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Provisional Government


The Provisional Government is most often remembered for its weakness and its inability to prevent the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 or to manage the mass movements that ensured the victory of Vladmir Lenin. The experience and meaning of the Provisional Government are not well understood, however, and indeed the same might be said for the February Revolution as a whole. Certain basic facts about the Provisional Government should be stated at the outset. It was the product of a long and intricate process of prerevolutionary party and parliamentary politics that came to a head during World War I just prior to the outbreak of the revolution. It was a government that went through several transformations, from a largely liberal cabinet to a coalition of liberals, socialists, and populists, and finally to a crisis-driven statist cabinet led by Alexander Kerensky that barely could express its moderately socialist ideological under-pinnings.

The Provisional Government was formed during the February days as a result of negotiations between the Temporary Duma Committee and the Petrograd Soviet. The Provisional Government was in fact an executive authority, or cabinet, headed by a minister president, that governed through the inherited ministerial apparatus of the old regime. It had legislative authority as well. Although the Provisional Government claimed power and the mantle of legitimacy, it was never clear during its brief eight-month existence whether this legitimacy derived from the Revolution or from inherited continuities of power or a mixture of the two. The first Provisional Government was clearly a product of the old regime Duma and its factional politics. But the new government chose not to base its authority on a Duma elected under prerevolutionary laws (its leadership, in any case, did not want to share power with certain Duma eminences and parties), and in official terms, at least, the Duma was pushed to the sidelines with no official status in the new governing structures (though it did continue to operate during 1917).

The First Provisional Government cabinet consisted largely of Cadets (Andrei Shingarev, Paul Miliukov), but it included Progressists (Mikhail Tereshchenko), Octobrists (Alexander Guchkov), and one nominal Socialist Revolutionary, Alexander Kerensky. The minister president was Prince Georgy Lvov, a romantic activist who had made his mark during the war as head of the All-Russian Union of Zemstvos and Towns and the Red Cross. As minister of foreign affairs, Miliukov stood firmly on the side of the Allies in their demand for Russia's continued participation in the war. Miliukov believed in the war aims of the tsar's government because he championed the state above all (albeit a rule-of-law state) and detested German authoritarianism and imperialism, so it was no leap to continue fighting alongside the democratic Western powers. Guchkov, as minister of war, shared this view and attempted to stave off what turned out to be a mass army mutiny during the course of 1917.

The first Provisional Government enunciated its revolutionary program in a declaration on March8. The primary goal was to establish the rule of law and representative government based upon universal suffrage, self-government, and breaking the traditional power of the bureaucracy and police. The declaration also called for freedom of conscience and religion, reform of the judiciary and education, and lifting of the onerous restrictions upon the empire's nationalities. The final form of Russia's statehood was to be determined at a Constituent Assembly. The Provisional Government, in its various cabinets, tried to attain these goals. However, the revolution was unforgiving and the range of problems was so great that the government found itself adopting statist positions as it tried to maintain authority, prepare for the late spring offensive promised to the Allies, and adjudicate the multitude of social and political demands unleashed by the revolution.

Continuation of the war brought on the first government power crisis in April, and this led to the formation of the first of a series of coalition cabinets that included socialist ministers from the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary parties. Effective Bolshevik propaganda and use of symbolic fields of discourse for revolutionary ends made these more moderate socialists, now co-opted within the boundaries of power, look responsible for the deepening crisis in every sphere of public life. The Provisional Government implemented reforms in self-government, labor relations, and the judiciary. It established a grain monopoly and set the stage for many subsequent Bolshevik administrative and economic policies. Thus it was hardly a "bourgeois" government, but it was made to look so. Perhaps its greatest domestic failures were its inability to solve the land question on short notice and in the midst of revolution and, of course, its weak and perhaps idealistic approach to modern nationalism and the explosive new desires of the empire's non-Russians for self-determination. Its efforts in these and other areas were inadequate to stem the revolutionary tide.

The government finally collapsed under the strange leadership of Alexander Kerensky. A Socialist Revolutionary, he came to power in July in the midst of what turned out to be a failed military offensive. His leadership was marked by illconceived adventurism (the Kornilov Affair) and a clear desire to act as and represent himself as an executive strong man.

See also: february revolution; kerensky, alexander fyodorovich; kornilov affair; october revolution


Abraham, Richard. (1987). Alexander Kerensky: The First Love of the Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rabinowitch, Alexander. (1976). The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. New York: Norton.

Rosenberg, William G. (1975). Liberals in the Russian Revolution: The Constitutional Democratic Party, 19171921. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wade, Rex A. (1969). The Russian Search for Peace, FebruaryOctober 1917. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Daniel Orlovsky

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