Who was Alexander Kerensky?
Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky was a Russian lawyer, politician and statesman. He was one of the key political figures between March and October 1917, when he was a minister and later Prime Minister of the Russian Provisional Government.
Kerensky’s early years
Alexander Kerensky was born on 4 May (22 April) 1881 in the Russian provincial town of Simbirsk (now Ul’ianovsk), the same birthplace of Lenin 11 years earlier.
His father was a teacher and director of the local gymnasium where Lenin studied. The two families were friendly and belonged to the same middle class intellectual circle.
In 1889, Alexander completed gymnasium with a gold medal for distinction. He had the reputation of a polite smart youth, a skilled dancer and a gifted actor.
After completing his school education, Kerensky enrolled at the Law faculty of St Petersburg University, graduating in 1904. The same year, he married Olga Baranovskaia, the daughter of a Russian general, with whom he had two sons.
Kerensky as a lawyer
As a professional lawyer, Kerensky defended revolutionary activists in court, took part in such organisations as the Aid Committee for the victims of Bloody Sunday and contributed to revolutionary socialist press. He was even arrested for alleged participation in the Socialist Revolutionary Combat organisation, the terrorist branch within the Socialist Revolutionary Party.
As a skilled advocate in political trials, Kerensky became popular in the capital. In 1912 he was elected to the Fourth Duma (Parliament).
What role did Kerensky play in the Russian Revolution?
As the February Revolution broke out, Kerensky was made Minister of Justice in the newly-formed Provisional Government. Kerensky was the only socialist to join the first cabinet of the Provisional Government, coming straight from the Provisional Committee of the State Duma. He was also elected vice-chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, which represented the city’s workers and soldiers.
In May 1917, he was appointed Minister of War and by July he became Prime Minister.
Kerensky was the leading political figure in the first months after the February Revolution and became the Russian Revolution’s first cult of personality. He was renowned for his stirring and emotional oratory, his commitment to coalition government, and to Russia’s continued engagement in the war.
Kerensky’s intuitive knowledge of the appropriate action to take in the early days of the Revolution was unmatched by the other leading political figures of the time. In March 1917, when former Tsarist ministers were seized in the street and roughly escorted to the Winter Palace, Kerensky stepped forward and declared them ‘prisoners of the revolution’. He also issued the arrest of Minster of War Vladimir Sukhomlinov – for so long, a symbol of power and corruption in the old regime – something his colleagues lacked the courage to do. Kerensky could see that only by legitimising their capture with arrest could protect them from the angry mobs in Petrograd.
The ability to deliver speeches that would connect with audiences was an important skill for any public figure in 1917. Kerensky’s experience as an advocate served him well in this respect. Although his speeches were rather cliché ridden, they were very successful, making direct appeals to ‘his people’ and tears would sometimes be seen running down his face as he spoke.
But soon his tone changed, especially after the attempted Bolshevik rising of July, becoming increasingly authoritarian. Where once he had appealed directly to the goodness of the people, now he called for the preservation of the State.
Despite this, it is difficult to find strong evidence for his well-reported egotism. Kerensky was the only moderate prepared to take on the responsibility of heading Russia, and faced criticism from across the political spectrum when he was unable to avert the Bolshevik seizure of power and subsequent descent into civil war.
Escape in a woman’s dress
One of the wide-known myths about Kerensky is a story of his alleged escape from the Winter Palace on the night of 7–8 November (25–26 October) 1917, when the Palace was taken by the ‘revolutionary workers and soldiers’.
A story started circulating that Kerensky had changed into a women’s dress and either in a nurse or servant’s uniform, fled from the Palace and Petrograd.
Kerensky himself tried to present his departure from the Palace as a routine trip, although the American Ambassador David Francis recalled that he almost forced his way into a car that belonged the US Embassy, and therefore the car with the American flag easily passed all check points.
The ‘women’s dress’ myth was visualised in several Soviet films about the Revolution and remained quite memorable.
Life in exile
After the Bolsheviks took power, Kerensky tried to consolidate forces for a counter-attack, but was not successful. In June 1918 he fled Soviet Russia for good. He visited London and Paris where he called for Allies’ support in his attempts to fight the Bolsheviks, but failed.
At the same time, Kerensky did not trust the White movement as he considered its leadership too close to General Kornilov.
The first one and a half years of his exile, Kerensky lived in Britain, mainly in the countryside where living costs were lower. Later he lived first in Prague, and then in Paris, where he contributed to various Russian language periodicals and edited the newspapers Dni (The Days) and Novaia Rossiia (New Russia).
In 1939 Kerensky remarried – this time to Australian journalist Lydia Tritton. When Hitler occupied France in 1940, they moved to the United States. After the Second World War Kerensky lived with his terminally ill wife in her native Australia, but returned to America after her death in 1946.
In his last years Kerensky wrote memoirs, published in periodicals and although based in New York, worked in the Russian archive at Stanford University.
For all his life outside Russia, Kerensky experienced enmity and condemnation from other Russians abroad. One memoirist recalled an episode when a Russian woman, having noticed Kerensky in the street in Paris, said to her child: ‘Look, Tania, here is the man who ruined Russia’.
How and when did Alexander Kerensky die?
One of the last surviving key members of the Russian Revolution, Alexander Kerensky died of cancer in New York City on 11 June 1970.
He is buried in Putney Vale cemetery, London, where he had spent the very first part of his exile and where his sons lived.
Facts about Kerensky
- The dates of Lenin and Kerensky’s birth differ exactly by 13 days due to the difference between the old and new calendar styles.
- Kerensky’s two sons with his first wife, Oleg and Gleb, both became engineers and lived in Britain. Oleg Kerensky was presented a CBE for designing many British road bridges and structures.
- Having moved the Cabinet and his personal residence into the Winter Palace in summer 1917, Kerensky sat for two artists in Nicholas II’s office: the famous portraitist Ilia Repin and his former student Isaak Brodskii. The portraits however, were finished in 1918, when Kerensky’s return to power was not an option.
- Article by:
- Mike Carey
Collaborative Doctoral student Mike Carey looks at the ideologies of violence and violent practices driving the Russian Revolution and the civil war.