War and the revolution

Submitted by Matthew on 31 May, 2017 - 10:27 Author: Leon Trotsky

Continuing a series of extracts from Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, this explains how the Provisional Government worked to keep Russia in the First World War.


On 23 March [1917] the United States entered the war. On that day Petrograd was burying the victims of the February revolution. Twenty-five days later — during which time the soviets had gained much experience and self-confidence — occurred the 1 May celebration (1 May according to the Western calendar, 18 April Russian calendar).

All the cities of Russia were drowned in meetings and demonstrations. Not only the industrial enterprises, but the state, city and rural public institutions were closed. The war had not yet come to an end; on the contrary it had only widened its circle. It was becoming harder and harder to live.

Prices had risen alarmingly; the workers were demanding a minimum wage; the bosses were resisting; the number of conflicts in the factories was continually growing; the food situation was getting worse; bread rations were being cut down; cereal cards had been introduced; dissatisfaction in the garrison had grown. The district staff, making ready to bridle the soldiers [send them to war], was removing the more revolutionary units from Petrograd.

On the day of America’s entry into the war, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Provisional Government Pavel Miliukov, greatly encouraged, developed his programme before the journalists: seizure of Constantinople, seizure of Armenia, division of Austria and Turkey, seizure of Northern Persia, and over and above all this, the right of nations to self-determination.

“In all his speeches” – thus the historian Miliukov explains Miliukov the minister – “he decisively emphasised the pacifist aims of the war of liberation, but always presented them in close union with the national problems and interests of Russia.” This interview disquieted the listeners, “When will the foreign policy of the Provisional Government cleanse itself of hypocrisy?” stormed the Menshevik paper. “Why does not the Provisional Government demand from the Allied governments an open and decisive renunciation of annexations?” What these people considered hypocrisy, was the frank language of the predatory. Frightened by the stirring of the democracy, Kerensky hastened to announce through the press bureau: “Miliukov’s programme is merely his personal opinion.”

That the author of this personal opinion happened to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs was, if you please, a mere accident. Tseretelli [Menshevik], who had a talent for solving every question with a commonplace, began to insist on the necessity of a governmental announcement that for Russia the war was exclusively one of defence. On March 27 the government gave birth to a declaration to the effect that “the goal of free Russia is not domination over other peoples, nor depriving them of their national heritage, nor violent seizure of alien territory,” but “nevertheless complete observance of the obligations undertaken to our Allies.”

That declaration of March 27 was welcomed not only by the entire Compromisers’ press, but even by the Pravda of Kamenev and Stalin. The English press immediately and with satisfaction interpreted Russia’s renunciation of annexations as her renunciation of Constantinople, by no means intending of course to extend this formula of renunciation to herself.

The Russian ambassador in London sounded the alarm, and demanded an explanation from Moscow to the effect that “the principle of peace without annexations is to be applied by Russia not unconditionally, but in so far as it does not oppose our vital interests.” But that, of course, was exactly the formula of Miliukov: “We promise not to rob anybody whom we don’t need to.”

The declaration of March 27, although totally empty, disquieted the Allies, who saw in it a concession to the Soviet. big game In the hope of help from the Allies, Miliukov had embarked on a big game. His fundamental idea was to use the war against the revolution, and the first task upon this road was to demoralise the democracy. But the Compromisers had begun just in the first days of April to reveal an increasing nervousness and fussiness upon questions of foreign policy, for upon these questions the lower classes were unceasingly pressing them. The government needed a loan. But the masses, with all their defencism, were ready to defend a peace loan but not a war loan. It was necessary to give them at least a peep at the prospect of peace.

Tseretelli proposed that they demand from the Provisional Government that it despatch a note to the Allies similar to the domestic declaration of March 27. In return for this, the Executive Committee would undertake to carry through the Soviet a vote for the “Liberty Loan.” Miliukov agreed to the exchange – the note for the loan – but decided to make a double use of the bargain. Under the guise of interpreting the declaration, his note disavowed it. It urged that the peace-loving phrases of the government should not give anyone “the slightest reason to think that the revolution which had occurred entailed a weakening of the rôle of Russia in the common struggle of the Allies. Quite the contrary- the universal desire to carry the world war through to a decisive victory had only been strengthened.”

The note further expressed confidence that the victors “will find a means to attain those guarantees and sanctions, which are necessary for the prevention of new bloody conflicts in the future.” That word about “guarantees and sanctions,” introduced at the insistence of Thomas, meant nothing less in the thieves’ jargon of diplomacy, especially French, than annexations and indemnities.

On the day of the May 1 celebration, Miliukov telegraphed his note, composed at the dictation of Allied diplomats, to the governments of the Entente. And only after this was it sent to the Executive Committee, and simultaneously to the newspapers.