The Provisional Government was the national government of Russia between the February Revolution and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. During its brief lifespan the Provisional Government faced many challenges, including Russia’s involvement in World War I, ongoing economic shortages and opposition from a recalcitrant Petrograd Soviet and radical Bolshevik revolutionaries.
The Provisional Government inherited political authority after the abdication of Nicholas II. It enjoyed a brief honeymoon period marked by hope, optimism and public support. Many Russian people welcomed the new government.
Before long, however, the Provisional Government was confronted by the same policy issues that undermined and destroyed tsarism. The abdication of Nicholas II might have relaxed the mood of the people but it did not fix Russia’s failing transportation infrastructure or increase supplies of bread and coal in Petrograd.
Even more pressing was the question of Russia’s involvement in World War I. Many believed the Provisional Government should seek peace terms from Germany and withdraw from the war, to ease pressure on Russia’s economy and allow political reconstruction. Others believed that Russia, having made promises to its allies in 1914, should honour them.
The Provisional Government chose the latter path. Its ongoing commitment to the war would eventually prove fatal. By the end of July 1917, the Provisional Government was disregarded, disrespected and almost powerless. The question was not whether it would survive but when it would fall.
The core of the new government was a provisional committee of Duma deputies, assembled during the unrest that became the February Revolution. On March 2nd, hours after Nicholas II abdicated the throne, the committee discarded three of its Octobrist members and reformed as the Provisional Government of Russia.
In its first formation, the Provisional Government contained 12 ministers, seven of whom were liberal Kadets. Its first prime minister was Prince Georgy Lvov, a minor royal and wealthy landowner who favoured a transition to a liberal-democratic government.
The only socialist in Lvov’s cabinet was Alexander Kerensky, a Socialist-Revolutionary lawyer who led the Trudovik labour faction in the Duma.
On March 3rd the Provisional Government issued a manifesto containing eight principles by which it would function. The first four of these were the most significant:
1. An immediate and complete amnesty in all cases of a political and religious nature, including terrorist acts, military revolts and agrarian offences, etc.
2. Freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and the right to form unions and to strike and the extension of political freedom to persons serving in the armed forces limited only by the demands of military and technical circumstances.
3. The abolition of all restrictions based on class, religion, and nationality.
4. The immediate arrangements for the calling on the Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage and secret ballot, which will determine the form of government and the constitution of the country.
As its name suggests, the Provisional Government was only intended to be a temporary regime. It was formed to oversee Russia’s transition from tsarism to a democratically elected Constituent Assembly. Most expected elections for this Constituent Assembly would be organised and held within six months, certainly well before the end of 1917.
Obstacles to government
In the meantime, the Provisional Government attempted to rule as one might expect an elected government to rule. This was problematic, for several reasons.
While its members were drawn from the Duma, the Provisional Government itself had no mandate. It had not been elected or endorsed by the people. Russians were aware of its temporary nature, so the Provisional Government’s laws and decrees – and particularly its war policies – were not always respected or taken seriously.
As the year progressed, the Provisional Government found it more difficult to see its policies through to completion. By the summer of 1917, the government was largely impotent. It could formulate policies and directives but they were carried out partially or half-heartedly, if at all. One contemporary observer dubbed it the “Persuasive Government” since it frequently resorted to cajoling or convincing to get things done.
The obstructive Soviet
A significant problem for the Provisional Government’s weakness was the rise of the Petrograd Soviet. A reincarnation of the old St Petersburg Soviet of 1905, the Petrograd Soviet came together in the final days of the February Revolution. It began as a rowdy meeting of militant workers and soldiers. Within days, it had become a representative council containing delegates from almost every factory, workplace and military unit in the capital.
At its peak, the Petrograd Soviet boasted more than 3,000 members. While its meetings were loud and boisterous, the Soviet’s political aims were initially moderate. Its executive council (Ispolkom) and daily newspaper (Izvestia) were dominated by Mensheviks and moderate Socialist-Revolutionaries.
In its first weeks, the Soviet harboured very little talk of overthrowing or replacing the Provisional Government. It was more divided on the question of war, however, with a sizeable number of its delegates supporting Russia’s immediate withdrawal.
‘Order Number One’
One of the Petrograd Soviet’s most telling acts was its passing of the famous Order Number One, issued two days before the abdication of the tsar.
This order called on all military units to maintain discipline and readiness but to seek the approval of the Soviet before carrying out any orders issued by the State Duma. It was passed to prevent an armed counter-revolution, either from pro-tsarist generals or conservatives in the Duma.
Order Number One is often interpreted as an attempt to undermine the Provisional Government. This was not the case because the order was passed before the Provisional Government was formed. What the order clearly demonstrated, however, was the Soviet’s willingness to ignore or countermand orders given by civilian authorities, if those orders conflicted with the interests of workers and soldiers.
This set the scene for what became known as the ‘Dual Power’ or ‘Dual Authority’: an eight-month period in 1917 when political control was divided between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet. As Kerensky later put it, the Soviet possessed “power without authority” while the Provisional Government had “authority without power”.
Even more fatal for the Provisional Government was its decision to keep Russian troops in World War I. It did so for several reasons, not least because most members of the government had supported the war effort from the beginning.
Some politicians, like Lvov, considered this a matter of national duty. Having entered the war to support its allies, they believed Russia should maintain its commitment until a final victory was achieved.
Others believed that surrender or negotiated peace with Germany would jeopardise Russia’s international standing. The nation would require more foreign loans, capital and trade in the post-war world. To withdraw from the war might put that at risk.
In addition, the war was not going well for Russia position in early 1917 so its bargaining position was weak. Any peace overtures would likely see Germany make extensive demands of Russian territory and resources. Others believed the war question should be decided by the new Constituent Assembly and that the Provisional Government should not change the status quo. The consensus, therefore, was to maintain Russia’s commitment on the Eastern Front.
Each of these arguments had some merit. Still, the decision to sustain the war effort drove a wedge between the Provisional Government and the people. It also created significant divisions within the government itself.
In mid-April 1917, the Provisional Government’s first foreign minister, Pavel Milyukov, penned a note to the Allies, informing them that Russia was committed to the war effort and would remain in the war until its conclusion.
Milyukov’s telegram was leaked to radical socialists and then the press. Its publication triggered large public demonstrations in Petrograd.
First cabinet collapses
Facing enormous public pressure, Milyukov and war minister Alexander Guchkov were both forced to resign. Guchkov was replaced by Kerensky, who was joined in the cabinet by six other socialist ministers.
Kerensky had learned no lessons from the April unrest or the fate of his predecessors, however. Two months after his appointment as war minister, he ordered an ambitious new offensive against the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia.
Kerensky toured the frontline, worked closely with military commanders and gave rousing speeches – but these ploys had little effect. The Russian army was fatigued by three years of war, still poorly led and under-resourced and pushed to the brink of mutiny by anti-war propaganda.
The July Offensive in Galicia was a costly defeat, resulting in 400,000 casualties. Kerensky’s only response was to sack his commander-in-chief, Brusilov, and replace him with General Lavr Kornilov – a move that would soon have consequences for Kerensky’s government.
A historian’s view:
“While the Provisional Government was losing power, the Soviets spread rapidly throughout Russia, reaching not only large industrial centres but also local towns and rural districts. The Soviets were unruly and in themselves posed no direct threat to the government’s existence. That situation changed when the Bolsheviks began to dominate an increasing number of Soviets, particularly in large towns and industrial centres. Since the Bolsheviks were eager to gain power by force, the Provisional Government was doomed. The giant Russian Empire was like a minor post-colonial state: a few dozen armed and determined men could stage a coup d’etat without encountering serious resistance.”
1. The Provisional Government was formed in March 1917 after the abdication of Nicholas II. The basis of the new government was a temporary committee of Duma deputies.
2. The sole mission of the Provisional Government was to manage Russia’s transition from tsarism to a democratic government through an elected Constituent Assembly.
3. The Provisional Government had no mandate, attracted dwindling levels of popular support and exerted little power. Its policies and orders were followed only when they were deemed acceptable.
4. The Petrograd Soviet, a representative council of 3,000 delegates, also challenged the government’s authority.
5. The most pressing concern for the Provisional Government was its decision to maintain the war effort. This made the government extremely unpopular, particularly in April (forcing the resignation of Milyukov) and again in July (after Kerensky’s failed offensive in Galicia).