Alexander Kerensky was born in Simbirsk, Russia, on 22nd April, 1881. The son of a headmaster, Kerensky studied law at the University of St. Petersburg.
In 1905 Kerensky joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR) and became editor of the radical newspaper, Burevestik. He was soon arrested and sent into exile. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1906 and found work as a lawyer. Over the next few years he developed a reputation for defending radicals in court who had been accused of political offenses.
Kerensky joined the Russian Labour Party and in 1912 was elected to the State Duma. A socialist, Kerensky developed a strong following amongst industrial workers. He also played an important role in the exposure of Roman Malinovsky, one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks, as an undercover agent of the Okhrana.
In February, 1917, Kerensky announced he had rejoined the Socialist Revolutionary Party and called for the removal of Nicholas II. When Alexandra Fyodorovna heard the news she wrote to her husband and demanded that he be hung as a traitor. When the Tsar abdicated on 13th March, a Provisional Government, headed by Prince George Lvov, was formed. Kerensky was appointed as Minister of Justice in the new government and immediately introduced a series of reforms including the abolition of capital punishment. He also announced basic civil liberties such as freedom of the press, the abolition of ethnic and religious discrimination and made plans for the introduction of universal suffrage.
Soon after taking power Pavel Milyukov, Foreign Minister, wrote to all Allied ambassadors describing the situation since the change of government: "Free Russia does not aim at the domination of other nations, or at occupying by force foreign territories. Its aim is not to subjugate or humiliate anyone. In referring to the "penalties and guarantees" essential to a durable peace the Provisional Government had in view reduction of armaments, the establishment of international tribunals, etc." He attempted to maintain the Russian war effort but he was severely undermined by the formation of soldiers' committee that demanded "peace without annexations or indemnities".
As Robert V. Daniels, the author of Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (1967) pointed out: "On the 20th April, Milyukov's note was made public, to the accompaniment of intense popular indignation. One of the Petrograd regiments, stirred up by the speeches of a mathematician who happened to be serving in the ranks, marched to the Marinsky Palace (the seat of the government at the time) to demand Milyukov's resignation." With the encouragement of the Bolsheviks, the crowds marched under the banner, "Down with the Provisional Government".
On 5th May, Pavel Milyukov and Alexander Guchkov, the two most conservative members of the Provisional Government, were forced to resign. Guchkov was now replaced as Minister of War by Kerensky. He toured the Eastern Front where he made a series of emotional speeches where he appealed to the troops to continue fighting. Kerensky argued that: "There is no Russian front. There is only one united Allied front."
Kerensky now appointed General Alexei Brusilov as the Commander in Chief of the Russian Army. On 18th June, Kerensky announced a new war offensive. Encouraged by the Bolsheviks, who favoured peace negotiations, there were demonstrations against Kerensky in Petrograd. Leon Trotsky said of him during this period: "His strength in the period of dual power lay in his combining the weakness of liberalism with the weaknesses of democracy."
The July Offensive, led by General Alexei Brusilov, was an attack on the whole Galician sector. Initially the Russian Army made advances and on the first day of the offensive took 10,000 prisoners. However, low morale, poor supply lines and the rapid arrival of German reserves from the Western Front slowed the advance and on 16th July the offensive was brought to an end.
The Provisional Government made no real attempt to seek an armistice with the Central Powers. Lvov's unwillingness to withdraw Russia from the First World War made him unpopular with the people and on 8th July, 1917, he resigned and was replaced by Kerensky. Ariadna Tyrkova, a member of the Constitutional Democrat Party, commented: "Kerensky was perhaps the only member of the Government who knew how to deal with the masses, since he instinctively understood the psychology of the mob. Therein lay his power and the main source of his popularity in the streets, in the Soviet, and in the Government." Arthur Ransome reported: "Then, as on a dozen other occasions, Mr Kerensky saved the situation... It is no longer possible to accuse the Government of seeking Constantinople or, indeed, anything but the salvation and preservation of Russia and Russian free¬dom. For that purpose there is no party in the State unwilling to make the utmost effort."
The British ambassador, George Buchanan welcomed the appointment of Kerensky and reported back to London: "From the very first Kerensky had been the central figure of the revolutionary drama and had, alone among his colleagues, acquired a sensible hold on the masses. An ardent patriot, he desired to see Russia carry on the war till a democratic peace had been won; while he wanted to combat the forces of disorder so that his country should not fall a prey to anarchy. In the early stages of the revolution he displayed an energy and courage which marked him out as the one man capable of securing the attainment of these ends."
The journalist, Louise Bryant, interviewed Kerensky soon after he took office. She commented in her book, Six Months in Russia (1918): "I had a tremendous respect for Kerensky when he was head of the Provisional Government. He tried so passionately to hold Russia together, and what man at this hour could have accomplished that? He was never wholeheartedly supported by any group. He attempted to carry the whole weight of the nation on his frail shoulders, keep up a front against the Germans, keep down the warring political factions at home." Kerensky told John Reed: "The Russian people are suffering from economic fatigue and from disillusionment with the Allies! The world thinks the Russian Revolution is at an end. Do not be mistaken. The Russian Revolution is just beginning."
Alfred Knox, the British Military Attaché in Petrograd, also argued that he British should give full support to Kerensky: "There is only one man who can save the country, and that is Kerensky, for this little half-Jew lawyer has still the confidence of the over-articulate Petrograd mob, who, being armed, are masters of the situation. The remaining members of the Government may represent the people of Russia outside the Petrograd mob, but the people of Russia, being unarmed and inarticulate, do not count. The Provisional Government could not exist in Petrograd if it were not for Kerensky."
According to the American journalist, Lincoln Steffens: "Kerensky... turned for advice to his committee and to other prominent leaders, whose ideas had been formed in moderate, reform movements under the Czar. He was for a republic, a representative democracy, which in his mind was really a plutocratic aristocracy. Meanwhile he was to carry on the war. These were not the ideas of the mob in the street. The people were confused, too; they did not know what a republic was; democracy, as we have seen, was a literal impossibility; but they were definite and clear about peace and no empire. So Kerensky... represented the people emotionally, but not in ideas... he felt the revolution, which he named public opinion, sweeping him along and passing him by. Kerensky could not even manage that public opinion. There were other orators trying to do that, and the people listened to them as they did to Kerensky."
Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the head of MI6, decided that the British government should do everything possible to keep Kerensky in power. He contacted William Wiseman, their man in New York City and supplied Wiseman with $75,000 (approximately $1.2 million in modern prices) for Kerensky's Provisional Government. A similar sum was received from the Americans. Wiseman now approached Somerset Maugham (to whom he was related by marriage) in June 1917, to go to Russia. Maugham was "staggered" by the proposition: "The long and short of it was that I should go to Russia and keep the Russians in the war."
Kerensky was still the most popular man in the government because of his political past. In the Duma he had been leader of the moderate socialists and had been seen as the champion of the working-class. However, Kerensky, like George Lvov, was unwilling to end the war. In fact, soon after taking office, he announced a new summer offensive. Soldiers on the Eastern Front were dismayed at the news and regiments began to refuse to move to the front line. There was a rapid increase in the number of men deserting and by the autumn of 1917 an estimated 2 million men had unofficially left the army. Some of these soldiers returned to their homes and used their weapons to seize land from the nobility. Manor houses were burnt down and in some cases wealthy landowners were murdered. Kerensky and the Provisional Government issued warnings but were powerless to stop the redistribution of land in the countryside.
After the failure of the July Offensive on the Eastern Front, Kerensky replaced General Alexei Brusilov with General Lavr Kornilov, as Supreme Commander of the Russian Army. The two men soon clashed about military policy. Kornilov wanted Kerensky to restore the death-penalty for soldiers and to militarize the factories. On 7th September, Kornoilov demanded the resignation of the Cabinet and the surrender of all military and civil authority to the Commander in Chief. Kerensky responded by dismissing Kornilov from office and ordering him back to Petrograd. Kornilov now sent troops under the leadership of General Krymov to take control of Petrograd.
Kerensky was now in danger and so he called on the Soviets and the Red Guards to protect Petrograd. The Bolsheviks, who controlled these organizations, agreed to this request, but in a speech made by their leader, Lenin, he made clear they would be fighting against Kornilov rather than for Kerensky. Within a few days Bolsheviks had enlisted 25,000 armed recruits to defend Petrograd. While they dug trenches and fortified the city, delegations of soldiers were sent out to talk to the advancing troops. Meetings were held and Kornilov's troops decided to refuse to attack Petrograd. General Krymov committed suicide and Kornilov was arrested and taken into custody.
Somerset Maugham reached Petrograd in early September 1917. Somerset Maugham worked closely with Major Stephen Alley, the MI1(c) station chief in Petrograd. Maugham telegraphed Wiseman recommending a programme of propaganda and covert action. He also proposed setting up a "special secret organisations" recruited from Poles, Czechs and Cossacks with the main aim of "unmasking... German plots and propaganda in Russia".
Kerensky now became the new Supreme Commander of the Russian Army. His continued support for the war effort made him unpopular in Russia and on 8th October, Kerensky attempted to recover his left-wing support by forming a new coalition that included more Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. However, with the Bolsheviks controlling the Soviets, and now able to call on 25,000 armed militia, Kerensky was unable to reassert his authority.
John Reed claimed that Kerensky made a serious mistake: "The Cossacks entered Tsarskoye Selo, Kerensky himself riding a white horse and all the church-bells clamouring. There was no battle. But Kerensky made a fatal blunder. At seven in the morning he sent word to the Second Tsarskoye Selo Rifles to lay down their arms. The soldiers replied they would remain neutral, but would not disarm. Kerensky gave them ten minutes in which to obey. This angered the soldiers; for eight months they had been governing themselves by committee, and this smacked of the old regime. A few minutes later Cossack artillery opened fire on the barracks, killing eight men. From that moment there were no more 'neutral' soldiers in Tsarskoye."
At a conference of the Constitutional Democratic Party on 22nd October, 1917, one of Kerensky's main rivals, Pavel Milyukov, was severely criticized. Melissa Kirschke Stockdale, the author of Paul Miliukov and the Quest for a Liberal Russia (1996) has argued that delegates "lashed out at Miliukov with unaccustomed ferocity. His travels abroad had made him poorly informed about the public mood, they charged; the patience of the people was exhausted." Miliukov defended his policies by arguing: "It will be our task not to destroy the government, which would only aid anarchy, but to instill in it a completely different content, that is, to build a genuine constitutional order. That is why, in our struggle with the government, despite everything, we must retain a sense of proportion.... To support anarchy in the name of the struggle with the government would be to risk all the political conquests we have made since 1905."
The Cadet party newspaper did not take the Bolshevik challenge seriously: "The best way to free ourselves from Bolshevism would be to entrust its leaders with the fate of the country... The first day of their final triumph would also be the first day of their quick collapse." Leon Trotsky accused Milyukov of being a supporter of General Lavr Kornilov and trying to organize a right-wing coup against the Provisional Government.
Alexander Kerensky later claimed he was in a very difficult position and described Milyukov's supporters as beings Bolsheviks of the Right: "The struggle of the revolutionary Provisional Government with the Bolsheviks of the Right and of the Left... We struggled on two fronts at the same time, and no one will ever be able to deny the undoubted connection between the Bolshevik uprising and the efforts of Reaction to overthrow the Provisional Government and drive the ship of state right onto the shore of social reaction." Kerensky argued that Milyukov was now working closely with General Lavr Kornilov and other right-wing forces to destroy the Provisional Government: "In mid-October, all Kornilov supporters, both military and civilian, were instructed to sabotage government measures to suppress the Bolshevik uprising."
On 31st October 1917 Somerset Maugham was summoned by Kerensky and asked to take an urgent secret message to David Lloyd George appealing for guns and amununition. Without that help, said Kerensky, "I don't see how we can go on. Of course, I don't say that to the people. I always say that to the people. I always say that we shall continue whatever happens, but unless I have something to tell my army it's impossible". Maugham was unimpressed by Kerensky: "His personality had no magnetism. He gave no feeling of intellectual or of physical vigour."
Maugham left the same evening for Oslo to board a British destroyer which, after a stormy passage across the North Sea, landed him in the north of Scotland. Next morning he saw Lloyd George at 10 Downing Street. After the agent told the Prime Minister what Kerensky wanted, he replied: "I can't do that. I'm afraid I must bring this conversation to an end. I have a cabinet meeting I must go to."
On 7th November, Kerensky was informed that the Bolsheviks were about to seize power. He decided to leave Petrograd and try to get the support of the Russian Army on the Eastern Front. Later that day the Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace and members of the Kerensky's cabinet were arrested. Kerensky assembled loyal troops from the Northern Front but his army was defeated by Bolshevik forces at Pulkova.
Morgan Philips Price explained in the Manchester Guardian on 19th November, 1917, why the government of Alexander Kerensky fell: "The Government of Kerensky fell before the Bolshevik insurgents because it had no supporters in the country. The bourgeois parties and the generals and the staff disliked it because it would not establish a military dictatorship. The Revolutionary Democracy lost faith in it because after eight months it had neither given land to the peasants nor established State control of industries, nor advanced the cause of the Russian peace programme. Instead it brought off the July advance without any guarantee that the Allies had agreed to reconsider war aims. The Bolsheviks thus acquired great support all over the country. In my journey in the provinces in September and October I noticed that every local Soviet had been captured by them."
Kerensky remained underground in Finland until escaping to London in May 1918. He later moved to France where he led the propaganda campaign against the communist regime in Russia. This included editing the Russian newspaper, Dni, that published in Paris and Berlin. In 1939 Kerensky urged the western democracies to intervene against both communism in the Soviet Union and fascism in Germany.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Kerensky moved to the United States. He worked at the Hoover Institution in California and wrote his autobiography, The Kerensky Memoirs: Russia and History's Turning Point (1967).
Alexander Kerensky died of cancer in New York on 11th June, 1970.