Alexander Kerensky and the Russian Revolution Before Lenin

If you are a film buff, you should be familiar with the early Soviet movie Battleship Potemkin and its iconic scene of a pram rolling down a staircase, as soldiers shoot down protesters. The film is centred around the Russian Revolution of 1905 and directed by cinematic legend Sergej Eisenstein.

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Eisenstein would later direct ‘October’, a retelling of that other uprising — the successful one — the Russian Revolution of 1917. This film features our protagonist of today, Alexander Kerensky, depicted as a pompous, poor man’s Napoleon, his image juxtaposed with that of a mechanical peacock. Kerensky was portrayed as a clear symbol of artificial vanity.

This unflattering portrayal reflects the Bolsheviks’ opinion of Kerensky, who in modern times has been relegated to a mere footnote in the early history of the Soviet Union.

Yet despite the Bolshevik’s perception and Eisenstein’s clever montage techniques, Alexander Kerensky was a revolutionary. He had a crucial role in the overthrow of the Tsars. He had been a central figure in the earlier revolution of February 1917, when he had led the Provisional Government and sought to install a democracy in Russia.

Did he deserve this hollow legacy? Let’s find out in today’s Biographic about Alexander Kerensky, the early revolutionary.  

A Dancing Lawyer

Alexander Kerensky was born on May 4, 1881 in the town of Simbirsk. This town is now known as Ul’ianovsk, after another famous fellow who was born there 11 years earlier: Vladimir Ilic Ulianov, better known as Lenin.

Alexander’s father was a teacher and director of the local gymnasium, the same where Lenin had studied. The Kerenskys and the Ulianovs in fact were on friendly terms, and belonged to the same middle class intellectual circle.

In 1899, Alexander completed his studies at the gymnasium, graduating with a gold medal for distinction. He had the reputation of being a polite, smart young man. More importantly, he was a skilled dancer and even a gifted actor.

After high school, Kerensky enrolled at the Law faculty of St Petersburg University, graduating in 1904. During the same year, he married the daughter of a General, Olga Baranovskaia, whom I am sure he seduced with his smooth dance moves. Alexander and Olga later had two sons.

1905 was the year that changed everything for the young Kerensky.

Sunday the 22nd of January became known as Bloody Sunday – one of the too many Bloody Sundays of human history.

Russian society was gripped in unrest, due to the unpopularity of the Government and the debacle of the ongoing Russo-Japanese War. Crowds had gathered for a peaceful demonstration outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, when the army and the police opened fire, killing and injuring around 1,000 people.

The Revolution of 1905 continued with the mutiny of the battleship Potemkin in June, which inspired the film I mentioned earlier. The resulting riots were quashed by troops on the Tsar’s orders.

On the 30th of October, Tsar Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto, which promised limited civil liberties and an elected parliament, the Duma.

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In the same month, Kerensky had begun his career as a political lawyer. At a trial in Tallinn — present-day Estonia — he defended the peasants who had ransacked a local aristocrat’s mansion.

Kerensky continued to defend revolutionary activists in court and joined the Aid Committee for the victims of Bloody Sunday. This revolutionary fervour was made clear when he joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party , becoming the editor of their newspaper, Burevestnik, or The Thunderbird.

The Thunderbird was go! Under Kerensky’s management, it increased its circulation, but attracted the attention of the authorities along the way.

The newspaper became the object of police repression: the eighth issue was confiscated, and on the 21st of December, Kerensky’s flat was searched. The police found incriminating evidence — leaflets advertising the “Armed Uprising Organization,” which was considered to be a terrorist outfit. 

Kerensky was held in custody until April 1906. He was released due to a lack of evidence, but the Tsarist police sent him on a ‘forced vacation’ to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, together with his wife Olga and their one-year-old son Oleg.

In autumn 1906 he was allowed to return to St. Petersburg, where he resumed his activity as a popular lawyer, famous for his oratory skills at political trials.

In 1910, Kerensky was the chief defender of the Turkestan social revolutionary organization, accused of staging armed, anti-government acts. The trial went well for the defendants, as the young lawyer succeeded in preventing any death sentences. In 1912, he also shined as the defender of a group of Dashnaks, Armenian activists, accused of terrorist acts.

Storm Clouds Gather

These trials vaulted Kerensky into the political stage of his era. He grew in status, and in 1912 he was elected Deputy of the Fourth State Duma from the Trudoviki, or “Labour Group.” He soon became the faction’s leader and joined a freemason society to unite the anti-Tsarist forces striving for the democratic renewal of Russia. His popularity grew even more when he exposed Roman Malinovsky, an early Bolshevik leader, as an undercover agent of the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police.

In Kerensky, the young Labour movement had found an effective leader, a vocal critic of the Government, and one of the best speakers on the left. By the time World War I broke out in August 1914, Kerenski was the Duma’s highest profile radical, as well as one of the few to oppose Russia’s entrance in the conflict.

But in late 1915, Kerensky adopted a lower profile at a Duma, as his health had declined because of a kidney disease. His condition continued to deteriorate, and in April 1916, Kerensky had to go to Sweden to have a kidney removed. According to his grandson Stephen, he was almost constantly on intravenous morphine for the rest of his life.

Kerensky returned to the capital in the summer, which had now been re-christened as Petrograd. His stance on the war had changed. He was now fully committed to Russia’s participation in the war, as a means to oppose German militarism. None of that could get Nicholas II off the hook, though, as Kerensky continued his personal attacks on the Tsar. The Monarch had taken personal command of the Armed Forces in September 1915 – something he should have left to the professionals. Now, everybody was against him and his poor command skills. By the end of 1916, Kerensky was publicly calling for the Tsar’s abdication. 

Revolution and Bad Moves

In February of 1917, Kerensky left Labour to rejoin the Socialist Revolutionary Party. He called again for the removal of Nicholas II, which prompted Tsarina Alexandra to demand that he be hanged as a traitor.

The royal family caved first. The pressure was too much, and the Tsar abdicated on March 13.

A Provisional Government was formed under Prince George Lvov, who appointed Kerensky as Minister of Justice. The cabinet was now ruled by the Constitutional Democrats or ‘Cadet’ party, in a tense alliance with the more radical left.

The energic Alexander immediately abolished capital punishment and introduced other reforms: freedom of the press, the abolition of ethnic and religious discrimination and even set plans for universal suffrage.

The Provisional Government had no intention to quit the war at this stage. Foreign Minister Milyukov sent a note to the Entente to inform them of this policy. When the note became public … the Bolsheviks, the Soviets of the soldiers and tens of millions of Russians were not amused, to put it mildly. That disastrous war had rallied the people against the Tsar, and now the Provisional Government wanted to continue fighting.

In April the crowds were marching under the banner, “Down with the Provisional Government”.

Naturally, Milyukov was forced to resign. The same fate befell to War Minister Guchkov, who was promptly replaced by the charismatic Kerensky.

Now a War Minister at the young age of 36, Kerensky set off for Europe’s Eastern Front.

The former pacifist roused the troops in a series of emotional speeches, appealing to them to continue the fighting. With his new powers, Kerensky appointed legendary General Brusilov as the Commander in Chief of the Russian Army. On June 18th, the War Minister announced a new offensive.

The July Offensive was an attack on the Austro-Hungarians in Galician, and initially it was a great success. But in a repeat of many similar operations in WWI, low morale and poor supply lines slowed down the advance – which was then stopped completely by German reinforcements.

Meanwhile, the Bolshevik protests against the war forced Prince Lvov to resign as Prime Minister. On the 8th of July, he was replaced by the unstoppable, still-popular Kerensky.

Ariadna Tyrkova, a member of the Constitutional Democrat Party, commented:

“Kerensky was perhaps the only member of the Government who knew how to deal with the masses, since he instinctively understood the psychology of the mob. Therein lay his power and the main source of his popularity”

Kerensky’s popularity extended outside of the Russian borders. The British and the Americans were great supporters, too.

Mansfield Smith-Cumming, head of MI6, arranged for his Government to receive $1.2 million in today’s money, and the Americans sent a similar gift. The Spy master also sent an ‘asset’ to keep an eye on Kerensky and ensure that he did not sign an armistice with the Central Empires — none other than celebrated author William Somerset Maugham, who back then was on the MI6 payroll. The novelist wrote, “The long and short of it was that I should go to Russia and keep the Russians in the war.”

Despite Kerensky’s best efforts, the Russian Army was melting away after the failed offensive. Hundreds of thousands deserted, using their weapons to seize land from the aristocracy and forcibly redistribute it.

From this moment onward, Kerensky would execute one bad move after the other, which would eventually lead to the rise of Lenin and the Soviets. 

 

Bad move # 1: Spark a military coup

To regain control of the Army, Kerensky fired Brusilov and appointed General Kornilov as Commander-in-Chief. Kornilov did not share Kerensky’s social and democratic views; in fact, he had plans to restore the death penalty for soldiers and even to militarize the factories, which did not please the Prime Minister. When Kerensky refused, Kornilov threatened a military coup. He was dismissed before ordering an army contingent to take control of Petrograd. 

Kerensky was in danger. The only ones who could help him were his uneasy allies, the Bolsheviks with their Red Guards. Lenin agreed to help, but he made it clear that they would be fighting against Kornilov, and not for Kerensky – an important distinction.

 

Bad move # 2: Arm your rivals

The request for help gave the Bolsheviks a good reason to arm and enlist a force of 25,000 men. They fortified Petrograd, ready for a bloody battle, but it turned out this wasn’t needed. A delegation of Red Guards went to meet with Kornilov’s troops, which apparently were more chilled than Kerensky expected. The regular army refused to attack Petrograd and Kornilov was arrested.

 

Bad move # 3: Pick the wrong allies

Kerensky, who by now had a CV as long as the Volga river, hogged another position: Supreme Commander of the Russian Army. Backed by British and American gold, the leader continued with the war effort, which dented his popularity. On the 8th of October, Kerensky attempted to regain some left-wing support by forming a new coalition … but he arguably picked the wrong allies. He invited a majority of Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, while the power within the left had shifted toward Lenin’s Bolsheviks. At Kerensky’s own earlier request, the Bolsheviks now controlled a formidable force of 25,000 armed militiamen. Kerensky would not be able to reassert his authority.

 

To be fair to Kerensky, he was in a very difficult position. From the left he was threatened by the Bolsheviks, hostile to the continuation of the war and his support of the Mensheviks.

From the right, his Provisional Government could still fall to the schemes of Kornilov, who, at least according to Leon Trotsky, could count on support from old foreign minister Milyukov.

On October 31, 1917, Kerensky summoned agent Somerset Maugham with a desperate request: he had to take an urgent secret message to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, appealing for weapons and ammunition. Maugham was unimpressed by Kerensky, describing a defeated man:

“His personality had no magnetism. He gave no feeling of intellectual or physical vigour.”

Maugham set off immediately and two days later he was at 10 Downing Street. After the agent told the Prime Minister what Kerensky wanted, Lloyd George replied:

“I can’t do that. I’m afraid I must bring this conversation to an end. I have a cabinet meeting I must go to.”

In modern political parlance, we could assert that Kerensky had been totally ghosted by his supposed ‘allies.’ Back in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks had already started to seize power.

This was the first week of November for most of Europe, but to the Russians it was October, hence the ‘October Revolution’. This is because Russia still used the Julian calendar, as opposed to the Gregorian calendar, and lagged 13 days behind.

On the 7th of November, Kerensky was certain that the Bolsheviks were about to seize the capital and decided to flee. A story began circulating about Kerensky’s escape, but there is no confirmation: apparently he changed into a women’s dress, either in a nurse or servant’s uniform, and forced his way into a car belonging to the US Embassy. Because his car had the American flag on it, Kerensky easily passed all Bolshevik check points. 

Later that day, the Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace and arrested Kerensky’s cabinet. The only troops loyal to Kerensky were the Women’s Death Battalion, some young military cadets and a detachment of Cossacks.

After his escape, the deposed leader tried to get the support of the Russian Army on the Eastern Front. Considering that this was the same Army he had forced into a failed offensive, resulting in mass desertions, they politely declined his invitation to civil war.

Kerensky was more successful in rallying loyal troops from the Northern Front. With them, he marched toward Petrograd on the 13th of November.

On his way to the capital Kerensky led some Cossack troops into the barracks of Tsarkoye Selo, a former Tsarist residence south of Petrograd. John Reed, American journalist and author of ‘The 10 Days That Shook The World’ described yet another Bad Move:

Bad move # 4: Alienate all military support

Kerensky entered the town riding a white horse at the head of his Cossacks. At seven in the morning, he sent word to the local rifle regiment to lay down their arms. The soldiers replied they would remain neutral, but would not disarm.

Kerensky gave them ten minutes to comply. This angered the soldiers, who had been governing themselves for eight months in an independent Soviet. A few minutes later, Cossack artillery opened fire on the barracks, killing eight men. Reed wrote:

“From that moment there were no more ‘neutral’ soldiers in Tsarskoye.”

Kerensky could have used a well-trained infantry regiment for what happened next. When Kerensky’s loyalists marched toward Petrograd, they numbered a mere 600. On their way, they clashed with 5000 Bolshevik troops led by Leon Trotsky at the Battle of Pulkovo, which could be considered the beginning of the Russian Civil War. Trotsky easily won the engagement, putting an end to any attempt of armed counter-insurgency by Kerensky.

Life in Exile

In June 1918 Alexander Kerensky, disguised as a Serb officer, left Russia, ready to embark on talks to organize a counter-revolution.

During the first one and a half years of his exile, Kerensky lived in Britain, mainly in the countryside where living costs were lower. Later, he lived first in Prague, and then in Paris, where he contributed to various Russian language newspapers, editing Dni and Novaia Rossiia.

While in France, he took part in the inconsequential in-fighting and intrigues which plagued the Russian exile community. Many exiles, nostalgic of Tsarist rule, had a deep disdain for Kerensky. Once, a Russian woman, having noticed him in the street in Paris, said to her child:

‘Look, Tania, here is the man who ruined Russia’.

The Russian Civil War between the Red and White factions was raging, but it was impossible for Kerensky to provide full support to either side. While he opposed the Bolsheviks, Kerensky did not trust the White movement as he considered its leadership too close to General Kornilov, his old enemy.

In 1939 Alexander and Olga Kerensky divorced, and in the same year he married a former Australian journalist Lidia Tritton. When the Germans occupied France in June 1940, Kerensky and Lidia fled to the US, where he resumed his activities as a journalist and writer.

When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Kerensky offered his support to Stalin. I don’t know what type of answer he was expecting, but what he got was absolutely logical.

Ghosted.

Undeterred, Kerensky established radio transmissions to the USSR to support the military effort. After the war, he organized the “Union for Russia’s Liberation,” presumably to restore a less extremist regime in Russia, but this did not achieve any results.

When his wife Lidia fell terminally ill in 1945, he took her to Brisbane, Australia and they lived with her family until her death in February 1946. He then returned to the States, living in both New York and at Stanford University, in California, where he taught Russian history.

On April 24, 1970 Kerensky was admitted into hospital in New York, to recover from a broken elbow and pelvis sustained in a fall. At age 89, he did not recover, and on the 11th of June he died of heart disease, or cancer, depending on the sources.

Even after his dying moments, this was a man who would elicit strong reactions.

According to his grandson, there were some nurses in the hospital staff of Russian origin and they refused to touch him, because they held him responsible for starting the revolution.

The local Russian Orthodox Church refused to bury him as they considered him to be a freemason, and the man behind Tsarist Russia’s fall. The local Serb Orthodox Church also refused to bury him. His body was moved to London and buried at Putney Vale cemetery, London, where he had spent the very first part of his exile and where his sons lived.

Legacy

For 12 years, Alexander Kerensky had been a skilled lawyer, a brilliant orator, and a well-rounded politician who at a very young age had covered many important posts. His moderate democratic socialism, while calling for the abolition of the Tsar’s rule, was a needed balancing element for the Bolshevik excesses.

And yet, because of what he did in only four months – from July to October 1917 — he would be shunned by revolutionaries and reactionaries alike, mocked for his supposedly Napoleonic ambitions and generally portrayed as a failure.

Some historians even believe that rather than fearing a military coup by his enemy Kornilov, Kerensky was actually manipulating the General to create his own dictatorship as a countermeasure. His limited inquiries into Kornilov’ fail bid sparked suspicions that he may have had authoritarian intentions.

Perhaps the reason for Kerensky’s failure in Government was best explained by British politician and journalist Morgan Philips Price. In the Manchester Guardian of 19th November 1917, he wrote:

“The Government of Kerensky fell before the Bolshevik insurgents because it had no supporters in the country. The bourgeois parties and the generals and the staff disliked it because it would not establish a military dictatorship. The Revolutionary Democracy lost faith in it because after eight months it had neither given land to the peasants nor established State control of industries, nor advanced the cause of the Russian peace programme”

In other words: Kerensky was caught between two opposing factions that were held together only by a common enemy: the rule of Tsar Nicholas II. In an attempt to keep them together, Kerensky’s bad moves had alienated all potential support, while arming his most motivated rivals Lenin and Trotsky.

The February Revolution led to the October Revolution, which led to the Soviet Union, the longest running totalitarian state in Europe – and to the Cold War. It begs the question: what could have Russia and the rest of the world been, had Kerensky made a few different choices?

That’s all for today, please like and subscribe and usual … thank you for watching!  

 

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