3 The Man on a White Horse

It was generally believed that Linde's own naive idealism had been to blame for his brutal murder. The young commissar had been warned on his arrival at the Front that the deserters were highly dangerous. For several weeks they had been living as bandits, spreading terror throughout the surrounding region of Lutsk, and everyone who knew them agreed that it would be wiser to deploy the Cossacks against their rebel camp. General Krasnov had brought up 500 cavalrymen from reserve and, although there were nearly ten times as many deserters, he was sure that the imposing sight of the Cossacks would be enough to disarm them. But Linde was adamant about the power of the revolutionary word. The Cossacks, he insisted, were a remnant of the tsarist past and, on principle, should not be used against the 'freest army in the world'. 'You see, General, I shall make them listen to sense. One has to know how to talk to the soldiers. It's all a question of psychology.'62 There was no dissuading the young commissar from his foolish plan — he was carried away by his belief in the power of the revolutionary will — and so he was allowed to go to the camp to try to persuade the deserters to return to battle.

This was not the first time that Linde's overconfidence had got him into trouble. The hotheaded sergeant had twice led his soldiers on to the streets — once in February as a hero of the revolution and once again in the April demonstrations against Miliukov, when he had been condemned as a 'Bolshevik' adventurer attempting to carry out a bloody coup. As a punishment, the Soviet had sent him as a commissar to the Special Army on the Western Front: his skills of leadership of the soldiers were to be employed in the interests of the army command for the coming offensive. Linde took pleasure in his new assignment. The idea of persuading the demoralized soldiers to perform their patriotic duty was perfectly in tune with his own romantic self-image as a revolutionary orator. He quickly became something of a legend on account of his daring missions to those Bolshevized parts of the Front which, by the power of words alone, he seemed to restore to fighting order. Linde was something rare in 1917: a Russian revolutionary with a sense of duty to the nation and the state. He was in this sense a model commissar. 'It is not enough just to achieve freedom,' he explained to a friend on their way to Lutsk. 'Democracy is something that must be defended and fought for.' That was why he had been so determined to make a visit to the deserters' camp: to convince the soldiers of their patriotic duty to defend Russia now that it was free.

The convoy of cars, trucks and mounted Cossacks moved across empty countryside towards the forest, where the rebels had set up their armed camp in a clearing. It was a sunny August afternoon and the fields would normally have been filled with crops, but after three years of wartime neglect they were filled with weeds. Stopping at the edge of the forest, Linde walked on to the camp alone, while a group of officers followed some distance behind, and the mounted Cossacks rode on to surround the camp. The soldiers of the two mutinous regiments, the 443rd and the 444th of the 3rd Infantry Division, were sitting and lying around by their tents in the glade. As the officers approached, they began to stir, rising from the ground like some gigantic prehistoric animal, and prepared their rifles. Linde noticed two distinct groups — one scattered and amorphous containing the bulk of the troops, the other much smaller and more compact, which he realized from their menacing look contained the hardened core of Bolshevized troops. Jumping on to a pile of timber, he began to speak to the former. It was a stirring speech, full of democratic pathos. 'I, who brought the soldiers out to overthrow the tsarist government and to give you freedom, a freedom which is equalled by no other people in the world, demand that you now give me those who have been telling you not to obey the orders of the commanders.' As he spoke, the sound could be heard of German shells flying over the forest, and this added a dramatic effect to Linde's rhetorical fervour. He pointed in the direction of the enemy's guns and called on the soldiers to defend their Fatherland from them. But the soldiers had heard it all before, and years of wheedling propaganda had made them cynical. They had seen too much of the war to believe any more in fine-sounding phrases, especially from this soft-faced youth, with his tailored officer's tunic, his fine breeches and leather boots, and his foreign accent.

Aware that his words were having no effect, Linde began to shout at the men, calling them 'lazy swine' and 'bastards' who did not deserve their freedom. The deserters grew agitated, and several men from the Bolshevik group began to heckle Linde. They called him a German spy and said that his methods were worthy of the old regime. Watching the scene from a distance, General Krasnov could see that something terrible was about to happen, and he sent in a car to rescue the stranded commissar. But Linde was carried away by the power of his own words, intoxicated by his own heroic self-image, and refused to leave. The soldiers moved towards him — and only then did he try to escape. But it was too late. A burly soldier from the Bolshevik group stepped up and thrust the butt of his rifle into Linde's temple; a second shot him to the ground; and a whole crowd of wildly shrieking soldiers then threw themselves on to him, thrusting their bayonets into his body. Fearing for their own lives, Krasnov and the other officers now sought to retreat, but the soldiers, emboldened by their kill, ran after them through the forest, while the Cossacks struggled to restore order. One of the officers, Colonel Girshfeldt, was stripped naked, hanged upside down from a tree and brutally tortured before the mob shot him. Two other officers were also killed before the convoy made it out of the forest to safety.

Linde's body was brought back to Petrograd and given a hero's burial. The democratic press portrayed the 'fallen fighter of the people's cause' as a shining example of the patriotic revolutionary sentiment which the Russian army now so badly needed. Linde was not the first Soviet leader to be killed by the Bolshevized troops. There had been several similar murders during the previous weeks. Even Sokolov, the famous Soviet leader and author of Order Number One, the founding charter of soldiers' rights, had been beaten up and taken hostage by a mob of mutinous soldiers whom he had tried to persuade to return to battle. But Linde's brutal murder, coming as it did at the height of the summer crisis, was seen to be of particular significance. It symbolized the end of the idealistic hopes of the first revolutionary months — the ideal of a free state of citizens, who could be persuaded to fulfil their civic duties to Russia and the revolution. The death of Linde had finally confirmed that the time for persuasion had come to an end. The Russian people were not ready to be citizens, and Kerensky's notorious rebuke that the free Russian state would become 'a state of rebellious slaves' seemed to be vindicated by the growing chaos in the country at large. The Russian army was collapsing and in headlong retreat. On 21 August the Germans captured Riga, and it seemed, as Zinaida Gippius noted in her diary, that 'they could take Petrograd at any moment.' The Empire was falling apart, with self-appointed nationalist governments in Finland and the Ukraine declaring their own independence, while each day brought fresh newspaper reports of militant strikes by workers, of anarchy on the railways, of peasant attacks on the gentry's estates and of crime and disorder in the cities. The lesson of all this, which more and more people were beginning to draw, seemed to be that Russia could only be governed by force. Even Tsereteli was obliged to acknowledge that the summer crisis marked the end of the revolution's 'rose-coloured dreamy youth' and the start of a new and 'grim period' when coercive measures would have to be taken to halt the anarchic tide.63

The propertied classes led the call for order. 'The Fatherland in Danger!' became their rallying cry. Hysterical with fear, they gambled vast amounts of money, sold their properties cheaply, and lived wildly for the moment, as if it was the final summer of Russian civilization. Countess Speransky found that in Kiev, 'parties on the river, auto-picnics to chateaux in the neighbourhood, dinners and suppers with gypsy-bands and chorus, bridge and even tangoes, poker, and romances were the order of the day'. The funeral of the seven Cossacks killed by the Bolsheviks during the July Days became a stage for the propertied classes to indulge themselves in a patriotic show of emotion. The funeral began with a sung requiem in St Isaac's Cathedral, followed by a solemn procession through the streets of the capital with each of the seven caskets on a white gilded horse-drawn carriage flanked on either side by liveried Cossacks and incense-waving priests. It was not so much a demonstration of democratic solidarity as a mournful lament for the old regime. There was a growing atmosphere of counterrevolution. Newspapers called for the Bolsheviks to be hanged and the Soviet to be closed down. In the absence of the Bolshevik leaders, Chernov became the new 'German spy' and the bete noire of the Right. Bolshevik workers were beaten up by the Black Hundred mobs. Respectable middle-class citizens flocked to the various right-wing groups which blamed Russia's ills on the Jews and called for the restoration of the Tsar, or some other dictator, to save Russia from catastrophe.64

As the head of the Russian army, who was thus responsible for the failed offensive, Brusilov soon fell victim to this swing to the Right. He had never been liked at Stavka, where the reactionary generals were suspicious of his democratic leanings, and the failure of the offensive now gave them the chance to step up their campaign for his dismissal. Pressure mounted for his replacement by General Kornilov, a well-known advocate of a return to military discipline in the traditional style. The Kadets even made it a basic condition of their joining Kerensky's government. Although the new Premier had himself been the author of the policies pursued by Brusilov, he was quite prepared to ditch them both if that was the price of power. Brusilov sensed he was about to be dismissed when Kerensky called on him to convene a meeting of all the Front commanders at Stavka on 16 July. He made the mistake of sending only an aide-de-camp to meet Kerensky at the Mogilev station: the train had arrived early and he was still involved in strategic decisions affecting the Front. It was not official protocol for the Supreme Commander to meet the War Minister; but Kerensky, who behaved like a Tsar and had come to expect to be treated like one by his subordinates, flew into a rage and sent an adjutant to Brusilov with orders to come to the station in person. 'The whole thing', Brusilov remarked, 'was petty and ridiculous, particularly in view of the tragic situation at the Front which my Chief of Staff and I had been studying.' But Kerensky was a vain man, obsessed with the trappings of power, and this final breach of etiquette was enough to seal the fate of his Commander-in-Chief. On 18 July Brusilov was dismissed. Hurt by the obvious political motives behind his dismissal, he retired to Moscow for a long-earned rest with his wife, who had fallen ill.65 It was not until the Bolsheviks came to power that he returned to the army, under quite extraordinary circumstances.

The man who replaced him, General Lavr Kornilov, had already achieved the status of a national saviour in right-wing circles. Small and agile, with a closely shaven head, Mongol moustache and little mousey eyes, Kornilov came from a family of Siberian Cossacks. His father was a smallholder and a soldier, who had risen to become a lower-ranking officer. His mother was allegedly a Buryat. This comparatively plebeian background set Kornilov apart from the rest of Russia's generals, most of whom came from the aristocracy. In the democratic atmosphere of 1917 it was the ideal background for a national military hero. Kornilov's early army career had been spent in Central Asia. He had mastered the Turkic languages of the region and had built up his own bodyguard of Tekke Turkomans, dressed in scarlet robes, who called him their 'Great Boyar'. Kornilov's appointment was hardly merited by his military record. By 1914, at the age of forty-four, he had risen no higher than a divisional commander in the Eighth Army. Brusilov, his army commander, remembered him as a brave and dashing soldier, well loved by his men, yet inclined to disobey orders. He claimed, not without justification, that Kornilov had cultivated his own 'cult of bravery'; and this cult was certainly behind his meteoric rise to fame. In 1915 Kornilov had been wounded and taken prisoner by the Austrians after refusing to obey Brusilov's command to withdraw his division from the Front. The following year he had escaped from prison and, disguised as an Austrian soldier, had made his way back to Russia by foot, where, instead of being court-martialled, he received a hero's welcome.66

It was at this time that Kornilov began to attract powerful political backers in the form of Rodzianko and Guchkov. They secured his appointment as Commander of the Petrograd Military District in March 1917. During the April riots Kornilov had threatened to bring his troops on to the street. The Soviet had opposed this and taken control of the garrison, forcing Kornilov to resign. Various right-wing groups were scandalized by the Soviet's interference in army matters, and looked to Kornilov as a champion of their cause. They were united by their opposition to the growing influence of the Soviet over the government, particularly foreign and military matters, in the wake of the April crisis. Miliukov, who had been forced to step down as Foreign Minister, began to flirt with counter-revolutionary ideas. 'It is obvious that the leaders of the Soviet are deliberately leading us to defeat and economic ruin,' he wrote to a friend at the end of June. 'Deep down we both know that the salvation of Russia is to be found in the restoration of the monarchy, and that what has happened during the past two months has clearly shown that the people were incapable of exercising freedom.'67 Business leaders, increasingly opposed to the policies of Skobelev, the Menshevik Labour Minister, and the gentry, equally hostile to Chernov, the SR Minister of Agriculture, were also beginning to rally behind the anti-Soviet cause. The Officers' Union and the Union of Cossacks campaigned for the abolition of the soldiers' committees and the restoration of military discipline. And all these groups came together through the Republican Centre, a clandestine organization of bourgeois patriots, officers and war veterans formed in May above a bank on the Nevsky Prospekt.68

Kornilov was the servant, rather than the master, of these political interests. His own political mind was not very developed. A typical soldier, he was a man of very few words, and of even fewer ideas. 'The heart of a lion, the brains of a sheep' was Alexeev's verdict on him. During his time in prison he had read about the life of Napoleon, and he seemed to believe that he was destined to play a similar role in saving Russia.69 All that was needed to stem the anarchic tide was a General on a White Horse.

Most of Kornilov's political pronouncements were written for him by Boris Savinkov, Kerensky's Deputy Minister of War. During his youth Savinkov had been a legendary figure — poet, 'freedom fighter' and gambler — in the SR terrorist movement. He was involved in the assassination of several government figures, including Plehve, at the turn of the century. Like many terrorists, however, he had a strong authoritarian streak: 'You are a Lenin, but of the other side,' Kerensky once told him. After a period of exile abroad, Savinkov returned to Russia in 1917 and attached himself to the movement against the Soviet (which he called the 'Council of Rats', Dogs' and Chickens' Deputies').70 It was he who engineered Kornilov's appointment, first, on 8 July, as Commander of the South-Western Front, and then, ten days later, as Commander-in-Chief.

Other than a well-known advocate of military discipline, it is not clear that Kerensky knew what he was getting in his new Commander. Kerensky harboured Bonapartist ambitions of his own, of course, and no doubt hoped that in Kornilov he might find a strong man to support him. But did he realize that Kornilov and his allies had similar plans to use Kerensky? Brusilov later claimed that he had already been asked by Kerensky if he 'would support him in case it was considered desirable to consummate the Revolution by making him [Kerensky] Dictator'. Brusilov had refused, believing Kerensky to be too 'hysterical' for this role. Kerensky had then asked him if he was prepared to become Dictator himself. But once again Brusilov had refused, comparing the idea to 'building a dam when the river is in flood'. Brusilov's refusal was certainly a factor in Kerensky's decision to replace him with a Commander of more primitive instincts. To secure his appointment, Savinkov had wisely advised Kornilov to stress the role of the commissars as a check on the power of the soldiers' committees at the Stavka conference on 16 July. This was a much more moderate stance than that of Denikin and the other generals, who advocated the immediate abolition of the soldiers' committees, and it would enable Kerensky to appease the Right while salvaging the basic structure of his democratic reforms.71 Thus Kornilov had given the impression that he might be prepared to fit in with Kerensky's plans.

Yet immediately after his appointment Kornilov began to dictate his own terms to Kerensky. During his brief command of the South-Western Front he had managed to force him to restore the death penalty at the Front (Kornilov had already been practising it on his own authority by ordering all deserters to be shot). Now, as a condition for assuming the Supreme Command, he demanded the extension of the death penalty to the rear, while he, as the head of the army, would consider himself responsible only to his 'conscience and to the nation as a whole'. This was, in effect, a challenge to the authority of the Provisional Government, which Kornilov clearly believed was a captive of the Soviet; and although under pressure from Kerensky he was eventually forced to withdraw this ultimatum, the thrust of his intentions remained clear. During the following days he presented Kerensky with a series of reforms drawn up by Savinkov. The first of these were strictly in the military field: an end to the power of the soldiers' committees; the banning of soldiers' meetings at the Front; and the disbanding of revolutionary regiments. But after 3 August the scope of the reforms was broadened dramatically to include the imposition of martial law throughout the country; the restoration of the death penalty for civilians; the militarization of the railways and the defence industries with a ban on strikes and workers' meetings, under penalty of capital punishment; and compulsory output quotas, with those who failed to meet them instantly sacked.72 It was, in effect, a demand for the establishment of a military dictatorship.

One of the most enduring myths of the Russian Revolution is the notion that Kornilov was planning a coup d'etat against the Provisional Government. This was Kerensky's version of events. After his downfall he spent the rest of his long and frustrated life in exile trying to prove it in his voluminous and mendacious memoirs. Soviet historians also pedalled the story because it endorsed Lenin's view that after July the 'military dictatorship' was engaged in a naked struggle for power. But the evidence suggests that Kornilov, far from plotting the overthrow of the Provisional Government, had in fact intended to save it. By pressurizing Kerensky to pass his reforms, he sought to rescue the government from the influence of the Soviet and thus 'save Russia', as he saw it, from the impending catastrophe. Kornilov, in other words, believed that the dictatorship would be 'legitimate' in the sense that Kerensky would support it. It was only when Kerensky began to have his own doubts, on the grounds that the General's plans would undermine his own position, that the 'coup plot' was uncovered by the Prime Minister. Kerensky was determined to play the part of a Bonaparte himself and feared that Kornilov would be a rival. It was, if you like, a question of two men and only one white horse.

None of which is to deny that many of Kornilov's supporters were urging him to do away with the Provisional Government altogether. The Union of Officers, for example, laid plans for a military coup d'etat, while a 'conference of public men' in mid-August, made up mostly of Kadets and right-wing businessmen, clearly encouraged Kornilov in that direction. At the centre of these rightist circles was Vasilii Zavoiko, a rather shady figure — property speculator, industrial financier, journalist and political intriguer — who, according to General Martynov, acted as Kornilov's 'personal guide, one might even say his mentor, on all state matters'. Zavoiko's plans for a coup d'etat were so well known that even Whitehall had heard of them: as early as 8 August the Foreign Ministry in London told Buchanan, its Ambassador in Petrograd, that according to its military sources, Zavoiko was plotting the overthrow of the Provisional Government. Nor is it to deny that Kornilov himself had his own ambitions in the political field — the cult of Kornilov, which he helped to generate, was a clear manifestation of this — and he must have been tempted by the constant urgings of his supporters, like Zavoiko, to exploit his enormous popularity in order to install himself as a dictator. The Commander-in-Chief despised Keren-sky as 'weak and womanly', and saw his whole administration as hopelessly dependent on the Soviets. Stepun probably summed it up when he described the clash between Kornilov and Kerensky as a clash between two entirely different worlds — the world of the officer corps and the world of the intelligentsia — neither of which could understand the other.73

Kornilov's mistrust of the Provisional Government could only have been increased by Kerensky's vacillation over the adoption of his reforms. On 10 August Kornilov turned up uninvited at the Winter Palace with his own personal bodyguard, equipped with two machine-guns, to persuade Kerensky to adopt his proposals. Kornilov was not allowed to address the whole cabinet, but only the inner 'triumvirate' of Kerensky, Tereshchenko and Nekrasov, who warned him not to expect a quick enactment of his reforms, whereupon he and Kerensky became embroiled in a shouting match, with each accusing the other of leading the country to ruin. Over dinner that evening Kornilov told Rodzianko that if Kerensky refused to pass his reforms he would lead the army against him. On the following day he did indeed instruct III Cavalry Corps, including the notorious Savage Division (so named because it was made up of tribal natives from the Caucasus), to move to the region around Velikie Luki, from where it could be despatched to the capital. It was not quite clear whether Krymov's troops were intended to protect the Provisional Government against a possible Bolshevik revolt once it passed Kornilov's reforms, or whether they were meant to threaten it with a military coup should it decide not to pass them after all. The answer is probably both. Kornilov told General Lukomsky that he had 'no intention of going against the Provisional Government' and hoped to 'succeed at the last moment in reaching an agreement with it', but that if he failed to do so 'it might be necessary to strike a blow at the Bolsheviks without their approval'.'4 This was not a confession of his intention to overthrow the government; but it was a threat to rescue it from the Left, even if need be against Kerensky's will.

Yet by the time of Savinkov's visit to Stavka, on 22—4 August, Kornilov was convinced that this would not be necessary. The Deputy War Minister had assured him that Kerensky was about to satisfy his demands within 'the next few days'. He expected that this would lead to the reformation of the Provisional Government as a collective dictatorship — a Council for National Defence, as Kornilov liked to call it — headed by Kerensky himself and including Savin-kov, Kornilov and various 'public men' from patriotic circles. Fearing a Bolshevik revolt — which the Soviet forces might join — against the imposition of martial law, Savinkov also asked Kornilov to move III Cavalry Corps from Velikie Luki to Petrograd itself. There were rumours of a Bolshevik coup planned for the end of August and it was agreed that 'merciless' action should be taken against it. On 25 August Kornilov ordered Krymov's troops to occupy the capital, disperse the Soviet and disarm the garrison in the event of a Bolshevik uprising. He thought he was acting on Kerensky's instructions to protect the Provisional Government, not to overthrow it.

But Kerensky was still in two minds. His own political strategy since February had been based on the idea of straddling Right and Left: it was this that had made him the central figure of the coalition and brought him to the verge of his own dictatorship. But the summer crisis and the growing polarization between Right and Left made this increasingly difficult: the political centre, upon which Kerensky aimed to stand, was fast disappearing. The Soviet became distrustful of Kerensky's ability — and indeed his willingness — to defend the achievements of the revolution against the 'counter-revolution'; while the Right reproached him for not being firm enough against the Bolsheviks. Kerensky was unable to decide which way he should turn and, afraid of alienating either side, vacillated hopelessly.

Kornilov's reform proposals forced him to decide between Right and Left. It was a tortuous decision for him. On the one hand, if he refused to go along with Kornilov, the Kadets were likely to leave his fragile coalition. There was also the danger of a military coup, which the Men of February, like Kerensky, were always inclined to overestimate, for throughout their lifetime the army had been against the revolution. On the other hand, if he agreed to pass Kornilov's reforms, he would risk a complete break with the Left and lose his claim to be a 'hostage of the democracy'. The restoration of the death penalty had already seriously tarnished his revolutionary credentials: it was such an emotive issue. The Soviet was fiercely campaigning against Kornilov's proposals and, unlike July, might just endorse a Bolshevik uprising if these proposals were enacted. Besides, Kerensky was doubtful that martial law would even prove effective. Where were the forces to carry out such a plan? How many officers had the courage to execute mutinous soldiers? Who would enforce the militarization of the railways and the factories, shooting workers who dared to go on strike? The whole idea seemed quite impracticable.

In a last desperate bid to rally the nation behind him Kerensky summoned a State Conference in Moscow. It was held in the Bolshoi Theatre on 12—14 August. Kerensky hoped that the conference would reconcile Left and Right and, in an effort to strengthen the political centre, upon which he depended, he assigned a large number of seats to the moderate delegates from the zemstvos and co-operatives. Sergei Semenov attended the conference as a delegate of the latter from Volokolamsk. Kerensky's heart must have sunk, however, at the sight of the opening session. The polarization of Russia was exactly mirrored in the seating arrangements in the auditorium: on the right side of the stalls sat the middle-class parties, the bankers, industrialists and Duma representatives in their frock-coats and starched collars; while on the left, facing them as if in battle, were the Soviet delegates in their workers' tunics and soldiers' uniforms. The scene was reminiscent of the opening of the Duma in 1906; the two Russias had not moved any closer in the intervening years. The Bolsheviks had decided to boycott the conference and called a city-wide strike. The trams did not run and restaurants and cafes were closed, including the theatre's own buffet, so the conference delegates had to serve their own refreshments.

Kerensky had wanted to occupy centre-stage at the conference; but, to his fury, Kornilov stole the show. The General made a triumphant entry into Moscow during the middle of the conference. Middle-class ladies pelted him with flowers at the Alexandrovsky Station. Countess Morozova fell on her knees before him, while the Kadet, Rodichev, called on him to 'Save Russia and a thankful people will crown you.' The Man on a White Horse had arrived. He was carried from the station on the shoulders of some officers and cheered in the street outside by a crowd of right-wing patriots. Seated in an open car, at the head of a motorcade that any twentieth-century dictator would have envied, he then made a pilgrimage to the sacred Iversky shrine, where the tsars had usually prayed on their visits to Moscow. On the following day he entered the conference to a standing ovation from the Right, while the Left sat in stony silence. His speech was a poor one — words were not Kornilov's strength — but it did not seem to matter: it was what he stood for, not what he said, that made him the patriots' hero; and with all his flowery eloquence there was nothing Kerensky could do to stop himself from being eclipsed. His own last speech with which the conference closed went on far too long. The Prime Minister rambled incoherently and seemed to lose his way. It was symbolic of his loosening grip on the country at large, and even Stepun, a loyal supporter, remarked that 'at the very end of his speech one could hear not only the agony of his power, but also of his personality'. It was an embarrassing scene and the audience began to mutter. At one point Kerensky halted for breath and the delegates, as if sensing that the time had come to put him out of his misery, burst into applause and rose from their seats. The conference was over. Kerensky fainted into his chair. He had not finished his sentence.75

The Moscow Conference marked Kerensky's moral downfall: the two months between it and the Bolshevik seizure of power were really no more than a long death agony of the Provisional Government. This was the moment when the democratic intelligentsia, which had done so much to create the Cult of Kerensky, finally fell out of love with him. 'Kerensky', Gippius wrote in her diary on 14 August, 'is a railway car that has come off the tracks. He wobbles and sways painfully and without the slightest conviction. He is a man near the end;


and it looks like his end will be without honour.' Kerensky was fully aware of his own demise. 'I am a sick man,' he told Savinkov three days later. 'No, not quite. I have died, and am no more. At the Conference I died.'76 It seemed only a question of time before he succumbed to Kornilov. Under growing pressure he promised Savinkov to pass his reforms, aware that they would reduce him to no more than a figurehead to provide legitimation for the military dictatorship.

But then, suddenly, Kerensky found an unexpected way to save the situation. It came in the form of an intervention by V N. Lvov, an Octobrist deputy in the Fourth Duma and more recently the Procurator of the Holy Synod, who took it upon himself to act as a mediator between Kerensky and Kornilov. Lvov was one of those numerous characters in Russian history who seem to have escaped from a novel by Gogol or Dostoevsky. A nobleman of no particular talent or profession, he was convinced of his calling to greatness, yet ended up in the 1920s as a pauper and a madman living on the streets of Paris. After his dismissal from the Holy Synod in July, he had fallen in with the right-wing circles urging Kornilov to assume dictatorial powers. It was in this capacity that he approached Kerensky on 22 August and offered to consult, on his behalf, with Kornilov in the hope of smoothing a path towards the creation of a 'strong government'. Kerensky was frequently visited by such self-appointed 'saviours' of the country, and generally gave them little attention. But this one was different. Lvov had warned him that the General Staff was plotting to kill him. Kerensky had of late been much preoccupied with this potential threat. He had even ordered the guards outside his quarters to be changed every hour. Kerensky later claimed that he had not instructed Lvov to negotiate with Kornilov; but this was not Lvov's impression; and it does seem likely that, if only out of fear for his own life, he did instruct him to find out what Kornilov was on about. It is also possible that Kerensky was already planning to use Lvov for what was about to happen.

Lvov arrived in Mogilev on 24 August and presented himself to Kornilov as an emissary from the Premier. Kornilov did not ask for his credentials and this was to prove a fatal mistake (he later said that he had presumed Lvov to be 'an honourable man'). Lvov claimed that he had been instructed to find out the General's views on how to strengthen the government and, on his own initiative, offered three proposals: the assumption of dictatorial powers by Kerensky; a Directory, or collective dictatorship, with Kornilov as a member; or Kornilov's own dictatorship, with Kerensky and Savinkov holding ministerial portfolios. Taking this to mean that Kerensky was offering him power, Kornilov said he preferred the third of these options, but would readily subordinate himself to Kerensky if that was seen to be for the best. He told Lvov to invite Kerensky to come to Mogilev to discuss this issue and because he said he feared for his life in the event of a Bolshevik coup in Petrograd. As soon as the interview was finished, Lvov departed for the capital. Kornilov was clearly under the impression that he had begun a process of negotiation with Kerensky to reform the Provisional Government as a dictatorship.

On the following day, 26 August, Lvov met Kerensky again in the Winter Palace. He claimed that Kornilov was now demanding dictatorial powers for himself (he had of course done nothing of the sort) and, on Kerensky's request, listed the three points of his 'ultimatum': the imposition of martial law in Petrograd; the transfer of all civil authority to the Commander-in-Chief; and the resignation of all the ministers, including Kerensky himself, pending the formation of a new cabinet by Kornilov. Kerensky always claimed that when he saw these demands everything instantly became clear: Kornilov was planning a military coup. In fact nothing was clear. For one thing, it might have been asked why Kornilov had chosen to deliver his list of demands through such a nonentity as Lvov. For another, it might have been sensible to check with Kornilov if he really was demanding to be made Dictator. But Kerensky was not concerned with such details. On the contrary, he had suddenly realized — and this is no doubt what he really meant by his lightning-flash of revelation — that as long as everything was kept vague he might succeed in exposing Kornilov as a traitor plotting against the Provisional Government. His own political fortunes would thus be revived as the revolution rallied behind him to defeat his rival.

In order to obtain proof of the 'conspiracy', Kerensky agreed to meet Lvov at the War Ministry later that evening in order to communicate directly with Kornilov through the Hughes Apparatus (a sort of primitive telex machine). Lvov failed to turn up on time, so Kerensky began his own conversation with Kornilov, during which he impersonated the absent Lvov. He asked him to confirm what Lvov had said to him (Kerensky) — without specifying what that was — and repeated the request on Lvov's behalf. Kornilov did so — without knowing what he was being asked to confirm — and urged Kerensky to go to Mogilev at once. Kornilov must have believed that this was simply a prelude to negotiations for the reformation of the government. He had no idea that what he was saying would soon be used by Kerensky to charge him with treason. Later that evening he discussed the situation with General Lukomsky and agreed that Kerensky and Savinkov would have to be included in the cabinet. He also sent out telegrams to various public figures inviting them to come to Mogilev and take part in these negotiations.77 Hardly the actions of a would-be dictator.

Armed with the transcripts from the Hughes Apparatus and Kornilov's 'demands', as listed by Lvov, Kerensky called a cabinet meeting for midnight, at which he presented the 'counter-revolutionary conspiracy' as an established fact and demanded 'full authority' to deal with the emergency. No doubt he hoped to pose as the champion of free Russia, to declare the revolution in danger and rally the nation behind himself in the struggle against Kornilov. Nekrasov recalled that Kerensky had said: 'I will not give them the revolution' — as if it had been his to give. Savinkov, among others, realized that a misunderstanding had occurred and urged Kerensky to communicate once again with Kornilov to ask him if he confirmed that he had made the three specific 'demands' outlined by Lvov. But Kerensky refused, and the rest of the ministers agreed with him that it was too late for any reconciliation. They resigned en masse, thus effectively making Kerensky Dictator — the very thing he had charged Kornilov with plotting to become. With the cabinet adjourned he sent a telegram to Kornilov dismissing him on his own authority; and then, at 4 a.m. on 27th, retired to his suite in the Winter Palace. But Russia's new 'Tsar' was too excited to sleep and, according to Lvov, who had been placed under guard in the adjoining room, paced up and down singing operatic arias.78

When Kornilov received the telegram informing him of his dismissal he concluded that Kerensky had already been taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks. Only the full cabinet had the legal authority to dismiss the Commander-in-Chief, whereas the telegram had been signed simply 'Kerensky'. It also made no sense in the light of the agreement he falsely believed he had just concluded over the Hughes Apparatus. Kornilov refused to resign, and ordered Krymov's troops to advance to the capital and place it under martial law. Although this order would later be cited as proof of Kornilov's guilt, it is clear that he gave it on the understanding — and in line with Savinkov's instructions — that Krymov's troops were to rescue the Provisional Government from the Bolsheviks. Various requests were made for clarification of this point through direct communications with Kornilov, and had this been done then the whole crisis might well have been averted. But Kerensky was determined to condemn Kornilov without trial. He was beside himself with excitement and stormed around the palace claiming that Russia was on his side. On Kerensky's orders, a special daytime edition of the press appeared condemning Kornilov as a traitor against the revolution. Kornilov responded with his own appeal to all the Front commanders denouncing the incident with Lvov as a 'grand provocation' by a government that had manifestly fallen under the control of the Bolsheviks and the German General Staff. He, General Kornilov, 'the son of a Cossack', would 'save Russia'.79

This at last was mutiny: having been denounced as a rebel, Kornilov chose to rebel. Several senior generals declared their support for him. Now Kerensky had a real 'counter-revolution' to deal with. On 29 August he crowned himself the new Commander-in-Chief, with Alexeev as his Chief of Staff, despite the latter's low opinion of Kerensky ('a nicompoop, buffoon and charlatan').80 He cabled Krymov with orders to halt the advance of his troops, some of which had already reached the southern suburbs of the capital. The Soviet Executive, which had been divided over whether to support the Revolutionary Dictator, swung around to his defence on news of Krymov's advance. It called on its supporters to arm themselves for a struggle against the 'counter-revolution' and transformed Smolny into a command centre directing operations. It was back to the atmosphere of the Tauride Palace during the February Days, when tired soldiers lay around the Soviet building waiting for the generals to attack.

A special Committee for Struggle Against the Counter-Revolution was set up by the Soviet, with three representatives from each of the Menshevik, SR and Bolshevik Parties, to mobilize forces for the defence of the capital. This marked the political rehabilitation of the Bolsheviks after the July Days — and several prominent Bolshevik leaders, including Trotsky, were released from prison shortly afterwards. The Committee for Struggle represented a united front of the whole Soviet movement. But it was effectively dependent on the military organization of the Bolsheviks, without which, in the words of Sukhanov, it 'could only have passed the time with appeals and idle speeches by orators who had lost their authority'. Only the Bolsheviks had the ability to mobilize and arm the mass of the workers and soldiers, and they now worked in close collaboration with their rivals in the Soviets. Throughout the northern industrial regions ad hoc revolutionary committees were formed in line with the Committee for Struggle. Some of them called themselves 'Committees of Public Safety' in emulation of the Jacobins. There was no real leadership of this spontaneous movement. Garrisons placed themselves on alert, and despatched detachments of soldiers to 'defend the revolution'. The Kronstadt sailors, who had last come to Petrograd during the July Days to overthrow the Provisional Government, arrived once again — this time to defend it. The Red Guards and trade unions organized the defence of the factories. Vikzhel, the Railwaymen's Union, set up a bureau to combat Krymov's troops and managed to hold up their progress towards Petrograd by withholding engines and obstructing the line.81

Meanwhile, Krymov's troops were harangued by Soviet agitators. They had no desire to overthrow the Provisional Government — Kornilov had instructed them to defend it against the Bolsheviks — and once they were told that it was not in danger from the Left, they soon laid down their arms. Contrary to the Soviet myth, no actual fighting took place in the defeat of Kornilov. What would have been the point? Both sides had gone to defend the Provisional Government, and as soon as this was established they began to fraternize. The Savage Division was persuaded not to fight by a delegation of their own countrymen, the Caucasian Muslims, who happened to be at a Soviet congress in Petrograd at the time. The cavalrymen hoisted a red flag inscribed with 'Land and Freedom', arrested their commanders, and sent a delegation to Petrograd with a pledge of loyalty to the government. The train of the 1st Don Cossack Division, with which Krymov and his staff were travelling, was halted by railway workers at Luga, where deputies from the Soviet harangued them with propaganda through the carriage windows. There was nothing Krymov could do — the Cossacks were joining the Soviet side in droves. On 30 August he agreed to travel to Petrograd with a government representative and, on the following day, met Kerensky. Krymov tried to explain that he had brought his troops to defend the government. But Kerensky would have none of this, and ordered him to be tried by the military courts. Krymov left in despair and went to a friends apartment, where he was heard to say: 'The last card for saving the Fatherland has been beaten — life is no longer worth living.' Retiring to a private room, he wrote a short note to Kornilov, and shot himself through the heart.82

* * * Kornilov's revolt was over. On the following day, I September, Alexeev took control at Stavka, and Kornilov himself was placed under house arrest, and then transferred to the Bykhov Monastery, near Mogilev, where he was imprisoned with thirty other officers suspected of having been involved in the 'counterrevolutionary conspiracy'. But if Kerensky had hoped to bolster his own authority by defeating Kornilov, then he achieved precisely the reverse. The Kornilov Affair, as it came to be known, turned out to be a nail in his own coffin. It merely accelerated the social and political polarization which had been eroding the base of the Provisional Government since the early summer, and in this sense brought the revolution closer to its October denouement.

On the one hand, Kerensky had fatally spoiled his relations with the Right, which by and large remained faithful to Kornilov and condemned Kerensky for betraying his cause. Kornilov became a political martyr for all those who blamed Kerensky's regime for the growing chaos in the country at large. In this respect, the Kornilov Affair had its greatest political impact after it was oyer. The word 'Kornilovite' began to enter the political vocabulary as an out-and-out opponent of the Kerenshchina (Kerensky's rule). The Bykhov Monastery was evidently run by sympathizers with the Kornilov movement, since prison conditions there were extremely relaxed. 'We had the impression that everyone was rather embarrassed at having to act as our "jailors",' Anton Denikin recalled. Kornilov was allowed to retain his faithful Turkoman bodyguards; he issued military orders' to the rest of the prison; the officers' families visited twice a day (Denikin's fiancee practically lived in the jail); and there were even secret links with the General Staff, where the Kornilov movement continued to enjoy much support.83 The Bykhov prisoners were later to become the founding nucleus — and Kornilov and Denikin the leaders — of the Volunteer Army, the major White force of the civil war. It was in Bykhov that the draft programme of the Volunteer Army was written. It was just as much a rejection of Kerensky as it was of the Bolsheviks. Indeed, during the Bolshevik seizure of power none of these elements came to defend the Provisional Government.

Kerensky's standing on the Left, meanwhile, had been equally weakened. The mass of soldiers and workers who had rallied to the defence of the Provisional Government during the Kornilov crisis nevertheless suspected that Kerensky had himself somehow been involved in the Kornilov movement. Many saw the whole affair as a personal feud between the two would-be Napoleons (and in this they were not far wrong). But others believed that Kerensky had been in league with Kornilov, or else had tried to implement his own 'counterrevolutionary' plans through him. This conviction was strengthened by Kerensky's failure to pursue a more democratic course once the crisis was over. For one thing, there was no real enquiry into the affair, and this merely fuelled the popular suspicion that Kerensky had something to hide. His continued support for a coalition with the Kadets (who had clearly been associated with the Kornilov movement) and his appointment of Alexeev (who was widely suspected of having sympathized with it) were seen as added reasons to suspect Kerensky's intentions. The phantom nature of this 'counter-revolution' only made it seem more powerful, a hidden force behind the government, not unlike the shadow of treason which hung over the tsarist regime in 1916.

The mass of the soldiers suspected their officers of having supported Kornilov, and for this reason a sharp deterioration in army discipline resulted. Hundreds of officers were arrested by their men — some of them were executed or brutally killed — for their alleged involvement in the 'counter-revolution'. The soldiers' assemblies passed resolutions for Soviet power and peace. There was a growing consciousness among the rank-and-file troops, which the Kornilov crisis had helped to create, that peace would not be obtained until the nature of the state itself had been changed. They were no longer prepared to trust in the promises of their 'democratic' leaders, and were starting to demand the right to make decisions for themselves. This was reflected in the growing pressure from below for the army congresses to debate the questions of power and peace. But for vast numbers of soldiers there was also a simpler solution — to vote with their feet by deserting the army. In the weeks following the Kornilov crisis the rate of desertion sharply increased, with tens of thousands leaving their units every day. Most of these deserters were peasants, eager to return to their villages, where the harvest season was now in full swing. They often led the attack on the manors and helped to establish local Soviet power; so these weeks also witnessed a sudden upturn in the agrarian movement. Senior commanders began to acknowledge that with such rates of desertion it was impossible to continue the war. The Kornilov movement, which had aimed to save the army, thus ended up by destroying it altogether.

In the big industrial cities there was a similar process of radicalization in the wake of the Kornilov crisis. The Bolsheviks were the principal beneficiaries of this, winning their first majority in the Petrograd Soviet on 31 August. Without the Kornilov movement, they might never have come to power at all. On 4 September Trotsky was finally released from prison, along with two other Bolshevik leaders destined to play a prominent part in the seizure of power, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko and P. E. Dybenko. The Bolshevik Military Organization, which had been forced underground after the July Days, could now expand its subversive activities under the guise of its leading role in the Committee for Struggle. Indeed, the Military Revolutionary Committee, which led the Bolshevik seizure of power, was partly modelled on the latter. The Red Guards and the Kronstadt sailors, who were to be the foot-soldiers in October, also emerged strengthened from the struggle against Kornilov. The whole affair was a dress rehearsal for the seizure of power, with the workers, in particular, trained in the art of handling guns. Some 40,000 were armed in the Kornilov crisis, and most of them no doubt retained their weapons after it was over. As Trotsky put it, 'the army that rose against Kornilov was the army-to-be of the October revolution'.84

Kerensky's victory over Kornilov was also his own political defeat. He had won dictatorial powers but lost all real authority. 'The prestige of Kerensky and the Provisional Government', wrote Kerensky's wife, 'was completely destroyed by the Kornilov Affair; and he was left almost without supporters.'85 The five-man Directory, which was established on I September and served as a fragile structure for Kerensky's own dictatorship until the power question was resolved at the Democratic Conference in mid-September, was made up of unknown mediocrities.* The only achievement of this opera buffa government was to declare Russia a 'republic', though this was formally the prerogative of the Constituent Assembly. It was typical of a government that existed on paper alone: nobody paid any attention to it. Beyond the corridors of the Winter Palace, all Kerensky's decrees were ignored. There was a vacuum of power; and it was now only a question of who would dare to fill it.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!