it was possible to overcome them. Now again it was only necessary to carry the job through to the end, not permitting the friends on the left to get hold of your coat-tails, First of all it was necessary to change completely the Petrograd garrison: the revolutionary regiments must be replaced by “healthy” detachments, who would not be always glancing round at the soviets. There would be no chance to talk of this plan with the Executive Committee. And why indeed should that be necessary? The government had been recognized as independent and crowned under that banner in Moscow. To be sure, the Compromisers understood independence only in a formal sense, as a means of pacifying the Liberals. But he, Kerensky, would convert the formal into the material. Not for nothing had he declared in Moscow that he was neither with the Rights nor the Lefts, and that therein lay his strength. Now he would prove this in action!

After the conference Kerensky’s line and the line of the Executive Committee had continued to diverge: the Compromisers were afraid of the masses, Kerensky of the possessing classes. The popular masses were demanding the abolition of the death penalty at the front; Kornilov, the Kadets, the embassies of the Entente, were demanding its introduction at the rear.

On August 19, Kornilov telegraphed the Minister-President: “I insistently assert the necessity of subordinating to me the Petrograd district.” Headquarters was openly stretching its hand toward the capital. On August 24, the Executive Committee summoned the courage to demand vocally that the government put an end to “counter-revolutionary methods,” and undertake “without delay and with all energy” the realization of the democratic transformation. This was a new language. Kerensky was compelled to choose between accommodating himself to a democratic platform, which with all its meagerness might lead to a split with the Liberals and generals, and the program of Kornilov which would inexorably lead to a conflict with the soviets. Kerensky decided to extend his hand to Kornilov, to the Kadets, to the Entente. He wanted to avoid an open conflict on the right at any cost.

It is true that on August 21, the grand dukes Mikhail Alexandrovich and Pavel Alexandrovich were put under house arrest, and a few other persons at the same time placed under observation. But there was nothing serious in all that, and Kerensky was compelled to liberate the arrestees immediately. “It seems,” he said in subsequent testimony on the Kornilov affair, “that we had been consciously led off on a false scent.” To this it is only necessary to add – “with our own co-operation.” It was perfectly clear that for serious conspirators – that is, for the whole right wing of the Moscow Conference – it was not at all a question of restoring monarchy, but of establishing the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the people. It was in this sense that Kornilov and all his colleagues rejected, not without indignation, the charge of his, monarchist-designs. To be sure, there were former officials, aides-de-camp, ladies-in-waiting, Black Hundred courtiers, witch-doctors, monks, ballerinas, whispering here and there in the back yards. That was a thing of no consequence whatever. The victory of the bourgeoisie could come only in the form of a military dictatorship. The question of monarchy could rise only at some future stage, and then too on the basis of a bourgeois counter-revolution, not of Rasputin’s ladies-in-waiting.

For the given period the real thing was the struggle of the bourgeoisie against the people under the banner of Kornilov. Seeking an alliance with this camp, Kerensky was all the more willing to screen himself from the suspicions of the Left with a fictitious arrest of grand dukes. The trick was so obvious that the Moscow Bolshevik paper wrote at the time: “To arrest a pair of brainless puppets from the Romanov family and leave at liberty ... the military clique of the army commanders with Kornilov at the head – that is to deceive the people ...” The Bolsheviks were hated for this, too, that they saw everything, and talked out loud about it. Kerensky’s inspiration and guide in those critical days had come to be Savinkov – a mighty seeker of adventures, a revolutionist of the sporting type, one who had acquired a scorn for the masses in the school of the individual terror, a man of talent and will – qualities which had not, however, prevented him from becoming for a number of years an instrument in the hands of the famous provocateur, Azef – a sceptic and a cynic, who believed, not without foundation, that he had a right to look down upon Kerensky, and while holding his right hand to his vizor respectfully to lead him by the nose with his left. Savinkov imposed himself upon Kerensky as a man of action, and upon Kornilov as a genuine revolutionist with a historic name. Miliukov has a curious story of the first meeting between the commissar and the general, as told by Savinkov. “General,” said Savinkov, “I know that if conditions arise in which you ought to shoot me, you will shoot me.” After a prolonged pause he added: “But if conditions arise in which I have to shoot you, I will do that too.,” Savinkov was fond of literature, knew Corneille and Hugo, and was inclined to the lofty genre. Kornilov intended to get rid of the revolution without regard to the formulae of pseudo-classicism and romanticism, but the general, too, was not a stranger to the charm of a “strong artistic style.” The words of the former terrorist must have tickled pleasantly the heroic principle buried in the breast of the former member of the Black Hundreds.

In one of the later newspaper articles, obviously inspired and perhaps also written by Savinkov, his own plans were quite lucidly explained: “While still a commissar ...” says the article, “Savinkov came to the conclusion that the Provisional Government was incapable of getting the country out of its difficult situation, Here other forces must be brought into play. However, all the work in that direction could be done only under the banner of the Provisional Government, and in particular of Kerensky. It would have to be a revolutionary dictatorship established by an iron hand. That iron hand Savinkov saw in General Kornilov.” Kerensky as a “revolutionary” screen, Kornilov as an iron hand. As to the rôle of the third party, the article has nothing to say, but there is no doubt that Savinkov, in reconciling the commander-in-chief with the prime minister, had some thought of crowding them both out. At one time this unspoken thought came so close to the surface that Kerensky, just on the eve of the Conference and against the protest of Kornilov, compelled Savinkov to resign. however, like everything else that happened in that sphere, the resignation was not conclusive. “On the 17th of August it was announced,” testified Filonenko, “that Savinkov and I would keep our posts, and that the Minister-President had accepted in principle the program expounded in the report presented by General Kornilov, Savinkov and me.” Savinkov, to whom Kerensky on August 17, “gave orders to draft a law for measures to be adopted in the rear,” created to this end a commission under the presidency of General Apushkin. Although seriously fearing Savinkov, Kerensky definitely decided to use him for his own great plan, and not only kept his place for him in the war ministry but gave him one in the ministry of the navy to boot. That meant, according to Miliukov, that for the government “the time had come to take some definite measures even at the risk of bringing the Bolsheviks into the street.” Savinkov on this subject “frankly stated that with two regiments it would be easy to put down a Bolshevik revolt and break up the Bolshevik organizations.”

Both Kerensky and Savinkov perfectly understood, especially after the Moscow Conference, that the compromisist soviets would in no case accept the program of Kornilov. The Petrograd soviet, having only yesterday demanded the abolition of the death penalty at the front, would rise with redoubled strength against the extension of the death penalty to the rear. The danger, therefore, was that the movement against the coup d’etat planned by Kerensky might be led, not by the Bolsheviks, but by the soviets. However, we must not stop for that of course: it is a question of saving the country!

“On the 22nd of 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 himself, when it came his turn to justify himself before public opinion, described his mission in the following terms; “To get from General Kornilov a cavalry corps for the actual inauguration of martial law in Petrograd and for the defense 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 The fantastic information of the Intelligence Service was used simply to cover the fact that the government itself, in the words of Miliukov, was assuming the “risk of bringing the Bolsheviks into the street.” That is, it was ready to provoke an insurrection. And since the publication of the decree establishing a military dictatorship was designated for the last days of August, Savinkov accommodated to that date the anticipated insurrection.

On the 25th of August, the Bolshevik organ Prôletarian was suppressed without any external motive. The Worker, which came out in its place, declared that its predecessor had been “closed the day after it had summoned the workers and soldiers, in connection with the breach on the Riga front, to self-restraint and tranquillity. Whose hand is taking such care that the workers shall not know that the party is warning them against provocation?” That question was directly to the point. The fate of the Bolshevik press was in the hands of Savinkov. The suppression of the paper gave him two advantages: it irritated the masses and it prevented the party from protecting them against a provocation which came this time from governmental high places.

According to the minutes of headquarters – perhaps a little polished up, but in general fully corresponding to the situation and the persons involved – Savinkov informed Kornilov: “Your demands, Lavr Georgievich, will be satisfied in a few days. But the government fears that in connection with this, serious complications may arise in Petrograd ... The publication of your demands will be a signal for a coming-out of the Bolsheviks. It is not known what attitude the soviets will take to the new law. The latter may also oppose the government. Hence I request you to give an order that the third cavalry corps be sent to Petrograd toward the end of August and placed at the disposition of the Provisional Government. In case the members of the soviets as well as the Bolsheviks come out, we shall have to take action against them.” Kerensky’s emissary added that the action would have to be very decisive and ruthless-to which Kornilov answered that he ’understands no other kind of action.” Afterward, when it became necessary to justify himself, Savinkov added, “... if at the moment of the insurrection of the Bolsheviks, the soviets should be Bolshevik”. But that is too crude a trick. The decree announcing the coup d’état of Kerensky was to come out in three or four days. It was thus not a question of some future soviets, but of those in existence at the end of August. In order that there should be no misunderstanding, and the Bolsheviks should not come out “before the proper moment” the following sequence of actions was agreed upon: First concentrate a cavalry corps in Petrograd, then declare the capital under martial law, and only after that publish the new laws which were to provoke a Bolshevik insurrection. In the minutes of headquarters this plan is written down in black and white. “In order that the Provisional Government shall know exactly when to declare the Petrograd military district under martial law and when to publish the new law, it is necessary that General Kornilov shall keep him (Savinkov) accurately informed by telegraph of the time when the corps wilt approach Petrograd.”

The conspiring generals understood, says Stankevich, “that Savinkov and Kerensky ... wanted to carry out some sort of coup d’état with the help of the staff. Only this was needed. They hastily agreed about all demands and conditions. Stankevich, who was loyal to Kerensky, makes the reservation that at headquarters, they mistakenly associated” Kerensky with Savinkov. But how could these two be dissociated, once Savinkov had arrived with precisely formulated instructions from Kerensky? Kerensky himself writes: “On the 25th of August, Savinkov returns from headquarters and reports to me that the troops to be at the disposition of the Provisional Government will be sent according to instructions.” The evening of the 26th was designated for the adoption by the government of the law on measures for the rear, which was to be the prologue for decisive action by the cavalry corps. Everything was ready – it remained only to press the button.

The events, the documents, the testimony of the participants, and finally the confession of Kerensky himself, unanimously bear witness that the Minister-President, without the knowledge of a part of his own government, behind the back of the soviets which had given him the power, in secrecy from the party of which he considered himself a member, had entered into agreement with the highest generals of the army for a radical change in the state régime with the help of armed forces. In the language of the criminal law this kind of activity has a perfectly definite name – at least in those cases where the undertaking does not come off victorious. The contradiction between the “democratic” character of Kerensky’s policy and his plan of saving the government with the help of the sword, can seem insoluble only to a superficial view. In reality the cavalry plan flowed inevitably from the compromisist policy. In explaining the law of this process it is possible to abstract to a considerable extent, not only from the personality of Kerensky, but even from the peculiarities of the national milieu. It is a question of the objective logic of compromisism in the conditions of revolution.

Friedrich Ebert, the people’s plenipotentiary of Germany, a compromisist and a democrat, not only acted under the guidance of the Hohenzollern generals behind the back of his own party, but also at the beginning of December 1918 became a direct participant in a military plot having as its goal the arrest of the highest soviet body, and the declaration of Ebert himself as President of the Republic. It is no accident that Kerensky subsequently declared Ebert the ideal statesman.

When all their schemes – those of Kerensky, Savinkov, Kornilov – had gone to smash, Kerensky, to whom fell the none too easy work of obliterating the tracks, testified as follows: “After the Moscow Conference it was clear to me that the next attempt against the government would be from the right and not the left.” It is not to be doubted that Kerensky feared headquarters, and feared that sympathy with which the bourgeoisie surrounded the military conspirators; but the point is that Kerensky thought it necessary to struggle against headquarters, not with a cavalry corps, but by carrying out in his own name the program of Kornilov. The double-faced accomplice of the Prime Minister was not merely fulfilling an ordinary mission – for that a telegram in code from the Winter Palace to Moghiliev would have been enough. No, he went as an intermediary to reconcile Kornilov with Kerensky, to bring their plans, that is, into agreement, and thus guarantee that the coup d’état should proceed so far as possible legally. It was as though Kerensky said through Savinkov: “Go ahead, but within the limits of my scheme. You will thus avoid risk and get almost everything you want.” Savinkov on his own part added the hint: “Do not go prematurely beyond the limits of Kerensky’s plan.” Such was that peculiar equation with three unknown quantities. Only in this way is it possible to understand Kerensky’s appealing to headquarters through Savinkov for a cavalry corps. The conspirators were addressed by a highly placed conspirator, preserving his legality, and himself aspiring to stand at the head of the conspiracy.

Among the directions given to Savinkov, only one seemed a measure actually directed against the conspirators on the right: it concerned the head committee of the League of Officers, whose dissolution had been demanded by a Petrograd conference of Kerensky’s party. But here a remarkable thing is the very formulation of the order: “... in so far as possible to dissolve the League of Officers.” Still more remarkable is the fact that Savinkov not only did not find any such possibility at all, but did not seek it. The question was simply buried as untimely. The very order had been given merely to have something on paper for justification before the Lefts. The words “so far as possible” meant that the order was not to be carried out. As though to emphasize the decorative character of this order, it was placed first on the list.

Attempting at least to weaken a little the deadly meaning of the fact that, in expectation of a blow from the right, he had removed the revolutionary regiments from the capital, and simultaneously appealed to Kornilov for “reliable” troops, Kerensky later referred to the three sacramental conditions with which he had surrounded the summoning of the cavalry corps. Thus his agreement to subordinate to Kornilov the Petrograd military district Kerensky had conditioned upon the separation of the capital and its immediate suburbs from the district, so that the government would not be wholly in the hands of headquarters. For as Kerensky expressed himself among his own friends: “We here would be eaten up.” This condition merely shows that in his dream of subordinating the generals to his own designs, Kerensky had no weapon in his hands but impotent chicanery. Kerensky’s desire not to be eaten alive can be credited without demonstration. The two other conditions amounted to nothing more: Kornilov was not to include in the expeditionary corps the so-called “Savage Division” consisting of Caucasian mountaineers, and was not to put General Krymov in command of the corps. So far as concerned defending the interests of the democracy, that really meant swallowing the camel and choking on the gnat. But so far as concerned disguising a blow at the revolution, Kerensky’s conditions were incomparably more purposeful. To send against the Petrograd workers Caucasian mountaineers who did not speak Russian would have been too imprudent; even the tzar in his day never made up his mind to that! The inconvenience of appointing General Krymov, about whom the Executive Committee possessed some rather definite information, Savinkov convincingly explained at headquarters on the ground of their common interest: “It would be undesirable,” he said, “in case of disturbances in Petrograd that these disturbances should be put down by General Krymov. Public opinion might perhaps connect with his name motives by which he is not guided ...” Finally, the very fact that the head of the government, in summoning a military detachment to the capital, anticipated events with that strange request: not to send the Savage Division and not to appoint Krymov, convicts Kerensky as clearly as he could be convicted of possessing advance knowledge, not only of the general scheme of the conspiracy, but also of the constituent units of the punitive expedition, and the candidates for its more important executive positions.

Moreover, no matter how things had stood in these secondary points, it was perfectly obvious that a cavalry corps of Kornilov could not be of any use in defending “the democracy.” On the contrary, Kerensky could not possibly doubt that of all the units in the army this corps would be the most reliable weapon against the revolution. To be sure it might have been well to have a detachment in Petrograd personally loyal to Kerensky, who was elevating himself above the Rights and Lefts. However, as the whole further course of events demonstrates, no such troops existed in nature. For the struggle against the revolution there was nobody but Kornilov men, and to them Kerensky had recourse.

These military preparations only supplemented the political ones. The general course of the Provisional Government during the not quite two weeks separating the Moscow Conference from the insurrection of Kornilov, would have been enough in itself essentially to prove that Kerensky was getting ready, not for a struggle against the Right, but for a united front with the Right against the people. Ignoring the protests of the Executive Committee against this counter-revolutionary policy, the government on August 26 took a bold step to meet the landlords with its unexpected decree doubling the price of grain. The hatefulness of this measure – which was introduced, moreover, upon the spoken demand of Rodzianko, – put the government almost in the position of consciously provoking the hungry masses. Kerensky was clearly trying to win over the extreme right flank of the Moscow Conference with an immense bribe. “I am yours!” he hastened to cry to the landlords on the eve of a cavalry assault upon what was left of the February revolution.

Kerensky’s testimony before the commission of inquiry named by himself, was disgraceful. Although appearing in the character of a witness, the head of the government really felt himself to be the chief of the accused, and moreover, one caught red-handed. The experienced judiciary officials, who excellently well understood the mechanics of the events, pretended to take seriously the explanations of the head of the government, but all other mortals – among them the members of Kerensky’s own party – quite frankly asked themselves how one and the same cavalry corps might be useful both for accomplishing a coup d’etat and for preventing it. It was just a little too reckless on the part of the “Social Revolutionary” to bring into the capital a force which had been composed for the purpose of strangling it. The Trojans, to be sure, did once bring a hostile detachment into the walls of their city, but they were at least ignorant of what was inside the belly of the wooden horse. And even so an ancient historian disputes the story of the poet: in the opinion of Pausanius, you can believe Homer only if you consider the Trojans to have been “stupid men not possessed of a glimmer of reason.” What would the old man have said of the testimony of Kerensky?

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Last updated on: 25 December 2014