From its inception, the Provisional Government – an interim government formed to facilitate a smooth Russian transition into democracy – was plagued by a myriad of obstacles and challenges. Forced by circumstance into having to make some of the most influential decisions of the era – whether or not to continue the war and in what manner to carry out their decision, whatever it may be; when to hold the first elections to the constituent assembly – it could be argued that the Provisional Government was merely a victim of circumstance. Furthermore, the power of opposing parties such as the Bolsheviks and other Soviets posed far too great a threat to the Government, However, there is much evidence in favour of it being responsible for its own downfall, with the decisions they made – however unfortunately timed – reflecting its incompetence, and the popularity of alternative ruling parties revealing its inability to represent the people adequately.
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One of the short fallings of the Provisional Government that underscored the entirety of its brief, yet problematic career was its policies, or rather more often the implementation of them. Much of the policies stemmed from or were affected by the war – which the Provisional Government made the call to continue in support of Britain and France, despite popular demand amongst Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and therefore most civilians to fight the war only on a defensive basis. The more widespread view amongst people was that the war ought only to be fought to prevent defeat by the Germans, and not to gain territory – the latter being an unpopular opinion held only by parties within the Provisional Government and their supporters. This unwavering faith in the power of the war to restore Russia to its former glory set the tone for almost all of the Government’s policies. For example, the war played a role in the land issue that caused many peasants to feel negatively towards the Provisional Government. The collapse of central authority after the revolution had caused unrest amongst peasants hungry for land in 1917. Feeling betrayed and let down by the emancipation of 1861, they firmly believed that the land had always belonged to them, and were agitating for the redistribution of land, but wanted government approval to give legitimacy to their actions. However, the Provisional Government – while supportive of the peasants’ cause – wasn’t willing to redistribute land just yet – wanting it to be done under a framework of law drawn up by the Constituent Assembly. There were both legitimate, and less legitimate, slightly corrupt reasons behind this. Firstly, it made sense for there to be a legal framework under which the redistribution of land should occur, as arbitrary, unregulated redistribution would obviously cause legal and social issues – such as unclear land rights, and easily contestable ownership brought about by a lack of titles and deeds. The more selfish reasons for not allowing land redistribution to go through immediately were that the Provisional Government wanted landowners (most often their supporters) to be compensated for any land that may be taken from them, which couldn’t be done if there was no framework. The impact of the war also contributed to this delay, as the Government was afraid that an unregulated scurry for land would lead to a disintegration of the army as peasants rushed back home in order to claim land for themselves and not be disadvantaged. This was fairly reasonable, but the peasants didn’t see it as such and started taking matters into their own hands by seizing land and property as they pleased which contributed to the Provisional Government losing control and its resultant downfall. The problem of postponed redistribution that escalated into property theft could easily have been prevented had there not been a delay in holding an election for the Constituent Assembly – a reason for the Provisional Government’s downfall that will be discussed later. However, one policy that counteracts the argument that the Provisional Government was responsible for its own downfall is the granting of freedom of speech to citizens, and the release of political prisoners, which proves that its actions were not all detrimental to its continuation. Two of the most notable clauses in the Government’s eightfold manifesto – “Freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and the right to form unions and to strike and the extension of political freedom to persons serving in the armed forces limited only by the demands of military and technical circumstances”; and “The abolition of all restrictions based on class, religion, and nationality.” seemed extremely liberal and progressive. However, because of the perception of the Provisional Government as a transitional one, many of the laws and regulations they passed weren’t taken seriously by the public or by other parties, with one contemporary observer even calling it the “Persuasive Government” as it often had to resort to cajoling and convincing to get things done. This perception is evidence for the argument that the Provisional Government was not, in fact, responsible for its own downfall, but was rather a victim of societal perception and transitory instability. Furthermore, the fact that the Provisional Government had to share its power with the Soviet further weakened it in the eyes of the public. The Soviet was looked at far more favourably than the Provisional Government by workers and peasants – proved by the loyalty of the Petrograd Garrison to the former. The Petrograd Garrison was particularly significant, as its role in the February Revolution and usurping of the Tsar made it synonymous with freedom and change, and the fact that it was associated with the Soviet and not the Provisional Government greatly undermined the latter.
The divisions within the Provisional Government also contributed to its downfall. The contradictory objectives of the parties that the Provisional Government was comprised of led to its ineffectiveness and lack of cohesive decision- and policy-making. Made up of leading figures from the Kadets and other liberal parties, the Provisional Government had been chosen by a committee of the Duma and not elected by the people. These Kadets were hardly united – some of the Kadets, even including their leader Milyukov, had more right-leaning ideas. They believed that the revolution was over in March and that now was the time to set up a constitutional framework with a democratically elected, but central government. Milyukov – who was both War Minister and the leader of the Kadets – also wanted to continue the war with the aim of making territorial gains if the Allies won. However, leftist Kadets believed that the revolution still had a long way to go, and there was a need for much greater reform with people playing a larger, more significant role in government. These divisions also led to the most crucial delay of elections to the Constituent Assembly. Though the political parties agreed on main principles of the election (proportional representation, universal suffrage and secret ballot) in May and a special electoral commission composed of multiple lawyers and legal experts was set up and September 17, 1917 was set as the election date, none of this ever went through. The new Constituent Assembly was supposed to have its first meeting on September 30, 1917, but in July the left-wing parties increased their pressure on the Provisional Government, reaching a nearly insurrectionist situation. In the end, the left consented to a further postponement, and a new date for the election was set by the Provisional Government – November 12. However, the people, fed up of the constant delays and guided by the Bolsheviks revolted before this could ever take place – in the historic October Revolution.
The decision made by the head of the Provisional Government Prince George Lvov to release all political prisoners should have been a point in favour of the government, but proved to be arguably the largest reason for their downfall – for amongst these recently released political prisoners was none other than Vladimir Lenin, the biggest threat to the Provisional Government. The argument is that if the Provisional Government wasn’t responsible for their own downfall, Lenin most certainly was – but in having released Lenin, the blame seems to fall back on them. With the return of Lenin and his April Theses mapping out a new future for Russia, and his attack of the Bolshevik party for supporting the Provisional Government, arguing that revolutionaries should be telling the people of Russia that they should take over the control of the country, and not siding with “oppressive” governments, Russia was thrust into a new chapter of history. The Bolsheviks, having being reformed by Lenin, turned into a beacon of revolution and their popularity amongst peasants and workers soared. They earned majorities in two of the most important Soviets – the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets, and experienced a rapid increase in membership – with it increasing from 10,000 to 250,000 members. The Bolshevik promise of ‘bread, peace, and land’ resonated with peasants deprived of all of these under both the Tsars and now the Provisional Government, and fuelled a movement even the strongest of governments could perhaps have not easily opposed. This supports the argument that it was not the Provisional Government, but the Bolsheviks’ popularity that caused the former’s downfall. On the other hand, however, Alexander Kerensky’s appointment as Minister of War, and the resultant issues that arose such as the Kornilov affair are strong arguments for the fact that the Provisional Government was responsible for its own downfall. Kerensky inherited a litany of problems – the liberals in the Provisional Government moving right, the army disintegrating, land seizures continuing in earnest, increasing support for Bolsheviks, increasing lawlessness, a deteriorating economy were issues that only got worse as the months went by. In order to help control these overflow of maladies, he decided that the only course of action would have to be to implement strong disciplinary measures in the army, and restore law and order within cities. To this end he appointed a new Supreme Commander of the Russian Forces, General Kornilov. He believed that Kornilov would bring trustworthy troops into Petrograd and quell rebellions or unrest. However, Kornilov had ulterior motives – he believed this was the perfect opportunity for him to crush the radical socialists, prevent the worst excesses of the revolution, and restore order and authority in Petrograd. Kerensky, desperate to prevent stop Kornilov had to resort to calling on the Bolshevik Red Guard (militia trained secretly by the Bolsheviks) to stop Kornilov. The effects of this were monumental – Kerensky’s reputation was irretrievably damaged, the Menshevik and Socialist leaders were denounced by association, soldiers murdered hundreds of officers, and most importantly, the Bolsheviks gained a wave of popular support. These implications that arose from Kerensky’s actions from within the Provisional Government place the blame quite firmly in their court. The interesting question though is, was the Bolshevik seizure of power caused by the weakness of the Provisional Government, or was their power what caused the downfall of it? This chicken and egg question certainly proves very difficult to answer.
The problems that faced the Provisional Government – demands for complete redistribution of land, radical social reform, demands for autonomy and independence of national minorities, conflicting views about the war – were problems bound to stump even the strongest and most legitimate of governments – let alone a temporary one with hardly any powers to make such drastically significant decisions. Furthermore, them having to share power with the Soviets who were the people’s representatives greatly delegitimised them further, as the Government’s decisions were hardly ever taken seriously. On the other hand, however, the Kadets had blocked any measures that would have otherwise made the Government far more popular, such as siding with landowners and antagonising peasants, supporting the war aggressively despite popular demand to end it, and siding with employers against workers over workers’ working conditions. The proof for the fact that the Provisional Government was responsible for its own downfall is overwhelming, with factors such as Lenin and the rise of the Bolsheviks only being catalysts for this end. However, the evidence becomes less damning as one realises that the Provisional Government, while responsible for its own downfall, cannot be blamed for it, as it was inevitable from the start.