Monday, March 6, 2017
The February Revolution and Kerensky’s Missed Opportunity
John Quiggin, nytimes.com [original article contains links]
Image from article, with caption: Troop summoned by Aleksandr Kerensky from the front
to suppress an uprising in 1917
Brisbane, Australia — The February Revolution is one of history’s great “What if”
moments. If this revolution — which actually took place in early March 1917
according to the West’s Gregorian calendar (Russia adopted that calendar only later)
— had succeeded in producing a constitutional democracy in place of the czarist
empire as its leaders hoped, the world would be a very different place.
If the leading figure in the provisional government, Aleksandr Kerensky, had
seized on an opportunity presented by a now-forgotten vote in the German
Reichstag [JB -- see below], World War I might have been over before
American troops reached Europe. In this alternative history, Lenin and Stalin
would be obscure footnotes, and Hitler would never have been more than a
By February 1917, after more than two years of bloody and pointless war, six
million Russian soldiers were dead, wounded or missing. Privation on the home
front was increasing. When the government of Czar Nicholas II announced the
rationing of bread, tens of thousands of protesters, many of them women, filled the
streets of St. Petersburg. Strikes broke out across the country. The czar tried to
suppress the protests by force, but his calls to the army were either met with
mutinies or simply ignored.
By the beginning of March, the situation was untenable: Nicholas abdicated,
bringing an end to the Romanov dynasty.
The vacuum created by the collapse of the autocracy was filled in part by a
provisional government, formed from the opposition groups in the previously
powerless Duma, or Parliament, and in part by workers’ councils, called soviets. At
the outset, the initiative lay with the provisional government, which seemed to
embody the hopes of a majority of the Russian people.
The most immediate of these hopes, the replacement of autocracy by
constitutional democracy, was inscribed in the very name of the party that came to
power after the February Revolution. The Constitutional Democrats, or Cadets, who
had emerged from a failed revolution in 1905, were moderate liberals with
substantial support from intellectuals and the urban middle class. Prince Georgi
Lvov, a middle-aged aristocrat, became the prime minister, but he was generally
seen as a figurehead. The Cadet leader and foreign minister, Pavel Milyukov, was the
dominant figure in the early days of the revolution.
The Cadets were the most moderate of the parties that jostled for power in the
wake of the February Revolution. To their left were the Social Revolutionaries, who,
despite their radical-sounding name, were a relatively moderate and democratic
group, focused mainly on breaking up the big feudal estates and redistributing land
to the peasants. Even more confusingly from a modern perspective, the real
revolutionaries were known as Social Democrats, a term now used by European
parties of the moderate center-left.
The Social Democrats were further divided into two also misleadingly named
factions. The smaller, dominated by Vladimir Lenin, went by the name Bolsheviks
(or majority socialists), while the larger group, which included most of the notable
leaders other than Lenin, were the Mensheviks (minority socialists). In claiming the
mantle of majority for his group when it won a minor procedural vote, Lenin
foreshadowed the determination and ruthlessness that would propel him to supreme
Those were only the biggest groups. Anarchists, syndicalists and a specifically
Jewish leftist group, the Bundists, all competed with, fought against and sometimes
allied with one another.
When war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, most of these groups,
despite their opposition to the czarist regime, had supported what they saw as a
defensive war caused by the aggression of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary.
In this, they were similar to a majority of European socialist and social democratic
parties, which abandoned their professed internationalism and rallied
around the flags of their national governments.
Among the minority of political leaders who opposed the war, the most
important was Lenin, along with the leaders of the left-twing strand of the
Mensheviks, Yuli Martov and Leon Trotsky, all of whom were in exile. From faraway
Zurich, Lenin could do little but write denunciations of the “social chauvinists” who
supported the war.
As the war dragged on, however, support ebbed among both the political class
and the Russian people. The Brusilov offensive of 1916, hailed as a great victory at
the time, ended with as many as a million Russians killed or wounded, with nothing
of substance in the course of the war changed. Czar Nicholas’s decision to take
personal command of the Russian armed forces produced even greater disasters,
discrediting both Nicholas and the monarchy as a whole.
The rapid collapse of the regime was, therefore, not surprising. But having come
so suddenly to power, the provisional government faced the usual problem of
revolutionary regimes: how to satisfy the often contradictory expectations of the
people who had put them in power.
The provisional government rapidly introduced reforms that would have
seemed utterly transformative in peacetime, instituting universal suffrage and
freedoms of speech, assembly, press and religion, and addressing the demands of the
many national minorities who made up much of the Russian empire’s population.
But none of this delivered the three things the people wanted most: peace, bread
and, for the peasants, land.
Of these failures, the most important was the failure of peace. The war
continued, and in April it emerged that Milyukov had sent a telegram to the British
and French governments, promising continued Russian support. He lost office
shortly thereafter, and the Socialist Revolutionary leader Kerensky emerged as his
Despite the obvious lessons of Milyukov’s fall, Kerensky, too, continued the war.
After touring the front, he succeeded in rallying the weary troops for yet another
offensive. Despite some initial successes, the Kerensky offensive stalled, with heavy
loss of life, repeating the grim pattern of World War I.
The zenith of Kerensky’s authority came with the July Days, a mass
demonstration undertaken by the Bolsheviks but defeated by forces loyal to the
government. With the failure of the July Days protest, Kerensky consolidated his
position by becoming prime minister, replacing Lvov.
At almost exactly the same time, far away in Berlin, the socialist and social-democratic
parties repented of their decision to endorse the war. Germans were
almost as war-weary as Russians, with terrible casualties and widespread shortages
caused by the Allies’ blockade. A resolution in the Reichstag, the German
Parliament, passed by a large majority, called for a peace “without annexations or
indemnities” — a return to the situation that had prevailed before war broke out.
By this time, however, Germany was effectively a military dictatorship. Power
lay with the High Command, run by the generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, both
of whom were later to play prominent roles in bringing Hitler to power.
Unsurprisingly, Ludendorff and Hindenburg ignored the Reichstag motion.
What is surprising, to anyone who has absorbed the standard victor’s view —
according to which the Allies were fighting a defensive war to liberate small states —
is that Britain was disingenuous about its war aims, while France declined to state
them at all. The reason is that those aims were too discreditable to avow openly. In a
series of secret treaties, they agreed in the event of victory to carve up the empires of
their defeated enemies.
From the Russian viewpoint, the big prize was the Turkish capital,
Constantinople, now called Istanbul; this was promised to Russia in a secret
agreement in 1915. The subsequent publication of this and other secret treaties by
the Bolsheviks did much to discredit the Allied cause.
Kerensky could have repudiated the deals made by the czarist empire and
announced his willingness to accept the Reichstag formula of peace without
annexations or indemnities. Perhaps the German High Command would have
ignored the offer and continued fighting (as it did when the Bolsheviks offered the
same terms after the October Revolution at the end of 1917). But the circumstances
were far more favorable in July than they were at the end of 1917. As the Kerensky
offensive demonstrated, the Russian Army, while demoralized, was still an effective
fighting force, and the front line was far closer to the territory of the Central Powers.
Moreover, Kerensky commanded credibility with the Western Allies that he could
have used to good effect.
Kerensky’s determination to continue the war was a disaster. Within a few
months, the armed forces were in open revolt. Lenin, who was transported across
Germany in a sealed train with the High Command’s acquiescence in the hope that
he would help to knock Russia out of the war, seized the opportunity. The
provisional government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the October
Revolution. This Bolshevik Revolution consigned the February Revolution to
After accepting a humiliating treaty imposed by the Germans, Russia was soon
embroiled in a civil war more bloody and brutal than even World War I. By its end,
the Bolshevik government, launched as a workers’ democracy, was effectively a
dictatorship, enabling the ascendancy of a previously obscure Bolshevik, Joseph
Stalin, who would become one of the great tyrants of history. On the other side, the
German High Command’s rejection of peace similarly led to defeat, national
humiliation and the emergence of the 20th century’s other great tyrant, Adolf Hitler.
We cannot tell whether a positive response from Kerensky to the Reichstag
peace initiative would have achieved anything. But it is hard to imagine an outcome
worse than the one that actually took place. The years of pointless bloodshed that
brought Russia two revolutions turned out to be merely a foretaste of the decades of
totalitarianism and total war to come. Kerensky’s failure was one of the great missed
opportunities of history.
John Quiggin is a professor of economics at the University of Queensland