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Alexander Kerensky and World War I

Дата публикации: 04 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Александр Павлович Шиманский
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS) - Imperial Russia →
Источник: (c) http://russia.by
Номер публикации: №1188915183 / Жалобы? Ошибка? Выделите проблемный текст и нажмите CTRL+ENTER!

Did the Kerensky government make a mistake when it tried to keep Russia in the war?

Viewpoint: Yes. The decision of the new government antagonized the proponents of the slogan "Peace, Land, Bread!"

Viewpoint: No. The new government needed all the help it could get, and the promise of generous French and British support made staying in the war a reasonable calculated risk.


The first Russian Revolution (March 1917) grew out of a complex synergy of factors, all traceable to a common source: comprehensive war-weariness. The Provisional Government that replaced the Tsarist Empire had no general mandate. It consisted of an uneasy coalition of politicians and bureaucrats from the more-conservative parties and the more-liberal element of the former administration. It began by breaking sharply with its predecessor on many fronts. The new government proclaimed freedom of speech, press, and assembly. It abolished restrictions based on class, nationality, and religion. It declared its intention to call for a freely elected national assembly. It shared de facto power with the radical Petrograd Soviet, and the two bodies worked together in the early days of the revolution despite mutual suspicion.
The prospect of the new order must not be overstated. The swift and easy collapse of tsarism had not solved any of the deeply rooted social or political problems the Empire had been accumulating for decades. At best it had created an environment in which solutions could be developed. Within weeks, as self-demobilizing soldiers returned to their villages and as peasants began to realize that the traditional authority was indeed gone, disorder began and escalated.
A major focal point of popular discontent was the decision by the Provisional Government to keep Russia in the war. Its first head, Prince Georgy Lvov, and his successor, Aleksandr Kerensky (Alexander Kerensky), were committed to keeping the new Russia in the camp of the Western democracies, a position enhanced by the April entry of the United States into the war. Fulfilling previously assumed international obligations seemed a necessary first step--especially since France and Britain were willing to promise financial and military aid in amounts far greater than those furnished to the vanished Empire. Prowar socialists were dispatched to make the case that continuing the struggle against German tyranny did not violate Marxist canons. Convincing as well was the argument that continuing the war would stabilize the internal situation in Russia. All the factions would rally to the support of the government, setting aside their differences at least temporarily.
The Russian army had been eroding for months before the revolution. Radical-Left political groups, the Bolsheviks in particular, called for "peace, land, and bread." Soldiers listened. Frontline units, as well as the rear echelons, were hemorrhaging men. Discipline was unraveling as junior officers with wartime commissions abandoned even a pretense of enforcing command authority. Officers who expressed pessimism were considered counterrevolutionaries; Kerensky in his original capacity as Minister of War had dismissed many of them.
In April an All-Russian Council of Soviets called for a negotiated peace without annexations or indemnities. The Provisional Government responded by reaffirming support for "guarantees and sanctions" to prevent future conflicts. This stance precipitated a conflict leading to mass demonstrations in Petrograd and to the formation of a new coalition government supported by the major radical parties. That government took the step of solidifying its position by a major military offensive, similar in conception to that of the previous year. This time, however, the attacks petered out as division after division refused to advance. By mid July the extent of the fiasco was such that the Provisional Government reintroduced courts-martial and capital punishment. Conservative generals planned a coup. Radicals, Bolshevik and otherwise, rejoiced in the fulfillment of the classical proverb that whom the gods seek to destroy, they first drive mad.

Viewpoint: Yes. The decision of the new government antagonized the proponents of the slogan "Peace, Land, Bread!"

Ending a war is harder than starting one. There are both political and psychological reasons for this phenomenon. Politicians who start wars put everything on the line when they do so: they risk their careers, their honor, and their place in history. Thus, they tend to avoid a negotiated peace when it is still possible to win the war. Given the general reluctance of political communities to change leaders in the midst of a conflict, the men who start wars are normally the ones who are leading the country when it is necessary to end them. This structural factor prolongs warfare. Psychologically, wars are difficult to end because each side sacrifices human lives and material goods in order to obtain victory. The more that these losses pile up, the more important it becomes to gain something from victory. World War I was particularly difficult to end because the losses were so great and the contest so close. As the human and economic costs rose, so too did the expectations of large rewards from victory, despite the fact that the enormous costs were in large part the result of the balance of power that existed between the warring parties. As a result, though it was becoming increasingly clear that the war was a tie, military and political leaders pushed in vain for lopsided victories.

Something revolutionary had to change in order for the war to end with a stable European order. That event actually occurred in February 1917, when the Romanov dynasty was toppled by urban protestors and dissatisfied soldiers in the Russian capital city of Petrograd. Unfortunately, political mismanagement by the Provisional Government that assumed power after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II led instead to a prolongation of the war, an intensification of domestic conflict within the Russian Empire, and the rise of radical Communists to power eight months later. Though many factors accounted for the dramatic events that occurred in Russia in 1917, war or peace was the largest political question of the day and the one that ultimately decided the fate not only of the Provisional Government but of twentieth-century Europe. The hostilities, of course, ended in 1918, but the failure of Russian politicians to seize the opportunity to conclude it in 1917 resulted in a postwar world marked by radicalism, bitter grievances, and endemic violence. Ultimately, unresolved issues found expression in an even more-devastating war that came a generation later.

What could the new generation of Russian politicians have done to stop this madness? They should have ended the war as soon as they came to power. Russia was in a unique and temporary position in the early months of 1917, when both the political and psychological impediments to ending the war were, in effect, suspended. In political terms the February Revolution had opened the door for new policies. Those responsible for starting the war and many of its disasters were now ousted from power and replaced by members of the Duma (a quasi-parliamentary legislature), who had spent much of the past year and a half actively denouncing the government's actions. They took "provisional" power until a Constituent Assembly (roughly the equivalent of a Constitutional Convention) could be convened, but they all proclaimed themselves to be democrats responsible to the will of the people. That will was solidly in favor of bringing about a rapid peace settlement. In terms of domestic politics, Russian politicians had not only the capability to end the war but a mandate to do so. Nearly all of the many riots and outbursts of the war years had included a call to put a stop to hostilities. "Down with the War!" and "Down with the Autocracy!" were favorite slogans well before the February Revolution, and they almost always appeared together. Some Russians still wanted to fight the war to a "victorious conclusion," but they were a distinct minority. Among the most crucial segment of the population--the soldiers of the Russian army--the consensus throughout most of 1917 was that Russia should end the war as soon as possible without ceding territory or treasure.

The question of peace was a bit messier in the international arena. The political leadership of the main allies of Russia, Great Britain, and France still sought victory at any cost. The continued presence of Russia in the war was crucial for their plans, as the Russian army forced the Central Powers to fight the war on two fronts. The British and French were opposed to any negotiated peace and were highly agitated about the possibility of a separate peace between Russia and the Central Powers. The major stumbling block to ending the war in 1917 was the refusal of the Allies to contemplate a negotiated political settlement. This stance, however, did not mean that peace was impossible. To the contrary, the potential for Russia to sign a separate peace was quite real. The Russian army had been pummeled by German forces in 1915, but it had rebounded in 1916 to win significant victories over both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Neither of these crumbling empires had either the desire or the capability to refuse an armistice with Russia if Germany could be brought on board, and the Germans were ready to deal. The Germans had gambled desperately on a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in the winter of 1916-1917 and were losing that gamble. The United States was in the process of declaring war on Germany when the February Revolution occurred, and massive numbers of American troops were expected to arrive in Europe in 1918, which gave Germany about a year to salvage their war effort. A separate peace was a golden opportunity. Throughout April, May, and June 1917 the German High Command repeatedly tried to get the Provisional Government to come to the table to work out terms of an armistice.

Politically and psychologically, the potential for ending the war was also there. Most Russian soldiers had not been enamored of the war from its beginning and were right to believe that it held little promise of gain for common Russians, not to mention the enormous threat of personal and social destruction. Most Russians were therefore justifiably antiwar, but few were defeatist. The general feeling both in the ranks and at home was that the war should be ended without any expectation of annexation or indemnity by any of the warring parties. Continuing the conflict was throwing good money (and lives) after bad. In addition, the Revolution itself had opened the possibility for psychological reward. If no far-off ports or trading concessions were to be gained, something far greater could be achieved: liberty, equality, fraternity. Ending the war to consolidate freedom and to recognize the sacrifices and efforts of Russian citizens had a pleasant ring to it, and calls to cease hostilities in the name of the revolution sprang forth from all corners of the country.

Even more significantly, Russia now had the chance to be the true moral leader of the Continent through her Revolution. With little prospect that traditional political gains could be won on the battlefield by any side, some hoped that this untraditional war might result with the end to traditional diplomacy and perhaps with an end to war itself. This psychological reward was of the highest order, and enthusiastic Russians sought to claim it immediately. The most famous formulation of this type came from social democrats in the Petrograd Soviet on 15 March 1917 in their "Appeal to the Peoples of All the World." "Toilers of all countries," the appeal read, "extending our hands as brothers across the mountains of our brothers' corpses, across the rivers of innocent blood and tears, across the smoking ruins of cities and villages, across the ruined treasures of civilization, we appeal to you to restore and strengthen international unity. In this is the pledge of our future victories and of the complete liberation of humanity." Socialists, such as the ones who wrote this appeal, counted on the Russian peace offensive to trigger a social revolution across the continent that would unseat kings and topple governments, but even those with a less panoramic vision of the probable results of a separate peace could see that the withdrawal of Russia from the war, coupled with the entrance of the United States, would put new pressures on all warring parties to end the conflict before a decisive outcome was reached. A politically negotiated peace, without annexations or indemnity, would have been difficult to achieve, but the potential for it had increased dramatically.

Thus, the Provisional Government had the motive, means, and opportunity to get out of the war. They failed to do so, not just once but twice. The first chance was on the heels of the Revolution itself, when crowds of people thronged the streets, the powerful Petrograd Soviet prepared its appeal to the world for peace, and German diplomats drooled at the chance to close one of their fronts. Instead, the liberal historian and parliamentarian Pavel Milyukov, who had been named Foreign Minister, announced without delay on 4 March 1917 that Russia would remain "faithful to the treaty that binds her by indissoluble ties to her glorious allies" and would "shoulder to shoulder with them fight our common foe to the end, unswervingly and indefatigably." So long as this war was, as Milyukov also declared, being fought to prevent the "shame of being dominated by Prussian militarism," there was a chance of maintaining the effort. When it leaked out later that Milyukov was also insisting to the Allies that Russia be granted Constantinople and the Straits as the reward for their sacrifice, however, Milyukov was discredited, removed from the government, and destroyed as a politician. Thus ended the first opportunity.

The moderate socialist Aleksandr Kerensky (Alexander Kerensky) had played an active role in the furor over the Straits and Milyukov's continuation of old-style diplomacy. His stand against annexations, combined with his long history in the Duma of being the voice of the common soldier and his position as a go-between between the Provisional Government and the Soviet, propelled him to the top of the revolutionary scene in the wake of Milyukov's departure. He became minister of war and prime minister, and he had that most unusual of political opportunities: a second chance to seize a golden moment. Instead of ending the war, however, he did the opposite. He rebuffed new German peace plans, ordered his generals to prepare an offensive against the Central Powers, and personally went on a morale-raising tour of the front lines to lecture soldiers on their duty to fight and die for the glorious Russian revolution. The offensive, which began at the end of June, had initial success but was crushed by a counteroffensive days later. The army was shattered by the experience. Units that had been held together by a thread after the February Revolution now broke apart. Desertion and indiscipline ran rampant. Brutalized, war-weary soldiers terrorized the civilian population on their way home, and chaos became the common daily condition.

Several viable political groupings stepped forward to try to reinstill order, including Kerensky's government and the military high command. By the end of the summer, however, the group that was growing most rapidly was the one that had been most strident in its call to end the "imperialist war." This group was the previously small but rapidly growing Bolshevik Party led by radical communist Lenin. The Bolsheviks grew from less than 24,000 members at the time of the February Revolution to 350,000 by October 1917, at which point they swept to power and delivered on their promise, signing an armistice with Germany less than a month after their seizure of power and a peace treaty three months later. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, however, was far more punitive than what the Germans had offered less than a year earlier. During the spring of 1917 a large if wavering army still faced German troops. By the winter of 1918 those men had gone home. The German High Command therefore was able to dictate terms in a way that would have been impossible a year earlier. They would get a taste of their own medicine a year later in Versailles, when a vengeful peace embittered a generation of Germans and gave birth to violent schemes of revenge. In the meantime, the armed political factions that emerged from the Russian rubble in 1918 launched a civil war against one another that lasted another three years, completely devastated the economic and social life of the country, and resulted in a brutal communist dictatorship.

Why, then, did Milyukov, Kerensky, and other decision makers in the Provisional Government fail to save their careers, country, and continent by concluding peace? The answer was as simple as it was unsatisfactory. They rejected German calls for a separate peace as "shameful and incompatible with the honor and dignity of Russia." Thus, the options they saw before them were dismal. The most obvious choice, to conclude a general peace along with the British and French, foundered immediately on Western recalcitrance. With peace out of the question, only war remained, and if all policymakers were well aware that a Russian military victory was out of the question, all also placed great hopes in the American intervention. The question was therefore not winning, but just surviving. Indeed, as Kerensky noted in his memoirs, the great summer offensive of 1917 was undertaken not for territory or any other strategic gain, but simply to maintain morale in the army, since "no army can remain in indefinite idleness." This situation was the absurd position that the Russian government put itself in by insisting on maintaining treaty obligations. Kerensky was asking soldiers to fight for nothing, while Lenin was promising them everything if they refused to fight. The fact that soldiers overwhelmingly preferred the Bolsheviks to Kerensky by October was thus not a reflection of their being duped by propaganda (as Kerensky would later claim), but because the Bolsheviks better represented their own personal and political interests.

Still, it is hard not to have at least a little sympathy for the men in the Provisional Government. Refusing to sign the separate peace and remaining engaged with and committed to their allies was their way of being honorable and trustworthy public figures of international importance. They were fulfilling promises and acting according to their consciences and their own understanding of Russian interests. Unfortunately, they failed to see what many other Russians saw with remarkable clarity. The commitments the Provisional Government kept were ones they had not made--ones agreed to by a government they despised on the basis of an imperial policy they rejected. The commitments they broke were to the people they claimed to represent and to the democratic idea that in times of crisis politicians should submit to the clearly expressed will of the vast majority of their constituency. They would pay for these egregious political mistakes with their careers. Many more, both in Russia and across Europe, would pay with their lives in the century to come.

-- Josh Sanborn, Lafayette College

Viewpoint: No. The new government needed all the help it could get, and the promise of generous French and British support made staying in the war a reasonable calculated risk.

For many historians of the Russian Revolution, one the most fateful decisions of the Provisional Government that assumed power after Tsar Nicholas II's abdication was its determination to keep Russia in World War I. It has been argued that this decision was the most obvious catalyst for the collapse of the fragile Russian democracy and that it greatly exacerbated the existing social and political tensions that beset the country. In many ways, however, this argument relies upon hindsight and does not take into account other critical factors of the time. The fact of the matter is that there were many other reasons behind the collapse of the Provisional Government. Continuation of the war was neither the main cause of its fall, nor was it an imperative course of action at the time.

When the Provisional Government assumed authority in March 1917, its greatest problem was the inexperience of its leading personnel. Although it was no fault of their own, the men who took up executive power after the collapse of tsarism had never been entrusted with any serious responsibilities in government administration. All of the new ministers came from parties of either the liberal center or socialist Left. After the legalization of political parties and the creation of a quasi-parliamentary legislature (Duma) in 1905, and until literally the last days of the empire, the tsarist regime had viewed even the moderate Duma politicians with great suspicion and indignantly refused to allow them into government. In addition to their ideological differences with the regime, most of the new ministers came from the professional or commercial middle classes, which the tsarist government mistrusted and generally discriminated against when it came to making appointments to positions of power. The first prime minister of the Prince Provisional Government, the liberal aristocrat Georgy Lvov, had substantial experience in the limited zemstvo (local government) institutions established in the 1860s, but their activities were sharply circumscribed by the powers of the Imperial government. Although many of the new Russian leaders in 1917 were accomplished in law, business, academia, or other sectors of civil society, none of them had ever held any responsible government position at the national level, and most had no government experience at all. This inexperience immediately became evident. Approaching government more from their own philosophical abstractions rather than from administrative pragmatism, they displayed little talent, efficiency, or political savvy.

Their first major difficulty was their problematic legitimacy. The new executive authority was never elected to national leadership and had quite simply assumed its powers as tsarist authority evaporated in the crisis that shook Petrograd in February-March 1917. In a technical legal sense, the new ministers did not even have formal standing as Duma members, since Nicholas II prorogued the sitting session of the body shortly before his abdication. Even if they had a legal basis for assuming power, the ministers still had to face the fact that the Duma elections that had brought them to national prominence in the first place were indirect, undemocratic processes designed to favor the wealthiest elements in society and rural areas over cities. The new government's claim to democratic legitimacy was thin.

When the Provisional Government came to power, all it had was the broad sanction of the politically active population in the capital and the tepid acquiescence of its main rival for executive power, the Petrograd Soviet (council), an erratically elected assembly of representatives chosen by a large segment of the soldiers and factory workers in the city. Despite the Soviet's tacit acceptance of the Provisional Government, however, it began to issue decrees and legislation in its own right. Even as the Provisional Government tried to consolidate its authority, it had to contend with a more-radical and often antagonistic body that, to complicate matters, actually met in the same building. As if this "dual power" were not enough of a challenge, many of the radical delegates in the Soviet called with increasing vehemence for it to depose the Provisional Government and assume all power.

The Provisional Government was keenly aware of its flawed democratic credentials, yet its leaders were unforgivably lax in their attempts to remedy the situation. After coming to power, its ministers made clear that their role was temporary. Even the name they used for themselves, "Provisional Government," is inaccurately translated from the Russian vremennoe pravitel'stvo, which has the more literal (and politically significant) meaning of "temporary government." With no pretensions about its fleeting role, the Provisional Government promised that the future political structure of the country would be decided by a democratically elected Constituent Assembly. Nevertheless, it took the assiduously professional officials several months just to draft the necessary laws to govern the elections, which were finally scheduled for late November 1917, fully ten months after the Provisional Government had assumed power and, incidentally, one month after the Bolsheviks had made the whole issue irrelevant by overthrowing it. In the intervening time, the Russian people were held in a suspense that bred the disillusionment and apathy that made the October coup all too easy.

Worse still, the Provisional Government further declared that the resolution of pressing issues such as land reform, long-range economic policy, and national minority rights, among many others, would also be decided by the Constituent Assembly. In addition to the more abstract question of the future form of government, important decisions impacting the daily lives of the Russian people were also to be deferred for what many came to believe would be an indefinite period of time. Faced with a government that had essentially absented itself from leadership on most crucial issues, many Russians simply took the law into their own hands. As the revolutionary year went on, there were more and more illegal seizures of privately owned agricultural land by peasants. Factory workers increasingly used physical intimidation to dictate working conditions to their employers, and minority nationalists gravitated more resolutely toward independence from Russia. Having abolished the tsarist police, the politicians were offering apparently empty promises that could do little to curtail the growing civil unrest.

Most ominous of all was the status of civil-military relations. In a crucial test of any democratic government, the new democratic government of Russia generally failed to subordinate the military to its control. Within a few days of its assumption of power, the famous Soviet Order No. 1 authorized soldiers and sailors to elect administrative councils (also called soviets) within their units. This development fundamentally altered the power structure of the Russian army. It effectively deprived officers of their authority, seriously impaired military discipline, dramatically undermined the centralized command structure, and eventually threatened the effectiveness of the military as a fighting force. By the autumn of 1917, desertion, mutiny, and a general unwillingness to fight were common phenomena in the Russian army.

The collapse of military order, together with the general weakness of the Provisional Government, also alienated Russian officers. Although many of them embraced fundamental political reform and rejected tsarism, few supported the ineffectual Provisional Government and the chaotic situation over which it presided. In August 1917 its new commander in chief, General Lavr Kornilov, independently ordered a corps of the most reliable units on the front to march on Petrograd. While Kornilov's motives remain unclear and appear to have had the initial support of the government, his move was denounced as a plot against the Revolution and he and his officers were arrested. Whether the new democracy chose to stay in the war or not, its control over the military was dangerously limited.

What did the Provisional Government accomplish? Despite its fatal timidity with regard to important affairs of state, it managed to reform some of the worst abuses of the tsarist system. As convinced democrats who wanted Russia to become "the freest country in the world," the new ministers almost instantly embraced far-reaching changes in the Russian legal system. To the plaudits of Western liberals (and sympathetic historians), the Provisional Government introduced a truly progressive program of civil liberties, which included the amnesty of all political prisoners, full freedom of speech and assembly, and the abolition of capital punishment. In an unstable situation, however, these reforms only weakened the new democracy further. The amnesty, first of all, extended to all political offenders imprisoned or exiled by the tsarist regime, even those who had committed violent crimes for (ostensibly) political reasons, and not only to people whom the contemporary world would consider prisoners of conscience. With strong traditions in Russia of underground revolutionary movements, political terrorism, and Marxist extremism, many of the "political" offenders amnestied in 1917 had in fact been imprisoned or exiled for their violent crimes rather than their ideas. As a result, political extremists who were fundamentally opposed to the new democracy and advocated further violent revolutionary change, including the Bolshevik leader Lenin, were allowed to return to the center of the action. The lifting of censorship and the advent of completely free speech enabled Lenin and other radicals to advocate with impunity the revolutionary overthrow of the weak new government and the existing social and economic order. The abolition of capital punishment, regardless of whatever humanitarian value it may have had, both emboldened extremists who no longer faced death if they attempted to make a revolution and removed the strongest sanction of military discipline from the ranks of collapsing army.

Clearly, the Provisional Government had plenty of internal problems unrelated to the war. Although some historians point to the continued participation of Russia in the conflict as yet another serious problem that the government could not handle, the alternative of withdrawing from it was for several reasons an even less attractive option. First, it was clear that after three years of consistent military reversal, any peace settlement with the belligerent and imperialist German government would have been little more than a negotiated surrender. Political turmoil in Russia in the spring of 1917 actually emboldened German ambitions in Eastern Europe and, as the Bolshevik government realized a year later when it made a peace settlement, the price of Russian departure would have been the loss of an enormous amount of territory to direct or indirect German influence. This option was especially unattractive, as the territory in question included many of the richest industrial and agricultural regions in Russia, and much of its natural resources. Second, it was widely believed that Imperial Germany would use military victory over Russia to install a more palatable government of its own choosing, probably a restoration of the monarchy in modified form. Leaving the war, therefore, was regarded as a major threat to Russian democracy. Third, peace would also have meant the immediate demobilization of several million soldiers who were becoming increasingly radicalized and whose reintegration into the chaotic and fractured civilian world would have exacerbated an unstable domestic situation.

The most far-reaching consequence, as Russian strategic planners had long feared and as Western diplomatic missions constantly pointed out to the Provisional Government, was that a separate peace in the East would enable Germany to concentrate all of its armed forces in France and quite possibly win the war decisively in the West. In other words, informed opinion at the time believed, not unreasonably, that withdrawing from the war in 1917 would both doom Russia to long-term subordination to Germany and quite possibly contribute to permanent German hegemony over continental Europe.

Obviously, no responsible politician who wanted to assure the future of an independent, democratic Russia could have embarked on such a path. Even when the Bolsheviks, facing great domestic instability and a desperate civil war after they seized power, came to terms with the Germans, they did so only reluctantly and after pronounced internal debate. Although Lenin argued that peace with Germany, however costly, would enable the Bolsheviks to consolidate power at home, he still faced challenges to the decision and even to his leadership over the issue. Only the twisted Marxist argument that a successful revolution in Russia would touch off a worldwide revolution that would negate German gains convinced the party hierarchy to support the separate peace.

Long before Lenin had to accept the punitive peace settlement, however, the Provisional Government had even less inclination to withdraw from the war than either the short-term political damage or the dire long-term strategic implications suggested. In many ways the Provisional Government believed that despite internal problems and military reversals, it could nevertheless see the war through to a successful conclusion. In the abstract political calculus of the new leadership, it was widely believed that the new democratic government could galvanize the demoralized Russian troops to fight for their freedom. Aleksandr Kerensky (Alexander Kerensky), Lvov's successor as prime minister, affected a military bearing (he wore a uniform although he had never been a soldier and faked an ostensibly combat-related arm injury) and made dramatic speeches urging the rank and file to fight for a free Russia. Although this attempt to instill a kind of civic patriotism into the ranks was a failure, it failed not so much because the war was a lost cause but because the politicians were unable to deliver on issues that could have made a real difference in the soldiers' attitudes toward the war.

Further, the new Russian government received a great deal of attention and encouragement from its democratic allies in the West. The entry of the United States into the war in April 1917 offered the prospect of both a stronger effort against the Germans on the Western Front and a huge increase in badly needed shipments of Allied military hardware to Russia. This development convinced the Provisional Government not only to stay in the war, but even to maintain the tsarist plans to annex territory from the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Although the disclosure of these ambitions angered the public and led to the resignations of the responsible ministers, the imperialist plans nevertheless indicated what the government believed to have been possible at the time. With the Western Allies' urging and encouragement, the Provisional Government also had enough confidence to mount a major offensive in July 1917. Despite domestic political strife and the growing problems in the military, the attack enjoyed substantial initial success.

Staying in the war was not crucial to the collapse of the Provisional Government. In domestic politics it proved itself almost totally ineffectual on the leading issues of the day, and it was increasingly unable to maintain law and order. It was also incapable of asserting its authority over the competing Soviet institution in Petrograd and over the restive and rebellious army. Nor could it deal effectively with the radical revolutionaries fighting against the existing social and political order. As a result, the Provisional Government inspired little domestic confidence. When it was finally overthrown by the Bolsheviks in October 1917, its lack of decisive leadership had left it with almost no supporters. Even without the war, the Provisional Government was doomed.

From a diplomatic perspective, the leaders of the Provisional Government correctly believed that a peace settlement with Germany would be so punitive that it would destroy the status of Russia as a great power and would likely mean the end of its democracy. They also had sufficient reasons at the time to believe that if Russia stayed the course, the Allies, bolstered by the entry of the United States into the war, would end the stalemate on the Western Front and defeat Germany before it could do further harm to Russia. The conclusion of a separate peace before that happened would have given the Germans the opportunity to transfer their massive Eastern armies to the Western Front long before decisive American forces arrived in France. The consequences of a potential German victory in the West in 1917 were incalculable, for the world and for Russia.

-- Paul Du Quenoy, Georgetown University


In his memoirs, Aleksandr Kerensky (Alexander Kerensky) considers the need for ordering the final Russian offensive against the Germans:

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. . . .

. . . 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 systematic 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.

Source: Alexander F. Kerensky, The Catastrophe: Kerensky's Own Story of the Russian Revolution (New York & London: Appleton, 1927), pp. 207-209.



Richard Abraham, Alexander Kerensky: The First Love of the Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).

Edward Acton, and others, eds., Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914-1921(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

Robert Paul Browder and Alexander F. Kerensky, eds., The Russian Provisional Government, 1917: Documents, volume 2 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1961).

Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (London: Cape, 1996).

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George Kennan, Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1920, volume 1, Russia Leaves the War, 1917-1920 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956).

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Rex A. Wade, The Russian Revolution, 1917 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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Опубликовано 04 сентября 2007 года

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