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.


AFTER short trips to the Caucasus Front at the very beginning of the War and to the Western Front in 1915, I again saw the army in May, 1917. Having repaired to some extent the ministerial machine and reorganized the administration of the Petrograd military district, I left, on May twentieth, for the Galician Front, where General Brusiloff was in command.

This front had remained in a better state of preservation than any other after the revolutionary explosion, but here, too, one beheld a terrible picture of destruction. It seemed as if the army had forgotten the enemy and turned its face towards the interior of the country, its attention riveted on what was going on there.

There was neither the crack of machine guns nor the exchange of artillery fire. The trenches were deserted. All preparatory work for offensive operations had been abandoned. With their uniforms in ludicrous disorder, thousands of troops were devoting their time to interminable meetings. Most of the officers seemed completely confused. The local Galician population was looking on in surprise and amusement.

But beneath this discouraging picture of destruction there was already being kindled a new will to action. Like General Brusiloff, the officers who had retained their self-possession and ignored the countless blows to their self-respect, continued to toil with immeasurable enthusiasm and self-sacrifice for the creation of new spiritual and human contacts between the commanders and the troops. From morning till night many commanders strove to gain the ear of their soldiers, in an effort to convince them of the necessity of fighting for the preservation of the country and its newly won liberty. The commissars of the War Ministry and the local army committees were working feverishly in the same direction. In general, the Galician army, while not capable of active operations, was rapidly developing the will to action.

I remember the army conference at Kamenetz-Podolsk, General Brusiloff's headquarters. The huge hall was filled with hundreds of soldier delegates, sent from the most remote corners of the front. I beheld weary faces, feverish eyes, extraordinary tension. It was quite clear that before me were people who had experienced a great shock and, having lost the capacity to reason normally, were seeking for some sort of new justification of their continued sojourn in the trenches. In listening to the speeches of the delegates and the representatives of the army committees, of Brusiloff himself, and of the Bolsheviki who were led by the subsequently notorious Krilenko, I felt as if I were putting my hand to the very heart of the army. What the army was experiencing at that time, in the very deepest recesses of its consciousness, was a great, irresistible temptation, too great for human powers to endure.

After three years of the cruelest suffering, the millions of soldiers, exhausted to the last degree by the tortures of war, found themselves confronted suddenly with the questions: "What are we dying for? Must we die?"

To put these questions to a man who must be ready and willing to die at any moment, to put before him anew, and in the midst of war, the question of the meaning of his sacrifice implied the paralysis of his will to action. Man can endure war and remain in the trenches under artillery fire only when he does not reason, when he does not think of the aims or, to be more correct, when he is animated by an unshakable, almost automatic conviction of the inevitability and necessity of sacrifice, for the sake of an already clear and established purpose, no longer subject to discussion. It is too late to think of war aims and to build up an "ideology of war" when you are already being called upon to stop the enemy's bullets.

No army can withstand such a temptation without grievous consequences. Everything else which was destroying the army—persecution of the officers, mutinies, the Bolshevization of various units, the interminable meetings, etc., was only the painful expression of that terrible struggle for life which gripped the soul of every soldier. He suddenly perceived an opportunity to justify morally his human weakness, his well-nigh unconquerable, instinctive desire to run away from those disgusting, horrible trenches. For the army to fight again meant to conquer anew the animal in man, to find anew some sort of unquestionable slogan of war that would make it possible again for everybody to look death in the face calmly and unflinchingly.

For the sake of the nation's life it was necessary to restore the army's will to die.

"Forward to the battle for freedom! I summon you not to a feast but to death!"

These were the words I used before the conference at Kamenetz-Podolsk. These words were also the keynote of all my addresses before the troops in the front line positions.

"We call you to social revolution! We summon you not to die for others but to destroy others, to destroy your class enemies in the rear!"

This counter slogan of Lenin carried with it terrible force, for it justified beforehand the animal fear of death which lurks in the heart of even the bravest. It supplied the mind with arguments in support of everything that was dark, cowardly and selfish in the army.

There is nothing remarkable in the fact that in the end, after months of bitter struggle, the most ignorant of the masses preferred murder and rapine and followed the leaders of the Bolshevist counter-revolution. The remarkable thing was the mighty wave of patriotic self-abnegation which swept the army at the front in the summer of 1917.

Incidentally, the German General Staff sensed at once the change on the Russian Front. Immediately upon my appointment as Minister of War, the transfer of German troops from the Eastern Front to the West was stopped. By the end of May the movement and concentration of the German forces was in the opposite direction.

Accompanied by several officers, General Brusiloff and I made an inspection of the army by automobile. Our problem was the examination of those forces which in about a month were to take the offensive. In two or three days we covered scores of positions.

The mode of inspection was always the same: We walked down the line, swinging around into the heart of the ranks to an improvised platform. On our mounting the platform, came the word of command and from all sides thousands of troops would rush towards us, surrounding the platform in a huge circle. The commanders spoke first, followed by committee delegates. Then I came, and then the discontented, hesitating mass of armed human beings in gray, confused in mind and weary in body and spirit, would become animated by a kind of new life. Their souls would become aglow with enthusiasm which at times reached the peaks of mad ecstasy. It was not always easy to escape from this raging sea of human beings to our automobile and speed away to the next inspection.

Of course, the new mood would not last long. But something of it remained. And wherever there were capable men among the commanders, commissars and army committees, strong centers of new discipline and a revived military psychology were created.

The majority of the troops were divided into two categories. On one side were men strong of will and eager for heroic action. From these were formed voluntary units calling themselves "Battalions of Death," "Detachments of Exemplary Sacrifice," etc. On the other side were whole units who were dominated by Bolshevist agitators. However, they gave us real trouble only when led by officers of the character of the notorious Dzevaltovsky, who managed, on one occasion, to bring under his unbridled influence the entire Grenadier Regiment of the Guards. Such dangerously infected units were to be found all along the front, and my commissars were compelled to wage real war against them, resorting even to artillery bombardment.

The officers at the front were divided into three groups. The majority were well-intentioned but confused and unable to lead; the minority were men who grasped the new situation and managed to find a way of approaching the heart and mind of the soldier; and, finally, there was a group hostile to the Revolution as a whole, gloating over its failures and sabotaging its successes. Among this group in particular were to be found, more frequently than anywhere else, men who, foreseeing future developments, quite cynically adjusted themselves to the new committee regulations, without regard to their calling as officers and their self-respect.

On the eve of my departure from the Galician Front for Odessa and Sebastopol, I was returning with General Brusiloff from a tour of inspection. We were in an open automobile, in a heavy downpour, drenched and weary. General Brusiloff was not a politician, but "by the grace of God" a leader of great courage and will-power. He was not given to much conversation, but he understood well the character of the soldier and sensed quickly every change in the spirit of the army. Under the unceasing beating of the rain, we discussed long and intimately that which at that time was stirring and torturing the army and all Russians.

Of course, like every strong man, Brusiloff was rather vain. I suppose that, to some extent, he was trying to impress me by playing up to my own views, as he described clearly and vividly the general situation at the front, his plans and the characteristics of the military commanders. But Brusiloff loved Russia too much to misrepresent fundamentals. And the fundamentals, as he saw them, coincided not only with my own sentiments, but with those of all who were struggling desperately to bring the Russian army back to life and action. It was not enough to talk, to analyze and engage in criticism (as General Alexeyeff, then commander-in-chief, was doing). It was necessary to create, to act and to take risks.

Here, in the automobile, on the road from the front to Tarnopol, we definitely decided upon the offensive. I also made up my mind that with the beginning of the offensive General Brusiloff would no longer be on the Galician Front, but at General Headquarters at Mohileff. As commander-in-chief, I did not mention the matter to Brusiloff, as it was necessary first to obtain the consent of the Provisional Government to the removal of General Alexeyeff.

From the Southwestern Front I went to Odessa, and thence to Sebastopol, to adjust differences between the crews of the Black Sea Fleet and Admiral Kolchak, the commander.


Admiral Kolchak was a brilliant sailor, the darling of the officers, and loved by his men. At the beginning of the Revolution he quickly oriented himself in the new environment and saved the Black Sea Fleet from the horrors experienced by the Baltic Fleet. Of course, in Sebastopol, as everywhere else, committees were formed. There was the Central Committee of the Black Sea Fleet, backed by a network of committees on the various vessels and among the commands on shore. But these committees consisted of both officers and men. Admiral Kolchak's own relations with the Central Committee were excellent.

The sentiments prevailing in the Black Sea Fleet can be gleaned from the fact that as late as at the end of May, when I came to Sebastopol, there were many, not only among the officers but also among the men, who were eager for a landing operation on the Bosporus. The commands of the Black Sea Fleet remained an impregnable fortress against the propaganda of German and Bolshevist agents. It was from the shores of the Black Sea that the first calls to duty and discipline were sent to the army. And from the Black Sea Fleet came whole delegations to the front for propaganda of defense and in support of the offensive. In view of this attitude of the respective commands, any disagreement between Kolchak and the committees seemed impossible. Nevertheless, quite unexpectedly, a conflict developed.

I cannot recall now the issue in question. I believe it concerned some interference, on the part of the Central Committee, in the admiral's administrative duties. Moreover, the exact issue is not important. The important thing was the actual cause. Accustomed to general admiration and to absolute authority, the admiral could not reconcile himself to the realization that now he had a competitor—the Central Committee. The disagreement was not so much political as psychological.

With all his great energy, Admiral Kolchak was somewhat effeminate, capricious and slightly hysterical. En route in a destroyer from Odessa to Sebastopol, closeted in a small cabin, we had a long conversation. All the reasons he brought forth in support of his opinion that there was nothing for him to do but to resign did not bear criticism. All his complaints were trifles compared with the difficulties being experienced by the commanders at the front and in the Baltic Fleet. One by one I combated his conclusions. And only at the very end of the conversation did he give vent to a cry that came from the depths of a broken heart:

"To them [i.e., to the sailors] the Central Committee means more than I do, and I no longer wish to have anything to do with them. I do not love them any more."

The stern eyes of the admiral filled with tears.

On my arrival at Sebastopol I became convinced that the leaders of the Central Committee, officers and men alike, were far removed from any thought of Kolchak's departure. "He must only realize," the committee members told me, "that for the present we are absolutely necessary to him and that it is quite impossible to dissolve the committee. Such action would mean the beginning of disorganization of the commands, an unexpected victory for the Bolsheviki."

This time my mission was successful. Admiral Kolchak made peace with the Central Committee and it seemed that everything remained as it was. But it only seemed so. A breach remained, and in exactly one month it widened into a gulf which forever parted Admiral Kolchak from his beloved fleet. A crisis began to develop in the soul of the brilliant sailor from which he emerged on land as the downright reactionary "dictator" of Siberia.

I have described this Kolchak episode in detail, in order to make it clear how even the best of the commanders were unable to reconcile themselves to the unavoidable difficulties of the transitional revolutionary period. Speaking in general, we may say that if the enlightened, cultured upper elements of Russia had shown greater patience at the beginning of the Revolution, the Bolsheviki would have perhaps found it more difficult to destroy Russia. After all the experiences of the Bolshevist terror for the past ten years, the "excesses" of the Revolution, which provoked such a storm of anger and resentment among many political and military leaders of Russia in the summer of 1917, appear now as mere trifles.


From Sebastopol I went to Kiev, where a sharp collision with the Ukrainian separatists was brewing. From Kiev I proceeded to General Headquarters at Mohileff, where my conversations with General Alexeyeff convinced me finally of the necessity of a change in the post of commander-in-chief. From Mohileff I returned to Petrograd for one day, where I put through Brusiloff's appointment, and departed immediately for the Northern Front.

Here, in the region of the eleventh army, occupying a position in the direction of Mitau, occurred an incident which illustrates vividly the subconscious processes at the front.

The commander of the eleventh army was the Bulgarian, General Radko-Dmitrieff, hero of the Balkan War of 1912-13, who had joined the Russian service. He was a grizzled warrior, who loved the soldier and knew how to handle him. Nevertheless, after the Revolution, he felt the sudden rise of a wall between himself and his troops. And frequently, to his surprise, his jocular words of encouragement to the soldiers provoked only irritation instead of the previous merriment and laughter.

"Right in this neighborhood, not very far from here," said the general to me as we were returning from the front line trenches, "in a certain regiment, there is an agitator. We cannot handle him,. He is demoralizing the whole regiment with his discussions about the land. Won't you please tackle him?"

We entered a dugout unobservable from the enemy positions and called a number of troops from the trenches.

Weary, growling faces surrounded us in a ring. We began to converse. Standing aloof, the little soldier who had won the ear of the regiment, made no effort to reply. His comrades thereupon pushed him forward. Voices:

"Well, what's the matter? Here is your chance to speak in the presence of the minister himself."

Finally the little soldier spoke up:

"What I want to say is this: You say we must fight, so that the peasants may have the land, but of what use is the land to me, for instance, if I am killed?"

I realized immediately that all discussion and logic were of no use in this case. What confronted me here was the dark inside of a human being. The case was one in which personal interest, in its most naked form, was being preferred to sacrifice for the common good. The desirability and wisdom of such sacrifice does not lend itself to proof by word or reason. It can only be felt. The situation was rather difficult. To leave the little soldier without a reply was unthinkable. Where the logic of reason seemed powerless it was necessary to resort to the logic of emotion.

Silently I took a few steps forward in the direction of the little soldier. Turning to Radko-Dmitrieff I said:

"General, I order you to remove this soldier immediately. Pack him off at once to his village. Let his fellow villagers know that the Russian Revolution has no need of cowards."

My surprising reply created a moving impression on all those present. The little soldier himself stood trembling, dumb and pale. And then he fell into a deep faint. Soon after I received a request from his officers to countermand the order for his removal. A profound change had come upon him. He was now an example of service to others.

From the eleventh army I proceeded to the region of the seventh army, where General Yurii Daniloff was in command, who for the first eighteen months of the War had been quartermaster general to the Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholayevitch, then commander-in-chief.

This general had not only strategic talent but considerable political acumen. He was one of the first and few among the high commanders to grasp the new soldier psychology at the front and managed to cooperate in constructive manner with the sound and patriotic majority of its army committee.

At that time General Daniloff found the front committees of great value, for in the neighboring fifth army there had arisen, early in the summer, a considerably strong Bolshevist propaganda organization. Particularly active in the destructive work of this organization, by means of promoting fraternization and the sowing of hostility against officers, was a certain hitherto unknown regimental surgeon, Skliansky.

At a big meeting in Dvinsk, of representatives of all the committees of the fifth army, and in the presence of the commander and his staff, I was called upon to speak. It was expected by all, from the commander to the privates, that "comrade" Skliansky, who had been so actively engaged in haranguing the committee and soldiers, would take this opportunity of fighting a verbal duel with the Minister of War.

The meeting proceeded. First the commander spoke, then the leaders of the army committee, followed by delegates from the trenches. But Skliansky kept silent. He not only showed no desire to expose the "imperialist" and "reactionary" efforts of the Provisional Government but stubbornly sought to keep as far as possible from the center. The incident appeared very much like a repetition of my experience with the little soldier in the eleventh army.

And, sure enough, the incomprehensible and inexplicable silence of the doctor finally angered the soldiers, particularly those from the trenches, who had been most subjected to the temptations of Bolshevist demagogy. I observed some kind of a movement around Skliansky.

Soon we noticed that a quiet but rather energetic exchange of remarks was in progress between him and his neighbors. Apparently the doctor was being called upon to do something which he refused to do.

At last it became clear what the scene was about. The soldiers were trying to force Skliansky to speak. Gradually they pushed him forward toward the commanders.

"Oh, no," we heard, "you will be kind enough to speak here. If what you've been telling us is the truth there is no need of fear. We'll hear now what you have to say."

"Comrade" Skliansky stood sheepishly confused amid peals of laughter. Finally, the hesitating leader of a world revolution from the fifth army was pushed on to the platform.

He was compelled to speak. What he said was the usual Bolshevist nonsense, but there was no emotion, no fire, no conviction in his words.

The end of the episode was very sad for "comrade" Skliansky and his lieutenants. His duel with the War Minister became known throughout the army, and in a light rather ridiculous so far as the Bolsheviki were concerned. Subsequently, the brave revolutionist Skliansky became assistant to the Commissar of War, Leon Trotsky.

After my tour of the front and two inspiring days in Moscow I returned on June fourteenth to Petrograd. It was necessary to finish some important government business and to return by the end of June to the Galician Front, for the offensive.



Last updated on: 2.17.2008