The Russian revolutionary and politician Aleksandr Fedorovich Kerensky (1881-1970) was the central figure around whom the fate of representative government and socialism revolved in Russia during the Revolution of 1917.
Aleksandr Kerensky was born on April 22, 1881, in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), the son of a teacher who also served as a middle-ranked provincial official. He entered St. Petersburg University (1899), where he studied jurisprudence, philology, and history. By 1904 he had completed his formal training and joined the St. Petersburg bar. He gained a reputation for public controversy and civil liberty; among other things, he worked with a legal-aid society and served as a defense lawyer in several celebrated political cases.
Kerensky's formal political career began when he stood successfully for election to the Fourth Duma (legislative assembly) in 1912. As a candidate of the Labor (Trudovik) party, he continued to champion civil rights. By 1914 he had been imprisoned twice for acts considered unfriendly or seditious by the government.
With the outbreak of World War I (1914), Kerensky was one of the few Duma members to speak against it, denouncing, in a public speech, the "devouring, fratricidal war." As Russian defeat followed defeat, support for the government dwindled and then disappeared, setting the stage for the Revolution of 1917 that swept Kerensky to power for a brief time.
During the revolutionary months of 1917, power in the major cities of Russia and at many points of military concentration was effectively divided between the provisional government, which derived its authority from the Duma, and the soviets—or representative councils—of workers' and soldiers' deputies. Among the members of the provisional government, Kerensky had a unique position because, for a time, he bridged the gap between these competing agencies of the revolution. Although a well-known member of the Duma, he was an articulate spokesman for the left and a member of the executive committee of the Petrograd soviet.
Kerensky was minister of justice in the first provisional government, organized by a liberal, Prince Lvov. This government's policy of honoring the war aims and obligations of the czarist government proved sufficiently unpopular that the minister of foreign affairs (Pavel Miliukov) and the minister of war and navy (Aleksandr Guchkov) were forced to resign; Kerensky succeeded to the latter position. He fared little better in this position than had Guchkov, however. In spite of initial successes, a major offensive, which Kerensky inspired, resulted in fresh military disasters (June 1917). Thus, amidst military failure and broadly based, disruptive demonstrations, Lvov resigned as prime minister in July and Kerensky succeeded him.
Kerensky's own view was that in the succeeding weeks the Russian political situation was tending toward stability. Radical leftist agitators (including Lenin and Trotsky) had been imprisoned or forced to flee the country, and Kerensky himself enjoyed a certain amount of popularity. Moreover, the time was thought to be drawing closer when it would be possible to convene a constituent assembly that would formally establish a democratic regime. The stroke that destroyed these hopes came unexpectedly from the right in the form of the Kornilov uprising (September 9-14), which was an attempt to establish a conservatively backed military government. Kerensky managed to halt the attempted coup only by calling upon the radical left for support. Similarly, he was unable from this time forward to count on the military leadership for support against this same radical left. Soon after, Lenin and Trotsky, at large again, planned their own coup, the Bolshevik Revolution of November. When the blow fell, Kerensky was out of Petrograd searching for troops loyal enough to defend the government against the Bolsheviks. Failing in this, he returned to Petrograd and then Moscow, futilely attempting to organize opposition against the revolution.
In the spring of 1918 Kerensky finally fled Russia, and, for a short time thereafter, he strove to rally international opposition against the Bolshevik government. Failing this, he began to write and lecture in Europe on the affairs of his native land. In 1940 he moved to the United States, writing, lecturing, and teaching at Stanford University. He died on June 11, 1970, in New York City.
The most important sources on Kerensky's political work remain his own writings: Prelude to Bolshevism: The Kornilov Rising (1919); The Catastrophe: Kerensky's Own Story of the Russian Revolution (1927); Russia and History's Turning Point (1965). Kerensky also made a significant contribution to the background material on this period by his work, edited with Robert Paul Browder, The Russian Provisional Government, 1917 (3 vols., 1961).
Abraham, Richard, Alexander Kerensky: the first love of the revolution, New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.