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Alexander Kerensky, the Revolutionary Swallowed by the Revolution

Exactly 100 years ago, the Bolsheviks were getting ready to execute their final, bloody coup that would plunge Russia into five years of civil war and 70 years of totalitarianism. How were they able to accomplish the capture of power relatively easily? The answer is found in the virtual dual power that the Provisional Government shared since February 1917 with the so-called Soviets, controlled by Lenin's party. Thus, the Bolsheviks were able to pick up the power which was, according to one Russian historian, "wallowing on the ground."

One of the most tragic figures of recent Russian history is certainly Alexander Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government from July to October 1917. Having seized power at only 36 years of age, mostly by the virtue of his gift of oratory, but probably because of his membership in the Freemason lodge as well, he is perhaps the greatest culprit that the illegal February takeover was capped by the October Revolution carried out by the Marxist radicals.

One interesting fact about Kerensky's early life is that he was born in Simbirsk in 1881, the city called Ulyanovsk after the last name of the first Bolshevik leader whose mummy still lies in the centre of the Moscow Red Square. Not only was Lenin Kerensky's fellow citizen, but he was also a student of Kerensky's father, who gave the future revolutionary his only lower mark in an otherwise perfect final-year report card. This did not undermine the relationship between the two families that were on friendly terms, however, nor did it undermine the status of Kerensky's father, who was the elder Ulyanov's subordinate.

After graduating from Petersburg law school, Kerensky acquired a reputation of a successful attorney in a series of trials in which he defended revolutionary terrorists and assassins. He became a member of the State Duma on the list of the Social Revolutionaries (SRs), and built his stature with fiery speeches criticising the monarchy. In his speech on December 16, 1916, he practically called for an overthrow of the government, to which the Empress Alexandra apparently reacted with the words, "Kerensky should be hanged.”

On February 27, 1917 (according to the old calendar), Tsar Nicholas II Romanov abdicated, and the power was taken by the Provisional Government, in which Kerensky was awarded the post of the Minister of Justice. In May he became War Minister, and when Prince Lvov resigned as the head of the government, Kerensky took his place.

His speeches caused ovations from the audience, especially women who were spellbound by his charm. He printed thousands of postcards with his own picture, and had films made about his major public appearances. But, as historian Vladimir Katanosov says, the February Revolution brought to power people who were dominant in terms of oratory, addressing the masses and propaganda. When they assumed power, however, it turned out that those people, who were masters at delivering most persuasive and moving speeches, had no idea about governing a country. The result was the mentioned diarchy.

Kerensky's initial exaltation after becoming the head of the government was replaced by frustration when he couldn't form his cabinet for almost two months. Exhausted even before his presidency became official, he started sustaining himself on regular doses of morphine and cocaine. During the summer and early autumn, Kerensky tried to balance between the soviets and the moderates, and he failed to imprison Lenin and his collaborators when these were rightfully accused of being German mercenaries.

So, his few months in power could be described thus: in the Spring, Kerensky played a fiery revolutionary, who freed thousands of prisoners. In the summer, he tried to rectify his image by portraying a revolutionary patriot who is maintaining a revolutionary order. But he was immediately beset by problems. He gave speeches, but never took action. In the Autumn, the country already despised Kerensky for not carrying out any of his promises. Here lies the key to the precipitous decline in his popularity.  

On October 25 (according to the old calendar), after a series of swift and decisive moves, Bolsheviks took over the rickety power from the Provisional Government that has lost control over the military and its people. Realising the trouble he was in, Kerensky, during the chaos of the Winter Palace seizure, passed through the crowd of besiegers in an official limousine. The version later spread by the Bolsheviks that he fled dressed as a nurse or in a female dress tormented Kerensky for the rest of his life, and he never missed an opportunity to try to convince his interlocutors the story was not true.

Having lurked in the suburbs of Petrograd and Novgorod until January 1918, Kerensky crossed over the border to Finland. The new government widely published the confiscation of million and a half rubles from his bank accounts. After a short while, he came back to the country trying to organise a military intervention against the Bolsheviks. In the June of the same year, however, dressed in the uniform of a Serbian officer and accompanied by an English intelligence officer, he left Russia for good.

Until 1940, Kerensky lived in France, editing the émigré paper Days, delivering anti-Soviet lectures and calling Western Europe to undertake a crusade against Soviet Russia. In 1939, he married a former Australian journalist, Lydia Tritton, and, when Hitler occupied France, he moved to the United States.

He lived in New York, but spent long periods of time in California, where he taught at Stanford University. He authored a number of works about the Russian Revolution.

Kerensky died in 1970 in a New York hospital at the age of 89. The Russian and the Serbian Orthodox Church refused to conduct funeral rites, considering him guilty for the fall of Russia. His body was transferred to London, where his son lived, and was buried on a cemetery not belonging to any confession.

Svetozar Postic

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