“Civil War and Anarchy”: The Revolution Unravels

Russian and Austrian soldiers fraternising. From Allan K. Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army, Volume II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987)

One key aspect of the Provisional Government’s foreign policy was its continued commitment to the wartime Alliance. Given that large swathes of the Russian population no longer wished to prolong the fighting – and given that military discipline was no longer completely enforceable – such a policy was increasingly difficult to implement. Miliukov’s note, which reaffirmed Russia’s involvement in World War I on the basis of imperialist goals, had led directly to the downfall of the first post-revolutionary Cabinet. To justify Russia’s involvement, subsequent Cabinets changed tack by emphasising national defence, duty and unity.

Chinese ambassador Liu Jingren reported faithfully on these new developments, though not without a healthy dose of scepticism. Here, we look at two of his messages from May 1917.





A 9 May proclamation by the Government read, in essence:

‘After the toppling of autocracy, since the nation’s very life was involved, we shouldered immense difficulties in the hope of progressing in unity with our countrymen. Yet in recent times, factions have split off and slander abounds. Although only a minority is involved, a spark can still set the plains ablaze. We hope that our countrymen may look upon us in good faith and endow us with full powers to overcome our difficulties, such that we may all enjoy freedom and happiness,’ etc.

Yesterday the Duma [sic] held its opening meeting, which was the first of its final session. The chairman’s speech dealt earnestly with the danger of the situation, exhorting soldiers and citizens to serve their country and trust the government, as well as fulfil their duty towards the Allies in order to vanquish the whole country’s common enemy.

In my opinion, one must note that although the government is supported by the majority, the power of the opposing factions is not weak either and the government is in dire straits. Hence the move to make the aforementioned declaration and convene the Duma [sic].

Telegram from Liu Jingren, 18 May 1917 (sent 11 May). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 96.
Meeting of members of pre-revolutionary Dumas, 10 May 1917. Source.



My considered report on the recent situation in Russia is as follows:

Ever since the principle of liberty was declared, many people have exceeded the ordinary bounds of behaviour. Germany and Austria have taken the opportunity to adopt the label of socialism and allow their front-line soldiers to mingle, speak to each other and fraternise. This trend has spread nearly everywhere. When the number of immobile troops grows large, both sides do not attack each other. Regardless of whether there will be a treaty, this is almost practically a ceasefire. Moreover the Germans are now moving troops to put pressure on France. They have nothing to worry about from the East, that much is clear.

Telegram from Liu Jingren, 22 May 1917 (sent 18 May). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 99.

The first message refers to two events. The former was the 9 May (26 April O.S.) Declaration of the Provisional Government Reviewing its Accomplishments and Calling for the Support and Cooperation of All the Vital Forces in the Nation (English version here, partial Russian version here). Written by Kadet leader F.F. Kokoshkin, it spoke starkly of the immense difficulties facing the Provisional Government, breaking with the earlier mood of revolutionary optimism: “Before Russian rises the terrible apparition of civil war and anarchy, carrying destruction to freedom (Перед Россиею встает страшный призрак междоусобной войны и анархии, несущей гибель свободы).” Its proposed solution was for the Provisional Government to be fully empowered to restore social order – in other words, an end not only to civilian lawlessness, but also to the circumstances of Dual Power shared with the Petrograd Soviet and the latter’s authority within the army.

The second was not a Duma (國會) session per se, but an extraordinary meeting of all members of pre-revolutionary Dumas presided over by M.V. Rodzianko. Rodzianko absolutely disavowed the prospect of a separate peace, emphasising instead both internal and external threats to Russia (“Отечество в опасности. Ему грозят со всех сторон. Нашествие вражье и внутренняя неурядица, тяжелое наследство пережитых мрачных дней грозят устоям гостдарства”). Further discussions at the meeting only served to underscore Russia’s political fragmentation: Mutinies in the army, anarchy in the countryside, class conflict and bolshevik agitation. There was even a return to Miliukov’s iconic 1916 Duma speech, “Is this stupidity or treason?”, this time with the accusation pointed firmly towards the advocates of class conflict.

Unsurprisingly, Liu’s report was not sanguine about the Provisional Government’s future.  His second message, sent only a week after the first, only confirmed the steady disintegration of power in the army, a trend which he linked to German-sponsored socialist agitators. Any move towards a ceasefire would, of course, have a direct impact on the Allies’ attitude to the Provisional Government. China would then have to follow suit, given its growing connections to the Alliance and pre-existing diplomatic obligations towards Britain, France and Japan. Henceforth, although Liu continued to work with both Kerensky’s government and the Petrograd Soviet to safeguard Chinese workers, it seems that his relations with the Russian authorities were no longer as cordial as they had been under Miliukov.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the looming prospect of “civil war and anarchy”, Kerensky was determined to carry on fighting the war. Two months later, the Russian army would undertake a last-ditch offensive in Galicia, as much to revive its crumbling morale as to fulfil diplomatic commitments. Nevertheless, it failed to stem the decline mentioned in Liu’s messages, and the Provisional Government would be wracked by yet another political crisis in July.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s