A. F. Kerensky

The Catastrophe


Source: The Catastrophe
Published: 1927
Transcriber: Jonas Holmgren
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ALEXANDER GUTCHKOFF was one of the most colorful and interesting political figures of pre-revolutionary Russia. A prominent social and commercial leader of Moscow, a typical representative of the Moscow merchant world, Gutchkoff was to a large extent a self-made man. His career was most original. In the Boer War he dropped his business and went to fight on the side of the Boers. In the Russo-Japanese War he covered Manchuria as a representative of the Red Cross and there had opportunity to observe the defects of the old Russian bureaucratic military machine. A participant in the moderate liberation movement, the height of the revolutionary disturbances of 1905 found him on the right flank of the zemstvo and municipal reform organizations. Breaking with the liberals of the type of Miliukoff, he became the leader of the conservative Octobrist party (the first constitutional manifesto of Nicholas II was issued October 17, 1905).

This party became the constitutional support of the Stolypin government after the dissolution of the first Duma, in the summer of 1906, and the suppression of the popular anti-government movement. Gutchkoff himself assumed the role of intimate friend and adviser of the all-powerful premier.

In the ultra-conservative third Duma he was elected president, and as such had opportunity to study closely not only the bureaucratic apparatus of the Russian empire, but the Czar himself and his entourage. Independent and courageous, possessed of great political intuition, Gutchkoff entered upon a sharp struggle with the "dark forces" surrounding the throne, directed at first against the irresponsible influence of the Grand Dukes, then against the all-powerful Rasputin.

Gutchkoff concentrated his energy mainly on questions of a military nature. Soon there formed around him a circle of capable young officers of the General Staff. This provoked suspicion and bitter hostility at the Court. The military figures close to Gutchkoff were nicknamed by the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna the "Young Turks." These "Young Turks" (including the generals Gurko and Polivanoff), together with several members of the Duma, accomplished a great deal for the reorganization of the Russian army and the improvement of the national defense.

But in time Gutchkoff and his friends became convinced that further serious work in the interest of the nation, particularly for the national defense, was well-nigh impossible under the existing regime.

The appointment of the utterly incapable Sukhomlinoff to the post of war minister, the constantly growing influence of the semi-illiterate peasant, Rasputin, in the handling of the most fundamental problems of the state, killed all hope in Gutchkoff for a peaceful, evolutionary solution of the constantly growing crisis of absolutism.

Nevertheless Gutchkoff did not desire to see the rise of an elemental revolutionary mass movement. Openly proclaiming his uncompromising hostility to the existing regime, the Octobrist leader stood aloof, however, from the country's growing revolutionary tendencies. He disapproved of them. In his opinion revolutionary chaos could be averted only by a struggle for political power on the part of the moderate and conservatively liberal middle classes of Russian society. Already before the War, in 1913, in the period of the fourth Duma, he summoned his party to this struggle. At the beginning of the War Gutchkoff appeared in East Prussia as a representative of the Red Cross. There he witnessed the first catastrophe of the Russian army and saw the destruction, near Soldan, of General Samsonoff's entire army and the crushing of the finest Guard Regiments, due to the criminal inefficiency and negligence of General Rennenkampf.

When he delivered his parting address, as minister of war in the Provisional Government, before the conference of delegates from the front, in the Tauride Palace, on April twelfth, Gutchkoff said:

"Already, in the autumn of 1914, I returned from the front a revolutionist."

Testifying before the Extraordinary Inquiry Commission of the Provisional Government, on August 15, 1917, Gutchkoff declared:

"When in the months preceding the Revolution some of my friends and I sought a way out of the situation, we believed that it was impossible under the existing circumstances to bring about, in any normal way, a change in the government and its reconstruction by the enlistment of public men commanding the confidence of the country, and that it was necessary to make a sharp turn in the direction of the removal of him who wielded supreme power. Too much guilt had accumulated on the shoulders of the Emperor, the Empress and those inextricably bound to them. Their characters gave no hope of the possibility of moving them to a wholesome political change. All this made it clear to me that the Emperor must vacate his throne."

In the winter of 1916-17 Gutchkoff was not merely thinking of revolt but was actively engaged in preparing it in cooperation with M. I. Terestchenko, a noted millionaire and philanthropist and the future minister of foreign affairs in the Provisional Government. Together with General Krimoff, organizer of the subsequent Korniloff rebellion, he promoted plans for a coup d'état, sensing the advance of a catastrophe. The execution of the plans was delayed, and instead of a change of the reigning monarchs, the entire dynasty was swept away by the uprising of the people.

It was naturally impossible after that for Gutchkoff and his friends to remain aloof from the Revolution.

With this moment began Gutchkoff's personal tragedy which, however, exemplified with particular clarity the tragedy experienced by all the people of his circle and his class in the Revolution.

They had expected a political upheaval which, by changing the system of government, was to transfer all political power into the hands of the centrist, the moderate-conservative and liberal elements of Russian society, which up until March 12, 1917, dominated the whole political life of the country, in the Duma, in the zemstvos, in the cities and in the press. Instead, Russia went through a social earthquake, which shook and shattered all the strata of the social order. Not only the conservative part but the whole of liberal Russia suddenly appeared as a mere fragmentary remnant of the destroyed monarchy. A new force, the democracy, and not so much the political, as the social and labor democracy, came into power, although it was not yet able to take this power into its hands.

In the chaos of the new political tendencies and aspirations, which were only beginning to take form, Gutchkoff found himself alone, a stranger to all. He himself did not think of his past, but many others did, for in the broad, popular historical consciousness Gutchkoff was remembered mostly as the instigator of the cruel Stolypin reaction which followed upon the dissolution of the first Duma.

Before the Revolution the object of an uncompromising hatred on the part of the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Rasputin and Vyroubova, Gutchkoff after the Revolution immediately fell under the suspicion of the representatives of the Soviet democracy and their adherents. Yet the basic problem of the state after the Revolution consisted in the quickest possible restoration of authority in the land. An old, traditional government can continue, for a long time, to govern the state by mere mechanical force and inertia of the administrative apparatus. But here, too, a psychological break with the population, the absence of confidence in the government and in the genuineness of its intentions, in the long run bring about the end experienced by France in 1789, by Russia in 1917 and by Germany in 1918. But a government born of revolution or of a coup d'état—it makes no difference which—and not possessing as yet any apparatus of compulsion, exists in reality only in so far as it finds a living contact with the country, only in so far as it is trusted by the people themselves and its orders and instructions are accepted by the millions not because of the conviction of force but by the force of conviction.

The austere, retiring, strange and uncouth Gutchkoff was least of all capable of convincing the multitude. He was not believed, and he realized this painfully.

Between Gutchkoff, as war minister, and the army there developed at once an unhealthy and abnormal relationship. It had been the belief that Gutchkoff, being close to high army circles (at any rate to many of the more talented officers of the General Staff), would administer the army well. It soon became clear, however, that what was necessary was not the usual kind of administration on the basis of the accepted principles of command and obedience, but first and foremost the restoration of the lost authority of the officers. It was necessary to place between subordinates and commanders, between the soldier and the officer, some kind of a third, connecting force. To do this it was essential first to gain the confidence of the troops. How was this to be done? As Gutchkoff saw it, it was to be done by deeds, by showing that the first war minister of the Revolution stood for a new order in the army.


All the so-called reforms in the army, after the Revolution, were carried out during Gutchkoff's incumbency of the War Ministry, in cooperation with a special commission which included representatives of the Soviet and army committees, and was headed by General Polivanoff, who had been for a time minister of war during the War and the assistant war minister under the third Duma.

Polivanoff, as I have already indicated, was a member of Gutchkoff's circle. For that reason he had been regarded at Court with unconcealed hostility. A man of unquestionable ability and a brilliant administrator, Polivanoff, after sensing the prevailing revolutionary sentiments, joined Gutchkoff in the struggle for the restoration of the discipline and fighting capacity of the army, but with methods extremely dangerous. He set out to gain the confidence of the troops in the new War Minister by the maximum of possible and, sometimes, impossible concessions to demands presented not so much by committees from the front, as by the Petrograd Soviet. In these concessions Polivanoff went further than the War Minister.

In reality, all the reforms promoted by Gutchkoff and Polivanoff constituted merely the affirmation of what was already the existing order in the army after the Revolution. Naturally, the registration of all the revolutionary "conquests" in the army, as reflected in the work of Polivanoff's commission and the revolutionary orders of the War Minister, did not raise by a single iota the authority in the army of the representatives of the new government.

I repeat: the crux of the situation lay not in reforms but in the want of confidence in the new government. In the absence of the moral authority necessary to force a change in the sentiments of the masses there remained only the solution of drifting along with the current, in the hope that somehow, by means of some miracle, a "strong" man would appear, who, at one or two blows, supporting himself upon two or three old, solid traditions of his regiments, would disperse this whole "revolutionary canaille."

But the "strong" man was not in sight. General Korniloff, appointed the first commander of the Petrograd military district, was unable to handle the garrison, and early in May he returned to the front. Meanwhile the policy of adjustment even to the most moderate demands of the rank and file of the army, which had lost all equilibrium, was destroying the authority of Gutchkoff and Polivanoff in those circles where they could possibly have had it—the high command of the army.


After two months of tragic misunderstanding Gutchkoff and his military assistants found themselves in an impasse. There were no more moves left for them. The final fruit of Polivanoff's creation—"the Declaration of the Rights of Soldiers"—already actually in force, was rejected by Gutchkoff, who refused to sign it. As a matter of fact the declaration was an artificial attempt to steer the sentiments of the army in the only way Gutchkoff could follow.

On his own initiative, without informing the Provisional Government, the Minister of War called a conference of all the army commanders, headed by General Alexeyeff, as commander-in-chief. The conference, which was to meet on or about May fifteenth, was to express its confidence in the War Minister who was about to resign, in a form closely resembling an ultimatum.

On May twelfth, exactly two months after the official beginning of the Revolution, Gutchkoff submitted his resignation in a letter to Prince Lvoff, the Premier. The letter produced a very painful impression on the public. Its main point was that the Minister of War could no longer carry the responsibility for the further destruction of the country. On the same day, in his final address as war minister, before the first conference of delegates from the front, Gutchkoff drew a shocking picture of the past and present of the Russian army, expressing his despair frankly and courageously. It would be sheer madness, he declared, to follow any longer the road taken by the Russian Revolution in the first two months. Speaking of the reforms in the army, the departing minister admitted openly: "We have now reached the fatal point beyond which lies not the rehabilitation of the army but its destruction."

I must say that despite the difference in our political past and our position in the Revolution I did not want Gutchkoff's departure, for I valued in him his great political intuition and the ability to approach the solution of political problems in a manner free from all dogmatic and partisan considerations. Only such men were then needed in Russia. The psychological change which had begun to mature in the soul of the revolutionary democracy after the experience on the Stokhod, gave me firm confidence that together with the healthy development of a national consciousness in the masses would come also the strenthening of confidence in the War Minister.

Accidentally, on May twelfth, as I was on my way to a meeting of the conference of delegates from the front, at which Gutchkoff was to speak, my automobile overtook that of Gutchkoff and I decided to make an effort to persuade Gutchkoff not to leave the Provisional Government. I changed into his machine and began to plead with him. But my pleading was in vain.

Nothing came of the second part of Gutchkoff's strategic maneuver. He resigned, but the conference of army commanders, which met in Petrograd, May sixteenth to seventeenth, refused to support Gutchkoff in his complaints against the Provisional Government. This first effort to bring the "strong will" of the fighting generals to bear upon the "lack of will-power" of the revolutionary government failed.


However, this effort did not end favorably for me. I was compelled to assume the war portfolio, with the difficult legacy left behind by Polivanoff and Gutchkoff. I realize now that it was perhaps the premonition of this, my greatest trial, which prompted me in my effort to prevail upon Gutchkoff not to leave the Provisional Government. Of course, if there had been a single man among the commanders at the front possessing the unqualified confidence of the rank and file, the question of finding a successor to Gutchkoff would have been easily settled. But the modern war of anonymous communiqués had not produced such a hero. General Headquarters, headed by General Alexeyeff, as well as the entire commanding corps, demanded the appointment of a civilian as war minister.

Does not this demand of the generals illustrate better than anything else the abnormality of the position occupied at that time by the army commanders at the front and the fact that they themselves understood it? What was required then was a buffer between the commanding corps and the rank and file. It became my fate to be the buffer, with all the inevitable consequences confronting any one who puts his head between the hammer and the anvil.

But there was no time to do much thinking then. Moreover, all considerations were quickly ended. In reply to the question of Prince Lvoff as to whom, among the civilians available, the high command would recommend for the War Ministry, General Alexeyeff replied: "The first candidate of the high command is Kerensky."

The task placed upon me as War Minister by the Provisional Government was in brief this: restoration by all means at hand of the fighting capacity of the army. To accomplish this I was to move the army to an offensive, sparing no efforts.

Of course my task would have been quite impossible if at that time, in the middle of May, there had not appeared in the masses the marked evidences of the deep psychological change produced by the Stokhod experience. The resolutions of various Soviets, army committees and the declarations of delegations arriving in Petrograd from the front, all spoke of but one thing: the imperative need of restoring the fighting capacity of the army and the productive capacity of the workers, as essential prerequisites to the defense of the country.

To be sure, these healthy political and national tendencies did not affect all the active forces of the nation. The propaganda of the Bolsheviki and the work of German agents—which frequently meant one and the same thing—the war weariness and, above all, the prolongation of the War, which we could not stop, continued to batter and to shatter the country. A feeling of despair frequently gripped every one of us. Immediately preceding my appointment as minister of war, on the very day of Gutchkoff's resignation, I declared before the same conference of army delegates at which Gutchkoff delivered his swan song:

"Is it really possible that Free Russia is only a country of mutinous slaves? I grieve that I did not die two months ago, in the first hour of the Revolution. For then I would have departed in the belief that a new life had at last come upon Russia, that we had learned to govern our country without the knout and the club, in mutual respect, and not as we used to be governed."

But from such emotion of despair grew and matured, parallel with the forces of dissolution, new social bonds. New creative possibilities were born, summoning all to work and effort. Then possibilities gave us faith in the triumph of reason over the dark madness of some and the deliberate treason of others.

On assuming my duties at the War Ministry, I first of all issued an order to the sulking members of the commanding corps forbidding the resignation of any officers of the army in the field. This measure nipped in the bud the intention of certain high commanders to resign by way of protest against the official publication of the "Declaration of the Rights of Soldiers." I believed that discipline was to be demanded first from people who by virtue of their position should have served as models of the performance of duty. Moreover, it was quite impossible to stop publication of the notorious declaration, first, because it had already long been published by the Izvestia of the Petrograd Soviet, and second, because Polivanoff and Gutchkoff had made the official and categorical promise to the Soviet and army committees that the declaration would be put into effect, stating that the delay in doing so was due entirely to causes of a technical nature.

After putting a stop to the sulking attitude of the generals, I immediately published the "Declaration of the Rights of Soldiers." But, under my revision of it, the declaration received an interpretation which prompted Lenin, in the Pravda, to term it the "Declaration of the Lack of Rights of Soldiers" and to begin a mad campaign against the new war minister. The fourteenth point of the declaration, excluded originally by General Polivanoff, on the demand of the Soviet, but restored by me, declared:

"At times of action the commander has the right to apply any measures, including the use of armed force, against subordinates who fail to obey his orders."

This point was the first move towards restoration of the power and authority of commanders. But even the most courageous officers did not for a long time venture to use this power. In addition to this fundamental change, the eighteenth point of the revised declaration placed the right of appointment and removal exclusively in the hands of commanders, and omitted the clause of the Polivanoff original which vested the army committees with the right of recommendation and rejection of appointees. Thus I did away with the right of subordinates to participate in the appointment of their superiors.

Finally, in the very first days of my duties as War Minister, an end was put to the "dual authority" prevailing in the administration of the Petrograd garrison.

During the two months of General Korniloff's service as commander of the Petrograd military district, the Military Commission of the Duma and the soldiers' section of the Soviet exercised jointly the right of control over the Petrograd garrison. All the efforts made by Gutchkoff and Korniloff to put a stop to this truly inadmissible interference of public bodies in the activities of the district military staff resulted in failure. On the contrary, the meddling of the Soviet in the business of the commander grew hand in hand with the growing lack of confidence in the War Minister. General Korniloff made all sorts of concessions to the Soviet. On one occasion he announced in the press that he "does not undertake a serious move in the matter of the inner administration of the garrison without previous agreement with the Soviet of Workmen's and Soldiers' Deputies, through the instrumentality of its executive organ." He agreed also to the establishment of a kind of controlling agency by the Soviet, which was attached to the staff. But all this led to nothing. On May twelfth, the day of Gutchkoff's resignation, the Soviet, through the representatives of its executive committee, laid claim to the function of countersigning all orders of the district commander concerning the movement and transfer of troops.

This was the demand that broke General Korniloff's patience. He resigned.

My desire to free the staff of the Petrograd military district from interference by the Soviet was soon carried out.

From the very beginning of the Revolution, the Duma, followed by the Soviet, began dispatching its representatives to the front, where their function was to explain events in Petrograd and help promote contact between the army and the forces of the Revolution. The Duma representatives had little success among the soldiers at the front and they soon ceased their activities. But the Soviet representatives became, to all intents and purposes, Soviet commissars in the army.

This decline of the authority of the Duma's representatives at the front, simultaneously with the rise of the authority of the Soviet's representatives, together with the experience suffered by Colonel Engelhardt, who saw the various regulations and orders promulgated by him paralleled by similar measures by the Soviet, shows that all organizations born of the Revolution resorted to the same measures and that the result was different only because the influence wielded by organizations of the Duma fell, in the course of the revolutionary developments, to zero, while that of the Soviet rose to the boiling point.

The preservation at the front of the institution of Soviet commissars was likewise intolerable, for under the relations which had developed between the rank and file and the officers, the commissars, in the summer of 1917, had to carry altogether too great a responsibility. For that reason these commissars had to be made responsible, while at the front, directly to the government. This became a fact with my assumption of the war portfolio.

Finally, in the very first days of my work as Minister of War I stopped the stream of revolutionary reforms emanating from General Polivanoff's commission by the simple device of abolishing it.

My further work in the Ministry of War and Marine consisted in the gradual liquidation of the "revolutionary" measures of General Polivanoff. Beginning with the middle of May, the army began to return gradually to a normal military order.

At first glance my "conservatism," coming upon the "radicalism" of Gutchkoff, may appear paradoxical. As a representative of the Left, the normal procedure would have been for me to pursue a radical policy. But what may appear abnormal under normal conditions, becomes in the abnormal revolutionary situation but a normal development of events. My entrance into the War Ministry marked the end of the period of destruction and the beginning of the period of construction, not only in the army, but in the country as a whole.

All my initial measures were undertaken merely with the object of clearing the field for my basic activity, the bringing about of a sharp change in the attitude and sentiment of the army. This required my presence? at the front and not in Petrograd. From the first day of my appointment as Minister of War and up to my assumption of the premiership, after the first Bolshevist uprising, July sixteenth to twentieth, I spent the greater part of my time on various parts of the front, taking no part, on my brief returns to Petrograd, in the work of the Provisional Government so far as internal matters were concerned.

It is now the fashion not only in conservative, but also in Bolshevist circles, to refer to me ironically as the "persuader-in-chief."

I do not see anything opprobrious, ridiculous or insulting in this term. For, if I was compelled for weeks at a time to devote myself to the inspection of army after army, corps after corps and division after division, if in addition to the regular work of a war minister at the front I was obliged to waste time in conversations with soldiers and in addresses before thousands of troops, I did so not on my own volition, but on the insistent and, at times, tearful demands of the high commanders.

I remember particularly one incident on the Galician Front, in the region of the eleventh army, involving a certain Guard division. This division was beyond all hope of redemption. What it required was not persuasion but the application of armed force. After inspecting a neighboring division and addressing the troops, I flatly declined to visit the division in question, realizing that it would be a waste of time to enter into discussions with its Bolshevist agitators. The old, gray-haired general, commander of the division, who had come to invite me to visit his command, lost all self-control, grew pale and began to tremble.

"Mr. Minister," he pleaded, "if you do not come they will say it is my fault. There will be no living for me then. In God's name do come to us."

What was there left for me to do, considering my "weakness" and "lack of will-power"? Naturally, I visited the hopelessly infected division and, in the interests of the safety of the commanders, addressed the troops, quite conscious of the uselessness of my effort in this case. Several days later the commissar of the war minister attached to the division, was obliged to use force in dissolving it, as should have been done from the very beginning.

No doubt the position of the commanders at the front was quite intolerable—to command troops after having lost the capacity to command; to prepare the soldier mass for action at a time when all such preparation was regarded by the soldiers almost as "treason to the new order" and as "counter-revolution"; to be compelled to tolerate the stream of poisonous Bolshevist slander; to feel the suspicion of the representatives of the Soviet democracy—all this was sufficient to undermine the equilibrium of and infuriate any man. Add to this the fact that in the spring of 1917 the Russian officer corps was already undermined and crippled by three years of bitter, unsuccessful fighting and you have some conception of the situation.

The Revolution turned its back on the regular officers. This was perhaps historically inevitable but extremely tragic for those who were compelled to experience it. And it undoubtedly had a fatal effect on the development of the events of the Revolution. The overwhelming majority of Russia's officers took no part in preparing the Revolution. The revolutionary tempest surprised them to a greater extent than was the case with those civilians who were at least in some measure able to sense the political and social sentiments of the country. But, as I have already said, psychologically the officers were prepared for a break with the dynasty. For this reason, although they did not greet the new situation gladly, they accepted it, at any rate, without resistance. Soon after, however, every officer went through what was really a repetition of the spiritual tragedy of Gutchkoff and his immediate assistants. There was, however, one difference, namely—the attitude of distrust on the part of the troops in the trenches towards their officers did not express itself in the resolutions and declarations, but very frequently in direct, brutal and humiliating action.

Losing heart, as General Brusiloff was wont to say, suddenly perceiving in the soldier a strange and even hostile creature, the officers sought the aid of the civilian rear, hoping there to find a new road to the soldier's soul.

More than once did I receive from various commanding generals urgent telegrams requesting the dispatch of a commissar to his troops, indicating at the same time a preference for former "political offenders," who could not possibly be suspected of "counterrevolutionary schemes," even when demanding the restoration of discipline and exorting the troops to action.



Last updated on: 2.17.2008