When I teach about the French and Russian revolutions, I like to pick a personage to announce as my very favourite; it seems to amuse the kids. For the Russian, Kerensky is my best and favourite; Lenin and Trotsky are a bit too dubious, and none of the other Bolsheviks get that much of a look-in in the textbooks. Kerensky, though… he seems to try his best in difficult circumstances between the revolutions in 1917, he had a career in politics and was a radical before the February Revolution, and I knew there was some vague connection to Australia. So he seemed a good choice. Which meant that I really needed to read a biography. Thus my excitement at finally hearing about this biography, old though it is, and the fact that I found a hardback version via Better World Books.
Certainly there are aspects of this book that date it, and while it’s pretty good about being objective it of course doesn’t entirely manage it. And books that refuse to translate French for we non-speakers just make me throw my hands in the air, sometimes non-metaphorically. Nonetheless, I am so happy to have read it; it has cemented Kerensky as the revolution’s ‘first love’ even while I acknowledge that I’m absolutely getting something of a biased account of Kerensky’s role and motivation. It’s a biography; that’s what they do
Kerensky comes across as desperately in love with Russia, probably a bit near-sighted about the issues affecting the non-Russians, but vehement in his defence of, for example, the Jewish population; he was unendingly opposed to anti-Semitism. He was a passionate radical (although not a Marxist) – and, as happens to so many radicals, changed by actually being in power; he seems to have been one of those people whose reaction to setbacks is to take on yet more work and responsibility, since noone else would be able to do it as well. I felt deeply sympathetic for him, from this 100-year-on perspective, as he faced the problems of 1917: how could someone successfully negotiate placating the Allies during World War 1 about Russia not negotiating a separate peace, and deal with the Russian soldiers’ impatience with fighting this war that has gone dreadfully for them over the past two years, and deal with the expectations of the population for change following the fall of the Tsar, and deal with the political bickering from both left and right? Possibly these obstacles could have been negotiated for someone else, and maybe it should have been possible to reconcile the differences of opinion and bring everything to rights within Russia… but it didn’t happen. Abraham’s account shows where Kerensky made very poor decisions but also points out the immense pressure of the times. Like I said, I’m sympathetic (which is easier at a distance).
Two things frustrated me a bit about this biography. The first is that it didn’t really clarify for me one of the more bizarre episodes of Kerensky’s turn as head of the Provisional Government, between the revolutions: the Kornilov affair, where – depending on who you talk to – General Kornilov might have been trying to replace the Prov Gov with a military dictatorship, or working with Kerensky to save Kerensky’s position, or… who knows. Abraham does put the events into greater context by talking about Kornilov’s earlier actions as part of the overall Russian command, and gives details about Kerensky’s moves in August and negotiations with Kornilov; Abraham certainly makes it less Kerensky’s fault than other historians (looking at you, Richard Pipes) suggest, and gives reasons for some of the more incriminating evidence that turned up afterwords. But my problem is that Abraham doesn’t go into much detail about what happened to Kornilov afterwards – just a mention of a cushy prison in the context of the Civil War – and there is zero mention of Bolsheviks being let out of jail and armed in order to defend Petrograd, which the textbooks all mention. It’s too long since I read other histories of the period so I’ll have to refresh my memory from Fitzpatrick… because there’s either a weird lacuna from Abraham or a serious overstatement elsewhere.
That frustration is quite academic. The other is one I should have expected: that the women in his life aren’t that well treated. Kerensky married young; Olga gets served well enough early on but not later. He has an affair while a leading politician; what happens to her after he leaves Russia is dealt with brusquely in half a paragraph, and then not clearly. He has at least two more serious affairs and then marries an Australian woman; the affairs are glossed over with little explanation. Nell appears a bit in the last couple of chapters, with discussion of their moves within America and then to Australia and then back to America, but really it’s superficial. And I feel this is a shame, given how much time they spent together.
Overall this is a well-written biography, although not one I would recommend to a reader with zero knowledge of the Russian revolution. It’s certainly added to my knowledge of pre-Bolshevik Russia, and has deepened my understanding of Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky.