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.


AND so the Provisional Government, by means of legislative initiative, began to lay the foundations of the new democratic state. The work proceeded swiftly. Towards the end of the summer the new organic laws began to make themselves felt in the increasing systematization of the nation's political life and the strengthening of the administrative apparatus. But while this work was in progress it was necessary to live, i.e., to command at the front, to restore order in the rear, to circumscribe and bring within the limits of the possible the flaming appetites of individual groups and classes. All these wanted all they could get—all liberty, all rights but no obligations.

This extremism, this lack of moderation in the demands made upon the government was to be explained by the fact that the population, never having participated in the government of the country and only now, for the first time, realizing its boundless power, believed that the government was omnipotent and that its resources were unlimited—now, as before, after three years of the wear and tear of war and of economic exhaustion. To stop the destructive sweep of the elemental revolutionary tempest it was necessary to reveal to the people all the wounds and ulcers of emaciated Russia, to rouse in the heart of every soldier, workman and peasant concern for Russia.

Not the egoistic instincts of capitalist Russia but the real interests of Russian democracy itself, just come into power, required the protection of industry from destructive experiments by the workers, the restoration of authority at the front and a struggle against anarchic sentiments in the village. The basic interests of Russia demanded from all citizens the greatest possible self-control and the subordination of all one's personal, class and caste interests to the fundamental problem of the moment—the salvation of the country and of the state.

Russia could escape from her insurmountable difficulties only in the measure in which the people developed the feeling of political discipline and political responsibility. In the development of this feeling in the masses, the government could play a great part, but only on the condition of growth and strengthening of confidence in the government. While an old, traditional organ of authority, supporting itself upon a strong administrative apparatus, can continue to exist for a long time, even after having lost the confidence of the country, no new government can possibly afford such a luxury, in the absence of even the simplest and most primitive instruments of compulsion. In this case, obedience to the demands of the new government depends entirely upon the good will of the people, who follow the instructions of the government only to the extent to which it has their confidence. The development of authority constituted the cardinal condition for Russia's safe emergence from the crisis of war and revolution.

However, the more intensively the organization and solidification of democratic organizations around the Soviets proceeded, the wider grew the psychological gulf between the revolutionary government and the revolutionary democracy in the Soviets. Every action of the government was regarded with suspicion by the leading circles of the Soviet and subjected to close examination from the point of view of the interests of the proletariat and of the "revolutionary people." The speeches and articles of the Soviet leaders, playing the role of a "benevolent" parliamentary opposition, in themselves contained nothing evil or criminal. Under normal conditions, with a parliament and a parliamentary majority to fall back upon, all this would have been even useful to the government. But the leaders who essayed the role of the opposition were in reality bound not to a minority but to a majority in the country. And this majority, untried and inexperienced in any parliamentary theories and party doctrines and having no conception of parliamentary practice, interpreted literally all the sharp criticisms directed against the government by the self-appointed opponents. The Soviet press sowed the wind of opposition and the government reaped the revolutionary storm.

This situation finally became impossible and intolerable. All the leading members of the Provisional Government understood well the source of the political tension and of the brewing crisis. They all understood that it was necessary to change the composition of the Provisional Government in a manner corresponding to the real disposition of forces in the country. Foreign Minister Miliukoff alone stuck to his own theory that all the power after the Revolution must belong to the representatives of those elements of Russian society which are termed, according to the nomenclature of socialist ideologists, the bourgeoisie.


Miliukoff is one of the most striking and most brilliant figures of intellectual Russia. His name is inextricably bound with the last decades of the struggle against Czarism, to the history of which he added many brilliant pages.

An historian by nature, Paul N. Miliukoff is by temperament a statesman of great ability. In his youth he followed the call of science, but his fighting instinct, rather than police persecution, prompted him to alter his career. In the end, instead of a venerable scientist, Russia received in him one of her greatest political leaders. But the very historical attributes of his mind taught Miliukoff to understand political events post factum, to look at them more or less from the perspective of distance. Miliukoff sees life more clearly through a book or an historical document. Having analyzed the past, he proceeds to draw corresponding conclusions, in accordance with all the rules of political logic. Thus, having worked out his program, his strategic and tactical plan, Miliukoff proceeds to carry it out with all the fervor of a political leader who is thoroughly convinced of the wisdom of his judgment, failing to take into consideration, however, the circumstances of to-day and, what is frequently more important, of to-morrow.

This lack of political intuition is not an irreparable fault under normal conditions in one's political activity, but in periods when minutes mean years and months become equal to decades, when the link between to-day and to-morrow is broken, the clash between precise and well-ordered schemes of political activity and life rushing on at blinding speed becomes catastrophic.

P. N. Miliukoff came to the foreign office with a well conceived plan of foreign policy. In the autumn of 1916 this plan was still quite in place. But in March, 1917, it was of no more use or, rather, it became an historical document fit only for the archives. To put it more concretely: the trouble was not in the aims set by the first minister of foreign affairs of the Provisional Government but in the methods chosen by him in his struggle for their realization. The Russia that had to declaim daily about the Dardanelles, the cross on St. Sofia, and to whom it was necessary to speak constantly of war to a victorious conclusion— that Russia ceased to exist on March 12, 1917. The New Russia which had come to take her place, lived under a new war psychology and wanted to hear new war slogans and to set new war aims.

The fundamental change in the language of her diplomacy and her diplomatic methods, incumbent at that time upon the Provisional Government, did not, of course, in any way prejudice Russia's actions after victory. Victory has its own logic and creates in the victor its own psychology. In war, diplomacy is only one of the means of struggle, of war propaganda. It must speak in a language corresponding to the attitude and sentiments of the country at war.

"You may speak as you like and what you like," said Gutchkoff to Miliukoff at a meeting of the Provisional Government, "but say only that which bolsters up the fighting capacity of the front."

Even before that, early in April, on my way with Miliukoff to General Headquarters at Mohileff, I told him the same thing but in another way:

"It is necessary now to change entirely the language of all our diplomatic notes and declarations."

This opinion of an "inexperienced diplomat" provoked the horror of the new minister and of his associate, Prince G. Trubetzkoy, a professional diplomat.

My words and the "opportunist diplomacy" of Gutchkoff were not a misfortune for Russia. Its misfortune was Miliukoff's refusal to yield in form to the new national psychology in all his declarations.


It would be of no interest to describe here in detail the casuistical dispute which continued for two months between Miliukoff and the Soviet, between the Rietch, organ of the Constitutional-Democratic party and the Izvestia, organ of the Soviet. The only interest this dispute has for us now lies not in its substance but in the consequences. At that time all those endless discussions—whether or not Russia's war aims had changed after the Revolution, whether or not Russia had in reality abandoned her claims to the Dardanelles, whether or not the Allies should be officially informed of the new war formula proclaimed solemnly to the Russian people by the Provisional Government on April ninth—reacted painfully on the nerves of the people, exhausted by the War, and provoked the greatest irritation. The Provisional Government itself had found the proper way of presenting Russia's war aims to the people in the following declaration:

Leaving it entirely to the people, in close unity with the Allies, to decide all questions in connection with the World War and its solution, the Provisional Government believes it to be its right and duty to declare immediately that the aim of Free Russia is not domination over other peoples, not to deprive them of their national patrimony, not the forcible seizure of foreign territories, but the establishment of a stable peace on the basis of the self-determination of peoples. The Russian people do not seek the extension of their external power at the expense of other peoples, nor do they include in their aim the enslavement and humiliation of any other peoples.

This formula, which served as the basis of President Wilson's famous fourteen points, did, at any rate, reflect closely the idealistic aspirations of the Russian people as a whole for an early, just, democratic peace. At any rate, the Provisional Government's war aims manifesto had nothing in common with the former declarations on this question, which Russia had been accustomed to hear from the lips of the Czar's foreign minister, S. D. Sazonoff, and his successors during the War.

Nevertheless, the unanimous desire of the Provisional Government not to aggravate the differences about Russia's war aims, and to follow closely its solemn declaration, was not in any way reflected in Miliukoff's personal conduct and particularly in his policy as editor of his official party organ. Immediately upon the government's declaration of its war aims, the Minister of Foreign Affairs let it.be known that this declaration, addressed to the Russian people, did not in any way bind him as minister of foreign affairs, in his policy. Miliukoff's declaration, coming upon that of the government, which had succeeded in satisfying and placating the Soviet leaders, produced the impression of a bomb explosion. A veritable verbal war ensued. And not Miliukoff alone but the authority of the government itself, which had barely begun to consolidate itself, was the sufferer.

The outburst of hatred against Miliukoff in the Soviet revealed the entire deep psychological crisis of the government, the crisis of lack of confidence, which began brewing on the very first day of the Revolution, due to the contradiction between the composition of the government and the disposition of forces in the country, and which had to be eliminated if the country was to escape new and extremely dangerous perturbations.


Miliukoff's personal declarations were already being accepted in all revolutionary, democratic and socialist circles as evidence of the Provisional Government's duplicity.

Because of my position in the Revolution and in the Provisional Government I happened to be in closer touch with the people and felt more keenly the beating of the nation's pulse than the other members of the government.

I saw the helplessness of Gutchkoff, as minister of war and marine, in his efforts to stem the tide of anarchy and dissolution in the army and navy. I saw the complete helplessness of the Minister of the Interior, in his struggle to overcome the anarchy in the cities and villages without the support of the revolutionary social forces. I felt the decline of my own influence in the struggle against the Bolshevist demagogues because of the slippery, dualistic policy of the Soviet in making its confidence in the government conditional on this or that point of theoretical casuistry.

However valuable the principle of unity of the Provisional Government was, the government that was born in the first minutes of the Revolution, and much as it was important to keep all the original members of the cabinet in the government, because of their solemn oath to lead the country to the Constituent Assembly, and however desirable Miliukoff's presence in the Provisional Government was, his continuance as minister of foreign affairs was becoming a real national danger. On the other hand, it was no longer possible to tolerate a situation in which the leaders of the revolutionary democracy in the Soviet, who had the advantage of tremendous moral authority, did not share direct responsibility for the fate of the country.

It became necessary to force developments. On April twenty-fifth, late in the evening, I informed the press that the Provisional Government was preparing to consider the question of dispatching a note to the Allies, informing them of Russia's new war aims, as proclaimed by the Provisional Government on April ninth.

In some way my statement appeared in the press the next day in garbled form. Anticipating developments, the newspapers announced that the government was already discussing the note to the Allies.

Some of the members of the government had already decided to bring this question before the entire cabinet.[1*] However, no such discussion by the cabinet as a whole had yet taken place.

For this reason the Minister of Foreign Affairs was quite justified in demanding from the Provisional Government an official denial. On April twenty-seventh the newspapers reported: "The government has not discussed and is not preparing any note on the question of war aims."

This denial provoked a veritable storm. As was foreseen, Miliukoff was compelled to agree immediately to the dispatch of a note to the Allies on the question of war aims. But now this act assumed an exaggerated importance in the eyes of public opinion, being regarded as having been forced by the Soviet and, what was worse, by the Petrograd garrison.


Because of the acute situation, the war aims note to the Allies was edited by the entire cabinet.[2*] We spent the whole night doing this in the office of Minister of War Gutchkoff, who was quite ill. The contents of the note should have satisfied the most violent critics of Miliukoff's "imperialism." However, what developed was a psychological break which cost us very dearly. The lack of confidence in and the hostility to Miliukoff in the Soviet and in the Democratic-Revolutionary circles in general was so great that these elements were no longer able to consider and to grasp the contents of the note. Revolutionary hysteria began.

At a special meeting the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet adopted a resolution of sharp protest against the new "imperialist" declaration of the Provisional Government, and Lenin, who had just arrived from Switzerland, via Germany, hastened to dispatch his lieutenants to the barracks.

On May third the Finnish Guards Regiment appeared in the streets of Petrograd. Fully armed, with red banners and placards denouncing the Provisional Government, particularly Miliukoff and Gutchkoff, the troops marched to the Maryinsky Palace. All over the city appeared armed detachments of workmen and soldiers. The government was at that moment not in the Maryinsky Palace, which was surrounded by the armed mob, but on the Moika, at the office of Gutchkoff. Here appeared General Korniloff, commander of the Petrograd military district, with the request for the government's permission to call out troops for its protection.

Unanimously the government declined any such protection. We were all confident of the wisdom of our course and felt certain that the population would not permit any acts of violence against the government.

And, in truth, on the same day appeared an explanation by the Soviet of Workmen's and Soldiers' Deputies declaring that it had not summoned the troops to demonstrate against the government. Previous to this, immense throngs had appeared in the streets in a great demonstration in honor of the Provisional Government and, particularly, of Miliukoff.

This first mobilization of Bolshevist forces ended rather ludicrously for Lenin, but not without the sacrifice of a number of lives as a result of the shooting in the streets.[3*] The spilling of innocent blood had also a sobering effect on the leaders of the revolutionary democracy. The Soviet chieftains hastened to repudiate the Bolshevist adventure. On agreement between those leaders of the Soviet who were loyal to the government and the latter, the government made public, on May fourth, an explanation of the Foreign Minister's note of May first.


As a matter of fact this explanation explained nothing, for there was nothing to explain. What it did was to emphasize points of importance from the point of view of popular psychology. The government pointed out that its note was sent by unanimous agreement of all the members of the government. In other words, the Soviets and army committees were informed that in this Miliukoff and Kerensky were in complete agreement. None of the ministers wished to repudiate solidarity with Miliukoff as a member of the Provisional Government, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to be transferred, none the less, to some one else who would be able to conduct the nation's foreign policy by methods more elastic. Such was the opinion of the entire Provisional Government, with one or two exceptions. The question of readjustment of portfolios within the government was formally presented by me.

On April fourth I demanded from the government, on threat of leaving the cabinet, the transfer of Miliukoff to the Ministry of Education. At the same time the question was boldly raised of obtaining the immediate entrance into the government of Soviet leaders and leaders of the socialist parties. On May eighth the cabinet crisis became a fact. Rejecting the advice of the most prominent leaders of his own party (V. Nabokoff and M. Vinaver), P. N. Miliukoff refused to accept the portfolio of education and left the government. Simultaneously I sent a communication to the Temporary Committee of the Duma, the Soviet and the Central Committee of the Party of Social-Revolutionaries. In this communication I declared that henceforth the Provisional Government had to include not merely individual and casual representatives of the democracy, but men "chosen formally and directly by the organizations they represent." I also made my continued participation in the government contingent upon the agreement of all Left parties following the inclusion of their representatives in the ministry.

My communication was only the final, formal step in the development of the struggle for a coalition government. From the very beginning of April the government had unanimously decided to obtain, at all costs, the inclusion in the cabinet of representatives of the Soviet and of the socialist democracy. Prince Lvoff announced this categorically at his conference with the executive committee of the Soviet on May fourth.

It was not so easy, however, to bring this to realization. For not only were some of the liberals decidedly opposed to the participation in the "bourgeois" government of representatives of the so-called labor democracy, but this opposition was equally strong on the part of the orthodox Marxists in the Soviet. Shortly before the acute cabinet crisis, F. Dan, one of the most prominent leaders of the Mensheviki, had branded as "calumny" the very suggestion of the Soviet's agreement to participate in the reconstruction of the government.

"The supreme power is the Provisional Government," he had declared, "while the revolutionary democracy, represented by the Soviet, makes its influence on the progress of political life felt by means of uninterrupted organized pressure upon the government, and by control over it."

In fighting for a government coalition, so obviously essential to the interests of the country, those of us who never followed rigid party lines were thus compelled to break through the blockade of theoretical formula; and dead political blue prints piled up against us by the orthodox custodians of party doctrine, both in the socialist as well as in the bourgeois camp. Very soon the crisis grew more acute because of the departure from the government of War Minister Gutchkoff. I will speak of him and of the causes of his resignation later. At this point I will only say that with his departure the first cabinet of the Provisional Government concluded its existence. The romantic period of the Provisional Government came to an end.

On its departure, the first cabinet of the Provisional Government left behind for the nation a political testament which still continues to stir one's mind and heart. In drawing up the balance sheet of its short but extremely difficult and intensive work, the government addressed to the nation the following words of warning which were destined to become a terrible prophecy:

The Provisional Government cannot conceal from the population the difficulties and obstacles it has found in its work. It cannot, also, refrain from mentioning the fact that these difficulties are increasing and are provoking serious alarm for the future.

Called into life by a great popular movement, the Provisional Government regards itself as the agent and custodian of the people's will. As the basis of political administration it has chosen not violence or compulsion but the voluntary subordination of free citizens to the government they have themselves created. It seeks support not in physical but in moral forces.

From the very beginning of its existence the Provisional Government has never violated these principles. It has not been responsible for the shedding of a single drop of the people's blood nor has it sought to erect barriers of force against any current of social thought.

Unfortunately and to the great peril of liberty, the building of new social buttresses for strengthening the country is lagging far behind the process of dissolution called forth by the collapse of the old political order. Under these circumstances, with the refusal of the government to resort to the old, compulsory methods of administration and other artificial means of raising the prestige of authority, the difficulty of the task confronting the Provisional Government becomes insurmountable.

The elemental urge of individual groups and elements of the population, as represented by the politically least intelligent and least organized of these elements, to achieve their desires and obtain satisfaction of their demands by methods of direct action and seizure, threatens to destroy internal unity and discipline, and to create fertile ground for acts of violence stimulating hostility to the new order, and for the cultivation of private interests and ambitions to the detriment of the general interest and of the fulfillment of civic duty.

The Provisional Government considers it its duty to declare frankly and definitely that such a state of affairs makes administration of the country extremely difficult and threatens, in its consequence, to bring the country to internal dissolution and defeat at the front.

There rises before Russia the terrible vision of civil war and anarchy which will destroy liberty. The dark and tragic road so well known to history, the one leading from liberty through civil conflict and anarchy to reaction and restoration of despotism, must not be that of the Russian people.

But Russia did not escape this Road of Crucifixion, for, amidst the horrors of war and the outbursts of civil conflict, the people did not have enough willpower, patience and discipline to stand fast on the brink of the precipice.

There was only one way of salvation—the union and cooperation of all the living, creative forces of the country, regardless of their political and social aspirations!

In May, 1917, we of the Provisional Government succeeded in laying the foundations of such union. After some resistance the Soviet, by a considerable majority (forty-one to nineteen), decided to accept the proposal of the Provisional Government for the participation of the Soviet in the government of the country. The old Soviet formula of conditional confidence, so destructive to the Provisional Government seeking to stand above party, was definitely abandoned.

Very soon the Soviet leaders and the leaders of the Left parties themselves, as members of the government, came under the blows of demagogic Bolshevist propaganda and of the impossible demands of the mobs run amuck. They then realized the entire scope of their responsibility towards the future of Russia. Only on the morning of May eighteenth, with the formation of the new coalition Provisional Government, did it become possible for the government, for the first time since the Revolution, to govern, to demand and to command.




[1*] It was precisely in these difficult April days that the beginning was laid of that compact group within the Provisional Government which continued to exist up to the days of the Korniloff rebellion (in September) and which was termed the "Triumvirate" (Terestchenko-Nekrassoff-Kerensky). In April there were five of us, the others being Prince Lvoff and Konovaloff.—A. K.

[2*] In these days was formed within the cabinet a special committee for preliminary consideration of all domestic and foreign questions relating to the conduct of the War. Those named on the committee were Prince Lvoff, Miliukoff, Terestchenko, Nekrassoff and myself.— A. K.

[3*] In the evening there was shooting beneath the windows of the Ministry of Justice, where I had as guests several members of the French socialist delegation, who had come to Russia to urge the Russian workers to continue the War to a victorious end. Particularly patriotic, frequently with tears in his eyes, was Marcel Cachin, who subsequently became leader of the French Communist party. While in my office he did not seem to relish the too close shots of the revolutionary proletariat.—A. K.


Last updated on: 2.17.2008