Kerensky’s military offensive & the Soviet congress

The offensive promised by the staff to the Allies for early spring had been postponed from week to week. But now the Entente firmly refused to accept any further postponements. In pressing for an immediate offensive the Allies did not mince methods. Along with the pathetic adjurations of Vandervelde, they employed the threat to stop sending military supplies. The Italian consul-general in Moscow announced to the press – not the Italian, but the Russian press – that in case of a separate peace on the part of Russia, the Allies would give Japan a free hand in Siberia. The liberal papers – not the Rome, but the Moscow papers – printed these insolent threats with patriotic rapture, making them apply not to a separate peace, but to a delayed offensive. In other respects the Allies did not stand upon ceremony: for instance, they sent artillery that was known to he damaged. Thirty-five per cent of the weapons received from abroad did not survive two weeks of moderate shooting. England was shutting down on credits; but then America, the new benefactor, without the knowledge of England, offered the Provisional Government on the security of the new offensive a credit of $75,000,000. Although supporting the demands of the Allies by waging a frantic agitation for the offensive, the Russian bourgeoisie withheld its own confidence from the offensive by refusing to subscribe the Liberty loan. The overthrown monarchy utilized this incident to remind the public of its existence. In a declaration in the name of the Provisional Government, Romanov expressed a desire to subscribe to the loan, but added: “The extent of the subscription will depend on the question whether the treasury supplies money to support the members of the czar’s family.” All this was read by the army, which knew very well that the majority of the Provisional Government, as also a majority of the upper officers, were still hoping for a restoration. Justice demands the observation that in the Allied camp not all agreed with Vandervelde, Thomas and Cachin in pushing the Russian army over the precipice. There were warning voices. “The Russian army is nothing but façade,” said General Pétain, “it will fall to pieces if it makes move.” The American mission, for another example, expressed the view. But other considerations prevailed. It was necessary to take the heart out of the revolution. “The German fraternization,” explained Painlevé later, “had caused such ravages that to leave the Russian army inactive would o risk its rapid disintegration.” The political preparation for the offensive was at first carried on by Kerensky and Tseretelli, in secrecy even from their closest colleagues. In the days when these half-consecrated leaders were still continuing to spout about the defense of the revolution, Tseretelli was more and more firmly insisting on the necessity that the army make ready for active service. The longest to resist-that is, the coyest-was Chernov. At a meeting of the Provisional Government on May 17, the “rural minister,” as he called himself, was asked with heat whether it was true that he had expressed himself at a certain meeting on the subject of the offensive without the necessary sympathy. It transpired that Chernov answered as follows: “The offensive does not concern me, a man of polities; that is a question for the strategists at the front.” Those people were playing hide-and-seek with the war, as with the revolution. But only for the time being.

Minister of War Alexander Kerensky greets troops on the eve of the  disastrous 1917 military offensive.

The preparation for the offensive was accompanied, of course, by a redoubled struggle against the Bolsheviks. They were being accused now of oftener and oftener of working for a separate peace. The possibility that a separate peace would be the only way out, was evident in the whole situation-the weakness and exhaustion of Russia in comparison with the other warring countries. But nobody had yet measured the strength of the new factor, revolution. The Bolsheviks believed that the prospect of a separate peace could be avoided only in case the force and authority of revolution were boldly and conclusively set against the war. For this was needed first of all a break with our own bourgeoisie. On June 9, Lenin announced at the congress of the soviets: “When they say that we are striving for a separate peace, that is not true. We say: No separate peace, not with any capitalists, and least of all with the Russian capitalists. But the Provisional Government has made a separate peace with the Russian capitalists. Down with that separate peace!” “Applause,” remarks the report. That was the applause of a small minority at the congress, and for that reason especially fervent.

In the Executive Committee some still lacked decision, others wanted to hide behind the more authoritative institutions. At the last moment it was resolved to bring to Kerensky’s attention the undesirability of giving the order for the offensive before the question had been decided upon by the soviet congress. A declaration introduced at the very first session of the congress by the Bolshevik faction had stated: “An offensive can only, utterly disorganize the army, bringing one part into antagonism with the other, and the Congress should either immediately oppose this counter-revolutionary onslaught, or else frankly assume the whole responsibility for this policy.”

The decision of the soviet congress in favor of the offensive was merely a democratic formality. Everything was already prepared. The artillery had for a long time been aimed at the enemy’s positions. On June 16 [June 29 on the modern calendar], in an order to the army and the fleet, Kerensky, referring to the commander-in-chief as “our leader fanned by the wings of victory,” demonstrated the necessity of “an immediate and decisive blow,” and concluded with the words “I command you – forward!” In an article written on the eve of the offensive, commenting on the declaration of the Bolshevik faction at the soviet congress, Trotsky wrote: “The policy of the government completely undermines the possibility of successful military action … The material premises for an offensive are extremely unfavorable. The organisation of supplies for the army reflects the general economic collapse, against which a government constituted like the present one cannot undertake a single radical measure. The spiritual premises of the offensive are still more unfavorable. The government … has exposed before the army … its incapacity to determine Russia’s policy independently of the will of the imperialist Allies. No result is possible but the progressive breakdown of the army … The mass desertions … are ceasing in the present conditions to be the result of depraved individual wills, and are becoming an expression of the complete incapacity of the government to weld the revolutionary army with inward unity of purpose …” Pointing out further that the government could not make up its mind “to an immediate annulment of landlordship – that is, to the sole measure which would convince the most backward peasant that this revolution is his revolution,” the article concluded: “In such material and spiritual conditions an offensive must inevitably have the character of an adventure.”

The commanding staff was almost unanimous in thinking that the offensive, hopeless from a military point of view, was dictated by political considerations. Denikin after making the rounds of his front reported to Brussilov: “I haven’t the slightest belief in the success of the offensive.” A supplementary element of hopelessness was introduced by the good-for-nothingness of the commanding staff itself. Stankevich, an officer and a patriot, testifies that the technical dispositions of things made victory impossible regardless of the morale of the troops: “The offensive was organised in a manner beneath criticism.” A delegation of officers came to the leaders of the Kadet Party with the president of the officers’ union, the Kadet Novosiltsev, at its head, and warned them that the offensive was doomed to failure, and would mean only the extermination of the best units. The higher powers waved away these warnings with general phrases: “A last spark of hope remains,” said the chief of the headquarters staff, the reactionary general Lukomsky, “that perhaps a beginning of successful battles will change the psychology of the masses, and the officers will be able to seize the reins that have been torn from their hands.” That was their main purpose to get hold of those reins.

The chief blow was to be delivered, according to a plan worked out long before, by the forces of the south-western front in the direction of Lvov; the work of the northern and western fronts was to help this operation. The advance was to have begun simultaneously on all fronts. It was soon evident that this plan was far beyond the powers of the command. They decided to start off one front after the other, beginning with those of secondary importance. But that too proved impossible. “Then the supreme command,” says Denikin, “decided to give up all idea of planned strategy, and had to allow the fronts to begin operations whenever they were ready.” All was left to the will of Providence. Only the icons of the czarina were lacking. They tried to replace them with the icons of democracy. Kerensky traveled everywhere, appealing and pronouncing benedictions. The offensive began: June 16 [June 29] on the south western front, July 7 [July 20] on the western, July 9 [July 22] on the Romanian. The advance of the last three fronts was in reality fictitious, coinciding with the beginning of the collapse of the principal one, the south-western.

Kerensky reported to the Provisional Government: “Today is the great triumph of the revolution. On June 18th [July 1] the Russian revolutionary army with colossal enthusiasm assumed the offensive.” “The long expected advance has arrived,” wrote the Kadet organ Rech, “which has at one stroke restored the Russian revolution to its best days.” On the 19th [July 2] the old man Plekhanov acclaimed to a patriotic manifestation: “Citizens, if I ask you what day this is, you will say ‘Monday.’ But that is a mistake. Today is the resurrection day. Resurrection of our country and of the whole world. Russia, having thrown off the yoke of czarism, has decided to throw off the yokes of the enemy.” Tseretelli said on the same day at the soviet congress: “A new page is opening in the history of the great Russian revolution. The success of our revolutionary army ought to be welcomed not only by the Russian democracy, but … by all those who are really striving to fight against imperialism.” The patriotic democracy had opened all its taps. The newspapers meanwhile carried joyful news: “The Paris Bourse greets the Russian offensive with a rise in all Russian securities.” Those socialists were trying to estimate the stability of the revolution by the stock-ticker. But history teaches that bourses feel better the worse it goes with revolutions.

The workers and the garrison of the capital were not for one minute infected by this wave of artificially warmed-over patriotism. Its sole arena was the Nevsky Prospect. “We went out on the Nevsky,” relates the soldier Chinenov in his memoirs, “and tried to agitate against the offensive. Some of the bourgeois took after us with their umbrellas… We grabbed them and dragged them into the barracks … and told them that tomorrow they would be sent to the front.” That was a preliminary symptom of the advancing explosion of civil war. The July days were drawing near.

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


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