Unravelling the “Kornilov Affair”: The Last Stop Before the Bolshevik Takeover of Russia

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 8 December 2021

General Lavr Kornilov, 27 August 1917

The final key event on the road to the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in November 1917 was the “Kornilov Affair” that took place about two months earlier. Alexander Kerensky had become Prime Minister of the Provisional Government in July 1917 and around the same time General Lavr Kornilov had become Commander-in-Chief. A lot of accounts portray the “Kornilov Affair” as a “reactionary” coup attempt by Kornilov against Kerensky. The reality is very nearly the exact opposite. As historian Robert Pipes summarises: “All the available evidence, rather, points to a ‘Kerensky plot’ engineered to discredit the general as the ringleader of an imaginary but widely anticipated counterrevolution, the suppression of which would elevate the Prime Minister to a position of unrivaled popularity and power, enabling him to meet the growing threat from the Bolsheviks.”[1]

BACKGROUND

In March 1917, bread riots in the capital, Saint Petersburg, by this time named Petrograd, had been morphed into revolutionary demonstrations by socialist agitators and, after the city’s garrison mutinied and some convoluted and confused (that is, confused to the participants) political manoeuvres took place, the Tsar had abdicated, hoping thereby to preserve the army and the country in the face of a war with the Kaiser’s Germany. This “February Revolution”—so named since Russia at this stage was still on the Old Style (O.S.) calendar—led to a system of “dyarchy”, with on the one hand the formation of a Provisional Government out of the old Duma (Parliament), and on the other hand the creation of a Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, dominated at first by radical intellectuals from the various socialist groups and by the late summer under the control of the Bolsheviks. The Petrograd Soviet had the upper-hand from the very beginning.[2]

Vladimir Lenin

In April 1917, the German government had sent the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, back into Russia, where he had not been—with one brief exception—for seventeen years. This was part of a general strategy by the Germans, reeling from the mauling on the Somme in the summer of 1916 that had combined with the Russian “Brusilov offensive” that nearly broke them, to split apart the Entente by political warfare, through strengthening radical Left “defeatist” forces that would end their country’s participation in the First World War at any cost. This had failed in Britain and France.[3] In Russia, the “Lenin card” worked much better.

A diplomatic cable from before Lenin was sent in described the purpose as creating “the greatest possible chaos” by “exacerbate[ing] the differences between the moderate and extremist parties”, intending that the latter prevail and “shatter the stability of the Russian state”. Lenin got right to work, issuing his “April Theses”, which seemed mad even to many of the Bolshevik leaders, but it was enough to stir up riots against the Provisional Government. Lenin had his proof of concept: crowds were easily manipulated into serving Bolshevik ends; if the Provisional Government repressed them, it served as propaganda to call it “anti-democratic”, and if they did not then the government could be called weak and ineffective, unable to save “the people” from “counterrevolution”. A German cable from days later read simply: “Lenin’s entry into Russia successful. He is working exactly as we wish.”[4]

With continued large-scale German financing, enabling the Bolsheviks to conduct nearly unlimited propaganda, including in the army, and smuggling in crates of ten-ruble notes (worth about $500 in present money), the Bolsheviks were able to cause mayhem in the military command and stage an armed revolt that nearly brought them to power in July 1917.[5]

KERENSKY AND KORNILOV

Alexander Kerensky, 1917 || IMAGE SOURCE

It was against this backdrop of the first Bolshevik putsch attempt that Kerensky had become Prime Minister. Having in hand reams of evidence about the German sponsorship of the Bolsheviks, and behind him a patriotic surge in the country, Kerensky could have made a pact with constitutional conservatives. Instead, for a complex of reasons, not least Kerensky being trapped by the “revolutionary” rhetoric and his dependence on the ever-more-Bolshevized Soviet, Kerensky refused and continued trying to seek his legitimacy on the outer reaches of the Left.

Kornilov was something of a rarity at this time in not having a highly developed politics. No lover of the Tsardom, to put it mildly, Kornilov did not lament its passing and did not want to see it resurrected.[6] Within the army, Kornilov had a reputation as a “progressive” and if his politics were to be summarised he had the general outlook of a mainstream liberal democrat.[7]

The most immediate effect of the “Kornilov Affair” was to collapse what was left of morale and discipline in the army. Morale in the Russia’s army had actually been rather high at the end of 1916 and into early 1917,[8] and even after the fall of their Emperor and the debacle of the “Kerensky offensive” in July 1917, the army was by no means finished.[9] One reason Kerensky’s idea of an offensive as a morale-booster was so misconceived was that it located the problem in the wrong place. Bad as things had got in places at the front, it was in the rear, where the agitators had more time and space, that there was real trouble, at garrisons like Petrograd and among the sailors at Kronstadt. It needed a restoration of discipline—returning control from the Soviet to the officer corps, and expelling mutinous radicals from units—not a “big push”.[10]

Kornilov understood this and quite obviously identified the Petrograd Soviet as the biggest impediment. What might be called a “Kornilov movement” had near unanimous support among the officer corps and the remaining conservatives among the political elite, and had key supporters within the Provisional Government, including up to a point Kerensky, who wanted the army revitalised and wanted to be free of subordination to the Soviet, but also wanted his hands clean of the task of dissolving it.[11]

The problem, simply put, was two-fold. First, Kornilov’s conditions for becoming commander-in-chief—which Kerensky accepted, then refused to live up to—had put Kerensky in the exact position he did not want to be in, of having to choose between the interests of the Russian state and the interests of international socialism. Second, Kerensky, by now wedded to being in power, had come to see Kornilov, believed by non-socialists to be the one hope to save the country and subject to endless praise on that basis, especially since the “All-Russian Conference” on 27 August, as a threat to his position. As the “Kornilov Affair” unfolded, the General bitterly denounced it as a “great provocation” by Kerensky designed to remove him from office. Without being able to see into Kerensky’s mind, it is impossible to know how consciously that was his intent, but Kornilov was essentially correct.[12] Steeped in the history of the French Revolution, as all the Russian socialists were, Kerensky was convinced the main threat to “the revolution” (i.e. his government) came from a Bonapartist “reaction”—and now he had found his Bonaparte.[13]

Viktor Chernov, 1917 || IMAGE SOURCE

Kornilov did not think much of Kerensky or his abilities, but Kornilov thought Kerensky was indispensable to creating a functioning government in Russia. Kornilov had also been earnestly committed to the Provisional Government, both morally (as the legitimate authority) and practically (the best means to a stable regime). A key moment in the build-up to the Kerensky-Kornilov clash, on 16 August [3 August O.S.] 1917, shook these convictions. Kornilov had visited the capital and appraised the Cabinet of the situation in the army. Kornilov then turned to the situation at the front and his plans for offensive operations at the front, at which point first Kerensky and then his aide, the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) terrorist turned War Minister Boris Savinkov, leaned over to him and whispered that he should be careful. Kornilov correctly understood that this meant there were Cabinet Ministers in the Provisional Government leaking military secrets to the enemy. The prime suspect was Viktor Chernov, the SR theoretician who was serving as Agriculture Minister. Whether Chernov was himself a German spy is contested, but Chernov was known to relay information from the Provisional Government to the Soviet, where the Germans had numerous agents, so it comes to the same thing. Kornilov could not believe it; for the rest of his life, he would return to this incident again and again as the moment that shattered his faith in the Provisional Government.[14]

The final key event preceding the “Kornilov Affair” was the receipt of foreign intelligence, passed to the Provisional Government by the Allies, warning that another Bolshevik rising in Petrograd, planned for about September 10, to coincide with renewed German military operations against Russia in the Baltics. Kerensky sent Savinkov down to the Stavka (High Command) in Mogilev on 4 September to meet Kornilov and secure a cavalry corps to impose martial law on Petrograd to head-off this putsch. Given that Kerensky would later accuse Kornilov of treason for carrying out his orders to send troops to Petrograd, this is important to bear in mind.[15]

The Bolsheviks sensibly delayed whatever plans they had as the fiasco between Kerensky and Kornilov played out; there was no reason to intervene as their two primary foes, the Provisional Government and army, administered fatal blows to each other.[16] Whatever game Kerensky was playing, he might well have been saved from himself had events proceeded along the lines he had suggested, as conveyed by Savinkov to Kornilov. As fate would have it, another visitor to Kornilov turned up right after Savinkov left and he transformed the Kerensky-Kornilov tension into an unbreachable rift.

THE KORNILOV AFFAIR

There have been nearly as many versions given of the “Kornilov Affair” as there are historians who have written about it. The below version is drawn from three complementary sources.[17]

Vladimir Lvov

The “Kornilov Affair” began on 6 September when Vladimir Lvov, an Octobrist liberal and the Procurator of the Holy Synod (Cabinet Minister overseeing the Orthodox Church) until Kerensky’s Cabinet reshuffle in July, tries to force a direct pact between Kornilov and Kerensky, who had been warily circling one another and cooperating by signals as the crunch moment approached to deal with the Soviet, from which the Bolsheviks were even then known to be planning another coup attempt. Unfortunately, Lvov was obtuse (and potentially unbalanced) by nature and deceptive in method; Kornilov was politically naive; and Kerensky was paranoid. It was a terrible mix.

Lvov represented himself as Kerensky’s agent to Kornilov, and Kornilov foolishly never questioned this when Lvov proposed a series of options for restoring order, settling on the idea of Kornilov taking over from the Provisional Government for a time as military ruler, with Kerensky as Justice Minister, after the Soviet was disbanded. To his dying day, Kerensky never got over the affront of Kornilov’s proposal to demote him to Justice Minister. Of course, that was the rub: it was not Kornilov’s proposal; the General believed he was signing off on Kerensky’s proposal.

Lvov then represented himself to Kerensky as an agent of Kornilov’s and it is usually said Lvov said the General had “demanded” to take over the government as military dictator, though Kerensky himself refers to a Kornilov “proposal”, not an ultimatum. Kerensky literally laughed initially, then became quite overwrought. Kerensky decided to investigate and in a bizarre exchange of telegrams with Kornilov in the evening of 8 September, where Kerensky impersonated Lvov, a dire miscommunication took place that led Kerensky to conclude with “striking clarity” that a coup attempt was underway against him.

Nobody reading the exchange objectively can agree with Kerensky that it is proof Kornilov was conspiring to overthrow the Provisional Government. The only thing Kornilov had confirmed was a request for Kerensky and Savinkov to come to the Stavka. Kornilov’s intent was to protect the ministers during the turmoil as troops in Petrograd dealt with the Bolsheviks; Kerensky would claim this was an effort to arrest and perhaps assassinate him. The question is: Why had Kerensky not asked plainly about Kornilov’s alleged proposal, as relayed through Lvov? As even a rather Kerensky-sympathetic reviewer of the affair says, the unclarity seems to have been the point: Kerensky “employed vague phraseology … so that Kornilov would have no opportunity to deny a conspiracy”, since such a denial would have impeded what Kerensky wanted to do next—namely get the Provisional Government to sign-off on Kerensky getting rid of the General.

Somewhat ironically, in the midst of allegedly fighting for democracy, Kerensky asked for—and received—dictatorial powers in the early morning of 9 September; the entire Cabinet resigned and thereafter never met again regularly. From now on Kerensky took all decisions, sometimes in consultation with Nikolai Nekrasov and Mikhail Tereshchenko, both of them, not coincidentally, Freemasons: Masonic membership, rather than party affiliation, was always more important in identifying who Kerensky trusted. Hours later, Kerensky sent a cable dismissing Kornilov and accusing him of treason.

Kornilov, taken completely by surprise, at first thought the cable was a forgery, then thought it had been issued under duress with Kerensky captive to the Bolsheviks, so speeded up the preparations for the troops Kerensky had ordered to head off the impending Bolshevik rising in Petrograd. Kornilov informed Savinkov of these troop movements, making clear they were intended to protect the Provisional Government, and Kornilov himself remained in Mogilev, rather than putting himself at the head of the cavalry—hardly the actions of a Bonaparte.

Savinkov told Kerensky there had been a monumental misunderstanding. Pavel Milyukov, the liberal leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets) and the Provisional Government’s Foreign Minister in its early months, as well as several foreign ambassadors, offered to act as intermediary to sort things out. At this point, the entire thing could have been resolved if Kerensky had wanted to heal the breach with Kornilov, but he did not, either because he had gone to pieces (people who met him at this time describe him as hysterical) or because he thought that by getting rid of Kornilov he could proclaim himself the revolution’s saviour and neutralise the challengers to his Left.

The cable accusing Kornilov of a treasonous coup plot was made public in the evening of 9 September by Nekrasov handing it to the newspapers, despite Kerensky promising he would not take such a step until Savinkov had a chance to look into the matter.

Kornilov, now convinced Kerensky was the author of a provocation against the army, rather than being a captive of the Bolsheviks, responded with an outraged counter-charge of treason, declaring himself liberated from the commands of Kerensky, who was acting as an instrument of the Bolsheviks, “in full accord with the plans of the German General Staff”. In a strict sense, this had crossed into mutiny. Adding to the suspicion that this is what Kerensky had wanted all along, the next day, 10 September, Kerensky said in public that Kornilov had sent troops against the capital to overthrow the Provisional Government, referring to the Third Cavalry Corps led by Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Krymov that was approaching Petrograd on his orders to deal with the impending Bolshevik revolt.

It was on 10 September that Savinkov made a public statement, supporting Kerensky’s version of events, which he knew at first-hand to be false, accusing Kornilov of having “instigated a rebellion” as the Germans closed in and seeking to “undermine … the revolution”. Savinkov’s behaviour was in-keeping with the habits of a lifetime, seamlessly changing position to end up on the winning side.[18]

Kornilov’s efforts over the next few days to rally the army and conservatives to press ahead with the strike against the Soviet failed; there had been no conspiracy, so there was nobody to call upon when the Provisional Government made clear its opposition to this move. On 11 September, Krymov obeyed Kerensky’s order to halt the advance on Petrograd (this was not achieved, as later Bolshevik propaganda would say, either by Bolshevik armed resistance or by Bolshevik missionaries convincing the cavalry to change sides and join the Soviet). Krymov met Kerensky on 13 September, explaining that he had never intended rebellion and his only mission had been to support the Provisional Government, but Kerensky ordered him to be court-martialled, so Krymov shot himself.

Adding to the sheer farce, despite Kerensky having dismissed Kornilov and publicly accused him of treason, Kerensky issued another public order that troops should continue obeying Kornilov as commander-in-chief because the rest of the army was so infuriated by Kerensky’s conduct that the two candidates asked to replace the General had refused, Vladislav Klembovsky politely and Kornilov’s deputy Alexander Lukomsky rather less so.

Mikhail Alekseyev

Eventually, Mikhail Alekseyev, the last chief of staff under the Tsar, sacrificed his reputation among significant parts of the officer corps by agreeing to take Kornilov under arrest on 14 September—it was a peaceful meeting in the end—and to serve under Kerensky as commander-in-chief. Alekseyev’s aim was to preserve the army, the country, and the lives of the thirty Kornilovist “conspirators” arrested by the Provisional Government.[19] After the Bolsheviks’ July putsch, Kerensky had set nearly impossible standards of evidence for detaining those responsible; gone was such caution now as he threw the nation’s top Generals in prison, one after the other.[20]

It was later in the day on 14 September that Kerensky formally abolished the monarchy, proclaiming a republic, with himself as “Minister-President”, a position he held for about seven weeks.

What Kerensky had done was the final blow to morale in the army and very likely the death knell for the Provisional Government: he had destroyed relations with liberal and conservative forces and mortally wounded the standing of the more moderate socialists like the Mensheviks and SRs, cutting the political base he had from beneath his own feet. Meanwhile, relations were soured so badly with the military that they were hardly likely to respond a second time when asked to ride to the capital to rescue the Provisional Government from the Bolsheviks. And for all this, Kerensky had done absolutely nothing to improve his standing among the socialist radicals, whose only takeaway from this was that Kerensky was on borrowed time.

Just to make sure of the Provisional Government’s doom, Kerensky politically rehabilitated the Bolsheviks. The Department of Political Counterintelligence that had been compiling evidence about the 16 July putsch was abolished on 23 September, eliminating much of the evidence about the German sponsorship of the Bolsheviks in the past and blinding Kerensky about their plans for the future. Virtually all of those who had actually conspired against the government back in July, including Leon Trotsky (formally a Bolshevik as of 5 August), were now released. Kerensky also assisted in arming the Bolsheviks to guard against the imaginary threat of “Kornilovism”.[21] Those weapons were soon turned on Kerensky himself.

AFTERMATH

Kornilov had proposed to fight the slide into chaos in Russia, and Kerensky had in theory agreed with him; that is what Savinkov had been at the Stavka to finalise on 4-6 September. What happened over the next week destroyed that effort. By the time the Bolsheviks seized power on 7 November 1917, the only real question was what had taken them so long. The Bolshevik coup was not bloodless, as is sometimes said, especially in Moscow, but the bloodshed was minimal as compared to what was to come. There was a sense of inevitability about the Bolshevik takeover, carefully fostered by Lenin’s propaganda and the use of mobs to repeatedly attack the Provisional Government, rhetorically and physically, finding its weak points and wearing it down.[22] The Constituent Assembly that the Provisional Government was supposed to lead to was seated exactly once, in January 1918, after an election a month earlier—the largest democratic exercise in world history to that point, and a resounding repudiation of the Bolsheviks.[23] The Bolsheviks disbanded the Assembly by force. Those who wanted democratic politics in Russia were going to have to fight for it. Kornilov and his allies among the military, patriotic intellectuals, students, and others now took up the banner of the Constituent Assembly as they waged war to try to dislodge the Bolsheviks from power.[24]

 

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NOTES

[1] Richard Pipes (1990), The Russian Revolution, p. 463.

[2] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 296-97.

[3] The Germans had begun this track a little earlier, instigating the “Easter Rising” in Ireland in April 1916, and their main agent, Sir Roger Casement, had been arrested and executed. (In the Second World War, Germany under the Nazis would try the same thing with the Irish Republican Army.) In France, the Germans sponsored the Radical Party leader Joseph Caillaux, who had briefly been Prime Minister in 1911-12, but he was uncovered and arrested in January 1918.

[4] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 389-93.

[5] Sean McMeekin (2017), The Russian Revolution: A New History, chapter eight.

[6] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 441.

[7] Dimitry Lehovich (1974), White Against Red: The Life of General Anton Denikin, p. 137.

[8] After the Brusilov victories in the summer of 1916, even when some of this was rolled back by losses in Romania in the autumn, Russian forces had been electrified, and in early 1917 the trend continued upwards as Russian supply problems were solved. It was Austria-Hungary that looked to be on the brink of disaster. McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, chapter four.

[9] McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, chapter twelve.

[10] McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, chapter five.

[11] White Against Red, p. 162.

[12] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 441-43.

[13] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 447-48.

[14] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 445.

[15] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 448-49.

[16] White Against Red, p. 154.

[17] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 448-67; McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, chapter thirteen; White Against Red, pp. 136-64.

[18] Savinkov’s behaviour at this moment had some important consequences during the civil war phase: many leaders of the Volunteer Army were willing to overlook Savinkov’s career as a terrorist-revolutionary—very few of them, after all, felt themselves committed to the cause of the Tsardom against which he had committed his worst crimes—but many of them bitterly resented what Savinkov had done during the “Kornilov Affair”, and considered his trustworthiness beyond repair because of it. Kornilov was pointedly not among those who rejected Savinkov’s involvement at the formation of the Volunteers, precisely because he did not want to give any appearance of putting personal considerations above the cause, but he was out-voted. White Against Red, pp. 181-82

[19] The futility of the commander-in-chief role by this point led to Alekseyev rapidly resigning: he was replaced by Nikolay Dukhonin on 23 September. One of Dukhonin’s last acts was to ensure the escape of the Kornilov group—the nucleus of the Volunteer Army—after the Bolshevik coup. Dukhonin was lynched on 3 December 1917 by soldiers under the watch of Nikolai Krylenko, the first head of the Red Army.

[20] A commission investigating the “Kornilov Affair” appointed just as the Bolsheviks took power and reporting in June 1918, by which time Kornilov had created the Volunteer Army to fight against the Bolsheviks, concluded that the charges against the General were baseless; he had done nothing but try to rescue the Provisional Government from the Bolsheviks, and Kerensky had behaved with severe dishonesty. It was too late by then, of course.

[21] The Soviet voted to create a “Committee for the People’s Struggle Against Counterrevolution” on 9 September 1917, and the only force available to staff it was the Bolshevik Military Organisation. In effect, the Bolsheviks became the de jure military wing of the Soviet, and Kerensky then started distributing weapons to “workers”, huge numbers of which ended up in Bolshevik hands and obviously were not handed back once the “crisis” was over.

[22] “Like his pupils and emulators Mussolini and Hitler, Lenin won power by first breaking the spirit of those who stood in his way, persuading them that they were doomed.” Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 399.

[23] Nearly 46 million Russians voted, just over 10.5 million of them for the Bolsheviks (23%), equivalent to 183 seats out of 767. The Bolshevik vote base was among the more affluent and educated people in the cities of European Russia, and among soldiers—either genuinely radicalised through the relentless Bolshevik propaganda or in a social situation where it was dangerous to be openly hostile to the Bolsheviks. No party gained an overall majority, but the SRs under Chernov won a vast plurality: 17 million votes (38%) and 324 seats. The SRs dominated in the countryside, among the peasants the Communists supposedly represented. There was not a major difference between the SR and Bolshevik land reform proposals; the SRs’ main differentiation was their rejection of signing a separate peace with the Germans and pulling Russia out of the Entente. The Mensheviks and Kadets got about 3.5 million votes between them (7.5%) and 34 seats.

[24] Contrary to popular conception, the “Whites”—a name never used by the anti-Bolshevik forces, which was imposed upon them by the Communists to associate them with the Bourbon dynasty—were not fighting for a restoration of the monarchy. None of the major leaders—Kornilov, Alekseyev, Anton Denikin, Pyotr Wrangel, Alexander Kolchak—were monarchists.

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