‘To what extent is it true to say the Provisional Government faced an impossible task?’
Although the Romanov Dynasty had ruled Russia for over 300 years, once its demise had begun it took only a few days for Tsardom to fall. Immediately after this collapse the whole country seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as it entered into a ‘honeymoon’ period during which time exuberance and celebration was rife throughout Russia. However, the fact remained that although hopes and expectations were high regarding how Russia’s new government could better the lives of the Russian people and the future of Russia itself, the new Provisional Government still had to face those same problems that the Tsarist government had failed to solve; such as the ever deteriorating economy, the social unrest and the diabolical living standards in the towns and cities, all of which were exacerbated by Russia’s involvement in the war. The newly formed Provisional Government also had problems of its own to face, such as its controversial claims to legitimacy and the threat posed to it by the possible return of some of Russia’s most dangerous and influential exiles. Some historians believe that the Provisional Government faced an impossible task, due to the troubles it inherited but also due to the mistakes that the Provisional Government itself made which worsened the condition of the task they faced. Given these circumstances then, it is perhaps not surprising that the Provisional Government struggled to deliver what was expected and it has even been argued that when the Provisional Government took control over Russia it inherited a ‘poison chalice’, but to what extent is this the case and to what extent did the Provisional Government themselves contribute to making their own task impossible?
The sheer difficulty of the task facing the new Provisional Government was made worse upon its formation; when the Provisional Government was experiencing its first hours in power. The Provisional Government was made up entirely of middle and upper class members, most of whom were freemasons, meaning they were happy to help each other out but not so happy to look out for anybody outside their new government. This meant that they were not very democratic; a fault which immediately struck a chord in the hearts and minds of those Russians who had so apposed the Romanov Dynasty’s autocratic rule and who were desperate for democracy, because to them it seemed that although the Provisional Government was barely hours old, it held already an air of being a product of the old regime.
The fact that the Provisional Government was made up of the bourgeoisie and the upper classes also created another very early onset problem for them, as in this one move they managed to alienate the majority of the Russian population. In 1917 over 80% of Russia was made up of peasants, which meant that the new Provisional Government was out of touch with the majority of Russia. This lead to an increase in the difficulty of the task facing the Provisional Government as the lower classes were immediately resentful towards them, making them less likely to accept the leadership of the Provisional Government and therefore more likely to rebel against it, a great worry for the Provisional Government as although the lower classes and peasantry had little legal status, they were indeed the masses and therefore physical rebellion if posed by them would be definite threat to the Provisional Government.
Another factor which increased the extent to which the Provisional Government faced an impossible task, was the fact that as well as being completely out of touch and unrepresentative of the majority of the Russian population the Provisional Government, as an unelected body, lacked legitimacy. This was a difficult problem to tackle and it proved an important factor in the downfall of the Provisional Government. Rather than being elected, the government had in fact come into being as a rebellious committee of the old Duma, who had refused to dissolve at the tsar’s orders, meaning that it lacked legitimate authority. It also had no constitutional claim to the loyalty of the Russian people and, as it was a completely newly formed government with no previous successes to its name, it would be judged entirely on how well it dealt with Russia’s problems. The fact that the Provisional Government suffered from this lack of legitimacy made their task even more complex as it meant that they had to earn the support, the respect and the cooperation of the Russia people rather than them being legally entitled to it, therefore increasing the pressure and expectation which was upon them. It also meant that the Provisional Government had to be careful in their decision making, as any brash or extreme decisions could cause the ordinary people of the country to question their legitimacy and rebel against their word. In relation to the issue of authenticity and legitimacy the government promised elections for a Constituent Assembly, however they continuously delayed them in the knowledge that if elections were ever held, then they would probably be replaced. This reluctance was seen by most Russians as an attempt by the bourgeois ministers to hang on to power and it cost the Provisional Government greatly as it made the task they faced harder by increasing the resentment and anger felt by the majority of the Russian people towards them.
The biggest challenge to the authority of the Provisional Government however was the existence of the soviets, particularly the Petrograd Soviet, and this increased the extent to which they faced an impossible task because it meant that they could not get on with solving the country’s problems without worrying about their unofficial partnership with the Petrograd Soviet limiting and even undermining their authority. Initially, the soviet showed no hostilities towards the Provisional Government and there was even a considerable degree of liaison between them, with some individuals playing prominent roles in both the soviet and the government such as the SR leader Alexander Kerensky, who was for a time chairman of the soviet as well as a minister in the Provisional Government. However, despite the fact that the soviet did not set out to be an alternative government, instead regarding its role as a watching brief, checking that the soldier’s and worker’s interests were fully understood by the new government, in the uncertain times that followed the February Revolution the Provisional Government’s awareness of their own lack of authority became increasingly evident which led to the accentuating of the power-potential held by the soviet.
The Petrograd Soviet was the strongest and also the closest threat facing the authority of the Provisional Government as the two bodies met in different wings of the same building, the Tauride Palace. Soon after its formation, the Soviet passed Soviet Order Number One on March 1st, which included instructions to the soldiers and which stated that ‘all military units were to elect committees from their members’, ‘all military units were to elect representatives to the Petrograd Soviet’, ‘the orders of the Petrograd Soviet should take priority over the orders of the Provisional Government’ and that ‘all weapons were to be controlled by the military committees and not to be given to officers’. This order highlights another reason which amplified the extent to which the Provisional Government faced an impossible task because it shows the very distrust of the Provisional Government felt by workers and soldiers in Petrograd from the very start. The order also greatly undermined the Provisional Government in the minds of ordinary Russian people because it is commonplace of history that any government that does not have direct control of its army cannot wield real power, which meant that the Provisional Government lacked ultimate control and were forced to compromise with the Soviet. This factor would not have endeared them to the Russian people, nor would it have done anything to help the fact that they were supposed to be trying to gain their respect and support, as it showed the Provisional Government as being weak and unable to assert themselves. The biggest challenge from the Soviet to the Provisional Government’s authority however, came as the news of the Tsar’s fall spread, causing soviets to be elected all over Russia who soon started sending representatives to the Petrograd Soviet. The Soviet could now claim to be more representative that the Provisional Government itself, which came as a massive blow to the Government because it made it even harder for them to get the Russian people on their side; to support them and to obey them.
Another great threat to the Provisional Government was the leader of the Bolshevik party, Lenin. In the months after the February Revolution up until April 1917, the Petrograd Bolsheviks had accepted the Dual Authority as part of a genuine revolution and they had been willing to work with other revolutionary and reformist parties, however Lenin’s return changed all that. On his arrival at Petrograd’s Finland Station on April 3rd, he stood up in front of the crowd and condemned the recently formed Provisional Government, claiming that the February Revolution, far from giving Russia political freedom, had simply created a ‘parliamentary-bourgeois republic’. He went on to release his April Theses in which he rejected the idea of a dual authority and stated that the Revolution had not been genuine at all, but rather had been a coup which had given the authority to ex-tsarist aristocrats and the bourgeoisie alone. The return of Lenin caused chaos amongst the Bolsheviks as he slowly but surely began to convince them that the Government needed to be overthrown in a second, genuine revolution. Lenin’s return added to the difficulty of the task faced by the Provisional Government as it lead to newly fuelled criticisms of their membership, authority and policies and it pushed their task further towards the impossible as it began to turn more and more people against them.
As well as the new problems created around the time of the formation of the Provisional Government which moved their task further towards the impossible, they were also faced with the old problems they had inherited from the Tsarist government before them. Land had been a central issue in Russia for years, and the peasant’s discontent with the system had been building over the years leading to the February Revolution. Now that the revolution had finally occurred, the peasants expected their land. However, despite the government setting up a committee to advise on future policy this committee soon decided that only the Constituent Assembly could make policy, meaning that the land question was left as it was. This caused the anger and bitterness felt towards the Provisional Government by the peasants to increase still further, as they felt that they once again had been ignored and some of them even started illegally seizing land. This increased pressure on the government and made their task harder still as a rebellion by the masses would almost certainly lead to their downfall as the peasants made up such a great percentage of the population and so it was important to keep them contented.
Another problem the Provisional Government had inherited which made the task they faced all the more difficult was urban discontent. Inflation shot up in 1917 as a result of Russia’s involvement in the War and wages could not keep pace. This meant that Russia’s towns and cities became places of extreme poverty. People were forced to live in extremely dirty, cramped and unhygienic conditions, sometimes with up to 8 or 9 people all sharing one room. The problem of terrible living conditions was a huge task in itself for the Provisional Government, as it affected such a large percentage of the population and was not easily solved due to Russia’s rising inflation, falling wages and extreme economic distress. They did grant an eight-hour day, which they hoped would appease the workers and keep them from rebelling, however this was only one small advance made by the government and was not enough to resolve the workers discontent and restlessness towards the government.
One problem which seems to justify the view that when the Provisional Government took over they inherited a ‘poison chalice’ and one which gives great weight to the idea that the Provisional Government did in fact face an impossible task is the state Russia’s economy had reached by early 1917. Between 1914 and 1917 over 17,000 million roubles were spent on the war effort and the national budget multiplied by nearly eight times during this period, from 4 million roubles in 1913 to 30 million in 1916. The gold standard had been abandoned meaning that the tsarist government had been able to put more notes in circulation, resulting in money becoming practically worthless and in severe inflation. This in itself had caused all sorts of problems for Russia, most importantly it had created extreme poverty due to wages being worthless, starvation because the peasants gained nothing from selling their stocks so began to hoard them instead and major disruptions in the army as the soldiers were ill equipped. However, despite the severe economic state of Russia being one of her biggest and most urgent problems at the time, the Provisional Government could do nothing to improve the situation until they pulled out of the war which they were not prepared to do. Even if they had done, Russia’s economy was so terrible that it is a wonder if the Provisional Government, or indeed any other political body, would actually have been able to make many steps towards fixing it, therefore giving weight to the notion that the Provisional Government were faced with an impossible task, especially in this area of the economy.
The War was also contributed to making the Provisional Government’s task seem impossible. The Petrograd Soviet in March called for a ‘peace without annexations or indemnities’ and agreed a policy of ‘revolutionary defensism’ which was similar to the ‘Declaration of War Aims’ agreed on March 27th by the Provisional Government. However the Foreign Minister, Miliukov, also promised the allies that the government would honour its promises to them to continue the war to ‘decisive victory’ which caused a storm of protest in Petrograd during which time angry demonstrations of armed soldiers and workers fought with supports of the war on the streets of the capital. It has been thought that the government had been too preoccupied with the war to deal adequately with Russia’s social and economic problems which ironically were being worsened by Russia’s involvement in the war, providing evidence for the notion that they did indeed face an impossible task because from the start the Provisional Government was in an unworkable and paradoxical situation; in order to survive it had to keep Russia in the war, but in keeping Russia in the war it destroyed its chances of survival.
The fact that the majority of Russia wanted to pull out of the war, but that the Provisional Government didn’t, pushed their task still further towards the impossible. Most of Russia were tired of war, and refused to accept that winning the war was worth the low morale, starvation, poverty and general suffering that they were experiencing. The government however, wanted to remain in the war for fear that if they pulled out they would lose not only land to the Germans, but that they would also lose Russia’s foreign investors, which were an essential part of Russia’s economy. The fact that the government refused to listen to the wants of the ordinary Russian people in relation to the war right from the very start made them reluctant to obey the Provisional Government and many began to challenge its authenticity.
In conclusion, the claim that the Provisional Government faced an impossible task holds great weight and was almost certainly true towards the end of the Provisional Government’s reign, however it didn’t necessarily start out this way. Although Russia’s economic turmoil and social problems together faced the new Provisional Government with an extremely difficult and complex task, the task they faced may have been solved by another assembly had they been left in charge of the country, but the Provisional Government’s continuous mistakes and problems eventually led to their task becoming impossible. Had they not faced accusations over their authenticity and legitimacy, or hostilities towards their wholly middle and upper class membership they would almost certainly have had a better beginning to their period in office and could have enjoyed a higher chance of survival. As it stands however, the Provisional Government were unable to cope with the problems which they had inherited from the Romanovs, let alone the fresh problems that began to stack up against them once in office such as their uncertain claims to legitimacy and the threat posed to them by the Petrograd Soviet and the return of dangerous Russian exiles, and eventually they managed to turn a task which had started out as being almost impossible but not quite, into one which was completely unachievable.