Alexander Kerensky
Alexander Kerensky; drawing by David Levine

Alexander Feodorovich Kerensky is now eighty-four years old. He has been an exile for forty-seven years. He has already survived Lenin by over forty years. Those of us who are privileged to know Mr. Kerensky admire his continuing vigor of mind and spirit, of which this latest book is eloquent proof. But Kerensky is an historic figure: whatever view one may take of his role in Russian history—and he has both his admirers and his detractors—no one can question the fact that this role was played by him at a critical turning point in the destinies of Russia. Yet there can have been few men of Kerensky’s historic importance who have had so long to brood over their actions after the event. A short and meteoric moment at the helm of his country’s destinies was all that fate vouchsafed him. But there are moments of intensity, of glory, passion, elation, and transport which transcend in their experience the slow pattern of succeeding years. No one who did not witness the euphoria of March 1917 in Petrograd can know what it was like—no one who lived through it will ever forget it. I was only nine years old when I witnessed it; but I can vividly recapture the memory of joy and relief, vividly symbolized for me by the astonishing sight of three elderly Jewish intellectuals (one of them a family friend) dancing in the street. Before long it was all to turn to cynicism and chaos—but I was too young to know about that. I can remember the emergence of the figure of Kerensky, his name on all lips and his picture on all walls. I was once taken by my father to hear him speak—it was not an experience one ever forgets.

Some forty years later I met Kerensky for the first time, when I had occasion to conduct an interview with him for the Third Programme of the BBC. I prepared a few questions of the normal kind, and we agreed upon the main topics in preliminary discussion. For a time all went according to plan. Then, suddenly, Kerensky “escaped,” brushed me aside, and launched into a magnificent speech, full of the old fire and rhetoric. It was superb. For me it recalled that long-distant meeting in a crowded, hot hall in Petrograd, with the passionate orator on the platform, almost dancing as he spoke. To my Third Programme audience what they heard that night was a piece of history more authentic than anything they could have gleaned from more conventional answers to my academic questions.

But that evening in the studio was a picture in microcosm of Kerensky the politician. He was no professor, with ready-made solutions, as were many of his colleagues: he acted on impulse, by instinct, with enthusiasm and with rhetoric. Indeed, there are some who hold that those who achieve greatness in politics must always in some degree partake of this quality in action. In this, his latest volume, Kerensky is the academic as well as the politician. He is still making his case on the controversial questions of 1917. But he does so on the basis of the facts, documents, and communications which have accumulated over nearly fifty years. I hope I shall not be accused of lack of respect for Kerensky the historian if I say that the most interesting and important part of this book is nonetheless that of Kerensky the advocate. There will no doubt be many historians in the future who will tell the story of 1917—some honestly, some with a political line of their own to pursue. But even the most honest of them will be unable, with the best will in the world, to avoid the hindsight of a hundred or two hundred years: when he comes to award Kerensky his good or bad marks (and many historians have of course not waited for a hundred or two hundred years before doing this) he will inevitably judge him from the vantage point of his own, the historian’s, position in time. Perhaps objective history is a chimera: the actor and participant cannot see his own actions in perspective, the historian who writes when the actors are dead and gone cannot recreate their mental state at the time. Moreover he is bound, if only unconsciously, to judge the actions of the past with the benefit of hindsight, because he knows the outcome of an action which the actor at the time could not foresee. Besides, all the proportions and intensities are inevitably distorted by the passage of time. The all-important at the time becomes secondary in perspective, the seeming trifle becomes with the passage of the generations the decisive factor.

It is the case that in this book Kerensky the historian is writing with the perspective of nearly fifty years, and with the added knowledge of facts and documents of which he was unaware, could not have been aware, in 1917. But he remains throughout—and how could it be otherwise?—the mature spokesman for the young man of thirty-six who was thrown up by the turbulent events of the February Revolution to become before long Prime Minister of free and democratic Russia. The decisions which he took at the time, the actions and the judgments, are still very largely seen by him as they appeared at the time; or, at all events, are framed within the experience and assumptions of those turbulent months. It is this above all which makes the appearance of this book so important an event. It is not the first time, of course, that Mr. Kerensky, who has a large literary output to his credit, has given his version of 1917. But it is the latest version, the fullest, the most considered, and the most mature. The historians of future generations will look to this book as a primary source which they cannot ignore.


The game of “might have been” is often frowned on by historians as a useless pastime. I think it has its limited value as an aid to understanding why things happened as they did. But it is singularly sterile when it becomes no more than an effort to assess the rightness of a past decision by transposing to the past contemporary knowledge, hindsight, and values. The policies of the Provisional Government have been particularly subjected to criticism of this kind, in the light of the almost bloodless victory of the Bolsheviks which overwhelmed it. One charge which is frequently made against the Provisional Government and Kerensky is their failure to take effective means to stop the Bolsheviks, and particularly Lenin, from carrying out their intention of overthrowing the new democratic regime, which they hardly troubled to conceal. It seems a simple enough charge and a pretty obvious criticism with nearly halt-a-century of Communist tactics in mind. Things looked different in 1917, and especially so on the crest of the libertarian enthusiasm generated by the revolution. It was hard to see the Bolshevik as anything other than a fellow socialist, violent and eccentric in his speech, perhaps, but basically on the same side. In fact Kerensky probably saw the menace a good deal more clearly than most; but it would have been well high impossible for him, as Tseretelli’s recently published memoirs show very clearly, to secure the support of his fellow socialists until it was too late—until the growing chaos, which the Bolsheviks had helped to engender, had made the restoration of authority no longer possible. As Kerensky writes, “The idea that there were ‘no enemies on the left’ was deeply ingrained. To most of the left wing it seemed inconceivable that freedom could be trampled underfoot by people claiming to represent the proletariat.” Let us also not forget that the idea that communists stand for freedom is one of the great illusions of this age, outside of Russia too. Kerensky points out that had the socialists been convinced of the fact, now proved by the documents of the German Foreign Office, that the Bolsheviks were in receipt of large German subsidies, their attitude might have been different. Of course the Provisional Government had substantial evidence of these subsidies at the time, though the inquiry instituted by them was never carried to a conclusion. Unfortunately, Kerensky does not deal in any detail with this aspect of the matter.

Again, it used often to be argued against the Provisional Government that it could have saved itself had it not persisted in continuing in the war on the Allied side. We cannot, of course, tell what the effect of a unilateral declaration of peace by Russia might have been, say, in April or June 1917, before the real disintegration of the army began. Patriotic elements might well have swept the Provisional Government from power. But for Kerensky this factor was not the important one. His decision to keep Russia in the war was essentially a decision of principle: he saw the defeat of the Western Allies as something that would inevitably bring in its train the stifling of the newly born revolutionary regime in Russia by a victorious Germany. Certainly, the Western Allies can ill afford to minimize the degree to which the decision of the Provisional Government to stand by its obligations helped them. A few figures, adduced by Mr. Kerensky, will illustrate this. In October 1916 there were seventy-four German divisions concentrated on the Russian Front. By August 1917 there were eighty-six German divisions there, together with supporting artillery. It was only after the Kornilov affair, by which time the Provisional Government was on the verge of collapse, that the Germans were able to move troops over to the West: by January 1918 there were only fifty-seven divisions left on the Russian Front.


Mr. Kerensky naturally devotes a good deal of space to the Kornilov affair. Whatever view one takes of the parts played by the various actors in the drama, there is no doubt that it was the decisive factor in enabling Lenin to drive his somewhat reluctant followers on towards seizure of power. For it polarized opinion into left and right, and, as always, in the process, squeezed out the middle. Mr. Kerensky sees General Kornilov’s attempt to march on the capital as the result of a conspiracy between some leading officers and industrialists to overthrow the Provisional Government. Others, following Kornilov’s own statements, see it as a desperate last minute attempt to save Russia from the collapse into which it was rapidly declining; and that co-operation between Kerensky and Kornilov might have saved Russia from Bolshevism without any danger of counter-revolution. Mr. Kerensky adduces a great deal of evidence on the whole question, and there is no need for a reviewer to take sides in a matter which the reader can judge for himself.

What is important about this incident is that it illuminates so well what I have tried to stress about the importance for the understanding of historical events of knowing how they appeared to the actors at the time. For Kerensky General Kornilov’s move was treason and rebellion against an established government; and he acted according to his lights as a Prime Minister should when faced with military insubordination. It was but natural that a man who had been acclaimed by the crowds, whose daily actions guided the destinies of Russia, should have felt and acted as the legitimate head of a legitimately constituted government. Yet, the Provisional Government remained essentially a revolutionary government. The only legitimate, legally constituted power in Russia had been the Tsar. After his abdication and that of Grand Duke Michael there was no legitimate power in being to give the seal of legality to any government. The Constituent Assembly had not met and was still unconvened when Lenin took power—but even the future Constituent Assembly’s hands had been tied by the acceptance by the Provisional Committee of the State Duma of republican status for the future Russia—on the night of 1-2 March, before the Provisional Government had come into existence. As the Constitutional Democrat leader Maklakov pointed out to General Alekseyev, who enlisted his support for Kornilov, there was little use in replacing one revolutionary government by another, if stability was the aim; and that Kornilov ought to be planning to do (what he had no intention of doing), restore “the monarchy, the constitution, and national representation,” and then govern in a truly constitutional spirit.”

It may well have been its lack of legitimacy rather than any act or omission of the Provisional Government which made it so hard for it to preserve its authority. The answer to October 1917 probably lies somewhere around the turn of the century, when the monarchy failed to do what it was then still possible to do—to concede some form of proper and stable constitutional evolution for Russia. This failure in turn led on to 1905, and to the fatal conflicts between the moderates and the autocracy which did so much to help on the ultimate victory of the left extremists.

It is natural that Kerensky, who held all that terrifying responsibility in his hands in those fatal months, should search his heart over the decades that have elapsed since 1917 for answers that cannot be found. The historian, who can equally not find answers to the “might have beens,” must seek to understand, and not to judge. It is as a contribution to our understanding of a man who for a short time, was probably the most important political figure in Europe, that I welcome this book. It leaves us with the picture of a man who never wavered in his principles; and whose personal courage never faltered in face of the most appalling dangers. He had the reins of office thrust upon him by events—he did not, like Lenin, seize office after a long conspiracy and a carefully planned siege. Whatever exhilaration high office may have brought with it for Kerensky, it certainly brought its share of agony and despair, in which he deserves our compassion. Perhaps in the longer perspective the ideals that a man stood for are of greater import than his decisions and their consequences—if we cannot judge the latter, we need at all events be in no doubt about the former. The disastrous nature of the heritage of a rigid system of primitive party dictatorship which Lenin bequeathed to his successors is becoming daily more evident. It could yet come to pass that Mr. Kerensky, or at least his sons, will live to witness the belated recognition in Russia that the principles of democracy, civil freedom, and justice, which he tried in impossible conditions to preserve, were after all the most important heritage of the year 1917.

This Issue

December 9, 1965