Alexander Kerensky: The Leader That Never Was

Every revolution has a leader, a hero, a winner. The Chinese Revolution of 1949 marked the success of one man, Mao Zedong; Cuba still widely celebrates his Comandante Fidel Castro, Tehran’s major airport is named after the spiritual father of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini and, of course, the Soviet Union for decades cherished the memory of the man who (supposedly) gave the Russian people peace, land and bread: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin. But in the crucial months of 1917, after the tsar abdicated and Russia plunged into chaos, another figure emerged, that of Alexander Kerensky.

Kerensky and The Provisional Government

Alexander KerenskyA lawyer committed to the revolutionary cause, Kerensky became the dominant figure in the newly formed socialist-liberal coalition government. He was appointed Minister of Justice, then Minister of War and, eventually, Prime Minister in July 1917. His oratory skills and his past involvement in the defense of anti-regime activists soon earned him the support of the Russian people and he became the first real leader of the revolution.  Yet his popularity was doomed to be short-lived. In July 1917 Kerensky’s government crushed a series of revolts that had sparkled among industrial workers and soldiers.

A few weeks later, General Kornilov, a career officer loyal to the tsar, attempted a military coup d’état. The putsch, though averted, highlighted the weakness of the Provisional Government and strengthened the position of the Bolshevik-dominated Soviets, whose help proved crucial for the defeat of Kornilov. Kerensky’s decline in popularity was aggravated by his determination to continue the war despite the almost desperate situation of the Russian Army. But by late September the path was cleared for yet another Russian revolution and for the emergence of a new, more successful, leader whose aura of myth still dominates any narrative of the events of 1917: that of Vladimir Lenin.

For a selected bibliography and list of primary sources of the October revolution see also “A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891-1924” and Heidelberg Library Resources on Russian Revolution.


About the author: Claudia Castiglioni, PhD, teaches several courses in our Bachelor in International Relations and Diplomacy program at the Paris campus.