At their first meeting Kerensky made Brusilov the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army. The new Minister of War had gone down to see Brusilov at his headquarters on the South-Western Front and, after inspecting the troops, had driven with him through the night to the town of Tarnopol. There was a violent storm and the lonely motor-car seemed in constant peril as it trundled along the muddy country roads. Huddled together inside the car, with the rain beating down against the windows and lightning flashing overhead, the two men drew closer together. They started to talk informally, telling each other their private thoughts, as if they were old friends. Both men agreed on the need to launch a summer offensive, and it was this, as he recalled in his memoirs, that made Kerensky decide 'there and then that Brusilov should be given the command of the entire army in time for the opening of the offensive'.1
Brusilov's appointment was an act of faith in the fighting capacity of the new revolutionary army. It was, above all, his optimism that had won him the post. 'I needed men who believed that the Russian army was not ruined,' Kerensky later wrote. 'I had no use for people who could not genuinely accept the fait accompli of the Revolution, or who doubted that we could rebuild the army's morale in the new psychological atmosphere. I needed men who had lived through the utter folly of the years of war under the old regime and who fully understood the upheaval that had occurred'.2 Brusilov fitted the bill. He was perhaps the only senior tsarist general to emerge with honour from the war — and one of the first to throw in his lot with the revolution. Like Kerensky, he hoped the defence of liberty might at last inspire the sort of civic patriotism that Russia needed to continue the war.
Brusilov's support for the democracy, and the soldiers' committees in particular, had won him few friends among the rest of the senior generals. They denounced him as an 'opportunist' and a 'traitor' to the army. The General Staff at Stavka received their new commander with open hostility on 22 May. 'I became aware at once, upon my arrival, of their frosty feelings for me,' Brusilov recalled. Instead of the usual mass ovation, to which he had grown accustomed, Brusilov was met at the station at Mogilev by a small and rather formal delegation of sullen-faced generals. To make matters worse, Brusilov at once caused grave offence by failing to receive a group of senior officers, who had come to the station to welcome him, and, in a gesture of democracy, turning instead to shake the hands of the private soldiers. The first soldiers were so confused — it was customary for the generals to salute them — that they dropped their rifles or grasped them clumsily in their left arm whilst shaking hands with their new Commander-in-Chief.3
Unlike most of the senior commanders, Brusilov believed in working together with the soldiers' democratic organs. As he saw it, the restoration of the army's morale and the launching of a new offensive could only be achieved in partnership with them. Such optimism in the democratic order contrasted starkly with the scepticism of General Alexeev, the previous Commander-in-Chief, who had so far been doubtful that a successful offensive could be launched with the armed forces in their present revolutionary state. But then Brusilov had always been convinced that God had chosen him to lead Russia's armies to victory. 'Despite all the difficulties,' he wrote to his brother shortly after his arrival at Mogilev, 'I never despair because I know that God has placed this burden on my shoulders and that the fate of the Fatherland lies in His hands. I have a deep faith, as deep as my faith in God Himself, that we shall be victorious in this titanic struggle.'4
Ever since the Inter-Allied Conference at Chantilly in November 1915, Russia had been under growing pressure from her Allies to launch a new offensive on the Eastern Front. The Entente leaders wanted 1917 to be the year of final victory, and it was assumed that a combined offensive in the east and the west would be enough to defeat the Central Powers. The legitimacy of the Provisional Government among the Western Powers — and the financial support which it gained from them — rested largely on its declared intention to fulfil this obligation to the Allies. Yet, at the same time, the revolution had increased the already considerable doubts about Russia's fighting capacity. At a meeting of his Front commanders on 18 March Alexeev dismissed the French demand for a new offensive in the spring: the roads were still covered in ice; horses and fodder were in short supply; the reserve units were falling apart; military discipline was breaking down; and the Soviet, which controlled all the essential levers of power, was still reluctant to support anything beyond a purely defensive strategy. Most of the commanders agreed with him that it was impossible to launch a new offensive before June or even July. Brusilov was the only one to support the idea of a spring offensive. In a telegram to the meeting he claimed that his soldiers were eager to fight. It was such an extraordinarily optimistic statement — and no doubt largely the product of his own wishful thinking — that Alexeev asked the Quartermaster-General to check the telegram's authenticity. 'What luck it would be', he scribbled at the bottom of the cable, 'if reality were to justify these hopes.' Coming as it did from the key South-Western Front, where any attack would have to be launched, Brusilov's message certainly helped to bring the cautious Alexeev around to the idea of an earlier offensive during May. He outlined his reasons to Guchkov on 30 March:
If we fail to go on the attack, we will not escape having to fight but will simply condemn ourselves to fighting at a time and place convenient to the enemy. And if we fail to co-operate with our allies, we cannot expect them to come to our aid when we need it. Disorder in the army will have a no less detrimental effect on defence than it will on offence. Even if we are not fully confident of success, we should go on the offensive. Results of unsuccessful defence are worse than those of unsuccessful offence . . . The faster we throw our troops into action the sooner their passion for politics will cool. General Brusilov based his support on these considerations .. . It can he said that the less steady the troops, the less successful defence is likely to he; hence the more desirable it is to undertake active operations.5
It was a terrible gamble. There was no guarantee that the risks of attack would be less than those of defence; and even less reason to suppose, as Alexeev and Brusilov had done, that the fighting spirit of the troops could be galvanized by launching an offensive. With hindsight it is clear that the military and political leaders of the Provisional Government were deluded by their own optimism. They grossly underestimated the likely costs of a new offensive. Alexeev, for one, predicted that the Russian losses would be in the region of 6,000 men; but the actual number turned out to be just short of 400,000, and the number of deserters perhaps even greater. This was a huge human price to pay for a piece of wishful thinking. Politically, the costs were even higher. For there is no doubt that the launching — let alone the failure — of the offensive led directly to the summer crisis which culminated in the downfall of the Provisional Government and the Bolshevik seizure of power in October. No doubt the military leaders had assumed that by launching an early offensive they could pre-empt a German attack, which their intelligence had misinformed them was set to take place in the summer. But the Germans had in fact been committed for some time to a 'peace offensive' in the east so that they could release troops for transfer to the west. A defensive strategy thus made much more sense, given the weakness of Russia's army and its rear. But by June, when the offensive was launched, the Russian leaders had become obsessed with the idea of attack — the offensive had come to symbolize the 'national spirit' of the revolution — and they were blind to the possibility that it might end in catastrophe.
More than anything else, the summer offensive swung the soldiers to the Bolsheviks, the only major party which stood uncompromisingly for an immediate end to the war. Had the Provisional Government adopted a similar policy and opened negotiations with the Germans, no doubt the Bolsheviks would never have come to power. Why was this crucial step never taken? The patriotism of the democratic leaders — which for them was virtually synonymous with a commitment to the Allied Powers as democracies — provides part of the answer. Kerensky considered briefly the option of a separate peace, when he took over as Prime Minister after the July Days and the collapse of the offensive; but he rejected it on the grounds, or so he later claimed, that this would make him responsible for Russia's national humiliation. Perhaps one may accuse him and other politicians of a lack of foresight in their rejection of the separate peace option. Five days before the Bolshevik seizure of power, on 20 October, General Verkhovsky, the Minister of War, declared the army unfit to fight. He recommended that the only way to counteract the growing threat of the Bolsheviks was 'by cutting the ground from under them — in other words by raising at once the question of concluding peace'. Yet Kerensky failed to see the Bolshevik danger and once again refused to act. Fourteen years later, Lord Beaverbrook, whilst lunching with Kerensky in London, asked him whether the Provisional Government could have stopped the Bolsheviks by signing a separate peace with Germany. 'Of course,' Kerensky replied, 'we should be in Moscow now.' Astonished by this response, Beaverbrook asked why they had not done this. 'We were too naive,' Kerensky replied.6
Hindsight is the luxury of historians. Given the pressures and doctrines of the time it is not hard to understand why the offensive was launched. The leaders of the Provisional Government took Russia's commitments to the Allies in earnest. They would have liked to negotiate a general peace without annexations or indemnities as the saying went; but Russia's military weakness made their bargaining position extremely weak. The Allies were coming round to the view that the war could be won with or without Russia, especially after the entry of the United States in April. They blocked the Stockholm Peace Conference, organized by the Soviet leaders to bring together all the socialist parties in Europe, and dragged their heels on Russian proposals for a revision of the Allied war aims. In this sense, by scotching the international peace campaign, the Allies did their bit to help the Bolsheviks come to power, although this leaves open the question as to whether a general peace could have been achieved.
Paradoxical though it may seem, the leaders of the Provisional Government thus backed an offensive to strengthen their campaign for a general settlement of the conflict. They went to war in order to make peace. That was also the rationale of the Soviet leaders in supporting the offensive. Tsereteli's Revolutionary Defensism, the rallying of the democracy for the needs of national defence, was the main justification for their entry into the Coalition. It might of course be argued that national defence did not demand that an offensive be launched. By supporting the primacy of the needs of the army, as they did in signing the coalition's Declaration of Principles on 5 May, the Soviet leaders were in danger of losing sight of their basic aim — the negotiation of a general peace — and thus laying themselves open to the Bolshevik charge of joining the warmongers. But they were carried away by the hope that the defence of democratic Russia might help to rally the people behind them. They compared Russia's situation with that of France on the eve of the war against Austria in 1792: it seemed to them that a revolutionary war would give birth to a new civic patriotism, just as the defence of the pattie had given rise to the national chorus of Aux armes, citoyens'. They were quite convinced that a 'national revolution' had taken place, not just a revolt against the old regime, and that through this upsurge of patriotism, through the popular recognition that the interests of 'the nation' stood higher than any class or party interests, they could restore unity and order.
Kerensky, the Minister of War in the coalition government, was cast as the hero of this new civic patriotism. As a popular and above-party figure, he became the embodiment of the coalition's ideal of national unity. The cult of Kerensky, which had first emerged in the February Days, reached its climax with the June offensive, which indeed the cult had helped to bring about. All the nations hopes and expectations rested on the frail shoulders of Kerensky, 'the first people's minister of war'. Schoolboy poets like Leonid Kannegiser (later to assassinate the Bolshevik Uritsky) portrayed Kerensky as a Russian Bonaparte:
And if, swirling with pain, I fall in the name of Mother Russia, And find myself in some deserted field, Shot through the chest on the ground, Then at the Gates of Heaven, In my dying and joyous dreams, I will remember — Russia, Liberty, Kerensky on a white horse.
Marina Tsvetaeva, who was then herself barely out of school, also felt moved to compare Kerensky with Napoleon:
And someone, falling on the map, Does not sleep in his dreams. There came a Bonaparte In my country.7
Kerensky revelled in this role. He had always seen himself as the leader of the nation, above party or class interests. The adulation went to his head. He became obsessed with the idea of leading the army to glory and of covering himself in honour. He began to model himself on Napoleon. A bust of the French Emperor stood on his desk at the Ministry of War. Although he had never himself been in the army, Kerensky donned a finely tailored khaki tunic, officer's breeches and knee-high leather boots when he became the Minister of War (a semi-military style of dress that many future leaders, including Stalin, would later take from him). The Minister of War took great care over his personal appearance — and it was a huge source of pride for him. Even at the height of the fighting in October, when he appeared before the Cossacks during the battle for Gatchina against the Red Guards, he made sure to wear his 'finest tunic, the one to which the people and the troops had grown so accustomed', and to 'salute, as I always did, slightly casually and with a slight smile'. During his famous tours of the Fronts, Kerensky even wore his right arm in a sling, although there was no record that the arm had ever been hurt (some people joked that he had simply worn it out by too much hand-shaking). It was no doubt a deliberate attempt to suggest that he, like the ordinary soldiers, had been wounded too. Perhaps it was also an attempt to echo the image of Napoleon with his arm tucked into the front of his tunic.8
On the eve of his appointment Kerensky had given a melodramatic performance at a Congress of Delegates from the Front. 'I am sorry that I did not die two months ago,' he pronounced with his hand placed solemnly on his heart, 'for then I would have died with the greatest of dreams: that henceforth and forever a new life had dawned for Russia, when we could mutually respect each other and govern our state without whips or clubs.' He appealed to the soldiers to place their 'civic duty' above their own narrow class interests and to strengthen their fighting resolve, since Russia's liberty could only be gained 'as a strong and organized state' and this meant that 'every citizen' had to make a sacrifice for the nation. Under 'the old and hated regime' the soldiery had known how to fulfil their obligations, so why could they not do the same in the name of Freedom? 'Or is it', he asked in a phrase charged with meaning and emotion for the soldiers, 'it it that the free Russian state is in fact a state of rebellious slaves?'9 There was uproar in the hall. For the soldiers, in their own self-image, had indeed been 'slaves' before Order Number One, and Kerensky now seemed to be asking whether they were worth their freedom, as 'citizens', if they were not prepared to go to war. The phrase 'rebellious slaves' echoed around the country for weeks. It did much to turn the soldiers against Kerensky. But for the patriotic and the propertied it was just the sort of appeal to discipline and duty that they had long been calling for, and they now rallied behind Kerensky and the idea of an offensive at the Front. It was almost as if they sensed that only a victory could save them now.
The liberal press now joined the right in a national chorus of howling headlines calling on the army to 'Take the Offensive!' The Kadet Party took up the national flag. No doubt they hoped that posing as patriots might reverse their alarming electoral decline. In the city Duma elections during May the Kadets had gained less than 20 per cent of the vote. No longer able to compete with the socialists for mass support, they sought to appeal to the middle classes by calling for the defence of the Fatherland and the restoration of order. Patriotism became the basis of their claim to be a party 'above class'. The democratic intelligentsia, which had always been the main social base of the Kadets, largely followed them into the chauvinist camp. The League of Russian Culture, founded by a group of right-wing Kadets in the midst of this patriotic wave, called on all classes to unite behind the banner of Russia. Even Blok, who called himself a socialist, succumbed to the new mood of patriotism, while Gorky welcomed the offensive as a means of 'bringing some organization to the country'. There was a growing feeling that 'Russia' should be put before everything else, even the revolution itself. 'It is not Russia that exists for the revolution,' Dmitry Merezhkovsky wrote, 'but the revolution that exists for Russia.' It was close to the notion of a national-bourgeois Russia advanced by Struve and the Vekhi group after 1905; and there was indeed a similar equation of the nation with its middle classes. Propertied patriots subscribed to the Liberty Loan, raised by the government to finance the offensive. N. V Chaikovsky, President of the Free Economic Society, declared it 'the duty of everyone to the Motherland, to his fellow citizens and the future of Russia, to give his savings for the great cause of freedom'.10
This new civic patriotism did not extend beyond the urban middle classes, although the leaders of the Provisional Government deluded themselves that it did. The visit of the Allied socialists — Albert Thomas from France, Emile Vandervelde from Belgium and Arthur Henderson from Britain — was a typical case in point. They had come to Russia to plead with 'the people' not to leave the war; yet very few people bothered to listen to them. Konstantin Paustovsky recalls Thomas speaking in vain from the balcony of the building that was later to become the Moscow Soviet. Thomas spoke in French and the small crowd that had gathered could not understand what he said. 'But everything in his speech could be understood without words. Bobbing up and down on his bowed legs, Thomas showed us graphically what would happen to Russia if it left the war. He twirled his moustaches, like the Kaiser's, narrowed his eyes rapaciously, and jumped up and down choking the throat of an imaginary Russia.' For several minutes the Frenchman continued with this circus act, hurling the body of Russia to the ground and jumping up and down on it, until the crowd began to hiss and boo and laugh. Thomas mistook this for a sign of approval and saluted the crowd with his bowler hat. But the laughter and booing got louder: 'Get that clown off!' one worker cried. Then, at last, someone else appeared on the balcony and diplomatically led him inside.11
Some middle-class civilians volunteered for the new shock battalions which were formed to revive the army's morale. Most of these were made up of frightened officers, eager to flee their mutinous regiments. Bernard Pares, who attended several patriotic rallies to encourage these volunteers, compared their hysterical atmosphere to that of a revival meeting. On one occasion he was introduced to the soldiers as 'our English comrade, the Professor', a great war hero, who had won the George Cross by beating the Germans single-handed. This was of course a total invention; but when Pares urged his host to shut up, he was told that such tales were needed to raise the morale of the troops.12
One of the best-known volunteer units had been formed by women. The Women's Battalion of Death had been organized by Maria Bochkareva, a truly remarkable woman, who had worked before the war as a foreman on factory building sites. After 1914 she had campaigned to enlist in the army and, having petitioned the Tsar himself, had been allowed to fight under General Gurko. By February 1917, she had risen to the rank of sergeant, having spent two years in the trenches with several wounds and a number of medals to prove it. Concerned by the collapse of military discipline, she appealed to Brusilov to let her form a shock battalion of women in the hope that this would shame the rest of the soldiers into fighting. In fact it was to have the opposite effect: the soldiers viewed its formation as a sign of the government's desperate situation and this strengthened their resolve not to fight; while many soldiers, the Cossacks in particular, refused to fight alongside women. But Brusilov did not anticipate this and saw no reason to object. He was keen on the idea, much debated at that time, of establishing a new army based entirely on volunteer units. He saw it as a means of fighting the war on the basis of patriotic duty, and of breaking down the old divisions between the officers and the troops. Since his own wife was working in the medical services at the Front, he did not see why other women should not also go there to fight. The battalion was hastily formed and blessed by the Patriarch Nikon on Red Square in Moscow before their departure for the Front in June. The women shaved their heads and put on standard army trousers, although one was too fat to fit them and had to go into battle in a skirt.13
The army commissars were the other great hope of this civic patriotism. Most of them were junior officers of democratic or socialist persuasion. They enjoyed the confidence of their troops yet also understood the need for military discipline. Linde, the young NCO who had led the mutiny of several regiments during the February Days, was a typical case in point: he became the Commissar of the Special Army during the summer offensive. Dmitry Os'kin, the peasant NCO whom we encountered in Chapter 7, also became a military commissar.
The commissars were instituted by the Soviet on 19 March, and made responsible to the Provisional Government on 6 May. They were meant to smooth relations between the officers and the soldiers' committees and, as such, were seen as the basis for a new patriotic partnership between the democracy and the army.
That, too, was the hope of the Declaration 'On the Rights of Servicemen' issued by Kerensky on II May. Kerensky claimed — and he was surely right — that the Russian armed forces were now the 'freest in the world'; and he called on the soldiers to prove 'that there is strength, not weakness, in freedom' in the coming offensive. The Declaration retained the rights of Order Number One, but it also restored the authority of the officers at the Front, including the use of corporal punishment. This was seen in the ruling circles as an essential concession to the military leaders in preparation for the coming offensive. Brusilov was adamant that he would not fight without it. Yet there is no doubt that many soldiers saw the Declaration as an attempt by the government to restore the old system of discipline and this played into the hands of the Bolsheviks. Pravda quipped that the Declaration should really be called a 'Declaration on the Rightlessness of Servicemen'.14
To raise the morale of the troops Kerensky went on a tour of the Front during May. Here his hysterical oratory reached fever pitch. With his squeaky voice and waving arms, he appealed to the soldiers to make the supreme sacrifice for the glorious future of their Fatherland. At the end of these tirades he would collapse in a state of nervous exhaustion and have to be revived with the aid of valerian spirits. Though these fainting fits were not contrived, or at least not to begin with, they added an extra theatrical effect to Kerensky's performances. Everywhere he was hailed as a hero. Soldiers carried him shoulder-high, pelted him with flowers and threw themselves at his feet. An English nurse watched in amazement as they 'kissed him, his uniform, his car, and the ground on which he walked. Many of them were on their knees praying; others were weeping.'15 Nothing quite like it had been seen since the days of the Tsar.
Yet all this adulation merely gave Kerensky the false impression that the soldiers were eager to fight. Fifty years later, in his memoirs, he still insisted that a 'healthy mood of patriotism at the Front had become a definite force'.* But this was far from the truth. Kerensky's visits brought him into contact with a very unrepresentative cross-section of the army. The soldiers' meetings which he addressed were mainly attended by the officers, the uniformed intelligentsia and the members of the soldiers' committees. At these meetings Kerensky's speeches had a mesmerizing effect: they conjured up the sweet illusion of a victorious end to the war with one more heroic heave. Now a weary soldier might well be tempted to believe in this, even if deep down he knew it to be false, simply because he wanted to. But such illusions were soon dispelled once he returned to the trenches. Outside these meetings, moreover, among the vast majority of the rank and file, the mood of the soldiers was much more negative. Kerensky was frequently heckled by such troops during his trips to the Front, yet he never seemed to register the warning that this conveyed. On one occasion near Riga, a soldier was pushed forward by his mates to question the Minister. 'You tell us we must fight the Germans so that the peasants can have the land. But what's the use of us peasants getting land if I am killed and get no land?' Kerensky had no answer — and there was none — but ordered the officer in command of this unit to send the soldier home: 'Let his fellow villagers know that we don't need cowards in the Russian army.' The soldier could not believe his luck, and at once fainted; while the officer scratched his head in disbelief. How many more men would have been sent home on this basis? It was clear that Kerensky saw the soldier as an exception, of whom he could make an example. He did not seem to realize that there were millions of others just like him.16
* The leaders of the Soviet and the Provisional Government were deceived by the fact that the soldiets, like the common people, expressed extreme hostility to everything 'German'. But the concept of 'German' was for the soldiers a general symbol of everything they hated — the Empress, the treasonable tsarist government, the war and all foreigners — rather than the German soldiers (for whom they often expressed sympathy) on the other side of the front line.
Brusilov, by contrast, was beginning to have second thoughts about the morale of the troops. 'The soldiers are tired,' he wrote to his wife at the end of April, 'and in many ways no longer fit to go on to the offensive.' On taking over the supreme command of the army, he set off on his own tour of the Northern and Western Fronts. In contrast to the soldiers of his own South-Western Front, far removed from the influence of the revolutionary cities, he found the troops in a state of complete demoralization. According to one of his senior aides, Brusilov had to avoid using the words 'offensive' or 'advance' in case the soldiers attacked him. Brusilov was not a natural orator. He would draw the soldiers round him and take off his cap and jacket, holding them — 'democratically' — over his left arm, to create an informal atmosphere. But his speeches failed to convince the soldiers that — as they might have said of Kerensky — 'he is one of us'. On one occasion, for example, whilst addressing a group of particularly Bolshev-ized soldiers near Dvinsk, Brusilov claimed that the Germans had destroyed 'one of the French people's finest properties, the beautiful vineyards that produce champagne'. This of course merely alienated and enraged the soldiers, who began to shout at their Commander-in-Chief: 'Shame on you! You want to spill our blood so that you can drink champagne!' Brusilov became afraid, put his cap back on his head, as if to reassert his old authority, and summoned his protectors to surround him. When the shouts had died down he called on one of the most vociferous soldiers to step forward and state his views. The soldier, a young red-bearded peasant, stood next to Brusilov, leant on his rifle with both arms, and, looking askance at the Commander, delivered a speech in which he claimed that the soldiers had 'had enough of fighting', that 'for three long years the Russian people had spilled their blood for the imperialist and capitalist classes', and that 'if the general wanted to go on fighting for champagne then let him go and spill his own blood'. The troops all cheered; Brusilov was lost for words, and began to leave; and as he did so the soldier, who was evidently a Bolshevik, read out the declaration of the soldiers' committee calling for the conclusion of an immediate peace. The Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army had been upstaged by a simple soldier.17
This was only one of many incidents to persuade Brusilov that a new offensive would be ill-advised. On the Northern Front he came across a whole division of men which had driven out its officers and threatened to go home en masse.
When I arrived at their camp I demanded to speak to a delegation of the soldiers: it would have been dangerous to appear before the whole crowd. When these arrived I asked them which party they belonged to, and they replied that before they had been Socialist Revolutionaries, but that now they supported the Bolsheviks. 'What do you want?' I asked them. 'Land and Freedom,' they all cried. And what else?' The answer was simple: 'Nothing else!' When I asked them what they wanted now, they said they did not want to fight any more and pleaded to be allowed to go home in order to share out the land their fellow villagers had taken from the squires and live in freedom. And when I asked them: 'What will happen to Mother Russia, if no one wants to defend it, and everyone like you only thinks of themselves?' they replied that it was not their job to think about what should become of the state, and that they had firmly decided to go home.18
As Brusilov saw it, the soldiers were so obsessed with the idea of peace that they would have been prepared to support the Tsar himself, so long as he promised to bring the war to an end. This alone, Brusilov claimed, rather than the belief in some abstract 'socialism', explained their attraction to the Bolsheviks. The mass of the soldiers were simple peasants, they wanted land and freedom, and they began to call this 'Bolshevism' because only that party promised peace. This 'trench Bolshevism', as Allan Wildman has called it in his magisterial study of the Russian army during 1917, was not necessarily organized through formal party channels, or even encouraged by the Bolshevik agents. Although both of these were apparent at the Front, neither was as well developed as most of the commanders were apt to assume when they blamed 'the Bolsheviks' or 'Bolshevik agents' for virtually every setback in the field.* It was more a case of tired and angry soldiers picking up the slogans of the Bolshevik press and using these to legitimize their own growing resistance to the war. Few soldiers belonged to any political party during 1917, and of those who did most belonged to the SRs rather than the Bolsheviks.19
The soldiers' committees, which many commanders condemned as the principal channel of this trench 'Bolshevism', would discuss the coming offensive and resolve not to fight. 'What's the use of invading Galicia anyway?' one soldier asked. 'Why the hell do we need to take another hilltop,' another added, 'when we can make peace at the bottom?' Many soldiers believed that the Soviet peace plan made further bloodshed pointless. They could not understand why their officers were ordering them to fight when the Soviet leaders had agreed on the need for peace. The question of a democratic peace, 'without annexations or indemnities', was much too complicated for most of them to understand. Many of the troops seemed to be under the impression that Anneksiia and Kontributsiia ('annexations' and 'indemnities') were two countries in the Balkans.20
As the offensive approached, the flood of deserters increased. Knox found the trains from the Front 'constantly stormed' by soldiers on their way home. They travelled on the roofs and hung on to the buffers of the wagons. The actual number of deserters during the offensive was very much higher than the official figure of 170,000. Whole units of deserters took over regions in the rear and lived as bandits. Many of them were family men aged over forty who believed they had been promised a special dispensation to go home for the harvest. In many units it was these older soldiers who led the resistance to the offensive (some of them must have taken part in the mutinies and peasant uprisings of 1905). On the Northern Front thousands ran away from the army and set up their own 'soldiers' republic' at a camp near the Trotters' Racecourse in Petrograd. They paraded through the capital with placards demanding their 'liberation' and were often to be seen in the streets and stations selling cigarettes. Somehow, the leaders of their 'republic' even managed to secure supplies from the government's military depot.21
One of the most worrying manifestations of the soldiers' pacifism with which Brusilov had to deal was their fraternization with the enemy troops. It was part of the German campaign to run down the Eastern Front in order to transfer troops to the west. They lured the Russian soldiers from their trenches with vodka, concerts and makeshift brothels set up between the two lines of trenches, and told them, in remarkably similar terms to the Bolshevik propaganda,
* Indeed, by blaming 'the Bolsheviks' for every military defeat, the commanders gave the impression that the Bolsheviks were much more influential than they actually were, and this had the effect of making the Bolsheviks even more attractive to the mass of the soldiers.
that they should not shed any more blood to advance the imperial interests of Britain and France. During the Easter break from fighting thousands of Russians abandoned their trenches and crossed with white flags to the enemy lines. Many swam across the Dniester and Dvina rivers so as to join in the fun. German scouts were welcomed as heroes behind the Russian lines. Lieutenant Bauermeister, for example, gained a huge propaganda victory in the Thirty-Third Army Corps south of Galich, precisely the point where the main Russian blow was supposed to be dealt in the June offensive. While the impotent officers fumed with rage, he told the soldiers that Germany did not want to fight any more and that all the blame for the coming offensive should be heaped on the Provisional Government, which was a hireling of the Allied bankers. 'If what you say is true,' the soldiers' delegates replied, 'we'll throw the Government out and bring in a new one that will quickly give the Russian people peace.' The soldiers even agreed to sign an armistice along the whole of their sector. Bauermeister was astonished. He reminded the Russians that they did not have the legal authority to do this. But the soldiers said that, if they chose not to go on fighting, no one had the power to force them to do otherwise. For several weeks the armistice was enforced, right up until the offensive. Guns were taken out of service and white flags were raised along the Russian lines. The flamboyant Bauermeister, dressed in a white cap, became something of a hero. He even managed to speak in a village three miles behind the Russian Front. It was the headquarters of the Seventh Army.22
On the eve of the offensive Brusilov warned Kerensky of his growing doubts. Troops were refusing to move up to the Front. Dozens of mutinies had taken place in army garrisons to the rear and even where units were moved up to the trenches three-quarters of the men were likely to desert en route. The front-line soldiers had also mutinied when they discovered what lay ahead. Brusilov had been forced to disband a number of his most reliable units. In the Fifth Army on the Northern Front soldiers refused to carry out orders and declared that Lenin was the only authority they would recognize: 23,000 of them had to be transferred to other units or sent to the rear for military trial. But Kerensky ignored all the warnings of his army chief. 'He paid not the slightest attention to my words,' Brusilov recalled, 'and from that moment on, I realized that my own authority as the Commander-in-Chief was quite irrelevant.'23 Kerensky and his cabinet colleagues had made up their minds: the offensive was to go ahead and there was no room for last-minute doubts.
On 16 June the offensive began with a two-day heavy artillery bombardment. Kerensky hurried from regiment to regiment giving out orders and trying to raise morale. On 18 June the troops moved forward, encouraged by the sight of the German trenches abandoned under fire. The main attack was aimed towards Lvov in the south, while supporting offensives were also launched on the Western and Northern Fronts. For two days the advance continued. The German lines were broken and a glorious 'Triumph for Liberty!' was heralded in the patriotic press. Then, on the third day, the advance came to a halt, the Germans began to counter-attack, and the Russians fled in panic. It was partly a case of the usual military failings: units had been sent into battle without machine-guns; untrained soldiers had been ordered to engage in complex manoeuvres using hand grenades and ended up throwing them without first pulling the pins. But the main reason for the fiasco was the simple reluctance of the soldiers to fight. Having advanced two miles, the front-line troops felt they had done their bit and refused to go any further, while those in the second line would not take their places. The advance thus broke down as the men began to run away. In one night alone the shock battalions of the Eleventh Army arrested 12,000 deserters near the town of Volochinsk. Many soldiers turned their guns against their commanding officers rather than fight against the enemy. The retreat degenerated into chaos as soldiers looted shops and stores, raped peasant girls and murdered Jews. The crucial advance towards Lvov soon collapsed when the troops discovered a large store of alcohol in the abandoned town of Koniukhy and stopped there to get drunk. By the time they were fit to resume fighting three days and a hangover later, enemy reinforcements had arrived, and the Russians, suffering heavy losses, were forced to retreat.24
Amidst such chaos, even the shock troops stood little chance of success. Bochkareva's Battalion of Death did much better than most. The women volunteers broke through the first two German lines, followed by some of the sheepish male conscripts. But then they came under heavy German fire. The women dispersed in confusion, while most of the men stayed put in the German trenches, where they had found a large supply of liquor and proceeded to get drunk. Despite the shambles around her, Bochkareva battled on. At one point she came across one of her women having sexual intercourse with a soldier in a shell-hole. She ran her through with a bayonet; but the soldier escaped. Eventually, with most of her volunteers killed or wounded, even Bochkareva was forced to retreat.25 The offensive was over. It was Russia's last.
* * * The collapse of the offensive dealt a fatal blow to the Provisional Government and the personal authority of its leaders. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed. Millions of square miles of territory were lost. The leaders of the government had gambled everything on the offensive in the hope that it might rally the country behind them in the national defence of democracy. The coalition had been based upon this hope; and it held together as long as there was a chance of military success. But as the collapse of the offensive became clear, so the coalition fell apart.
It had been on the cards for some time. God only knows what Lvov had gone through to keep his government together until at least the start of the offensive. After the socialists' entry into the cabinet, most of the Kadets had moved to the Right. They had given up their old pretence of standing 'above class' and had taken up the defence of property rights, military discipline, law and order and the Russian Empire against the demands of the nationalists. All this had placed them in growing opposition to the socialists, who were under pressure from their own supporters to steer the government's policies further to the Left. Formally, it was the question of Ukrainian autonomy which was to break the coalition and throw the country into crisis. When the government delegation to Kiev conceded a series of autonomous rights to the Rada on 2 July, three Kadet ministers resigned in protest. The Kadets were opposed to granting anything more than cultural freedoms to the 'Little Russians', and insisted that this could only be done by the Constituent Assembly. The concessions of 2 July were thus, in their view, illegal and, as Miliukov put it, amounted to the 'chopping up of Russia under the slogan of self-determination'.26 The Ukrainian question, however, was only the final straw. The breakdown of the coalition was also caused by fundamental conflicts over domestic social reforms. Foremost among these was Chernov's policy on land, which the Kadets accused of sanctioning the peasant revolution by giving the land committees temporary rights of control over the gentry's estates. Then there was the problem of militant strikes, which the Kadets blamed on the Mensheviks in control of the Ministry of Labour. Old class divisions, which had been papered over in the interests of the offensive, were, it seems, returning with a vengeance.
For Lvov the collapse of this 'national alliance' was a bitter disappointment. More than anyone else, he had stood for the liberal hope of uniting the country. As its figurehead, he had symbolized the government's ideal of constructive work in the interests of the nation. Party politics were a foreign land to him and he was increasingly out of his depth in the factional conflicts of his own cabinet meetings. 'I feel like a piece of driftwood, washed up by the revolutionary waves,' he told his old friend from the Japanese war, General Kuropatkin. He cursed both the Kadets and the socialists for placing class and party interests above those of the nation as a whole. The Kadets, he told his private secretary, had behaved like Great Russian chauvinists over the Ukraine; they could not see that some concessions had to be made, if the state was to be saved. But he was equally fed up with the socialists, who he said were trying to impose the Soviet programme on the Provisional Government. Chernov's policy on the land committees seemed nothing less to him, as a landowner, than a 'Bolshevik programme of organized confiscation'. In his view the general interests of the state were being sacrificed to the particular interests of parties and classes, and Russia, as a result, was moving closer to civil war. He felt politically impotent, caught in the cross-fire between Left and Right, and on 3 July he finally decided to resign.* 'I have reached the end of the road', he told his secretary, 'and so, I'm afraid, has my sort of liberalism.' Later that night he wrote to his parents in a rare mood of dark foreboding:
Sweet Father and Mother,
It was already clear to me about a week ago that there was no way out. Without a doubt the country is heading for a general slaughter, famine, the collapse of the front, where half the soldiers will perish, and the ruin of the urban population. The cultural inheritance of the nation, its people and civilization, will be destroyed. Armies of migrants, then small groups, and then maybe no more than individual people, will roam around the country fighting each other with rifles and then no more than clubs. I will not live to see it, and, I hope, neither will you.27
As he wrote these prophetic words, in the midst of the July crisis, the Bolsheviks were preparing for a decisive confrontation with the Provisional Government.