The Provisional Government: a ‘union of the landlords and bourgeoisie’

The belated Russian bourgeoisie, separated from the people, bound up much more closely with foreign finance capital than with its own toiling masses, hostile to the revolution which had triumphed, could not in its own name find a single justification for its pretence to power. And yet some justification was necessary, for the revolution was subjecting to a ruthless examination not only inherited rights but new claims. Least of all capable of presenting convincing arguments to the masses was the President of the Provisional Committee, Rodzianko, who arrived at the head of the revolutionary nation during the first days of the uprising.

A page in the court of Alexander II, an officer of the Cavalier Guard, head of the nobles of his province, Lord Chamberlain under Nicholas II, a monarchist through and through, a rich landlord and agrarian administrator, a member of the Octobrist Party, a deputy in the State Duma, Rodzianko was finally elected its president. This happened after the resignation of Guchkov, who was hated by the court as a “Young Turk.” The Duma hoped that through the mediation of the Lord Chamberlain it would find easier access to the heart of the monarch. Rodzianko did what he could: sincerely enough assured the czar of his loyalty to the dynasty, begged the honour of being presented to the Heir Apparent, and introduced himself to the latter as “the biggest and fattest man in Russia.” In spite of all his Byzantine clowning, the Lord Chamberlain did not win over the czar to the constitution, and the czarina briefly referred to Rodzianko in her letters as a scoundrel. During the war the President of the Duma undoubtedly gave the czar not a few unpleasant moments, cornering him when making personal reports and filling his ears with prolix exhortations, patriotic criticisms and gloomy forebodings. Rasputin considered Rodzianko a personal enemy. Kurlov, who was close to the court gang, speaks of Rodzianko’s “insolence combined with obvious limitations.” Witte spoke in better terms, although condescendingly, of the President of the Duma: “Not a stupid man, rather sensible; but still Rodzianko’s chief talent lies not in his mind but his voice-he has an excellent bass.” At first Rodzianko tried to put down the revolution with the help of the fire-hose; he wept when he found out that the government of Count Golytsin had abandoned its post; declined with terror the power which the socialists offered him; afterwards decided to take it, but only in order as a loyal subject to restore the lost property as soon as possible to the monarch. It wasn’t Rodzianko’s fault if that opportunity never arrived. However the revolution – with the help of the socialists – did offer the Lord Chamberlain a grand opportunity to exercise his thunderous bass before the revolting troops. As early as the 27th of February this retired Captain of the Guard said to a cavalier regiment which had come to the Tauride Palace: “Christian warriors, hearken to my counsel. I am an old man; I will not deceive you – obey your officers – they will not teach you evil, and will act in full agreement with the State Duma. Long live holy Russia!” Such a revolution as that would have been agreeable to all the Guard officers, but the soldiers couldn’t help wondering what was the use making such a revolution. Rodzianko feared the soldiers; feared the workers, considered Cheidze and other left deputies German agents, and while he stood at the head of the revolution kept looking around every few minutes to see whether the Soviet was going to arrest him.

The figure of Rodzianko was a little funny, but by no means accidental. This Lord Chamberlain with an excellent bass personified the union of the two ruling classes of Russia, the landlords and the bourgeoisie, with the progressive priesthood adhering to them. Rodzianko himself was very pious and expert in hymn singing – and the liberal bourgeoisie, whatever its attitude towards Greek orthodoxy, considered a union with the church just as necessary to law and order as a union with the monarchy. The venerable monarchist, having received the power from the hands of conspirators, rebels and tyrannicides, wore a haunted expression in those days. And the other members of the Provisional committee felt but little better. Some of them never appeared at the Tauride Palace at all, considering that the situation had not yet sufficiently defined itself. The wisest of them sneaked on tiptoe round the blaze of the revolution, choking from the smoke, and saying to themselves: let it burn down to the coals, then we’ll try to cook up something. Although it agreed to accept the power, the Committee did not immediately decide to form a ministry. “Awaiting the proper moment for the formation of a government” – as Miliukov expresses it – the Committee confined itself to the naming of commissars from the membership of the Duma to the principal governmental departments. That left them a chance to retreat. …

1917 poster of the first Provisional Government: Representatives of capitalism and feudalism adorn themselves with revolutionary imagery. 

The axis of the Provisional Government, although not formally its head, was Miliukov, the indubitable leader of the Kadet Party. “Miliukov was incomparably above his colleagues in the cabinet,” wrote the Kadet Nabokov, after he had broken with Miliukov, “as an intellectual force, as a man of enormous, almost inexhaustible knowledge and wide intelligence.” Sukhanov, while blaming Miliukov personally for the wreck of Russian liberalism, nevertheless wrote: “Miliukov was then the central figure, the soul and brain of all the bourgeois political circles … Without him there would have been no bourgeois policy in the first period of the revolution.” In spite of their slightly exalted tone, these reports truly indicate the superiority of Miliukov to the other political men of the Russian bourgeoisie. His strength lay, and his weakness too, in this: he expressed more fully and elegantly than others in the language of politics the fate of the Russian bourgeoisie – the fact that it caught historically in a blind alley. The Mensheviks wept because Miliukov ruined liberalism, but it would be truer to say that liberalism ruined Miliukov.

In spite of his Neo-Slavism warmed over for imperialistic purposes, Miliukov always remained a bourgeois “Westerner.” The goal of his party was always the triumph in Russia of European civilisation. But the farther he went, the more he feared those revolutionary paths upon which the Western peoples were travelling. His “Westernism” therefore reduced itself to an impotent envy of the West.

The English and French bourgeoisie created a new society in their own image. The Germans came later, and they were compelled to live for a long time on the pale gruel of philosophy. The Germans invented the phrase “speculative world,” which does not exist in English or French. While these nations were creating a new world the Germans were thinking one up. But the German bourgeoisie, although poor in political activity, created the classical philosophy, and that is no small achievement. Russia came much later. To be sure, she translated the German phrase “speculative world” into Russian, and that with several variations, but this only the more clearly exposed both her political impotence and her deadly philosophical poverty. She imported ideas as well as machines, establishing high tariffs for the latter, and for the former a quarantine of fear. To these characteristics of his class Miliukov was called to give a political expression.

A former Moscow professor of history, author of significant scholarly works, founder of the Kadet Party – a union of the liberal landlords and the left intelligentsia – Miliukov was completely free from that insufferable, half-aristocratic and half-intellectual political dilettantism which is proper to the majority of Russian liberal men of politics. Miliukov took his profession very seriously and that alone distinguished him.

Before 1905, the Russian liberals were customarily embarrassed about being liberal. A tinge of Narodnikism, and later of Marxism, long served them as a defensive colouration. This rather shallow, shamefaced capitulation to socialism on the part of wide bourgeois circles, among them a number of young industrialists, expressed the lack of self-confidence of a class which appeared soon enough to concentrate millions in its hands, but too late to stand at the head of the nation. The bearded fathers, wealthy peasants and shopkeepers, had piled up their money, thinking nothing of their social rôle. Their sons graduated from the university in the period of pre-revolutionary intellectual ferment, and when they tried to find their place in society, they were in no hurry to adopt the banner of liberalism, already worn out in advanced countries, patched and half faded. For a period of time they gave a part of their souls, and even a part of their incomes, to the revolutionists. This is especially true of the representatives of the liberal professions. A very considerable number of them passed through a stage of socialistic sympathy in their youth. Professor Miliukov never had these measles. He was organically bourgeois and not ashamed of it.

It is true that at the time of the first revolution, Miliukov did not wholly renounce the idea of utilising the revolutionary masses – with the help of tame and well-trained socialist parties. Witte relates that when he was forming his constitutional cabinet in October 1905, and appealed to the Kadets to “cut off their revolutionary tail,” the answer was that they could no more get along without the armed forces of the revolution than Witte could without the army. In the essence of the matter, this was a bluff even then: in order to raise their own price, the Kadets tried to frighten Witte with the masses whom they themselves feared. It was precisely the experience of 1905 which convinced Miliukov that, no matter how strong the liberal sympathies of the socialist groups of the intelligentsia might be, the genuine forces of the revolution, the masses, would never give up their weapons to the bourgeoisie, and would be the more dangerous the better armed they were. When he declared openly that the red flag is a red rag, Miliukov ended to everybody’s relief a romance which in reality nobody had seriously begun. The isolation of the so-called intelligentsia from the people has been one of the traditional themes of Russian journalism – and by “intelligentsia” the liberals, in contrast with the socialists, mean all the “educated,” that is, possessing, classes. Ever since that isolation proved such a calamity to the liberals in the first revolution, the ideologues of the “educated” masses have lived in a kind of perpetual expectation of the judgment day. One of the liberal writers, a philosopher not restrained by the exigencies of politics, has expressed this fear of the masses with an ecstatic force which reminds us of the epileptic reactionism of Dostoyevsky: “Whatever we stand for, we must not dream of uniting with the people – we must fear them more than all the persecutions of the government, and we must give thanks to the government which alone protects us with its prisons and bayonets from the ferocity of the people.” With such political feelings, could the liberals possibly dream of leading a revolutionary nation? Miliukov’s whole policy is marked with a stamp of hopelessness. At the moment of national crisis his party thinks about dodging the blow, not dealing it.

As a writer, Miliukov is heavy, prolix and wearisome. He has the same quality as an orator. Decorativeness is unnatural to him. That might have been an advantage, if the niggardly policies of Miliukov had not so obviously needed a disguise or if they had had, at least, an objective disguise in the shape of a great tradition. There was not even a little tradition. The official policy in France – quintessence of bourgeois perfidy and egotism – has two mighty allies: tradition and rhetoric. Each promoting the other, they surround with a defensive covering any bourgeois politician, even such a prosaic clerk of the big proprietors as Poincare. It is not Miliukov’s fault if he had no glorious ancestors, and if he was compelled to conduct a policy of bourgeois egotism on the borders of Europe and Asia.

“Along with a sympathy for Kerensky,” we read in the memoirs of the Social Revolutionary, Sokolov, “one felt from the beginning an immense and unconcealed, and yet rather strange, antipathy for Miliukov. I did not understand, and do not now, why that respectable social reformer was so unpopular.” If the Philistines had understood the cause of their admiration for Kerensky and their distaste for Miliukov, they would have ceased to be Philistines. The everyday bourgeois did not like Miliukov, because Miliukov too prosaically and soberly, without adornment, expressed the political essence of the Russian bourgeoisie. Beholding himself in the Miliukov mirror, the bourgeois saw that he was grey, self-interested and cowardly; and, as so often happens, he took offence at the mirror.

On his side, observing the displeased grimaces of the liberal bourgeois, Miliukov quietly and confidently remarked: “The everyday man is a fool.” He pronounced these words without irritation, almost caressingly, as though to say: He does not understand me to day, but never mind, he will understand later. Miliukov was deeply confident that the bourgeoisie would not betray him, that it would obey the logic of the situation and follow, for it had no other way to go. And in reality, after the February revolution, all the bourgeois parties, even those to, the right, followed the Kadet leader, abusing and even cursing him.

It was very different with the democratic politicians of a socialist colouring, men of the type of Sukhanov. This was no ordinary Philistine, but on the contrary a professional man-of-politics, sufficiently expert in his small trade. He could never look intelligent, because one saw too plainly the continual contrast between what he wanted, and what he arrived at. But he intellectualised and blundered and bored. In order to lead him after you, it was necessary to deceive him by acknowledging his genuine independence, even accusing him of being self-willed, excessively given to command. That flattered him and reconciled him to the rôle of helper. It was in conversation with just these socialistic highbrows that Miliukov tossed out that phrase: “The everyday man is a fool.” This was delicate flattery: “Only you and I are intelligent.” As a matter of fact, at that very moment Miliukov was hooking a ring in the noses of his democratic friends. By that ring they were subsequently led out of the way.

His personal unpopularity prevented Miliukov from standing at the head of the government. He took the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had been his speciality in the Duma.

The War Minister of the revolution was the big Moscow industrialist, Guchkov, already known to us – in his youth a liberal with an adventurous temperament, but afterwards, in the period of the defeat of the first revolution, the trusted man of the big bourgeoisie under Stolypin. The dissolution of the two first Dumas, dominated by the Kadets, led to the governmental overturn of the 3rd of June 1907, which changed the election law to the benefit of the party of Guchkov. It became the leader of the two subsequent Dumas and continued so right up to the day of the revolution. In Kiev in 1911, at the unveiling of a monument to Stolypin who was killed by a terrorist, Guchkov, in placing a wreath, bowed silently down to the ground: a gesture in the name of his class. In the Duma, Guchkov dedicated himself chiefly to the question of “military might,” and in preparing for war walked hand-in-hand with Miliukov. In the position of President of the Central Military Industrial Committee, Guchkov united the industrialists under the banner of a patriotic opposition – not however preventing the leaders of the Progressive Bloc, including Rodzianko, from getting a rake-off on military contracts. For revolutionary recommendation there was attached to Guchkov’s name that semi-legend about the plot of a palace revolution. A former chief of police asserted, moreover, that Guchkov “had permitted himself in private conversations about the monarch to employ an epithet insulting in the highest degree.” That was very likely true, but in that Guchkov was no exception. The pious czarina hated Guchkov, lavished crude abuse upon him in her letters, and expressed the hope that he would hang “on a high tree.” But the czarina had many others in view for this same high position. Somehow, at any rate, this man who bowed to the earth in honour of the hangman of the first revolution became the War Minister of the second.

The Minister of Agriculture was the Kadet Shingarev, a provincial doctor who had subsequently become a deputy in the Duma. His close associates in the party considered him an honest mediocrity or, as Nabokov expressed it, “a Russian provincial intellectual, designed on a small-town or county, rather than a national, scale.” The indefinite radicalism of his early years had long washed away, and the chief anxiety of Shingarev was to demonstrate his statesmanlike maturity to the possessing classes. Although the old Kadet program spoke of the “confiscation with just indemnity of the landed estates,” none of the property owners took this program seriously especially now in the years of the war inflation. And Shingarev made it his chief task to delay the decision of the agrarian problem, deluding the peasants with the mirage of a Constituent Assembly which the Kadets did not want to summon. On the land question and the question of war, the February revolution was destined to break its neck. Shingarev helped all he could.

The portfolio of Finance was given to a young man named Tereshchenko. “Where did they get him?” everybody was inquiring with bewilderment in the Tauride Palace. The well-informed explained that this was an owner of sugar factories, estates, forests, and other innumerable properties, worth some eighty million roubles in gold, president of the Military-Industrial Committee of Kiev, possessed of a good French pronunciation, and on top of it all a connoisseur of the ballet. And they added – more importantly – that as the favourite of Guchkov, Tereshchenko had almost taken part in the great conspiracy which was to have overthrown Nicholas II. The revolution which prevented that conspiracy was of great help to Tereshchcenko.

In the course of those five February days when the revolutionary fight was being waged in the cold streets of the capital, there flitted before us several times like a shadow the figure of a liberal of noble family, the son of a former czarist minister, Nabokov – almost symbolic in his self-satisfied correctness and dry egotism. Nabokov passed the decisive days of the insurrection within the four walls of the chancellery, or his home, “in dull and anxious expectancy.” He now became General Administrator of the Provisional Government, actually a minister without portfolio. In his Berlin exile where he was finally killed by the stray bullet of a White Guard, he left memoirs of the Provisional Government which are not without interest. Let us place that to his credit.

But we have forgotten to mention the Prime Minister – whom, by the way, in the most serious moments of his brief term everybody forgot. On March 2, in recommending the new government to a meeting at the Tauride Palace, Miliukov described Prince Lvov as “the incarnation of the Russian social consciousness so persecuted by the czarist régime.” Later, in his history of the revolution, Miliukov prudently remarks that at the head of the government was placed Prince Lvov, “personally little known to the majority of the Provisional Committee.” The historian here tries to relieve the politician of responsibility for this choice. As a matter of fact, the prince had long been a member of the Kadet Party, belonging to its right wing. After the dissolution of the first Duma, at that famous meeting of the deputies at Vyborg which addressed the population with the ritual of offended liberalism: “Refuse to pay the taxes!” Prince Lvov attended but did not sign the appeal. Nabokov relates that immediately upon his arrival at Vyborg the prince fell sick, and his sickness was “attributed to the emotional condition in which he found himself.” The prince was evidently not built for revolutionary excitement. This moderate prince, owing to a political indifference that looked like broadmindedness, tolerated in the organisations which he administered a large number of left intellectuals, former revolutionists, socialistic patriots, and draft-dodgers. They worked just as well as the bureaucrats, did not graft, and moreover created for the prince a simulacrum of popularity. A prince, a rich man, and a liberal that was very impressive to the average bourgeois. For that reason Prince Lvov was marked for the premiership even under the czar. To sum it all up in a word, the head of the government of the February revolution was an illustrious but notoriously empty spot. Rodzianko would at least have been more colourful.

The legendary history of the Russian state begins with a tale in the Chronicle to the effect that delegates of the Slavic tribes went to the Scandinavian princes with the request: “Come and rule and be princes over us.” The pitiable representatives of the social democracy transformed this historic legend into a fact – not in the ninth but in the twentieth century, and with this difference, that they did not address themselves to princes over the sea, but to their own home princes. Thus as a result of a victorious insurrection of workers and soldiers, there appeared at the helm of government a handful of the very richest landlords and industrialists, remarkable for less than nothing, political dilettantes without a program and at the head of them a prince with a strong dislike for excitement.

The composition of the new government was greeted with satisfaction in the Allied embassies, in the bourgeois and bureaucratic salons, and in the broader circles of the middle, and part of the petty, bourgeoisie. Prince Lvov, Octobrist Guchkov, Kadet Miliukov – those names sounded reassuring. The name of Kerensky perhaps caused some eyebrows to rise among the Allies, but they were not badly frightened. The more far-seeing understood: after all, there is a revolution in the country; with such a steady wheel-horse as Miliukov, a mettlesome team-mate can only be helpful. Thus the French ambassador Paléologue, a great lover of Russian metaphors, must have expressed it.

Among the workers and soldiers the composition of the government created an immediate feeling of hostility, or at the best a dumb bewilderment. The name of Miliukov or Guchkov did not evoke one voice of greeting in either factory or barrack. There exists no little testimony to this. Officer Mstislavisky reports the sullen alarm of his soldiers at the news that the power had passed from czar to prince: Is that worth shedding blood for? Stankevich, one of Kerensky’s intimate circle, made the rounds of his sapper battalion, company by company, recommending the new government, which he himself considered best possible and of which he spoke with great enthusiasm. “But I felt a coolness in the audience.” Only when the officer mentioned Kerensky did the soldiers “kindle with sincere satisfaction.” By that time the bourgeois social opinion of the capital had already converted Kerensky into the central hero of the revolution. The soldiers even more than the workers desired to see in Kerensky a counterpoise to the bourgeois government, and only wondered why he was there alone. Kerensky was not a counterpoise, however, but a finishing touch, a screen, a decoration. He was defending the same interests as Miliukov, but with magnesium flashlights.

L.D. Trotsky, “The New Power,” The History of the Russian Revolution


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