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.


I DO not know to this day when and where the final decision was taken to make General Korniloff dictator. I believe the decision was made already previous to the appointment of Korniloff as commander of the Galician Front, i.e., between July fifteenth and twentieth. I am strengthened in this belief by the tone of the very first telegram addressed by Korniloff to the government in reply to his appointment as commander of the front. It is possible, however, that Zavoiko, the emissary of the conspirators, having received some liberty of direct initiative from his friends in Petrograd, determined to force developments. In its content the telegram showed only partial opposition to my demands as war minister, but in its form it was clearly threatening and insistent, bearing distinctly the character of an ultimatum. After presenting a very sharp description of the situation at the front, General Korniloff wired:

I, General Korniloff, whose entire life, from the very first day of my conscious existence, has been devoted only to serving my country, declare that the Motherland is perishing and, therefore, although not asked to express my opinion, I demand the immediate cessation of the offensive on all fronts. It is necessary to introduce immediately capital punishment in the territory of military operations. ... I declare that if the Government fails to give its approval to the measures I propose, depriving me thereby of the sole means of saving the army and using it as the instrument for which it was intended—the defense of the Motherland and of liberty—I, General Korniloff, will divest myself of my office as commander-in-chief.

As was shown later, this document, so astounding for a general, was written by none other than Zavoiko.

I had already made the proper suggestion to General Brusiloff with regard to halting the offensive. The application of armed force in the struggle with deserters, looters and similar traitors had already been made obligatory on all commanders by my repeated orders. The demand for the restoration of capital punishment at the front had been previously presented by army committees.

Thus, the significance of General Korniloff's telegram was not in the content but in its gesture—the gesture of a "strong man." The same gesture was repeated soon at General Headquarters at Mohileff by the Central Committee! of the Union of Officers. In a telegram to the Provisional Government signed by Colonel Novosiltzeff, it was declared already without any compunction that all members of the government would be "responsible with their heads for failure to approve the measures proposed by General Korniloff."

The future impartial historian will not fail to note that in comparison with the inadmissible and shocking excesses of speech resorted to by the Soviets and democratic organizations in the first weeks of the Revolution, no one had yet dared to use such words with respect to the government. General Korniloff's and Novosiltzeff's telegrams went unpunished. Why? Simply because the Provisional Government regarded as excusable and, perhaps, natural the exaggerated excitement of military men who were experiencing directly the new blows at the front, and at a time when many people even in the rear had lost almost all mental and moral equilibrium.

In fact, I personally even liked General Korniloff's impulsive gesture. In the fourth month of the Revolution we of the Provisional Government could no longer be surprised by excesses of speech. Still less could our equilibrium be shattered by such utterances, for we had already had plently of experience with the revolutionary "wild men" on the Left, who were properly tamed as soon as they were led into the harness of government and responsibility. I believe that General Korniloff and his close military friends would likewise be tamed and disciplined by the consciousness of responsibility.

On July twenty-ninth, at an extraordinary military council summoned by me at General Headquarters, General Denikin, then commander of our Western Front, in the presence of General Alexeyeff, Brusiloff and other high commanders, delivered himself of a veritable indictment against the Provisional Government, expressing his own opinion as well as that of his colleagues. He was more bitterly incisive than General Korniloff (Zavoiko), accusing the Provisional Government of "besmirching our banners with mud." He demanded that the Provisional Government "recognize its mistakes and guilt before the officer corps," and even ventured to doubt "whether the members of the Provisional Government had any conscience."

Terestchenko, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and I, the Prime Minister and Minister of War and Marine, listened quite calmly to this cry of the scorched soul of an officer. At the conclusion of the grave philippic, amidst the confused and alarmed silence of all those present, I rose, shook hands with General Denikin and said: "I thank you, General, for your courageous and sincere words."

General Denikin's declaration constituted in reality a formulation of the military program upon which the propaganda of the supporters of the military conspiracy was based, which I then dubbed "the music of the future military reaction." This program was reiterated in even sharper form before the Moscow Conference by General Kaledin, of the Don Cossacks. This program was more than justified. Its substance was the demand for the restoration of normal military discipline and unity of command and the abolition of the system of commissars and army committees.

This had been all along the aim of everybody and, in particular, of the Provisional Government. The dispute was not in the aim but in the best way of attaining it. It was quite impossible to restore army discipline immediately and at one stroke. For this reason General Korniloff himself, in his remarks before the military council, did not demand immediate abolition of commissars and army committees but, on the contrary, continued to the very last day before his revolt to emphasize the positive role of the army commissars and army committees and the need of their preservation. General Korniloff wanted only to circumscribe more definitely their rights and activities, which the Provisional Government itself had been assiduously and unswervingly engaged in from the very first day of Gutchkoff's departure from the War Ministry.

Being unable to attend the military council at General Headquarters on July twenty-ninth because of active operations on his front at that time, General Korniloff forwarded his demands by telegraph. To a large extent these demands corresponded with those of Denikin but emphasized, however, the need of extending the activity of the commissars in the army and reorganization of the commanding corps.

On my return to Petrograd from the military council I suggested to the Provisional Government the removal of Brusiloff as commander-in-chief and the appointment of Korniloff in his place, recommending also the appointment of Savinkoff, former terrorist, member of the Socialist-Revolutionary party and the commissar attached to Korniloff's army, as my immediate assistant.

In reply to the new appointment, General Korniloff sent to the government a veritable ultimatum, striking in its defiant tone and political ignorance.

Asserting that "as a soldier" obliged to be an example of military discipline, he was ready to obey the order making him commander-in-chief of the army, General Korniloff, speaking already as such, immediately made himself the instrument of violation of all discipline. In an open, uncoded telegram to the Provisional Government, made public immediately by the newspapers, he informed the Provisional Government that he accepted supreme command but on the following conditions: r, that his responsibility be only to his own conscience and to the people direct; 2, that there be no interference with his orders and appointments; 3, the application to the rear, where army reserves were located, of recent measures at the front, i.e. restoration of capital punishment; and 4, acceptance of his proposals as wired to the military council at General Headquarters on July twenty-ninth.

Reporting Korniloff's ultimatum to the Provisional Government I suggested his immediate dismissal and prosecution.

I no longer remember clearly the motives which prompted both the Right and Left wings of the Provisional Government to show leniency to General Korniloff. Savinkoff tried to convince me that General Korniloff simply did not understand the meaning of the telegram concocted by Zavoiko. In consequence, I withdrew my proposal and Korniloff remained commander-in-chief. This leniency on the part of the government was interpreted as "weakness" by the conspirators, whose audacity now reached its highest point.

By this time the political center of the conspiracy, or, rather, the entourage of the future dictator was fully organized. At General Headquarters the military-technical preparations for a sudden blow at the Provisional Government were in full swing. From the very first day of Korniloff's appearance at General Headquarters duplicity became the moving force of its existence: the machinery as a whole continued to function as the governing center of the army but individual parts of the appartus devoted themselves feverishly to conspiratory work. In General Korniloff's office matters military were considered together with matters conspiratory, the latter receiving much more attention.

There can be no doubt now that from the very beginning of his arrival at Mohileff General Korniloff played a game of duplicity against the Provisional Government. His entire attention was devoted to the development of the military side of the conspiracy, to measures intended to assure its success. All the motions gone through at General Headquarters, its many and varied reports and memorandums submitted to the Provisional Government as manifestations of heated military activity, its flirtation with my closest assistant, Savinoff—all this was nothing else than a smoke screen, to use a military expression, concealing the activities of the center of the conspiracy from the unappreciative eyes of Petrograd.

General Korniloff's state of mind at General Headquarters was well described by General Denikin, one of the participants in the revolt, who prided himself on never playing the game of hide and seek. Denikin arrived at Mohileff during the first two weeks in August, following his appointment as commander of the Southwestern Front. After a business meeting, Denikin tells us, "General Korniloff invited me to remain and when all had gone, he said quietly, almost in a whisper:

" 'We must fight, or else the country will perish. N. has come to me at the front. He is still full of the idea of a coup d'état and wants to see the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovitch put on the throne. He is organizing something and suggests joint action. I told him that I will engage in no adventures with the Romanoffs. The government itself understands that it is helpless. They have asked me to enter the government. But no, these gentlemen are bound too closely to the Soviet and cannot make up their minds to do anything. I have told them: give me supreme power and I will lead the struggle. We must bring the country to the Constituent Assembly and then let it do as it likes. I will then step aside and will not interfere. So this is the situation. May I count on your support? In full measure?' We embraced each other."

The words of General Korniloff cited by Denikin show the political confusion and phantasy which dominated the mind of the politically inexperienced general, led astray by the politicians surrounding him. Incidentally, not a single word of General Korniloff with regard to the Provisional Government had any basis in fact.

Shortly before the Moscow Conference Korniloff came to Petrograd. In a tête-à-tête in my office I sought to convince the general that there were no differences between the Provisional Government, on one side, and himself and his entourage on the other as far as questions bearing on the army were concerned. I tried to make Korniloff realize that any attempt at hasty and violent action would produce adverse effect on the army. I repeated to him what in May I said at the front, namely, that if any one should try to establish a personal dictatorship in Russia he would find himself the next day helplessly dangling in space, without railroads, without telegraphs and without an army. I pointed out to him the terrible fate awaiting the officers in event of failure of the coup d'état.

"Well, what of it?" said Korniloff as if thinking aloud. "Many will perish but the rest will finally take the army into their hands."

This phrase rings now almost like a confession, but at that time it was uttered in a speculative, theoretical mood. Throughout that period General Korniloff failed to realize the full meaning and significance of his own plans. Even his phrase "well, what of it, it may be necessary to try even a dictatorship" was uttered in such completely hypothetical manner that even this did not make me suspicious of Korniloff personally.

At the time of this conversation Korniloff's emissaries were already canvassing the front, transmitting verbally Korniloff's orders.

One such emissary came to General Denikin. Denikin himself describes it in his memoirs as follows:

He handed me a letter written in Korniloff's own hand, in which I was requested to receive personally the report of the officer. He reported: According to reliable information, a Bolshevist uprising is to take place in Petrograd at the end of August.[1*] At about that time the third Cavalry Corps will be moved to the capital, with General Krimoff in command, who will crush the Bolshevist uprising and at the same time "finish" the Soviets. ...

The commander-in-chief requests you to commandeer to General Headquarters several score reliable officers—officially for the study of bomb and mine throwing. In reality they will be sent to Petrograd into the officer detachment.[2*]

At one point of their preparations the conspirators in Petrograd were inclined to resort to terrorism, i.e., to have me assassinated. This would have been a very easy thing to do, as the precautions taken for my personal safety were very meager. Moreover, no precautions would have been sufficient to prevent my assassination, for the terrorists themselves had unrestricted access to me, some of them being members of my guard and immediate entourage. Among these was a colonel of the General Staff whose duty it was to report to me every morning on the situation at the front. Usually, we were quite alone, discussing the military situation, with a map of the front before us. On being informed that he had been ordered by the conspirators to kill me, I kept close watch on him at our morning conferences, without, however, changing in the least the mode of procedure. The colonel, usually restrained, well poised and calm, did begin to show indications of peculiar nervousness. After several days of this game, I finally bid the colonel good-by and asked him not to come to me any more. He did not ask for the reason of his dismissal and disappeared with a bow.

The hero of a second unsuccessful plan to assassinate me was a young officer of marines. His task was to shoot me at the Winter Palace, where the guard on the eve or at the very beginning of the Korniloff rebellion consisted of marines. The young man could have performed his "patriotic task" without the slightest difficulty or risk. But at the last moment he was not in the Winter Palace but at the home of some relatives. In great excitement and weeping he revealed to them the whole story of the plot for my assassination and the fact that he had been chosen to be the instrument of my death. The marine officer's relatives, acquaintances of a high official of the city militia, immediately reported the matter to that official.

Without giving the incident any publicity, I ordered the removal of the marines from the Winter Palace and the substitution of another guard. The marine officer was permitted to return undisturbed to his unit.

I must say that the idea of beginning the revolt with my assassination was in itself strategically a proper one, for only by dislocating at one blow the government apparatus could the conspirators hope for any measure of success. Of course, the conspirators had intended to do away with me but had finally decided to do so under circumstances of least danger and risk to themselves. In general, the officers involved in the conspiracy, brave on the field of battle, preferred to follow in their plot against the Provisional Government a policy of cunning duplicity rather than of frank, straightforward action. In this respect these officers, in addition to showing a lack of civic courage, were less courageous than the Bolsheviki, who never pretended to be loyal to the Provisional Government. The conspirators were compelled to adopt this policy of duplicity because of the sentiments of the people and of the rank and file of the army. In their revolt against Nicholas I, on December 14, 1825, the Petrograd guard officers were able to address themselves directly to the barracks and to march at the head of their troops. But now the conspirators were without any following in the barracks, maintaining their authority only in so far as it had been delegated to them by the Provisional Government. At the time of the Korniloff advance on Petrograd, the officers did not dare to reveal the purpose of the expedition even to the Cossack regiments or to the celebrated "Wild Division," which led the advance, the conspirators being compelled to keep secret from their own troops their aim of overthrowing the Provisional Government. On the contrary, the Cossacks and the men of the "Wild Division" were told that a Bolshevist uprising was in progress in Petrograd and that it was necessary to rush to the defense of the capital and of the Provisional Government.

Simultaneously with the preparation for the treacherous blow against the Provisional Government, General Korniloff's immediate associates conducted negotiations with certain military and political Allied circles. The political aspect of the conspiracy was not in the hands of General Headquarters, where General Krimoff was in charge of the military preparations, but was being taken care of in certain quiet and comfortable studies in Petrograd and Moscow. On their visit to Moscow during the Conference, officers of the General Staff conferred secretly with the political leaders of the conspiracy. To this very day, however, the conservative and liberal politicians who took part in the conspiracy, who know in detail its plan and purposes, continue to speak of the "misunderstanding" between the Provisional Government and Korniloff, placing upon me the responsibility for the result and catastrophe.

I will not cite here all the data at my disposal. The readers interested in a detailed account of the Korniloff affair will find it in my book The Prelude to Bolshevism, wherein I present the complete documentary evidence.

The conspiratory machinery at General Headquarters and in Petrograd was already in operation by the time of the convocation of the Moscow Conference. The conspirators sought to utilize the conference for a trial of strength, planning to proclaim General Korniloff dictator, should circumstances prove favorable during the course of the conference. With this end in view, they carried out a mobilization of their political and social forces several days preceding the conference. Quite "accidentally" the central committees of the respective military organizations involved in the conspiracy passed resolutions which while differing in text were quite similar in content. The Cossack Council, the Union of the Knights of St. George, the Central Committee of the Union of Officers, the Conference of the Military League, etc., proclaimed General Korniloff as the permanent and irremovable commander-in-chief. The Cossack Council even went so far as to threaten the Provisional Government with mutiny in the event of Korniloff's removal. With the resolution embodying this threat representatives of the Cossack Council appeared before me. Needless to say, they received a proper answer.

On August twenty-first, with the convocation of the reactionary "Conference of Public Workers," Rodzianko sent a telegram to Korniloff, expressing in the name of the conference his agreement with the resolutions of the military organizations.

The result was outwardly an imposing picture: General Korniloff was being proclaimed commander-in-chief, permanent and irremovable, not only by the military organizations representing the more authoritative officer circles, but also by all the "sound" and "politically mature" elements of Russia, headed by the president and members of the Duma, the former Imperial Council, the nobility, the industrial and financial aristocracy, the spokesmen of the academic and journalistic world and, finally, by the two former commanders-in-chief, General Alexeyeff and General Brusiloff.

It is not difficult to visualize the effect of this on the mind of the naive general, given to impulsive action but little able to think politically. He interpreted every word of his worshipers as befits a soldier: words must be followed by deeds and promises by performance. The fact, however, was that all the high sounding resolutions of the military and civilian grandees and of celebrated political orators were just words. Words, words, words! These men were pushing the nai've general over a precipice, while they themselves remained on the brink, having not the slightest intention of risking their necks in following him.

General Korniloff came to the Moscow Conference in great pomp. At the station he was met by the entire elite of the old capital. Wealthy ladies in white dresses and flowers in hand fell on their knees before him; politicians wept with joy. Officers carried the "popular hero" on their shoulders. In an automobile surrounded by cavalry composed of exotic tribesmen, Korniloff, following the old Czarist custom, went from the station to the Kremlin to pray at the shrine of the Iversk Madonna. On returning to his railway carriage, General Korniloff began receiving delegations and deputations of various kinds. Regular reports were submitted to him on the financial, economic and general internal situation in Russia.

On the streets of Moscow pamphlets were being distributed, entitled "Korniloff, the National Hero." These pamphlets were printed at the expense of the British Military Mission and had been brought to Moscow from the British Embassy in Petrograd in the railway carriage of General Knox, British military attache. At about this time, Aladin, a former labor member of the Duma, arrived from England, whither he had fled in 1906, after the dissolution of the first Duma. In London this once famous politician lost his entire political baggage and became an extremely suspicious adventurer. This discredited man brought to General Korniloff a letter from Lord Milner, British War Minister, expressing his approval of a military dictatorship in Russia and giving his blessing to the enterprise. This letter naturally served to encourage the conspirators greatly. Aladin himself, envoy of the British War Minister, was given first place next to Zavoiko in the entourage of General Korniloff.

As we have already seen, the Moscow Conference proved a complete failure for the conspirators. Their plan for the "peaceful" proclamation of a military dictatorship was shattered. It was then, on the road from Moscow back to General Headquarters, in the carriage of the commander-in-chief, that they decided to overthrow the Provisional Government by force of arms.




[1*] This was a deliberate invention of the conspirators, for the Bolsheviki, having been driven underground, could not and did not at that time plan any uprising.—A. K.

[2*] Denikin, Memoirs, page 210.


Last updated on: 2.17.2008