Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Prelude to the October Revolution: The Kornilov Affair

Alexander Kerensky and General Lavr Kornilov

With the failure of the 1917 offensive of the Russian post-tsarist Provisional Government, Supreme Commander Alexei Brusilov's stock plummeted and his advocacy of executions to restore discipline in the army made him politically unpalatable to the Provisional Government. He had to go. Alexander Kerensky, now prime minister, selected heavy-handed General Lavr Georgevich Kornilov to replace him. On political matters, this would be roughly analogous to George Patton replacing Dwight Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II. It was an appointment doomed from the start. 

Kornilov's solution for restoring discipline turned out to be even more threatening to the revolutionary cadres than Brusilov's. Kornilov believed it was imperative to repeal Order No. l, issued by the Petrograd Soviet in March 1917, which made all military orders dependent upon its consent and placed discipline at a regimental level under the discretion of soldiers’ councils rather than in the hands of officers. 

Kerensky simply could never agree to such a fundamental change and an overly candid speech by Kornilov at a conference in Moscow further alarmed him. He began seeing Kornilov as a Napoleon in the making with backing from the right. Whether imagined or real, charges of a coup were levied when Kornilov sent troops to Petrograd to maintain order. Kornilov responded to the charges by calling for the overthrow of the Provisional Government, sealing his fate. He would be dismissed, jailed, and, after escaping, become a White Army commander in the Don Basin where he would be killed in April 1918. 

Red Guards at a Petrograd Factory, 1917

Kornilov's fate, though, is much less interesting than the damage caused by Kerensky's handling of the episode. The Petrograd Soviet was called upon to oppose Kornilov's deployment to the capital. But the only military assets they had were controlled by the Bolsheviks, who gained the authority from the Soviet to form a Red Guard. So Lenin's followers were given an opportunity to reverse their fading fortunes. They helped suppress the "coup," rehabilitating the Bolsheviks' reputation, and gained a permanent presence. Trotsky would later write, "The army that rose against Kornilov was the army-to-be of the October Revolution." 

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