Between the fall of Nicholas II in March 1917 and the rise of Vladimir Lenin in October, Russia’s most significant national leader was Alexander Kerensky. During the eight months of the Provisional Government Kerensky held three important portfolios: justice, war and the prime ministership. A liberal-socialist, popular with the masses and a compelling public speaker, Kerensky was the man who might have saved Russia from political extremism. Instead, his dogged commitment to keeping Russia in the war and his political short-sightedness signed the death warrant of the Provisional Government. In late October 1917 Kerensky was toppled from power and forced to flee Russia, an impotent and defeated figure who had failed to capitalise on the great opportunity passed to him.
Kerensky was born to a middle class family in 1881. There were several notable similarities between his early life and that of Lenin, the man who later challenged Kerensky for control of Russia. Both were born in Simbirsk, a Volga River town 600 miles east of Moscow. Both had fathers who worked in education: Lenin’s as an inspector of schools, Kerensky’s as a headmaster (the elder Kerensky even supplied Lenin with a written reference that helped him gain entry to Kazan University). The Kerensky and Ulyanov families were known to each other and several in the two families were friends. Both Kerensky and Lenin trained and graduated as lawyers. Both were also socialists, though Kerensky’s socialism was of the moderate-liberal strand, while Lenin’s was radical, impatient and obsessive.
After leaving university, Kerensky went into legal practice in St Petersburg. A good amount of his business was representing accused revolutionaries or the victims of police violence. Kerensky also became involved in left-wing political groups, joining the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) party during the 1905 Revolution. In 1912 he entered public life when he was elected to sit in the fourth Duma, as a member of the Trudoviks (a small but vocal labour faction of the SRs). Kerensky soon rose to prominence as an investigator and an orator. In late 1912 he was sent to Russia’s remote east as part of a Duma committee investigating the Lena River massacre; on his return Kerensky delivered some sharp criticisms of the government and military. A skilled and articulate orator, he employed similar techniques to those later adopted by Hitler, rehearsing in front of mirrors to fine-tune changes in volume, tone and gesticulation.
By the beginning of 1917, Kerensky was one of the most popular members of the Duma, enjoying a significant working-class following. In March Kerensky was elected vice-chairman of the newly formed Petrograd Soviet, making him the only individual to hold high-ranking positions in both the Soviet and Provisional Government. When members of the Soviet complained about this possible conflict of interest, Kerensky delivered two convincing speeches which argued that links between both bodies was essential; he won the debate. In March he became Minister for Justice, the only socialist to hold a cabinet position in the Provisional Government. As Minister for Justice, Kerensky oversaw the liberalisation of the tsarist legal code: the death penalty was abolished, civil rights were improved, ethnic and religious discriminations were removed. When Lenin returned to April 1917 Kerensky, curious about Lenin’s intentions, attempted to arrange a meeting – but the Bolshevik leader refused.
George Buchanan, diplomat
Kerensky’s fate changed irrevocably in May 1917, when divisions over its war policy led to several ministers leaving the Provisional Government. Kerensky was appointed Minister for War and was joined in the new cabinet by six other socialists. Like his predecessors, Kerensky has supported Russia’s continued involvement in World War I, though his role as justice minister had allowed him to avoid the subject. In June 1917 Kerensky ordered a disastrous offensive against the Austrians and Germans in Galicia. Poor leadership, a lack of supplies and poor morale all played havoc with the assault, which would eventually produce more than 400,000 Russian casualties. Despite these military failures Kerensky somehow remained popular and trusted, in part because of his oratory. When the Provisional Government collapsed again following the ‘July Days’, Kerensky was chosen to replace Georgy Lvov as prime minister.
Now holding the reins of government, Kerensky’s response to the unrest in Petrograd was firm and immediate. He ordered the arrest of Bolshevik leaders and organisers, while others, including Lenin, were chased into exile. Anti-Bolshevik rhetoric and propaganda began to flow from Kerensky and his supporters in the government. Kerensky also ordered the reintroduction of the death penalty in the military. In August his authority was challenged by the actions of General Lavr Kornilov, whom Kerensky had appointed commander-in-chief of the army only weeks before. Confronted with the spectre of being ousted by Kornilov and replaced by a military dictatorship, Kerensky was forced to call on the Soviets for support. While this support was not needed, it revealed the weak position of the Provisional Government, which could not command the loyalty of its own generals.
Kerensky attempted to consolidate his authority and gain support by appealing to the left wing. In September 1917 he declared Russia to be a socialist republic; days later he filled his cabinet with socialist ministers. But he refused to give the workers of Petrograd what they truly wanted: Russia’s withdrawal from the war. In early October Kerensky attempted to head off an imminent uprising by ordering raids on Bolshevik buildings, the destruction of their printing presses and the arrest of their leaders. This action precipitated the formation of the Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Commitee (Milrevcom) and for the overthrow of the Provisional Government on October 26th. Kerensky fled the Winter Palace hours before it was stormed by Red Guards. His attempts to drum up a counter-revolution were fruitless and he was forced to leave Russia. He lived in France until 1940, then briefly in Australia before emigrating to the United States. He spent his last years writing, teaching and lecturing at Stanford University.
1. Alexander Kerensky was a socialist lawyer, a member of the Duma and anti-government campaigner.
2. In March 1917 he became Minister of Justice, the only socialist in the Provisional Government.
3. Kerensky was later Minister of War, ordering a failed offensive in Austria. He became prime minister in July.
4. In August his authority was challenged by the Kornilov affair, during which he appealed for help from the Soviet.
5. Devoid of power, Kerensky was eventually overthrown by the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Alexander Kerensky” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/alexander-kerensky/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].