The Kornilov Coup

One hundred years ago, why did the alliance between General Lavr Kornilov and Alexander Kerensky fall apart?

A demonstration of workers from the Putilov plant in Petrograd (modern day St. Petersburg), Russia, during the February Revolution. Wikimedia

Once upon a time, General Lavr Kornilov and Alexander Kerensky were thought of as heroes in Russia. Conservative historians describe Kornilov as an honorable patriot and professional soldier while liberal historians tell us about the eloquent, idealistic lawyer Kerensky, who wanted to transform Russia into a vibrant, democratic republic. After Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication, the two joined forces — Kerensky as the head of the Provisional Government, Kornilov as commander-in-chief. Both wanted to guide their nation to a better future.

As historians of all stripes have recorded, the two heroes had a falling out in August 1917, setting the stage for the Bolshevik Revolution. Historians disagree, however, on what precisely precipitated this split.

By some accounts, Kornilov was planning a coup, which Kerensky foiled by mobilizing socialist and working-class groups. The unscrupulous Bolsheviks, it’s argued, took advantage of the confusion and seized power. Others say that Kerensky invented the coup in order to remove Kornilov, unwittingly paving the way for the all-too-real Bolshevik takeover. This interpretation begs the question: why would Kerensky turn on his top military commander and undermine his own power?

The answer lies in the fact that Kornilov planned two coups in 1917: one with Kerensky against the Bolsheviks, and the other against the Provisional Government itself. His ultimate failure reminds us that history on the scale of the Russian Revolution is not made by heroes but by social forces, which create the context within which individuals act.

From Uprising to Repression

Most readers can already recount the conditions that produced the Russian Revolution. Since the late nineteenth century, the country’s rigid semi-feudal monarchy had been blending with modern, industrial capitalism. These strange bedfellows generated incredible tension between the laboring majority — mostly peasants but with a dynamic and growing minority of industrial workers — and the elite — the hereditary aristocrats and industrial capitalists. World War I ratcheted this instability up to explosive proportions.

In February, the workers, responding to revolutionary appeals from a variety of socialist groups, staged a mass insurgency, demanding peace and bread. More profoundly, they called for full land redistribution, an end to autocratic rule, equal rights, and better living conditions.

The democratic workers’ and soldiers’ councils set up after the uprising reflected its values. These soviets not only coordinated the revolution but remained in place to oversee the political and social transition the uprising demanded.

Meanwhile, more “pragmatic” types — liberal, conservative, and moderate-socialist politicians — had formed a Provisional Government. Its leaders praised the workers, peasants, and soldiers, complimented the soviets, and deployed all kinds of democratic and populist rhetoric that promised peace, bread, and land. But peace could only come with honor, bread would have to wait until the crisis ended, and land redistribution should still respect landowners’ rights.

The soviets, initially inclined to go along with this seemingly well-intentioned government, nevertheless established constraints designed to guide it toward the original revolutionary goals. Kerensky, with his socialist credentials, put himself forward as a bridge between the soviets and the Provisional Government, ultimately becoming the president.

Though many believed Kerensky was destined to build a democratic Russia, those who knew him well had doubts. “In Kerensky everything was illogical, contradictory, changing, often capricious, imagined, or feigned,” wrote Socialist Revolutionary (SR) leader Victor Chernov, who served as minister of agriculture. “Kerensky,” he went on, “was tormented by the need to believe in himself, and was always winning or losing that faith.”

While still claiming to represent the soviets’ interests within the Provisional Government, Kerensky began to side with other establishment politicians against the councils, which were undermining his government’s authority.

Moderate socialists, including many Mensheviks and SRs, insisted that the soviets should support the Provisional Government to help establish a capitalist democracy, which they saw as a lengthy but necessary prelude to eventual socialist transition. In contrast, the more radical Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, insisted that the insurgent masses’ demands could only be secured through a second revolution that pushed aside the Provisional Government and gave “all power to the soviets.” This, alongside the spread of revolution to other countries, would launch a socialist transformation.

More and more frustrated workers were joining the Bolsheviks — even the SR and Menshevik left wings found Bolshevik arguments convincing. Leon Trotsky, a brilliant leader in the 1905 revolutionary upsurge, became the Bolsheviks’ most famous recruit.

A crescendo of working-class anger in July culminated in a revolutionary demonstration. Militants in Petrograd, not under party control but with Bolshevik support, initiated the uprising. The ensuing violence gave the government a pretext for repression. As Left SR Isaac Steinberg recounted, “[t]roops of officers, students, Cossacks came out on the streets, searched passers-by for weapons and evidence of ‘Bolshevism,’ committed atrocities.” The Provisional Government outlawed the Bolshevik party, raided and wrecked its headquarters, and arrested or drove out its leaders and most visible militants.

Kornilov and Kerensky

In the wake of the July Days, Kerensky appointed Kornilov commander-in-chief of the Russian army. Both hoped to counter the pressure from “unreasonable” workers, who were setting up factory committees to take control of workplaces and organizing their own “red guard” paramilitary groups to maintain public order and protect the revolution against reactionary violence. Kerensky found such radicalism disturbing, but right-wingers like General Kornilov thought moderates like Kerensky were just as distasteful. Traditional politicians — liberals as well as conservatives — began viewing a military dictatorship as the only way to stabilize the nation.

In his memoirs, Kerensky quotes this message from Kornilov, which displays Kornilov’s contempt for all socialists, even moderates:

I feel sure … that the spineless weaklings who form the Provisional Government will be swept away. If by some miracle they should remain in power, the leaders of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet will go unpunished through the connivance of such men as Chernov. It is time to put an end to all of this. It is time to hang the German spies led by Lenin, to break up the Soviet, and to break it up in such a way that it will never meet again anywhere!

Kerensky reveals that he “agreed to this but did not take part in working out the details.” He believed that Kornilov would allow him to remain the head of the government, but one of the general’s emissaries revealed to the Duma’s conservative and liberal leaders that “everything was ready at Headquarters and the front for the removal of Kerensky.”

Or so Kerensky claimed. Historians have debated whether or not Kornilov really conspired to replace Kerensky with a military dictatorship. Evidence suggests a comedy of errors, miscommunications, and misunderstandings. Most agree, however, that both men planned to wipe out the Bolsheviks and crush the soviets.

Coup(s) Defeated

At almost the last minute, Kerensky concluded that he was in danger. After all, with the soviets out of the way, why would the general bother deferring to the moderate leftist president? As Kornilov moved to march his troops on Petrograd to “save Russia,” the president tried to dismiss the general and appealed to the workers’ organizations — including the Bolsheviks, to whom he granted full legal recognition — to rally to the revolution’s defense. Kerensky later wrote:

The first news of the approach of general Kornilov’s troops had much the same effect on the people of Petrograd as a lighted match on a powder keg. Soldiers, sailors, and workers were all seized with a sudden fit of paranoid suspicion. They fancied they saw counterrevolution everywhere. Panic-stricken that they might lose the rights they had only just gained, they vented their rage against all the generals, landed proprietors, bankers and other “bourgeois” groups.

The “paranoid suspicion” Kerensky attributes to the insurgent masses was, in fact, their recognition of the grim realities they faced. “The news of Kornilov’s revolt electrified the nation, and especially the left,” recalled prominent Menshevik Raphael Abramovitch. “The Soviets and their affiliated organizations, the railroad workers and some sections of the army, declared themselves ready to resist Kornilov by force if necessary.”

The factory committees proclaimed, “military conspirators, headed by the traitor General Kornilov and supported by the blindness and lack of political consciousness of some divisions, are moving to the heart of the revolution — Petrograd.” Another appeal stressed that “a terrible hour has struck” and urged workers “to come to the defense of the revolution and freedom with close ranks,” for “the revolution and the country need your strength, your sacrifices, perhaps your lives.” Historian Alexander Rabinowitch writes:

Spurred by the news of Kornilov’s attack, all political organizations to the left of the Kadets [the party of pro-capitalist liberals], every labor organization of any import, and soldier and sailor committees at all levels immediately rose to fight Kornilov. It would be difficult to find, in recent history, a more powerful, effective display of largely spontaneous and unified political action.

But the response was not entirely spontaneous. Menshevik eyewitness N. N. Sukhanov noted that the Bolsheviks had “the only organization that was large, welded together by an elementary discipline, and linked with the democratic lowest levels of the capital.” “The masses,” he explained, “insofar as they were organized, were organized by the Bolsheviks.”

Though Lenin’s party had certainly gained support since February, the insurgents still identified with a variety of socialist currents. As Abramovitch explained, “[t]he threat of a counterrevolutionary revolt roused and united the entire left, including the Bolsheviks, who still exerted considerable influence in the Soviets. It seemed impossible to reject their offers of co-operation at such a dangerous moment.” Trotsky later recalled that “the Bolsheviks proposed the united front struggle to the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries and created with them joint organizations of struggle.”

Kerensky offers his own perspective:

[M]ost of the Socialist leaders who had been in the coalition, fearing the possibility of a counterrevolutionary victory and subsequent reprisals, turned toward the Bolsheviks. During the first few hours of hysteria, on August 27, they welcomed them back with loud acclaim, and side by side with them, set about “saving the revolution.”

Of course, the mercurial Kerensky had himself faced accusations of hysteria more than once. US Ambassador to Russia, David Francis, blamed the Russian president for the fiasco since Kerensky had decided not “to execute as traitors Lenin and Trotsky” in July and “failed to conciliate General Kornilov and instead turned to the Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Deputies and distributed arms and ammunition among the workingmen of Petrograd” in August.

Kerensky mused many years later: “How could Lenin fail to take advantage of this?”

Indeed. “Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled,” Lenin emphasized. “We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness.” The Bolshevik leader explained: “Now is the time for action; the war against Kornilov must be conducted in a revolutionary way, by drawing the masses in, by arousing them, by inflaming them (Kerensky is afraid of the masses, afraid of the people).” Boldly mobilizing against the counterrevolutionary forces, the Bolsheviks won more authority in the soviets and greater support from workers.

Trotsky, who helped manage these practical efforts, later recalled:

The Bolsheviks were in the front ranks; they smashed down the barriers blocking them from the Menshevik workers and especially from the Social Revolutionary soldiers, and carried them along in their wake.

In the face of a determined working-class mobilization, and thanks to revolutionary agitators who contacted the soldiers under Kornilov’s command, the right-wing military offensive disintegrated before it could reach Petrograd. “The hundreds of agitators — workers, soldiers, members of the Soviets — who infiltrated Kornilov’s camp … encountered little resistance,” wrote Abramovitch. Kornilov’s troops, workers, and peasants in uniform, responded to the Bolshevik, SR, and left-Menshevik agitators’ appeals by turning against their officers and rallying to the soviets. The coup collapsed, leaving Kornilov no choice but to surrender to the Provisional Government.

In the wake of Kornilov’s failed coup, the Bolsheviks won decisive majorities in the soviets and secured overwhelming support among the working class as a whole. A majority of the SR party split to the Left, as did a significant Menshevik current, aligning with Lenin and Trotsky. This united front set the stage for revolutionary triumph in October.