A. F. Kerensky

The Catastrophe


Source: The Catastrophe
Published: 1927
Transcriber: Jonas Holmgren
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.


I HOPE the reader has by this time sufficiently grasped the political and social environment in which the Provisional Government was obliged to begin its work.

Upon its formation, March sixteenth, and its departure from the superheated atmosphere of the Tauride Palace, the government held its sessions temporarily in the main meeting room of the Ministry of the Interior. In the silence of the spacious, quiet, ministerial chamber, hung with portraits of former rulers, imperial ministers and representatives of Russian reaction, every one of us understood, perhaps for the first time, the change that had come upon Russia. There were eleven of us. Every one of us had been regarded by the Czarist Ministry of the Interior with hostility and suspicion. And now we had in our hands the supreme power of the great empire, power that came to us at the most difficult period of the War, after an explosion which swept away the entire old machinery of administration.[1*]

I remember with what emotion Prince Lvoff read to us at our first meeting a report on the situation in the provinces. From all towns and cities, provincial and county seats came telegrams which seemed as if they had been written by one and the same hand. They all told the same story: the old administration, from the governor to the last town policeman and village bailiff had disappeared without trace, and everywhere were being formed, instead, all sorts of self-appointed organizations—Soviets, committees of public safety, conferences of public leaders, etc., etc.

"I have telegraphed," the prince told us, "to all the chairmen of zemstvo administrations the suggestion that they assume temporarily the duties of governors, in the capacity of commissars of the Provisional Government." But in the majority of cases the chairmen of the zemstvo administrations in the provinces were conservatives and, frequently, quite outspoken reactionaries. They enjoyed no wide influence and could not maintain themselves in authority for a week. Very much the same was true everywhere in the provinces with regard to the military authorities. Somewhat more favorable was the situation with respect to the judicial machinery. But here, too, even in Petrograd, where the institution of the election of magistrates had remained intact, there was a difficult situation. The villages, liberated from all administrative vigilance, had begun to "govern themselves." There was an immediate mad rush by the peasantry for the land.

In the cities, various self-appointed organizations, whipped up by the raging revolutionary tempest, were devoting themselves to such creative revolutionary activities as raids, searches, confiscations and the liberation not only of political prisoners but also of criminals of the most desperate hue.

One need only visualize for a moment this raging human ocean, freed from all bonds, this molten, as yet formless revolutionary mass, to realize the tremendous historic and positive role played by the Soviets, which everywhere, as in Petrograd, contributed greatly to the establishment of revolutionary discipline. Despite all their great errors and frequent stupidities, the Soviets represented the first primitive social and political molds into which the molten revolutionary lava began gradually to flow and to cool off.

Sometimes it seems to me that the word "revolution" is quite inapplicable to what happened in Russia between March twelfth and sixteenth. A whole world of national and political relationships simply sank to the bottom, and at once all existing political and tactical programs and plans, however bold and well conceived, appeared hanging aimlessly and uselessly in space. The political parties that survived the March earthquake (the Social-Revolutionaries; the Social-Democrats and the Constitutional-Democrats—all other more moderate and conservative parties being reduced at once to zero or almost to zero) sought to act in accordance with all the rules of Western European political art. Their leaders tried to classify the character of the Revolution by calling it "bourgeois" or "socialist." They put forward political proposals, which in their opinion demanded immediate realization, and disputed about compromise formulae. But no one wanted to perceive the most important thing of all: the disappearance of the machinery of state, the need of restoring the apparatus of administration itself, without which all programs, platforms, formulas, resolutions, etc. assume the value of so much useless paper.

According to opinions in Russia and abroad, based on the classic models of the French Revolution of 1789, the epoch of the Provisional Government can be divided into two periods: first, the bourgeois period, under the premiership of Prince Lvoff, and, second, the socialist period, under the premiership of Kerensky. Correspondingly, it is customary to say that in the second period the government was more radical in its legislative work, less constructive in its methods of administration and weaker in the application of administrative compulsion.

The terms bourgeois and socialist would probably be applicable to the Russian Revolution if after the March upheaval all power in Russia had actually been in the hands of the bourgeoisie itself, organized as in the West in compact class formation, able to fight for power and knowing how to keep it.

This interpretation would probably be correct if such a bourgeoisie had been susperseded in the natural course of the struggle for power by the fourth estate— the city, village and intellectual proletariat, and which would have occupied in the first, the bourgeois period of the Revolution, the position of an oppressed social class.

But such was not the situation. On the contrary, exactly the opposite occurred.

The very formation of the Provisional Government took place under circumstances of tragic misunderstanding.

Given to thinking along the line of historical precedents and knowing the art of handling theoretical propositions rather than that of orienting themselves in the confusion of real life, the ideologists of the "bourgeois democracy" believed sincerely that the downfall of absolutism would be marked by the transfer of all power into the hands of the liberal-conservative bourgeoisie represented by the Progressive Bloc in the fourth Duma. On the other hand, the socialist leaders and the ideologists of the "revolutionary proletariat" fully accepted this phantastic idea, for it coincided with their own theoretical conceptions, based on the very best European models of the development of a "real" revolution. Viewed from the point of view of the precedent of the French Revolution, the period of the Russian Revolution, beginning with March twelfth, constituted the epoch of the National Assembly and the Girondins.

Subsequently, within a few years, it was to give way to the Jacobin Terror, etc. The absence of life instinct and of political intuition in the minds of political dogmatists assumed at times most curious propensities. Thus, during their joint consideration of the program of the Provisional Government, the representatives of the Soviet (or of the so-called revolutionary democracy) forced on the Temporary Committee of the Duma the obligation not to determine beforehand the future form of government in Russia, pending convocation of the Constituent Assembly, while P. N. Miliukoff, the ideologist of the Progressive Bloc, fought long and stubbornly against this limitation. What was all this about? It was very simple: P. N. Miliukoff was convinced of the inevitability of a constitutional monarchy in Russia after the Revolution (and on the night of March sixteenth), while the leaders of the revolutionary proletariat did not venture to demand openly the establishment of a republic, at a time when the republic had already become an historic fact.

The Soviet leaders, guided by Western European political formulae, believed sincerely that after March twelfth the political power had to be in the hands of the bourgeoisie, this power to be controlled by the labor democracy, headed by the "class conscious proletariat," which would support the government only to the extent to which it did not misuse its dominant position in the country to the disadvantage of the basic interests of the masses.

Both sides—P. N. Miliukoff and the accidental leaders of the Soviet, drawn from the ranks of the revolutionists of 1905—were quite sincerely convinced of the wisdom of their opinions; they failed to notice what was actually taking place about them and to sense the profundity of the popular upheaval.

I write this not with intent of sitting in judgment upon the leaders of that period. On the contrary, I wish only to show right at the beginning that neither ill will nor mischief played any conspicuous role, nor had any appreciable part in the development of those future acute disagreements around the issue of the Provisional Government, which contributed to the weakening of the government's barely established authority. The entire depth of the tragic catastrophe experienced by Russia is measured precisely by the fact that despite all their good will and their urge to help the country, people frequently injured it because they failed to realize the substance and meaning of what was taking place.

Ignoring all historical comparisons and European precedents, the problem before the Provisional Government and the political organizations and parties supporting it, however conditionally, was not a complex but a simple one, yet extremely difficult in its simplicity.

It was necessary to restore the country and the state.

This task of reconstruction did not consist in restoring territorial boundaries embracing a definite population. In this material sense of the word, Russia did not as yet require restoration, for Russia was still intact. The task of the moment was the restoration of the national governmental fabric as a creative, administrative and protective political organism. This meant, first of all, restoration of the administrative apparatus, of the machinery of government. It meant teaching some to govern and others to yield obedience. This problem was rendered all the more difficult by the necessity of continuing the War and by the need of what was in reality tantamount to reconstruction of all juridical, economic and social foundations of the country.

One of the strongest and brightest impressions of my life is the recollection of the work of the first cabinet of the Provisional Government, composed, as Lenin described it, of ten capitalist ministers, among whom I occupied the position of "hostage of the democracy."

Had Lenin and his lieutenants possessed one-hundredth part of the ability to renounce all personal considerations of power and vanity, of the capacity for unselfish service to the country and the people displayed by the millionaires Terestchenko and Konovaloff; by such typical representatives of the landed nobility as V. Lvoff, or by that characteristic liberal intellectual A. I. Shingarioff, Russia would have in all probability escaped the Golgotha to which she was brought by the blind, senseless, utterly unnecessary fomenting of class hatred by the irresponsible demagogues of Bolshevism.


Above all did Prince G. E. Lvoff represent the make-up and spirit of the Provisional Government. This true aristocrat, whose family had its roots in centuries of Russian history, was undoubtedly the most democratic among us, closer than any of us to the real soul of the Russian muzhik.

Modest, almost unnaturally retiring, absent-minded in all matters concerning himself, the prince outwardly possessed not a single earmark of the head of a government. Revolting against the whole past of his power-loving ancestors, baronial rulers of medieval Russia, he seemed to have subdued in himself the family instinct for power. He felt a revulsion against all the exterior attributes of authority and of the state. During the sessions of the Provisional Government he kept deliberately in the background and saw to it that every one had an opportunity to speak his mind to the end, to say everything he wished to say. Rarely, almost never, did he interject a word of command or criticism into the stormy debates of the cabinet, seeking always to bring about agreement by a kind word of wisdom, forgetting frequently the necessity for hurry to keep the government from lagging behind the elemental sweep of events.

All his life the prince had struggled stubbornly, unceasingly, with tremendous energy, against the stupid, ferocious, bureaucratic machine of the old absolutism. But he always approached the painful questions of Russian life not like a politician but in a peculiarly original manner. He moved not from ideas to man but from man to ideas.

Although detesting the old regime, the prince had always succeeded in striking some human chords in the men who served it. He. would gather about him leading men and women devoted to the people's interests, and draw up, with their cooperation, plans and programs of social welfare. Then, unostentatiously, he would depart for some ministry or some gubernatorial center, where single-handed, by means he alone seemed to possess, he would accomplish what innumerable political resolutions and demands of the Duma or zemstvo organs failed to achieve.

In his work the prince covered the length and breadth of Russia. In most difficult periods of agricultural crises, he promoted successfully the work of moving masses of peasants to settlements in the Far East. During the Russo-Japanese War, as head of the zemstvo organizations, he did much for the wounded and accomplished what was far beyond his official duties and limitations. He was a member of the first Duma. But this page of his career, in the opinion of some the most striking of his life, he regarded as the most uninteresting and unnecessary. After the dissolution of the first Duma, he left the Constitutional-Democratic party and went out to seek again, in his own way, new roads to the happiness and welfare of the people.

Long before the European War, in the period of the cruel Stolypin reaction (1907-11) he began to devote himself to the organization of the independent forces of the zemstvos. Slowly and surely the prince assembled around him elements which could, in the moment of the death of the old regime, take over, if necessary, the machinery of government.

It is remarkable how the roads of the two most typical representatives of aristocratic and bourgeois Russia, of Prince Lvoff and Gutchkoff, met during the War in this work of the building up of independent political and social organizations and of the selection of men of administrative ability, for during the period after the Russo-Japanese War and of the first Duma the two men had been politically widely divergent.

During the European War the name of Prince Lvoff became the symbol of the social and cultural forces of Russia. At the front he gained great popularity in the commanding corps because of the tremendous work for the army performed under his leadership by the Union of Zemstvos.

I met the prince for the first time shortly before the Revolution—I think it was in December, 1916. I had already made the acquaintance of his close associates and knew not only of the general humanitarian and social work but also of the contrabandist political activity of Lvoff's circle. Sensing the hurricane advancing upon Russia, I felt finally that I could no longer postpone making the personal acquaintance of one who was obviously destined to be one of the future political leaders of emancipated Russia. I met the prince in Moscow, at the headquarters of the Governing Committee of the Union of Zemstvos, following his adjournment of some business meeting. After exchanging salutations he led me to his study. There after a brief conversation we came to understand one another, both of us realizing the tribulations awaiting the country in the very near future.

There was a peculiar simplicity, bordering at times on what seemed to be naiveté, in the political conversation of the prince. But behind this naiveté lay concealed a deep knowledge of the people and one sensed that he had not only felt the problems of Russia through his heart but had thought them out carefully through his mind. Soon after the beginning of the Revolution many of the admirers and associates of the prince began to hate or to detest him for his "lack of will-power," for his "Tolstoyan non-resistance to evil." However, let those who consider the prince's policy in the first weeks of the Revolution, both as premier and minister of the interior, as "non-resistance to evil," let them undertake to build a house of cards in a tempest, under the open sky, to the accompaniment of an all-devouring hurricane! The prince perceived honestly the full depth and measure of the decay and dissolution of old Russia. He, therefore, looked upon the elemental explosion of the people's fury without astonishment. He understood, suffered and forgave. There are moments in the history of all nations when the highest wisdom of a ruler expresses itself in being able to wait, in the ability to grasp instinctively and not by reason the outwardly invisible spiritual pangs and experiences of the nation.

"Let not your hearts be cast down by Russia's freedom," said the prince in the beginning of May at a meeting of the Duma, in a speech remarkable for its thought and faith. To the prince the heritage of Russia's struggle for emancipation lay not in a collection of dead formulas, fit only for the archives, but in the life and substance of the course of events.

The prince did not reveal "strong will-power" either as premier or as minister of the interior. But how could he have revealed it had he desired to do so? Police officials had just begun to reappear in city streets—they were termed militia men, in order not to revive recollections of the old regime—and they were men, assembled hurriedly and casually, who had but little conception of the technical features of their work.

When newspapermen sought to learn from the prince, following his initial sad experience in trying to find substitutes for the provincial governors, what he intended to do and whom he intended to appoint, he replied: "We will not appoint any one. The local populations themselves will elect and inform us accordingly, and we will approve." Most astonishing "non-resistance"? Not at all. It was simply a demonstration of the prince's profound knowledge of the situation and of his realization that the moment had not yet come for the central authorities to exercise the power of appointment and to issue orders. As soon as the situation in the various towns and provinces permitted it, with the natural simmering down of the boiling cauldron, the central authorities began to act.

"We will build the new life of the people not by ourselves but together with the people." These words of Prince Lvoff, expressed in another way by Abraham Lincoln, should enable my readers to understand the remarkable personality of the first freely chosen spokesman of the government of Free Russia.

We may, therefore, ask, could such a man be the representative of the class interests of the bourgeoisie? Could he express the will of the propertied classes when his entire soul was bound much more intimately, tenderly and deeply than that of men like Lenin with the aspirations, the actual interests, the whole future of the Russian peasantry? This future lay in the land.

BASIC REFORMS The land! No mention of it is to be found in the declaration of the Provisional Government made public on the day of its assumption of office! Nevertheless, at its very first meeting, A. I. Shingarioff—afterwards killed by the Bolsheviki, on the eve of the convocation of the Constituent Assembly of which he had been elected a member—was instructed by unanimous decision of the cabinet, and without any discussion, to work out a basic plan for the complete readjustment of land distribution and to prepare measures for the execution of this social reform, unprecedented in the history of Europe. Perhaps somewhere in the subconsciousness of one or another member of the Provisional Government there was a trace of doubt against this bold way of putting the question of the abolition of the entire old system of land ownership, but this egoistic feeling, so entirely natural to any man, was immediately suppressed by the imperative need of surrendering and sacrificing all for the sake of the country.

On April second, the Provisional Government promulgated its agrarian reform, which was to give all the land into the hands of those who worked it, and on the same day the government created a Central Land Committee, which, in cooperation with similar provincial and county land committees and elected representatives of the population, was to draft a basic land law for presentation to the Constituent Assembly.

Quite simply, without any struggle, without any of the classic revolutionary scenes on the order of the celebrated oath of the French nobility at the beginning of the Revolution of 1789, occurred this fundamental social change. A great, real and unprecedented social revolution was brought about through the signatures of the representatives of that propertied Russia which, according to all party formula, should have defended the "propertied privileges of the bourgeoisie."

Likewise, the first declaration of the Provisional Government, drafted jointly by the representatives of the revolutionary proletariat from the Soviet and of the Temporary Committee of the Duma, contained not a word about the labor question. On this question the "bourgeois" government had the complete freedom of action it enjoyed in the land problem. Nevertheless, on March twentieth, Konovaloff, the new minister of commerce and industry, Moscow millionaire and proprietor of a large manufacturing establishment, placed at the head of his program the creation, in connection with the Ministry of the Interior, of a special labor division, incorporating representatives of labor organizations in the machinery of the department, which began functioning on May twentieth. On March twenty-fourth, Konovaloff introduced the eight-hour day in the shops and factories of Petrograd, by agreement with the manufacturers. Soon after he recognized the workers' shop committees and began the establishment, by agreement with the representatives of employers and employees, of special boards of arbitration for the settlement of industrial disputes. The Provisional Government's measure determining the function of trade unions in the state remains a model to this day. What the Provisional Government failed to include in its work was only the demagogy of Lenin, so destructive and so costly to the workers themselves.

In comparison with the scope of its constructive social reforms, the purely political program of the "bourgeois" Provisional Government, representing the only measures to which it pledged itself, appears as a mere trifle. After long casuistical disputes, of interest only to themselves, the socialist intellectuals representing the Soviet and the liberal professors representing the Duma had drafted the following measures which the Provisional Government was to put into effect:

1. Complete and immediate amnesty for all acts of political and religious nature, including acts of political assassination, military uprisings and agrarian disturbances. (This was put into effect March nineteenth, followed by abolition of capital punishment on March twenty-fifth.)

2. Freedom of speech, press, assembly, trade union organization and strikes, and application of political liberties to men in the military service in so far as these were practicable under the technical limitations of the selrvice. (Put into effect immediately.)

3. Abolition of all juridical discriminations based on distinctions of class, creed and nationality. (Put into effect April twenty-sixth.)

4. Immediate preparations for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly (on the basis of universal, equal, direct and secret suffrage), whose function it would be to determine the form of government and the constitution. (Preparations begun at once.)

On May eighth a special commission, with the participation of representatives of all parties and social organizations, assembled for the drafting of an electoral law to govern the elections to the Constituent Assembly, and of technical measures for the election.

5. The substitution for the old police of a people's militia, its chieftains to be chosen by popular election and to be subordinate to the local government authorities. (Organization of such a militia was begun at once.)

6. Election of all organs of local self-government on the basis of universal, direct, equal and secret suffrage.

On May second the government made public its measure for the election of city councils and on May twenty-eighth was promulgated the basic reform of local zemstvo self-government.

The official program of the Provisional Government was thus put into realization within a few weeks.

In addition, during the two months of its existence, the first cabinet of the Provisional Government accomplished the following:

It proclaimed the independence of Poland.

It restored the autonomy of Finland.

It created committees for the working out of local autonomy in the Ukraine and Latvia.

It reorganized the administration of government in Turkestan and in the Caucasus and in Turkish Armenia and Galicia which were occupied by Russian troops.

It abolished all special courts, introducing the general system of trial by jury.

It reorganized the food distribution system, strengthening the grain monopoly and introducing fixed prices on all articles of necessity.

It established county zemstvos and reformed the system of peasant administrative machinery.

It promulgated a law for the improvement and development of cooperatives which is regarded as exemplary to this day.

It abolished the exile system and reformed the prison system.

It restored the institution of the election of magistrates.

Finally, the Provisional Government changed radically the administration of the Church, restoring the complete independence of the Orthodox Church, and prepared also the convocation of a sobor, which had not been convened for two hundred years, and which in the autumn of 1917 restored the patriarchate.

The measures enumerated above were sufficient to occupy generations of normal political effort. The Provisional Government carried out these measures quickly and easily, despite the fact that it was burdened by the War, with all the involved problems of communications, the food supply and acute financial difficulties.

I assert confidently that as soon as Russia emerges from the present period of Bolshevist reaction, she will inevitably resume the work of national reconstruction on the basis of the political, juridical and social principles laid down in the first two months of the Provisional Government.




[1*] The Provisional Government was composed as follows: Premier and Minister of the Interior, Prince G. E. Lvoff, a veteran leader of zemstvos; Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paul N. Miliukoff, leader of the Constitutional-Democratic (Liberal) party; Minister of War and Marine, A. I. Gutchkoff, member of the Duma, leader of the Octobrist (Conservative) party and representative of the Moscow merchant class; Minister of Finance, M. B. Terestchenko, non-partisan, one of the wealthiest men of Russia, a noted philanthropist and vice-chairman of All-Russian War Industrial Committee; Minister of Agriculture, A. I. Shingarioff, Constitutional-Democrat, zemstvo worker, prominent member of the fourth Duma and close coworker of Paul N. Miliukoff; Minister of Education, Professor A. I. Manuiloff, Constitutional-Democrat, noted Moscow reformer and university leader; Minister of Commerce and Industry, A. I. Konovaloff, Progressive, noted public leader, member of the fourth Duma, vice-chairman of the All-Russian War Industrial Committee and one of the foremost industrialist and commercial leaders of Moscow; Minister of Railways, N. Nekrassoff, member of the fourth Duma, leader of the Left Wing of the Constitutional-Democratic party; Procurator of the Holy Synod, V. Lvoff, moderate conservative, big landed proprietor and member of the fourth Duma; State Controller, Godneff, Octobrist, veteran public leader from the Volga region; Vice-Premier and Minister of Justice, A. F. Kerensky.


Last updated on: 2.17.2008