In a Czar-less Russia, Winning Was Easy. Governing Was Harder.

Now without a sovereign, Russia’s provisional government sought to maintain peace at home while waging a world war

Kerensky Russian Revolution
Alexander Kerensky, as Minister of War, meets with other military officials. Wikicommons

“The whole system of culture, the chief element in the condition of the people, must be completely transformed. Instead of poverty, general prosperity and content; instead of hostility, harmony and unity of interests. In short, a bloodless revolution, but a revolution of the greatest magnitude, beginning in the little circle of our district, then the province, then Russia, the whole world. Because a just idea cannot but be fruitful. Yes, it’s an aim worth working for.”

 –Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

After years of war and political tumult, there was optimism in Russia about the country’s future. As the news of the czar’s abdication spread from Saint Petersburg to Russia’s provincial towns, widespread celebrations erupted. The writer Konstantin Paustovsky, who lived in the small railway town of Yefremov 200 miles south of Moscow recorded that when a local provisional committee proclaimed its authority, “Never in my life have I seen so many tears of joy as on that day…Prisons were opened, schools were closed…The town and people were transformed. Russia had burst into speech. Gifted orators sprang up overnight.”

 The country celebrated Easter on April 15, the most significant holiday in the Russian Orthodox church calendar amidst hopes that a new government would bring stability and address the persistent issues supplying food to the cities and munitions to the military.

After Nicholas II abdicated in March, and was subsequently placed under house arrest with his family and servants at the Alexander Palace, the Provisional Government formed with Georgy Lvov as Prime Minister. Lvov was a member of the Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) party and had served in the Duma, Russia’s representative assembly, since 1906. The 55-year-old nobleman had a long history of taking initiative and demonstrating leadership in difficult situations. When he took charge of his family’s country estate during the agricultural depression of the late 1870s, it was nearly bankrupt. He consulted local peasants for their expertise and read agricultural textbooks, sowing new crops to transform the land into a profitable commercial farm complete with a cannery to preserve and sell produce from the once neglected orchards.

The Lvov estate was a few miles away from the home of Leo Tolstoy, the celebrated author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Lvov had shared his neighbor’s disdain for the lavish lifestyle of their fellow nobles and a strong view that the aristocracy existed to serve the people. Lvov recalled in his memoirs that his work on his estate, which included toiling in the fields alongside the peasants in the manner of Constantine Levin, one of the major characters in Anna Karenina, “separated [me] from the upper crust and made [me] democratic. I began to feel uncomfortable in the company of aristocrats and always felt much closer to the peasants.”

Lvov earned a law degree from the University of Moscow then entered the civil service. He organised relief work during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 then became the chairman of the All-Russian union of Zemstvos (municipal governments) during World War I, serving on committee that helped organize supplies for the military and treatment for wounded soldiers. With his extensive experience serving in government and organizational abilities, Lvov seemed to be the ideal figure to address Russia’s extensive infrastructure and supply problems in 1917.

But, there was a younger generation of rising political figures who viewed Lvov and his supporters as yesterday’s men. Tolstoy had died in 1910. Lvov was inspired by the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861 and the creation of the Duma in 1905, and had once hoped that Russia’s absolute monarchy would experience gradual reforms until it became a constitutional monarchy with an effective representative government, in the manner of the United Kingdom. With the collapse of czarism, this commitment to gradual reform and the development of parliamentary institutions seemed outdated.

Although Lvov treated members of different social backgrounds democratically, his noble origins made him suspect to the soviets, the councils of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. The supporters of his Kadet party were primarily urban, educated professionals, not the working or peasant classes. Lvov soon found himself politically isolated. Conservative, czarist political factions refused to work with the revolutionary government and the soviets distanced themselves from a government run by a member of the nobility. The end of the Romanov dynasty opened the floodgates for more radical political change.

The key link between the soviets and the Provisional Government was Alexander Kerensky, a 35-year-old lawyer from Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), a small town on the Volga river 550 miles east of Moscow. Simbirsk was also the town where Vladimir Lenin grew up and the two families knew each other. Lenin’s father was superintendent for schools in the region and Kerensky’s father was the headmaster of the high school attended by the young Lenin, even writing the reference letter necessary for Lenin to get into law school.

While Lenin spent much of Nicholas II’s reign as a revolutionary in exile, Kerensky worked within existing government institutions. In 1912, Kerensky was elected to the Duma as a member of the Trudovik party, a moderate labor party affiliated with the socialists. After the abdication, Kerensky was elected vice chairman of the Saint Petersburg soviet and served as Minister of Justice under Lvov’s Provisional Government, the only person to hold a position in both the soviet and the government.

As Minister of Justice, Kerensky’s first order of business was investigating the wartime conduct of the former Czar, known after his abdication as Colonel Nicholas Romanov, the military rank he held at the time of his accession in 1894. While the Provisional Government entered into negotiations with Britain, where Nicholas’s cousin George V was king, in the hopes of sending the Imperial family into exile, the soviets, however, were determined to have the dethroned czar answer for his activities as ruler.

One of the many telegrams received by the Saint Petersburg soviet stated, “The Kuragino [a town in central Russia] general assembly protests the departure of Nicholas Romanov and his wife for England without trial in light of proof that they betrayed the fatherland….” George V and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George ultimately withdrew their offer of asylum, fearing that the “residence of the ex-Emperor and Empress would be strongly resented by the public, and would undoubtedly compromise the position of the King and Queen,” leaving Kerensky free to conduct his investigation.

He visited Nicholas repeatedly in late March and April. Kerensky recalled in his memoirs, “When I told [Nicholas] that there was to be an investigation and that Alexandra…might have to be tried, he did not turn a hair and merely remarked: “Well, I don’t think [Alexandra] had anything to do with it. Have you any proof?” To which I replied: “I do not know yet.”

Despite these circumstances, the two men developed a surprisingly cordial rapport. Kerensky wrote “I began to see a human side to [Nicholas]. It became clear to me that he had acquiesced in the whole ruthless system without being moved by any personal ill will and without even realizing that it was bad. His mentality and circumstances kept him wholly out of touch with the people.” Nicholas described Kerensky as “a man who loves Russia and I wish I could have known him earlier because he could have been useful to me.” Kerensky’s investigation lasted 18 days but it never led to a trial and the former Imperial family remained in comfortable confinement in their palace until the autumn.

Lenin, following the news from afar, distrusted Kerensky’s willingness to work with the Provisional government and leniency toward the former czar. He telegraphed his fellow revolutionaries in exile, “No trust in and no support of the new government; Kerensky is especially suspect; arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee.” Before returning to Russia, Lenin issued his April theses, which began, “In our attitude toward the war not the slightest concession must be made to "revolutionary defencism," for under the new government of Lvov & Co., owing to the capitalist nature of this government, the war on Russia's part remains a predatory imperialist war.” Once back in Russia (he arrived on April 16), Lenin established Bolshevik headquarters in a Saint Petersburg mansion that had once belonged to prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska and encouraged opposition to the Provisional Government and the war.

The new Provisional Government, however, struggled to meet the people’s expectations about the war. Its official policy was to maintain Russian participation in the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary in support of their allies Great Britain and France. On April 6, the United States had joined the allied war effort and an eventual victory seemed to be within reach. But while the Provisional Government remained committed to the war effort, Lenin demanded an immediate end to the hostilities. Lenin’s rallying cry of “Peace, Land, Bread” slowly began to undermine support for the Provisional Government, foreshadowing further political change.

Conflict over whether to continue Russia’s participation in war provoked the first test of the Provisional Government’s authority. On April 18, foreign minister Pavel Miliukov sent a telegram to Russia’s wartime allies promising to continue the war effort and observe all the treaties dating from Nicholas’s reign. When the telegram was leaked to the public, mass demonstrations by Saint Petersburg’s workers arose and both the war minister and the foreign minister had to resign to restore public confidence. With Kerensky’s help, Lvov formed a new coalition government to quell the unrest in Saint Petersburg  and appointed socialists to ministries. In spite of this, the provisional government still struggled to gain widespread support. The Bolsheviks refused to participate in the new political arrangement. Lenin, their leader, accused the other socialist parties of collaborating with a bourgeois government and an imperialist war, becoming the main opposition to the continued existence to the Provisional Government.

Kerensky emerged from the April crisis as Minister of War, a difficult assignment at a time when soldiers had formed soviets to represent their interests, officers had lost authority and mass desertions were commonplace. He needed a new approach. In May 1917, he received a proposal from Maria Bokchareva, one of the few women who had received permission from the czar to enlist in the Russian army. Bokchareva suggested the creation of women’s combat battalions to shame the men into continuing the hostilities. Kerensky charged Bokchareva with the creation of the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death in time for a summer offensive.

Next: Russian women soldiers on the Eastern front

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.