Nov 16, 2007

Book Review: The Catastrophe - Kerensky’s Own Story of the Russian Revolution

Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky (Алекса́ндр Фёдорович Ке́ренский), who served as the second Prime Minister of the Russian Provisional Government until the Bolshevik RevolutionKerensky, Alexander F.
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1927

Alexander Kerensky was a Russian politician who became the second Prime Minister of the Russian Provisional Government until Lenin took power after the October Revolution in 1917. To his credit, Kerensky freely admitted that he was not a historian, and he wrote that he had not “tried to write history” but rather he “sought to add some raw material for history.” Kerensky’s account, while containing the sorts of biases and self-serving passages one would expect from a first person narrative, nonetheless offers a different perspective to the Bolshevik Revolution than found in Soviet-era history or virulently anti-communist writers, and the book includes a great deal of inside information unavailable in standard histories of the revolutionary period.

Kerensky occasionally delved into rhetoric that was both self-serving and decidedly skewed toward an positive assessment of the accomplishments of the first phase of the Revolution. In the following passage, which sums up his chapter recounting the first 100 hours after Tsar Nicholas II attempted to dissolve the Duma, the author engaged in discourse so euphoric that it ignored the chaos and bloodshed associated with the eventual abdication of Nicholas, and evoked a sense of the dreamy, quasi-religiosity that he later scorned when used by the Bolsheviks:
But what enthusiasm, what faith, what devotion we found among the thousands who crowded the Tauride Palace! How quickly everything was organized! How many threw themselves wholly into the common cause! How many were ready to live and die together! Those innumerable delegations, processions, greetings, those bright, shining faces, those outbursts of delight and faith seemed to prove to us all that the people had found themselves at last, that they had cast off the accursed yoke and were advancing joyfully, in festal garments, towards the new day that was already dawning. A mighty living impulse, a divine spirit, a transfiguring ecstasy descended upon the land.
Kerensky defended his record in dealing with the Bolsheviks in the earliest days of the February Revolution. He argued that those who believe he should have taken a harsher stance against the Bolsheviks possessed the wisdon gained from hindsight, and that the Provsional Government had an important obligation to uphold the rule of law after the arbitrary rule of the Romanovs:
People from the Right have blamed and are still blaming me for my leniency toward the Left, i.e., towards the Bolsheviki. They forget that on the principle they put forward I should have been obliged to begin applying the terror not to the Left but to the Right, that I had not the right to shed the blood of the Bolsheviki unless I had first shed streams of blood in the early days and weeks of the Revolution, when I risked my authority and prestige with the masses by fighting against the demand that the Czar and all the members of the fallen dynasty and all its servants should be atrociously punished. I remain a decided adversary of every form of terror.
The character of Vladimir Lenin appears only a few times in throughout the book, and Kerensky noted that he only met the Bolshevik leader one time. Kerensky steadfastly believed that Lenin was being funded by and working directly for the German government in 1917, and he argued that “Lenin’s treason to Russia, committed in the very heat of the War, is an historically unquestionable and undeniable fact.” He claimed that Generals Alexeyev and Denikin possessed direct documentary evidence demonstrating a link between “the Russian traitors and their highly placed German friends,” and that the Provisional Government was within days of capturing a spy (Jacob Fürstenberg, also known by his alias “Gantetsky”), who supposedly held incriminating evidence that would have proved damning to Lenin. Kerensky claimed that Minister of Justice Perverzev inadvertently tipped off a media source about Ganetsky, who then turned back to Stockholm. This reviewer in unaware of any exiting documentation to support a Lenin-German collaboration beyond the decision by Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff to allow Lenin to travel through German territory in a sealed train back to Russia; Kerensky, though, claimed that Russian troops at the front received from their German counterparts a series flyers ten days in advance of both the July and October Bolshevik uprisings.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Влади́мир Ильи́ч Улья́нов), better known to the West as Vladimir LeninVladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to the West as Vladimir Lenin

Among the most interesting of chapters in The Catastrophe is one that recounts Kerensky’s interviews with the former Tsar, who was being held prisoner at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. Kerensky admitted that – though he was an opponent of capital punishment and supported the move by the Provisional Government to abolish the death penalty – he harbored extreme anger toward the Tsar, and he confessed that “the only death warrant I could bear to sign would be that of Nicholas II.” Yet Kerensky was taken aback when he finally met the Nicholas and the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna in August 1917:
What I had seen of the former Empress made her character quite clear to me and corresponded with what every one who knew her had said about her. But Nicholas, with his beautiful blue eyes and his whole manner and appearance, was a puzzle to me… It seemed incredible that that slow-moving, diffident simpleton, who looked as if he were dressed in some one else’s clothes, had been Emperor of All Russia, Czar of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, etc. etc., and had ruled over an immense empire for twenty-five years!
Nicholas, noted Kerensky, seemed to be an inscrutable conglomeration of contradictions, and was a ruler who simply disliked the obligations associated with his office:
He was an extremely reserved man, who distrusted and utterly despised mankind. He was not well educated, but had some knowledge of human nature. He did not care for anything or any one except his son, and perhaps his daughters. This terrible indifference to all things made him seem like some unnatural automaton. As I studied his face, I seemed to see beyond his smile and his charming eyes a stiff, frozen mask of utter loneliness and desolation. I think he may have been a mystic, seeking communion with Heaven patiently and passionately, and weary of all earthly things… It seemed as if a heavy burden had fallen from his shoulders and that he was greatly relieved.
Kerensky was convinced that everything he had previously heard about the Empress was accurate, and he described Alexandra at their first meeting as “stiff, proud, and haughty” and a “clever woman with a strong will.” The Empress, he recalled, “keenly felt the loss of her authority and could not resign herself to the new state of affairs.” He recalled the last conversation that he and the Empress shared, which occurred as the last of the belongings of the Romanov family was being loaded for the trip to Tobolsk; Alexandra expressed frustration with her inability to forge a bond with the Russian people:
Suddenly her face flushed and she flared up: “I don’t understand why people speak ill of me. I have always liked Russia from the first time I came here. I have always sympathized with Russia. Why do people think I am siding with Germany and out enemies? There is nothing German about me. I am English by education and English is my language!”

Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna of Russia (Императрица Александра Фёдоровна Романова), Empress consort of Russian Tsar Nicholas IILeft: Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna of Russia, Empress consort of Russian Tsar Nicholas II

For Kerensky, the turning point in the future of the Provisional Government – and ultimately the history of Russia – was the Kornilov Affair, which he referred to as a “revolt.” Kerensky believed that Kornilov had been recruited by rightist opponents of the Provisional Government some time before the general became commander-in-chief in late July 1917 and, that during Kornilov’s tenure, his “entire attention was devoted to the development of the military side of the conspiracy, to measures intended to assure its success.” Kerensky implied that elements within the British government were in support of the attempted coup, claiming that pamphlets touting “Korniloff, the National Hero” were printed at the expense of the British Military Mission and distributed in Moscow. Kerensky argued that the net result of the aborted revolt was a tremendous opportunity for the Bolsheviks, who began to spread propaganda based upon a rumor that Kerensky betrayed Kornilov in what was to have been a rightist coup engineered by elements within the Provisional Government:
This slanderous invention was immediately taken up by the Bolsheviki, who used it as dynamite with which, within a few days, they succeeded in destroying the confidence of the rank and file of the Army in the Provisional Government. The Korniloff uprising destroyed the entire work of the restoration of discipline in the army, achieved after almost superhuman efforts. Lenin, still in hiding, immediately grasped the significance of the service performed for him by the organizers of the Korniloff rebellion.
Kerensky devoted surprisingly little of the book to the actual Bolshevik Revolution, and his account centers on his own efforts to save the Provisional Government and his own life following the Petrograd uprising. He argued that the rightist opponents of the government – especially those in power in the military – failed to defend the Provisional Government from the Bolsheviks, and that they planned to install a military government, thinking that a military dictatorship could “finish the Bolsheviki in three weeks.” Unfortunately, noted Kerensky, the rightist opposition merely ignited a destructive period of civil warfare between White and Red factions, with the Russian population caught in the crosshairs of the internal struggle for power.

The Catastrophe is a well-written, thoughtful book that offers a unique view on the events leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. General readers will find this text to be accessible, and there is value in Kerensky’s work for scholars at all levels of research. Certainly readers should be aware of Kerensky’s efforts to place himself and the Provisional Government in the best possible light, but the author’s role as Prime Minister and his access to government documents makes the text an informative viewpoint from one of the principal actors of this period of unprecedented upheaval.