In summer 1917 there seemed to be no end to Russia’s political crises. Kerensky’s Offensive in early July not only failed to promote a lasting surge of patriotic feeling, but also ended in failure within a week of its launch. Inflation and the threat of unemployment continued unabated, while rumours of price speculation and sabotage added to the atmosphere of mistrust. The Provisional Government itself was bitterly divided over fundamental issues of agrarian reform. Having experienced the power of direct action on multiple occasions, radical soldiers and workers were primed for another mass demonstration. The result was the July Days, an attempt by workers and the soldiers and sailors of Kronstadt to force a transfer of power to the Petrograd Soviet.
Six thousand kilometres away, Beijing was just emerging from the throes of its own rebellion. On 1 July, warlord Zhang Xun had marched on the Chinese capital to demand the restoration of the last Qing emperor, an adventure that ended 11 days later with skirmishes in the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven. The July Days erupted in Petrograd only days later, and while Ambassador Liu Jingren dutifully reported on the disorder on the streets, it seems that some of his telegrams did not survive. Those which did largely dealt with the aftermath of the July Days and Kerensky’s growing authority.
Following from the telegram of the 23rd [this is one of the reports which has been lost – ed]. Last night the Petrograd Soviet resolved that the situation on the front and in the interior is critical, and there is a danger of defeat by the enemy. It decided to proclaim the Provisional Government as a Government of National Salvation [sic], endowed with unlimited special powers in order to restore order and military discipline, and to do its utmost to resist all counter-revolutionary and anarchist activities. In addition, it would implement the reforms set out in the proclamation, and each minister must report to the Soviet twice a week.Telegram from Liu Jingren, 28 June 1917 (sent 24 July). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 124.
Liu’s telegram addressed the failure of the July Days insurrection. As much as militant workers and soldiers wanted the Petrograd Soviet to seize power, its largely Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik leadership feared that to do so would only spark further violence. The Soviet therefore summoned sympathetic troops to disperse the crowds, dashing the demonstrators’ hopes and undermining the very reason for the uprising. On 21 July, it came out in support of an emergency “Government of the Salvation of the Revolution” with extraordinary powers and Kerensky at its head. Its programme, announced the next day, included a continued commitment to peace, land reform, state management of the economy and the convening of the Constituent Assembly. Further negotiations took place to form a new governing coalition even as the death penalty was restored at the front and a crackdown on the Bolsheviks took place.
Unlike Zhang Xun’s gambit in Beijing, which had been enabled by the internecine politicking of China’s warlord cliques, the July Days represented a mass uprising in which political parties – including the Bolsheviks – exercised only tenuous control over the crowd. The confused nature of events was reflected in a curious exchange between Russian Ambassador N.A. Kudashev and the Deputy Foreign Minister Gao Erqian in Beijing. Kudashev, it seemed, was unsure of developments in Petrograd.
Kudashev: In the last few days, has Your Ministry received telegrams from Ambassador Liu in Russia?
Gao: We have received telegrams, but not very many.
Kudashev: What are Ambassador Liu’s views on the disorder in Russia?
Gao: He has only reported on the situation and has not added any judgements. It seems that matters have already settled now.
Kudashev: Everyone is giving differing reports. Lately, an American and a Briton have arrived in Beijing. One said that the situation is very negative, the other that it is very positive.
Gao: What are Your Excellency’s views?
Kudashev: In my opinion, the general situation is not extremely serious, but troops on the front do not wish to fight. It is this loss of morale that one should try to restore.
Gao: Will this have an effect on the front in Western Europe?
Kudashev: One thinks it will not have much impact, since both sides on the western front have difficulties advancing.Dialogue between Deputy Foreign Minister Gao Erqian and Russian Ambassador Kudashev, 28 July 1917. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 125.
Gao’s questions revealed another of Beijing’s preoccupations: Whether China should throw its lot in with the wartime Alliance to secure the return of western colonies in a post-war settlement. The decision had been a controversial one. In fact, conflict between pro-German and pro-Allied factions had been one of the factors precipitating the Zhang Xun crisis, and the prospect of an Allied setback would have provided ammunition for the former camp. Russia’s capacity for war – and, by extension, the maintainence of a second front against the Germans – was therefore of direct interest to Beijing.
China soon entered the war on the Allied side on 14 August. In the meantime, Kudashev’s hoped-for revival of morale had to await the formation of a new Cabinet in Petrograd, since the Government of the Salvation of the Revolution was a only stopgap measure. On 7 August, a new Provisional Government coalition was announced, and Liu lost no time in keeping Beijing informed.
The Petrograd Soviet’s resolution to proclaim the Provisional Government as a Government of National Salvation, endowed with unlimited special powers, was reported on last month. Since then, the government has discussed the formation of a centralised cabinet together with the various parties. Differences of opinion were exceptionally sharp in the beginning. On taking up his position, the Prime Minister stated that the various parties had decided the day before to entrust Kerensky with full powers to reorganise the Cabinet. The ministers have now been selected and will be announced any day. Among them, the socialist parties still maintain a majority and their power is also the greatest.Telegram from Liu Jingren, 11 August 1917 (sent 7 August). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 127.
The coalition underscored Kerensky’s authority by elevating him to Prime Minister. Nevertheless, although socialist parties were heavily represented in the Cabinet, the suppression of radical groups, restoration of military discipline on the front and appointment of L.G. Kornilov as commander-in-chief led to the perception that the Provisional Government had made concessions to the right. And as solutions to Russia’s economic and military problems seemed as remote as ever, the idea of an army strongman who could finally restore order grew even more appealing. In a bizarre echo of Zhang Xun’s march on Beijing, Kornilov would play the starring role in a Petrograd coup a month later.