In February 1917 the Tsarist system fell when the Tsar abdicated leaving no successor and therefore leaving Russia with no natural leader. The Duma moved in and took over the reigns of power forming the Provisional Government until elections could be held for an elected Government. It ruled for the next eight months until the October revolution when it was overthrown and replaced by the Soviets. There were many problems facing this new government and I intend to discuss which of them prevented them from consolidating its power.
Probably the biggest factor contributing to the fall of both the monarchy and the Provisional Government was the war against Germany and Austria. If the Provisional Government could have inherited the war it had inherited it might well have gained the strength to consolidate its position. “1 At first there seemed no need for Russia to exit the war as the majority of concern over the war was for the men to have better conditions but in the next few months public opinion turned quickly.
The Provisional Government found themselves stuck between a rock and an hard place; it was impossible for Russia to continue the war and for Russia to end the war would mean accepting harsh terms of surrender because defeated powers have no negotiating power. As it was they eventually lost the Ukraine for the remaining duration of the war. The government had seen the effects of the war so far and “there can be no doubt that, in the short term, it was Russia’s disastrous performance in the First World War that brought about the end of tsarism. 2 The Provisional Government also had to consider the affects on their plans for Russia. They were relying on Western investments to fund their industrial advances and it was unlikely their allies would fund them if they backed out of the war. The war put the new government in an impossible position.
When they did decide what to do they made a massive mistake, rather than peace, they prepared an offensive that worsened the already dire situation in Petrograd where they were suffering from severe inflation and interruptions of supplies. But perhaps the most important of all preconclusions for a successful offensive was the restoration of discipline in the armed forces. “3 The attempted restoration of the officers and discipline was seen as an attempted counter-revolution and resisted by the soldiers causing the failure of the governments attempts. They also told the people that they were doing the minimum required to remain in the war but informed the allies by letter that they were fully committed. Inevitably this leaked and the Russian people found out about it.
The government seemed indecisive and, worse, to be lying to the people. In the system established by February 1917 power was shared between the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet, the former stemmed from the old Duma, the latter represented the workers and soldiers. “4 This meant that the Provisional Government did not have full power. The country went from having a Tsarist regime with one man basically controlling the entire country to power being shared between numerous individuals in two different committees. Later Soviets started having their own revolutions some anticipating and others copying the Petrograd revolution.
This was when the Provisional Government was finally robbed of all its power before the October revolution; it was a gradual event. “Kronstadt declared its independence on 29 May and, despite agreements patching up the breach, the Provisional Government exercised authority only insofar as the soviets allowed it to. “5 The Minister of War, Guchkov, even admitted, “The Provisional Government does not possess any real power; and its directives are carried out only to the extent that it is permitted by the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which enjoys all the essential elements of real power…
One can say flatly that the Provisional Government exists only so long as it is permitted by the Soviet. “6 This dual power gradually changed to Soviet power and illustrates another problem that the Provisional Government faced. This problem was the opposition of the socialists, mainly the Bolsheviks. When Lenin arrived in Mid-April he announced that the Bolsheviks should give the Provisional Government no support. He promised land to the peasants and an end to the war under his party. 7 As people lost faith in the Provisional Government they started to see this opposition as a valid alternative.
After the Kornilov fiasco when the Provisional Government had made huge errors and only saved by the Soviets and the masses “the Bolshevik members of the Soviet had a leading part in these events and could henceforth claim to have saved the revolution. “8 All this meant that as people were starting to lose confidence in the Provisional Government the Bolshevik party grew stronger. “At the same time those who wished to see the restoration of law and order lost faith in the Provisional Government. “9 They also faced opposition from other parties who wanted to do things their way.
The socialist revolutionaries were numerically very strong in both the Duma and the Soviet and were allied to the Liberal Cadet Party. Unfortunately the Cadets were opposed to the majority of suggested direct action, including against the Bolsheviks at one point, this severely hampered any move the Provisional Government did make to act and they succeeded at one point to delay the Constituent Assembly. 10 Although this was just one faction it added to the slowness and indecisiveness of the government.
But perhaps the loss in faith was unwarranted as the Provisional Government did actually achieve some important goals. They passed full freedom for the press, equality for Jews, the abolition of the death penalty and real autonomy for Poland. 11 These were real advances when compared to the complete lack of freedoms in the Tsarist state. But while these were fantastic reforms they were trivial perhaps compared to the events that really needed to be seen to; the end of the war, the economic situation, these are just two examples.
The Provisional Government consistently delayed affairs to be dealt with by the constituent assembly after the elections, for example “the Provisional Government … stated that the future of Finland would be decided by the constituent assembly. “12 By making this non-decision they left the fate of an entire country in the air indefinitely. The elections of course never happened under the Provisional Government and they were just seen as incompetent.
One of their main problems was that they viewed themselves as illegitimate and so didn’t want to deal with any important matters, as they did not view themselves as able to without being elected by the people. Russia had no history of democracy but the Provisional Government felt that it should be that way. However they merely appeared as if they were stalling for time and the Soviets had no such qualms about acting without the support of the majority. However some feel that the Provisional Government’s problems “stemmed from a more general failure.
The government failed to act as a group and in some affairs appeared to show utter incompetence. One example of this is the Kornilov affair. He wanted to suppress the Soviets and even paid agents to stir up trouble, which he could then suppress. It is perhaps a symbol of the affair that these agents just took the money and drank it. At this point it seems that Kerensky supported Kornilov’s plan to suppress the troubling factions. But self-appointed mediators between Kornilov and Kerensky reported that Kornilov wished to make himself the head of the Provisional Government.
Kerensky panicked and hurriedly signalled Kornilov to ask for confirmation of the rumours, without stopping to wonder what they were he confirmed them and Kerensky withdrew his support thereby alienating the right because he destroyed their representative and was still disliked by the left because they saw his change as a sign of weakness. 14 This shows how the government was prone to panic and also how it often failed to act or give full support to the actions it set in motion.
The Provisional Government often didn’t act, or took too long to, and so looked weak and were never going to be able to stay in power long, especially given Russia’s situation at the time. Possibly the best, and most damaging, example of their inability to make quick decisions is after people started to turn on the Bolsheviks and the leaders started to be arrested. “Trotsky, showing perhaps excessive self confidence in his view that the Provisional Government was weak, went about his normal activities and challenged it to arrest him.
It was not until 23 July that the authorities worked up enough courage to oblige. “15 Rather than arrest a man they knew was breaking their laws they allowed him to walk around for some weeks openly flaunting their weakness. This clearly shows the lack of suitability of their style for the times. This inaction not only showed their weakness towards the end of their time in government but also inevitably meant their time in office was full of problems.
“The Provisional Government lost much support among the peasants by postponing land reforms so that it might be discussed by the Constituent Assembly. 16 Although as I explained above this was not purely the Provisional Government’s fault it was due to them that it was delayed. Because factions such as the Kadets were opposed to direct action the Provisional Government failed to act on a number of occasions and so lost support through appearing weak and inadequate. The Provisional Government faced many problems through their eight months and unfortunately most of them were inherited from the Tsarist regime. Many of the members of the Duma that had formed this make shift government when faced with the disastrous collapse of the Tsarist system were idealists.
They wanted a democratic and fair government. Russia saw reforms that other “more civilised” countries would have to wait years for, for example, women were given full and equal rights with men, including voting rights, and this was yet to be seen in Britain, France, USA etc. 17 However the actions that the Provisional Government did support were not immediate problems, they seem almost trivial. Rather than stabilising the economy or fixing any of the major problems that were ingrained in the Russian society they merely fixed visual things that could have waited.
The war was a terrible drain on the Russian economy and there was no way the Provisional Government could have solved that problem easily; any decision they could have made held problems for Russia. But perhaps if they had made a concerted effort to solve the problem they would have appeared strong instead of indecisive and weak. Equally while holding dual power with the Soviets was a drain of the Provisional Government’s power if they had asserted themselves from the beginning and acted to suppress the Bolsheviks before they got so powerful they might have been able to build upon their own power.
These two problems meant that the Provisional Government started their time in power in a bad way but if they had been assertive and decisive I think they could well have ruled for longer and managed to hold the elections that would have transformed Russia into a democracy. As it was the Provisional Government was thrown from power and after the inaction of the last few months and the terrible state of the country the people turned to the Soviets and the Bolsheviks who promised decisive action and a better future. Only they seemed to have a regime radical to enough to drag Russia out of its problems.