'The revolution found us, the party members, fast asleep, just like the Foolish Virgins in the Gospel,' recalled Sergei Mstislavsky, one of the SR leaders, in 1922. Much the same could be said for all the revolutionary parties in the capital. 'There were no authoritative leaders on the spot in any of the parties,' Sukhanov recalled. 'They were all in exile, in prison, or abroad.' Lenin and Martov were in Zurich, Trotsky in New York, Chernov in Paris. Tsereteli, Dan and Gots were in Siberia. Cut off from the pulse of the capital, the leaders failed to sense what Mstislavsky called 'the approaching storm in the ever mounting waves of the February disturbances'. Having spent their whole lives waiting for the revolution, they failed to recognize it when it came. Lenin himself had predicted in January that 'we older men perhaps will not live to see the coming revolution'. Even as late as 26 February, Shliapnikov, the leading Bolshevik in Petrograd, had told a meeting of socialists in Kerensky's flat: 'There is no and will be no revolution. We have to prepare for a long period of reaction.'28 In the absence of the major party leaders, the task of leading the revolution fell on to the shoulders of the secondary ones. They were not just second-ranking but also second-rate. Shliapnikov was an experienced trade unionist and party worker underground. But as a politician, in Sukhanov's words, he 'was quite incapable of grasping the essence' of the situation that had been created. His ideas were 'cliches of ancient party resolutions'. Not much more could be said of the Mensheviks in the capital. Chkheidze, the 'Papa' of the revolution, was an amiable and competent but sleepy-headed Georgian, who, in the words of Sukhanov, could not have been 'less suited to be a working-class or party leader, and he never led anyone anywhere'. Skobelev, a Duma deputy from Baku, was a provincial intellectual, designed on a small-town rather than a national scale. As for Sukhanov, he was on the fringes of all the party factions, being much too undecided to declare his views. Like all too many of the socialist leaders, he was always inclined to look at politics as an intellectual rather than as a politician. Trotsky described him as 'a conscientious observer rather than a statesman, a journalist rather than a revolutionist, a rationaliser rather than a journalist — he was capable of standing by a revolutionary conception only up to the time when it was necessary to carry it into action'. N. D. Sokolov was a similarly floating figure, too vague in his beliefs to fit into any party. This bearded lawyer, with his little pince-nez, would have been more at home in a library or a lecture hall than in a revolutionary crowd. Finally, the SRs were no better off for leaders in the capital. Mstislavsky and Filipovsky found themselves as the closest things the Soviet had to 'military men' (Mstislavsky was merely a librarian at the Military Academy but Filipovsky was a naval engineer) thrown into positions of leadership for which they were suited neither by their temperament nor their skills. Zenzinov was a party hack.29 And as for Kerensky — well more on him below.
These second-ranking leaders chased after events in the February Days. They telephoned from one apartment to another trying to find out what was happening on the streets. Gorky's apartment on the Kronversky served as a central telephone exchange. Leaders would assemble there to share their impressions and make enquiries. Gorky himself had connections throughout Petrograd. It was only on the 27th, when the revolution had already become an established fact, that the party leaders sprang into action and assumed the leadership of the uprising on the streets. It was a classic example of 'We are their leaders, so we must follow them.'
Everything was focused on the Tauride Palace, seat of the Duma and citadel of democracy. By the early afternoon of the 27th a crowd of 25,000 people — many of them soldiers from the nearby Preobrazhensky and Volynsky barracks — had gathered in front of the palace. They were looking for political leaders. The first to appear were the Mensheviks Khrustalev-Nosar (Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet in 1905), and Gvozdev and Bogdanov (leaders of the Workers' Group), escorted by the crowd that had just released them from the Kresty jail. In the palace they met Chkheidze, Skobelev and Kerensky, and then announced to the crowds outside that a 'Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers' Deputies' had been established. They appealed to the workers to elect and send their representatives to the first assembly of the Soviet scheduled for that evening. The appeal was printed in a makeshift first issue of Izvestiia, the only newspaper to appear that day, and widely circulated in the streets.
Despite its name, there were very few workers among the fifty voting delegates and 200 observers packed into the smoke-filled Room 12 of the Tauride Palace for that first chaotic session of the Soviet. Most of the workers were still on the streets and were either drunk or completely unaware of the Soviet's existence. Their voting places were largely occupied by socialist intellectuals. Sokolov assumed the preliminary chairmanship of the meeting, which immediately proceeded to set up an Executive Committee of 6 Mensheviks, 2 Bolsheviks, 2 SRs and 5 non-party intellectuals. It was not so much a democratic body as a self-appointed one made up of the various socialist factions and then superimposed on the Soviet. The next day, as 600 Soviet deputies were elected by the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, two more representatives from each of the major socialist parties — the Trudoviks, the Popular Socialists, the SRs, the Bund, the Mensheviks, the Inter-District group* and the Bolsheviks — were added to the Executive Committee. The effect was to strengthen its right wing, those who were most opposed to taking power. The voice of the workers, who might well have demanded that they did take power, was not heard. There was not a single factory delegate on the Soviet Executive — and that in a body claiming to represent the working class.
Chkheidze was appointed Chairman with Skobelev and Kerensky ViceChairmen. But there was really no order to the meeting. Executive members were summoned every minute to meet delegations outside the hall. Business was constantly interrupted by 'urgent announcements' or 'emergency reports'. All sorts of unelected groups — post and telegraph officials, zemstvo employees, doctors' and teachers' representatives — demanded admission and sometimes got in to declare their allegiance to the Soviet. Then there were the soldiers' delegations, whose demands for the floor to make their reports were warmly welcomed by the delegates. Standing on stools, their rifles in their hands, they told in simple language of what had been happening in their garrisons and declared the allegiance of their regiments to the Soviet. The delegates were so enthralled, greeting each declaration with thunderous applause, that it was resolved unanimously, without even taking a formal vote, to create a united Soviet henceforth known as the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies.
For those who had wanted a genuine workers' Soviet this was the final kiss of death. Organized in their platoons and companies, the soldiers were in a much better position than the workers to elect their delegates to the Soviet. It often turned out, moreover, that a single platoon of a dozen or so soldiers sent its own representative who was on a par with one from a factory with several thousand workers. There was little real control of voting procedures. The blue of the workers' tunics was lost in the sea of grey uniforms when the first combined session of the Soviet assembled in the Catherine Hall on the evening of the 28th. Of the 3,000 delegates, more than two-thirds were servicemen — and this in a city where workers outnumbered soldiers by three or four to one. The fact that most of the soldiers were peasants may help to account for the chaotic nature of these early sessions, along with the general confusion of events.
* The Inter-District group, or Mezhraionka, was a left-wing faction of the Social Democrats in Petrograd. It favoured the reunification of the Menshevik and Bolshevik wings of the party. Trotsky and Lunacharsky belonged to it until the summer of 1917, when they joined the Bolsheviks.
'A mass meeting! Anyone who wants to gets up and says whatever he likes,' is how one delegate described the first session. There were no formal agendas, minutes or procedures for decision-making in the Soviet. Every decision was arrived at through open debate, with speakers in different parts of the hall all talking at once, and the resolutions passed by general acclamation, much as at a village assembly. Because such a body was incapable of any constructive work it soon took on a purely symbolic role, with the real decisions being made by the Executive and the socialist party caucuses to which most of its members belonged. The workers and soldiers who had made the revolution had in effect lost their political voice to the socialist intelligentsia, which claimed to speak in their name.30
Meanwhile, over in the right wing of the Tauride Palace the Duma members of the Progressive Bloc and the Council of Elders were meeting to decide whether they should obey the Tsar's order of the previous night to prorogue the Duma, or whether they should defy it and place themselves at the head of the revolutionary movement. The radicals and socialists, whose spokesman was Kerensky, urged the latter course. But the more moderate Duma members, and none more than Miliukov, who acted as their 'boss', were clearly terrified by the sight of the crowds. From inside the palace the noise of the 'mobs', as they were inclined to call them, was growing louder and more threatening all the time. For a while these moderates sought to play for time by hiding, as it were, behind the thick volumes of constitutional law. It would be illegal, they pontificated, to usurp the powers of the Tsar by forming a cabinet on their own initiative; but it would be possible to cable the sovereign with a request for his permission to do so. In a strictly legal sense there was some logic to this reasoning: the crowds on the street had no authority to hand over power to the Duma and any government formed on that basis would lack formal legitimacy. But such legal niceties were hardly the point now. This, after all, was a revolution; and all revolutions, by their nature, are illegal. The only real power — the power of violence — now lay in the streets and the refusal of the Duma moderates to recognize this fact was an act of cowardice and shortsightedness. No doubt they were afraid that if they assumed power, the masses in the streets would try to impose on them a socialist programme of reforms and peace. In other words, they were reluctant to place themselves at the head of a revolutionary government, even though a revolution had just taken place. Rodzianko, the Duma President, and, in his own words, 'the fattest man in Russia', still spoke in terms of a 'government of public confidence' (which could mean one appointed by the Tsar) rather than a public or Duma government.
During the afternoon, however, as the Petrograd Soviet began to emerge as a rival contender for power in the left wing of the palace, twelve Duma members from the Progressive Bloc, along with Kerensky and Chkheidze, took one more cautious step towards the assumption of power. They formed themselves into a 'Temporary Committee of Duma Members for the Restoration of Order in the Capital and the Establishment of Relations with Individuals and Institutions'. The length of its name betrayed the timidity of its intentions. This was a 'private' body of Duma members formed to help 'restore order' in the capital, not a Duma organ for the assumption of power. It was only later that night, when the Soviet plenum was in session and reports came in that the capital was sinking deeper into anarchy, that these reluctant revolutionaries, having failed in one last effort to persuade the Grand Duke Mikhail to become dictator, finally seized the initiative and proclaimed themselves in authority. There was simply no alternative — except Soviet power.31
By 28 February, then, two rival centres of power had emerged: in the right wing of the Tauride Palace there was the Temporary Committee of the Duma, which had the closest thing to formal power but no authority in the streets; while in the left wing there was the Soviet, which had the closest thing to power in the streets but no formal authority.
* * * Meanwhile, there were still some battles to be fought. Although the crowd had captured most of the city, there was still a danger that Major-General Khabalov might crush the uprising with the aid of troops from the Front, as the Tsar had ordered on the 27th. 'In conventional military terms', Mstislavsky recalled, 'our situation was quite catastrophic. We had neither artillery, nor machine-guns; neither commanding officers, nor field communications,' and if Khabalov attacked with disciplined troops, 'we had as much chance as a snowball in hell.' Everything depended on the fighting spirit of the mutinous soldiers and their willingness to carry out the orders of the Soviet. Many of the soldiers seemed much less interested in fighting for it than in 'joining the people' and getting drunk. Shklovsky, who was placed in charge of guarding the railway stations, found it almost impossible to convince the troops coming into Petrograd to assume even basic guard duties. The entire guard of the Nikolaevsky Station, where the vital trains from Moscow came in, consisted of a 'one-armed student and an ancient naval officer in what seemed to be the uniform of an ensign'. At the Tauride Palace things were rather better. Catherine the Great's graceful palace was now turned into the military headquarters of Red Petrograd. The Soviet established a Military Commission, which issued orders to ad hoc brigades placed at strategic points in the city. Hundreds of soldiers had encamped in the corridors of the Tauride Palace waiting for the order to defend this bastion of the revolution. Linde, having put aside his volume of Haldane, took up the command of the guard at the gates. Having been elected by his Finland Regiment to represent it in the Soviet, he had an extra reason to defend the palace with gun in hand. Here was the new politician armed. Stocks of food and guns were piled up high in the rooms and corridors of the palace. In the middle of the Circular Hall there was a sewing machine: nobody knew how it had got there, or what it was supposed to be for. Perhaps someone had been planning for a long war and had thought it might be needed to mend uniforms. Nabokov described the scene inside the palace:
Soldiers, soldiers, and more soldiers, with tired, dull faces; everywhere were signs of an improvised camp, rubbish, straw; the air was thick like some kind of dense fog, there was a smell of soldiers' boots, cloth, sweat; from somewhere we could hear the hysterical voices of orators addressing a meeting in the Catherine Hall — everywhere crowding and bustling confusion.32
There were still, moreover, some troublesome pockets of resistance in the capital: in the Winter Palace, in the General Staff building, at the Admiralty and in the Astoria Hotel. Some of the bloodiest fighting of the whole revolution took place in the hotel on the 28th. It was packed with senior officers and their families and, when snipers on its roof opened fire on the crowds below, the revolutionary soldiers brought up three machine-guns on armoured cars and began to fire through all the windows. Meanwhile, armed crowds stormed the building, wrecking the plush interior, looting the wine stores and searching the rooms for 'counter-revolutionaries'. Several dozen officers were shot or bayoneted. There was a long pitched battle amidst the broken chandeliers and mirrors of the vestibule, and at the end of it, according to one eye-witness, 'the revolving door was running in a pool of blood'.33
* * * The main aim of the leaders in the Tauride Palace — both in the left wing and in the right — was to restore order on the streets. There was a real danger of the revolution degenerating into anarchy. Thousands of drunken workers and soldiers were roaming through the city looting stores, breaking into houses, beating up and robbing people in the streets. The revolutionary struggle against the police and the army officers was breaking down into uncontrolled violence and retribution. 'Unless all this is brought to a halt,' warned one deputy in the Soviet, 'the revolution will end in defeat and shame.'
One cause for concern was the safe and orderly detention of the tsarist ministers and officials. On the evening of the 27th the Council of Ministers had held its last meeting in the Marinsky Palace and formally submitted its resignation to the Tsar. At one stage in the meeting the lights had gone out and it was assumed that the revolutionaries were about to storm the palace. In fact it was just a power-cut and when the lights came back on after a few minutes, several of the ministers were found hiding under the table. None the less, their panic was not without cause. Some 4,000 tsarist government officials were seized by the crowd in the February Days, and the fate of many of them was not one that anyone would envy. The Temporary Committee of the Duma ordered the arrest of all ex-ministers and senior officials, and their delivery to the Duma 'for justice', partly to save them from the horrors of 'mob law'. It was fitting and symbolic that Shcheglovitov, the former Minister of Justice, should have been the first to be brought by the crowds to the Tauride Palace. There he was met by Kerensky, shortly to become the next Minister of Justice, who, clearly aware of the drama of the situation, announced to the prisoner: 'Ivan Grigorievich Shcheglovitov, you are under arrest! Your life is not in danger!' And then with irony added the words: 'Know that the State Duma does not shed blood.' Several ex-ministers even turned themselves in to the Duma rather than run the risk of being captured by the crowds. Protopopov was among these. He tried to save himself by turning evidence against the Tsar and, when this failed, broke down into tears and whined pathetically. Sukhomlinov, the ex-Minister of War, arrived on I March with his own armed escort, causing wild excitement among the soldiers. They were only just dissuaded from executing him on the spot. But they did succeed in tearing off his epaulettes as a rejection of the old military order.'14
All these fallen officials were detained in the Ministerial Pavilion of the Tauride Palace and then transferred to the Peter and Paul Fortress for interrogation and imprisonment. It was one of those small but nicely symbolic ironies of the revolution that the man who was placed in charge of escorting the ministers to the Peter and Paul should have been a man, Viktor Zenzinov, who had himself once been a prisoner there. He recalls what must have been a very strange sensation as he, now a government official, arrived at the prison gates with Shcheglovitov, once the Minister of Justice himself, but now just another 'political':
We drove through the gates, did a turn or two, went under the arch and came to a stop in front of the door. Just the same guards stood there now as I remembered from seven years before. Then out came to meet us — I could scarcely believe my eyes — Captain Ivanishin, the same Captain Ivanishin, who seven years before had run the Trubetskoi Bastion, where the solitary confinement prisoners were kept and where I had been kept under him in a damp stone cell for six months during 1910 . . . Now he was conducting himself politely with me. I have no doubt that Ivanishin recognized me immediately, just as I recognized him, but he did not give any sign of recognition.
On Zenzinov's request, Kerensky ordered the removal of Ivanishin. But the order was not carried out. It was only later, after several weeks, when Ivanishin was found guilty of accepting bribes from the imprisoned ministers, that he was finally dismissed.35
A second cause for concern in the Tauride Palace was how to get the troops to return to their barracks. This was essential to restore order. On the 28th the Military Commission — now under the control of the Temporary Committee — ordered the soldiers who had mutinied to return to their garrisons and to recognize the authority of their officers. But the soldiers were afraid that they would be punished for their participation in the mutiny, and demanded guarantees of their immunity before they returned. Most of them mistrusted the Temporary Committee — some of them called it 'counter-revolutionary' because it supported the officers — and turned to the Soviet to protect them. The result was Order Number One, perhaps the most consequential document to be written as a result of the February Revolution. It was a list of the soldiers' demands and conditions for their return to the garrisons. It provided for the establishment of soldiers' committees as a democratic counterbalance to the authority of the officers. It declared that the soldiers would recognize only the authority of the Petrograd Soviet, and that the orders of the Duma's Military Commission would be executed only in so far as they did not conflict with the Soviet's. When they were not on military duty, soldiers were to enjoy the rights of citizens, including the right not to salute their officers. Rudeness by the officers towards the soldiers, including the use of the familiar 'you' (tyi), associated with children and serfs, was henceforth to be prohibited as an insult to the soldier's dignity. The honorific titles of the officers, such as 'Your Excellency' and 'Your Honour', which the peasant soldiers, in particular, resented as a remnant of serfdom, were to be replaced by new and democratic forms of address, such as 'Mister General' or 'Mister Colonel'.
The Order was a popular creation in the full sense of the term. Sukhanov watched as Sokolov sat a table:
surrounded on all sides by soldiers, standing, sitting, and leaning on the table, half dictating and half suggesting to Sokolov what he should write . . . There was no agenda and no discussion of any kind, everyone spoke, and all were completely absorbed in the work, formulating their collective opinion without any voting . . . When the work was finished they put a heading on the sheet: 'Order No. I'.
A few minutes later the Order was read out before the Soviet, then in session in the Catherine Hall, and passed unanimously to the thunderous applause of the soldiers. This crucial document, which did more than anything else to destroy the discipline of the army, and thus in a sense brought the Bolsheviks to power, had taken only a few minutes to pass.36
While the Soviet leaders wanted to restore order, most of them had no intention of assuming power. The whole basis of their strategy was to pressurize the Duma leaders into forming a 'bourgeois government'. Thus there arose what Trotsky later called the 'paradox' of February: that a revolution made in the streets resulted in a government made in the salons. This was a recurring pattern throughout the politics of 1917: there were several moments (February, April, July and September) when the Soviet leaders might have taken power, when indeed the crowds came out on to the streets with the express demand that they do just that, but on each occasion they shied away from the responsibilities of government. In this way they missed their chance to resolve the revolution in a democratic and socialist form. The Bolsheviks reaped the benefits.
How are we to explain this political failure? In the context of February, which determined much of the later politics, there were three main lines of reasoning.
First, there was the problem of party dogma. Both the Mensheviks and the SRs adhered rigidly to the belief that in a backward peasant country such as Russia there would have to be a 'bourgeois revolution' (meaning a long period of capitalism and democracy) before Russian society, and the working class in particular, would be sufficiently advanced for the transition to a socialist order. As Plekhanov had once put it, there was not yet enough proletarian yeast in the peasant dough of Russia to make the cake of socialism. In the case of the Mensheviks this belief in the two-stage revolution derived from Marxist theory; and in the case of the SRs it derived largely from the Mensheviks. The belief was based on two further assumptions, which both made abstract sense but fell down when applied to the real world. It was a case of trying to impose nineteenth-century Western dogmas on the realities of twentieth-century Russia. For one thing, it was said that the peasants (and the provinces in general) would not support a socialist government in the cities because they were too attached to what the Mensheviks called their 'petty-bourgeois' notions of small property. As a result, an urban socialist revolution would either be starved out of existence, like the Paris Commune, or, even worse, would be beaten by a peasant counterrevolution, like the Vendee or the European royalist armies of 1849. But in fact the Russian peasants were even more impatient for a social revolution than, arguably, the workers were. All they wanted was the land and, if 'socialism' meant giving the land to the peasants, then they were 'socialists'. This meant, as the SRs should have realized, that the peasants would not join a counter-revolution so long as that entailed — as it was almost bound to in Russia — a restoration of the gentry on the land. It was also said that the masses were too illiterate and inexperienced politically to assume the tasks of government, and that until this was remedied the support and leadership of the educated classes would remain essential. The Soviets, as class-based organs, might play a role in local government but they lacked the means to run the state. What was needed now, as a preparation for the transition to socialism, was for the masses to go through the school of democracy — which for the workers, in particular, meant following the example of the European labour movements — and this could only be achieved within a liberal framework of political freedom. But this too was to impose a Western model of democracy on a country where the base for it was missing. The 'direct democracy' of the Soviets was much closer to the experience of the Russian masses — it was reminiscent of the peasant commune — and it might have served as the starting point for a new and different type of democratic order, one much more decentralized than the liberal democracy of the West, provided the Soviets were somehow combined with the broader representative bodies (e.g. the city dumas, the zemstvos and the Constituent Assembly) in a national political framework.
No doubt the Soviet leaders' rigid adherence to this dogma was in part the result of their own virginity in government. The bourgeois leaders had years of experience of legislative matters, either in the Duma or in the zemstvos. But the socialists had no real experience of government work, only the long and fruitless years of politics in semi-legal opposition and the underground. Furthermore, their party leaders were all still in exile, and it might be thought of as a 'colonels' revolt' if they assumed power. Yet should this really have been such an obstacle? For all their talk of 'principles' and 'ideology', in the end it was their instincts and their temperament that held back the Soviet leaders from taking power. They had spent so long in hostile opposition to all governmental authority that many of them could not suddenly become — or even think of themselves as — statesmen. They clung to the habits and the culture of the revolutionary underground, preferring opposition to government.
Second, the Soviet leaders were afraid that a counter-revolution, perhaps even a civil war, might be the result if they assumed power. The situation was extremely fluid; it was not yet clear whether Alexeev and the Front commanders would carry out the orders of the Tsar to put down the revolution in the capital; nor whether the revolution would spread to the provinces and the forces at the Front. As things turned out, it soon became clear that the Soviet leaders had grossly overestimated the real danger of a counter-revolution. Almost immediately Alexeev called off the planned expedition to put down the revolution in the capital, partly because he was reassured that the Duma leaders rather than the socialists would assume power, and partly because he realized that to use the troops for this would run the risk of the mutiny spreading to the army at the Front. It did not take long, moreover, for the revolution to spread to the Kronstadt Naval Base, several northern garrisons and Moscow itself. Within a few days the monarchy would fall, along with its provincial apparatus, while the army and the Church would both declare their support for the revolution. Of course none of this was yet clear on I March. The speed of events took everyone by surprise. As Iurii Steklov, one of the Soviet leaders, explained in April 1917:
at the time when this agreement [to form the Provisional Government] was contemplated, it was not at all clear as to whether the revolution would emerge victorious, either in a revolutionary-democratic form or even in a moderate-bourgeois form. Those of you, comrades, who were not here in Petrograd and did not experience this revolutionary fever cannot imagine how we lived . . . We expected from minute to minute that they [troops loyal to the Tsar] would arrive.37
Yet it is probably fair to say that in their appraisal of the situation the Soviet leaders once again allowed themselves to be over-influenced by the experience of nineteenth-century Europe. All the socialists were steeped in the history of European revolutions. They interpreted the events of 1905 and 1917 in terms of the history of 1789, 1848 and 1871, and this led them to believe that a counter-revolution must inevitably follow.
Finally, the Soviet leaders were not even certain of their own authority over the masses in the streets. They had been shocked by the violence and the hatred, the anarchic looting and the vandalism displayed by the crowds in the February Days. They were afraid that if they assumed power, that if they themselves became 'the government', all this uncontrolled anger might be redirected against them. Mstislavsky claimed that 'from the first hours of the revolution' the vast majority of the Soviet leaders were united with the members of the Temporary Committee 'by one single characteristic which determined everything else: this was their fear of the masses':
Oh, how they feared the masses! As I watched our 'socialists' speaking to the crowds ... I could feel their nauseating fear... I felt the inner trembling, and the effort of will it took not to lower their gaze before the trusting, wide-open eyes of the workers and soldiers crowded around them. As recently as yesterday it had been relatively easy to be 'representatives and leaders' of these working masses; peaceable parliamentary socialists could still utter the most bloodcurdling words 'in the name of the proletariat' without even blinking. It became a different story, however, when this theoretical proletariat suddenly appeared here, in the full power of exhausted flesh and mutinous blood. And when the truly elemental nature of this force, so capable of either creation or destruction, became tangible to even the most insensitive observer — then, almost involuntarily, the pale lips of the leaders' began to utter words of peace and compromise in place of yesterday's harangues. They were scared — and who could blame them?38
Who indeed? And yet this fear was also symptomatic of a general cowardice when it came to the responsibilities of power. It was an abdication of statesmanship. Years later Tsereteli said that the Soviet leaders in February had been childish and irresponsible. Many of them welcomed the dual power system — the source of Russia's chronic political weaknesses in 1917 — because it placed them in a good position. They were given power without responsibility; while the Provisional Government had responsibility without power.
For the majority of the Soviet leaders there was a special factor making the negotiation of a Duma government a matter of the utmost urgency. On I March the left-wing minority of the Soviet Executive (3 Bolsheviks, 2 Left SRs and I member of the Inter-District group) demanded the formation of a 'provisional revolutionary government' based on the Soviets. This resolution was supported by the Bolshevik Committee in the Vyborg district, the most proletarian in Petrograd. There was thus a real threat that, unless the Soviet majority imposed a government on the Duma leaders, the streets might impose a government on them.
At around midnight on I March a Soviet delegation (Sukhanov, Chkheidze, Sokolov and Steklov) crossed from the left to the right wing of the Tauride Palace to begin negotiations for a government with the Temporary Committee of the Duma. 'There was not the same chaos and confusion here as with us,' Sukhanov recalled, 'but the room nevertheless gave an impression of disorder: it was smoke-filled and dirty, and cigarette butts, bottles, and dirty glasses were scattered about. There were also innumerable plates, both empty and holding foods of all kinds, which made our eyes glitter and our mouths water.' Sukhanov and Miliukov, 'the boss of the right wing', did most of the talking. The enormous Rodzianko, President of the Duma, sulked in a corner drinking soda. Neither Lvov nor Kerensky, the first and the last Prime Minister of the Provisional Government respectively, had a single word to say on its establishment.
Both the Duma and the Soviet sides were pleasantly surprised by the common ground between them. Each had come prepared for a major battle. But in fact there was only one real point of conflict. Miliukov wanted the monarchy retained, albeit with Alexis as Tsar and the Grand Duke Mikhail acting as Regent. Chkheidze pointed out that the idea was 'not only unacceptable, but also Utopian, in view of the general hatred of the monarchy amongst the masses of the people'. But Miliukov did not push his point — for which there was little support among the rest of the Duma leaders — and in the end it was agreed to leave the form of government undecided until the convocation of a Constituent Assembly. Other than that there was little to discuss. Everyone agreed on the need to restore order, and on the need to form a Duma government.
The negotiations were completed in the early hours of the morning. The 'bourgeois groups', as Sukhanov put it, would be left to form a government 'on the view that this followed from the general situation and suited the interests of the revolution'. But the Soviet, 'as the only organ wielding any real power', set as the conditions for its support the following principles of government:
1 an immediate amnesty for all political prisoners;
2 the immediate granting of freedom of speech, press and assembly;
3 the immediate abolition of all restrictions based on class, religion and nationality;
4 immediate preparations for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, elected on the four-tail suffrage (universal, direct, secret and equal), to determine the form of government and the constitution of the country;
5 the abolition of all the police bodies and, in their place, the creation of a people's militia with elected officers responsible to the organs of local self-government;
6 elections to these organs on the four-tail suffrage;
7 a guarantee that the military units having taken part in the revolution would neither be disarmed nor sent to the Front;
8 recognition of full civil rights for the soldiers off-duty.39
No mention was made of the two basic issues (the war and the land) where the aims of the Soviet leaders clashed directly with those of the Duma. Given the bitter political conflicts that later emerged on these two issues (leading to the downfall of the first three cabinets), perhaps this was a crucial mistake.
This, then, was the framework of the dual power system. The Soviet would support the Provisional Government only 'in so far as' (postol'ku poskol'ku), to cite the famous phrase, it adhered to these Soviet principles; and it would act as the government's 'watchman' to make sure it did. The effect was to paralyse the Provisional Government. For it could do nothing without the support of the Soviet. Yet at the same time the Soviet's conditions created a climate of such uncontrolled freedom that there was a crying need for stronger government. As Lenin put it, Russia had become the 'freest country in the world' — and he was the first to exploit it.
The new cabinet was picked by Miliukov on 2 March, and published in the newspapers the next day, alongside a Soviet appeal 'To comrades and citizens!' calling for order and the people's support of the government. To the crowds outside the Tauride Palace the names of their new rulers were mostly unknown. All of them were from the propertied elite. Most of them had been named in the various 'ministries of confidence' proposed by the liberal opposition circles since 1915. Eight of the twelve were deputies of the Fourth Duma (and two more of earlier Dumas); seven were members of either Zemgor or the War Industries Committee; while six belonged to the same Masonic circles,* whose precise role in the February Revolution has long been the subject of historical speculation but little concrete fact.
Prince Lvov, the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior, qualified on all these counts. His wartime work in the zemstvos had won him universal respect among the liberal educated classes. It had made him into a truly national figure and this gave the government at least the pretence of being based on something broader than the Duma. Lvov, moreover, was a good team-worker, a man of practical capabilities and without strong party affiliations, and this embodied the coalition spirit for which the government claimed to stand. This was not a government of any one party — it contained elements ranging from the Octobrists to the SRs — but a government of national salvation. This non-party aspect, combined with the general softness of his character, also made Lvov the ideal figure to conciliate between the real power-brokers in his cabinet — Miliukov and Kerensky — who would otherwise have fallen out and split the government from the start. Each of them was prepared to accept Lvov, if only because it stopped the other from becoming the Prime Minister. Yet when Lvov's name was announced to the crowds some of them cried out: 'The privileged class!' One soldier shouted: 'You mean all we did was exchange a tsar for a prince?'
The name of Tereshchenko, the new Minister of Finance, was greeted by the crowds with roars of laughter. 'Who is Tereshchenko?' people asked. And well might they ask. Even the newspapers knew little about him. All they could say was that he came from the Ukraine, was twenty-nine years old and a multi-millionaire. Shingarev, the Minister of Agriculture, had risen from similar obscurity. A provincial doctor and a Kadet member of the Duma, even his closest friends were forced to admit that he was little more than a decent mediocrity. Not much more was known of Konovalov (Trade and Industry), Nekrasov (Transport) or Manuilov (Education), although Guchkov (War and Navy) and Miliukov (Foreign Affairs) were certainly household names and seemed, at first, to meet with general approval.40
Only the name of Kerensky, the one socialist in the cabinet, met with the approval of the crowd. 'The mass of the soldiers', Stankevich recalled, 'felt that Kerensky was "their" minister.' As the Vice-Chairman of the Soviet Executive, he should never have accepted — and even less have asked for — the portfolio of the Ministry of Justice. For it was the Soviet's official policy not to enter the government. Chkheidze had already turned down the offer of the Ministry of Labour. But Kerensky had his heart set on becoming a minister. Young and ambitious (he was still only thirty-five), Kerensky was convinced of his own calling to greatness, and could not bear to see this chance go by. Throughout the previous days he had been a key figure behind the scenes. He alone belonged both to the Soviet Executive and to the Duma's Temporary Committee. He had run from one wing of the Tauride Palace to the other, making himself indispensable to both. Yet it was clear where his sympathies lay: most of his time had been spent in the right wing, and he only rarely came to the Soviet to make some high-sounding speech about the 'people's revolution'. Not once did he venture on to the streets. Although convinced that he was a socialist, Kerensky was in fact a bourgeois radical, a Duma deputy and a democratic lawyer, dressed up as 'a man of the people'. Formally he belonged to the Trudovik Party. Later, when that became the thing to do, he joined the SRs. But in his heart he was not a socialist. In the Duma he always wore a morning coat with a starched dress-shirt and collar. But when he spoke in the Soviet he ripped off his collar and took off his coat to make himself look more 'proletarian'. This was not a revolutionary. It was someone, as Trotsky put it, who merely 'hung around the Revolution'.
* Lvov, Kerensky, Nekrasov, Tereshchenko, Konovalov and Guchkov. - :
Shortly after 2 p.m. on 2 March Kerensky came into the Soviet to deliver what was perhaps the most important speech of his life. He needed the assembly to endorse his decision, taken earlier that morning without its prior approval, to accept the Ministry of Justice. 'Comrades! Do you trust me?' he asked in a voice charged with theatrical pathos. 'We do, we do!' the delegates shouted. 'I speak, comrades, with all my soul, from the bottom of my heart, and if it is needed to prove this, if you do not trust me, then I am ready to die.' A wave of emotion passed through the hall. The delegates broke into prolonged applause, turning into a standing ovation. Seizing this opportunity, Kerensky claimed that he had been obliged to accept the portfolio, since the tsarist ministers 'were in my hands and I could not let them slip'. He told them that his 'first act' as the Minister of Justice had been to order the immediate release of all political prisoners and the arrangement of a hero's welcome for their return to the capital. The delegates were overcome with emotion and greeted this news with thunderous cheers. Now Kerensky turned to ask them whether they approved of his decision to join the government, offering to resign from the Soviet if the answer should be no. But there were wild cries of 'We do! We do!' and, without a formal vote, his actions were endorsed. It was a brilliant coup de theatre. What might have been the moment of his downfall had in fact become the moment of his triumph. Kerensky was now the only politician with a position in both the government and the Soviet. He was the undisputed leader of the people.41
This was to be the start of the 'Kerensky cult'. His popularity was truly enormous. 'There is only one name that unites everyone', Gippius wrote on I March, 'and that is the name of Kerensky.' During these first weeks of the revolution the workers in their factories, the sailors on their ships and the soldiers in their barracks would ask the question, 'What has Alexander Fedorovich to say?', and invariably the answer would become the final word on any given issue. Kerensky was the darling of the democratic intelligentsia. 'We loved Kerensky,' recalled Gippius. 'There was something alive, something bird-like and childish in him.' With his pale and young-looking face, his bright, keen eyes and his nervous manner, he was the perfect image of the student radical.
This almost universal adulation cannot be explained in terms of the conventional virtues of a politician. Kerensky had few of these. His career in the Duma had not been especially distinguished: he lacked the stature of Miliukov and the style of Maklakov or Fedor Rodichev. And there were other lawyers better qualified to become the Minister of Justice. But Kerensky was the ideal man for February. As Gippius put it, 'He is the right man in the right place.' For one thing, Kerensky was a great orator — not so much in the parliamentary context, which demanded eloquence and intellectual balance, but in the sense that could appeal to the crowds. His speeches were fiery and emotional. They were not concerned with detailed policies but with moral principles and spiritual values. They often sounded more like the preachings of a priest than the prescripts of a politician. In his youth Kerensky had wanted to become an actor. His speeches were full of dramatic pathos, theatrical gestures and even fainting fits (these were genuine but Kerensky somehow managed to time them to coincide with the climax of his speech). All this tugged on the heart-strings of his listeners. Kerensky expressed and came to stand for the sentiment of national unity, for the peoples resurrection, which the February Revolution was supposed to be. He was called the 'poet of freedom'; the 'heart of the nation'; the 'spirit of the people'; the 'saviour of the fatherland'; and the 'first love of the revolution'.42
It is perhaps not surprising that such a cult of the personality should have appeared in these first euphoric days of the revolution. People fell in love with 'the revolution', and this rubbed off on its leader', Kerensky. The institutions, the psychology, even the language of democracy had yet to be rooted in Russia's virgin political soil. Most of the people still conceived of politics in monarchical terms. This, after all, was a land of Tsars. Even before Nicholas's abdication, the Russian people had their new 'Tsar'.