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A New Government at Sea

Prime Minister Georgy Lvov, March 1917. (Public Domain/Wikimedia)
The first cabinet meeting of the Provisional Government reveals their utter unpreparedness to lead.

Editor’s Note: The following piece is excerpted from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel, Node III: March 1917, Book 3, newly translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, and reprinted with permission from the University of Notre Dame Press. The Red Wheel is Solzhenitsyn’s multivolume epic work about the Russian Revolution told in the form of dramatized history. This excerpt depicts the first meeting, on March 17, 1917, of the helpless Council of Ministers of the new Provisional Government headed by sundry liberals and socialists. In a matter of hours, they heedlessly sweep away much of the state and police apparatus of a vast empire while Prime Minister Georgi Lvov, a soft and ineffectual left-liberal, muses about how a truly free society shouldn’t need hierarchy or authority.

Each had his own ministry, where he spent his time, and had already moved or was moving to his official apartment or had decided when or whether he would (Shingarev was not going to at all), but where were they supposed to gather for joint meetings? The Tauride Palace made no sense now. By accepting Lvov’s offer to temporarily meet at the Ministry of the Interior near the Chernyshev Bridge, they had quit for good the shelter of the Duma that had promoted nearly all of them, leaving its filthy halls to the unattached Duma remnants and the growing numbers of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

Where did they now find they had moved? Back to Protopopov’s again? An ill-starred connection! The chairs where he had presided with his accomplices were still warm.

The ministers’ session started at noon—and went on nearly to midnight, with an hour’s break at dusk. Some of the ministers—Guchkov, Milyukov, Kerensky—either didn’t come at the beginning, or went off on business and returned, while the others sat as if shackled to those chairs, many with no idea at all of where they were to begin in their ministry: hoping to get some clarity here. Strangely, though, while accustomed to sessions and knowing the procedure, they were now going round and round on an unstoppable and confused carousel, and over the course of the whole day never did understand whether they had an agenda or what they wanted.

The well-known Kadet Nabokov, Milyukov’s friend, took up the duties of the Provisional Government’s executive secretary, set up a chancellery for them, and in this way created firm guidelines for government activity. But the chancellery clerks had showed up for the first time today, and the first minutes, still rough, were in progress, and they hadn’t decided how to proceed: include dissenting opinions and the vote tally, or just the result?

They all realized they had to begin with major issues of principle and then everything else would come clear. But not in a single head, dusted with the fuss, patchiness, and jerkiness of these past few days, did a single issue become clear—not even how to formulate it. Besides, today was just the first night they’d slept, and they weren’t over their exhaustion.

Surely there must have been something, though. Oh, there was.

They sat around the big table, stretching significance over their faces.

Yes, apparently there was a big question, much bigger? The Constituent Assembly!

Specifically: in which building would we convene it?

Although there were quite a few buildings of all kinds in the capital, what immediately came to mind was the Winter Palace.

The Winter Palace in and of itself was a major problem. What was to be done with it now? Declare it a national property—that was certain. But what did it contain? No one knew or had seen it from the inside. Deputies from the First Duma had been in the Throne Room once for a meeting with the czar.

“Me! Me!” Kerensky jumped up like a delighted schoolboy. “I’ll inspect the palace and report to you.”

Well, then, fine. Thus one big question was decided right away.

And now a second big question became clear: Shouldn’t they address the entire country somehow? So far they’d spoken in the Ekaterininsky Hall and from the front steps of the Tauride Palace, and they’d sent a wireless telegram to the West “to everyone, everyone, everyone”—but shouldn’t they present themselves to Russia, too, tell them what events had occurred in Petrograd, how the new government had arisen, and what its program was (other than the eight points the Soviet had compelled)? Officer delegations had already approached the prime minister and ministers, saying that it was essential to broadly inform the masses, that the soldiers and the people were both starting to listen on the streets to accusations that the Provisional Government were traitors, they wanted to betray the people to the old regime, and they were resisting a republican system! The Provisional Government had to distribute millions of leaflets dispelling these charges; otherwise it would be impossible for officers to serve it.

Writing a major appeal, though, is not that easy. You aren’t going to write it at the table in a group of ten. It has to be assigned to some one person.

Milyukov had already written the wireless telegram. The overburdened Guchkov—it was awkward even to suggest it. All the more so to the prime minister. While Kerensky was too much in motion, coming and going impatiently, he had to be in so many places, and if there was something he was good at, they’d already noticed, it was talking, not writing. It would be quite befitting to assign the writing of the proclamation to the Minister of Education, the universally respected Aleksandr Apollonovich Manuilov, an undoubted luminary. When Manuilov was removed as rector from Moscow University by the raging reactionary Сasso, the entire liberal professorhood resigned in his wake, considering it impossible to work under anyone else, while Manuilov himself was immediately invited to The Russian Gazette. But as the years went by, people noted with disappointment that he hadn’t quite shone at the Gazette, and had even turned out not to be of a bellicose nature, and this became especially clear during the present bellicose days. But who else could write it? Who else had a good pen? And here he sat wanly, tersely, and for some reason refused. He was now busy, perhaps, firing all the professors who had come in under Casso.

So now by process of elimination . . . the very good prime minister smiled charmingly: Shall we assign the proclamation’s writing to Nikolai Vissarionovich Nekrasov?

As soon as his name was uttered (and not theirs), everyone liked it. Nekrasov frowned slightly, but importantly, too. Writing, composing—this wasn’t his work, either, but he immediately decided to head it up and seat someone else at this business.

Approved.

Guchkov sat there sullen, propping his head up on the table by his elbows. They should have been talking about Order No. 1. About the Soviet of Deputies’ effrontery. That neither a war minister nor an entire government could function this way. But even Guchkov himself had still not sorted out all the circumstances and figures, had not tested all his possible powers. What could he unload on these helpless civilians? They couldn’t do anything anyway.

Of all the thoughts and plans he had had these past few days, only one could be expressed clearly while still in the spirit of the revolution pleasant to all: in promoting lower ranks to officer, eliminate ethnic, confessional, and political restrictions. That is, open admission to the cadet academies and officer ranks to Jews.

“Yes, yes!” the Minister of Education perked up, cheered up. “Also immediately eliminate the Jewish quota in educational institutions! And restore the right to continue their education to those removed for political unreliability.”

Approved unanimously.

But no one had immediately identified any other major issues.

Now Kerensky (he was in a hurry) had a few questions concerning justice. First of all (he proposed it orally, there was no time to write up a document, that was for later), a Superior Court had to be instituted for top officials.

Fine, institute it. Assign someone to write it up.

And he said who exactly were to be appointed to that bench. (And then skipped off.)

Tereshchenko hastened to catch the session’s attention. (He’d already come up with a ploy: everything he didn’t understand he would pose as a question to the united government. And if it turned out to be wrong, then they would answer for it, not him.) To begin with, he encouraged his colleagues, saying that the creation of a government of popular trust had already had the most favorable effect on Russia’s credit-worthiness. Not only England and America, which had so reluctantly given money to the czar and were now overjoyed at our democratic order, but even the Japanese currency market was now open to our state loans!

Marvelous.

For this must we confirm that our Provisional Government is inviolably responsible for all the financial obligations of the previous one? Yes, we’ll have to.

But for now . . . Should we increase the State Bank’s right to issue bank-notes by, say . . . 2 billion rubles? According to Mikhail’s text of abdication, the Provisional Government had that fullness of power. Well, then. They wrote this down. Simultaneously, the economy: cease the issuing of credits for any secret expenditures. Oh, no more secret expenditures, of course! Henceforth, everything would be open. Then: Can’t we cut expenditures from the war fund? Hmm. Hmm. . . . (Guchkov wasn’t there, he’d left.) This was for the ministers of finance and war to consider jointly. Subsidies for war victims? For now, for a week, continue as we have and then we’ll discuss it. And all the state pensions allocated under the old regime? Gentlemen, for now we’ll have to keep them. We cannot so abruptly . . . They’ve been doing the bureaucratic heavy lifting all their lives, they’re burdened with families. Many, after all, would have to be removed from their posts. But what does that mean? Must we pay their pensions? We can’t abandon them like crabs on a shoal.

What are we to do with the State Council? It has nothing to do now. But it has worthy members—and why should they be deprived of their salaries or pensions because of the revolution?

One would obviously like to pay additional rewards to all employees of government institutions. It’s such a difficult time, after all. . . . Approved.

But then the normal influx of taxes, duties, and assessments takes on significance. In this stormy time, people might stop paying. Should we write an appeal to the populace about paying taxes?

No. No, let’s wait a while. . . . This is an unpleasant appeal and could undermine our government’s authority at its very first step.

So, transfer the property of the His Majesty’s Personal Cabinet to the Ministry of Finance. . . .

Yes, gentlemen! But to whom shall we transfer all the property of the Ministry of the Court? And charge of the palaces? And administration of the Appanages?

Appoint a special Provisional Government commissar.

Gentlemen. Gentlemen! We are going to have to appoint a great many more commissars, and to all kinds of places. What about to the State Horse-Breeding Administration? And the management of the Philanthropic Society and the institutions of the Empress Maria?

We have to confirm all the commissars appointed so far under the Duma Committee if they are still in those posts.

Sitting among the ministers, as their equal, but next to Prince Lvov, was gray, colorless Shchepkin, administrator for the Ministry of the Interior, inasmuch as Prince Georgi Evgenich himself, given his busy schedule and responsibility . . . Now he slipped a register to the prince, and the prince (who was chairman of the Union of Zemstvos) graciously stated that the current expenditures of the Union of Zemstvos had to be approved, well, here was 175 million rubles . . .

No objections.

What should be done with the Chief Administration for the Press? Eliminate it! There can never be any censorship in Russia again! Maybe leave the foreign-clippings bureau.

What should be done with the Chief Committee on Railway Security? Eliminate it, naturally.

And—whoever remembered what. They should dismiss the military-hospitals inspector. Fine, there will be a resolution to that effect. We should eliminate, Rodichev requested as he was leaving, the general imperial legislation on Finland. They did. (No one yet had a single written note, all the requests were first passed and then drafts were assigned to be written up.)

Nekrasov, too, was anxious to advance his proposals, realizing the occasion could not be let slip. He was preparing an increase in wages for all rail transport workers. Yes, they’d earned it.

Shingarev barely participated, burdened by his own thoughts and looking at his own papers. What he saw and proposed was this: although the agriculture minister in the narrow sense should not deal with the Empire’s food supply, right now, as long as there was no separate food ministry, there was no one other than him to which to assign this. And he would take it on. Well then, everyone agreed.

But he also proposed stopping the insane destruction of German landholdings, the best cultivated farms. Stop the eviction of Germans.

But wouldn’t this look like an unpatriotic act? . . .

It was only the summaries that were easy to retell, but how many doubts, worries, and side considerations there were here! Five, seven, nine hours of the session of the first free public cabinet went by.

Weren’t there any other problems from the Ministry of the Interior? Dear, pliant, clear-eyed Prince Georgi Evgenich understood that there were perhaps a few, which should also be touched upon. What about the Okhrana? Well, that disbanded of its own accord during the first few days. The separate Corps of Gendarmes? Unquestionably, we are getting rid of this stain and will decree so immediately. The railroad police? Well, inasmuch as they all belong formally to the gendarmerie, we are getting rid of them, too. (It would be excellent to send them all to the army.)

There remained another such detail: what about the provinces? Oh, obviously, we are getting rid of the police throughout the country by a single decree. As the Duma had always demanded, they can all be sent to the army.

But then, get rid of city governors everywhere?

Yes, of course, them, too.

And the governors. And the vice governors.

Yes! Yes! Dismiss everyone at once, throughout Russia, with a single telegram directive.

Someone piped up: Do we have that right? Are we authorized?

Our authority has no limits until the Constituent Assembly.

Does the Ministry of the Interior have candidates at the ready to administer each province?

No, there are no such candidates. But it would be undemocratic to appoint them from above or prepare them in advance. For simplicity’s sake, appoint all the zemstvo board chairmen—for the 80 zemstvo provinces and 800 districts—commissars of the Provisional Government. There’s your solution!

Thus it was decided. Remove the governors, city governors, and all the police. And this wholly in accord with our democratic program. The old police are utterly intolerable! And if someone needs it, let them create a local people’s militia.

“But gentlemen!” Prince Lvov smiled radiantly. “Why do we need any police at all? Why does a free state need police at all? Does a conscious people really need that?”

As Lev Tolstoy taught, all misfortune stems from authority. We need no authority.

No one objected.

The rest of the administrative mechanism, well, within tolerable limits, can be kept. To maintain at least a normal course of life in the country.

Prince Lvov, if he experienced any awkwardness in his new position, consoled himself by saying he’d succeeded at every endeavor, ultimately. Gradually, he would at this one, too. Gradually, political figures’ good sense would take the upper hand, as would the profound wisdom of the Russian people and the divine principle that lived in their soul.

*  *  *

“HEY, AKULINA, YOU’RE SEWING’S COCKEYED.”

“DON’T WORRY, MA, I’LL DO IT OVER RIGHT.”

*  *  *

© 2021 by University of Notre Dame

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