Alternate history: Kerensky edition

by John Quiggin on March 8, 2017

Between SF and Trump, it’s hard to avoid alternate histories and futures here at CT. Most of my attempts focus on the Great War, and I’ve just had one published in the New York Times, leading off a series they plan on the centenary of the Russian Revolution(s). My question: What if Kerensky had responded positively to the resolution of the German Reichstag, calling for peace without annexations or indemnities?



J-D 03.08.17 at 3:29 am

Kerensky could have repudiated the deals made by the czarist empire and announced his willingness to accept the Reichstag formula of peace without annexations or indemnities. Perhaps the German High Command would have ignored the offer and continued fighting (as it did when the Bolsheviks offered the same terms after the October Revolution at the end of 1917).

We can’t be certain, naturally, but that’s the way I’d bet. On the other hand …

We cannot tell whether a positive response from Kerensky to the Reichstag peace initiative would have achieved anything. But it is hard to imagine an outcome worse than the one that actually took place.

… although in general it’s always possible to imagine worse outcomes, in particular the Kerensky government could hardly have made things worse by an acceptance of the formula of the Reichstag resolution, even if the German High Command had disregarded it.


mainmata 03.08.17 at 3:35 am

The Bolsheviks would have still sabotaged him. They had a larger plan, of course.


steven t johnson 03.08.17 at 4:14 am

What if Kerensky had been a moderate SR, more like Chernov, instead of being a Trudovik? As a political figure, Kerensky was politically closer to a Breshkovskaya or Avksentiev, except more determined to work within the system. Kerensky’s determination to continue the war was not a personal quirk, it was national policy continued. If Kerensky’s personal politics had been more like those of Left SRs like Maria Spiridonova or Mark Natanson, much less Maximalist or Narodnik Communist, he wouldn’t have been acceptable as successor to Lvov. Kerensky was the acceptable choice precisely because of his commitment to continuity in all areas save formal democracy.

His peak power was as the article says, the July days, but that power was achieved by launching perhaps the first anti-Communist crusade. A key element in that campaign was the attempt to “arrest” Lenin (and Zinoviev, at that time one of his most prominent coworkers,) for treason. The treason of course was exemplified in their journey across Germany and the receipt of German funds. It is quite difficult to understand how the same politician whose power was favored by attacks on complicity with the Germans could plausibly be hoped to move his country forward, in a direction he did not want, by undercutting his own anti-German bandwagon. It’s not as if Kerensky didn’t want Russia to win Constantinople etc.

The unexpected thing Kerensky did do was stand up to Kornilov, the general whose August coup was to make him the Russian equivalent of Hindenburg/Ludendorff. There are those of course who believe Kerensky was encouraging Kornilov, in hopes of using his threats to continue the pro-war, pro-property stance of the provisional government. But in the end, whether true or not, Kerensky relented in his political assault on the Bolsheviks. Their help, along with the Mensheviks’ (especially in the Vikzhel, the Russian railway union federation,) broke Kornilov. But it also turned the Bolsheviks on the path to winning the majority in the Petersburg Soviet.

By the way, saying that the end of the civil war enable the ascendancy of Joseph Stalin is a little bit like saying the the Montagnard dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety led to the ascendancy of Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s sort of correct but it leaves an awful lot out. It is fairly reasonable to date Stalin’s dictatorship from Bukharin’s dismissal from the Politburo, which was in 1929. Even if you see Bukharin as something of a self-deluded pawn rather than a true power, Stalin didn’t defeat the United Opposition until 1926. But then, the earlier Stalin’s ascent to power the more mysterious the collectivization campaign, or the later Yezhovshchina. Why does the tyrant wait so long to do his tyrant thing?


Neville Morley 03.08.17 at 9:17 am

For a moment I thought this was another contribution to the Ada Palmer seminar, as she raises counterfactual questions specifically in the relation to WWI, though not Kerensky.


Monte Davis 03.08.17 at 10:42 am

In 1965 Kerensky spoke to the modern European history class at my NYC school, and I talked to him a couple of times while doing a term paper on the provisional government. ISTR jejune insights about “unleashed forces” overtaking early leaders, and comparisons with the French Revolution that were an unholy mashup of Burke and Crane Brinton.

I do recall the annexations of Brest-Litovsk making me doubt that the spirit of the Reichstag resolution had reached very far or very deep. Sure, much of the Russian->Red army had melted away in the interval, but you don’t grab that much out of spur-of-the-moment opportunism.


Monte Davis 03.08.17 at 11:43 am

(The “ISTR” sentence is about my paper, of course, not Kerensky’s views in 1965 — which were essentially ‘the Bolsheviks promised what we could not and would not.’)


Louis Proyect 03.08.17 at 1:47 pm

This is more than a bit reductionist. “By its end, the Bolshevik government, launched as a workers’ democracy, was effectively a dictatorship, enabling the ascendancy of a previously obscure Bolshevik, Joseph Stalin, who would become one of the great tyrants of history.”

Kerensky’s continuation of the war did not entail the rise of Stalin. Instead it was another war–the anti-Communist intervention that led to the death of thousands of the most committed revolutionaries on the battlefield and thus an opening for self-seeking individuals who formed Stalin’s bureaucratic social base. Economic ruin caused by the civil war imposed both War Communism and then the NEP on Russia, neither of which were anticipated in Bolshevik thinking before October 1917. The rest, as they say, is history.


Olle J. 03.08.17 at 2:04 pm

One of my older teacher at University met Kerensky sometime in the 1960s while studying Soviet/Russian economic history. The teacher recollected his impression of Kerensky as a tragic anti-hero. Apparently every time a student asked him why he did not do that or this as head of the provisional government during the latter haft of 1917 he would exclaim ‘But you have to remember, there was a revolution going on’ or something akin to this.


Z 03.08.17 at 2:20 pm

My question: What if Kerensky had responded positively to the resolution of the German Reichstag, calling for peace without annexations or indemnities?

I am always uncomfortable with Alternate Histories, as I’m never sure what they are trying to accomplish, but in that particular case, I don’t see that things change much on either side. In early 1917, the German military command was convinced that the Entente would soon seek peace and that it would emerge victorious on both fronts. Beside, as you note, we know that they would have refused a peace offer without annexation, since they refused one several months later with the US already at war. As for the Provisional Government of Russia, I’m not sure it really had that much actual power, so a civil war between right-wing reactionaries and the Bolsheviks likely seems probable even if an early peace is signed.

Now if you stipulate by fiat that peace occurs without annexation on the Eastern front, then the Central powers have a good chance of scoring a decisive win on the Western Front in summer 1917 (and they almost certainly do so on the Italian front). Perhaps the War ends in middle 1917 with a decisive continental victory of Germany, so rather than suffering a humiliating defeat leading to revanchism, German militarism would have achieved its greatest historical success to date. The subsequent rise of Italian Fascism does not make me confident that victory would have prevented the establishment of a fascist super-power on the European continent.

I’ll grant you that it’s hard to imagine something as bad as Nazism and Stalinism stemming out of this scenario, but then again, are the actual turn of events any less surprising?


Placeholder 03.08.17 at 2:51 pm

Today is the 100th anniversary of the of the women’s strikes that started the February Revolution. Might you as well ask ‘what if Tsar Nicholas’ had supported women’s suffrage?

For the Jews in Russia alone it is not too hard to imagine a worse fate – what if the February Revolution had been succeeded by the people who wrote the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?


Matt_L 03.08.17 at 4:40 pm

Interesting counterfactual, but I don’t think the German High Command (OKW) would have offered Kerensky anything better than the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 or the Treaty of Bucharest in May 1918. The peacemaking by both the Central Powers and the Entente tended towards the vindictive. If OWK agreed to an armistice and peace treaty, the Russians would have had to surrender Poland at a minimum plus probably hand over large stocks of food and cattle to feed the Central Powers. Feeding Germans while Russians were starving on the home front would have been a major domestic political fiasco for Kerensky.

Kerensky wasn’t really in the position to take the offer of the Reichstag seriously. It was pretty clear that they were not the ones making policy in 1917. The Bolsheviks were saddled with the exact same problems. They tried to play out all the same strategies with an even weaker hand. The only thing that saved them was the collapse of Germany in November 1918.


roger gathmann 03.08.17 at 7:04 pm

Well, since we are doing alternatives: what if Rasputin’s anti-war stance had so influenced the czar that he made peace after (second alternative history factoid) Rasputin survived his assassination attempt in 1916?


Andy Lowry 03.08.17 at 10:24 pm

Adam Tooze touches on this briefly in The Deluge at 77-79: the Russians

could have seized on the Reichstag peace resolution, and challenged the rest of the Entente to respond. Despite his distaste both for the Germans and the Russian socialists, could Wilson really have refused such an appeal? [My marginal note: “yep.”] What would have been the impact in Britain and France? In the House of Commons, the Independent Labour Party was demanding a positive response to the Reichstag note. … But in Russia neither the Provisional Government nor the majority in the Soviets could bring themselves to take a first step toward Germany. To usher in the new revolutionary era by suing for a separate peace would be a fundamental betrayal. Russian democracy could have no future in isolation.

That’s from an interesting chapter on the failure of Russian democracy, which Tooze blames (like everything else bad) on Wilson’s failure to be a political genius.


John Quiggin 03.09.17 at 3:48 am

@13 I guess there are no really new ideas! I hadn’t heard of Tooze, so I will have to follow this up.

On Wilson, I don’t think genius was required, just ordinary intelligence and a genuine commitment to his ostensible principles. He had plenty of bargaining power until US troops actually started fighting, and he failed to use it.


christian_h 03.09.17 at 8:10 am

As for speculating about the OHL vs the Reichstag resolution, it’s a mistake to consider Germany 1917 as a monolithic entity under complete control of the army. A couple months earlier hundreds of thousands of workers in Berlin and other regions walked out in the April strikes, and not six months later, in January 1918, over a million workers went on strike including in munitions factories. If Entente governments responded positively to the Reichstag resolution, and OHL would have brushed this off, it’s not really clear how this would have impacted internal affairs within Germany.


maidhc 03.09.17 at 8:52 am

Going back to the time when the events were occurring, I had the idea that Bani-Sadr was quite a parallel to Kerensky. The situations were not exactly the same, but there were a lot of similarities.


J-D 03.09.17 at 9:24 am

An examination of the handy ‘Divergence Chronology’ at reveals several published works based on the idea of events taking a different turn in 1917; half a dozen deal with the possible effects of Lenin’s absence from Russian events, for one reason or another, but I can only find two that focus on what Kerensky might have done: ‘If I Had Been … Alexander Kerensky in 1917’, by Harold Shukman, published in If I Had Been …: Ten Historical Fantasies, edited by Harold Snowman, imagines Kerensky working with Kornilov, and ‘Checkmate In Six Moves’, by Olga Ley, published in Beyond Time, edited by Sandra Ley, imagines Kerensky having Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin sent back to Switzerland (and, I suppose, we loop back to the theme of the effects of Lenin’s absence). I can’t find on the list any speculations about the possibility of a negotiated peace in 1917, although some entries have no or scanty descriptions.


Peter T 03.09.17 at 10:41 am

You might also look at Dominic Lieven’s Towards the Flame, which covers Russia’s approach to World War I. Among other things, it highlights how Czarist policy was pushed by powerful currents of opinion, often fiercely anti-German, Slavophile and/or deeply committed to the imperial mission.


Peter T 03.09.17 at 11:27 am

It’s also possible, of course, that a liberal revolution in Russia (that survived the inevitable civil war) would have simply been too weak to either modernise the country or resist German revanchism. In which case, the suffering would have been more like China 1911-49.

btw – the claim that Stalin killed more people than Hitler does not count the victims of World War II. War was central to the Nazi project, and every one of the 25 million Soviet citizens, 6 million Poles, one million Yugoslavs and others who died did so as a direct result of Hitler’s policies.


steven t johnson 03.09.17 at 2:04 pm

Olga Ley should have known Trotsky came to Russia from New York. And Stalin, who wasn’t a major player anyhow, came to Petersburg from Siberia, where he was doing post-graduate studies in being a hard man, courtesy of the Tsar. Shukman of course should have known that Kerensky had attempted to take Lenin out. His death while “resisting arrest” would have been even more decisive. And the suggestion Kornilov thought he had Kerensky’s support should have been known to Shukman as well. Trying to rewrite the Bolshevik Revolution as a band of evil conspirators versus noble idealists who couldn’t quite grasp the realities and make the hard choices requires a great deal of ignorance.

In addition to ignoring the Nazi regime’s responsibility for the war that killed millions, the figures for Stalin’s victims are largely famine deaths. Famines in socialist countries are uniquely accounted to be the malicious responsibility of the authorities and an inevitable expression of evil socialist ideals. Famines in respectably imperialist countries, or their colonies, however, are merely acts of God. The great Bengal famine of 1770 appears to have been caused by the East India Company forcing the cultivation of indigo and opium, forbidding the stockpiling of rice and raising agricultural taxes to fifty percent (from ten percent.) The commonly accepted figure is ten million. Mike Davis has his own cottage industry writing about these ordinary events.

It is of course absurd to think the regime’s belief that collectivization was essential to its survival is justification for its course. Equally of course, the East India Company’s pursuit of profits was human nature, something to be sorted out in the afterlife, no doubt.

It has never been clear how the respectably imperialist nations of Germany, Russia, France, England and the US (Philippines count!) can throw millions of men into no man’s land, knowing they will mostly be blown to piece, all for yards of dirt are not seen as slaughtering millions of their own people like hogs in an abattoir. The Cheka and the OPGU were pikers, tied down by time-consuming pursuit of confessions and convictions. Even with torture for false confessions and kangaroo courts, that kind of thing really lowers the body count, unlike sending armies over the top into a hell of artillery fire. It’s so much more inefficient randomly selecting targets culled from an army of informers, when you can do the efficient thing and sweep up whole categories of people, man, woman and child, pack them into trains to send to places where the problem of their existence will be resolved. Nonetheless, as is well known, the only offenses against humanity because of the Great War lay in the rise of totalitarian Communism.

Sarcasm aside, it really should be clear that the insistence on Stalin’s being worse than Hitler is a political position. If the numbers have to be massaged, so be it.


Stan 03.09.17 at 8:16 pm

“… I don’t think the German High Command (OKW) would have offered Kerensky anything better than the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 …”

Quite correct, since the OKW did not exist until 1938.


derrida derider 03.10.17 at 12:35 am

Yes, well of course the ignoring of the Reichstag resolution by the German generals was itself a massive blunder from their own POV. It was not only Russia’s rulers who missed an opportunity.

Brest-Litovsk told the world – notably the Americans – just what sort of people Germany’s rulers were, it made a favourable compromise with the western allies impossible, in the short term (which is what mattered) it diverted German economic resources rather than adding to them, and it required a continuing occupation force of something like 30 divisions which would have been more than handy in the west in spring 1918.


Anderson 03.10.17 at 3:24 am

“Brest-Litovsk told the world – notably the Americans – just what sort of people Germany’s rulers were”

Between actual misdeeds & propaganda, no one was under any misapprehensions by 1918.


casmilus 03.10.17 at 8:01 am

Given the political trouble in the region and the need to extract grain supplies, there was no more chance of a swift German exit from Russia in 1918 than the US from Iraq in 2003.


Peter T 03.10.17 at 8:07 am

The Hitler years cast an aura of reasonableness back over Wilhelmine Germany which is quite unjustified by its actual policies or institutions. In much the same way, Trump makes George W Bush look coherent, and Bush made Reagan look competent. I am not sure what could cast a rosy glow over Trump, but I do not want to find out.


Z 03.10.17 at 1:38 pm

The Hitler years cast an aura of reasonableness back over Wilhelmine Germany which is quite unjustified by its actual policies or institutions.

That, very much that. People do not dwell on it too much, but the German occupation of Belgium and North-East France was incredibly harsh (arguably more brutal than Nazi occupation of the same, for instance, except with respect to Jews) and the Ober Ost was of course much worse still. As usual, this does not make the Entente’s strategy and imperial ambitions any less criminal.

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