Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume Two: The Attempted Counter-Revolution

Chapter 32
Kornilov’s Insurrection

As early as the beginning of August, Kornilov had ordered the transfer of the Savage Division and the Third Cavalry Corps from the southwestern front to the sector of the railroad triangle, Nevel-Novosokolniki-Velikie Luki, the most advantageous base for an attack on Petrograd-this under the guise of reserves for the defense of Riga. At the same time the commander-in-chief had concentrated one Cossack division in the region between Vyborg and Byeloostrov. This fist thrust into the very face of the capital – from Byeloostrov to Petrograd is only thirty kilometers! – was given out as a preparation of reserves for possible operations in Finland. Thus even before the Moscow Conference four cavalry divisions had been moved into position for the attack on Petrograd, and these were the divisions considered most useful against Bolsheviks. Of the Caucasian division it was customary in Kornilov’s circle to remark: “Those mountaineers don’t care whom they slaughter.” The strategic plan was simple. The three divisions coming from the south were to be transported by railroad to Tzarskoe Selo, Gatchina, and Krasnoe Selo, in order from those points “upon receiving information of disorders beginning in Petrograd, and not later than the morning of September 1” to advance on foot for the occupation of the southern part of the capital on the left bank of the Neva. The division quartered in Finland was at the same time to occupy the northern part of the capital.

Through the mediation of the League of Officers Kornilov had got in touch with Petrograd patriotic societies who had at their disposal, according to their own words, 2,000 men excellently armed but requiring experienced officers to lead them. Kornilov promised to supply commanders from the front under the pretext of leave-of-absence. In order to keep watch of the mood of the Petrograd workers and soldiers and the activity of revolutionists, a secret intelligence service was formed, at the head of which stood a colonel of the Savage Division, Heiman. The affair was conducted within the framework of military regulations. The conspiracy made use of the headquarters’ apparatus.

The Moscow Conference merely fortified Kornilov in his plans. Miliukov, to be sure, according to his own story, recommended a delay on the ground that Kerensky still enjoyed a certain popularity in the provinces. But this kind of advice could have no influence upon the impatient general. The question after all was not about Kerensky, but about the soviets. Moreover, Miliukov was not a man of action, but a civilian, and still worse a professor. Bankers, industrialists, Cossack generals were urging him on. The metropolitans had given him their blessing. Orderly Zavoiko offered to guarantee his success. Telegrams of greeting were coming from all sides. The Allied embassies took an active part in the mobilization of the counter-revolutionary forces. Sir Buchanan held in his hands many of the threads of the plot. The military attache’s of the Allies at headquarters assured him of their most cordial sympathies. “The British attache in particular” testifies Denikin, “did this in a touching form.” Behind the embassies stood their governments. In a telegram of August 23, a commissar of the Provisional Government abroad, Svatikov, reported from Paris that in a farewell reception the Foreign Minister Ribot had “inquired with extraordinary eagerness who among those around Kerensky was a man of force and energy. And President Poincare had “asked many questions ... about Kornilov,” All this was known at headquarters. Kornilov saw no reason to postpone and wait. On or about the 20th, two cavalry divisions were advanced further in the direction of Petrograd. On the day Riga fell, four officers from each regiment of the army were summoned to headquarters, about 4000 in all, “for the study of English bomb-throwing.” To the most reliable of these officers it was immediately explained that the matter in view was to put down “Bolshevik Petrograd” once for all. On the same day an order was given from headquarters to supply two of the cavalry divisions with several boxes of hand grenades: they would be the most useful in street fighting. “It was agreed,” writes the chief-of-staff, Lukomsky, “that everything should be ready by the 26th of August.”

As the troops of Kornilov approached Petrograd an inside organization “was to come out in Petrograd, occupy Smolny Institute and try to arrest the Bolshevik chiefs.” To be sure in Smolny Institute the Bolshevik chiefs appeared only at meetings, whereas continually present there was the Executive Committee which had appointed the ministers, and continued to number Kerensky among its vice-presidents. But in a great cause it is not possible or necessary to observe the fine points of things. Kornilov at least did not bother about them. “It is time,” he said to Lukomsky, “to hang the German agents and spies, Lenin first of all, and disperse the Soviet of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies – yes, and disperse it so it will never get together again.

Kornilov firmly intended to give the command of the operations to Krymov, who in his own circles enjoyed the reputation of a bold and resolute general. “Krymov was at that time happy and full of the joy of life,” says Denikin, “and looked with confidence into the future.” At headquarters they looked with confidence upon Krymov. “I am convinced,” said Kornilov, “that he will not hesitate, if need arises, to hang the whole membership of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.” The choice of this general, so happy and full of the joy of life, was consequently most appropriate.

At the height of these labors, which drew attention from the German front, Savinkov arrived at headquarters in order to dot the i’s of an old agreement, and introduce some secondary changes into it. Savinkov named the same date for the blow against the common enemy as that which Kornilov had long ago designated for his action against Kerensky: the semi-anniversary of the revolution. In spite of the fact that the conspiracy had split into two halves, both sides were trying to operate with the common elements of the plan – Kornilov for the purpose of camouflage, Kerensky in order to support his own illusions. The proposal of Savinkov played perfectly into the hands of headquarters: the government had presented its head, and Savinkov was ready to slip the noose. The generals at headquarters rubbed their hands:

“He’s biting!” they exclaimed like happy fishermen. Kornilov was quite ready to make the proposed concessions, which cost him nothing. What difference will the non-subordination of the Petrograd garrison to headquarters make, once the Kornilov troops have entered the capital? Having agreed to the other two conditions, Kornilov immediately violated them: the Savage Division was placed in the vanguard and Krymov at the head of the whole operation. Kornilov did not consider it necessary to choke on the gnats.

The Bolsheviks debated the fundamental problems of their policy openly: a mass party cannot do otherwise. The government and headquarters could not but know that the Bolsheviks were restraining the masses, and not summoning them to action. But as the wish is father to the thought, so political needs become the basis for a prognosis. All the ruling classes were talking about an impending insurrection because they were in desperate need of one. The date of the insurrection would approach or recede a few days from time to time. In the War Ministry – that is, in the office of Savinkov – according to the press, the impending insurrection was regarded “very seriously.” Rech stated that the Bolshevik faction of the Petrograd soviet was assuming the responsibility for the attack. Miliukov was to such an extent involved in this matter of the pretended insurrection of the Bolsheviks in his character of politician, that he has considered it a matter of honor to support the tale in his character of historian. “In subsequently published documents of the Intelligence Service,” he writes, “new assignments of German money for Trotsky’s enterprise relate to exactly this period.” The learned historian, together with the Russian Intelligence Service, forgets that Trotsky – whom the German staff for the convenience of the Russian patriots was kind enough to mention by name – was “exactly at this period,” from the 23rd of July to the 4th of September, locked up in prison. The fact that the earth’s axis is merely an imaginary line does not of course prevent the earth from rotating on its axis. In like manner the Kornilov operations rotated round an imaginary insurrection of the Bolsheviks as round its own axis. That was amply sufficient for the period of preparation. But for the denouément something a little more substantial was needed.

One of the leading military conspirators, the officer Vinberg, revealing in his interesting notes what was going on behind the scenes in this business, wholly confirms the assertion of the Bolsheviks that a vast work of military provocation was in progress. Even Miliukov is obliged, under the whip of facts and documents, to admit that “the suspicions of the extreme left circles were correct: agitation in the factories was undoubtedly one of the tasks which the officers’ organizations were supposed to fulfil.” But even this did not help: “The Bolsheviks,” complains the same historian, decided “not to be put upon,” and the masses did not intend to go out without the Bolsheviks. However, even this obstacle had been taken into consideration in the plan, and paralyzed as it were in advance. The “republican center,” as the leading body of the conspirators in Petrograd was called, decided simply to replace the Bolsheviks. The business of imitating a revolutionary insurrection was assigned to the Cossack colonel, Dutov. In January 1918, Dutov, to a question from his political friends: “What was to have happened on the 28th of August, 1917?” answered as follows (the quotation is verbatim): “Between the 28th of August and the 2nd of September I was to take action in the form of a Bolshevik insurrection.” Everything had been foreseen. This plan had not been labored over by the officers of the general staff for nothing.

Kerensky, on his side, after the return of Savinkov from Moghiliev, was inclined to think that all misunderstandings had been removed, and that headquarters was entirely drawn into his plan. “There were times,” writes Stankevich, “when all those active not only believed they were all acting in the same direction, but that they had a like conception of the very methods of action.” Those happy moments did not last long. An accident occurred, which like all historic accidents opened the sluice-gates of necessity. To Kerensky came the Octobrist, Lvov, a member of the first Provisional Government – that same Lvov who as the expansive Procuror of the Holy Synod had reported that this institution was filled with “idiots and scoundrels.” Fate had allotted to Lvov the task of discovering that under the appearance of a single plan there were in reality two plans, one of which was directed in a hostile manner against the other.

In his character as an unemployed but word-loving politician, Lvov had taken part in endless conversations about the transformation of the government and the salvation of the country – now at headquarters, now in the Winter Palace. This time he appeared with a proposal that he be permitted to mediate in the transformation of the cabinet along national lines, incidentally frightening Kerensky in a friendly manner with the thunders and lightnings of a discontented headquarters. The disturbed Minister-President decided to make use of Lvov in order to test the loyalty of the staff – and at the same time, apparently, that of his accomplice, Savinkov. Kerensky expressed his sympathy for the plan of a dictatorship – in which he was not hypocritical – and encouraged Lvov to undertake further mediations – in which there was military trickery.

When Lvov again arrived at headquarters, weighed down now with the credentials of Kerensky, the generals looked upon his mission as a proof that the government was ripe for capitulation. Only yesterday Kerensky through Savinkov had promised to carry out the program of Kornilov if defended by a corps of Cossacks; today Kerensky was already proposing to the staff a co-operative transformation of the government. “It is time to put a knee in his stomach,” the generals justly decided. Kornilov accordingly explained to Lvov that since the forthcoming insurrection of the Bolsheviks has as its aim “the overthrow of the Provisional Government, peace with Germany, and the surrender to her by the Bolsheviks of the Baltic fleet,” there remains no other way out but “the immediate transfer of power by the Provisional Government into the hands of the supreme commander-in-chief.” To this Kornilov added: “... no matter who he may be” – but he had no idea of surrendering his place to anybody. His position had been fortified in advance by the oath of the Cavaliers of St. George, the League of Officers and the Council of the Cossack army. In order to make sure of the “safety” of Kerensky and Savinkov from the hands of the Bolsheviks, Kornilov urgently requested them to come to headquarters and place themselves under his personal protection. The orderly, Zavoiko, gave Lvov an unequivocal hint as to just what this protection would consist of.

Returning to Moscow, Lvov fervently urged Kerensky, as a “friend,” to agree to the proposal of Kornilov “in order to save the lives of the members of the Provisional Government, and above all his own life.” Kerensky could not but understand at last that his political playing with the idea of dictatorship was taking a serious turn, and might end most unfortunately for him. Having decided to act, he first of all summoned Kornilov to the wire in order to verify the facts: Had Lvov correctly conveyed his message? Kerensky put his questions, not only in his own name, but in the name of Lvov, although the latter was not present during the conversation. “Such an action,” remarks Martynov, “appropriate for a detective, was of course improper for the head of a government.” Kerensky spoke of his arrival at headquarters the next day as a thing already decided upon. This whole dialogue on the direct wire seems incredible. The democratic head of the government and the “republican” general converse about yielding the power the one to the other, as though they were discussing a berth in a sleeping car!

Miliukov is entirely right when he sees in the demand of Kornilov that the power be transferred to him, merely “a continuation of all those conversations openly begun long ago about a dictatorship, a re-organization of the government, etc.” But Miliukov goes too far when he tries upon this basis to present the thing as though there had been in essence no conspiracy at headquarters. It is indubitable that Kornilov could not have presented his demand through Lvov, if he had not formerly been in a conspiracy with Kerensky. But this does not alter the fact that with one conspiracy – the common one – Kornilov was covering up another – his own private one. At the same time that Kerensky and Savinkov were intending to clean up the Bolsheviks, and in part the soviets, Kornilov was intending also to clean up the Provisional Government. It was just this that Kerensky did not want.

For several hours on the evening of the 26th headquarters was actually in a position to believe that the government was going to capitulate without a struggle. But that does not mean that there was no conspiracy; it merely means that the conspiracy seemed about to succeed. A victorious conspiracy always finds ways of legalizing itself “I saw General Kornilov after this conversation,” says Troubetskoy, a diplomat who represented the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at headquarters. “A sigh of relief lifted his breast, and to my question, ‘This means that the government is coming to meet you all along the line?’ he answered: ‘Yes.’“ Kornilov was mistaken. It was at that very moment that the government, in the person of Kerensky, had stopped coming to meet him.

Then headquarters has its own plans? Then it is not a question of dictatorship in general, but of a Kornilov dictatorship? To him, to Kerensky, they are offering as if in mockery the post of Minister of Justice? Kornilov had actually been so imprudent as to make this suggestion through Lvov. Confusing himself with the revolution, Kerensky shouted out to the Minister of Finance, Nekrasov: “I won’t hand over the revolution to them!” And the disinterested friend, Lvov, was immediately arrested and spent a sleepless night in the Winter Palace with two sentries at his feet, listening through the wall with a grinding of his teeth to “the triumphant Kerensky in the next room, the room of Alexander III, happy at the successful progress of his affairs and endlessly singing a roulade from an opera.” During those hours Kerensky experienced an extraordinary afflux of energy.

Petrograd in those days was living in a two-fold state of alarm. The political tension, purposely exaggerated by the press, contained the material of an explosion. The fall of Riga had brought the front nearer. The question of evacuating the capital, raised by the events of the war long before the fall of the monarchy, now came up with new force. Well-to-do people were leaving town. The flight of the bourgeoisie was caused far more by fear of a new insurrection than by the advance of the enemy. On August 26th the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks repeated its warning: “A provocational agitation is being carried on by unknown persons supposedly in the name of our party.” The leading organs of the Petrograd soviet, the trade unions, and the shop and factory committees, announced on the same day that not one workers’ organization, and not one political party, was calling for any kind of demonstration. Nevertheless rumors of an overthrow of the government to occur on the following day did not cease for one minute. “In government circles,” stated the press, “they are talking of a unanimously adopted decision that all attempted manifestations shall be put down.” And measures had been taken to call out the manifestation before putting it down.

In the morning papers of the 27th there was not only no news of the insurrectionary intentions of headquarters, but, on the contrary, an interview with Savinkov declared that “General Kornilov enjoys the absolute confidence of the Provisional Government.” On the whole the semi-anniversary began in unusual tranquillity. The workers and soldiers avoided anything which might look like a demonstration; the bourgeoisie, fearing disorders, stayed at home; the streets stood empty; the tomb of the February martyrs on Mars Field seemed abandoned.

On the morning of that long-expected day which was to bring the salvation of the country, the supreme commander-in-chief received a telegraphic command from the Minister-President: to turn over his duties to the chief-of-staff, and come immediately to Petrograd. This was a totally unexpected turn of affairs. The general understood – to quote his own words – that “here a double game was being played.” He might have said with more truth that his own double game had been discovered. Kornilov decided not to surrender. Savinkov’s urgings over the direct wire made no difference. “Finding myself compelled to act openly” – with this manifesto the commander-in-chief appealed to the people – ”I, General Kornilov, declare that the Provisional Government, under pressure from the Bolshevik majority of the soviets, is acting in full accord with the plans of the German general staff, and simultaneously with the impending descent of hostile forces upon the Riga coastline is murdering the army and unsettling the country from within.” Not wishing to surrender the power to the enemy, he, Kornilov “prefers to die upon the field of honor and battle.” Of the author of this manifesto Miliukov subsequently wrote, with a tinge of admiration: “resolute, scornful of juridical refinements, and accustomed to go directly toward the goal which he has once decided is right.” A commander-in-chief who withdraws troops from the enemy front in order to overthrow his own government certainly cannot be accused of a partiality for “juridical refinements.”

Kerensky removed Kornilov upon his sole personal authority. The Provisional Government had by that time ceased to exist. On the evening of the 26th the ministers had resigned – an act which, by a happy conjuncture of events, corresponded to the desires of all sides. Several days before the break between headquarters and the government, General Lukomsky had already suggested to Lvov through Alladin, that “it would not be a bad idea to warn the Kadets that they should withdraw from the government before the 27th of August, so as to place the government in a difficult situation and themselves avoid any unpleasantness.” The Kadets did not fail to take cognizance of this suggestion. On the other side, Kerensky himself announced to the government that he considered it possible to struggle with the revolt of Kornilov “only on condition that the whole power be conferred upon him personally.” The rest of the ministers, it seemed, were only waiting for some such happy occasion to take their turn at resigning. Thus the Coalition received one more test. “The ministers from the Kadet Party,” writes Miliukov, “announced that they would resign for the given moment, without prejudicing the question of their future participation in the Provisional Government.” True to their traditions, the Kadets wanted to stay on the sidelines until the struggle was over, so that their decision might be guided by its outcome. They had no doubt that the Compromisers would keep their seats inviolable for them. Having thus relieved themselves of responsibility, the Kadets, along with all the other retired ministers, took part thereafter in a series of conferences of the government, conferences of a “private character.” The two camps who were preparing for a civil war grouped themselves, in a “private” manner, around the head of the government, who was endowed with all possible authorizations but no real power.

Upon a telegram from Kerensky received at headquarters reading, “Hold up all echelons moving towards Petrograd and its districts, and return them to their last stopping-point,” Kornilov wrote: “Do not carry out this order. Move the troops towards Petrograd.” The military insurrection was thus firmly set in motion. This must be understood literally: three cavalry divisions, in railroad echelons, were advancing on the capital.

Kerensky’s order to the soldiers of Petrograd read: “General Kornilov, having announced his patriotism and loyalty to the people ... has withdrawn regiments from the front ... and sent them against Petrograd.” Kerensky wisely omitted to remark that the regiments were withdrawn from the front, not only with his knowledge, but at his direct command, in order to clean up that same garrison before whom he was now disclosing the treachery of Kornilov. The rebellious commander of course was not slow with his answer. “The traitors are not among us,” his telegram reads, “but there in Petrograd, where for German money, with the criminal connivance of the government, they have been selling Russia.” Thus the slander set in motion against the Bolsheviks found ever new roads.

That exalted nocturnal mood in which the President of the Council of Retired Ministers was singing arias from the opera, very quickly passed. The struggle with Kornilov, whatever turn it took, threatened dire consequences. “On the first night of the revolt of headquarters,” writes Kerensky, “in the soldier and worker circles of Petrograd a persistent rumor went round associating Savinkov with the movement of General Kornilov.” The rumor named Kerensky in the next breath after Savinkov, and the rumor was not wrong. Extremely dangerous revelations were to be feared in the future.

“Late at night on the 26th of August,” relates Kerensky, “the general administrator of the War Ministry entered my office in a great state of excitement. ‘Mr. Minister,’ Savinkov addressed me, standing at attention, ‘I ask you to arrest me immediately as an accomplice of General Kornilov. If, however, you trust me, I ask you to give me the opportunity to demonstrate to the people in action that I have nothing in common with the revoltees ...” “In answer to this announcement,” continued Kerensky, “I immediately appointed Savinkov temporary governor-general of Petersburg, endowing him with ample authority for the defense of Petersburg from the troops of General Kornilov.” Not content with that, at the request of Savinkov, Kerensky appointed Filonenko his assistant. The business of revolting and the business of putting down the revolt were thus concentrated within the narrow circle of the “directory.”

This so hasty naming of Savinkov governor-general was dictated to Kerensky by his struggle for political self-preservation. If Kerensky had betrayed Savinkov to the soviets, Savinkov would have immediately betrayed Kerensky. On the other hand, having received from Kerensky – not without blackmail – the possibility of legalizing himself by an overt participation in the actions against Kornilov, Savinkov was bound to do his best to exonerate Kerensky. The “governor-general” was needed not so much for the struggle against counter-revolution, as for covering up the tracks of the conspiracy. The friendly labors of the accomplices in this direction began immediately.

“At four o’clock on the morning of August 28th,” testifies Savinkov, “I returned to the Winter Palace, summoned by Kerensky, and there found General Alexeiev and Tereshchenko. We all four agreed that the ultimatum of Lvov had been nothing more than a misunderstanding.” The rôle of mediator in this early-morning conference belonged to the new governor-general. Miliukov was directing it all from behind the scenes. During the course of the day he will come out openly upon the stage. Alexeiev, although he had called Kornilov a sheep’s brain, belonged to the same camp with him. The conspirators and their seconds made a last attempt to declare the whole business a “misunderstanding” – that is, to join hands in deceiving public opinion, in order to save what they could of the common plan. The Savage Division, General Krymov, the Cossack echelons, the refusal of Kornilov to retire, the march on the capital – all these things were the mere details of a “misunderstanding”! Frightened by the ominous tangle of circumstances, Kerensky was no longer shouting: “I will not hand over the revolution to them!” Immediately after the conference with Alexeiev he went to the journalists’ room in the Winter Palace and demanded that they withdraw from the papers his manifesto declaring Kornilov a traitor. When in answer the journalists had made it clear that this was a physical impossibility, Kerensky exclaimed: “That’s too bad.” This miserable episode, described in the newspapers of the following day, illumines with marvelous clarity the figure of the now hopelessly entangled super-arbiter of the nation. Kerensky had so perfectly embodied in himself both the democracy and the bourgeoisie, that he had now turned out to be at the same time the supreme incarnation of governmental power and a criminal conspirator against it.

By the morning of the 28th, the split between the government and the commander-in-chief had become an accomplished fact before the eyes of the whole country. The stock exchange immediately took a hand in the matter. Whereas it had reacted to the Moscow speech of Kornilov threatening the surrender of Riga with a fall in the value of Russian stocks, it reacted to the news of an open insurrection of the general with a rise of all values. With this annihilating appraisal of the February régime, the stock exchange gave unerring expression to the moods and hopes of the possessing classes who had no doubt of Kornilov’s victory.

The chief-of-staff, Lukomsky, whom Kerensky the day before had ordered to take upon himself the temporary command, answered: “I do not consider it possible to take the command from General Kornilov, for that will be followed by an explosion in the army which will ruin Russia.” With the exception of the commander-in-chief in the Caucasus, who after some delay declared his loyalty to the Provisional Government, the rest of the commanders in various tones of voice supported the demands of Kornilov. Inspired by the Kadets, the head committee of the League of Officers sent out a telegram to all the staffs of the army and fleet: “The Provisional Government, which has already more than once demonstrated to us its political incapacity, has now dishonored its name with acts of provocation and can no longer remain at the head of Russia ...” That same Lukomsky was the respected president of the League of Officers. At headquarters they said to General Krasnov, appointed to command the Third Cavalry Corps: “Nobody will defend Kerensky. This is only a promenade. Everything is ready.”

A fair idea of the optimistic calculations of the leaders and backers of the plot is conveyed by the code telegram of the aforementioned Prince Troubetskoy to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “Soberly estimating the situation,” he writes, “it must be acknowledged that the whole commanding staff, an overwhelming majority of the officers, and the best of the rank-and-file elements of the army, are for Kornilov. On his side at the rear stand all the Cossacks, a majority of the military schools, and also the best fighting units. To these physical forces it is necessary to add the moral sympathy of all the non-socialist layers of the population, and in the lower orders ... an indifference which will submit to the least blow of the whip. There is no doubt that an enormous number of the March socialists will come quickly over to the side” of Kornilov in case of his victory. Troubetskoy here expressed not only the hopes of headquarters, but also the attitude of the Allied missions. In the Kornilov detachments advancing to the conquest of Petrograd, there were English armored cars with English operatives – and these we may assume constituted the most reliable units. The head of the English military mission in Russia, General Knox, reproached the American Colonel Robbins, for not supporting Kornilov: “I am not interested in the government of Kerensky,” said the British General, “it is too weak. What is wanted is a strong dictatorship. What is wanted is the Cossacks. This people needs the whip! A dictatorship – that is just what it needs.” All these voices from different quarters arrived at the Winter Palace, and had an alarming effect upon its inhabitants. The success of Kornilov seemed inevitable. Minister Nekrassov informed his friends that the game was completely up, and it remained only to die an honorable death. “Several eminent members of the Soviet,” affirms Miliukov, “foreseeing their fate in case of Kornilov’s victory, had already made haste to supply themselves with foreign passports.”

From hour to hour came the messages, 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 noon on August 28th: “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 3:00 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 6:00 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 kilometers 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. “Headquarters,” “commanders-in-chief at the front,” “British mission,” “officers,” “echelons,” “railroad battalions,” “cossacks,” “Kaledin” – all these words sounded in the Malachite Hall of the Winter Palace like the trumpets of the Last Judgement.

Kerensky himself acknowledges this in a somewhat softened form: “August 28th was the day of the greatest wavering,” he writes, “the greatest doubt as to the strength of the enemy, Kornilov, the greatest nervousness among the democracy.” It is not difficult to imagine what lies behind those words. The head of the government was torn by speculations, not only as to which of the two camps was stronger, but as to which was personally the less dangerous to him. “We are neither with you on the right, nor with you on the left” – those words had seemed effective on the stage of the Moscow theater. Translated into the language of a civil war on the point of explosion, they meant that the Kerensky group might appear superfluous both to right and left. “We were all as though numb with despair,” writes Stankevich, “seeing this drama unfold to the destruction of everything. The degree of our numbness may be judged by the fact that even after the split between headquarters and the government was before the eyes of the whole people, attempts were made to find some sort of reconciliation...

“A thought of mediation ... was in these circumstances spontaneously born,” says Miliukov, who himself preferred to function in the capacity of mediator. On the evening of the 28th he appeared at the Winter Palace “to advise Kerensky to renounce the strictly formal viewpoint of the violation of law.” The liberal leader, who understood that it is necessary to distinguish the kernel of a nut from the shell, was at that moment a most suitable person for the task of loyal intermediary. On the 13th of August, Miliukov had learned directly from Kornilov that he had set the 27th as the date for the revolt. On the following day, the 14th, Miliukov had demanded in his speech at the Conference that “the immediate adoption of the measures designated by the supreme commander-in-chief should not serve as a pretext for suspicions, verbal threats, or even removals from office.” Up to the 27th Kornilov was to remain above suspicion! At the same time Miliukov promised Kerensky his support – “voluntarily and without any argument.” That would have been a good time to remember the hangman’s noose which also, as they say, “supports without argument.” Kerensky upon his side acknowledges that Miliukov, appearing with his proposal of mediation, “chose a very comfortable moment to demonstrate to me that the real power was on the side of Kornilov.” The conversation ended so successfully that in conclusion Miliukov called the attention of his political friends to General Alexeiev as a successor to Kerensky against whom Kornilov would offer no objection. Alexeiev magnanimously gave his consent.

And after Miliukov came a greater than he. Late in the evening the British Ambassador Buchanan handed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs a declaration in which the representatives of the Allied Powers unanimously offered their good services “in the interests of humanity and the desire to avoid irrevocable misfortune.” This official mediation between the government and the general in revolt was nothing less than support and insurance to the revolt. In reply, Tereshchenko expressed, in the name of the Provisional Government, “extreme astonishment” at the revolt of Kornilov, a greater part of whose program had been adopted by the government. In a state of loneliness and prostration, Kerensky could think of nothing better to do than to call one more of those everlasting conferences with his retired ministers. In the midst of this wholly disinterested business of killing time, some especially alarming news arrived as to the approach of the enemy’s echelons. Nekrasov voiced an apprehension that “in a few hours Kornilov’s troops will probably be in Petrograd.” The former ministers began to guess “how in those circumstances the governmental power would have to be formed.” The thought of a directory again swam to the surface. The idea of including General Alexeiev in the staff of the “directory” found sympathy both right and left. The Kadet Kokoshkin thought that Alexeiev ought to be placed at the head of the government. According to some accounts, the proposal to tender the power to some other was made by Kerensky himself, with a direct reference to his conversation with Miliukov. Nobody objected. The candidacy of Alexeiev reconciled them all. Miliukov’s plan seemed very, very near to realization. But just here – as is proper at the moment of highest tension – resounds a dramatic knock on the door. In the next room a deputation is waiting from the “Committee of Struggle against the Counter-Revolution.” It was a most timely arrival. One of the most dangerous nests of counter-revolution was this pitiful, cowardly and treacherous conference of Kornilovists, intermediaries, and capitulators in the hall of the Winter Palace.

This new soviet body – The Committee of Struggle against Counter-Revolution – had been created at a joint session of both Executive Committees, the worker-soldiers’ and the peasants’. It was created on the evening of the 27th, and consisted of specially delegated representatives of the three soviet parties from both executive committees, from the trade union center, and from the Petrograd soviet. This creation ad hoc of a fighting committee was in essence a recognition of the fact that the governing soviet bodies were themselves conscious of their decrepit condition, and their need of a transfusion of fresh blood for the purposes of revolutionary action.

Finding themselves compelled to seek the support of the masses against the rebellious general, the Compromisers hastened to push their left shoulder forward. They immediately forgot all their speeches about how all questions of principle should be postponed to the Constituent Assembly. The Mensheviks announced that they would press the government for an immediate declaration of a democratic republic, a dissolution of the State Duma, and the introduction of agrarian reform. It was for this reason that the word “republic” first appeared in the announcement of the government about the treason of the commander-in-chief.

On the question of power, the Executive Committees considered it necessary for the time being to leave the government in its former shape – replacing the retired Kadets with democratic elements – and for a final solution of the problem to summon in the near future a congress of all those organizations which had united in Moscow on the platform of Cheidze. After midnight negotiations it became known, however, that Kerensky resolutely rejected the idea of a democratic control of the government. Feeling that the ground was slipping under him both to left and right, he was holding out with all his might for the idea of a “directory,” in which there was still room for his not yet dead dreams of a strong power. After renewed fruitless and wearisome debates in Smolny, it was decided to appeal again to the irreplaceable and one and only Kerensky, with the request that he agree to the preliminary project of the Executive Committees. At seven-thirty in the morning Tseretelli returned with the information that Kerensky would make no concession, that he demanded “unconditional” support, but that he agreed to employ “all the powers of the state” in the struggle against the counter-revolution. Wearied out with their night’s vigil, the Executive Committees surrendered at last to that idea of a “directory” which was as empty as a knot-hole.

Kerensky’s solemn promise to throw “all the powers of the state” into the struggle with Kornilov did not, as we already know, prevent him from carrying on those negotiations with Miliukov, Alexeiev, and the retired ministers, about a peaceful surrender to headquarters – negotiations which were interrupted by a midnight knock on the door. Several days later the Menshevik, Bogdanov, one of the members of the Committee of Defense, made a report to the Petrograd soviet in cautious but unequivocal words about the treachery of Kerensky. “When the Provisional Government was wavering, and it was not clear how the Kornilov adventure would end, intermediaries appeared, such as Miliukov and General Alexeiev ...” But the committee of defense interfered and “with all energy” demanded an open struggle. “Under our influence,” continued Bogdanov, “the government stopped all negotiations and refused to entertain any proposition from Kornilov ...”

After the head of the government, yesterday’s conspirator against the left camp, had become today its political captive, the Kadet ministers who had resigned on the 26th only in a preliminary and hesitating fashion, announced that they would conclusively withdraw from the government, since they did not wish to share the responsibility for Kerensky’s action in putting down so patriotic, so loyal, and so nation-saving a rebellion. The retired ministers, the counsellors, the friends – one after another they all left the Winter Palace. It was, according to Kerensky himself, “a mass abandonment of a place known to be condemned to destruction.” There was one night, August 28-9, when Kerensky was actually walking about almost in “complete solitude” in the Winter Palace. The opera bravuras were no longer running in his head. “A responsibility lay upon me in those anguishingly long days and nights that was really super-human.” This was in the main a responsibility for the fate of Kerensky himself: everything else had already been accomplished over his head and without any attention being paid to him.

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Last updated on: 25 December 2014