IX The Freest Country in the World

1 A Distant Liberal State

Nothing in his previous experience had quite prepared Prince Lvov for the tasks that lay ahead of him as the Prime Minister of the Provisional Government. Not that he was unaccustomed to the long hours that such high office demanded of him. His wartime work in the Zemstvo Union had prepared him for that and, although now permanently tired, he was quite able to cope with the extra strain. From early in the morning until at least midnight Lvov was to be found in the Marinsky Palace receiving delegations from all over Russia, meeting foreign diplomats, presiding over cabinet meetings, briefing Civil Servants and giving interviews to the press. Nabokov met him in the early days of March and was 'struck by his sombre, despondent appearance, and the tired expression in his eyes'.1

Nor could one say that the Prince was unprepared for the massive new burden of administration. It was precisely his administrative talent that had won him the universal respect of the wartime opposition and had put him at the top of virtually everyone's list for the prospective leadership of the country. His practical common sense and easy-going manner made him a good team-worker. Prince Sergei Urusov, the former Governor of Bessarabia we met in Chapter 2, who became Lvov's number two at the Ministry of Interior, said that he was an inspiring manager of people, that he encouraged them to take initiatives and that he skilfully arbitrated disputes between them. Although historians have been quick to disparage Lvov as a statesman — Samuel Hoare described him in 1930 as 'a man better qualified to be the Chairman of the London County Council than to be the chief of an unstable Government in the midst of a great revolution' — he was in fact widely esteemed at the time as one of Russia's ablest leaders. Tsereteli thought he was 'a talented organizer with far more experience of state affairs than any of the socialists'. Gorky considered him one of the 'three genuinely talented politicians in the government', along with Kerensky and Nekrasov.2

Yet the Prince was out of place in the new world of party politics. All his previous work had been of the practical, zemstvo kind, where everybody worked together, regardless of class or party interests, for the 'good of the nation'. At first it was hoped that the Provisional Government would be guided by this same spirit. This was to be a wartime government of national confidence and salvation, not a government of any one party or social class, and this was why Lvov, as a genuinely national figure, had been chosen for its leader. But the revolution had opened the floodgates to party politics, left-wing politics in particular, and it was almost inevitable that they would permeate the government's work. It was this which Lvov was unprepared for. His knowledge of party politics was almost non-existent. Even after several months as Prime Minister he could not really tell the difference between the SRs and the Bolsheviks. The general softness of his character, moreover, left him virtually powerless to cope with the hard cut and thrust of party politics. Coming from the old world of gentlemanly zemstvo activity, he was more inclined to search for compromises than either the party leaders of the capital or the irreconcilable conflicts in the country would ever allow. When his ministers clashed over politics (which was very often) Lvov's instinctive reaction was to look for a means of reconciling them through the implementation of 'practical and constructive' policies. This gave him an image of indecisiveness; and it is true that he tended to be swayed by other politicians with a stronger will. Nabokov, who headed the government's Secretariat, recalled endless 'agonizing sessions' of the Council of Ministers in which 'dissension, and the smouldering or obvious hostility of some individuals toward others' prevented any progress. 'I do not recall a single occasion when the Minister-President used a tone of authority or spoke out decisively and definitively . . . He was the very embodiment of passivity.' Bublikov, the Duma politician, ridiculed Lvov, with his 'permanent look of dismay' and his 'constant efforts to be nice to everyone', as 'a walking symbol of the impotence of the Provisional Government'.3

Throughout his four-month term of office the one thing that sustained Lvov, in the face of all these political problems, was his unshakeable optimism. (Could anyone have tried to govern Russia in 1917 without believing in miracles?) Lvov was convinced, as he often liked to say, that 'things will turn out in the end'. This optimism was based on his Slavophile and populist belief in the 'wisdom and the goodness of the Russian people'. 'The soul of the Russian people', he declared in a speech in March, 'turned out by its very nature to be a universal democratic soul. It is prepared not only to merge with the democracy of the whole world, but to stand at the head of it and to lead it along the path of human progress according to the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.' From his brief acquaintance with the peasants, with his peasant neighbours at Popovka above all, he had naively jumped to the conclusion that all the peasants were just as good. Once the people had been freed from tsarist oppression, he once explained to his secretary, they would learn to rule themselves in the liberal democratic spirit of the West. It had hardly occurred to him, at least not in these early hopeful weeks, that the people's hatred of the propertied elite and their impatience for a social revolution might not drown the country in blood first.4

Kerensky recalled one of the first meetings of the Council of Ministers. Prince Lvov arrived late with a sheaf of telegrams from the provinces. They all said more or less the same thing: that the local administration had collapsed and that power now belonged to various ad hoc public committees. The ministers sat around for a long time wondering what to do. 'Here we were in the middle of a war, and large areas of the country had passed into the hands of completely unknown people!' Speaking 'with extraordinary confidence', Lvov then summed up the discussion:

We must forget all about the old administration — any return to it is psychologically quite impossible. But Russia will not go under without it. The administration is gone, but the people remain . . . Gentlemen, we must be patient. We must have faith in the good sense, statesmanship, and loyalty of the peoples of Russia.

And indeed', recalled Kerensky, 'we had nothing except this faith in the people.'Lvov's belief in 'the people' was typical of the intelligentsia attitudes that characterized the political philosophy of the first Provisional Government (2 March to 5 May). Not every minister succumbed to such high hopes. Miliukov and Guchkov argued from the start for a powerful state to contain the people's anarchistic instincts and save the country from chaos. But their cold rationalism was always overshadowed by the warmer sentiments of Kerensky, Nekrasov and Lvov. The dominant outlook of the government was shaped by the liberal values of the intelligentsia which, in turn, had emerged from the people's struggle for freedom against autocracy. Two main beliefs stood at the heart of this democratic political culture: an instinctive mistrust of the state as a coercive power; and a belief in local self-rule. From this it followed that a distant liberal state was all that was required to shepherd Russia through to the civilized world of free nations. Russia's liberal leaders talked of ruling 'with' the people rather than 'over' them. They saw themselves as 'classless' — ruling in the interests of 'all the people' rather than one class — and on this universal promise hoped to build up a sense of legitimacy. They presented themselves as the temporary caretakers of a 'neutral state', above party or class interests, until the election of the new sovereign power, the Constituent Assembly, which alone could give a legal sanction to social and political reforms. This, in effect, was to place their trust in the patience of the people to wait for the legal resolution of their problems. It was to place the 'defence of the state' above the class or party interests of the revolution. Yet when that state itself was threatened by unrest, as it was in April, July and October, they were unwilling to use force in its defence. Their decent liberal intentions, and their inbred mistrust of state coercion, prevented them from taking the necessary measures to defend their cherished constitutional freedoms against the threat of extremism. They were determined to dismantle the old police regime, the courts and the penal system — which merely tied their own hands in the struggle against rising crime and violence. Even when this violence was Bolshevik-inspired, they were reluctant to repress it. The Men of February — who in their own minds had been brought to power by a 'bloodless revolution' — would not have the blood of 'the people' on their hands. This weakness, in the end, would bring them down. The leaders of the Provisional Government saw themselves as re-enacting the French Revolution on Russian soil. They compared themselves to the heroes of 1789. Kerensky, for one, liked to think of himself as a Mirabeau (and later as a Napoleon). The leaders of the 'Great Russian Revolution looked for precedents for their policies, and for models for their institutions, in the revolutionary history of France. People called the Bolsheviks Jacobins (which is also how they saw themselves). The Bolsheviks, in turn, called the liberals Girondins. And all democrats warned of the dangers of 'counter-revolution' and 'Bonapar-tism'.* The provincial commissars, the soldiers' committees and army commissars, the provincial committees of public safety and the Constituent Assembly itself— all of them were copied from their French equivalents. The old deferential terms of address were replaced by the terms grazhdanin and grazhdanka ('citizen' and 'citizeness'). The Marseillaise — which the Russians mispronounced as the Marsiliuza and to which they added their own different words (there was a Workers' Marseillaise', a 'Soldiers' Marseillaise' and a 'Peasants' Marseillaise') — became the national anthem of the revolution. It was played at all public assemblies, street demonstrations, concerts and plays.

We renounce the old world, We shake its dust off from our feet. We don't need a Golden Idol, And we despise the Tsarist Devil.

Bookshops traded heavily in popular histories of the French Revolution. There was a fit of francophilia. France, after all, was Russia's nearest Western ally against Germany — the last bastion of autocracy — and the founding member of the European club of democratic nations which Russia was now entering. Lvov's visiting card was even printed in French — PRINCE GEORGES LWOFF.

* For the Social Democrats, steeped in Marx's writings of 1848—52, Bonapartism meant Napoleon III rather than Napoleon I.


MINISTRE-PRESIDENT DU GOUVERNEMENT PROVISOIRE — as if to symbolize this graduation to the civilized Western world.6

Yet Russia could not be another France. The constitutional phase of the Russian Revolution — in the classic European tradition of 1789 and 1848 — had already been played out during 1905—14. Political reform had nothing left to offer. Only a fundamental social revolution — one without precedents in European history — was capable of resolving the power questions thrown up by the downfall of the old regime. This was the basic mistake of the Men of February: intoxicated by their own self-image as the heirs of 1789, they were deluded into believing that they could resolve the problems of 1917 by importing Western constitutional practices and policies for which there were no real precedents, nor the necessary cultural base, in Russia.

As if to prove himself the heir of Lafayette, Prince Lvov presided over the passing of a dazzling series of political reforms during the first weeks of the Provisional Government. Russia overnight was effectively transformed into 'the freest country in the world'. Freedoms of assembly, press and speech were granted. Legal restrictions of religion, class and race were removed. There was a general amnesty. Universal adult suffrage was introduced. The police were made accountable to local government. The courts and the penal system were overhauled. Capital punishment was abolished. Democratic organs of local self-government were established. Preparations were made for the election of a Constituent Assembly. The laws followed upon each other in such rapid succession that it was hard for Russia's new citizens to keep up with them. One day in the second half of March a delegation of women suffragettes came to Lvov's office to campaign for the right of women to vote in local government elections. They were obviously expecting a hard battle. Some of the women had prepared long and passionate speeches. It seemed to them that the fate of half of Russia depended on the success of their mission. But as soon as they met Lvov it became clear that they were pushing at an open door. 'Why shouldn't women vote?' he asked them with candid surprise. 'I don't see what's the problem. Surely, with universal suffrage there can be no reason to exclude women.'7

These reforms helped to create a new culture of democracy. It became politically correct to call oneself a 'democrat' — sometimes literally: there was a peasant called Durakov ('Idiot') who changed his surname to Demokratov. Yet in Russia the word 'democracy' was not just a political label. It was also a social one. The Left, in particular, used it to describe the 'common people' as opposed to 'the bourgeoisie'. The language of 1789, once it entered Russia in 1917, soon became translated into the language of class. This was not just a question of semantics. It showed that for the vast mass of the people the ideals of 'democracy' were expressed in terms of a social revolution rather than in terms of political reform. The peasants and the workers were used to seeing power based on social domination and coercion rather than on the exercise of law. They saw the revolution mainly as a chance to gain autonomy and turn the tables on their former masters rather than as a chance to reconstruct the power system on universal legal principles. Retribution, not a constitution: that was the people's first priority.

The revolution of 1917 should really be conceived of as a general crisis of authority. There was a rejection of not just the state but of all figures of authority: judges, policemen, Civil Servants, army and navy officers, priests, teachers, employers, foremen, landowners, village elders, patriarchal fathers and husbands. It was often said at the time — and historians have emphasized this — that only the Soviet had any real authority. Guchkov wrote to Alexeev on 9 March:

The Provisional Government has no real power of any kind and its orders are carried out only to the extent that is permitted by the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. The latter controls the most essential levers of power, insofar as the troops, the railways, and the postal and telegraph services are in its hands. One can assert bluntly that the Provisional Government exists only as long as it is allowed to do so by the Soviet.8

Certainly, the Soviet had much more power than any other body. It had a virtual monopoly on the means of organized violence, while the mass of the workers and soldiers looked upon it as the only legitimate authority in the land. At almost any moment between February and October the Soviet could have taken power and, although a civil war might well have been the outcome, its support was enough to ensure a victory. And yet even the Soviet, based as it was in Petrograd, had only a very limited control over the revolution in the provinces. There was a breakdown of all central power: local towns and regions declared their 'independence' from the capital; villages declared themselves 'autonomous republics'; nationalities and ethnic groups seized control of territory and declared themselves to be 'independent states'. The social revolution was to be found in this decentralization of power: local communities defended their interests and asserted their autonomy through the election of ad hoc committees (public executive committees, municipal committees, revolutionary committees, committees of public organizations, village committees and Soviets), which paid scant regard to the orders of the centre and which passed their own 'laws' to legitimize the local reconstruction of social relations.

The politics of 1917 should thus be understood not so much as a conflict of 'dual power' (dvoevlastie) — the division of all power between the government and the Soviet which has so preoccupied historians — but as a deeper problem of the proliferation of a 'multitude of local powers' (mnogavlastie).


In the provincial towns there was really no 'dual power' to speak of at all: the liberal and the socialist intelligentsia, which in Petrograd would have been divided between the government and the Soviet, nearly always worked together in the democratic civic committees between February and October (and in many places afterwards too). Russia, in short, was being Balkanized. It was a recurring pattern that whenever the state's power was removed, Russia broke down into anarchy and chaos. It happened after the collapse of the tsarist state, as it did after the collapse of Communism. If 1917 proved anything, it was that Russian society was neither strong enough nor cohesive enough to sustain a democratic revolution. Apart from the state itself, there was nothing holding Russia together.

'Who elected you?' That was the awkward question someone shouted from the crowd when Miliukov announced the establishment of the Provisional Government. The answer, of course, was that nobody had. The Provisional Government was not a democratic government, in the sense that it had been elected by the people, but a government of 'national confidence'. It never had the legitimacy which can only come from the ballot box. Its liberal leaders were excessively concerned by this absence of a mandate, and thought that they might earn more respect by calling themselves 'provisional'. They presented the government as only the temporary guardian of the state until the election of the Constituent Assembly, and always stressed that their legislation was ultimately dependent on the legal sanction of the Assembly. And yet for this reason people questioned why they should obey the government: the word 'provisional' did not command respect.

With hindsight it is difficult not to blame the leaders of the Provisional Government for failing to act more quickly to convene the Constituent Assembly, which alone could have given them the democratic mandate they required. Everyone acknowledged the urgency of its convocation. But the liberal leaders allowed their common sense to become clouded by their high ideals. They were overawed by the solemn importance of their task — to construct a national parliament expressing the 'will of the people' — and insisted on the most detailed legal preparations to ensure the fairest possible franchise. A council of representatives from various political groups was summoned at the end of March. It took two months to agree on the composition of a second Special Council of over sixty members to draft the electoral law and this, in turn, got bogged down in lengthy deliberations on the various options of proportional representation, the fairest possible methods of redrawing the electoral boundaries, and the best ways of organizing elections in the army and the ethnic borderlands.

By the early summer, as chaos spread through the country and the urgent need for a stronger legal authority became clear, there was growing public concern about the slow progress of the Special Council. Some people argued that it would have been quicker to appoint a smaller commission to draft the electoral law. But F. F. Kokoshkin, a Kadet lawyer and the Chairman of the Special Council, defended its careful approach on the grounds that the new electoral law had to live up to the 'wishes and interests of all the population'. There were certainly practical problems that made hasty elections inadvisable: millions of people were on the move and it was not clear how their votes were to be counted. But to a certain extent these reservations had become a pretext for delay. The Kadets, in particular, favoured the postponement of the elections, no doubt because they knew they would lose them. Prince Lvov supported Kokoshkin's procrastination. He, above all, was sold on the ideal of a perfect parliament. 'The Constituent Assembly', Lvov told the Special Council, 'must crown the great Russian revolution. It must lay all the vital foundations for the future order of the free democratic state. It will bear the responsibility for the entire future of Russia. It must be the essence of all the spiritual and mental forces of the people."9

This was surely placing unrealistic expectations on what, in the context, should have aimed to be no more than a makeshift parliament of national salvation. However imperfect, to begin with, such an assembly might have been, it would at least have established a focus, and a base of legitimacy, for Russia's fragile new democracy. There are very few examples in history of a long-lasting revolutionary parliament, and, steeped as they were in the history of Europe, the leaders of the Provisional Government should have been well enough aware of this to keep their expectations in realistic bounds. But they allowed their high ideals to cloud their common sense. Perhaps it was a case of too many lawyers and not enough statesmen. The failure of the government to hold the elections enabled the Bolsheviks to sow serious doubts in the people's minds about its intentions to hold them at all; and this lent weight to their propaganda claims, which were used to justify their own seizure of power, that the government had fallen into the hands of the 'counter-revolution. Under growing public pressure, the leaders of the Provisional Government announced in mid-June that the elections would finally be held on 17 September. But everyone knew that at the rate things were going this was out of the question, for the register of electors had not been drawn up and the local government organs, which were supposed to do this, had still not been established. By August little progress had been made and the date of the elections was once again postponed until 12 November. But by this time the Bolsheviks had come to power.

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