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The Kornilov Affair, or the Kornilov Putsch (Kornilov Coup) as it is sometimes referred to, was an attempted coup d'état carried out by the then Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, General Lavr Kornilov, in August 1917 against the Russian Provisional Government which was headed by Aleksandr Kerensky.

Contents

Background

Following the revolution of February 1917 the Russian monarchy was swept from power and replaced by a Provisional Government whose members were drawn from various liberal and left wing political parties. After the autocratic and oppressive rule of the Tsar’s there was hope amongst the Russian people that the Provisional Government would introduce the liberal reforms that they had long hoped for. In the weeks that immediately followed the February Revolution it appeared that this was to be the case, with the Provisional Government passing legislation that led even Lenin, one of its biggest critics, to declare Russia ‘the freest of all the belligerent countries’[1]. However, the initial wave of support for the Provisional Government amongst the Russian people soon subsided and was replaced by a growing unrest, a result mainly of Russia’s continued participation in the First World War and the economic ramifications this decision had for Russian society. In July 1917, following another failed Russian military offensive, thousands of protestors gathered on the streets of the capital, Petrograd, to demand an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from the conflict and to express general displeasure at the rule of the Provisional Government. The demonstration swiftly descended into the most menacing manifestation of popular discontent with the government since the February Revolution[2]and was only put down once troops had been dispatched to the capital and ordered to open fire on the demonstrators, leaving hundreds dead or wounded. The scenes during the July Days, as the demonstration has become to be known, sparked calls for a need of more discipline and a stronger government and a resurgence in right wing feeling amongst sections of Russian society. Leading these calls were the officers of the Russian Army, Kornilov amongst them, who feared that ill discipline amongst their troops was responsible for the continued poor performance of the army during the First World War. They demanded the reintroduction of the death penalty at the front line as well as the abolition of the various soldiers committees that had been established in the months following February. Unease also escalated amongst Russia’s businessmen and industrialists, whilst even amongst the politicians that formed the Provisional Government support for the restoration of order was strong.

Events

Believing that he would gain the support of the dissenting army chiefs, the head of the Provisional Government, Kerensky, yielded to their demand and reintroduced the death penalty at the front line on the 12th July. A week later, in an attempt to further appease the growing conservative element within Russian society, he appointed Lavr Kornilov Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army. Kornilov’s first act in his new position was to issue a list of demands to the Provisional Government, including the request that he be removed from the control of the government so that he was essentially only accountable to himself. Though these requests were denied, they set the tone for the strained relationship that Kornilov and the Provisional Government were to enjoy in the weeks that followed. Russia’s continued participation in the First World War had resulted in continued social unrest and this in turn increased calls for restoration of order from the right wing and intensified their fears of another revolution. It was this fear, as Kornilov later confided to his second in command, which led Kornilov to order troops of the Caucasian Native Division to advance to a position closer to Petrograd on July 7th. This order was given without either the knowledge or consent of the Provisional Government and it was not until August 23rd, following an increased amount of industrial unrest, that Kerensky sent word to Kornilov that this troop movement had government approval.

On August 24th Vladimir Lvov, the former Procurator of the Holy Synod, arrived at Kornilov’s headquarters claiming that he had been sent by Kerensky to gauge Kornilov’s response to Kerensky’s three proposed strategies to strengthen the government.

  • A dictatorship under Kerensky
  • An authoritarian government, in which Kornilov would be prominent
  • A military dictatorship under Kornilov

It is unclear whether Lvov was truly sent by Kerensky or if he was operating under the instructions of others, what is clear however, is that on his return to Petrograd on August 26th, Lvov informed Kerensky and the Provisional Government that of the three proposed strategies Kornilov had responded most favourably to the idea of a military dictatorship with himself at the helm. That evening Kerensky, alarmed at the thought of a coup being directed at him, attempted to gain confirmation from Kornilov of his intentions. In a rather confused teleprinter conversation, in which Kerensky impersonated Lvov as well as conversing as himself, Kerensky interpreted Kornilov’s responses to his questioning as confirmation of his intention to seize power by force. In response, Kerensky dismissed Kornilov from his position as Commander-in-Chief but with no apparent willing successor available he was reinstated within hours.

On August 27th, in open defiance of the Provisional Government, Kornilov ordered his troops to advance on Petrograd. Realising that the prospect of a coup was fast becoming reality, Kerensky appealed to the Petrograd Soviet to help put down this attempted seizure of power. The Soviet called upon the workers and soldiers of the capital to help defend the revolution and they responded. The railway workers diverted or halted all trains entering Petrograd, including those which carried Kornilov’s troops, whilst propagandists sent by the Soviet managed to convince the advancing troops that by carrying out the orders of Kornilov they were betraying the revolution. As the Soviet was successful in persuading the troops to disobey Kornilov’s orders the coup was avoided and no blood was shed.

Consequences

Following the failed coup, Kornilov was removed from his position as Commander-in-Chief and incarcerated in the Bykhov Fortress alongside 30 other army officers accused of involvement in the conspiracy to over throw the Provisional Government. Shortly after the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, Kornilov managed to escape from Bykhov and went to establish the Volunteer Army which took up arms against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the Kornilov Affair were the Bolshevik Party, who enjoyed a revival in support and strength in the wake of the attempted coup. Kerensky’s plea to the Petrograd Soviet for support had resulted in the rearmament of the Bolshevik Military Organization and the release of Bolshevik political prisoners, including Leon Trotsky. Though these weapons were not needed to fight off Kornilov’s advancing troops in August, they were kept by the Bolsheviks and used in their own successful armed insurrection of October 1917. Bolshevik support amongst the Russian public also increased following the Kornilov affair, a consequence of dissatisfaction with the Provisional Government and their handling of the affair. Another important consequence of the Kornilov Affair is that it severed the tie between Kerensky and the military. For although the officer corps, confused about the issues and unwilling to defy the government openly, refused to join in Kornilov’s mutiny, it despised Kerensky for his treatment of their commander, the arrest of many prominent generals and his pandering to the left[3]. When the Bolsheviks staged their revolution in October 1917 Kerensky appealed to the military to help defend the government from the insurrection but his appeal fell on deaf ears.

Historiography

There are several schools of thought surrounding the Kornilov Affair, all with very contrasting interpretations, and it is a topic which has provoked some debate amongst historians. One take on the Kornilov Affair is the on put forward by Aleksandr Kerensky himself, the man at whom Kornilov’s alleged coup was aimed. Writing in the years after the event, Kerensky described the affair as a right wing conspiracy which was ‘developed slowly, systematically, with cool calculation of all the factors involved affecting its possible success or failure.’[4] Kornilov, argued Kerensky, was drawn into this conspiracy long after the preparatory work had been completed. In his 1970 work, The Kornilov Affair: A Reinterpretation, Harvey Asher suggests that Kerensky and Kornilov had an agreement to use the military to restore order within Russia. Asher then goes onto argue that, upon learning that Kornilov favoured the idea of a military dictatorship from Lvov, Kerensky reneged on their agreement for fear that he might be removed from power. Another interpretation of the Kornilov affair is that it was the result of a misunderstanding between Kerensky and Kornilov, caused by the interference of Vladimir Lvov. This was a view first expressed by the then British Ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanan in his memoirs of his time spent in the country, My Mission to Russia. The American historian Richard Pipes put forward another interpretation of the event in his work The Russian Revolution: 1899-1919. Pipes argued that far from there being a Kornilov plot there was in fact a ‘“Kerensky plot” engineered to discredit the general as the ringleader of an imaginary but widely anticipated counter revolution, the suppression of which would elevate the Prime Minister to a position of unrivalled popularity and power, enabling him to meet the growing threat from the Bolsheviks.’[5]

Further Reading

H. Asher – The Kornilov Affair: A Reinterpretation (1970) Russian Review XXIX

O. Figes – A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891 -1924 (1996) Random House

A.F. Kerensky – The Catastrophe (1977) Milwood

R. Kowalski – The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1997) Routledge

J.L. Munck – The Kornilov Revolt: A Critical Examination of Sources and Research (1987) Aarhus University Press

R. Pipes- The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 (1990) Collins Harvill

J.N. Westwood – Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History 1812-1992 (1993) Oxford University Press

A. Wood – The Russian Revolution 1861-1917,(1993) Routledge, New York


  1. ^ A. Wood – The Russian Revolution 1861-1917, 2nd ed (1993) Routledge, New York pg 42
  2. ^ >A. Wood – The Russian Revolution 1861-1917, 2nd ed (1993) Routledge, New York pg 45
  3. ^ R. Pipes – The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 (1990) Collins Harvill, London, pg467
  4. ^ A.F. Kerensky – The Catastrophe (1977) Milwood, pg 288
  5. ^ R. Pipes – The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 (1990) Collins Harvill, London, pg463







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