1917: Kornilov Affair

Kornilov Affair

Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The July Days did not end the revolution's summer of discontent. On the one hand, the propertied classes' fears of chaos and disorder from below seemed to have been realized; on the other, the Provisional Government, now led by Aleksandr Kerenskii and galvanized into action against the Bolsheviks, seemed less likely than ever to alleviate the economic distress and social resentment among the lower classes. While factory management frequently responded to rising costs and loss of control over workers by curtailing or even shutting down operations, workers increasingly resorted to strikes, physical attacks against foremen and other line supervisors, and occupations of factory grounds. The breakdown of food and fuel distribution systems had ripple effects throughout the entire economy and society. Crime and acts of violence rose dramatically as unruly bands of armed deserters roamed through the streets and railroad stations. In the countryside, peasant land seizures went unpunished. Further afield, in some of the national minority areas, separatist movements gathered pace, while in the northwest the German army was advancing. As class polarization became more manifest and conspiracy theories proliferated, the whole country seemed to be falling apart. "Chaos in the army, chaos in foreign policy, chaos in industry and chaos in the nationalist questions" was the way Pavel Miliukov, the Kadet Party leader, summed up the situation in late July.

These, then, were the circumstances in which General Lavr Kornilov, appointed Supreme Commander of the Russian armed forces on July 18, appeared as a savior to many who longed for an end to the revolutionary "chaos." Those who backed his candidacy for the role of military dictator included several key politicians from the conservative and centrist parties, top military personnel, and banking and industrial leaders associated with the Society for the Economic Rehabilitation of Russia and the Republican Center. Lauded as a hero after his escape from a Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp and return to Russia in 1916, Kornilov held the Petrograd Soviet responsible for the breakdown of discipline in the army. He also came to regard the Provisional Government as lacking the backbone to dissolve the Soviet and therefore unworthy of survival. On August 27, after several ambiguous exchanges with Kerenskii who desired to bring the Soviet to heel but not to eliminate the institution, Kornilov ordered General Krymov to lead the "Savage Division" and the Third Cavalry Corps on an assault of Petrograd.

This attempted putsch was an abysmal failure mainly because of the Soviet's effective mobilization of workers and soldiers in defense of the revolution. The key defenders were armed workers organized into Red Guards, elements of the Petrograd Garrison, and railroad workers who halted the trains carrying Kornilov's troops while they were en route to the capital. By August 31, Krymov was dead, having committed suicide, and Kornilov and several associates were under arrest. The main victor in the Kornilov Affair was the radical left, and in particular the Bolsheviks who had long warned of the danger of a counter-revolutionary thrust. Kerenskii's authority and that of the Provisional Government were severely compromised, and the way now appeared open towards realizing Lenin's injunction for the soviets to assume "all power."