Kornilov affair

Kornilov affair

The Kornilov Affair (Russian: Корниловщина, "Kornilovshchina") was a confused struggle between Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, General Lavr Kornilov and Aleksandr Kerensky in August/September, 1917, in between the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the October Revolution. Kerensky was later to claim that the affair was a turning point in the revolution in the sudden revival--and eventual triumph--of the Bolsheviks. In Soviet historiography, the events have been known as the Kornilov Mutiny (мятеж Корнилова).

Kornilov shared the widespread belief of many Russians that the country was descending into anarchy and that military defeat on the Eastern Front against the Central Powers would be disastrous for Russian pride and honour. Lenin and his 'German spies', he announced, should be hanged, the Soviets stamped out, military discipline restored and the provisional government restructured. He thought, thanks to unclear and perhaps deliberately distorted communications from Petrograd, that Kerensky had authorized him to impose order in the capital and restructure the government, and ordered the Third Cavalry Corps to Petrograd with support of British equipment and instructors to place it under martial law.

Ignoring attempts by Boris Savinkov, who suspected there was a misunderstanding, to mediate, Kerensky dismissed his commander-in-chief from his post on September 9, claiming Kornilov intended to set up a military dictatorship. Kornilov, convinced Kerensky had been taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks and was acting under duress, replied by issuing a call to all Russians to "save their dying land." Uncertain of the support of his army generals, Kerensky was forced to ask for help from other quarters – these included the Bolshevik Red Guards. When Kerensky wired General Aleksandr Krymov to halt the Third Cavalry Corps' advance on Petrograd, Krymov obeyed once he realized the capital was not in fact in the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Kornilov's attempt to seize power collapsed without bloodshed as his Cossacks deserted the cause. He and some 7000 supporters were arrested. Although Kerensky survived the Kornilov coup, the event weakened his government substantially and paved the way for the Bolsheviks to seize power shortly thereafter in the October Revolution. The fact that Kerensky had also armed the Red Guards meant that when the October Revolution came the Red Army might have been more powerful due to Kerensky's help than it probably would have been otherwise.

Kerensky made the mistake of releasing Bolsheviks who had been arrested a few months earlier, when Lenin tried to take power in July Days. Kerensky had the released Bolsheviks armed so that they were able to fight off Kornilov and his supporters. The weapons the Bolshevik's had been given were later used against Kerensky in the October Revolution.

Kerensky believed that Kornilov had been recruited by rightist opponents of the Provisional Government some time before the general became commander-in-chief in late July 1917 and, that during Kornilov’s tenure, his “entire attention was devoted to the development of the military side of the conspiracy, to measures intended to assure its success.” [Kerensky, p. 307] Kerensky implied that elements within the British government were in support of the attempted coup, claiming that pamphlets touting “Kornilov, the National Hero” were printed at the expense of the British Military Mission and distributed in Moscow. [Kerensky, p. 317] Kerensky argued that the net result of the aborted revolt was a tremendous opportunity for the Bolsheviks, who began to spread propaganda based upon a rumor that Kerensky betrayed Kornilov in what was to have been a rightist coup engineered by elements within the Provisional Government:

This slanderous invention was immediately taken up by the Bolsheviki, who used it as dynamite with which, within a few days, they succeeded in destroying the confidence of the rank and file of the Army in the Provisional Government. The Korniloff uprising destroyed the entire work of the restoration of discipline in the army, achieved after almost superhuman efforts. Lenin, still in hiding, immediately grasped the significance of the service performed for him by the organizers of the Korniloff rebellion. [Kerensky, p. 321]

American Cold War historian Richard Pipes presents a politically conservative, pro-Kornilov and anti-Kerensky view of the Kornilov rising as follows:

Was there a 'Kornilov plot'? Almost certainly not. All the available evidence, rather, points to a 'Kerensky plot' engineered to discredit the general as the ringleader of an imaginary but widely anticipated counterrevolution, the suppression of which would elevate the Prime Minister to a position of unrivaled popularity and power... A commission appointed in October 1917 completed in June 1918... an investigation into the Kornilov Affair. It concluded that the accusations leveled at Kornilov were baseless: Kornilov's military moves had been intended not to overthrow the Provisional Government but to defend it from the Bolsheviks. The Commission completely exonerated Kornilov, accusing Kerensky of 'deliberately distort [ing] the truth in the matter of Kornilov from lack of courage to admit guilt for the grandiose mistake' he had committed. [Pipes, p. 463]

Additional Reading

* [http://www.archive.org/details/preludetobolshev008537mbp A.F. Kerensky. The Prelude To Bolshevism The Kornilov Rising]
* Richard Pipes, "The Russian Revolution" (Knopf, 1990)
* Orlando Figes, "A People's Tragedy" (Viking, 1996)
* Alexander Kerensky, "The Catastrophe: Kerensky's Own Story of the Russian Revolution" (D. Appleton and Company, 1927)

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