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.


IN looking back on the events of July, I must say that the failure of the Bolshevist uprising, together with the rapid retreat of our troops in Galicia, contributed to the strengthening of the feeling of patriotism and national responsibility among the masses of the people and in the leading circles of the Left, socialist, anti-Bolshevist parties.

The course of events in Russia between March and November, 1917, is usually conceived as a process of one color, of gradual but unceasing and constantly increasing disintegration of the country. In reality, however, Russia moved in those months along a zigzag line. Up until the middle of September (the period of the Korniloff rebellion) Russia advanced forward, with the line of progress accompanied by some drops and setbacks, but marked by steady diminution of revolutionary chaos and the development of political strength and wisdom. After the crushing of the Bolsheviki, in July, the process of convalescence gathered exceptional momentum. But it was halted suddenly by the madness of honest but politically ignorant and impatient generals. From the middle of September Russia began to move back with equally exceptional speed to dissolution and chaos.

Together with the new defeat of the Russian troops at the front came a nation-wide wave of anti-Bolshevist assaults. Bolshevist committees and newspapers were being wrecked everywhere in the interior. In all the provincial centers the Soviets were firmly in the hands of defensivist elements, patriotic, constructive and eager to restore the national structure. The representation of the Bolsheviki in the Executive Committee of the Soviets and in the All-Russian Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets was reduced almost to zero. Hand in hand with the removal of all Bolsheviki from the Soviet machinery, it was becoming increasingly recognized by the Soviet leaders that the Soviets were not and could not be organs of government but were merely instruments useful in the process of transition to a new, ordered, democratic state.

The new laws worked out by the first cabinet of the Provisional Government, providing for a comprehensive system of municipal and zemstvo self-government, on the basis of universal, proportional, equal suffrage, including woman suffrage, came into force. At the beginning of August we find municipal dumas in two hundred cities already elected on the basis of the new law. At the end of September six hundred and fifty of the seven hundred cities of Russia had elected such new municipal dumas. Not quite so rapidly, due to rural conditions, but nevertheless at good speed moved the reorganization of the zemstvos along broad, democratic lines. The tremendously powerful development of the cooperatives, stimulated by the Provisional Government's cooperative law, created an extremely sound basis for the growth of a democratic state. The initial anarchic period of irresponsible proletarian action was being transformed gradually into a healthy trade-union movement, in which the Bolsheviki occupied a position of little influence on the extreme left flank. The authority of the government commissars in the army was growing steadily, in accordance with the government's plan of bringing the army back through the agency of the commissars, as connecting links from the committee system as established in March, to normal unity of command.

On July twenty-first, I again repeated my last order for the merciless application of armed force against insubordination at the front. I called the attention of the commissars and commanders to the Provisional Government's proclamation of July nineteenth, prohibiting agitation against the government and the War among the troops. Simultaneously I telegraphed an order to General Headquarters demanding "the removal and prosecution of commanders showing the slightest reluctance to apply force." On July twentieth I had arrested the delegation of the General Committee of the Baltic Fleet, upon its arrival in Petrograd to help the Bolsheviki "arrest Minister of Justice Pereverzeff and Assistant Minister of the Navy Dudyrenko." The rule adopted by the government upon its formation, in the first days of the Revolution, not to disarm or to remove from Petrograd the military units which had taken part in the revolutionary movement, a rule tending to disorganize and pervert the garrison, was abolished. Henceforward the government granted commanders the right to reorganize the regiments of the Petrograd garrison and send them to the front. On July twenty-first an order was made public, by unanimous decision of the Provisional Government, restoring capital punishment and providing for the establishment of court-martial at the front. At the same time the government restored military censorship, giving to the Minister of the Interior, by agreement with the Minister of War, the right to suppress newspapers and fly-by-night sheets, to prohibit meetings, make arrests without the usual court warrants, to expel from Russia by executive order persons considered dangerous to the safety of the nation and in general to take the measures found necessary in the interest of national security and defense.

Of course, these measures for the strengthening of the government did not meet with instant approval by everybody. In the minds of many political figures who were removed from sympathy with the Left, the strengthening of the revolutionary Government's administrative power aroused unpleasant memories of the police lawlessness of the old regime. Particularly disquieting to public opinion were the measures effecting the press.

The suppression of Bolshevist papers, particularly at the front, naturally met with universal approval. But when the situation reached a point where it was necessary to forbid the further publication of two big newspapers in the capital—Maxim Gorky's ultraradical Novaya Zshisn and the extremist-conservative Novoye Vremia—there arose a cry of sharp protest from all political and literary circles, without exception. People said that Kerensky wished to restore for the press the regime of Pleve (the universally hated minister of the interior under Nicholas II, assassinated at the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War). The right of administrative arrest actually became one of the causes of the dispute between the Provisional Government and the representatives of the Constitutional-Democratic party at the time of the new cabinet crisis, following the Bolshevist uprising.

Faithful to the doctrine of government by law, the liberal jurists protested emphatically against the "lawlessness the government was legalizing." To be sure, the same party demanded from the government extreme lawlessness, i.e., the widest possible administrative struggle against the Bolsheviki, but the partial inconsistency was determined by the fact that the proposed administrative expulsions from Russia and the administrative arrests threatened principally at that time, in August, not revolutionists on the Left but opponents on the Right, who had begun with increasing boldness to speak up in favor of the developing movement for a military dictatorship.[1*]


On July twentieth, the day after my return from the front, Prince George Lvoff left the Provisional Government. The situation had become too difficult for his mild manner of governing. At the same cabinet meeting at which the resignation of the prince was accepted, I was named premier, retaining also my post of minister of war and marine.

The new government crisis began to develop seriously only after the departure of the prince.

On July twenty-second, the All-Russian Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets and the Executive Committee of the Congress of Peasants, in a joint manifesto to the country, proclaimed the Provisional Government as "the government for the Salvation of the Fatherland and the Revolution." The manifesto called upon the soldiers, peasants and workers to grant full confidence and obedience to the united, national people's government. At the same time, a general meeting of the regiments of the Petrograd garrison unanimously adopted a resolution expressing confidence "only in the Provisional Government."

However, confidence in the Provisional Government on the part of the revolutionary and democratic organizations was not enough. It was essential to restore the union of all the live forces of the country, upon which depended the quick rehabilitation of the nation. The places left vacant by the resignation of the three Cadet ministers had to be filled by men of the same political and social ideas. In July this was even more important than it was in April or May, for now behind the Constitutional-Democratic party were organized all the political and social forces of the country representing the interests of the propertied classes, of the high command, the remnants of the old bureaucracy and even fragments of the aristocracy. By this I do not wish to accuse in any way the party headed by Miliukoff—which had in the past performed great service in the cause of Russian liberation—of having "changed its program and entered the service of reaction," as the Bolshevist demagogues put it. The Constitutional-Democratic party had retained its entire ideology. Only the human material filling its ranks had changed radically. It must be remembered that all the parties to the right of the liberal center had disappeared after the Revolution, while the Cadet party itself had become the right flank of Russian political life.[2*]

It was quite evident that the formation of a national government standing above all parties and partisanship required the inclusion of responsible representatives of the right flank of the political spectrum, in the persons of those members of this group who after the upheaval of March twelfth had adopted an outspoken republican attitude.

The spokesmen of the Socialist parties and the leaders of the Soviets quite frankly expressed the aim of filling the vacant posts in the Provisional Government, after the exit of Prince Lvoff, without resort to the Constitutional-Democrats. The cabinet situation remained uncertain from July twentieth to July twenty-sixth, for on the very day of my appointment as premier I had to return to the front. Upon my return from Denikin's army, on or about July twenty-seventh, all the ministers placed their portfolios at my disposal. This collective resignation cleared the road for filling the ministerial vacancies.

At first, after the outbreak of the Revolution, the Provisional Government was seemingly appointed by the Temporary Committee of the Duma and it had to seek agreement with the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. The second cabinet of the Provisional Government was formed in cooperation with representatives of the respective parties, the Soviet and the Temporary Committee of the Duma. Now the formation of the new cabinet of the Provisional Government was placed solely in the hands of its premier, which naturally made the future cabinet more independent of exterior party pressure.

The negotiations between the Premier and the central committees of the respective parties continued for ten days. Once more there were interminable programatic disputes. Long letters were written, in which the points at issue between the respective parties were purposely accentuated for bargaining purposes. Naturally this served only to irritate the opponents but in no way changed the substance of the discussion. Moreover, although formally I was given complete freedom of action in the selection of the ministers, I found myself confronted by ultimatums from the respective parties and organizations objecting to some candidates or demanding the appointment of others.

I personally was placed in quite a strange position: under the political circumstances of the moment I bore full responsibility for the fate of the nation, yet I did not have the simple right to choose freely my immediate coworkers, for whose activity in the government I could really and with a clear conscience hold myself responsible before the people. My situation became all the more difficult because both the contending camps (the bourgeois and the democratic) maintained equally that it was absolutely essential that I assume the premiership of the Provisional Government. In fact, they saw no other candidate acceptable for the post. All the parties collectively wished to work with me, but every one of them individually placed before me conditions obviously unacceptable to the others. The party bargaining for the vacant ministerial seats continued to grow more and more heated. Meanwhile, the prolongation of the cabinet crisis aggravated the already difficult situation in the country and particularly at the front, where the pressure of the German troops served to stimulate what on the whole was a natural and wholesome feeling of patriotic concern, though it did not at all moments assume proper form among the officers.

It became evident that the Russian political parties, with none of which I was completely in agreement and among all of which I had friends and supporters, had to be placed before a clear alternative: either they themselves assume full responsibility for the fate of the nation or they must give me at least some measure of freedom to do what I considered necessary for the country, regardless of party doctrines and self-interest. On August third I divested myself of all offices and titles, turned over all current affairs to the Vice-Premier and left secretly for Tsarskoye Selo. Immediately the central committee of all the parties sent out urgent invitations to a meeting of extraordinary political importance. On the evening of the day of my departure an historic meeting of responsible representatives of all the parties upon which the government supported itself took place in the Malachite Hall of the Winter Palace. I do not wish to describe that which I did not witness. I know only that the meeting lasted all night, adjourning at four o'clock in the morning. Finding themselves face to face with the question of responsibility for the country no one of those present ventured to take the responsibility upon himself. The meeting adjourned finally with the decision to entrust me again with filling the posts of the Provisional Government as I saw fit, without being hampered by pressure, claims or demands from any of the parties. To be sure, this decision was immediately violated by both sides—the Left and the Right. By both sides I was informed "quite privately": "Of course, you are entirely free to choose the members of the government, but if you invite this or that person the central committee of our party will consider this participation in the government a matter concerning only himself." In other words I was "privately" threatened with militant hostility by the parties.

Such party duplicity naturally had an extremely detrimental effect on the activity of the Provisional Government as constructed by me. It deprived the government of that unity so essential in such an extraordinarily difficult time. I resolved, however, to return to power, believing that the realization by all parties of the need of my participation in the government would give, for a time at least, an opportunity to fight for the restoration of Russia. Perhaps it was a cardinal mistake on my part to return to power at that moment. Perhaps I should have retired for the time being at the moment when outside of the central committees of the various parties and the circles of professional politicians, my prestige and popularity in the country were very great. Perhaps by preserving my authority with the people I might have saved something which would have been of use to Russia in the darkest days that were still ahead.

Perhaps? I do not know. At any rate it certainly would have been salutary so far as I myself was concerned. Contrary to the assertions of my adversaries on the Right and on the Left I had no "thirst for power." More than once I suggested to the unrestrained critics of the policy of the Provisional Government that they assume formal responsibility for the country, provided they did so without resort to uprising and mutiny. My return to the Winter Palace was motivated by the realization of my duty to the country.

Under the prevailing circumstances, when the country is threatened by internal dissolution and external disintegration [I wrote officially on August sixth, to the Vice-Premier] I consider it impossible to shirk the grave duty placed upon me by the representatives of the principal socialist, democratic and liberal parties.

In the same letter I laid down what to my mind were the guiding lines requisite for governing the country.

As the basis of the solution of this problem I place my unshakable conviction that the salvation of the Republic demands abandonment of party quarrels and that the national work of the salvation of the country, which concerns the people as a whole, must proceed under conditions and in forms dictated by the severe necessity of continuing the War, supporting the fighting capacity of the army and restoring the economic power of the nation.

After a night of mental and spiritual anguish, experienced likewise by all the participants of the meeting, I formed the new cabinet within twenty-four hours. Contrary to the practice of the first months of the Revolution, the members of the government, the bearers of supreme authority, were now formally released from any dependence or party committees, Soviets, etc. Their responsibility was now "only to the country and their own conscience." There were no more Soviet or Duma ministers. There were only ministers of the Russian government. The practice of collective, long ministerial declarations, of use only to the extreme party dogmatists, was likewise abandoned now.

The composition of the new cabinet corresponded to the nonpartisan, national governmental program.

Of the sixteen ministers only three were opponents of a bourgeois-democratic coalition. Two of these (Yureneff and Kokoshkin, representing the Constitutional-Democratic party) favored a purely bourgeois government, while the other (Minister of Agriculture Tchernoff, leader of the Socialists-Revolutionists) wanted a purely socialist government. All the other ministers were firm supporters of a government combining within itself all the creative political forces of the nation, regardless of party or class distinction.

The very marked change of popular attitude after the crushing of the Bolsheviki—the strengthening of the state and the independence of the governmental machinery from partisan political organizations—was evidenced by the fact that of the sixteen members of the government only two (Tchernoff, Socialist-Revolutionist, and Skobeleff, Social-Democrat, were connected closely with the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet.

The new situation was summarized well by Irakli Tseretelli, one of the noblest and most talented leaders of the Russian Social-Democracy (afterwards leader of the Georgian Social-Democratic party). With characteristic courage this leader, devoted disinterestedly to the cause of the democracy as a whole, recognized frankly the fundamental change that had come about in the correlation of the country's political and social forces.

"We have just experienced not only a cabinet crisis but a crisis of the Revolution," he said at a meeting of the All-Russian Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets and before the Executive Committee of the Peasant Congress. "A new era in the history of the Revolution has begun. Two months ago the Soviets were stronger. Now we have become weaker, for the correlation of forces has changed to our disadvantage."

Tseretelli urged full confidence in the government, realizing that the change that had taken place was entirely to the advantage of the country as a whole, for it strengthened the national consciousness of the people as well as the power and prestige of the state.




[1*] The opposite was also true: Some sections of the Left, socialist press, while demanding draconic police repressions against "counter-revolutionists" on the Right, expressed bitter indignation at the government's "lawlessness" with regard to the Bolsheviki. A curious picture was presented as a result, with the Provisional Government being simultaneously under "pressure" of both extreme flanks.—A. K.

[2*] The left flank was occupied by the Bolsheviki and the extreme elements of the Mensheviki and Socialists-Revolutionists. The center was composed of Menshevist Social-Democrats, Laborites, Populist-Socialists, backed by the cooperatives, the majority of municipal dumas chosen on the basis of universal suffrage, the front and army committees, etc.


Last updated on: 2.17.2008