Friday, August 19, 2011

Kerensky's Signature

My copy of Alexander Kerensky's autobiography, Russia and History's Turning Point, is apparently signed by the author around 1965. Kerensky's signature appears along side the hand-written date of 7 August 1917, the tangible reminder of just how close we remain to that seminal event in world history. Kerensky, who was the most important member of the Provisional Government, was one of Russia's most eloquent speakers. His book, released in the 1960s, reflects the intelligence and rhetorical power of its famous author. It's also a fascinating glimpse at the pre-war history of Russia.

Kerensky, a student activist, radical lawyer, and budding politician, makes the convincing case that Nicholas II was personally responsible for at least some of the tragedies that later befell his country. Prior to the war, Kerensky believes that Nicholas supported a blind, atavistic policy of antidemocratic and anti-modern conservatism. To Kerensky's mind, Nicholas II was absurdly attached to a dying political class, the landed gentry, and scattered elements of chauvinistic and anti-Semitic Russian society. More specifically, the Emperor allowed his government to slaughter miners (Lena Fields Massacre), shoot proletarians (Bloody Sunday), and prosecute Jews for the insane myth of the blood libel (Mendel Beylis), while it simultaneously encouraged the police and secret organs of the state to harass, detain, imprison, and otherwise intimidate any hint of political opposition.

Karensky is kinder to Witte and Stolypin, two of the tsar's only competent and forward-thinking advisers, who nevertheless failed to fully embrace the concepts of constitutionalism and parliamentary democracy that alone might have saved the monarchy from its own incompetence. Kerensky's main contention, a contention supported by the novelist Nabokov and many others, is that without World War I, Russia would have, one way or the other, been transformed into an a liberal democracy.

Contrary to the opinion of the Bolsheviks, history was not on the side of radical revolution. After all, even though Russia was officially governed by a man of limited intellectual subtlety, a man who listened to the likes of Gregory Rasputin, Russia was rapidly becoming a country with a healthy public sphere, including active political parties, rising literacy rates, a freethinking student population, and an active Duma. Kerensky's self-interested argument is that a rapidly industrializing country was bound to be at odds with the medieval concept of unlimited government.

One irony of Kerensky's book is that its obsession with the origins of World War I helps one to understand one of the Provisional Government's primary weaknesses. If Russia's peasant masses failed to care about Russia's commitment to the allies, how much less should historians care whether or not Russia's diplomatic posture was correct or not in the Serbian crisis. In the end, the war could not have been good for Russian under even the best of circumstances. But after several years of military and economic disaster, Kerensky's honorable commitment to continue the war may well have been preposterously misguided.

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