After the end of the Russian February Revolution which resulted in the Tsar’s abdication, the Provisional Government turned their attention to the front. There they wished to organize a new offensive against the Germans, so as to coordinate their operation with their western allies. The offensive failed due to the disintegration of the Russian army. Many soldiers, sparked by the revolutionary spirit that had taken hold in Russia, and further agitated by the Bolsheviks, simply refused to fight. The Germans launched a counterattack and took all of the ground that Russia had won the previous year, plus the city of Riga. Internally Russia was plagued by problems, and it was only a matter of time before the Bolsheviks seized power.
Among the most prominent delegates of the Duma was Alexander Kerensky, an orator of considerable power who was appointed the new Minister of War. As Kerensky considered Mikhail Alekseyev to be tainted by his former close links to the Tsar, he appointed General Alexei Brusilov as Commander-in-Chief with responsibility for carrying out the offensives. Wishing to seize the moment, Brusilov was obliged to forego some of the detailed preparations that had made his 1916 offensive so successful. General Brusilov began an offensive in Galicia with the objective of retaking Lemberg.
Brusilov was facing a different opponent this time. The death of the elderly Emperor Franz Josef in November 1916 had brought the far more liberal figure of Karl I to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Karl was not impressed with his Chief of General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf’s performance in the war so far. In March 1917 he replaced him with General Arthur Arz von Straussenburg. By this time, however, the main authority in the Central Powers lay with the Germans, and von Straussenburg had little independence of action.
After a two-day bombardment, the Kerensky Offensive began with a flourish, with the attack of the Russian Seventh and Eleventh Armies on the South-West Front. When the infantry went over the top, early results were promising, but then everything started to go wrong. The attack petered out in ignominy, and further planned attacks were either cancelled or abandoned. Then a vigorous Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive was launched at Tarnopol in Galicia. The Russians broke and retreated in chaos.
Kerensky and Brusilov faced a major mutiny among the troops in mid-July. Hundreds of troops shot their officers, abandoned the front line, and retreated in disorganized but still armed bands into the Ukraine. The Provisional Government put down an unsuccessful attempt of armed workers, supported by the Bolsheviks, to seize power in Petrograd as the troop mutiny began. After the put-down during these July days, the Provisional Government had Leon Trotsky arrested. Finland declared independence from Russia, and Lenin found refuge from arrest there. After these events, Kerensky became Prime Minister.
On the Romanian Front, the situation was slightly better. The Romanian army had greatly improved, and was unaffected by the Russian revolution. Thus it was planned to use Romanian forces alongside Russian. Here the shock battalions were not used to lead, but were deployed behind the troops, to shoot any who ran away. The assault began, but the offensive was stopped by the new Russian Chief of Staff Lavr Kornilov. From then on only the Germans would attack. The Romanian army would successfully hold the front during the summer against the German onslaught.
The disaster of the Russian offensive triggered the replacement of Brusilov as Commander-in-Chief, by General Lavr Kornilov. The Russian Army was falling apart, and such attacks as had been carried out only served to cull the few remaining loyalist units still willing to actively prosecute the war.
Now Kerensky was sufficiently emboldened to try and seize more power, proclaiming himself Prime Minister and then declaring Russia a republic. There was further cause for tension when Kornilov determined to stamp out political influences within the Army. His demands triggered a political crisis in Petrograd, where the Soviets were already campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty altogether, while the more right-wing elements within the Provisional Government tended to support the hard-line Kornilov proposals. Kornilov demanded the restoration of martial law, backed up by the death penalty for a multiplicity of offences including all forms of political agitation within the ranks.
It was at this very point of crisis for the Russians that the Germans struck. The port of Riga in Latvia had long been a German objective, situated as it was at the mouth of the Dvina River on the Baltic coast. By this time the Russian Army was in an advanced state of disintegration. Many soldiers had deserted; those who had not were mostly beyond the control of their officers, and had killed many of them. In a matter of days, Riga fell into German hands.
The loss of Riga was a huge blow for the Russians. Kornilov chose to present it not as the result of German military skill, but rather as the consequence of the undermining activities by the Bolshevik conspirators within the ranks. These tactlessly expressed views brought him into conflict with Kerensky, who came to believe that Kornilov was about to launch a military counter-revolution. In the end, Kornilov could not generate sufficient support within the Army and he was peremptorily dismissed by Kerensky. He took on the title of Commander-in-Chief himself and rehabilitated General Mikhail Alekseyev to act as his Chief of General Staff.
During that autumn, Kerensky’s political position deteriorated still further in conjunction with the inexorable rise in popularity of the Bolsheviks. They were now seen as the only grouping that had consistently opposed the war, while their promises of widespread redistribution of land had an obvious attraction to ordinary workers and soldiers. They were also well organized, with the recently released Trotsky engaged in creating a strong armed militia known as the Red Guard.
The Germans launched Operation Albion, a brilliantly conceived combined operation to seize the Estonian islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Riga, which they successfully completed. The Germans were getting threateningly close to Petrograd, the Russian capital. It was then that Lenin and the Bolsheviks finally chose to make their move, breaking all their remaining links with the Provisional Government and launching the Bolshevik Revolution.
The thin facade of Kerensky’s government was soon cracked as armed Bolsheviks seized government buildings and grabbed control of communications and key commercial institutions. The Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government, was stormed and most of the delegates were swiftly arrested, although Kerensky himself managed to escape. By mid-November Moscow too had fallen to the Bolsheviks. Kerensky fled the country, never to return, although he would survive until 1970.