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.


THE mad mutiny of the commander-in-chief, which opened the doors to the Kremlin for the Bolsheviki and to Brest-Litovsk for Ludendorff, was the final link in the conspiracies of the Right against the Provisional Government. Public opinion abroad has been inclined to regard the Korniloff movement as an almost unexpected outburst of incensed patriotism on the part of Korniloff and his supporters. In accordance with the picture portraying Russian history between March and November, 1917, as a process of gradual and increasing disintegration, Sovietization and Bolshevization of the state, the revolt of General Korniloff is presented as the heroic act of a self-sacrificing patriot, striving in vain to free Russia from a "weak-willed" government and to save his perishing country on the very brink of the precipice. I hope that what I have presented thus far has conveyed to the reader's mind a somewhat different picture, a picture of reality as against pure legend.

There was nothing sudden in the action of the people who prepared the conspiracy of the commander-in-chief against the government which had entrusted the army into his hands in the most critical months of the War. On the contrary, the conspiracy developed slowly, systematically, with cool calculation of all the factors involved affecting its possible success or failure. Nor was the motive of the conspiracy, so far as some of its backers were concerned, one of unselfish patriotism. On the contrary, the motive was extremely selfish—to be sure, not one of personal but of class selfishness. To avoid misunderstanding I want to append right here one qualification: in describing the motives of the criminal activity of the initiators and original leaders of the conspiracy I do not attribute these selfish class motives to General Korniloff and his close military supporters, all of whom were brave Russian patriots, who were drawn into the conspiracy after the preparatory work had been completed.

The idea of the overthrow of the Provisional Government by means of a conspiracy against it appeared in Petrograd for the first time early in May, 1917, and perhaps even earlier, in a limited circle of bankers and financiers. The date alone shows that what was being contemplated was not a struggle against the "excesses" of the Revolution and "Kerensky's weak-willed government," but against the Revolution itself, against the new order in Russia. The details of the conspiratory work of this original group of reactionaries are little known. I know only that steps were taken for the creation of a fund, for which purpose the conspirators entered into contact with certain political figures. At the same time they undertook to make some soundings in military circles. The man placed in charge of the preliminary work and of finding ways and means for the execution of the conspiracy was a certain Zavoiko. I do not know whether he acted as a full-fledged member of the conspiracy or merely as an agent.

The disintegration of the army, having reached its most critical point with Gutchkoff's departure from the cabinet, created for the civilian prophets of military dictatorship a favorable condition in the attitude of the officers. On May twentieth, in Mohileff, at the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, General Alexeyeff, was convened the first conference of officers, which led to the formation of the Union of Officers, an organization which gained much influence in circles close to the General Staff.

The connecting link at General Headquarters between the civilian and military organizers of the conspiracy was Colonel L. Novosiltzeff, a reserve officer called into service during the War, and President of the Union of Officers. He was an experienced zemstvo and political worker, a member of the Central Committee of the Constitutional-Democratic party, who had been elected to a seat in the fourth Duma but had resigned from it shortly afterwards. Novosiltzeff belonged to the Right wing of the Constitutional-Democratic party and by his origin and social interests was connected with the landed aristocracy. Colonel Novosiltzeff made regular trips between General Headquarters and Moscow. Because of his political and social position he was extremely valuable to the conspiracy. At the beginning of June (i.e., previous to our military offensive and while Prince Lvoff was still the premier) the conspiracy stood as follows:

At the front individual emissaries of the Central Committee of the Union of Officers were carefully enlisting supporters in the active army. Incidentally, the heads of the conspiracy at General Headquarters were very much incensed by the removal of General Alexeyeff and the appointment of General Brusiloff in his place, as commander-in-chief, for General Alexeyeff, from the very beginning, was cognizant of the work of Novosiltzeff and his close associates, and was helping them by his advice and connections in the two capitals. General Alexeyeff, the first one to be mentioned as candidate for dictator, declined from the very beginning to play any such active role. After the break between Admiral Kolchak and the Black Sea Fleet, the admiral was brought forward as the candidate. But nothing came of this either, and when Admiral Kolchak went to the United States on a special mission for the Provisional Government, the search for a general on a white horse continued.

Up until the July uprising of the Bolsheviki the government's attention was concentrated on the Left, from which alone, it seemed, there was danger of new perturbations. I think that the conspirators themselves had scant hope of success. I repeat, moreover, that they had not yet found the "hero," that very same general on a white horse who is so essential for a classic pronunciamento. Finally, the conspirators themselves were not as yet sufficiently united and organized. And, what was most important, there was not as yet that general social-psychological atmosphere necessary to their enterprise. The financiers, staff officers and those politicians of Petrograd and Moscow who were swept aside by the fall of the monarchy were merely "gathering forces slowly" for "eventualities," to be used "in case of need," while Zavoiko, their messenger at the front, who had built himself a nest close to Korniloff, was not as yet giving tangible evidence of his work.


The psychologic prerequisites for serious development of the military conspiracy appeared only after the July uprising of the Bolsheviki and the beginning, on July nineteenth, of the retreat of our armies from Galicia. The beginning of the new retreat of the Russian armies, accompanied by the usual horrors of such an operation, by panic and demoralization, aggravated acutely the general feeling of injured patriotism in all army circles, affecting equally the high command, the government commissars and the army committees.

I have already emphasized that the fundamental strategic significance of the campaign of 1917 on the Russian Front was in the restoration of military operations and the return of German divisions to our front. The decisive strategic consequences of the restoration of active operations by the Russian army could not in any way be minimized by our retreat, however painful was its effect psychologically on the nation's patriotism. This simple military truism should, of course, have been clear to such men as General Alexeyeff or General Denikin. Moreover, as we of the Provisional Government knew, they knew well that the situation in the Austro-German trenches was by no means in order. They knew that the plan of a crushing offensive in the direction of Kieff and Odessa, conceived by Ludendorff, had completely failed, because of the disorganization of the Austrian army. But these cold considerations were not comprehensible to the mind of the broad masses of the people and the troops; they experienced most painfully only the outer pictures of our new military failure, to which the revelations of Lenin's cooperation with Ludendorff lent a particular acute touch.

At midnight on July twentieth, I received the first telegram telling of the enemy's break through the Russian lines in the direction of Tarnopol. On July twenty-first to twenty-second, this break developed into a determined offensive, in the course of which our troops, failing to show proper resistance in the mass and, in places, failing to obey orders, were retreating with increasing speed. On the Western Front of General Denikin, the operation begun at Krevo ended without result on July twenty-third, due to our inability to develop our initial success because of the unreliability and moral weakness of some of our units.

In the autumn of 1914 the armies of Samsonoff and Rennenkampf in East Prussia had been not only smashed but virtually destroyed as lighting units. In 1915 the Russian troops had been swept from the Carpathian heights and Przemysl in Western Galicia and rolled back almost to the Russian frontier. With equally astounding rapidity the Russian army in the same year had lost Warsaw and the entire Polish line of fortresses. But then those terrific defeats were being reported only through curt, dry communiqués from the General Headquarters of the Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevitch, while the commanding corps, indignant and resentful, either kept a severe silence or was compelled to feign an official optimism. The nation, held within the grasp of military censorship, had been fed on only vague rumors and, suffering in stifled misery, had been unable to do anything for the army.

Now exactly the opposite was the case. With the very first German blow the entire country emitted a cry of pain. And first to speak of its travail was the army itself, at times too loudly and in tones of exaggerated apprehension. On July twenty-second, the third day of the Tarnopol break, when General Brusiloff was still commander-in-chief, the Provisional Government, the All-Russian Committee of Soviets and the Executive Committee of the Peasant Congress received simultaneously a telegram signed by the Army Committee of the Southwestern Front and the committee and commissar of the eleventh army, against which the enemy attack was directed. I will quote the telegram, because it illustrates well what I am trying to describe:

The offensive begun by the Germans on July nineteenth is developing into an immeasurable disaster. The morale of the units moved recently into action by the heroic efforts of a conscious minority has undergone a fatal change. The fighting spirit has been quickly exhausted. Most units are in a state of increasing disintegration. Persuasion and argument have lost their power. They provoke only threats and even shooting. Some units desert their positions without waiting even for the approach of the enemy. There have been cases when orders for immediate advance to the assistance of hard-pressed units were discussed for hours at meetings. Positions are not infrequently being deserted at the very first shot of the enemy. Long columns of deserters, with and without rifles, are moving along a line hundreds of versts long, without any consciousness of possible punishment. At times whole units desert in this manner. In the unanimous opinion of the commissars the situation demands the most extreme measures and effort, for we must stop at nothing to save the Revolution from perishing. To-day the commander-in-chief of the Southwestern front [General Korniloff, just appointed by me to this post—A. K.] and the commander of the eleventh army, with the approval of the commissars and committees, issued orders to open fire on those who flee from positions. Let the entire country know the whole truth of the situation here. Let it rouse itself and find the strength and determination to crush mercilessly all those who by their weakness are destroying and betraying the Revolution.

The army committees who signed this significant telegram were all composed of members of Socialist parties and some of those men had but recently returned from hard labor in Siberia, following the amnesty proclaimed by the Provisional Government.

Similar telegrams were received by us in Petrograd from all sections of the front. The country's immediate reply to this call of woe was a mighty determination to overcome the disintegration. The Soviets, city councils and similar organizations began to speak in a new language, summoning the nation to new and unyielding effort to save the Revolution and the state.

Active operations are absolutely essential as a curative measure for the restoration of the fighting capacity of a weary, shattered army, but such curative measures have a violent and, therefore, dangerous reaction. As an example we may recall the French experience three months before our own July offensive. I refer to the unsuccessful offensive under General Nivelle, which ended in disastrous failure and immediate mutiny in the army. This, it will be remembered, occurred in a country unshattered by any revolutionary upheavals and with a firm political organism.[1*] After the War, Painleve himself, minister of war at the time of the Nivelle disaster, told of the critical night when he learned that one division was preparing to march on Paris. It was only three months after the Austro-German break at Tarnopol when not only the Austrian armies themselves were in a state of complete disintegration but Germany herself began giving indications of collapse, with the first serious disorders in the Kaiser's fleet.

In Russia, in the fourth year of the war, the manifestations of weariness in the army took place under circumstances of the very greatest difficulty and in the wake of the most profound political, social, economic and psychologic disturbances.

Concluding my references to the situation at the front, following the German counter-offensive, I will say here that the rapid retreat begun by the Russian armies on July nineteenth was not of long duration. The new psychology of the nation, the revived wave of patriotism and the unforgetable self-sacrifice of the commanding corps performed a miracle. On July thirtieth I received a telegram from the commissar of the Northern Front stating that after the loss of the suburban fortifications at Iskul "the morale of the rank and file was undergoing a sharp change for the better, with the approach of the troops to the home frontier." And on August ninth followed a report from General Beliayeff, commander of the Galician (Southwestern) Front, to the effect that the retreat had definitely been halted and the position of the army consolidated. General Korniloff himself, the new commander-in-chief, in making his first report to the Provisional Government, on August fifteenth, presented an encouraging picture of the general situation at the front, expressing his intention of resuming offensive operations in Galicia in the near future.

I have devoted so much space to a description of the acutely patriotic and extremely tense reactions experienced by Russia in July-August, 1917, in order to make clear to the reader the whole work of the supporters of the contemplated military revolt in the psychological preparation of their attack on the government.

This preparation consisted: 1, in deliberate exaggeration of the difficulties at the front and of the very great sufferings experienced by the army; 2, in demanding from the government demagogic measures, obviously unenforcible, for the restoration of discipline; 3, in vilifying all democratic organizations in the army; and 4, in waging an open press campaign in behalf of General Korniloff as the "only possible savior of Russia." This demagogic campaign of arousing in certain circles a feeling of patriotic indignation did not abate but, on the contrary, increased with the improvement at the front. And, indeed, under the prevailing patriotic sentiment animating the entire country, this play on the painful emotions of injured patriotism gained excellent results for the conspirators. By the middle of August both capitals were sufficiently filled with various conspiratory organizations, military and civilian, while the practical preparations for a coup d'état in the name of the military dictatorship of General Korniloff proceeded apace.




[1*] In general, it may be said that the entire development of the summer campaign of 1917 would have taken a different course if there had been cooperation among the Allies (England, France, and Russia). For example, the Nivelle offensive would have in all probability been successful if it had been timed with ours, and if the British command had supported us.—A. K.


Last updated on: 2.17.2008