The Kornilov affair was a confused episode in August 1917 when for a short time, the Provisional Government appeared to be under threat from a counter-revolution led by its own army. Alexander Kerensky and his government survived, in part due to support from Bolshevik troops, but their weakness had been fatally exposed.
The son of a Cossack officer in the tsarist army, Lavr Kornilov enlisted at a young age and served with distinction in both the Russo-Japanese War and World War I.
Like others of his kind, the general was taciturn, conservative and authoritarian. He was respected but also feared by the men in his command. Kornilov was a loyal tsarist who reluctantly accepted the February Revolution and barely tolerated the Provisional Government. He despised socialism and socialists and considered the Petrograd Soviet an illegal gathering and Lenin a German agent working to destroy Russia.
In summary, Kornilov was a figure of the old order rather than the new one. He was one of the best generals in the Russian army, however, which made him indispensable to the government.
The new commander
In July, following the disastrous offensive in Galicia, Kerensky dismissed commander-in-chief Aleksei Brusilov and replaced him with General Kornilov.
Kornilov was a traditionalist who believed both capital and corporal punishment were essential for enforcing order and discipline. Anyone who criticised those methods or prevented their employment, Kornilov held in contempt.
The animosity between Kornilov and members of the Provisional Government dated back to April, when Kornilov was in command of the Petrograd garrison. When anti-war protests erupted on April 21st, Kornilov sought approval to send Cossacks into the streets. The government, under pressure from the Petrograd Soviet, refused his request.
Kornilov resigned as garrison commander and returned to the battlefield. Once there, he badgered the government with telegrams requesting the reversal of its March order banning capital punishment in the army. Without the threat of a firing squad, Kornilov argued, it was impossible to halt desertion and fraternisation.
Kerensky finally relented on July 12th, granting Kornilov the authority to order summary executions.
Plotting in Moscow
The August 1917 stand-off between Kornilov and Kerensky is subject to debate and interpretation. There is some documentary evidence but it is not conclusive.
Both men attended and addressed a state conference in Moscow on August 12th. After the conference, Kornilov engaged in behind-the-scenes discussions about how government authority might be strengthened and radical socialism crushed. He met with several wealthy Russians on board a train, apparently seeking their moral and financial backing for military action in Petrograd.
Claiming to have Kerensky’s approval, Kornilov said it was his intention to march troops into the capital, arrest the Bolsheviks, disperse the Soviet and restore order. He promised his loyalty to the future Constituent Assembly. “As long as the Bolsheviks are sitting in the Smolny, nothing can be done,” Kornilov told them.
It is also likely that Kornilov met with other groups, including his fellow military officers, to drum up support.
Kerensky versus Kornilov
What is unclear are Kornilov’s intentions with regard to the Provisional Government. It has been suggested by some that Kerensky gave Kornilov explicit instructions to march troops into Petrograd, in order to crush the power of the Soviet.
This seems unlikely. While Kerensky might have wanted to rid himself of the Soviet and the Bolsheviks, evidence confirms he did not fully trust Kornilov, a noted supporter of martial law. Accepting Kornilov and his army into Petrograd might cause unrest and at worst, place the Provisional Government at risk of a coup d’etat or counter-revolution.
When Kerensky heard rumours about Kornilov’s plotting in Moscow, he contacted the general by telegram to confirm his intentions. Kornilov responded but his answer did not satisfy Kerensky, who by now was convinced of an imminent coup.
Kerensky immediately sacked Kornilov. Then, fearing that Kornilov might still proceed, Kerensky called on the Petrograd Soviet to protect the city.
The Soviet was able to short-circuit any planned advance via its delegates and organisers in military units under Kornilov’s command. Meanwhile in Petrograd, Soviet troops – many of them Bolshevik Red Guards – were given arms and ammunition, in order to guard the city limits from a Kornilovist assault.
At the insistence of the Soviet, several Bolshevik organisers, including Leon Trotsky, were also released from prison.
The political outcomes of the Kornilov affair were telling. The August debacle embarrassed the Provisional Government, demonstrating its impotence and indecisiveness in a time of crisis. Kerensky’s final act, his plea to the Soviet for assistance, showed where power really lay in the capital.
Kerensky now found himself hated by both sides of the political divide. The followers of Kornilov considered him a traitor who had abandoned Petrograd to the Soviet. The left-wing believed Kerensky was either in league with Kornilov or unable to control him.
By arming Soviet troops and Red Guards, the Provisional Government provided them with the tools of its own destruction. Authorising the release of radical socialists revived the Bolshevik movement and re-injected revolutionary leaders into a dangerous political environment. In acting to save itself, the Provisional Government had signed its own death warrant.
The tables turned
In September 1917, Kerensky and his ministers tried to consolidate their position by declaring Russia a republic and appointing a five-man ‘directory’ to run the country. They also made a public commitment to the war, a decision which triggered a general strike on Russia’s railways that paralysed the country for three days.
By mid-September, the German army had captured Riga in the Baltic and were advancing toward Petrograd. The Bolsheviks renewed their anti-war propaganda campaign and attracted much greater levels of support. At the start of 1917, the Bolsheviks had just 24,000 card-carrying members. By the end of September, this had blown out to more than 400,000 members.
This growth in support was reflected in the Soviets, where Bolsheviks now held voting majorities in both Petrograd and Moscow. The Red Guards also boasted around 100,000 men, mostly factory workers and current or former soldiers.
A few weeks before, Bolshevik agitators had been scattered in the aftermath of the ‘July Days’ uprising. The Kornilov affair turned the tables, reviving Bolshevik fortunes and clearing the path for yet another Russian revolution.
A historian’s view:
“The fact that Kornilov refused to submit to the Provisional Government means that the Kornilov affair must be considered a case of military intervention. There is no doubt that Kornilov was insubordinate and took steps to change the executive leadership of the state. This, however, is not proof of a previous plot to overthrow the government; the evidence for a Kornilov conspiracy is weak. Everyone at Stavka believed that Kornilov and Kerensky were working together. The only witness who claimed to have direct evidence for the existence of a plot was L’vov, and his testimony was contradicted by three other witnesses.”
Brian D. Taylor
1. General Kornilov was a tsarist military officer, known for his loyalty and competence. He was appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian army in July 1917.
2. Disgusted by the activity of the Petrograd Soviet and the influence of socialists, he sought to impose martial law in the Russian capital.
3. In August, Kornilov began plotting a military occupation of Petrograd. He was sacked by Kerensky, who called on the Soviets and Red Guards to protect the capital.
4. The advance of Petrograd did not proceed but the Kornilov affair humiliated the Provisional Government and facilitated a revival in Bolshevik fortunes.
5. By September 1917, the Bolsheviks had exploited the situation to increase its membership and gain significant majorities in the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets.