Kerensky on the origins of the Kornilov Affair (1927)




The Kornilov Affair was an August 1917 attempt to install General Lavr Kornilov as the military dictator of Russia. This attempted coup d’état, which originated in military circles and was backed by wealthy elites, was driven by growing dissatisfaction with Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Of particular concern was the government’s inability to rein in the Petrograd Soviet and the growing Bolshevik movement. The following extract is from Kerensky’s 1927 history of the revolution, titled The Catastrophe. In it, Kerensky gives his views on Kornilov and the origins of the Kornilov Revolt, which in his view began prior to the Moscow Conference of August 12th-15th:



“Kornilov remained all his life a man of simple tastes, a man of the people. There was nothing of the hereditary bureaucrat or of the aristocratic landed noble in him. Incidentally, all the three leading figures of the White movement – Kornilov, Alexiev and Denikin – were of lowly origin and had made their way to the top of the military hierarchy by their own efforts. Being poor, they experienced fully the burdens of an officer’s career under the old regime. All three were distinctly hostile to the privileged elements in the army… All three made rapid advances with the war, which ruined so many brilliant careers, of the kind promoted in court circles…”

I did not to the very last moment see General Kornilov among the conspirators [of August 1917], despite all the indications of the military conspiracy in preparation against the Provisional Government… In pushing him forward to the highest post in the army, in the face of opposition from his superiors and his unpopularity among the political Left; in ignoring his extremely undisciplined utterances with regard to the Provisional Government… I believed firmly that this incomparably brave soldier would not engage in political hide-and-seek games and would not shoot from ambush. To Russia’s great misfortune, this did not happen.

I do not know to this day when and where the final decision was taken to make General Kornilov dictator. I believe [it] was made prior to the appointment of Kornilov as commander of the Galician Front, i.e. between July 15th and 20th [1917]… There can be no doubt now that from the very beginning of his arrival at Mohilev, General Kornilov played a game of duplicity against the Provisional Government. His entire attention was devoted to the development of the military side of the conspiracy, to measures intended to assure its success…

Shortly before the Moscow Conference [on August 12th 1917], Kornilov came to Petrograd. In my office, I sought to convince the general that there were no differences between the Provisional Government on one side, and himself and his entourage on the other, as far as questions bearing on the army were concerned. I tried to make Kornilov realise that any attempt at hasty and violent action would produce an adverse effect… If anyone should try to establish a personal dictatorship in Russia, he would find himself the next day dangling helplessly in space, without railroads, without telegraphs and without an army. I pointed out the terrible fate awaiting the officers in the event of failure of the coup d’état…

The conspirators’ machinery… was already in operation by the time of the Moscow Conference. The conspirators sought to utilise the conference for a trial of strength, planning to proclaim General Kornilov dictator should circumstances prove favourable during the conference… The Cossack Council, the Union of the Knights of St George, the Central Committee of the Union of Officers, the Conference of the Military League, etc. proclaimed Kornilov as the permanent and irremovable commander-in-chief. The Cossack Council even went so far as to threaten the Provisional Government with mutiny in the event of Kornilov’s removal…

It is not difficult to visualise the effect of this on the mind of the naive general, given to impulsive action but little able to think politically. He interpreted every word of his worshippers as befits a soldier: words must be followed by deeds and promises by performance. The fact, however, was that all the high-sounding resolutions… were just words. Words, words, words! These men were pushing the naive general over a precipice, while they themselves remained on the brink…

Kornilov came to the Moscow Conference in great pomp. At the station, he was met by the entire elite of the old capital. Wealthy ladies in white dresses and flowers in hand fell on their knees before him; politicians wept with joy. Officers carried the popular hero on their shoulders… On returning to his railway carriage, Kornilov began receiving delegations and deputations of various kinds… On the streets of Moscow, pamphlets were being distributed entitled ‘Kornilov the National Hero’…

As we have seen, the Moscow Conference proved a complete failure for the conspirators. Their plan for the ‘peaceful proclamation of a military dictatorship was shattered. It was then, on the road from Moscow back to General Headquarters, that they decided to overthrow the Provisional Government by force of arms.”

kornilov
General Kornilov, who led the movement against the Provisional Government in August 1917, is photographed inspecting troops the previous month
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