Interview with Kerensky

Jack Schwartzman

[Reprinted from Fragments, January-March 1965]

"Kerensky, … addressing the Moscow Soviet, … set his motto of humanity with the words: 'I will not be the Marat of the Russian Revolution.' " -- Bernard Pares

"He used simple words and he threw in 'tovareesh' occasionally, and looked at the galleries most effectively. When he concluded, people rushed down the aisles, and threw roses at him and all sorts of flowers. Soldiers on the stage kissed him. Fortunately, I got down by the door just as he passed out to his auto -- so jammed in the crowd it could not move for some time. Face brown and he looked full of vigor, though tired. Fine build and looks as young as his 36 years. Hard to believe that with T.B. of the kidneys he is not likely to last long." -- Graham R. Taylor (Reference to Kerensky, in Diary, June 8, 1917)


AS I waited in the library for Alexander Kerensky to come down, on. this bright January morning in New York, I found it difficult to believe that close to fifty years had elapsed since the meteoric rise and fall from power of this almost-legendary figure of the past. I had the strangest feeling that he would appear for one brief moment of eternity, summarize -- ever so sketchily -- the fantastic events of Long Ago and Far Away, and then vanish once again. All of his contemporaries -- Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Clemenceau, Wilson, the Kaiser, the Czar -- had long since departed from the arena of life. He alone remained.

In a flash, I felt myself back in the Russia of my youth; witnessed, once more, the wildness, the excitement, and the joy of the March Revolution; heard again the playing of the "Marseillaise"; and saw crowds, crowds, crowds -- cheering -- idolizing -- only one name: the magic name of Kerensky!

Kerensky! The brilliant young lawyer, who courageously championed the cause of the underdog; the dynamic member of the Fourth Duma, who attacked the monarchy with fiery oratory; the mercurial Minister of Justice, who helped abolish capital punishment; the theatrical Minister of War, who inspired the soldiery with impassioned eloquence; the very youthful Prime Minister, who valiantly saved the lives of all political enemies, even those of the Czar and his family; and, finally, the Great Persuader, who helped establish the new republic, only to see it destroyed in eight months by the savage hordes of Bolshevism!

Kerensky! The man of whom it was said that he would rather run than walk; whose roots went so far back in history that most people did not know he was still alive, much less that he was living in the City of New York; the man who, had he had the chance, would have given at least fifty brilliant and productive years to his country! Instead, Destiny had fashioned him to become the Wandering Russian, spending most of his life in exile, dwelling always on but one year of his life: 1917!

What would have happened to Winston Churchill (who was Kerensky's British Cabinet contemporary) were he to have left England in 1917? Would he have spent the rest of his life writing memoirs about 1917 alone?

In any case, here I was in New York, on this day in 1965, waiting to interview the person who was once Russia's Man of the Hour -- thousands of miles away from his birthplace (and mine). What would this interview reveal?

Thus I mused as I waited. My thoughts came to a sudden end. I heard a stir in the hallway. The elevator door opened -- and Kerensky entered the room.

The stately old gentleman of eighty-four who had haltingly walked into the library, and who now sat facing me, was a disturbing contrast to the volatile, young, dashing, and dynamic Kerensky of history and my imagination. Ailing, somewhat irritable, he brushed aside many questions with ill-disguised impatience. Yet, a spark was still there. The mind was alert. The responses were keen.

Into the rich tapestry of the past, I began weaving the rather plain thread of my questions.

Mr. Kerensky, were not the Kadets (who espoused principles similar to those of some Western libertarians) the largest party in the First Duma?

"The Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party may have been the largest party in terms of numbers, but the Labor (Trudovik) Party, to which I belonged, was the most popular with the peasants."

To some extent, the Kadets did participate in the first Cabinet of the Provisional Government. Prince Lvov, a member of the Kadets, became Prime Minister. Paul Miliukov, the party leader, became Foreign Minister."

Was not Professor Miliukov the champion of constitutionalism?

"Miliukov was a brilliant historian. Politically speaking, however, he lacked intuition, and made a bad impression on the Army and on the people."

In what sense did he lack intuition?

"He thought he was a diplomat, but he knew nothing. He advocated the same policy as did the Czarist ministers. He proposed annexation of Constantinople -- and was forced to resign after only two months in office."

What about the distinguished Kadet jurist, Basil Maklakov?

"Maklakov was Miliukov's antithesis. He was more positive than Miliukov. Although we were never friends, Maklakov and I had pleasant relations with each other. However, in 1917, the Kadets were no longer of true political significance."

Why not?

"Any party that did not take the peasant problem into consideration was bound to fail. The Communist Party is similarly doomed to failure. It fights the peasants, instead of helping them to obtain what they mostly desire and need: bread and butter."

Why do you stress the peasant problem?

"The social development of Russia was different from other countries. The peasants made up 80% of the population of the Empire. Central Russia always had a peasant social movement."

In what way were the Trudoviks and -- more importantly -- your government (when you became Prime Minister) more representative of the Russian public?

"We attempted to follow the principles set in motion by Czar Alexander n in 1861. We stressed 'land and freedom.' Our task was to realize the desire of the people for democratic reforms."

How, specifically, were you proceeding along such lines?

"Our first objectives were to restore the machinery of government (left shattered by the Czar), and to conclude, by means of a general peace, the World War I effort that we inherited from Nicholas II. Our other objectives were: to establish a free Russia; to create a federated republic; to ensure spiritual liberty; to bring about the equality of all nationalities and populations of Russia; to recognize the inviolability of the individual; to conquer starvation and maldistribution of wealth by means of necessary land reforms; and to fight the tendency toward centralism."

You were taken to task by some critics for your failure to call forth immediately a Constituent Assembly. Such an Assembly had been the dream of radicals and libertarians for generations. Your former aide, Woytinsky, claimed that such a convocation might have prevented the rise of Bolshevism. What is your answer?

"It is easy for those to criticize who know nothing of the facts. To begin with, there was a war on. Then, various crises arose, first brought about by the abortive Bolshevik uprising in July, and later by the catastrophic Kornilov conspiracy. As a matter of fact, we did manage to prepare a convocation of the Constituent Assembly for September 30th, but the administrative machinery was not ready, and we postponed the elections."

What finally happened to the Constituent Assembly?

"Ironically, the Constituent Assembly elections - which we had initiated -- did take place after Lenin and his gang seized power. The Assembly had actually convened in January of 1918, but was dispersed by Bolshevik bayonets. Thus ended Russia's dream."

How did the Bolsheviks seise power? Were they not an insignificant minority f Did they not receive only 25% of the Constituent Assembly votes -- even after they were in control?

"The Bolsheviks did not achieve any prominence until the beginning of the First World War. It was then that the German State began subsidizing them. British documents conclusively prove that Lenin was a German agent. This fact can no longer be controverted."

Some commentators have criticised you for having been "soft on Communism." Is this true?

"I am sometimes criticized for not having been 'too severe' with Bolshevism and the Left. At other times, I am criticized for having been 'too lax' with Kornilov and the Right. At all times, people find things to criticize. Evidently, my detractors fail to understand that I have always believed in freedom of assembly and speech. I did not join the Provisional Government to perpetuate the autocracy of the Czars -- as did the Communists when they captured the State."

One hears it said that only in "barbaric" Russia could Bolshevism have arisen. What is your comment?

"This is a primitive question. Were Italy or Germany 'barbaric'? The same concept of collectivism prevailed in all European countries -- from the Urals to Spain. It is now spreading all over the earth. The people who make such meaningless statements have no faith in the Russian people."

What is it, then, that caused Bolshevism to arise?

"Bolshevism is a totalitarian concept brought about by the consequences of World War I. Hatred and tyranny are the natural heirs of greed and conquest. The personal dictatorship of a ruthless minority would not have succeeded had not the Provisional Government been betrayed by both the Left and the Right -- and had not Communism been perpetuated by ignorant statesmen of the West, who failed to recognize the menace of Bolshevism."

One of the greatest tributes paid to you is that you helped bring about the abolition of capital punishment in Russia, and almost personally saved the lives of even your most outspoken enemies. Would you still adhere to the same humanitarian principles if it were in your power to turn back the clock?

"To prevent war; to avoid bloodshed: these always were my desires. They always will be."

What, in your opinion, will be the future of Russia?

"The generations of the future will return to a free life. Democracy -- which had so brief a trial in 1917 -- will be restored. Freedom -- a classic concept of our writers and dreamers -- will triumph in Russia. Dictatorship will die."

The echoes of the Revolution of half a century ago still lingered in my ears as, under the spell of by-gone days, I was slowly descending the staircase. I was awakened to reality by the 1965 farewell of Alexander Kerensky: "Very cold to-day, isn't it?" It was indeed. It was a bitterly cold New York day. And -- as I stepped outside -- a New York City policeman was placing a green "illegal parking" tag on the windshield of my American automobile.