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Kerensky, Alexander (1881–1970)



Leader during the February Revolution and prime minister of the Russian Provisional Government from July to October 1917.

Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky was born in Simbirsk (later Ulyanovsk), Russia, where his father was a schoolteacher and administrator. Among his father's pupils, by a quirk of history, was Vladimir Ulyanov, the future Lenin. The two future rivals did not know each other in Simbirsk because of age differences. After spending his teen years in Tashkent in Central Asia, Kerensky studied history and law at St. Petersburg University. On graduation he became an attorney, joining a legal aid society that provided free legal assistance to the poor. Involvement in radical politics led to his temporary arrest in December 1905. In 1906 he became a defense lawyer in political cases and began to make a name for himself as a defender of popular causes and ordinary people against government or employer repression. In 1912 he was appointed to a special commission established by the Duma to investigate the Lena gold-field massacre, where about two hundred striking miners had been shot. In 1912 Kerensky was asked to stand for election to the Fourth Duma on the Trudovik ticket (variously translated as Toilers', Labor, or Workers' Party). The Trudoviks represented the moderate wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and of the nonparty populist movement. Kerensky's energy and untiring criticism of government abuses made him a leading spokesman of the radical wing in the Duma.

When the Russian Revolution began in February 1917 Kerensky plunged into the revolutionary thicket. During its earliest days he seemed to be everywhere—giving a speech here, haranguing soldiers there, scurrying in and out of meetings, issuing orders, dramatically arresting members of the old regime and equally dramatically rescuing others from mob violence. Still a young man of thirty-six, he was the popular hero of the February Revolution. He was variously dubbed the "people's tribune," the "people's minister," and "the symbol of democracy," among other sobriquets. When the Petrograd Soviet was formed on 27 February he was elected vice-chairman. He entered the Provisional Government when it was formed on 2 March, becoming the only person to be in both the Soviet and the government. This put him in a uniquely influential political position. His face adorned store windows and postcards, and a medallion bearing his likeness circulated.

Within the new government Kerensky, as minister of justice, quickly asserted himself in pushing a wide range of reforms and policies, and his popularity gave him tremendous authority. When the government divided between the more conservative government members around Pavel Milyukov and Alexander Guchkov—who attempted to assert government authority and to diminish the Soviet's role—and a group around Prince Lvov that felt it necessary to work closely with the Soviet because of its enormous popular support, Kerensky associated with the latter group. When the "April Crisis" over the question of Russia's continued participation in the war on the basis of "war to victory" led to Milyukov's resignation and the reorganization of the Provisional Government, Kerensky became minister of war and his influence grew. He became the embodiment of coalition government—one that included socialist leaders of the Soviet along with liberal political leaders—and the government's key figure.

In May and June he was the focal point for preparations for the June offensive, an undertaking the government hoped would both revitalize the army and relieve pressure on Russia's allies on the western front. Kerensky made long tours of the front to stimulate fighting enthusiasm among soldiers with his stirring oratory. The offensive was unpopular from the start and its outcome disastrous. Nonetheless Kerensky's personal reputation survived temporarily and he became minister-president of the new "second coalition" government. Moreover, as other prominent political figures left the government, Kerensky became increasingly dominant within it. Even as he achieved complete leadership of the government, however, both its and his own popularity eroded. The Provisional Government was failing to solve problems and to fulfill popular aspirations, and Kerensky's identity as its leader led to a rapid drop in his popularity. The Kornilov affair in late August, a conflict growing out of the complex relationship between Kerensky and General Lavr Kornilov that many saw as an unsuccessful counterrevolutionary attempt, earned Kerensky the hostility of both left and right and completed the destruction of his reputation. Kerensky's government was now widely perceived as a stopgap until other leading political figures could decide on a new one. His decision to move against the Bolsheviks before the Second Congress of Soviets met sparked the October Revolution, which swept him from power.

Immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power Kerensky attempted to regain power by leading a military assault against Petrograd but failed. He then spent several weeks underground, trying unsuccessfully to organize an anti-Bolshevik movement. In May 1918 he made his way out of the country. He played no significant role in the civil war and lived the rest of his life in foreign exile. During the 1920s and 1930s he was active in émigré politics in Germany and France, where he edited a newspaper, Dni (Days). In 1940 he fled the Nazis, coming to the United States, where he lectured and wrote. He died on 11 June 1970.

Kerensky was both the heroic and the tragic figure of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Thin, pale, with flashing eyes, theatrical gestures, and vivid verbal imagery, he was a dramatic and mesmerizing speaker with an incredible ability to move his listeners. Announcement of his appearance at the "concert meetings" that were so popular in 1917 drew huge crowds to hear him. The popular idol of the first weeks, he became the personification of the Provisional Government. Standing at the point where moderate socialism blended into the left wing of liberalism, he was the perfect political embodiment of the first six months of the revolution. As the year wore on, however, Kerensky's oratory could not compensate for the government's failures, and his weaknesses as a leader became more apparent. The new paper currencies issued by the Provisional Government under his leadership were popularly called Kerenki, and because inflation quickly made them worthless, his name thus took on something of that meaning as well. It was a tragic end for the hero of the February Revolution.

See alsoRussian Revolutions of 1917 .


Primary Sources

Browder, Robert Paul, and Alexander Kerensky, eds. The Russian Provisional Government, 1917. 3 vols. Stanford, Calif., 1961. Excellent collection of documents about the Provisional Government, in the process of which Kerensky's role is laid out.

Kerensky, Alexander. The Catastrophe: Kerensky's Own Story of the Russian Revolution. New York, 1927. An early memoir.

——. Russia and History's Turning Point. New York, 1965. His last and most extensive memoir, representing his final assessment of the revolution and his role.

Secondary Sources

Abraham, Richard. Alexander Kerensky: The First Love of the Revolution. New York, 1987. The only full-length scholarly biography.

Figes, Orlando, and Boris Kolonitskii. Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1999. Contains much information on Kerensky, including a chapter that focuses on his rise and fall as charismatic leader.

Kolonitskii, Boris I. "Kerensky." In Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914–1921. Edited by Edward Acton et al., 38–49. Bloomington, Ind., 1997. A good short account.

Rex A. Wade

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