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Kornilov affair

Kornilov greeted by his officers

The Kornilov affair, or the Kornilov putsch (Kornilov coup) as it is sometimes referred to, was an attempted military coup d'état by the then Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, General Lavr Kornilov, in August 1917 against the Russian Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky.


  • Background 1
  • Consequences 2
  • Historiography 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5


Following the revolution of February 1917, the Russian monarchy fell from power, replaced by a Provisional Government whose members came from various liberal and left-wing political parties, some previously represented in the Duma, and others in the Petrograd Soviet. The Government passed legislation that led even Lenin, one of its harshest critics, to declare Russia "the freest of all the belligerent countries".[1] However, the initial wave of support for the Provisional Government amongst the Russian people soon subsided and unrest grew, a result mainly of Russia's continued participation in the First World War and of the economic ramifications which the fighting had for Russian society. The demonstrations during the "July Days" sparked calls for a need for more discipline and for a stronger government - a resurgence occurred in right-wing feeling amongst sections of Russian society. Officers of the Russian Army, Kornilov amongst them, led these calls. The officers feared that ill-discipline amongst their troops accounted for the continued poor performance of the Russian army during the First World War. They demanded the reintroduction of the death penalty at the front line as well as the abolition of the various soldiers committees that had sprung up in the months following February. Unease also escalated amongst Russia's businessmen and industrialists, whilst even amongst the politicians who formed the Provisional Government support for the restoration of order was strong.


Following the failed coup, Kornilov was removed from his position as Commander-in-Chief and incarcerated in the Bykhov Fortress alongside 30 other army officers accused of involvement in the conspiracy. Shortly after the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, Kornilov managed to escape from Bykhov and went to establish the Volunteer Army, which fought the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. He was killed in battle against Bolshevik forces in the town of Ekaterinodar in April 1918.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the Kornilov Affair were the Bolshevik Party, who enjoyed a revival in support and strength in the wake of the attempted coup. Kerensky released Bolsheviks who had been arrested a few months earlier, when Leon Trotsky. Though these weapons were not needed to fight off Kornilov's advancing troops in August, they were kept by the Bolsheviks and used in their own successful armed insurrection of October 1917. Bolshevik support amongst the Russian public also increased following the Kornilov affair, a consequence of dissatisfaction with the Provisional Government and their handling of the affair.

Another important consequence of the Kornilov Affair is that it severed the tie between Kerensky and the military. For although the officer corps, confused about the issues and unwilling to defy the government openly, refused to join in Kornilov's mutiny, it despised Kerensky for his treatment of their commander, the arrest of many prominent generals and his pandering to the left.[2] When the Bolsheviks staged their revolution in October 1917 Kerensky appealed to the military to help defend the government from the insurrection but his appeal fell on deaf ears.


Several schools of thought surrounding the Kornilov Affair offer contrasting interpretations and have provoked debate among historians. One take on the Kornilov Affair was put forward by Aleksandr Kerensky himself, the main target of the coup. In the years after the event, Kerensky described the affair as a right wing conspiracy that "...developed slowly, systematically, with cool calculation of all the factors involved affecting its possible success or failure."[3] Kornilov, argued Kerensky, was drawn into this conspiracy long after the preparatory work had been completed. In a 1966 interview with Soviet journalist Genrikh Borovik, Kerensky expressed the view that Winston Churchill had played a central role in the conspiracy.[4]

In his 1970 work, The Kornilov Affair: A Reinterpretation, Harvey Asher suggests that Kerensky and Kornilov had an agreement to use the military to restore order within Russia. Asher then goes onto argue that, upon learning that Kornilov favoured the idea of a military dictatorship from Lvov, Kerensky reneged on their agreement for fear that he might be removed from power. Another interpretation of the Kornilov affair is that it was the result of a misunderstanding between Kerensky and Kornilov, caused by the interference of Vladimir Lvov.

The American historian Richard Pipes put forward another interpretation of the event in his work The Russian Revolution: 1899-1919. Pipes argued that far from there being a Kornilov plot there was in fact a "'Kerensky plot' engineered to discredit the general as the ringleader of an imaginary but widely anticipated counter revolution, the suppression of which would elevate the Prime Minister to a position of unrivalled popularity and power, enabling him to meet the growing threat from the Bolsheviks."[5]


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Further reading

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