Russian revolutionary leader Alexander Kerensky played a key role in toppling the czarist monarchy immediately before Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.
Kerensky, the son of a headmaster, was born in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), which was also Lenin’s birthplace. Kerensky graduated in law from Saint Petersburg University in 1904. In 1905, Kerensky joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party and became editor of a radical newspaper. He was arrested and exiled but returned to Saint Petersburg in 1906 and worked as a lawyer, demonstrating his political sympathies by his frequent defense of accused revolutionaries. In 1912, he was elected to the duma, imperial Russia’s central parliament, as a member of the Moderate Labor Party. He was nominated to the Provisional Committee as a leader of the opposition to Czar Nicholas II.
Unlike many radical socialist leaders, Kerensky supported Russia’s entrance into World War I in 1914. However, he became more and more disappointed with the czar’s unsuccessful conduct of the war. Kerensky was dismayed by the weakness of the czar’s command of the Russian troops. When the February Revolution broke out in 1917, Kerensky urged the removal of Nicholas II. To Kerensky’s enthusiasm, he was elected vice chairman of the Saint Petersburg Soviet. When the czar abdicated on March 13, the duma formed a provisional government. Kerensky was appointed minister of justice and instituted a series of reforms, including civil liberties such as freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, as well as the abolition of ethnic and religious discrimination. He made plans for the introduction of universal suffrage. He became a widely known and popular figure among the revolutionary leaders. Handed the war and navy ministry in May 1917, Kerensky was determined to ensure Russia’s continued participation in the Allied war effort. He toured the front, where he made a series of inspiring speeches appealing to the demoralized troops to continue fighting. Kerensky subsequently planned a new offensive against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Encouraged by the Bolsheviks, there were mass demonstrations against Kerensky in Petrograd. The July 1 Offensive, also named the Kerensky Offensive, was an attack on the whole Galician sector of the front. Low morale, poor supply, and the arrival of German reserves quickly brought the advance to a halt.
As a consequence of that defeat, the provisional government was compelled to reorganize. Kerensky, whose rhetoric still seemed to win him popular support, became prime minister. His essential problem was that his country was exhausted after three years of warfare. Kerensky, however, felt obliged by Russia’s commitments to its allies to continue the war against the Central Powers. He also foresaw that Germany would demand vast territorial concessions as the price for peace. For those reasons, Kerensky decided to continue the war. Lenin and his Bolsheviks were promising “peace, land, and bread.” There was a rapid increase in the number of deserters: By the autumn of 1917, an estimated 2 million men had left the army. Many of these soldiers used their weapons to seize land from the nobility. Kerensky was powerless to stop the redistribution of land in the countryside.
Kerensky’s refusal to end Russia’s engagement in the war proved his undoing. He found himself increasingly isolated between the extreme revolutionaries on the left and those on the right. He forced Lenin to flee the country following the July Days demonstration and subsequently announced a postponement of constituent assembly elections until November. Despite his efforts to unite the whole country, he alienated the moderate political factions as well as the officers’ corps by dismissing the supreme commander, General Lavr Kornilov. In September, Kerensky took over his post personally.
When Kornilov started a revolt and marched on Petrograd, Kerensky was obliged to request assistance from Lenin and distribute weapons to the Petrograd workers. Most of these armed workers, however, soon sided with the Bolsheviks. Kerensky publicly declared a socialist republic on September 14 and released radical leaders from prison. Lenin was determined to overthrow Kerensky’s government before it could be legitimized by elections. Kerensky’s fall was triggered by his decision on November 5 to arrest the leaders of the Bolshevik committee, which resulted only in bringing about their uprising. On November 7, the Bolsheviks seized power in what became known as the October Revolution.
Kerensky escaped from Petrograd and went to Pskov, where he rallied loyal troops for an attempt to retake the capital. His troops were defeated. Kerensky lived in hiding until he could leave the country in May 1918. Kerensky, then only 36 years old, spent the remainder of his long life in exile. He lived in Paris, engaged in the quarrels of the exiled Russian leaders. When the Germans occupied France in 1940, he escaped to the United States. In 1939 he had married the Australian journalist Lydia Tritton. In 1945, Kerensky traveled with her to Australia and lived there until her death in 1946. Thereafter, he returned to the United States and spent much of his time at Stanford University in California, where he used the Hoover Institution’s archive on Russian history. He lectured at universities, wrote, and broadcast extensively on Russian politics and history as well as on his revolutionary experiences. When Kerensky died in 1970, he was the last surviving major participant in the events of 1917.
Further reading: Abraham, Richard. Alexander Kerensky: The First Love of the Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987; Fuller, William C. The Foe Within: Fantasies of Treason and the End of Imperial Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006; Lincoln, W. Bruce. Passage through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914-1918. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986; Strongin, Varlen. Kerenskii, zagadka istorii. Moscow: AST-Press Kniga, 2004.