Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) was a Russian revolutionary and politician of liberal-socialist persuasions. In the eight months between February and October 1917, Kerensky was Russia’s most significant national leader, serving as justice minister, war minister and prime minister in the Provisional Government. The October Revolution displaced Kerensky from power and he lived the rest of his life in exile.
Kerensky was born to a middle-class family in Simbirsk, a Volga River town 600 miles east of Moscow. His father, Fyodor, was a teacher and school administrator who would have been acquainted with Ilya Ulyanov, the father of Vladimir Lenin.
In 1900, Kerensky moved to the capital to study history and law at St Petersburg University. While there, Kerensky came under the influence of political reformists, both liberal and socialist. He graduated in 1904 and married Olga Baranovsky, whose family included several notable Socialist-Revolutionaries.
Kerensky joined the SRs during the 1905 Revolution and became editor of the party’s official newspaper. He was arrested for producing anti-tsarist literature and exiled from St Petersburg for several months.
Lawyer and radical
After returning to the capital in 1906, Kerensky went into legal practice. A good amount of his business was representing accused revolutionaries or the victims of police violence. Kerensky’s skill as a lawyer, along with his liberal-socialist sympathies, brought him both press attention and public admiration.
In 1912, Kerensky became involved in the aftermath of the Lena River Massacre. He travelled to Siberia to visit the scene of the shootings, interview those involved and published condemnations of the incident. This further catapulted him into the public eye. Later that same year, Kerensky was elected to the Fourth Duma, standing as a candidate for the moderate socialist Trudovik party.
Kerensky became one of the de facto leaders of the Duma’s so-called Progressive Bloc, using his powerful oratory and sharp legal knowledge to routinely criticise the government. The outbreak of World War I further intensified his attacks on the competency of tsarism.
By the beginning of 1917, Kerensky was one of the highest-profile members of the Duma. His powerful speech-making, liberal-socialist views and strong criticism of the tsarist government and its failings saw him acquire a large working-class following.
In March 1917, 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 a possible conflict of interest, Kerensky delivered two convincing speeches arguing in favour of links between both bodies; he won the debate.
In March, Kerensky joined the Provisional Government, becoming its first Minister for Justice. He was only socialist to hold a cabinet position in this first cabinet. As Minister for Justice, Kerensky championed the liberalisation of Russia’s legal code. The death penalty was abolished, civil rights were improved, ethnic and religious discriminations were removed and political prisoners, including numerous Bolsheviks, were freed from imprisonment or exile.
Minister for War
Kerensky’s fate changed irrevocably in May 1917 when divisions over the Provisional Government’s war policy led to several ministers resigning from the cabinet. Kerensky was appointed Minister for War and was joined in the new cabinet by six other socialists.
Like his predecessors, Kerensky supported Russia’s continued involvement in World War I. In June 1917, Kerensky ordered a disastrous offensive against the Austrians and Germans in Galicia. Incompetent leadership, a lack of supplies and poor morale all played havoc with the offensive, which produced more than 400,000 Russian casualties.
Despite these military failures, Kerensky somehow remained popular and trusted, perhaps 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 fellow ministers. He also ordered the reintroduction of the death penalty in the military.
In August, Kerensky’s authority was challenged by the actions of General Lavr Kornilov, whom Kerensky had appointed the commander-in-chief of the army only weeks before. Confronted with the spectre of being replaced by a military dictatorship, Kerensky called on the Soviets for support. Though this support was not needed, it revealed the weakness of Kerensky’s position, since he was unable to call on his own generals to defend the government.
Kerensky attempted to restore his authority and gain popular support with left-wing policies. In September 1917, he declared Russia to be a socialist republic. Days later, he filled his cabinet with socialist ministers. He refused to give the workers of Petrograd what they truly wanted, however, which was Russia’s withdrawal from the war.
Revolution and overthrow
In early October 1917, Kerensky moved to short-circuit an imminent uprising by ordering raids on Bolshevik buildings, to destroy their printing presses and arrest their leaders. This attack precipitated the formation of the Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee (Milrevcom) and the overthrow of the Provisional Government on October 26th.
Kerensky fled the Winter Palace hours before it was stormed by Red Guards. His government was overthrown with minimal bloodshed.
Alexander Kerensky left Petrograd and attempted to drum up a counter-revolution. This proved fruitless, however, 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 born in the same town as Vladimir Lenin. He later studied law in St Petersburg where he was exposed to radical political movements.
2. Kerensky joined the Socialist-Revolutionaries in 1905 and edited their newspaper. He later obtained public attention through his investigation of the Lena River Massacre.
2. Kerensky was elected to the Duma in 1912. By the outbreak of World War I, he was well known for his powerful speeches in the Duma that were often critical of tsarism.
3. Kerensky served as Minister of Justice then Minister of War in the first cabinet of the Provisional Government. He became prime minister when the cabinet collapsed in July 1917.
4. In August, Kerensky’s authority was challenged by a possible military counter-revolution led by General Kornilov. This exposed the powerlessness of his position.
5. Kerensky attempted to rescue the Provisional Government by declaring it a socialist government and cracking down on Bolshevik activity, however, this only served to instigate the October Revolution.