Today marks the centenary of one of modern history’s great non-events: General Kornilov’s attempt to seize control of Russia by a military coup in Petrograd. It never really got off the ground, and the details of its inception are shrouded in controversy, but it did trigger another decisive shift in the cascading process of Russia’s long and winding Revolution. As such it was lot more significant for the future of the world than any of the ferocious fighting taking place in Western Europe in the late summer of 1917, and it gifts me a chance to catch up with the Russian Provisional Government’s doomed quest for a moderate socialist revolution.
I last hung around Petrograd (to ruin a Stones quote) at the end of the Kerenski Offensive, an attempt to silence peace-mongers at home while pleasing allies abroad that failed militarily and backfired politically. In its aftermath, the Provisional Government’s precarious perch on the fence became uninhabitable. While grass-roots socialists were mobilising workers and soldiers for popular revolution on the streets, liberal political forces, rather less liberal business interests and generally authoritarian military leaders – all necessary props for a regime clinging to legitimacy on shifting ground – were pulling in the opposite direction, desperate for some restoration of order before anarchy or the Germans took over.
Crisis came quickly. Four cabinet members from the essentially liberal Kadet Party resigned on 15 July, and protest against the ‘betrayal’ of the failed offensive hit the streets of Petrograd the following morning, beginning four days of armed demonstrations known as the July Days (which for once took place in July by both the old- and new-style calendars).
Begun on 16 July by a regiment of machine-gun troops in the capital, street protests quickly erupted among workers and other troops, all demanding peace and many coining the Bolshevik slogan ‘all power to the soviets’. By the next day protest had spread to the Baltic naval base at Kronstadt, to Moscow and to almost every other Russian town of any size, a chaotic, violent expression of popular discontent that couldn’t be controlled by the Provisional Government, the Petrograd Soviet (which refused popular demands for it to take power) or any other political group.
The anti-War Bolsheviks, at this stage still a minority pressure group agitating for workers’ revolution, did have a stab at directing the protests towards insurrection, but in a characteristically divided and somewhat chaotic manner. Some Bolsheviks in Petrograd supported the protests from 16 July and urged violent overthrow of the state, but the party’s leadership, including Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, withheld formal support until the following day, and then called for the movement to remain non-violent. The Bolsheviks officially withdrew their support on 18 July, by which time it had become clear that the Provisional Government and loyal Army units were willing and able to unite in suppressing the nascent rebellion.
They had done just that by 20 July (all these are new-style dates), and on 21 July Kerenski, the one political figure acceptable to both socialists and liberals, stepped up to become premier in a new ministry. More reliant than ever on military and business support, less able than ever to represent the revolutionary pacifism engulfing soldiers, sailors and workers through their soviets, Kerenski lurched to the right in a bid to restore some kind of order.
The Bolsheviks were publicly accused of inciting the protests using German money, with Trotsky and other leaders imprisoned while Lenin escaped to Finland. New laws were introduced restricting public gatherings and, under pressure from the military, Kerenski sanctioned restoration of the recently abolished death penalty to encourage military discipline.
At this point, General Lavrenti Kornilov moves to centre stage. An unremarkable divisional general in 1915, when he was captured on the Eastern Front, Kornilov had ensured his status as a Russian Army hero and his rapid promotion by escaping from a Hungarian prison in the summer of 1916. Thought to have some sympathy with liberal reforms, he had been put in command of the politically crucial Petrograd garrison after the February Revolution. Any liberal principles withered in the face of mass rebellion, and he had resigned in May after Kerenski, under pressure from the Petrograd Soviet, refused to let him suppress street protests with armed troops.
Returning to the front in command of the Ninth Army during the Kerenski Offensive, Kornilov had achieved fleeting success in its early phases. When the offensive’s overall failure forced the removal of Brusilov as Army c-in-c, he was the obvious replacement, and the Petrograd business and political classes generally welcomed his appointment on 1 August as the best hope of rescuing the Army as an instrument of state.
What happened a month later is only vaguely understood, with details lost in a miasma of self-serving memoirs and political interpretations, so here’s a rough guide to the best guesses available to the dispassionate.
With its links to the Petrograd Soviet crumbling, and the Soviet anyway losing control over the revolutionary tide, the new coalition found itself planning for the restoration of order alongside moderate political opinion, business interests and the Army. At the same time the government could only claim any kind of legitimacy by looking like representatives of the people’s will (and Kerenski was anyway a moderate socialist at heart), so discussions about what to do next were necessarily carried out in an atmosphere of secrecy and deniability.
Somewhere along the line, probably at a meeting in Moscow on 24 August, somebody in the Provisional Government – conceivably but probably not Kerenski – agreed to support Kornilov’s plan to restore order, as did a group of wealthy businessmen during a separate meeting with the general. Since the plan involved marching his best and most loyal troops, most of them Cossacks, into the capital to arrest the Bolsheviks, break up the Petrograd Soviet, disarm the soviet-controlled Petrograd garrison and impose martial law, this amounted to a military coup.
Nobody has ever conclusively established whether Kornilov, by now the Army’s unchallenged figurehead, or Kerenski was to lead any new regime. The scraps of available evidence suggests that Kornilov intended to establish a military regime and make himself dictator, but a minority claim that Kerenski was complicit in the plan, at least at the time of its conception. Either way, once the last Russian survivors had been extricated from the front at Riga (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire), Kornilov began assembling his forces for railway journeys into Petrograd.
Kerenski wasn’t having it. He may have accepted the idea of putting Petrograd under martial law, but once attempts to communicate with Kornilov had failed to clarify the general’s intentions the premier moved decisively to avert what he saw as an essentially counter-revolutionary military putsch. Only one move was available to him, and so he put his faith in the revolutionary left.
The government denounced Kornilov as a traitor and stripped him of command on 8 September, installing Kerenski as the new c-in-c. It issued calls for workers and soldiers to defend Petrograd from (as ever, allegedly German-sponsored) attack, and the Petrograd Soviet temporarily buried its party squabbles to organise the mobilisation. As Bolshevik leaders, including Trotsky, were released from prison to do what they did best, get the masses armed and onto the streets, and Kronstadt sailors arrived to defend the capital, the threat of ‘counter-revolution’ found the wildcat world of Petrograd in frenzied unity.
Counter-revolution didn’t live up to the hype, or even get started. Railway workers refused to run trains into the capital, and delegations of troops from Petrograd convinced most of Kornilov’s men to change sides, before Kornilov and his senior officers were arrested on 14 September. Apart from one or two suicides among Kornilov’s aides, not a shot was fired.
Kornilov wasn’t finished. He would escape from imprisonment in Bykhov Monastery within two months, and go on to become the first commander of the Volunteer Army, the main anti-Bolshevik force during the Russian Civil War, until he was killed by shellfire in April 1918. Meanwhile his bid for power had achieved precisely the opposite of its intentions, because the Provisional Government had used the prospect of counter-revolution to mobilise the hard left in defence of the Motherland.
Counter-revolution was of course a genuine possibility in Russia during 1917, because the Army, the money and a large swathe of the political establishment were all more concerned with defeating what now became known as Bolshevism than with any post-Tsarist principles of their own. Kerenski was well aware of this when he negotiated with them in the aftermath of the July Days, but seems to have been surprised by their lurch towards military dictatorship, forcing him to adopt very high-risk tactics in an attempt to stop them.
Kerenski’s call to arms at least partially vindicated and legitimised the Bolsheviks, enabling them to claim much of the credit for fighting off counter-revolution. The threat of counter-revolution and/or conquest remained hot news (as it would in Russia for the next seventy years or so), and the Bolsheviks never looked back. Within days of Kornilov’s arrest they had won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet for the first time, a reflection of their burgeoning popularity wherever soviets had formed. Meanwhile the Army’s disintegration was hastened by the failed coup, with most units melting away to their homes or joining new Red Guard units under the command of soviets, and Kerenski found himself hopelessly isolated, accused by the left of being in league with Kornilov and abandoned by the right (the Kadets quit again) for ‘betraying’ the general. After months of instability as it manoeuvred in search of non-existent central ground, the Provisional Government was now a certified lame duck – and about to be a dead one.
Kerenski tends to be dismissed by historical commentators on all sides as a failure, too flexible (or dithering) to achieve what liberals wanted, too much the bourgeois compromiser for left-wing tastes and a scapegoat to right-wing opinion in need of someone to blame for the USSR. Personally I’ve always found him a rather sad figure, a very competent, essentially well-meaning politician of the normal sort thrust into circumstances nobody could have sorted out – a bit like some of the War’s better generals. The Kornilov Revolt was his final nemesis. By handing authority to the left, he effectively condemned his own vision of social democratic reform to death, but he isn’t responsible for, and could hardly have predicted, the long-term horrors inflicted on Russia, Asia, Eastern Europe and the world by the revolution that followed. So maybe posterity should give him a small pat on the back for choosing the hard road to protect what looked like a good cause.