The Russian Revolution (1917–1918)
The Summer of 1917
The First Congress of Soviets
Throughout the month of June, the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets was held in Petrograd. Out of 784 delegates who had a full vote, the Bolsheviks numbered 105; though they were a minority, their voice was loud and clear. As the Congress discussed the future of Russia, doubt was expressed as to whether any existing party was actually willing to accept the responsibility of leading the nation. As if on cue, Lenin promptly stood up and announced, “There is such a party!” Laughter was reportedly heard following Lenin’s pronouncement, and few took him seriously. To Lenin, however, it was no joke.
On June 9, the Bolsheviks made an open proclamation calling for civilians and soldiers alike to fill the streets of the capital and to condemn the provisional government and demand an immediate end to the war. Though the proclamation called on demonstrators to state their demands “calmly and convincingly, as behooves the strong,” the Bolsheviks’ true intention, as always, was to sponsor a violent uprising that would topple the government. That evening, the Congress of Soviets, anticipating the potential for violence, prohibited demonstrations for a period of several days. The Bolsheviks gave in and called off the demonstration, realizing that they still lacked adequate support to carry off a revolution.
Russia’s Final War Offensive
In June, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky ordered the Russian army to undertake a renewed offensive along the Austrian front in World War I. Prior to the offensive’s start, Kerensky personally toured the front and delivered rousing speeches to the troops. Once under way, the Russian troops made brief progress against the Austrians and even captured several thousand prisoners. Within a few days, however, German reinforcements appeared, and the Russian troops fled in a general panic.
The operation was a complete failure and weakened Kerensky politically. Recognizing another opportunity, Lenin immediately stepped up his efforts to agitate the Russian masses and eagerly waited for the right moment to stage an armed uprising.
The July Putsch
On June 30, the Petrograd Machine Gun Regiment, one of the largest and most politically volatile military regiments in the city, was ordered to report for duty on the front. Members of the regiment immediately began to protest, and the ever-watchful Bolsheviks lost no time in directing the full strength of their propaganda machine at whipping the soldiers’ discontent into a frenzy.
On July 3, Bolshevik leaders decided to try to use the regiment, in combination with their own armed forces and 20,000 sailors from a nearby naval base, to take over the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks called for an extraordinary meeting of the workers’ section of the Soviet, and the next day, July 4, an armed mob began to assemble outside the Tauride Palace, where the Petrograd Soviet had its headquarters.
The mob had little organization, and as rumors circulated that seasoned troops from the front were on the way to Petrograd to put down the demonstrations, fear spread rapidly through the group, and many began to leave. At the same time, the provisional government released documents to the press purporting that the Bolsheviks were treasonously colluding with Germany, which sowed further doubt and confusion among those in the crowd.
By the end of the day, the mob had dissipated, and frontline troops did indeed come into the capital and restore order. Arrest warrants were issued for all of the Bolshevik leaders. Most were caught but were not prosecuted because of resistance by the Petrograd Soviet. Lenin managed to escape to Finland. Kerensky, for his effectiveness in neutralizing the Bolsheviks, was promoted from minister of war to prime minister.
A Setback for the Bolsheviks
The events of June and July proved conclusively to Lenin that he could not carry out a revolution simply by manipulating crowds of demonstrators. The July Putsch, as it came to be called, was a disaster for the Bolsheviks on many levels. The failed coup made them appear reckless and incompetent. The accusations of their collusion with Germany further damaged their reputation, especially among the military, and Lenin was unusually ineffective in countering the charges. At the same time, Kerensky and the provisional government received a brief boost in popularity. Worst of all for the Bolsheviks, most of their leadership, including the crucial figure Leon Trotsky, were now in jail, and Lenin was once more in hiding, which made communication and planning difficult.
In July, Prime Minister Kerensky appointed General Lavr Kornilov commander in chief of the Russian army. Kornilov, a popular and highly respected figure in the army, reportedly had little interest in politics but had a strong sense of patriotism. However, Kerensky soon began to fear that Kornilov was plotting to set up a military dictatorship. Kornilov had his own doubts about Kerensky as well, and a mutual lack of trust grew quickly between them. Nevertheless, the two leaders managed to work together in a reasonably professional manner for a time.
The Kornilov Affair
This tenuous relationship quickly fell apart, although it is not clear what exactly transpired. According to one account, Vladimir Lvov, a former member of the Duma and a member of the provisional government, conceived a means to exploit the bad blood between Kerensky and Kornilov. Lvov believed that the only way to save Russia was to install a military dictator and felt that Kornilov fit the bill. Therefore, without telling Kerensky, Lvov paid a visit to Kornilov, presenting himself as Kerensky’s representative. In short, Lvov told Kornilov that Kerensky was offering him dictatorial powers in Russia if he would accept them. Next, Lvov visited Kerensky, presenting himself as Kornilov’s representative, and informed Kerensky that Kornilov demanded martial law be established in Petrograd and that all ministers, including Kerensky, give full authority to Kornilov.
Because neither Kerensky nor Kornilov knew each other’s intentions, the situation deteriorated rapidly. Kerensky, believing that Kornilov was leading a coup aimed at unseating him, panicked and publicly accused Kornilov of treason. Kornilov, in turn, was dumbfounded and infuriated at this accusation, as he was under the impression that he had been invited to take power. In his panic, Kerensky appealed to the Bolsheviks for help against a military putsch, but in the end, no military coup materialized.
Other historians believe that the so-called Kornilov affair involved far less intrigue and merely arose from a series of misunderstandings. Some contend that Kornilov’s coup attempt was genuine, while others suspect that Kerensky led Kornilov into a trap. Moreover, although Lvov did indisputably act as a liaison between the two men, it is not entirely clear that he engineered the rift that developed.
Repercussions of the Kornilov Affair
In any case, the Kornilov affair weakened Kerensky and provided Lenin with the opportunity he had been waiting for. The incident had two important effects that hastened the downfall of the provisional government. First, it destroyed Kerensky’s credibility in the eyes of the military and made him look foolish and unstable to the rest of the country. Second, it strengthened the Bolsheviks, who used the incident very effectively to boost their own platform. It also gave the Bolsheviks an opportunity to greatly increase their store of weapons when the panicked Kerensky asked them to come to his aid. Altogether, the affair finally set the stage for the Bolsheviks to make a real attempt at revolution that autumn.