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.


WE no longer find to-day the unanimity of opinion concerning our offensive of July, 1917, that prevailed then both in Russia and among the Allies. Due apparently to a misconception, some even consider that offensive as the last blow that killed the Russian army. Others believe that the operation was determined not by the interests of Russian but was "dictated" to us by our Allies. A third group is inclined to see in it a particular manifestation of "light-headedness" and irresponsibility on the part of the government in having permitted itself to be carried away by love of rhetoric.

The last opinion deserves no reply. The fact is that the resumption of active operations by the Russian army after two months of paralysis was dictated absolutely by the inner development of events in Russia. To be sure, the representatives of the Allies insisted on the execution by Russia, at least in part, of the strategic plan adopted at the Inter-Allied conference in Petrograd, in February, 1917. But the insistence of the Allies would have been of no avail if the necessity for the offensive had not been dictated by our own political considerations. The insistence of the Allies (France and England) played no part, if only because they no longer considered themselves bound by any obligations to Russia after the Revolution. As I have already said, the German General Staff having stopped, according to plan, all active operations on the Russian Front, there ensued a condition of virtual armistice. It was the plan of the German High Command that this armistice be followed by a separate peace and the exit of Russia from the War. Berlin's efforts to come to a direct agreement with Russia were begun as early as April. Of course, these efforts failed to make any impression on the Provisional Government and the whole Russian democracy, which were determined on peace as quickly as possible, but a general, not a separate peace. Von Bethmann-Hollweg, or, rather, Ludendorff, did not, however, lose hope of achieving Germany's purpose. They directed their attention upon the Soviet circles.

About the middle of June there appeared in Petrograd, among other foreign socialists who were paying frequent visits to Russia, one of the leaders of the Swiss Social-Democratic party. His name was Grimm. Despite his definite anti-Allied attitude, the Provisional Government permitted him to enter Russia on guaranties given by certain leaders of the Soviet who maintained a strong attitude in favor of continuing Russia's defense. However, on his arrival in Petrograd, Grimm immediately launched a propaganda along pro-German lines. Soon after we intercepted a letter addressed to Grimm by Hoffman, of the Swiss Federal Council, which, by way of instruction to Grimm, declared:

"Germany will undertake no offensive on the Eastern Front as long as there remains a possibility of agreement with Russia."

Thus it was not possible to rely upon a new blow from Germany that would definitely bring the Russian democracy, dreaming of peace, to the realization of the bitter facts of the situation. It was necessary to make a choice—to accept the consequences of the virtual demobilization of the Russian army and capitulate to Germany, or to assume the initiative in military operations. Having rejected the idea of a separate peace, which is always a misfortune for the country concluding it, the return to new action became unavoidable. For no army can remain in indefinite idleness. An army may not always be in a position to fight, but the expectancy, at all times, of impending action constitutes the fundamental condition of its existence. To say to an army in the midst of war that under no circumstances would it be compelled to fight is tantamount to transforming the troops into a meaningless mob, useless, restless, irritable and, therefore, capable of all sorts of excesses. For this reason and to preserve the interior of the country from the grave wave of anarchy threatening from the front it was incumbent upon us, before embarking upon the main problem of army reorganization and systemtaic reduction and readjustment of its regular formations, to make of it once more an army, i.e., to bring it back to the psychology of action, or of impending action.

The Russian army was, of course, no longer capable of carrying out in any measure the plan of a general offensive worked out in January. If during the three years preceding the Revolution the Russian troops failed to win a single decisive victory over the German armies (only on the Austro-Galician and the Caucasus fronts were there any victories), it was quite futile to think of victory now, in the summer of 1917.

But a victory was not necessary! As President Wilson declared categorically before Congress, it was the Russian Revolution which made it possible for America to enter the War and thus alter fundamentally the ratio of the contending forces In the War. As late as January, 1917, the war situation made it imperative for Russia and her Allies to bend all their energies to bring the War to an end by the autumn of 1917. But in the summer of 1917 it became necessary only to keep going until the arrival of the American army on the Western Front, with all its tremendous resources. This general Allied task expressed itself, so far as Russia was concerned, in a new strategic aim: we were no longer required to engage in a general offensive, but to compel the Germans to keep as many divisions as possible on the Russian Front until the conclusion of the campaign of 1917, i.e., until the autumn. As I will show later, this task was carried out in full by the Russian Revolution, and all the contentions of English and French politicians to the effect that not only the Bolsheviki but also the Provisional Government and Russia In general failed to carry out Russia's obligations to the Allied Governments, and thus delivered a blow to the Allied cause, are either a grave mistake or a conscious falsification of the facts, in contradiction with all conceptions of honesty and honor in international relations.

In general, the Allies throughout the existence of the Provisional Government—towards which they maintained a critical attitude—failed to understand that the material weakening of Russia, after the fall of the monarchy, was compensated in full measure by the effect of the Russian Revolution on the internal situation in Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey.

The most important effect of the Russian Revolution, in my opinion, was the fundamental change in the attitude and sentiment of Austria's Slav population, as well as the sharp change in the orientation of Pilsudsky's Polish legions, which up until the moment of the Russian Revolution were fighting in the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian army against Russia and her


In Austria-Hungary the centrifugal movement in the Slav regions was acutely accentuated. On the front itself the Austro-German command was forced to transfer many Slav troops to the Italian and French fronts, substituting these on the Russian front with picked German divisions. In the ranks of the Russian army appeared the extremely well-trained Czechoslovak forces. The abandonment by the Provisional Government of the old Czarist claim to Constantinople created a very favorable impression among the ruling elements in Turkey. Shortly before summer successful negotiations with Turkey for her exit from the War had already become possible. The same was true of Bulgaria, whose troops on the Russian Front had become quite demoralized.

Finally, on the extreme north of the endless Russian Front, the politico-military situation was likewise altered to Germany's disadvantage. In Sweden the anti-German sentiment promoted by Branting and his group was given a powerful impetus, while in Finland the local activists, i.e., the politico-military groups seeking to achieve Finland's independence by aiding Germany, abandoned their policy, at least temporarily. To be sure, all these military and political disadvantages were balanced in some measure by the German General Staff through the work of the Bolsheviki and the Ukrainian separatists. But the necessity forced upon Germany of returning German divisions and German artillery from the West to the Russian Front and increasing the number of German forces in the East made it impossible for Ludendorff, in the spring of 1918, to deliver a decisive blow in the West, before the arrival of the American troops.

But leaving aside all these political and international considerations, the restoration of the fighting capacity of the Russian army by the resumption of active operations was, in the spring of 1917, demanded by Russia's national consciousness. I could cite an endless list of decisions, resolutions, demands and orders for the resumption of the offensive. At the very beginning of the Revolution General Brusiloff telegraphed to the Provisional Government concerning the absolute need of an offensive. At the same time, Field Marshal Haig, in an order to the British army, announced receipt of a telegram from General Alexeyeff informing him that the Russian troops were preparing for an offensive.

The need of an offensive to "wipe out the shame" was constantly emphasized in its resolutions by the Temporary Committee of the Duma. The first conference of the Cadet party (Miliukoff's party) spoke likewise. The official organ of this party and the liberal press in general waged a campaign for an offensive, at times with even too much energy. The first conference of officers, meeting at General Headquarters in the middle of May, after presenting, in a resolution, a most critical picture of conditions in the army at the end of the Gutchkoff-Alexeyeff administration, insisted categorically on the need of resumption of action at the front. I may mention in passing that the officers' conference at General Headquarters laid the foundation for the Officers' Union in the army, a distinctly political body around whose executive committee was born the future military conspiracy headed by Korniloff.

Simultaneously with the conference at General Headquarters, the conference of democratic officers was in progress in Petrograd, which likewise demanded restoration of the fighting capacity of the Russian army. Delegations of front and army committees which came to Petrograd for "contact" with the government and the Soviet, after the German blow on the Stokhod, also insisted categorically on the resumption of the offensive by the army. The first congress of front delegates, in session at the time of Gutchkoff's resignation, gave expression to the same demand in the name of all the troops in the front lines. In the middle of April, the Petrograd Soviet, followed soon thereafter by the Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets, took the same stand, although with certain reservations and ambiguities.

In short, there was not in the whole of Russia a single political group and social organization (with the sole exception of the Bolsheviki) which did not realize that the restoration of the fighting capacity of the Russian army and its assumption of the offensive was the immediate fundamental, imperative national task of Free Russia. For the sake of her future Russia had to perform this act of heroic sacrifice. And this act was performed, thanks to the popular enthusiasm, the will to sacrifice and the truly revolutionary enthusiasm which gripped the country.


A month after the departure of Gutchkoff from the War Ministry and of Alexeyeff from General Headquarters, a profound change had taken place at the front and a considerable change in the country. "The War Ministry," wrote the semi-Bolshevist Novaya Zshisn, on May seventeenth, "is working with extraordinary energy, in cooperation with all the bourgeois and the majority of the democratic forces, for the restoration of the discipline and the fighting capacity of the army, and there is no longer any doubt of its aim: unification of the Allied front and an offensive against the enemy."

Neither was there any doubt in Berlin concerning the successful work of the Provisional Government. The transfer of German divisions to our front was greatly stimulated. The propaganda activity of the august commander-in-chief on the German Eastern Front, Prince Rupprecht, was likewise extended and intensified. The Bolshevist press, as well as the special sheets printed behind the enemy lines for distribution in the Russian trenches, developed a campaign of monstrous slander and misrepresentation against me and General Brusiloff.

On June fifteenth, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened in Petrograd. I will cite only one episode to show the sentiments of the delegates, particularly of the soldiers from the front. Some Bolshevik, in an effort to fan demagogic and anarchist instincts, began quoting from two "reactionary" orders of the Provisional Government, which had just been promulgated. In a fury of resentment he cited the particularly emphatic passages from a circular issued by Premier Lvoff calling upon all responsible elements throughout the country to combat the Bolshevist campaign of anarchy. To the astonishment and wrath of all the Bolsheviki in the hall, the Congress greeted every word of the circular with a storm of applause. Thereupon the Bolshevist orator took up my "Order No. 17," just published, dealing with measures for stopping desertion. At this point the Congress could no longer restrain itself. The assembly rose as one man in a stormy ovation.

In the face of the definite patriotic attitude of the first Congress of Soviets it was quite easy for me to put through my resolution approving the operations which were to begin at the front two weeks later. The resumption of the offensive was approved by the Congress, the Bolsheviki alone voting in the negative. This order was supplementary to the very severe anti-desertion law of the Provisional Government, adopted several days before. Having attained tremendous proportions in the last months of the Czarist regime and assumed the nature of an epidemic in the first two months of the Revolution, desertions in the army ceased by the beginning of military operations in the summer. According to official figures, the number of desertions in various parts of the front had been reduced by that time to between 200,000 and 500,000 men.

Incidentally it was at this Congress that I met Lenin for the first and only time. He was accompanied by his entire staff. Present were Kameneff, Zinovieff, Lunacharsky, as well as Trotsky, who, while still hesitating about joining the Bolsheviki, was already quite openly flirting with them. Sensing the violent opposition of the Congress, Lenin did not, however, restrain himself from offering a very simple method of solving the complex social problems. He suggested the "arrest of one hundred of the biggest capitalists." All the rest would then care for itself! This ingenious proposal, which evoked the enthusiasm of the street mobs assembled daily before the balcony of the Ksheshinskaya Palace, occupied by Lenin and his staff, brought only laughter and ridicule at the Congress. But those assembled here were the few, the best, the picked elements of the people and of the army, whereas there, outside the doors of the Congress, remained the dark, infuriated thousands of déclassé elements, performing under conditions of war and revolution the role of the "class-conscious proletariat" in the shops and factories. On taking the floor to reply to Lenin, I was struck not so much by the effect produced by him on the delegates as by the realization of the destructive influence he wielded over audiences of another character.

I do not know what Lenin felt while listening to me. I do not even know whether he did listen to me or whether his ear was attuned principally to the sentiments of the audience. But he did not remain to the end of my address. Picking up his brief case, with head bent, he stole out of the hall sidewise, almost unnoticed. However, Lenin and his close lieutenants had more important business before them than the Congress of Soviets. Over the heads of the leaders of the democracy, who had "sold themselves to the bourgeoisie," they decided to appeal directly to the Petrograd proletariat, having planned to bring pressure to bear on the Congress by preparing another armed demonstration. The date set for the demonstration, if I recall aright, was June twenty-fourth. According to Lenin's plan, this demonstration, if successful, was to have been transformed into an armed uprising. The slogans of the movement were "Bread, Peace, Liberty"; "Away with the Capitalists"; "Revision of the Rights of Soldiers" and "Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers." The tenth among these "enemies of the proletariat" and of the toiling masses was Kerensky. The remaining five ministers, all socialists, were for the present accorded mercy by Lenin.

The brazen effort to provoke new street riots was frustrated by the energetic action of the Soviet leaders. But the activities of the Bolsheviki in seeking to force disturbances in Petrograd at exactly the moment when the interests of the German General Staff at the front demanded it, gave rise to an interesting coincidence.

The Bolsheviki failed, however, in thwarting the offensive. But next month, on July sixteenth, the new operation undertaken by the Bolsheviki in Petrograd, in support of the German Staff, proved more successful.


After carrying through the necessary resolution at the Congress of the Soviets, after visiting the Cossack Congress and receiving from the regimental committees of the Petrograd garrison the solemn promise that they would not take advantage of my absence to deal a treacherous blow to the Revolution, I left, on June twenty-sixth, for that part of the front where the offensive was to begin. In Tarnopol the military representatives of all the Allied staffs entered my car. In the name of the King of England, the British representative accredited to the Russian General Headquarters promised that the British armies would support our offensive. For reasons still unknown to me this promise was not kept. In Tarnopol I made public my order to the troops for the advance. The whole of Russia was tense with expectation. Would the troops advance? No one ventured to answer the question.

Beyond Tarnopol began the real, active front. How different was the situation now, as compared with that at the end of May, on my first visit to General Brusiloff! Then there was deadly silence and emptiness. Now there was life, movement, action preparatory for the great effort. The regiments were marching, ammunition boxes bumping, field kitchens thundering by toward the front lines. Artillery was roaring in the distance. At night, here and there over our positions, were to be seen the burning rockets of the Germans.

Slowly, with a kind of triumphant air, my train pulled up to the headquarters of General Hutor, commander of the Galician Front, near the small, out-of-the-way town of Kshivy, a short distance from the positions of the seventh army, which was to have moved first in the direction of the Brjezany.

Hutor, who succeeded Brusiloff as front commander, was not a particularly remarkable general. But he had a first-class chief-of-staff in General Dukhonin, one of the very best of Russia's officers, who had a brilliant career during the War and knew how to retain the respect of his soldiers in the very heat of the Revolution, without sacrificing in any way the honor of his uniform or the dignity of an honest citizen. Soon after the Bolshevist coup d'état, Dukhonin, at that time already chief of the General Staff, was lynched at the Mohileff station at General Headquarters, on the incitement of Krilenko.

On June twenty-sixth began the artillery preparation for the drive. For two days our artillery poured its fire on the enemy trenches. The reply of the watchful enemy was silence. The front line of their trenches had been cleared by the Germans. Their well camouflaged artillery was awaiting its hour. To be sure, not everything was quite in order in the spirit of the seventh and eleventh armies, which had been designated for the offensive. There were divisions in a state bordering on mutiny. There were regiments showing only perfunctory obedience. There were officers quite without "heart" and some who were frankly sabotaging the preparatory operations.

On June thirtieth, I inspected the positions. It is difficult now to describe our state of mind. High tension, determination and, at times, a feeling of impending triumph! A great deal of thought and feeling had been experienced by the army. Both officers and men were now going into battle not with the old emotions. We felt clearly their effort to overcome something in themselves, to free themselves from sensations unusual on the eve of battle. There was more depth, more spirituality, but less of concentrated harmony. The troops seemed to feel that the dent in their insides had not quite been removed. To the very last moment the officers did not know whether the soldiers would follow them in the attack. The soldiers were not quite sure whether it was necessary to die when there, in the rear, the fond dreams of generations were being realized.

On that day, in our final address to the troops before the battle, every one of us who spoke was particularly stirred. For were not our speeches the last greeting before death? The soldiers and many of the officers drank in every word, seeking to find in them the answer to the painful question which stirred their simple souls to the very last moment.

I remember a throng of soldiers in the region of the eleventh army, near a dugout, who attracted the attention of the German artillery. We had to talk under the music of the flying shells. But no one moved, no one ventured to seek shelter, no one even bent his head.

Again, I recall a trip late at night. Rain and storm. At one spot regiments which had just come up from the near were awaiting us. Under the terrific downpour, to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning, drenched through and through, the thousands did not move, anxious to find, in my words, faith in the justice of their coming sacrifice of death.



Last updated on: 2.17.2008