Lavr Kornilov

Lavr Kornilov

Lavr Kornilov was born in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Siberia, in 1870. After graduating from the Mikhailovsky Artillery Training Corps in 1892 he was commissioned and posted to Turkestan. He also studied at the General Staff Academy (1895-1898) before being assigned to espionage duties in Iran and India.

Kornilov was decorated during the Russo-Japanese War and served as military attaché in China from 1907 to 1911. On the outbreak of the First World War he commanded Infantry divisions on the Eastern Front. He was captured by the Austro-Hungarian Army in Galicia in 1915 but escaped the following year and was given command of the 25th Army Corps on the South-West Front.

When the Tsar abdicated a Provisional Government, headed by Prince George Lvov, was formed. Soon afterwards Kornilov was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Petrograd Garrison. Kornilov wanted to use force to deal with the Bolshevik agitators in the Russian Army. Alexander Guchkov, the Minister of War, disagreed, and he was sent back to the Eastern Front.

Morgan Philips Price, a British journalist, saw Kornilov make a speech in August 1917: "A wiry little little man with strong Tartar features. He wore a general's full-dress uniform with a sword and red-striped trousers. His speech was begun in a blunt soldierly manner by a declaration that he had nothing to do with politics. He had come there, he said, to tell the truth about the condition of the Russian army. Discipline had simply ceased to exist. The army was becoming nothing more than a rabble. Soldiers stole the property, not only of the State, but also of private citizens, and scoured the country plundering and terrorizing. The Russian army was becoming a greater danger to the peaceful population of the western provinces than any invading German army could be."

Kornilov was appointed Supreme Commander of the Russian Army by Alexander Kerensky, the new Minister of War. 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, Kornilov demanded the resignation of the Cabinet and the surrender of all military and civil authority to the Commander in Chief. Alexander Kerensky responded by dismissing Kornilov from office and ordering him back to Petrograd.

Lavr Kornilov
Lavr Kornilov

Kornilov now sent troops under the leadership of General Krymov to take control of Petrograd and began what became known as the Kornilov Revolt. 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 the city. 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.

Harold Williams, a journalist working for the Daily Chronicle, pointed out: "The Kornilov Affair has intensified mutual distrust and completed the work of destruction. The Government is shadowy and unreal, and what personality it had has disappeared before the menace of the Democratic Assembly. Whatever power there is again concentrated in the hands of the Soviets, and, as always happens when the Soviets secure a monopoly of power, the influence of the Bolsheviks has increased enormously. Kerensky has returned from Headquarters, but his prestige has declined, and he is not actively supported either by the right or by the left."

Another journalist, Arthur Ransome, confirmed this view. Roland Chambers, the author of The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome (2009) has argued: "While Petrograd was fortified by the same troops that had mobbed the streets during the July Days, the railway union held up trains carrying Kornilov's supplies. When the advance slowed, Bolshevik envoys were sent out to explain to the soldiers under Kornilov's command that the Provisional Government was not, as they had supposed, in any danger. The whole business had simply been a misunderstanding cooked up by two ambitious tyrants: the first being General Kornilov, the second already notorious for betraying every promise he had made to the people. For the moment, it would be in the Soviet's best interests if they simply laid down their arms... With the collapse of the Kornilov offensive, the immediate threat from the Right had been removed. Kornilov's second-in command - the man who had actually led the mutiny - committed suicide. Kornilov himself and twenty-three of his generals were arrested and incarcerated."

Kornilov was arrested but he escaped from Bikhov jail and formed the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army and became one of the main commanders of the White Army during the Civil War. The historian, Arno J. Mayer, the author of The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (2002) has claimed that Kornilov told his associates "the greater the terror, the greater our victories" and that he was willing "to set fire to half the country and shed the blood of three-quarters of all Russians" in order to gain victory.

Lavr Kornilov was killed in action during the siege of Ekaterinodar on 13th April, 1918.

Primary Sources

(1) In his book My Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution, the journalist, Morgan Philips Price described Kornilov making a speech in Moscow on 25th August, 1917.

A wiry little little man with strong Tartar features. He wore a general's full-dress uniform with a sword and red-striped trousers. His speech was begun in a blunt soldierly manner by a declaration that he had nothing to do with politics. He had come there, he said, to tell the truth about the condition of the Russian army. Discipline had simply ceased to exist. The army was becoming nothing more than a rabble. Soldiers stole the property, not only of the State, but also of private citizens, and scoured the country plundering and terrorizing. The Russian army was becoming a greater danger to the peaceful population of the western provinces than any invading German army could be.

(2) Harold Williams, Daily Chronicle (29th September, 1917)

The Kornilov Affair has intensified mutual distrust and completed the work of destruction. The Government is shadowy and unreal, and what personality it had has disappeared before the menace of the Democratic Assembly. Whatever power there is again concentrated in the hands of the Soviets, and, as always happens when the Soviets secure a monopoly of power, the influence of the Bolsheviks has increased enormously. Kerensky has returned from Headquarters, but his prestige has declined, and he is not actively supported either by the right or by the left.

(3) David Shub, Lenin (1948)

On 30 July Kerensky appointed Boris Savinkov, former Political Commissar of the Eighth Army, as deputy Minister of War, at the same time naming as Commander in Chief General Kornilov, a man characterized by General Brusilov as "a man with the heart of a lion and the brains of a lamb". The son of a Siberian Cossack, General Lavr Kornilov had distinguished himself during the retreat of the Eighth Army in Galicia. After the Revolution, he had briefly commanded the Petrograd garrison. Transferred to the south-western front, he took command once more of the Eighth Army, where he met Savinkov, a right-wing Socialist Revolutionary and former terrorist. On 19 July the Executive Committee of the south-western front had wired Kerensky requesting that the armies of the front "be placed under the command of a leader capable of uniting and inspiring all the wavering elements and securing a victorious offensive by the sheer force and determination of his will". The next day Kornilov received the appointment.

Three days later Kornilov demanded an immediate cessation of the offensive on all sectors, in order to preserve the Army, and the introduction of the death penalty for deserters at the front. His demands were met, and within another week Kornilov was Commander in Chief of all the Russian armies.

Kornilov and Kerensky saw eye to eye in military matters, although neither man trusted the other. Both felt that demoralization at the front and growing unrest in the rear would ultimately bring defeat and total chaos for Russia. Kornilov, in addition, wanted to eliminate the influence of the Soviets and 'Bolshevik Petrograd'. For the businessmen and Cadets, who stood on the right fringe of the Revolution, Kornilov represented 'the salvation of the motherland'.

(4) Roland Chambers, The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome (2009)

While Petrograd was fortified by the same troops that had mobbed the streets during the July Days, the railway union held up trains carrying Kornilov's supplies. When the advance slowed, Bolshevik envoys were sent out to explain to the soldiers under Kornilov's command that the Provisional Government was not, as they had supposed, in any danger. The whole business had simply been a misunderstanding cooked up by two ambitious tyrants: the first being General Kornilov, the second already notorious for betraying every promise he had made to the people. For the moment, it would be in the Soviet's best interests if they simply laid down their arms...

With the collapse of the Kornilov offensive, the immediate threat from the Right had been removed. Kornilov's second-in command - the man who had actually led the mutiny - committed suicide. Kornilov himself and twenty-three of his generals were arrested and incarcerated. But as Ransome himself hinted, much about the affair remained unclear. Had Kornilov really sent his troops against Petrograd on his own authority? Or had he been incited by an agent provocateur? Had Kerensky, in fact, deliberately exaggerated the Bolshevik threat with a view to removing his rival and installing himself as dictator, as Pravda insisted? Ransome would not go so far. Instead, in accordance with his own patriotic commitment to the war (he had chosen the word 'Revolt' carefully), he stressed tile importance of restoring discipline at the front. Otherwise, he had little to say on the subject. His diary for September and October suggests he was concerned chiefly with getting his passport in order.

The Kornilov Affair, far from reinforcing Kerensky's authority, deprived him of any credibility- remaining to him, either with the Left or the Right. Now officially dictator of all Russia, he withdrew into his quarters at the Winter Palace, with a private guard outside his suite that he liked to change every hour and a narrow clique of advisors known as the "Council of Five". The Bolsheviks, had they chosen, could have swept him away at any moment, but Lenin - returned from Finland to a secret location in Petrograd - was still in hiding, leaving it to Trotsky to organize and lead the final putsch.