Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume Two: The Attempted Counter-Revolution

Chapter 33
The Bourgeoisie Measures Strength with the Democracy

On the 28th of August, while fright was shaking the Winter Palace like a fever, the commander of the Savage Division, Prince Bagration, informed Kornilov by telegraph that “the natives would fulfil their duty to the fatherland and at the command of their supreme hero ... would shed the last drop of their blood.” Only a few hours later the division came to a halt; and on the 31st of August a special deputation, with the same Bagration at the head, assured Kerensky that the division would submit absolutely to the Provisional Government. All this happened not only without a battle, but without the firing of a single shot. To say nothing of its last, the division did not shed even its first drop of blood. The soldiers of Kornilov never even made the attempt to employ weapons to force their way to Petrograd. The officers did not dare give them the command. The government troops were nowhere obliged to resort to force in stopping the onslaught of the Kornilov army. The conspiracy disintegrated, crumbled, evaporated in the air.

In order to understand this, it is only necessary to look closely at the powers which had come in conflict. First of all we must notice – and this will not be an unexpected discovery – that the staff of the conspiracy was the same old tzarist staff, composed of clerical people without brains, incapable of thinking out in advance two or three moves in the vast game they had undertaken. Notwithstanding the fact that Kornilov had set the day of the insurrection several weeks in advance, nothing whatever had been foreseen or properly reckoned upon. The purely military preparation of the uprising was carried out in an inept, slovenly and light-headed manner. Complicated changes in the organization and commanding staff were undertaken on the eve of the action – just on the run. The Savage Division, which was to deal the first blow at the revolution, consisted all told of 1,350 fighters, and they were short 600 rifles, 1,000 lances and 500 sabers. Five days before the beginning of active fighting, Kornilov gave an order for the transformation of the division into a corps. This measure, which any schoolbook would condemn, was obviously considered necessary in order to attract the officers with higher pay. “A telegram stating that the lacking weapons would be supplied at Pskov,” writes Martynov, “was received by Bagration only on August 31st after the complete collapse of the whole enterprise.” The sending of instructors from the front to Petrograd was also taken up at headquarters only at the very last moment. The officers accepting the commission were liberally supplied with money and private cars, but the patriotic heroes were in no great hurry, it seems, to save the fatherland. Two days later railroad communications between headquarters and the capital were cut off, and the majority of the heroes had not yet arrived at the place of their proposed deeds.

The capital, however, had its own organization of Kornilovists numbering about 2,000. The conspirators here were divided into groups according to the special tasks allotted to them; seizure of armored automobiles; arrest and murder of the more eminent members of the Soviet; arrest of the Provisional Government; capture of the more important public institutions. Vinberg, the president of the League of Military Duty, known to us above, says: “By the time Krymov’s troops arrived, the principal forces of the revolution were supposed to have already been broken, annihilated, or rendered harmless, so that Krymov’s task would be merely to restore order in the town.” At Moghiliev, to be sure, they considered this program exaggerated, and relied upon Krymov for most of the work, but headquarters did also expect very serious help from the detachments of the Republican Center. As it turned out, however, the Petrograd conspirators never showed themselves for an instant, never lifted a voice, never moved a finger; it was quite as though they did not exist in the world. Vinberg explains this mystery rather simply. It seems that the superintendent of the Intelligence Service, Colonel Heiman, spent the decisive hours in a roadhouse somewhere outside of town, while Colonel Sidorin, whose duty it was, under the immediate command of Kornilov, to co-ordinate the activities of all the patriotic societies of the capital, and Colonel Ducemetiere, the head of the military department, “had disappeared without a trace and could not be found anywhere.” The Cossack colonel Dutov, who was supposed to take action “in the guise of” Bolsheviks, subsequently complained: “I ran ... and called people to come into the streets, but nobody followed me.” The sums of money set aside for organization were, according to Vinberg, appropriated by the principal participants and squandered on dinner parties. Colonel Sidorin, according to Denikin’s assertion, “fled to Finland, taking with him the last remnants of the treasury of the organization, something around a hundred or a hundred and fifty thousand roubles.” Lvov, whom we last saw under arrest in the Winter Palace, subsequently told about one of the secret contributors who was to deliver to some officers a considerable sum of money, but upon arriving at the designated place found the conspirators in such a state of inebriation that he could not deliver the goods. Vinberg himself thinks that if it had not been for these truly vexatious “accidents,” the plan might have been crowned with complete success. But the question remains: Why was a patriotic enterprise entered into and surrounded, for the most part, by drunkards, spendthrifts and traitors? Is it not because every historic task mobilizes the cadres that are adequate to it?

As regards personnel the conspiracy was in a bad case, beginning from the very top. “General Kornilov,” according to the right Kadet, Izgoyev, “was the most popular general ... among the peaceful population, but not among the soldiers, at least not among those in the rear whom I had an opportunity to observe.” By peaceful population, Izgoyev means the people of the Nevsky Prospect. To the popular masses, both front and rear, Kornilov was alien, hostile, hateful.

The general appointed to command the Third Cavalry Corps, Krasnov, a monarchist who soon after tried to become a vassal of Wilhelm II, expressed his surprise that “Kornilov conceived such a great undertaking, but himself remained at Moghiliev in a palace surrounded by Turkomen and shock troops, as though he did not believe in his own success.” To a question from the French journalist, Claude Anet, why Kornilov himself did not go to Petrograd at the decisive moment, the chief of the conspiracy answered: “I was sick. I had a serious attack of malaria, and was not in possession of my usual energy.”

There were too many of these unfortunate accidents: it is always so when a thing is condemned to failure in advance. The moods of the conspirators oscillated between drunken toploftiness, when the ocean only came up to their knees, and complete prostration before the first real obstacle. The difficulty was not Kornilov’s malaria, but a far deeper, more fatal, and incurable disease paralyzing the will of the possessing classes.

The Kadets have seriously denied any counter-revolutionary intentions upon the part of Kornilov, understanding by that the restoration of the Romanov monarchy. As though that were the matter in question! The “republicanism” of Kornilov did not in the least prevent the monarchist Lukomsky from going hand in hand with him, nor did it prevent the president of the Union of Russian People, the Black Hundreds, Rimsky-Korsakov, from telegraphing Kornilov on the day of the uprising: “I heartily pray God to help you save Russia. I put myself absolutely at your disposal.” The Black Hundred partisans of tzarism would not stop for a cheap little thing like a republican flag. They understood that Kornilov’s program was to be found in himself, in his past, in the Cossack stripes on his trousers, in his connections and sources of financial support, and above all in his unlimited readiness to cut the throat of the revolution.

Designating himself in his manifestos as “the son of a peasant” Kornilov based the plan of his uprising wholly upon the Cossacks and the mountaineers. There was not a single infantry detachment among the troops deployed against Petrograd. The general had no access to the muzhik and did not even try to discover any. There was at headquarters, to be sure, an agrarian reformer, some sort of “professor,” who was ready to promise every soldier a fantastic number of dessiatins of land, but the manifesto prepared upon this theme was not even issued. The generals were restrained from agrarian demagoguism by a well-justified dread of frightening and repelling the landlords.

A Moghiliev peasant, Tadeush, who closely observed the environs of the staff in those days, testifies that among the soldiers and in the villages nobody believed in the manifestos of the general. “He wants the power,” they said, “and not a word about the land and not a word about ending the war.” Upon life-and-death questions, the masses had somehow or other learned to find their way during the six months of revolution. Kornilov was offering the people war and a defense of the privileges of generals and the property of landlords. He could give them nothing more, and they expected nothing else from him. In his inability to rely upon the peasant infantry – evident in advance to the conspirators themselves – to say nothing of relying upon the workers, is expressed the socially outcast position of Kornilov’s clique.

The picture of political forces traced by the headquarters’ diplomat, Prince Trubetskoy, was correct in many things, but mistaken in one. Of that indifference of the people which made them ready “to submit to the least blow of the whip,” there was not a trace. On the contrary, the masses were as if only awaiting a blow of the whip in order to show what sources of energy and self-sacrifice were to be found in their depths. This mistake in estimating the mood of the masses brought all their other calculations to the dust.

The conspiracy was conducted by those circles who were not accustomed to know how to do anything without the lower ranks, without labor forces, without cannon-fodder, without orderlies, servants, clerks, chauffeurs, messengers, cooks, laundresses, switchmen, telegraphers, stablemen, cab drivers. But all these little human bolts and links, unnoticeable, innumerable, necessary, were for the Soviet and against Kornilov. The revolution was omnipresent. It penetrated everywhere, coiling itself around the conspiracy. It had everywhere its eye, its ear, its hand.

The ideal of military education is that the soldier should act when unseen by the officer exactly as before his eyes. But the Russian soldiers and sailors of 1917, without carrying out official orders even before the eyes of the commanders, would eagerly catch on the fly the commands of the revolution, or still oftener fulfil them on their own initiative before they arrived. The innumerable servants of the revolution, its agents, its intelligence men, its fighters, had no need either of spurs or of supervision.

Formally the liquidation of the conspiracy was in the hands of the government, and the Executive Committee co-operated. In reality the struggle was carried on within totally different channels. While Kerensky, bending under the weight of a “more than human responsibility,” was measuring the floors of the Winter Palace in solitude, the Committee of Defense, also called the Military Revolutionary Committee, was taking action on a vast scale. Early in the morning instructions were sent by telegram to the railroad workers, and postal and telegraph clerks, and soldiers. “All movements of troops” – so Dan reported on the same day – “are to be carried out at the direction of the Provisional Government when countersigned by the committee of People’s Defense.” Qualifications aside, this meant: The Committee of Defense deploys the troops under the firm name of Provisional Government. At the same time steps were taken for the destruction of Kornilovist nests in Petrograd itself. Searches and arrests were carried out in the military schools and officers’ organizations. The hand of the Committee was felt everywhere. There was little or no interest in the governor-general.

The lower soviet organizations in their turn did not await any summons from above. The principal effort was concentrated in the workers’ districts. During the hours of greatest vacillation in the government, and of wearisome negotiations between the Executive Committee and Kerensky, the district soviets were drawing more closely together and passing resolutions: to declare the inter-district conferences continuous; to place their representatives in the staff organized by the Executive Committee; to form a workers’ militia; to establish the control of the district soviets over the government commissars; to organize flying brigades for the detention of counter-revolutionary agitators. In the total, these resolutions meant an appropriation not only of very considerable governmental functions, but also of the functions of the Petrograd Soviet. The logic of the situation compelled the soviet institutions to draw in their skirts and make room for the lower ranks. The entrance of the Petrograd districts into the arena of the struggle instantly changed both its scope and its direction. Again the inexhaustible vitality of the soviet form of organization was revealed. Although paralyzed above by the leadership of the Compromisers, the soviets were reborn again from below at the critical moment under pressure from the masses.

To the Bolshevik leaders of the districts, Kornilov’s uprising had not been in the least unexpected. They had foreseen and forewarned, and they were the first to appear at their posts. At the joint session of the Executive Committees, on August 27, Sokolnikov announced that the Bolshevik party had taken all measures available to it in order to inform the people of the danger and prepare for defense; the Bolsheviks announced their readiness to co-ordinate their military work with the organs of the Executive Committee. At a night session of the Military Organization of the Bolsheviks, participated in by delegates of numerous military detachments, it was decided to demand the arrest of all conspirators, to arm the workers, to supply them with soldier instructors, to guarantee the defense of the capital from below, and at the same time to prepare for the creation of a revolutionary government of workers and soldiers. The Military Organization held meetings throughout the garrison; the soldiers were urged to remain under arms in order to come out at the first alarm.

“Notwithstanding the fact that they were in a minority,” writes Sukhanov, “it was quite clear that in the Military Revolutionary Committee the leadership belonged to the Bolsheviks.” He explains this as follows: “If the committee wanted to act seriously, it was compelled to act in a revolutionary manner,” and for revolutionary action “only the Bolsheviks had genuine resources,” for the masses were with them. Intensity in the struggle has everywhere and always brought forth the more active and bolder elements. This automatic selection inevitably elevated the Bolsheviks, strengthened their influence, concentrated the initiative in their hands, giving them de facto leadership even in those organizations where they were in a minority. The nearer you came to the district, to the factory, to the barrack, the more complete and indubitable was the leadership of the Bolsheviks. All the nuclei of the party were on their toes. The big factories organized a system of guard duty by Bolsheviks. In the district committees of the party representatives of small plants were put on duty. A tie was formed from below, from the shop, leading through the districts, to the Central Committee of the party.

Under direct pressure from the Bolsheviks and the organizations led by them, the Committee of Defense recognized the desirability of arming individual groups of workers for the defense of the workers’ quarters, the shops and factories. It was only this sanction that the masses lacked. In the districts, according to the workers’ press, there immediately appeared “whole queues of people eager to join the ranks of the Red Guard.” Drilling began in marksmanship and the handling of weapons. Experienced soldiers were brought in as teachers. By the 29th, Guards had been formed in almost all the districts. The Red Guard announced its readiness to put in the field a force of 40,000 rifles. The unarmed workers formed companies for trench-digging, sheet-metal fortification, barbed-wire fencing. The new governor-general Palchinsky who replaced Savinkov – Kerensky could not keep his accomplice longer than three days – was compelled to recognize in a special announcement that when the need arose for the work of sappers in the defense of the capital “thousands of workers ... by their irreplaceable, personal labor achieved in the course of a few hours a colossal task which without their help would have required several days.” This did not prevent Palchinsky, following the example of Savinkov, from suppressing the Bolshevik paper, the sole paper which the workers considered their own.

The giant Putilov factory became the center of resistance in the Peterhoff district. Here fighting companies were hastily formed; the work of the factory continued day and night; there was a sorting out of new cannon for the formation of proletarian artillery divisions. The worker, Minichev, says: “In those days we worked sixteen hours a day ... We got together about 100 canon.

The newly formed Vikzhel received a prompt baptism of war. The railroad workers had a special reason to dread the victory of Kornilov, who had incorporated in his program the inauguration of martial law on the railroads. And here, too, the lower ranks far outdistanced their leaders. The railroad workers tore up and barricaded the tracks in order to hold back Kornilov’s army. War experiences came in handy. Measures were also taken to isolate the center of the conspiracy, Moghiliev, preventing movements both towards and away from headquarters. The postal and telegraph clerks began to hold up and send to the Committee telegrams and orders from headquarters, or copies of them. The generals had been accustomed during the years of war to think of transport and communications as technical questions. They found out now that these were political questions.

The trade unions, least of all inclined toward political neutrality, did not await any special invitation before occupying military positions. The railroad workers’ union armed its members, and sent them along the lines for inspection, and for tearing up railroads, guarding bridges, etc. The workers in their enthusiasm and resolution pushed ahead of the more bureaucratic and moderate Vikzhel. The metal workers’ union put its innumerable office workers at the disposal of the Committee of Defense, and also a large sum of money for expenses. The chauffeurs’ union put in charge of the committee its technical and transportation facilities. The printers’ union arranged in a few hours for the issue of Monday’s papers, so as to keep the population in touch with events, and at the same time availed themselves of the most effective of all possible means of controlling the press. The rebel general had stamped his foot, and legions rose up from the ground – but they were the legions of the enemy.

All around Petrograd, in the neighboring garrisons, in the great railroad stations, in the fleet, work was going on night and day. They were inspecting their own ranks, arming the workers, sending out detachments as patrols along the tracks, establishing communications with neighboring points, and with Smolny. The task of the Committee of Defense was not so much to keep watch over and summon the workers, as merely to register and direct them. Its plans were always anticipated. The defense against the rebellion of the generals turned into a popular round-up of the conspirators.

In Helsingfors a general congress of all the soviet organizations created a revolutionary committee which sent its commissars to the offices of the governor-general, the commandant, the Intelligence Service, and other important institutions.

Thenceforth no order was valid without its signature. The telegraphs and telephones were taken under control. The official representatives of a Cossack regiment quartered in Helsingfors, chiefly officers, tried to declare themselves neutral: they were secret Kornilovists. On the second day, a rank-and-file cossack appeared before the Committee with the announcement that the whole regiment was against Kornilov. Cossack representatives were for the first time introduced into the soviet. In this case as in others a sharp conflict of classes was pushing the officers to the right and the rank-and-file to the left.

The Kronstadt soviet, which had completely recovered from the July wounds, sent a telegraphic declaration: “The Kronstadt garrison is ready as one man at the first word from the Executive Committee to come to the defense of the revolution.” The Kronstadters did not know in those days to what extent the defense of the revolution meant the defense of themselves against annihilation: at that time they could still only guess this.

Soon after the July Days it had been decided by the Provisional Government to vacate the Kronstadt fortress as a nest of Bolshevism. This measure, adopted in agreement with Kornilov, was officially explained as due to “strategic motives.” Sensing some dirty work, the sailors had resisted. “The legend of treachery at headquarters” – wrote Kerensky after he himself had accused Kornilov of treachery – “was so deeply rooted in Kronstadt that every attempt to remove the artillery evoked actual ferocity from the crowd there.” The task of devising a way to liquidate Kronstadt was laid by the government upon Kornilov. Kornilov devised a way: immediately after the conquest of the city Krymov was to despatch a brigade with artillery to Oranienbaum and, under threat of bombardment from the shores, demand that the Kronstadt garrison disarm the fortress and transfer themselves to the mainland, where the sailors were to undergo mass executions. But while Krymov was entering upon his task of saving the government, the government found itself obliged to ask the Kronstadters to save it from Krymov.

The Executive Committee sent telephonegrams to Kronstadt and Vyborg asking for the despatch of considerable detachments of troops to Petrograd. On the morning of the 29th, the troops began to arrive. These were chiefly Bolshevik units. In order that the summons of the Executive Committee should become operative, it had to be confirmed by the central committee of the Bolsheviks. A little earlier, at midday of the 28th, upon an order from Kerensky which sounded very much like a humble request, sailors from the cruiser Aurora had undertaken the defense of the Winter Palace. A part of the same crew were still imprisoned in Kresty for participation in the July demonstration. During their hours off duty the sailors came to the prison for a visit with the imprisoned Kronstadters, and with Trotsky, Raskolnikov and others. “Isn’t it time to arrest the government?” asked the visitors. “No, not yet,” was the answer. “Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterward we will settle with Kerensky.” In June and July these sailors had not been inclined to pay much attention to revolutionary strategy, but they had learned much in a short two months. They raised this question of the arrest of the government rather to test themselves and clear their own consciences. They themselves were beginning to grasp the inexorable consecutiveness of events. In the first half of July, beaten, condemned, slandered; at the end of August, the trusted defenders of the Winter Palace against Kornilovists; at the end of October, they will be shooting at the Winter Palace with the guns of the Aurora.

But although the sailors were willing to postpone for a certain time a general settlement with the February régime, they did not want to endure for one unnecessary day the Kornilovist officers hanging over their heads. The commanding staff which had been imposed upon them by the government since the July Days was almost solidly on the side of the conspirators. The Kronstadt soviet immediately removed the government commander of the fortress and installed their own. The Compromisers had now ceased to shout about the secession of the Kronstadt republic. However the thing did not everywhere stop at mere removals from office: it came to bloody encounters in several places.

“It began in Vyborg,” says Sukhanov, “with the beating to death of generals and officers by a sailor-soldier crowd infuriated and panic-stricken.” No, these crowds were not infuriated, and it would not be possible to speak in this instance of panic. On the morning of the 29th, Centroflot sent a telegram to the commandant at Vyborg, General Oranovsky, for communication to the garrison, informing them of the mutiny at headquarters. The commandant held up the telegram for a whole day, and to questions about what was happening, answered that he had received no information. In the course of a search instituted by the sailors the telegram was found. Thus caught in the act, the general declared himself a partisan of Kornilov. The sailors shot the commandant and along with him two other officers who had declared themselves of the same party. From the officers of the Baltic fleet the sailors required a signed declaration of loyalty to the revolution, and when four officers of the ship-of-the-line Petropavlovsk refused to sign, declaring themselves Kornilovists, they were by resolution of the crew immediately shot.

A mortal danger was hanging over the soldiers and sailors; a bloody purgation not only of Petrograd and Kronstadt, but of all the garrisons of the country, was impending. From the conduct of their suddenly emboldened officers – from their tones, their side glances – the soldiers and sailors could plainly foresee their own fate in case of a victory of headquarters. In those localities where the atmosphere was especially hot, they hastened to cut off the road of the enemy, forestalling the purgation intended by the officers with their own sailors’ and soldiers’ purgation. Civil war, as is well known, has its laws, and they have never been considered identical with the laws of humane conduct.

Cheidze immediately sent a telegram to Vyborg and Helsingfors condemning lynch law as “a mortal blow against the revolution.” Kerensky on his part telegraphed to Helsingfors: “I demand an immediate end of disgusting acts of violence.” If you seek the political responsibility for these individual cases of lynch law – not forgetting that revolution as a whole is a taking of the law into one’s own hands – in the given case the responsibility rests wholly on the government and the Compromisers, who at a moment of danger would run for help to the revolutionary masses, in order afterward to turn them over again to the counterrevolutionary officers.

As during the State Conference in Moscow, when he was expecting an uprising from moment to moment, so now after the break with headquarters, Kerensky turned to the Bolsheviks with a request “to influence the soldiers to come to the defense of the revolution.” In summoning the Bolshevik sailors to the defense of the Winter Palace, however, Kerensky did not set free their comrades, the July prisoners. Sukhanov writes on this theme: “The situation with Alexeiev whispering to Kerensky and Trotsky in prison was absolutely intolerable.” It is not hard to imagine the excitement which prevailed in the crowded prisons. “We were boiling with indignation,” relates midshipman Raskolnikov, “against the Provisional Government which in such days of alarm ... continued to let revolutionists like Trotsky rot in Kresty ... ‘What cowards, what cowards they are,’ said Trotsky as some of us were circling around together on our walk. ‘They ought immediately to declare Kornilov an outlaw, so that any soldier devoted to the revolution might feel that he had a right to put an end to him.’”

The entrance of Kornilov’s troops into Petrograd would have meant first of all the extermination of the arrested Bolsheviks. In his order to General Bagration, who was to enter the capital with the vanguard, Krymov did not forget this special command: “Place a guard in prisons and houses of detention, in no case let out the people now under restraint.” This was a concerted program, inspired by Miliukov ever since the April days: “In no case let them out.” There was not a single meeting in Petrograd in those days which did not pass resolutions demanding the release of the July prisoners. Delegation after delegation came to the Executive Committee, which in turn sent its leaders for negotiations to the Winter Palace. In vain! The stubbornness of Kerensky on this question is the more remarkable since during the first day and a half or two days he considered the position of the government hopeless, and was therefore condemning himself to the rôle of the old-time jailkeeper – holding the Bolsheviks so that the generals could hang them.

It is no wonder that the masses led by the Bolsheviks in fighting against Kornilov did not place a moment of trust in Kerensky. For them it was not a case of defending the government, but of defending the revolution. So much the more resolute and devoted was their struggle. The resistance to the rebels grew out of the very road beds, out of the stones, out of the air. The railroad workers of the Luga station, where Krymov arrived, stubbornly refused to move the troop trains, alluding to a lack of locomotives. The Cossack echelons also found themselves immediately surrounded by armed soldiers from the Luga garrison, 20,000 strong. There was no military encounter, but there was something far more dangerous: contact, social exchange, inter-penetration. The Luga soviet had had time to print the government announcement retiring Kornilov, and this document was now widely distributed among the echelons. The officers tried to persuade the Cossacks not to believe the agitators, but this very necessity of persuasion was a bad sign.

On receiving Kornilov’s order to advance, Krymov demanded under threat of bayonets that the locomotives be ready in half an hour. The threat seemed effective: the locomotives, although with some delays, were supplied; but even so, it was impossible to move, since the road out was damaged and so crowded with cars that it would take a good twenty-four hours to clear it. To get free of demoralizing propaganda, Krymov on the evening of the 28th, removed his troops several versts from Luga. But the agitators immediately turned up in the villages. These were soldiers, workers, railroad men – there was no refuge from them. They went everywhere. The Cossacks began even to hold meetings. Thus stormed with propaganda and cursing his impotence, Krymov waited in vain for Bagration. The railroad workers were holding up the echelon of the Savage Division, which also in the coming hours was to undergo a most alarming moral attack.

No matter how spineless and even cowardly the compromisist democracy was in itself, those mass forces upon which it again partly relied in its struggle against Kornilov, opened before it inexhaustible resources for action. The Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks did not see it as their task to conquer the forces of Kornilov in open struggle, but to bring the forces over to their own side. That was right. Against “compromisism” along that line, it goes without saying, the Bolsheviks had no objection. On the contrary that was their own fundamental method. The Bolsheviks only demanded that behind the agitators and parliamentarians armed workers and soldiers should stand ready. For this moral mode of action upon the Kornilov regiments, an unlimited choice of ways and means was suddenly discovered. Thus a Mussulman delegation was sent to meet the Savage Division on the staff of which were included native potentates who had immediately made themselves known, beginning with the grandson of the famous Shamil who heroically defended the Caucasus against tzarism. The mountaineers would not permit their officers to arrest the delegation: that was a violation of the ancient customs of hospitality. Negotiations were opened and soon became the beginning of the end. The Kornilov commanders, in order to explain the whole campaign, had kept referring to a rebellion of German agents supposed to have begun in Petrograd. The delegates, arriving directly from the capital, not only disproved the fact of a rebellion, but also demonstrated with documents in their hands that Krymov was a rebel and was leading his troops against the government. What could the officers of Kornilov reply to that?

On the staff car of the Savage Division the soldiers stuck up a red flag with the inscription: “Land and freedom.” The staff commander ordered them to take down the flags – “merely to avoid confusing it with a railroad signal,” as the lieutenant-colonel politely explained. The staff soldiers were not satisfied with this cowardly explanation, and arrested the lieutenant-colonel. Were they not mistaken at headquarters when they said that the Caucasian mountaineers did not care whom they slaughtered?

The next morning a colonel arrived at Krymov’s headquarters from Kornilov with an order to concentrate his corps, advance swiftly on Petrograd, and “unexpectedly” occupy it. At headquarters they were obviously still trying to shut their eyes to the facts. Krymov replied that the different units of the corps were scattered on various railroads and in some places were detraining; that he had at his disposition only eight Cossack squadrons; that the railroads were damaged, overloaded, barricaded, and that it was possible to move farther only on foot; and that finally there could be no talk of an unexpected occupation of Petrograd, now that the workers and soldiers had been placed under arms in the capital and its environs. The affair was still further complicated by the fact that the possibility was hopelessly past of carrying out the operation “unexpectedly” even to the troops of Krymov himself. Sensing something unpropitious, they had demanded explanations. It had become necessary to inform them of the conflict between Kornilov and Kerensky – that is, to place soldiers’ meetings officially on the order of the day.

An order issued by Krymov at just that moment read: “This evening I received from the headquarters of the commander-in-chief and from Petrograd information that rebellions have begun in Petrograd ...” This deceit was designed to justify an already quite open campaign against the government. An order of Kornilov himself on the 29th of August, had read: “The intelligence service from Holland reports: (a) In a few days a simultaneous attack upon the whole front is to begin, with the aim of routing and putting to flight our disintegrating army; (b) An insurrection is under preparation in Finland; (c) Explosions are to be expected of bridges on the Dnieper and the Volga; (d) An insurrection of Bolsheviks is being organized in Petrograd.” This was that same “information” to which Savinkov had already referred on the 23rd. Holland is mentioned here merely to distract attention. According to all evidence the document was fabricated in the French war mission or with its participation.

Kerensky on the same day telegraphed Krymov: “There is complete tranquillity in Petrograd. No demonstrations are expected. Your corps is not needed.” The demonstrations were to have been evoked by the military edicts of Kerensky himself. Since it had been necessary to postpone this governmental act of provocation, Kerensky was entirely justified in concluding that “no demonstrations are expected.”

Seeing no way out, Krymov made an awkward attempt to advance upon Petrograd with his eight Cossack squadrons. This was little but a gesture to clear his own conscience, and nothing of course came of it. Meeting a force on patrol duty a few versts from Luga, Krymov turned back without even trying to give battle. On the theme of this single and completely fictitious “operation,” Krasnov, the commander of the Third Cavalry Corps, wrote later: “We should have struck Petrograd with a force of eighty-six cavalry and Cossack squadrons, and we struck with one brigade and eight weak squadrons, half of them without officers. Instead of striking with our fist, we struck with our little finger. It pained the finger, and those we struck at were insensible of the blow.” In the essence of the matter there was no blow even from a finger. Nobody felt any pain at all.

The railroad workers in those days did their duty. In a mysterious way echelons would find themselves moving on the wrong roads, regiments would arrive in the wrong division, artillery would be sent up a blind alley, staffs would get out of communication with their units. All the big stations had their own soviets, their railroad workers’ and their military committees. The telegraphers kept them informed of all events, all movements, all changes. The telegraphers also held up the orders of Kornilov. Information unfavorable to the Kornilovists was immediately multiplied, distributed, pasted up, passed from mouth to mouth. The machinists, the switchmen, the oilers, became agitators. It was in this atmosphere that the Kornilov echelons advanced – or what was worse, stood still. The commanding staff, soon sensing the hopelessness of the situation, obviously did not hasten to move forward, and with their passivity promoted the work of the counter-conspirators of the transport system. Parts of the army of Krymov were in this way scattered about in the stations, sidings, and branch lines, of eight different railroads. If you follow on the map the fate of the Kornilov echelons, you get the impression that the conspirators were playing at blind man’s buff on the railroad lines.

“Almost everywhere,” says General Krasnov, writing his observations made on the night of August 30, “we saw one and the same picture. On the tracks or in the cars, or in the saddles of their black or bay horses, who would turn from time to time to gaze at them, dragoons would be sitting or standing, and in the midst of them some lively personality in a soldier’s long coat.” The name of this “lively personality” soon became legion. From the direction of Petrograd innumerable delegations continued to arrive from regiments sent out to oppose the Kornilovists. Before fighting they wanted to talk things over. The revolutionary troops were confidently hopeful that the thing could be settled without fighting. This hope was confirmed: the Cossacks readily came to meet them. The communication squad of the corps would seize locomotives, and send the delegates along all railroad lines. The situation would be explained to every echelon. Meetings were continuous and at them all the cry was being raised: “They have deceived us!”

“Not only the chiefs of divisions,” says Krasnov, “but even the commanders of regiments did not know exactly where their squadrons and companies were. The absence of food and forage naturally irritated everybody still more. The men ... seeing all this meaningless confusion which had been created around them, began to arrest their chiefs and officers.” A delegation from the Soviet which had organized its own headquarters reported: “Fraternization is going on rapidly ... We are fully confident that the conflict may be considered liquidated. Delegations are coming from all sides ...” Committees took the place of the officers in directing the units. A soviet of deputies of the corps was very soon created, and from its staff a delegation of forty men was appointed to go to the Provisional Government. The Cossacks began to announce out loud that they were only waiting an order from Petrograd to arrest Krymov and the other officers.

Stankevich paints a picture of what he found on the road when he set out on the 30th with Voitinsky in the direction of Pskov. In Petrograd, he says, they had thought Tzarskoe was occupied by Kornilovists; there was nobody there at all. “In Gatchina, nobody ... On the road to Luga, nobody. In Luga, peace and quiet ... We arrived at the village where the staff of the corps was supposed to be located ... empty ... We learned that early in the morning the Cossacks had left their positions and gone away in the direction opposite to Petrograd.” The insurrection had rolled back, crumbled to pieces, been sucked up by the earth.

But in the Winter Palace they were still dreading the enemy. Kerensky made an attempt to enter into conversation with the commanding staff of the rebels. That course seemed to him more hopeful than the “anarchist” initiative of the lower ranks. He sent delegates to Krymov, and “in the name of the salvation of Russia,” invited him to come to Petrograd, guaranteeing him safety on his word of honor. Pressed upon all sides, and having completely lost his head, the general hastened, of course, to accept the invitation. On his heels came a deputation from the Cossacks.

The fronts did not support headquarters. Only the Southwestern made a somewhat serious attempt. Denikin’s staff had adopted preparatory measures in good season. The unreliable guards at the staff were replaced by Cossacks. The printing presses were seized on the night of the 27th. The staff tried to play the rôle of self-confident master of the situation, and even forbade the committee of the front to use the telegraph. But the illusion did not last more than a few hours. Delegates from various units began to come to the committee with offers of support. Armored cars appeared, machine guns, field artillery. The committee immediately asserted its control of the activity of the staff, leaving it the initiative only in operations against the enemy. By three o'clock on the 28th the power on the Southwestern front was wholly in the hands of the committee. “Never again,” wept Denikin, “did the future of the country seem so dark, our impotence so grievous and humiliating.”

On the other fronts the thing passed off less dramatically: the commander-in-chief had only to look around in order to sense a torrent of friendly feeling going out to the commissars of the Provisional Government. By the morning of the 29th, telegrams had arrived at the Winter Palace with expressions of loyalty from General Sherbachev on the Rumanian front, Valuyev on the Western, and Przevalsky on the Caucasian. On the Northern front, where the commander-in-chief was an open Kornilovist, Klembovsky, Stankevich named a certain Savitsky as his deputy. “Savitsky, little known to anybody until then, and appointed by telegram at the moment of the conflict,” writes Stankevich himself, “could appeal with confidence to any bunch of soldiers – infantry, Cossacks, orderlies and even junkers – with any order whatever, even if it were a question of arresting the commander-in-chief, and the order would be promptly carried out.” KIembovsky was replaced, without further difficulties, by General Bonch-Bruevich, who through the mediation of his brother, a well-known Bolshevik, became afterward one of the first to enter the service of the Bolshevik government.

Things went a little better with the southern pillar of the military party, the ataman of the Don Cossacks, Kaledin. They were saying in Petrograd that Kaledin was mobilizing the Cossack army and that echelons from the front were marching to join him on the Don. Meanwhile the ataman, according to one of his biographers, “was riding from village to village, far from the railroad ... peacefully conversing with villagers.” Kaledin actually did conduct himself more cautiously than was imagined in revolutionary circles. He chose the moment of open revolt, the date of which had been made known to him in advance, for making a “peaceful” round of the villages, in order that during the critical days he might be beyond control by telegraph or otherwise, and at the same time might be feeling out the mood of the Cossacks. On the 27th he telegraphed his deputy, Bogayevsky: “It is necessary to support Kornilov with all means and forces.” However, his conversations with the villagers were demonstrating at just that moment that properly speaking there were no means or forces: those Cossack wheat-growers would not think of rising in defense of Kornilov. When the collapse of the uprising became evident, the so-called “troop ring”[1] of the Don decided to refrain from expressing its opinion “until the real correlation of forces has become clear.” Thanks to these manoeuvers, the chiefs of the Don Cossacks succeeded in making a timely jump to the sidelines.

In Petrograd, in Moscow, on the Don, at the front, along the course followed by the echelons, here, there and everywhere, Kornilov had had his sympathizers, partisans, friends. Their number seemed enormous to judge by telegrams, speeches of greeting, newspaper articles. But strange to say, now when the hour had come to reveal themselves, they had disappeared. In many cases the cause did not lie in personal cowardice. There were plenty of brave men among the Kornilov officers. But their bravery could find no point of application. From the moment the masses got into motion the solitary individual had no access to events. Not only the weighty industrialists, bankers, professors, engineers, but also students and even fighting officers, found themselves pushed away, thrown aside, elbowed out. They watched the events developing before them as though from a balcony. Along with General Denikin they had nothing left to do but curse their humiliating and appalling impotence.

On the 30th of August, the Executive Committee sent to all soviets the joyous news that “there is complete demoralization in the troops of Kornilov.” They forgot for the moment that Kornilov had chosen for his undertaking the most patriotic units, those with the best fighting morale, those most protected from the influence of the Bolsheviks. The process of demoralization consisted in the fact that the soldiers had decisively ceased to trust their officers, discovering them to be enemies. The struggle for the revolution against Kornilov meant a deepening of the demoralization of the army. That is exactly the thing of which they were accusing the Bolsheviks.

The generals had finally got an opportunity to verify the force of resistance possessed by that revolution which had seemed to them so crumbly and helpless, so accidentally victorious over the old régime. Ever since the February days, on every possible occasion, the gallant formula of soldier-braggadoccio had been repeated: “Give me one strong detachment and I will show them.” The experience of General Khabalov and General Ivanov at the end of February had taught nothing to these warriors of loud mouth. The same song was frequently sung too by civilian strategists. The Octobrist Shidlovsky asserted that if in February there had appeared in the capital “a military detachment, not especially large but united by discipline and fighting spirit, the February revolution would have been put down in a few days.” The notorious railway magnate, Bublikov, wrote: “One disciplined division from the front would have been enough to crush the insurrection to the bottom.” Several officers who participated in the events assured Denikin that “one firm battalion under a commander who knew what he wanted, could have changed the whole situation from top to bottom.” During the days of Guchkov’s war ministry, General Krymov came to him from the front and offered to “clean up Petrograd with one division – of course not without bloodshed.” The thing was not put through merely because “Guchkov did not consent.” And finally Savinkov, preparing in the interests of a future directory his own particular “August 27th,” asserted that two regiments would be amply sufficient to make dust and ashes of the Bolsheviks. Now fate had offered to all these gentlemen, in the person of the “happy” general “full of the joy of life,” an ample opportunity to verify the truth of their heroic calculations. Without having struck a single blow, with bowed head, shamed and humiliated, Krymov arrived at the Winter Palace. Kerensky did not let pass the opportunity to play out a melodramatic scene with him – a scene in which his chief effects were guaranteed their success in advance. Returning from the prime-minister to the war office, Krymov ended his life with a revolver shot. Thus turned out his attempt to put down the revolution “not without bloodshed.”

In the Winter Palace they breathed more freely, having concluded that a matter so pregnant with difficulties was ending favorably. And they decided to return as soon as possible to the order of the day – that is to a continuation of the business which had been interrupted. Kerensky appointed himself commander-in-chief. From the standpoint of preserving his political ties with the old generals, he could hardly have found a more suitable figure. As chief of the headquarters staff he selected Alexeiev, who two days ago had barely missed landing in the position of Prime Minister. After hesitating and conferring with his friends, the general, not without a contemptuous grimace, accepted the appointment – with the aim, as he explained to his own people, of liquidating the conflict in a peaceful manner. The former chief-of-staff of the supreme commander-in-chief, Nicholas Romanov, thus arrived at the same position under Kerensky. That was something to wonder at! “Only Alexeiev, thanks to his closeness to headquarters and his enormous influence in high military circles” – so Kerensky subsequently tried to explain his wonderful appointment – “could successfully carry out the task of peacefully transferring the command from the hands of Kornilov to new hands.” Exactly the opposite was true. The appointment of Alexeiev – that is, one of their own men – could only inspire the conspirators to further resistance, had there remained the slightest possibility of it. In reality Alexeiev was brought forward by Kerensky after the failure of the insurrection for the same reason that Savinkov had been summoned at the beginning of it: it was necessary at any cost to keep open a bridge to the right. The new commander-in-chief considered a restoration of friendship with the generals now especially needful. After the disturbance it will be necessary to inaugurate a firm order, and accordingly a doubly strong power is needed.

At headquarters nothing was now left of that optimism which had reigned two days before. The conspirators were looking for a way to retreat. A telegram sent to Kerensky stated that Kornilov in view of the “strategic situation” was disposed to surrender the command peacefully, provided he was assured that “a strong government will be formed.” This large ultimatum the capitulator followed up with a small one: lie. Kornilov considered it “upon the whole impermissible to arrest the generals and other persons most indispensable to the army.” The delighted Kerensky immediately took a step to meet his enemy, announcing by radio that the orders of General Kornilov in the sphere of military operations were obligatory upon all. Kornilov himself wrote to Krymov on the same day: “An episode has occurred – the only one of its kind in the history of the world: a commander-in-chief accused of treason and betrayal of the fatherland, and arraigned for this crime before the courts, has received an order to continue commanding the armies ...” This new manifestation of the good-for-nothingness of Kerensky immediately raised the hopes of the conspirators, who still dreaded to sell themselves too cheap. In spite of the telegram sent a few hours earlier about the impermissibility of inner conflict “at this terrible moment,” Kornilov, half-way restored to his rights, sent two men to Kaledin with a request “to bring pressure to bear” and at the same time suggested to Krymov: “If circumstances permit, act independently in the spirit of my instructions to you.” The spirit of those instructions was: Overthrow the government and hang the members of the Soviet.

General Alexeiev, the new chief-of-staff, departed for the seizure of headquarters. At the Winter Palace they still took this operation seriously. In reality Kornilov had had at his immediate disposition: a battalion of St. George, the “Kornilovist” infantry regiment, and a Tekinsky cavalry regiment. The St. George battalion had gone over to the government at the very beginning, the Kornilovist and Tekinsky regiments were still counted loyal, but part of them had split off. Headquarters had no artillery at all. In these circumstances there could be no talk of resistance. Alexeiev began his mission by paying ceremonial visits to Kornilov and Lukomsky – visits during which we can only imagine both sides unanimously squandering the soldierly vocabulary on the subject of Kerensky, the new commander-in-chief. It was clear to Kornilov, as also to Alexeiev, that the salvation of the country must in any case be postponed for a certain period of time.

But while at headquarters peace without victors or vanquished was being so happily concluded, the atmosphere in Petrograd was getting extraordinarily hot, and in the Winter Palace they were impatiently awaiting some reassuring news from Moghiliev which might be offered to the people. They kept nudging Alexeiev with inquiries. Colonel Baranovsky, one of Kerensky’s trusted men, complained over the direct wire: “The soviets are raging, the atmosphere can be discharged only by a demonstration of power, and the arrest of Kornilov and others.” This did not at all correspond to the intentions of Alexeiev. “I remark with deep regret,” answers the general, “that my fear lest at present we have fallen completely into the tenacious paws of the Soviet has become an indubitable fact.” By the familiar pronoun we is implied the group of Kerensky, in which Alexeiev, in order to soften the sting, conditionally includes himself. Colonel Baranovsky replies in the same tone: “God grant that we shall get out of the tenacious paws of the Soviet into which we have fallen.” Hardly had the masses saved Kerensky from the paws of Kornilov, when the leader of the democracy hastened to get into agreement with Alexeiev against the masses: “We shall get out of the tenacious paws of the Soviet.” Alexeiev was nevertheless compelled to submit to necessity, and carry out the ritual of arresting the principal conspirators. Kornilov offered no objection to sitting quietly under house arrest four days after he had announced to the people: “I prefer death to my removal from the post of commander-in-chief.” The Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry, when it arrived at Moghiliev, also arrested the Vice-Minister of Communications, several officers of the general staff, the unarrived diplomat Alladin, and also the whole personnel of the head committee of the League of Officers.

During the first hours after the victory the Compromisers gesticulated ferociously. Even Avksentiev gave out flashes of lightning. For three whole days the rebels had left the front without any command! “Death to the traitors!” cried the members of the Executive Committee. Avksentiev welcomed these voices: Yes, the death penalty was introduced at the demand of Kornilov and his followers – “so much the more decisively will it be applied to them.” Stormy and prolonged applause.

The Moscow Church Council which had two weeks ago bowed its head before Kornilov as the restorer of the death penalty, now beseeched the government by telegraph “in the name of God and the Christ-like love of the neighbor to preserve the life of the erring general.” Other levers also were brought into operation. But the government had no idea at all of making a bloody settlement. When a delegation from the Savage Division came to Kerensky in the Winter Palace, and one of the soldiers in answer to some general phrases of the new commander, said that “the traitor commanders ought to be ruthlessly punished,” Kerensky interrupted him with the words: “Your business now is to obey your commander and we ourselves will do all that is necessary.” Apparently this man thought that the masses ought to appear on the scene when he stamped with his left foot, and disappear again when he stamped with his right.

“We ourselves will do all that is necessary.” But all that they did seemed to the masses unnecessary, if not indeed suspicious and disastrous. The masses were not wrong. The upper circles were most of all occupied with restoring that very situation out of which the Kornilov campaign had arisen. “After the first few questions put by the members of the Inquiry Commission,” relates Lukomsky, “it became clear that they were all in the highest degree friendly toward us.” They were in essence accomplices and accessories. The military prosecutor Shablovsky gave the accused a consultation on the question how to evade justice. The organizations of the front sent protests. “The generals and their accomplices are not being held as criminals before the state and the people ... The rebels have complete freedom of communication with the outside world.” Lukomsky confirms this: “The staff of the commander-in-chief kept us informed about all matters of interest to us.” The indignant soldiers more than once felt an impulse to try the generals in their own courts, and the arrestees were saved from summary execution only by a counterrevolutionary Polish division sent to Bykhov where they were detained.

On the 12th of September, General Alexeiev wrote to Miliukov from headquarters a letter which reflected the legitimate indignation of the conspirators at the conduct of the big bourgeoisie, which had first pushed them on, but after the defeat left them to their fate. “You are to a certain degree aware” – wrote the general, not without poison in his pen – “that certain circles of our society not only knew about it all, not only sympathized intellectually, but even to the extent that they were able helped Kornilov ...” In the name of the League of Officers Alexeiev demanded of Vyshnegradsky, Putilov and other big capitalists, who had turned their backs to the vanquished, that they should collect 300,000 roubles for the benefit of “the hungry families of those with whom they had been united by common ideas and preparations ...” The letter ended in an open threat: “If the honest press does not immediately begin an energetic explanation of the situation ... General Kornilov will be compelled to make a broad exposure before the court of all the preparatory activities, all conversations with persons and circles, the parts they played, etc.” As to the practical results of this tearful ultimatum, Denikin reports: “Only towards the end of October did they bring to Kornilov from Moscow about 40,000 roubles.” Miliukov during this period was in a general way absent from the political arena. According to the official Kadet version he had “gone to the Crimea for a rest.” After all these violent agitations the liberal leader was, to be sure, in need of rest.

The comedy of the Inquiry Commission dragged along until the Bolshevik insurrection, after which Kornilov and his accomplices were not only set free, but supplied by Kerensky’s headquarters with all necessary documents. These escaped generals laid the foundation of the civil war. In the name of the sacred aims which had united Kornilov with the liberal Miliukov and the Black Hundredist, Rimsky-Korsakov, hundreds of thousands of people were buried, the south and east of Russia were pillaged and laid waste, the industry of the country was almost completely destroyed, and the Red Terror imposed upon the revolution. Kornilov, after successfully emerging from Kerensky’s courts of justice, soon fell on the civil war front from a Bolshevik shell. Kaledin’s fate was not very different. The “troop ring” of the Don demanded, not only a revocation of the order for Kaledin’s arrest, but also his restoration to the position of ataman. And here too Kerensky did not miss the opportunity to go back on himself. Skobelev was sent to Novocherkassk to apologize to the troop ring. The democratic minister was subjected to refined mockeries conducted by Kaledin himself. The triumph of the Cossack general was not, however, long-lasting. Pressed from all sides by the Bolshevik revolution breaking out on the Don, Kaledin in a few months ended his own life. The banner of Kornilov then passed into the hands of General Denikin and Admiral Kolchak, with whose names the principal period of the civil war is associated. But all that has to do with 1918 and the years that followed.


1. The Cossacks’ name for their elective assembly.

Previous Chapter    |    History of the Russian Revolution    |    Next Chapter

Last updated on: 1 February 2018