The counter-revolution’s attempt to solve the national crisis with a Cossack army crumbled to pieces.
The Kerensky Offensive
Between the February and July Days, the revolution was in the ascent. The February Days had brought down the Tsarist regime. The April Days had brought down the First Provisional Government of Cadets. The July Days would also work their effect: the Second Provisional Government, a coalition of Cadets and Reformists in which the former predominated, broke up, to be succeeded, after much shilly-shallying of party leaders, by a new coalition, now with Kerensky as Premier and a majority of Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries. Kerensky was the keystone of the shaky edifice of this Third Provisional Government. A liberal-imperialist in red feathers, he was the cuckoo in the Soviet, having been the only socialist in the First Provisional Government, the dominant figure in the Second, and now, as head of the Third, the indispensable point of intersection between the old state apparatus and the new revolutionary democracy. But these two forces – the opposing poles of the dual-power regime – were irreconcilable. Kerensky’s accommodation to the imperialist bourgeoisie – symbolised by his total commitment to the war – necessitated a full-scale attack on the revolutionary vanguard. The July Days retreat provided the opportunity.
The masses had been growing more organised and radical, better able to distinguish friend from enemy, truth from falsehood, more aware of where their interests lay, more willing to take action to push them forwards. Then came an abrupt check. The collapse of the July movement sent a wave of demoralisation across proletarian Petrograd. Heady hopes turned to bitter disappointment. Confidence was replaced by cynicism. Angry reproach fell upon those who had done most to raise expectations: the Bolsheviks. The Great Lie – that German gold funded Lenin’s party – found a ready audience among a mass movement retreating in confusion.
The lie was fabricated from the most pitiful material. The unsubstantiated testimonies of a minor military agent and a shady businessman were fanned by the liberal-bourgeois media into a great storm of slander, abuse, and vilification.1 As the lie percolated through the pores of Russian society, meetings of workers and soldiers shouted down Bolshevik speakers; in places, party members felt physically threatened and withdrew from the Soviets altogether. ‘The July events’, wrote Shlyapnikov,
and the whole accompanying campaign of violence and slander against our organisation interrupted that growth of our influence, which, by the beginning of July, had reached enormous proportions … The very party became semi-illegal, and had to wage a defensive struggle, relying in the main upon the trade unions and the shop and factory committees.2
Recruitment dried up. Some members abandoned the party. The rest kept their heads down. A few were gnawed by doubt. ‘I will never forget’, wrote the Moscow worker Ratekhin,
one mortally hard moment. A plenary session was assembling [of the district Soviet] … I saw there were none too many of our Bolshevik comrades … Steklov, one of the energetic comrades, came right up close to me and, barely enunciating the words, asked: ‘Is it true they brought Lenin and Zinoviev in a sealed train? Is it true they are working on German money?’3
The Reformist leaders suspected the allegations were false. But most said little or nothing, for the storm promised to sweep back their revolutionary rivals. Kerensky seized the moment to attempt a killer blow. Orders for the arrest of Lenin, Zinoviev, and other Bolshevik leaders were issued on 19 July. ‘Now they will shoot us all’, Lenin had told Trotsky the day before. ‘For them it is the best moment.’ The Bolshevik leaders were forced into hiding, justifying their action on the grounds that ‘there are no guarantees of a fair trial in Russia at the present moment’, and that ‘all accusations against us are a simple episode of civil war’.4
This was the right decision. Lenin might well have been murdered, and anyway, in prison he would have been rendered powerless. But the decision was controversial. It seemed to imply guilt.5 Trotsky – who insisted that his name be added to the list of the accused – and other revolutionary leaders were in fact taken into custody.
The police, meantime, launched attacks on the wider mass movement. Some of the more revolutionary regiments were broken up or sent to the front. Arms searches were carried out in the factories and Red Guards disarmed. Bolshevik newspapers were suppressed; one news vendor was murdered in the street by government soldiers. Kerensky accused Kronstadt of harbouring ‘persons … who, influenced by German agents and provocateurs, have called for actions threatening the Revolution and the security of our country’. Under threat of blockade, Raskolnikov and other Bolshevik sailors surrendered themselves: to have called on their comrades for armed resistance would, in the circumstances, have been too risky.
Among the heaviest of the repressive blows was the restoration of the death penalty at the front.6 The soldiers were to be driven to fight by fear of the firing squad. The effect of the Great Lie was starkest in the trenches, where military imperatives imposed a politics of extremes. Bolsheviks were purged, army committees ignored, soldiers shot for fraternising. Deserters were herded back to the front following mass round-ups. Mutinous regiments were disarmed. Saluting, drilling, and the untrammelled rule of the officer caste were restored along much of the line. Elite shock battalions of loyalist soldiers were formed: the ‘Death Battalions’.7
The Great Lie cowed the revolutionary movement and allowed the counter-revolution to rear its head and rally its forces. Trotsky described it thus:
In the assault upon the Bolsheviks, all the ruling forces, the government, the courts, the intelligence service, the staffs, the officialdom, the municipalities, the parties of the soviet majority, their press, their orators, constituted one colossal unit … The slanders poured down like Niagara. If you take into consideration the setting – the war and the revolution – and the character of the accused – revolutionary leaders of millions who were conducting their party to the sovereign power – you can say almost without exaggeration that July 1917 was the month of the most gigantic slander in world history.8
The Great Lie arose in the context of a great offensive. Kerensky’s tour of the army, his hysterical speeches to crowds of soldiers, the flood of official propaganda, the democratic phrases and red flags, the slandering and purging of the Bolsheviks, the suppression of mutinous units, the creation of Death Battalions, the partial restoration of the authority of officers: all this contributed to an upsurge of fighting along the Eastern Front in the summer of 1917. The weary, ragged, sullen Narod was being rallied, the country as a whole united, around the flag of ‘revolutionary defence’. Kerensky was recasting himself as the heroic champion of a fighting people.
The British and the French had underwritten the offensive by shipping vast quantities of rifles, machine-guns, cannon, and ammunition to Russia. The cannon stood 30 metres apart along 100 kilometres of front when the offensive opened. Never before had the Russians enjoyed a five-to-one advantage in firepower. This was enough to enable them to smash through two or three lines of Austro-Hungarian trenches and open a breach 30 kilometres deep in the enemy line.
Then the Germans rushed in reinforcements and counterattacked. As they did so, Russian resistance collapsed. Everywhere, entire units – regiments, divisions, corps, armies – evacuated their positions, went into hiding, retreated headlong. Many did not even await the approach of the enemy; the mere rumour of their coming was sufficient to trigger abandonment of the line. Elsewhere, orders to march forwards or mount attacks were debated and rejected; and officers who attempted compulsion were sometimes killed.9 Brusilov, the Russian commander-in-chief, wailed in desperation:
‘It is necessary to restore iron discipline, in the fullest sense of the term … If we delay even a moment, the Army will perish, Russia will perish, we will sink into infamy.’
Kerensky contrasted ‘heroes who would selflessly die fulfilling their duty to the Motherland’ with those he called ‘cowards and traitors’; for the latter he demanded ‘the only penalty that could frighten them’.
But where were the loyal units to enforce ‘iron discipline’ and impose ‘the only penalty’ to be found? The whole army was infected with mutiny. ‘Can we really execute entire divisions?’ asked one general. If every insubordinate soldier was brought to trial, ‘half the army would end up in Siberia’. The army was being ‘destroyed’, thought another. There ‘remained nothing but human dust’, opined a third.10 A great tide of men flowed away from the war during the summer and autumn of 1917. In its wake came the German juggernaut, rolling forwards, spearheaded by a new class of ‘storm-troops’, a relentless offensive that would eventually bring the Kaiser’s men into Riga on the Baltic on 21 August, a mere 300 miles from Petrograd.
Kerensky had failed. The Provisional Government had proved hollow. The revolution was destroying Russia. The country was being wrecked by a compound of military defeat, economic collapse, and social breakdown. The need was of a saviour, a strongman, a leader who would restore order, safeguard property, and repel the invader. So thought aristocratic and bourgeois Russia. And when Kerensky sacked Alexei Brusilov and replaced him as army commander-in-chief with Lavr Kornilov, a Siberian Cossack general with a bodyguard of machine-gun toting Turcoman warriors, it seemed to many that just such a man had emerged.
The Kornilov Coup
The saviour made a grand appearance in Moscow on 14 August. The occasion was a session of the State Conference, an assembly of 2,414 delegates representing the former Tsarist Dumas, the co-operatives, the trade unions, the banks and big business, the municipalities, and the Soviets. Because it was Kerensky’s attempt to create a political base for the new Provisional Government, it was heavily skewed in favour of the Right and private property. The Conference was boycotted by the Bolsheviks as a gerrymandered assembly of counter-revolutionary forces. The Moscow workers greeted it with a 400,000-strong protest strike on the day of its opening.11 Held in the magnificent surroundings of a grand opera house and intended as a display of national unity, it was in fact a comic-opera prefiguring of the coming civil war. Figures of the Tsarist ancien regime formed the Right. The leaders of the Reformist parties formed ‘the Left’. The vast crowds of proletarian strikers outside on the first day – massed under banners bearing Bolshevik slogans – represented the revolutionary Narod. Agreement was impossible; for much of the time the Conference was consumed by stormy altercation. Kerensky was revealed as the indispensable pivot connecting the two sides. All politics must be personified. The politics of impasse – of irreconcilable class contradictions – may find expression in a buffoon. Such was Kerensky: vain, pompous, self-important, his histrionic rhetoric cover for lack of real substance and the hopelessness of the political situation. The impasse became obvious with the arrival of Kornilov.
At the first sitting of the Conference, Kerensky had been given a standing ovation by the Lefts, while the Rights had remained seated. At the second sitting, Kornilov received a standing ovation from the Rights, and the Lefts remained seated.12 Kornilov had arrived in Moscow to cheering crowds. Richly dressed women had strewn his path with flowers. ‘You are the symbol of our unity’, proclaimed one Cadet politician. ‘Save Russia and a grateful people will crown you.’ Ascending the podium, Kornilov told the State Conference that
the Army must be restored at all costs, for without a reconstructed Army, there can be no free Russia and no salvation of our homeland … Only an Army welded together by iron discipline, only an Army led by the unified will of its leaders can achieve victory … We cannot afford to waste time. Not even a single minute can be wasted.13
The ‘restoration’ of the army was already under way. After his appointment, Kornilov had begun issuing demands of the government: that politicians should not interfere with his military arrangements; that the death penalty should be reintroduced in the rear as well as at the front; that the railways and war industries should be militarised. At the same time, counter-revolutionary forces began to gravitate upon Kornilov’s headquarters: the Death Battalions (including women’s battalions); the Cavaliers of St George (decorated veterans); the League of Officers; the Junkers (as officer cadets were known); and the Council of the Union of Cossacks. The commander-in-chief also summoned the 3rd Cavalry Corps, which included the notorious ‘Savage Division’ of Caucasian horsemen – not to the front, but to the rear, directing it towards Petrograd. ‘Kornilov became a banner’, reported General Denikin. ‘For some of counter-revolution, for others of the salvation of the Motherland.’14
Kerensky was party to the conspiracy. In this he mixed counter-revolutionary malice with political stupidity. He expected to implement Kornilov’s programme himself, but was aware that it could not be done without the destruction of the revolutionary movement in the capital. Accordingly, his intention was to provoke the Bolsheviks into calling the workers onto the streets, and to be ready to smash them with loyalist troops. For this purpose, he asked Kornilov to send a cavalry corps to the capital. As the agent detailed to convey this request later explained, the mission was ‘To get from General Kornilov a cavalry corps for the actual inauguration of martial law in Petrograd and for the defence of the Provisional Government against any attempt whatever, in particular an attempt of the Bolsheviks.’15
Kerensky was a Kornilovist; but, as the Menshevik Sukhanov put it, ‘only on the condition that he himself should stand at the head of the Kornilovists’. The plot in which he was engaged was, as Trotsky explained, Byzantine in its duplicity:
the Minister-President, without the knowledge of a part of his own Government, behind the back of the Soviets that had given him power, in secrecy from the party of which he was a member, had entered into agreement with the highest generals of the Army for a radical change in the state regime with the help of the armed forces.16
But this plan for a military coup – a plan to destroy Red Petrograd with grenades, shootings, and the gallows – was, on Kerensky’s part, the act of a political imbecile. Once unleashed, the counter-revolution would be sure to destroy not only the Bolsheviks, but also the Soviets (which the Bolsheviks increasingly dominated), thus collapsing the entire dual-power regime that was the basis of Kerensky’s premiership. Not until the very last moment did the truth dawn on the middle-class lawyer whom history had elevated to such heady heights. Last-minute negotiations between Kerensky and Kornilov yielded a peremptory demand from the Tsarist general for a declaration of martial law in Petrograd, the surrendering of all power in the capital to the military, and the resignation en masse of the Provisional Government. The Prime Minister was invited to come to the Stavka (military headquarters) for his own safety. It was suggested he might be Minister of Justice in a new government.17
The conspiracy fell apart. Kornilov had revealed himself as a rival for supreme power. Kerensky promptly cabled the commander-in-chief ordering him to surrender his office, then a further instruction ordering a halt to all troop movements towards Petrograd. Kornilov ignored both. He was henceforward engaged in an open military coup against the Provisional Government. The revolution faced its most clear and present danger since the February Days. In the judgement of Prince Trubetskoy, head of the Stavka diplomatic corps, ‘The whole commanding staff, the overwhelming majority of the officers, and the best fighting units of the Army are for Kornilov. On his side in the rear are all the Cossacks, the majority of the military training-schools, and also the best fighting units.’18
The Provisional Government had already ceased to function. The Cadet ministers had resigned their offices and disappeared from view: the counter-revolution was now represented by a Cossack general, so there was nothing for the frock-coats to do but await the outcome. The Reformist ministers remained, but it hardly mattered: they commanded no forces, so were powerless. News of the coup became widely known in Petrograd on the night of 27/28 August. The Russian Stock Exchange greeted the approach of Kornilov’s Cossack and Caucasian cavalry with a surge in share values.19 The propertied classes were banking on a prompt termination of the revolution.
The Soviets, on the other hand, even under Reformist leadership, had suddenly awakened to the fact that their very existence was in mortal danger. On the evening of 27 August, a joint session of both Executive Committees – that of the workers and soldiers, and that of the peasants – had agreed to create a new body, a Committee for Struggle with Counter-Revolution, formed of three representatives of each of the main Soviet parties, the Mensheviks, the Social-Revolutionaries, and the Bolsheviks. This body issued an immediate call for all-out armed resistance to Kornilov.20
Why had the Bolsheviks joined the Committee for Struggle with Counter-Revolution? The Provisional Government, which included both Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries, had hounded the Bolshevik Party into semi-underground existence, imprisoning or forcing into hiding its leaders, shutting down its newspapers, smearing its members as accomplices of the Kaiser. Kerensky was a reactionary masquerading as a democrat. The Winter Palace and the Stavka were twin centres of counter-revolution. What was it that Lenin had said after the July Days? That Kerensky’s cabinet was ‘Bonapartist’ in character and dependent for its existence upon ‘a military clique’.21 The term ‘Bonapartist’ implied an authoritarian government elevated above society and balanced between two opposing social forces. Lenin’s argument was that Kerensky was an embryonic Bonapartist, in that he straddled the division between bourgeoisie and Soviet, but, lacking an army of his own, was compelled to seek an alliance with the generals.
The breach between Kerensky and Kornilov transformed the situation. It was a ‘sharp turn’ that demanded ‘revision and change of tactics’. The main enemy was now Kornilov, because he represented the mailed fist: the crisis had become an open struggle between the army and the Soviets, between armed counter-revolution and the Petrograd proletariat.22 The argument was carefully nuanced. When Kronstadt sailors asked Trotsky, ‘Isn’t it time to arrest the Government?’, he answered, ‘No, not yet. Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterwards we will settle with Kerensky.’23 This was the tactic of the united front in action: unity of the working class – Mensheviks, Social-Revolutionaries, and Bolsheviks – to defend the revolution against the immediate and most dangerous enemy. But this, for Lenin, did not mean an alliance with Kerensky:
‘We will fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, but we are not supporting Kerensky, but exposing his weakness … In fighting Kornilov, the proletariat will fight not for the dictatorship of Kerensky, but for all the conquests of the Revolution.’24
In truth, as in all the great days of the revolution, as in February, April, and July, no call from above was required: tens of thousands of activists embedded in Petrograd’s revolutionary mass movement were already in action. The Soviets, in decay for two months under their insipid leadership, suddenly burst back into life, nourished by an upsurge of activity from below, as the workers and soldiers flowed into packed meetings. The Red Guards, suppressed after the July Days, were reborn, with queues of young workers forming to sign up and collect rifles; the proletarian militia was soon 40,000 strong. The giant Putilov works became the centre of resistance in the Peterhof District: the Factory Committee remained in permanent session, new fighting detachments were formed, and workers toiled 16 hours a day to manufacture 100 cannon for the defence of the revolutionary capital. The rail workers – threatened by Kornilov with martial law – tore up track, built barricades, refused to move troop trains, shunted others into sidings. The postal and telegraph clerks refused to transmit military messages. ‘The generals’, commented Trotsky, ‘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.’ Other unions provided funds, offices, transport, and printing-presses to aid the defence.25
In the end, it was almost bloodless. The counter-revolutionary forces in the rear were easily cowed. A military commandant in communication with Kornilov was shot by the Kronstadt sailors. Four officers of the Baltic Fleet who refused to swear allegiance to the revolution were also executed. Most of the rest, the secret Kornilovists in Petrograd and elsewhere, went to ground, awaiting the arrival of the Cossacks and Caucasians. But they never came. Trotsky recalled how the army of counter-revolution was immobilised or diverted to the back of beyond by the rail workers:
In a mysterious way, echelons would find themselves moving on the wrong roads. Regiments would arrive in the wrong direction, 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 railway workers, and their military committees. The telegraphers kept them informed of all events, all movements, all changes … Parts of the army of Krymov [Kornilov’s field commander] were in this way scattered about in the stations, sidings, and branch lines of eight different railways. 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 railway lines.26
At the same time, the rank-and-file soldiers were swamped by revolutionary crowds, fraternising, leafleting, arguing, attempting to dissolve a mortal physical threat with the acid of a moral power. The Cossacks were surrounded by 20,000 armed soldiers at Luga. They were given leaflets informing them that Kornilov was an outlaw. The Cossacks held their own meetings. Had they been deceived? Had their officers lied? A delegation of Muslim revolutionaries went to meet their co-religionists of the Savage Division. It included the grandson of a famous hero who had defended the mountains against Tsarism. What was the result? The Caucasians stuck a red flag inscribed ‘Land and Freedom’ on their commander’s staff car.27
Thus did the Kornilov Coup boil up, surge forwards, and then melt away into the ground, its high command unable to direct it, its troop trains shunted into nowhere, its soldiery sucked into a revolutionary mass that rose up all around it.
Not only that. The August Days had exposed the violence of the propertied classes, their irreconcilable hatred of the revolution, the impossibility of compromise. They also laid bare the powerlessness of the Provisional Government and the treachery of Kerensky and the Reformist leaders. Not least, they revealed the Bolsheviks to be the most resolute champions of the revolution and of the common people’s demands for peace, land, and freedom.
As the counter-revolution’s attempt to solve the national crisis with a Cossack army crumbled to pieces, the mood of Russia’s dark masses, shifting only slowly since the July debacle, swung suddenly and sharply to the left. A revolution, Marx once said, needs from time to time the whip of counter-revolution. So it was on this occasion: Kornilov had roused the masses from their slumber, and now – more experienced, more serious, more committed to the party that was truly their own – they were set to rise in unvanquishable number to sweep the landlords, profiteers, and generals of Old Russia into oblivion.
See endnotes and bibliography at source.
Chapter 7 (157-173) from A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, by Neil Faulkner (Pluto Press, 03.15.2017), published by OAPEN under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.