Edward Acton has mixed feelings about a new book on Russia in 1917
Russia 1917: The Kornilov Affair. Kerensky and the break-up of the Russian army, by George Katkov.
xiv+ 210 pp. (Longman, London and New York, 1980)
'If the Kornilov Putsch had not happened, neither would Lenin.' This was the heart of Kerensky's apologia, reiterated through half a century and a variety of books and articles, for the ignominious collapse of his Provisional Government in 1917. It was the counter-revolutionary machinations of the right, headed by Kornilov the Supreme Commander- in-Chief, which threw the Provisional Government onto the defensive, undermined the army, and opened the way to the Bolshevik coup. George Katkov's new book accepts that Lenin's victory flowed from the Kornilov affair but exonerates the General and lays the blame on Kerensky himself. Katkov substantially endorses the account given by Kornilov to the Special Commission of Investigation set up at the time, a translation of which is included as an Appendix. He argues persuasively that Kornilov believed himself to be working in co-operation with Kerensky and the Government towards the restoration of military discipline, social order and state authority in Petrograd. Historians more sympathetic to Kerensky's dilemma, his anxiety to win the war but avoid confrontation with the Soviet, may find the treatment of his motivations unsatisfactory, but the charges of vacillation and lack of candour in dealing with the General are hard to refute.
This well-researched core of the book, however, is rather marred by the general tenor. Dubious Katkovian theories, such as the importance of Lenin's contacts with the Germans and of masonic ties among the leading ministers of the Provisional Government are perhaps harmless enough. More important is Katkov's overall interpretation of the social struggle in August, 1917. He implies that Kornilov's programme was not counter-revolutionary and that had Kerensky supported it 'patriotic' Russia would have been saved. Minimal effort is made here to justify either supposition and both fly in the face of most recent research.