Kornilov Affair

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The Kornilov Affair was the main counterrevolutionary episode of the Russian Revolution of February 1917. It grew out the general political and socioeconomic crises of the summer, including the failure of the military offensive, government instability, economic disintegration, and, in particular, the emergence in July and August of a more assertive political right demanding a "restoration of order." Attention increasingly centered on General Lavr Kornilov, who emerged as the potential Napoleon of the Russian Revolution.

After the summer 1917 offensive failed, Kornilov vigorously advocated using harsh measures to restore discipline in the army. This drew the attention of a wide range of people interested in restoration of order, mostly conservatives and liberals but also some socialists, who found him more acceptable than most generals (he had a reputation for being more "democratic" because of his modest background and good relations with his troops). They pressured Alexander Kerensky, now head of government, to appoint Kornilov supreme commander-in-chief of the army, which Kerensky did on July 31. The problems that lay ahead were signaled by Kornilov's remarkable acceptance conditions, especially that he would be "responsible only to [his] own conscience and to the whole people," and his insistence on a free hand to restore military discipline. Kerensky did not really trust Kornilov, but hoped to use him both to appease the right and to counterbalance the left. Kornilov in turn disdained the Petrograd politicians. Intermediaries, especially Boris Savinkov, a former Socialist Revolutionary terrorist who was now the assistant minister of war, tried to convince Kerensky and Kornilov that the salvation of the country rested on their cooperation.

During August, tensions surrounding Kornilov's presumed intentions grew. Leftist newspapers and orators warned that he was a potential counterrevolutionary military dictator, while conservative newspapers and speakers hailed him as the prospective savior of Russia. People looking to break the power of the soviets and change the political structure began to organize around him. The degree of his knowledge and approval of these efforts remains unclear, but he clearly saw himself as a key figure in the regeneration of Russia and the reconstruction of Russian politics, perhaps by force.

By September political tensions in Petrograd were high. Kerensky and Kornilov groped toward some sort of agreement, despite mutual distrust. An exchange of messages, mostly through intermediaries (Kornilov was at military front headquarters), explored restructuring the government and discussed the respective roles of the two men. These also revealed their suspicions of each other. Kerensky became convinced that the general planned a coup and, on September 9, he suddenly dismissed Kornilov. Outraged, Kornilov denounced Kerensky and launched army units toward Petro-grad. This quickly collapsed as delegates from the Petrograd Soviet convinced the soldiers that they were being used for counterrevolution. By September 12 the Kornilov revolt had foundered, and Kornilov and some other generals were arrested.

The Kornilov Affair had enormous repercussions. Kerensky, the moderate socialists, and the liberals were discredited because of their earlier support of Kornilov. The Bolsheviks and radical left, in contrast, had warned against the danger of a military coup and now seemed vindicated. Their political stock soared, and they soon took over the Petrograd and other soviets, preparing the way for the October Revolution.

See also: february revolution; kerensky, alexander fyodorovich; october revolution; provisional government


Ascher, Abraham. (1953). "The Kornilov Affair." Russian Review 12:235352.

Asher, Harvey. (1970). "The Kornilov Affair: A History and Interpretation." Russian Review 29:286300.

Munck, J. L. (1987). The Kornilov Revolt: A Critical Examination of the Sources and Research. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press.

White, James D. (19681969). "The Kornilov Affair: A Study in Counter Revolution." Soviet Studies 20: 187205.

Rex A. Wade