The July Days and the Rise of Kerensky

julydays
Demonstration during the July Days. Source.

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.

二十三日電計達。昨晚兵工農代表會議決,戰地與國內情形危迫,並有被敵挫敗之險象,議決宣布臨時政府為救國政府,授以無限特權,俾恢復秩序及軍律,並竭力抵制一切反抗革命及無政府之舉動。此外並實行宣告中所定改良辦法,各國務員應每星期報告該會兩次。

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.
nevskyjuly
Nevskii Prospekt, 17 July 1917. Source.

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.

庫使云:近日貴部接有駐俄劉使來電否。
次長云:有來電,但不甚多。
庫使云:劉使對於俄國亂事之看法如何。
次長云:彼僅報告情形,並未加以何種斷語,大約現下已無事矣。
庫使云:各人報告不同,新近有一美人、一英人來京,一云情形甚不佳,一云甚佳。
次長云:貴公使看法如何。
庫使云:本公使看法,以為大局無甚要緊,但前敵軍隊既不願戰,則精神上之喪失,應設法恢復耳。
次長云:如此於西歐戰場有無影響。
庫使云:想無甚影響,因西戰場雙方皆難前進也。

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.
zhangxunfight
Chinese Republican troops retake the Forbidden City, 12 July 1917. Source.

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.

俄兵工農代表會議決,宣布臨時政府為救國政府,授以無限特權,上月已電陳在案。比來政府率同各黨議組集權內閣,意見分歧,草創尤烈。總理席次聲稱,日昨各黨議決,信任蓋能斯基,以全權改組內閣,現閣員已選定,不日發表,其中社會黨仍居多數,勢力亦最大,特聞。

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.

 

kerenskyfront
Kerensky greets troops on the front. Source.

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.

One thought on “The July Days and the Rise of Kerensky

  1. Pingback: China Contemplates a Siberian Intervention – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

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