USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Spring/Summer 1917

Throughout the spring of 1917 a general shift in the direction of the Provisional Government took shape. Largely because the responsibility to govern fell on their shoulders, members of the Provisional Government began to reject mass politics in favor of a return, or partial return, to an elite brand of decision-making. Meanwhile, the soviets (workers’ councils) became the location of popular politics and popular support. Lenin, a crafty political operator, realized that the path to power ran not through the Provisional Government or any elected assembly that might come out of it, but through the soviets. Control of the soviets became the centerpiece of Bolshevik strategy.  What’s more, the first act of the Petrograd soviet was the famous Order No. 1, which gave the soviets equal authority on all issues related to the armed forces. This dual control over the use of force meant that from the beginning the ultimate authority of the Provisional Government rested on compromise with the soviets. When this ability to compromise broke down, the Provisional Government’s days were numbered.

July was a key month in the history of the fateful year of 1917. Workers and peasants were becoming increasingly angry over the country’s state of affairs. The war was still raging in the west with the Germans slowly advancing, casualties mounting, and the domestic industrial and agricultural sectors taking huge hits in productivity because of the loss of territory and manpower to the war effort. Little popular will existed either in the villages or the cities for a continuation of the war policy. And yet, the stark reality was that the German army was advancing into Russian territory and the Russian people and the leadership of the Provisional Government recognized that the army had to stay in the field until they had brought about a negotiated peace.

Instead of attempting to find a way out of the war, which much of the population demanded, the new minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, made the decision to redouble military efforts. In late June and early July, 1917, the military organized and launched a major offensive against the Germans. It was a colossal failure and resulted in an estimated 200,000 Russian casualties. In the wake of this devastation, the German army counter-attacked and steadily won ground. Russian forces began to vanish in huge numbers, deserting the army and melting away into the countryside. From the end of the failed July offensive (Kerensky Offensive), Russia’s fate in the war was sealed.
Colossal military failure, combined with the hardships it created on the home front, resulted in mass protests in Petrograd during the first days of July, an event known as the “July Days.” These were spontaneous and leaderless protests. Groups of workers and soldiers called upon the Bolsheviks, as the only true antiwar party, to take power, but Lenin feared that a coup at this stage would be premature and held off. Still, the Provisional Government reacted by imprisoning some of the Bolshevik leaders, including Leon Trotsky. Lenin fled in disguise to a hiding place in neighboring Finland.

The July Days left the Provisional Government much weaker than before. Workers and soldiers increasingly saw the soviets as the legitimate representatives of the people. On the political right, the military elite was now fed up with the Provisional Government’s tolerance for socialists and its failed war policies. In August, General Kornilov, appointed by Kerensky to carry out reforms of the army, attempted to march on Petrograd, overthrow the Provincial Government, and break the power of the soviets. The Provisional Government’s position was truly difficult, facing militant forces on all sides and deep reservoirs of popular unrest. The “Kornilov Affair,” as the coup attempt became to be known, also failed. It failed because Kornilov lost the loyalty of his forces, which in the end refused to march on the city. Workers and soldiers from within Petrograd had gone out to meet Kornilov's forces beyond the city and had convinced them not to put down the revolution. What is important to note here is this: the popular resistance against Kornilov and his coup attempt did not come from the Provisional Government or from those parties in control of the Petrograd soviet. Resistance came from the workers themselves and from the Bolshevik Party, which made great gains in the aftermath. The Kornilov Affair once again undermined the Provisional Government’s authority. This was just one more stage in the Provisional Government losing the ability to project or control force. The ability to project violence or force was now quite fragmented; it belonged to the Provisional Government, to be sure, but also to the military elite, the soviets, groups of sailors, spontaneous workers’ protests, and to some of the major political parties, like the Bolsheviks.

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