Skip to content

A Doomed Democracy

For a fleeting moment long, long ago, Russians enjoyed more civil liberties than Americans did. But the man in charge was exiled and ended up on the Farm. What went wrong?

Hoover Archives

View photo album >>

By Bernard Butcher

It's just after lunch on an early November day in 1965. Fifteen seniors file into a stuffy, windowless classroom in the basement of History Corner for their weekly seminar on the Russian Revolution.

The students pull their desks into a semicircle. Someone cracks a joke about the failing eyesight of their octogenarian professor. But Martin Turner, '66, reminds them how the crack of the instructor's bone-handled walking-stick on his desk rudely aroused him from his afternoon slumbers the week before. "The old man can't see too well," Turner says, "but he knows what's going on."

Then, right on time, the professor enters: a slightly stooped, immaculately attired gentleman with thick glasses and white hair cropped into a crew cut. He is none other than Alexander Feodorovich Kerensky, the man forced into exile by Lenin and the Bolsheviks 48 years earlier. For a brief eight months in Russian history--after the fall of the Romanov czars and before Lenin ushered in 74 years of Communist rule--Kerensky was the central figure in a doomed effort to bring democracy to Russia.

How did this small, dynamic Russian, who at age 36 reached the pinnacle of power in his home country, find his way to a musty basement classroom half a world away and half a century later? Looking back, should we consider him -- and the provisional government in which he played such a prominent part -- merely a footnote to history? Or was there a chance that this frail old man could, in his prime, have led Russia toward a constitutional democracy? Was perhaps the most pivotal development of the 20th century, Russia's long experiment with totalitarian communism, really inevitable?

Alexander Kerensky had escaped from Russia in 1918, fully anticipating a quick downfall of the Bolsheviks, followed by his own return. Instead, he spent the rest of his life in exile, mostly in Paris and New York, where he wrote several memoirs and interpretations of the revolutionary period. As time went on, he grew more and more frustrated at the lack of primary source documents outside of Russia that could help him add scholarly detail. In the summer of 1955, Kerensky made a two-week trip to Stanford to check out the collection at the Hoover Institution. Finding a bonanza of documentation, he stayed on for two months.

Kerensky's summer visit started a deep, 11-year association with Stanford. He and historian Robert P. Browder, '42, ma '47, compiled, translated, annotated and published key documents in the Hoover Archives related to Russia's short-lived democratic experiment. In the fall of 1965, Kerensky published his own expanded memoirs, Russia and History's Turning Point (Duell, Sloan and Pearce), giving inscribed copies to each of his seminar students. "That was pretty special," recalls Kerry Holbrook Smith, '66. "I bet we all still have that book on our shelves today."

The old man had become a unique fixture on campus, giving guest lectures, joining panel discussions and teaching his own seminars. Walking-stick in hand, Kerensky could often be seen on his daily constitutionals along Palm Drive or out Sand Hill Road. He moved aggressively, using the stick only to avoid running into things his failing eyesight missed. "Although Kerensky could be stiff and standoffish at times," says political science professor emeritus Jan Triska, "he developed a great circle of academic friends, loved a good party and mixed well, especially with the ladies."

Who was this man who stood in the eye of the hurricane that was Russia in 1917? Kerensky was a moderate socialist whose passionate, lifelong goal was to see a Western-syle constitutional democracy in Russia. He tried valiantly, but ultimately failed, to straddle the ever-widening gulf between the relative conservatives, who felt the Revolution to be complete with the simple elimination of the monarchy, and the radical leftists pushing for much more extreme social and economic transformations.

Historian Browder had a chance to study Kerensky's performance up close during the years they worked together on the Hoover project, and he offers a convincing thesis. According to Browder, the characteristics of the man that were considered weaknesses as the Bolsheviks gained strength in the summer and fall of 1917--his brashness, his oratorical flourishes, his ideological flexibility--were the very sources of his popularity and accomplishment in the spring of that year, when the monarchy was overthrown and the provisional government established. "The Kerensky of March," he says, "has been overshadowed by the Kerensky of November. The facts testify clearly to his perceptiveness, political acumen and particularly to his unique inspirational contribution to the success of the March Revolution."

Alexander Kerensky was born in 1881 in a sleepy town on the mid-Volga River called Simbirsk--the birthplace 11 years earlier of one Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. Ironically, Kerensky's father, then the equivalent of a high school principal, reportedly wrote a quite positive college recommendation for his son's future adversary. In 1889, the family moved to the frontier of the Russian empire--the dusty town of Tashkent, in Central Asia--where the father became superintendent of schools. Family photos show the Islamic milieu in which Alexander grew up, with Russian officials in their starched white uniforms surrounded by dark-skinned schoolchildren and their turbaned fathers.

Kerensky's radical antipathy to the absolute rule of the Romanovs was nurtured during his university days in St. Petersburg. He was an intellectual interested in all aspects of Russian history, culture and literature in addition to politics. By the spring of 1904, he had graduated with a law degree, married the daughter of a Russian general and begun to prosecute high-profile cases designed to embarrass the monarchy. When, two years later, Czar Nicholas II finally allowed the election of a parliament, an elated Kerensky thought the country was finally on the road to democracy.

As the czar dissolved one parliament after another, however, Kerensky grew disillusioned. An exceptional orator, he successfully ran for the Fourth State Duma, or lower house, in 1912 as a Labor Party representative. Kerensky used this platform to criticize the government, conduct inquiries into officials' abuses and disseminate revolutionary propaganda. He later joined the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionary Party and tried, from his minority position, to radicalize the Duma and prepare it for a revolutionary role.

But World War I derailed any evolutionary progression toward a constitutional democracy. Russia entered the conflict at its outset in 1914, holding down a vast Eastern Front against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. The war ground on for three years, diverting huge amounts of manpower, causing serious food and fiber shortages and generating charges of gross mismanagement against the czar and his bureaucracy.

Strikes and army desertions had become commonplace by the winter of 1917, but no one--from the czar at army headquarters to Lenin in Swiss exile--was prepared for the events of March 8 through 12 in Petersburg. That the 300-year Romanov reign would simply evaporate overnight was as unthinkable then as the dissolution of the Soviet Union would be 74 years later. Street protests against food shortages, usually suppressed by the police and military, took a dramatic turn in March when the Petersburg garrison soldiers began to refuse orders and joined the crowd marching toward the Duma chambers in the Tauride Palace. According to Browder, Kerensky's finest hour came with his decisive actions during the chaotic events that followed.

As the tideof revolution turned on March 12, Kerensky was one of the few who truly recognized the significance of the moment. Other members of the Duma were milling about the palace, torn by their oath of allegiance to the czar, who had ordered the legislature to dissolve. As the crowd approached the palace, Kerensky shouted to his colleagues: "May I tell them that the State Duma is with them, that it assumes all responsibility, that it will stand at the head of the movement?" Getting an ambivalent response, he rushed outside and addressed the rebellious troops. "Citizen soldiers," he cried, "on you falls the great honor of guarding the State Duma. . . . I declare you to be the First Revolutionary Guard!" He had committed the Duma to the Revolution, despite itself.

Later that day, students and soldiers began rounding up members of the old regime and bringing them to the palace. The Duma president recognized an old friend among them, the czar's ex-minister of justice, and calmly invited him into his office for a chat. At this point, Kerensky seized control of the situation, arresting the ex-minister in the name of the Revolution. Kerensky's proclivity toward dramatic gestures and his take-charge style--which would later work against his ability to compromise--were exactly what this chaotic situation required. As Browder comments, by averting violent retaliation he had "established the precedent that the Revolution would not corrupt its goals by murder and emphasized that the Duma had dissolved its ties with the old regime."

Yet even after the surprise abdication of the czar three days later, the full Duma failed to reconvene. Instead, an informal group of party leaders--mostly center and center-right, but with a few socialists like Kerensky--met to select a provisional government as an interim step to a full constituent assembly, or constitutional convention. But the parties of the left, always underrepresented in the Duma, were quick to exploit the shaky legitimacy of the new government. They immediately summoned delegates from all the local factories and military units to a separate room in the Tauride Palace. There they formed the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. A soviet can be thought of as a loose combination of a giant labor union and a New England town meeting. It was the establishment of these popular forums in Russia's major cities that created the critical post-czarist problem of dual power centers.

By exerting authority without accepting responsibility, the soviets helped to foment anarchy. The Petrograd Soviet quickly became an unwieldy shouting match, with some 3,000 members all wanting their say. But soon true power devolved to an executive committee, and Kerensky was elected one of its two vice chairmen. The committee voted to remain completely separate from the new provisional government, but the Duma leaders wanted to reach out to the Soviet by naming Kerensky minister of justice. In the early morning of March 14, near exhaustion, he went home to consider his personal dilemma. Should he cast his lot with his leftist Soviet colleagues or with the more establishment provisional government, or should he try to do both?

That evening, his decision made, Kerensky climbed onto a table at a mass meeting of the full Soviet and launched into another of his impassioned orations. "Comrades!" he declared. "Allow me to return to the provisional government and declare to it that I am entering its ranks with your agreement, as your representative." In the end, he convinced the full membership to overrule its leadership. "When I jumped down from the table," Kerensky recalled in his memoirs, "I was lifted on the shoulders of the delegates and carried to the very door of the Provisional Government. I was triumphant."

Students in Kerensky's Stanford seminars recall his screening of the Sergei Eisenstein silent film classic October: Ten Days That Shook the World, made at Stalin's behest in 1927 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik takeover. As the class watched the movie, Kerensky "became very agitated," says John Zerzan, '65. "It was as if he were living these events again that very day."

Zerzan remembers Kerensky becoming particularly exasperated at the point where the actor playing him--a remarkable look-alike--comes across as a vacillating incompetent driven only by ego and the lust for power. Dressed in a well-tailored quasi-military uniform, replete with leather gloves and riding crop, he is shown in the ornate Winter Palace--the camera panning from him to the image of a peacock and then to a statue of Napoleon that sits on his desk.

Indeed, the young Kerensky did exhibit some of the characteristics of a demagogue. He moved the government into the Winter Palace, using the dining room for cabinet meetings and allowing himself to be photographed at the huge desk used by the czars. He traveled in one of the czar's trains and slept in the bed of Alexander III, not with his wife but with a mistress. The woman was Lilya B., the wife of an army officer and a cousin of Kerensky's wife, Olga. Kerensky had met her the year before, in Helsinki, while recovering from a kidney operation. His 13-year marriage was effectively over.

There is no doubt that Kerensky enjoyed the trappings of power. But in a sense, the Revolution really was his revolution--he had seized the moment, channeled the energy of the masses, and now he was the only figure straddling the two power centers. In fact, because of the vote in the Soviet, he was arguably the only member of the provisional government with a genuine electoral mandate.

As minister of justice, Kerensky immediately instituted universal suffrage and unheard-of freedoms of speech, assembly, press and religion. He would argue later that Russia was, for a few months, the freest country in the world. But individual liberties meant little to a people suffering the privations of World War I--massive fatalities at the front, hyperinflation, transport breakdowns, empty shelves in the stores and insufficient fuel to heat their homes.

The first major shake-up of the provisional government came in April with a debate over war policy. Despite the public's distaste for the war, Kerensky and his government colleagues were supreme nationalists, under pressure from the Allies to honor Russian commitments and loath to envision a break-up of their empire at the hands of the Germans. Kerensky now became minister of war, charged with, in the words of British diplomat Bruce Lockhart, "the hopeless task of trying to drive back into the trenches a nation that had already finished with the war." Against the odds, he plunged into the job with typical gusto--donning a semiofficial military uniform and fervently addressing groups of soldiers from the back of his touring car.

A major offensive against the Germans and Austrians in July proved disastrous. Army desertions increased, and troop morale plummeted. Kerensky had played for time and lost. In the eyes of the Russian people, the provisional government had failed both on the battlefield and in its efforts to negotiate peace.

Kerensky later maintained that there was one principal force responsible for the rise of the Bolsheviks from their status as a minor splinter group--namely, a master plot by the Germans. The exiled Lenin firmly opposed the "imperialist and capitalist" war; and once in power, he would likely make a separate peace, allowing Germany to transfer all its troops to the Western Front. In early April, Lenin returned to Petersburg through enemy territory in a sealed railway car provided by the Germans. Winston Churchill noted with awe that the Germans had let loose that "most grisly of all weapons. They had transported Lenin like a plague bacillus into Russia."

As war-weariness deepened into July, Lenin's call for a unilateral separate peace with Germany began to attract more attention, and the Bolsheviks tried to stage a coup. The provisional government's president, Prince Lvov, resigned, handing the top job over to Kerensky. "There was nothing left for me to do," said Lvov. "To save the situation, it was necessary to dissolve the soviets and fire at the people. I could not do it. But Kerensky can."

However, Kerensky always felt that his government was threatened not only by Lenin but even more by right-wing forces within the military. Indeed, Kerensky maintained to the end that his government could have survived if not for a rightist plot to establish a military dictatorship. "I felt it important," he wrote later, "to ascribe the main reason for the defeat of Russian democracy to this attack from the right instead of to the foolish myth that we were 'soft' and blind to the Bolshevik danger."

In early August, Kerensky appointed General Kornilov, who had achieved some success in the otherwise disastrous July offensive, as commander in chief of the army. Tensions soon developed between the two as Kornilov pushed to dissolve the soviets and give the military a direct role in the provisional government. According to Kerensky's oft-repeated version of events, Kornilov--spurred on by the Allies--then ordered his troops to march on Petersburg in support of a right-wing coup that would turn him into the Napoleon of the Russian Revolution.

Contrary to this interpretation, historian Semion Lyandres, now writing a book about the period, points out that Kornilov was a devoted Russian patriot and clearly not a monarchist. Lyandres, MA '89, PhD '92, and others think that the Kornilov "rebellion" was largely fostered by miscommunication on both sides. In any event, Kerensky had to make a difficult choice. He could either go along with the Kornilov program--possibly alienating the soviets and losing his own position at the head of the government -- or turn against his own chief of staff. He chose the latter--labeling Kornilov a traitor, activating the left by passing out arms to the street demonstrators, repulsing the troops who advanced on Petersburg, and arresting the general.

Although Kerensky achieved his short-term objectives in foiling Kornilov, the endgame now played out rather swiftly. Lenin's laser eye spotted this as a golden opportunity to portray the government as both weak and bourgeois. The Bolsheviks--the only true "defenders of the Revolution"--soon gained control of the Petersburg and Moscow soviets. With an All-Russian Congress of Soviets scheduled for November 7, Lenin urged his comrades to initiate an armed uprising just before its opening session.

Bolshevik units occupied key bridges and checkpoints throughout Petersburg. The naval vessel Aurora steamed up the Neva and fired a few thunderous blank rounds at the Winter Palace, where government ministers were promptly arrested around their dining-room meeting table. The convening Congress of Soviets, whose more moderate members had walked out, then duly ratified the results of this coup--Russia's 74-year Communist Party dynasty had begun.

Had Kerensky been with the other ministers in the Winter Palace that evening, there is no chance he would have lived to enjoy his sunny walks on the Stanford campus. The story of his escape from the clutches of the Bolsheviks is straight out of a Graham Greene novel. Earlier in the day on November 7, Kerensky had commandeered a friend's Renault plus a flag-waving American embassy car to escort him to the front in search of loyal reinforcements. By chance, his first, and unsuccessful, approach was to the 3rd Army Cavalry Corps, previously commanded by Kornilov.

By the morning of November 14, Kerensky found himself at Gatchina Palace, a short distance outside of Petersburg, at the head of a small and unenthusiastic band of Cossack soldiers. In fact, Bolshevik troops had infiltrated the Cossacks, offering them safe passage home in return for Kerensky's head.

Kerensky and his aide resolved on suicide rather than capture. But at the very last moment, fate intervened in the form of a brave group of loyalists from Kerensky's political party organization. Just before the Bolsheviks were to enter Kerensky's quarters, a young soldier named Belenky, together with a sailor, burst in. Immediately, Kerensky donned the ill-fitting sailor's uniform, and he and Belenky calmly walked past the sentries and milling soldiers and out the palace gates. They hailed a cab and made it to a waiting car at the Chinese Gate to Gatchina village.

From Gatchina, Kerensky was transferred to a sledge, which carried him over snowy fields to a farmhouse in the woods where he could safely hide. The host family gave him a small icon to wear around his neck, and it turned out to be the only possession he was able to take into exile. By December, he had grown a beard and mustache and felt that he could now leave and travel more openly.

His plan was to move from place to place, reaching Petersburg by the opening of the long-anticipated constituent assembly on January 5. He hoped to make a dramatic, surprise appearance at whatever personal risk, to rally the anti-Bolshevik cause. Once in Petersburg, however, party comrades dissuaded him from this grand gesture. They were convinced his presence would be the death knell for the moderate cause at the assembly. All this turned out to be academic anyway, as Lenin shut down the entire convention after less than one day of debate.

After further travels incognito between Petersburg, Helsinki and Moscow, Kerensky soon determined to escape from Russia, ostensibly to meet with Allied leaders and encourage action against the Bolsheviks. Again, his party friends did not fail him. In May 1918, they approached a British embassy official and convinced him to issue a British visa on a fake Serbian passport. Kerensky, dressed in an army uniform, then joined a detachment of Serbian soldiers on a 10-day rail journey to the Arctic port of Murmansk. From there, he boarded a French warship, transferred to a British trawler and landed at the Scottish port of Thurso in mid-June. His wife and children and his mistress would find ways, after suffering many hardships, to escape to London and Paris, respectively, over the next three years.

So what are we to make of the 36-year-old Alexander Kerensky during his short but intense appearance in the historical spotlight? A man dedicated to his country and to democratic principles--certainly. A courageous, energetic man with great oratorical skills, willing to assume command in a time of crisis--most assuredly. An ambitious man of outsized ego, comfortable with political infighting but lacking the vision to tackle the root causes of popular discontent--quite possibly.

But what about Kerensky's contention that Russia was ready for democracy in 1917--that it could have happened but for the treachery of a Kornilov and the villainy of a Lenin compounded by Allies pushing to the right and Germans pulling to the left? This is, of course, the tougher question. It seems that it would have taken a miracle for Russia to have gone from a near-absolute monarchy to a functioning democracy given the circumstances. The country faced at once a disastrous war, massive economic hardships, and a multitude of warring political factions fighting it out within two diametrically opposed power centers.

Kerensky tried to bridge this political chasm, but it was too wide. The eventual Bolshevik outcome was certainly not foreordained, depending as it did on the unique personalities of Lenin and Trotsky. It's still hard to believe, in fact, that the world's first experiment with a "worker state" occured in a country that was 98 percent agricultural. But, in the dire atmosphere of 1917, some form of extremism--either of the right or of the left--seemed a more likely outcome than Kerensky's democratic center.

Forty-eight years later at Stanford, such speculation and theorizing became the subject of the term-paper assignment for Kerensky's seminar on the Revolution. "Think about it for a moment," says Tom Cox, '66. "It was as if there had been a senior seminar on Watergate taught by Richard Nixon in which the main assignment was to write a paper on the role of Nixon in Watergate!" Worse still, to compensate for Kerensky's bad eyesight, students knew they would have to read their papers aloud and defend them alone with the professor in his small apartment.

Cox worked hard on his paper and may or may not have come to some of the same conclusions mentioned above--he's forgotten now. But he clearly remembers nervously trudging up to Kerensky's modest upper-floor campus quarters in Kingscote Gardens, where the old man, eyes half closed, listened attentively, nodding occasionally as Cox read his meager musings about a fascinating place and time, but one quite difficult for a non-Russian to fully comprehend. "I was thankful at the end," he recalls, "when Kerensky asked me only a few short questions and let me go. He was a pretty imposing character, and I was glad to get out of there with a B."

Anything But a Bolshevik

In his book Namedropping, writer Richard Elman tells about the summer of 1955 when he was living in a Palo Alto rooming house run by a niece of Herbert Hoover, one Mrs. Maryk. Elman recalls the heavy-set Mrs. Maryk panting up the stairs one day in a dither. "It's just too terrible," she declared. "It isn't bad enough that I've had weight lifters and Arabs . . . and . . . homosexuals. . . . Now they want me to take in this Bolshevik. Mr. Elman, what shall I do?"

Elman asked her how she knew he was a Communist. "Because," she gasped, "he was the president of Russia. They told me so." Elman then commented that there hadn't been a Russian president that he knew of since Alexander Kerensky. "Yes, that's the man, Kerensky," she said. "O, what shall I do?"

After Elman explained that if it really was Kerensky, he was anything but a Bolshevik, Mrs. Maryk grew calm. "He must be quite old by now," she said. "I just hope he doesn't like to stare through keyholes like that Turkish agronomist they sent me two years ago."

Comments (0)


  • Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.

Rating

Your Rating
Average Rating

Actions

Tags

Be the first one to tag this!