Recently arrived by rail, Russian troops by the thousands off-loaded themselves in St. Petersburg on the night of July 5th, 1917. For days, the capitol had been rocked by increased protests from Bolshevik supporters, whose ranks had now included armed soldiers chanting “all power to the Soviets.” Not even the local Soviet leadership could apparently calm the growing mob, who screamed back at the group’s representative “take power, you son of a bitch, when it is handed to you!” For the second time in 1917, St. Petersburg looked ready for a coup.
But the Provisional Government of Russia was determined to not make the same mistakes as the Tsar had just months earlier. Loyalist troops quickly swarmed the offices of Pravda and the Bolshevik Central Committee, shutting both organizations down. Warrants for the arrest of Vladimir Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were authorized, forcing the Bolsheviks to flee the city or go underground. The general St. Petersburg public, tired of the constant protests and street violence they increasingly associated with the Bolsheviks, cheered the Provisional Government’s swift hand. Even the most liberal members of the government began endorsing violent retribution to protesters and disorderly soldiers.
By July 7th, 1917, St. Petersburg was as quiet as it had been since the start of the Great War. The proto-democratic Provisional Government had crushed their fiercest internal opponent while launching an offensive against the Central Powers that the government believed would save the war effort.
On both counts, they would be sadly mistaken.
The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II following the events of the “February Revolution” had left St. Petersburg/Petrograd (the city’s name had been changed at the start of the Great War as to avoid sounding “too German”) as a capitol nearly void of actual political power.
While the Provisional Government that had formally succeeded the Tsar was initially made up of a loose coalition of former Duma members and lesser royalty, the body held little sway outside of St. Petersburg – and arguably even less within the city. The Petrograd Soviet, an equally dysfunction alliance of striking workers, soldiers and socialist politicians, held the practical power in the city by dint of their control of most of the military stationed there and their influence over the teaming masses of starving protesters. Despite giving a statement of conditional support for the Provisional Government, the Petrograd Soviet vacillated between cooperating with the government and outright revolution. In truth, neither body could effectively govern Russia, prompting the Provisional Government to look for in-roads with the protesters while the Soviet attempted to do the same with the military and populace outside of St. Petersburg.
The Soviets would later call this uneasy period of détente the dvoevlastie or “dual power,” as the Provisional Government and Petrograd fought for real and perceived legitimacy. Co-existence would work hand-in-hand with attempts at co-opting messages and tactics. The Provisional Government would bring a number of key members of the Soviet into power, including the Soviet’s own vice-chairman, Alexander Kerensky, as the Minister of Justice, all while publicly claiming that they supported ending the war as soon as possible. Conversely, the Soviets began to sound downright conservative as they criticized protesting workers, claiming that continued protests were the work of agitators trying to discredit the Soviet. The Soviets even went as far as to claim they were not opposed to continuing the war. The reason? The Soviets were terrified that the military would crush them if the group was perceived as aggressively anti-war.
On the political sidelines of the dvoevlastie were the Bolsheviks. Having eschewed participation in the Duma and general Russian politics since the 1905 Revolution, and with it’s leadership in exile in Switzerland and preaching violent socialist revolution, the Bolsheviks appeared as a politically insignificant force in a post-Tsar, semi-democratic Russia. But with the Provisional Government made up of figures who just months earlier had technically been “revolutionaries” and the Soviets suddenly trying to ape the policies of the former Duma, those soldiers and workers who had protested and risked their lives to try and end the war began to view themselves as a movement without representation.
Into the void stepped Vladimir Lenin. Having arrived via rail from Switzerland – with German support – Lenin introduced his volitate mix of socialist politics and revolutionary violence as a potential third way in a Russia desperately searching for political direction. Lenin’s “April Theses,” delivered the day after his arrival back in his homeland, called for many of the policies that would define Bolshevism’s early rule such as authority under worker control and land reform, but most importantly advanced the central concept of Bolshevism’s political struggle – non-participation and revolution against the Provisional Government.
The message had immediate traction as it soon became clear that the Provisional Government had no intention of leaving the war. The contents of a secret communique with the British and French from the Provisional Government’s Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov revealed that the Provisional Government had recommitted to the war effort. The news sparked riots in the capitol and forced the resignations of multiple ministers. In desperation, the Provisional Government turned to the Petrograd Soviet for increased support, offering the promotion of six new socialist ministers and the key post of Minister of War to Kerensky as a sign that Russia would eventually leave the conflict that had slaughtered millions of their countrymen for no gain. It was too good of an offer for the Petrograd Soviet to refuse. The move would place the group’s own vice chairman as one of the most powerful men in all of Russia and allow the Soviet to dominate the Provisional Government.
If the allure of political power had tempted the Soviets, the promise of military power would prove even more intoxicating. The Soviets – through the Provisional Government – were off to war.
Alexander Kerensky would hold a bizarre historical coincidence – his father taught Vladimir Lenin and the two families had actually been friends.
The political roads Kerensky and Lenin took had similar beginnings with wildly different ends. Both had been students, with their political activism formed by their early university experiences. Both had been arrested in their youth by the Tsarist regime due to associated with radical groups – for Lenin, it had been as a member of his rather beign university’s student council; for Kerensky it had been as a member of the revolutionary Narodnik movement that had assassinated Tsar Alexander III. But imprisonment led to two different conclusions. For Lenin, the path was to political exclusion and eventual exile, embracing the then-Narodnik view that only a violent overthrow of the system could bring political and social change. For Kerensky, the path forward was by casting off his Narodnik past and undermining the system through legal means, not violence. Kerensky would become a well-known lawyer for revolutionaries and eventually a socialist member of the Duma, renowned for his oratory skill.
It was those same oratory skills that Kerensky would put to use as the newly promoted Minister of War. Visiting the front lines in May of 1917, Kerensky would boast that Russia now possessed “the most democratic army in the world,” re-framing the war into a battle not for territory but values. “Forward to the battle for freedom!,” Kerensky reportedly shouted to soldiers during the many speeches on his whirlwind tour. And despite the years of hardship and mistrust of authority for the millions of conscripted soldiers that made up the weary Russian army, Kerensky’s message resonated. Men cheered even as Kerensky implored them, “I summon you not to feast but to death!” Even Kerensky’s critics had to acknowledge his effect on the units he visited, referring to him as the “persuader-in-chief.”
Kerensky would find a far tougher audience among his political contemporaries. At the All Russian Congress of Soviets in June, Kerensky implored the various factions to unite for an offensive that would restore the morale of the Russian army. Russia had made obligations to the Western Allies and needed the Allies financial support to operate the government, let alone fight. Russia had been repeatedly assured that she only had to fight until the fall when American troops would theoretically be prepared to fight. And Russia hardly looked as the only power teetering on staying in the war – the Austro-Hungarians and the Turks both appeared to be divided by rebellious ethnic minorities and incapable of fighting for much longer. Russia didn’t have to win the war, she merely had to endure it.
The Bolshevik representatives in the Congress were adamant against continuing the war in any capacity. But looking out voted by the Social Revolutions and Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks abstained – the measure to launch a summer offensive was approved. Kerensky had staked his reputation – and power of the Provisional Government – on an admitted gamble that the Russian army could mount one last attack. The Minister of War had become so synonymous with the war plan, it soon became colloquially known as the “Kerensky Offensive.”
Aleksei Brusilov, the reformist general who had given Russia it’s greatest military success of the war, was given the command of the entire Russian army amid hopes that he could implement in weeks the sort of changes he had effected in his army over the course of nearly years. The old Polish cavalry hand wasn’t optimistic about his ability to make changes in an army on the verge of total insurrection, but if the Russian army was about to collapse, the proposed offensive was the “last hope to which he could resort.”
The bombardment that had pummeled the Austro-Hungarian front in Galicia – the scene of so many fierce battles already in the war – had fallen silent on July 1st, 1917. For the past several days, Russian guns had delivered a ceaseless volley of artillery, the likes of which hadn’t been seen on the Eastern Front.
Watching from an observatory post with the Russian 11th Army, Kerensky nervously awaited the results of his military barnstorming. It was easy to cheer on patriotic sentiments far behind the line, but would the average Russian soldier respond when the bullets starting flying? The answer arrived quickly – thousand of Russian troops left their trenches and charged at the Austro-Hungarian line. The Central Powers had abandoned many of their frontline trenches in anticipation of just such an attack.
But a lack of tactical surprise didn’t hinder the Russian advance. Czech prisoners of war, captured in earlier battles, led the first wave of attackers as the Russian knew that most of the units holding the line in Galicia were Czech-based. Ethnic unity proved a greater motivator than national unity and thousands of Czech soldiers for the Dual Monarchy surrendered to their Russian-supported countrymen. After only one day of fighting, the offensive had netted over 18,000 prisoners. An ecstatic Kerensky wired St. Petersburg with the good news, recommending that entire divisions be given medals for bravery.
The Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army was in retreat, but as had been the case throughout the Great War, the Germans were proving themselves a harder nut to crack. The flanks of the offensive were holding steady, as Russian casualties mounted for little or no gain. Eight days into the attack, the center of the Central Powers’ line had been caved in by miles, but had also left the Russian offensive in the perilous position of being encircled. Some Russian troops began to ignore their orders while losses pilled up for combat veterans that were still willing to run into the teeth of the German defenses. Kerensky’s rallying speeches could only do so much, and now the Minister of War found himself having to return to St. Petersburg to put down the Bolshevik protests.
The German counterattacks, directed from Berlin by Erich von Ludendorff, struck at the corners of the salient the Russian offensive had created. Within days, the progress the Russian army had achieved was quickly undone. Thousands of Russian soldiers abandoned their positions or surrendered, with soldier-formed soviets completely ignoring their officers. By the end of July, the Germans had advanced an additional 90 miles from the original front. The Kerensky Offensive had failed and with it, any hope that Russia still had an effective fighting force.
The events of the “July Days”, as the offensive and Bolshevik upheaval would be known, crippled what little credibility the Provisional Government held.
Faced with the real possibility of a Bolshevik-backed coup, most of the non-Soviet supported Provisional Government resigned. And despite having supported the offensive more than any other figure in the government, Alexander Kerensky emerged from the July chaos with greater power than before – he was now the Prime Minister.
For a government with few internal allies – politically or militarily – Kerensky set about consolidating as much power as possible within himself. While proclaiming the Russian Empire was now a Republic in an effort to co-opt the various ethnic groups of the country, Kerensky was ruling more like the Tsar. He moved the Provisional Government into the Winter Palace and would eventually name himself “Supreme Commander-in-Chief” following an abortive military coup later that summer. Within three months, Kerensky’s rule and the Provisional Government would be no more.