The Day I Met the Leader of Russia’s First Democracy

One hundred years ago this month, in February, 1917, Nicolas II, Emperor and Tsar of Russia, abdicated. There was already a parliament — the Duma — but Russia was still an autocracy, and there was no constitution. With the Tsar’s abdication, a provisional government was formed in Petrograd, the capital, and an assembly was created to write a constitution that would provide an orderly transition to a functioning democracy.

The Minister of Justice and then Prime Minister for the Provisional Government was a young, dynamic and talented member of the Duma named Alexander Kerensky. He was a lawyer and a socialist, an engaging speaker and proponent for creating a constitutional democracy in Russia.

Alexander Kerensky United States Library of Congress digital ID ggbain.24416.

This Russian democracy never happened. In October, the provisional government was overthrown. Offices were seized and a new government was formed by workers’ unions, or Soviets. The head of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin, quickly seized control of the government. The nation evolved into the Soviet Union (USSR), which lasted until it was dissolved in 1991. There never were open and free elections of the leaders of the USSR: the First Secretary of the Communist Party was the head of the government, and he was chosen in secret.

He Had His (Brief) Chance

Alexander Kerensky is a controversial figure in Russian history. He was clearly a reformer who wanted to replace the corrupt and incompetent tsarist government with a democratic socialist one. As prime minister, he introduced important civil liberties like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assembly, freedom of religion; as well as universal suffrage and equal rights for women. But he was also prone to authoritarianism, and was called a “democratic dictator” by some. Clearly, he was a man of complexity and contradictions.

Alexander Kerensky as Minister of Justice, Petrograd, 1917.

Kerensky was impulsive with a great sense of when to act. He took control at key moments, and he could rally the members of the Duma, or the troops, and move decisively in the face of utter chaos. And yet, he was also prone to indulgence; he moved his government into the magnificent Winter Palace, and installed his mistress in the Tsar’s bedroom.

In fact, some of Kerensky’s actions helped the Bolsheviks to come to power. In 1917, Russia was 3 years into a devastating war with Germany and Austria (World War I), and the economy was collapsing. Kerensky fluctuated between opposing the war and supporting it. He changed sides on many issues and let allies dictate terms by threatening to cut off critical supplies that Russians needed to survive. He lost the support of the army, which was critical to holding power. Conservatives distrusted him and tried to oust him in a coup d’état. Eventually he even lost support from the workers in Petrograd who had put him in power. These fatal mistakes forced him out of power and into exile, setting the stage for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to seize control.

Historian Adam B. Ulam explained the takeover in absolute terms: “What remained of central political authority in Russia — the Provisional Government — had to be destroyed. The Bolsheviks could come to power only as the heirs to anarchy.” And indeed, first came the anarchy, then the seizure of power. Nature and politics both abhor a vacuum, and something or someone will always fill the empty space.

Despite the promising beginnings, Kerensky’s was a short, disastrous time in office. Yet today many Russians see Kerensky as the first true democratic leader of Russia, no matter how brief or unsuccessful his term. If nothing else, he is still seen as a pivotal figure in a time of enormous disruption, chaos and change, and for many, he has endured — or as I’ll explain later, re-emerged — as a the last, best hope that Russians had for a democracy before the onset of the oppressive Soviet system.

I Go to Class, and in Walks History

It’s now fifty year later, the scene is Foothill College in Los Altos, California, I am sitting in Mr. Nikolas Rokitiansky’s Russian language class on a chilly morning. I had taken Russian in high school to get out of Latin, and learned little; still, I found the language and the culture fascinating and engaging. This was the time of the Cold War and Russians were seen by Americans as the enemy; yet I found something humane and hopeful in the remarkable Russian literature of the nineteenth century. So now in junior college, I was continuing my language studies.

With a smile on his face, Mr. Rokitiansky rubs his hands together and tells us in his thick Russian accent, “Today, I have big surprise. You meet very special person in history of Russia.” A moment later, in walks an elderly man, with a short haircut and bit of a stoop, but slender and impressive. “Hello,” he says, “I am Alexander Kerensky, so nice to meet you. I was the first democratic leader of Russia.” He speaks for a while about his life, and answers some questions. Afterwards, we all take turns shaking hands, and I find he has large hands and a firm grip. Clearly a remarkable man with a strong personality and an imposing presence.

It turns out Kerensky had been spending his later years working nearby at the Hoover Institution for War, Revolution and Peace, on the Stanford University campus, which holds one of the most extensive libraries of documents and artifacts from the Russian revolution. Kerensky was continuing his work on restoring his personal reputation in history, and on trying to understand why his government fell while that of Lenin successfully seized power.

I don’t remember anything in particular that we discussed, but for about an hour, Kerensky spoke engagingly about his role in the events of 1917, his research at the Hoover Institution, and the future of the Soviet Union, in which he held no hope. He still believed Russia could become a democracy. Most of us were 18 years old, just out of high school, living in sunny California; the Russian Revolution was as distant and remote as the Ice Age. But somehow, I remember having the distinct impression I had been shaking hands with history.

It’s Like Saying, “I Met George Washington.”

Skip ahead to 1990; I’m living and working in Moscow, managing a software localization project for Apple Computer, Inc. I had expected that my many years studying Russian surely would never lead to a career, but somehow I managed to find ways to put those studies to good use.

The Soviet Union was undergoing enormous political, social and economic upheaval. Mikhail Gorbachev was Party Secretary, and was trying to transform the rotting Soviet system into the kind of parliamentary democracy that Kerensky had envisioned more than seventy years earlier. And as in those earlier times, the economy was shrinking, conflicting forces were pulling society apart, and the future looked grim.

I was working with a team of Russian software engineers, operating out of a remodeled brick building that had been converted from a church. What we were doing was interesting and important work, but the situation was very challenging. We had lots of technical issues to overcome, but also great cultural distances that had never been dealt with. For decades, the USSR had kept apart from the technical and business communities of the rest of the world. Our work was a very early attempt to close that gap.

It was a time when Russia’s history was looming large, and Russians were beginning to look backwards to understand where they had come from, and where they might be going.

We were talking one night at dinner about Russia’s recent past, and I casually mentioned that I had met Kerensky when he lived in California. I noticed the sudden silence, while my colleagues looked at me with disbelief. “Really, David, this is true?” someone asked. “Yes,” I said, “I shook his hand and he told our class about his part in the Revolution of 1917.”

As we talked, I realized that what I had said sounded as crazy as telling friends in California today that I had met and talked with George Washington, or had ridden up San Juan Hill in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. It was like something out of a distant, almost mythical time for my Russian friends; perhaps not in absolute years, but in terms of how much society had changed and the opportunities that had been missed. They were simply flabbergasted that I had met this semi-mythical character.

Opening the Dark Box of History

Kerensky! It was a name that had been forgotten for nearly 70 years, but now was just coming back into public consciousness, as Russians began exploring their own, dark history. In those days, the stories of the horrors of the recent past were just being told in public — the October Revolution, the infighting of the factions, the Bolshevik seizure of power, Stalin’s rise, the collectivization of the farmers, the forced industrialization, the purge trials, the millions sent to suffer and die in the Gulag! And after that, the catastrophe of World War II, when tens of millions died, followed by the last years of Stalin’s repressive madness, and ultimately the “Stagnation” years of the last Soviet party bosses. And the suppression of the history of that earlier, brief flirtation with democracy, as if it had never happened.

So it dawned on me that some, perhaps most, Russians had really never heard of Kerensky until recently. He had been removed from the history books, or treated as a blip, an anomaly, overlooked and forgotten. But he really was an important character in that history. It was almost as if we were to discover today that in, say 1945, after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, there had been a President of the United States who served for six months, but was deposed in a coup, replaced with Harry Truman, and erased from the history books. How would you feel? And here comes some guy from say, Mexico, who says, “Oh, yeah, I personally knew the *real* thirty-third American president, George Smith. I met him in 1985 before he died; he was living in exile in Cuernavaca.”

What Can We Learn?

This story of meeting Kerensky came back to me recently as I thought about our situation today. No, we are not engaged in a massive, destructive international war raging across continents as they were then. But we are caught up in a time of upheaval, violence and crisis. The breakdown of states in the Middle East, the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the civil war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State and acts of terrorism in Europe and the US — all this brings back thoughts of Russia in 1917.

And I wonder: what can we learn from that place at that time? Can we understand how a promising young democracy was brushed aside? How war, poverty and chaos can create a vacuum into which a violent and brutal dictatorship could rush to seize control of a great nation? 
 
The first World War started in 1914 and continued through 1918; it concluded with the breakup of the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires. If you look at a map of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, those three empires covered the great majority of that region. Today there are dozens of nation states in the place where just 3 political entities ruled. Much of the world’s current violence and political chaos is found in the new states that were carved carelessly out of those dying empires.

That terrible war and the breakup of those empires all started with a young man firing a pistol into the automobile of an Austrian Archduke in a dusty Bosnian town in the summer of 1914.

Small acts can lead to enormous change, and not always for the better.

A Stronger Russia, But Not a Democracy

Today Russia is a much stronger and prouder nation than it was in 1991. Yet the economy is still weak and small for a nation of 140 million well-educated people — roughly the economic activity of Mexico or Canada — and most Russians are still very poor. Most of the nation’s wealth comes from oil, gas and other commodities. A handful of billionaire oligarchs have taken most everything of value, and they live like royalty.

Russia today is ruled by an elected autocrat, Vladimir Putin. He began his career as a colonel in the KGB (the repressive Committee for State Security under the USSR), and rose to power when he was essentially *appointed* the President of Russia by the resigning President, Boris Yeltsin. Putin acted quickly to first re-built the Russian military, then moved aggressively to pursue a vicious war to subjugate Chechnya. He seized key assets like oil and gas companies. Over the coming years, he took control of strategic interests including the media and the financial sector, securing power and eliminating meaningful opposition. The economy recovered and the major cities were rebuilt and modernized. He also restored a sense of power and authority that had been missing in Russia since the collapse of the USSR.

Putin is no fan of democracy. Yes, he has been elected President three times, but his popularity was propped up by acts of repression and violence. Businessmen who opposed him were jailed or forced to flee the country; property, including huge corporations, were seized by the state. Journalists who exposed crimes and brutality were gunned down. Media outlets critical of his regime were shut down, replaced by pro-government TV, press and radio. Political opponents were jailed or shot. Putin disclaims all this, but it doesn’t matter; it’s clear that he benefitted from the terror and intimidation.

Today, the former KGB colonel is reportedly worth tens of billions of dollars in personal wealth, a sign of his complete control of the economy.

Push Back on NATO

Putin has pushed back aggressively against the expansion of NATO, which happened while Russia was prostrate and unable to assert its national interests. NATO has added twelve states since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and eight of them border on Russia. When Putin came to power, he stopped the attempted NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia, then sent troops into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to restore portions of the old Russian Empire.

NATO states in Blue, Russia and Neutral States in Orange, Applicant States in Yellow

As of today, Putin’s objective seems to be re-establishing the reach of the former Russian — and Soviet — empires and building a defensive shield of friendly nations on Russia’s western borders. He is clearly determined to reclaim states from the former empire that have already joined NATO. He’s engaged in a terrible war in Syria and allied with Iran and other groups hostile to the interests of the US and NATO.

The US and Russia in the Age of Putin and Trump

Our new President, Donald Trump, has announced his intentions of building a strong relationship with Putin and Russia. As of this writing, the budding Trump-Putin relationship is causing both enthusiasm and deep concern in both countries. How that plays out remains to be seen.

Danilovgrad, Montenegro — a nation that wants to join NATO but has strong Russian influence. ( Savo Prelevic AFP)

Small Things, and Individuals, Still Matter

I keep coming back to the elderly man I met in class half a century ago. He stands as a reminder to me that history matters, individuals matter, and actions have consequences. The fate of nations can hang on a single step, a false move, or a bold but careless initiative by one person, or a small group of people. We don’t have time or resources to waste and we may not get a second chance to get it right. And big dreams and ambitions are often overwhelmed by circumstances.

It’s fine to call for change, to say things are terrible — but let’s also remember: chaos and anarchy create opportunities for the most cynical and brutal, as well as those who mean to do good. And it’s often the most brutal who win those contests in the end.

If we get it wrong, it may be a very long time before we have the option to try again. For me, waiting 70 years is just not an option.

So as we mark the 100th anniversary of the *first* Russian democracy, I urge everyone to take a little time and read up on Russian history and current events. It’s a remarkable country, and Russians are gifted, passionate and resilient people. They deserve our best wishes as we try to find common ground to address common problems.

But as Americans, members of NATO, or citizens of other lands that either border Russia or can be influenced by that great country, we have to become aware of the conflicting interests and ambitions that keep us apart, and not let them overwhelm us. I believe we can get along, but it will have to be on a basis of fairness, verified trust and respect. There is still much work to do, not just for politicians, but for those of us who are the citizens of all interested countries.

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