One story relates how Kornilov was originally born as a Don Cossack Kalmyk named Lorya Dildinov and adopted in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Russian Turkestan (now Kazakhstan) by the family of his mother's brother, the Russian Cossack Khorunzhiy George Kornilov, whose wife was of Kazakh origin. But his sister wrote that he had not been adopted, had not been a Don Cossack, and that their mother had Polish and Altai Oirot descent. (Though their language was not a Kalmyk/Mongolian one, but because of their Asian race and their history in the Jungar Oirot (Kalmyk) state, Altai Oirots were called Altai Kalmyks by Russians.
They were not Muslims or Kazakhs.) But Boris Shaposhnikov, who served with Petr Kornilov, the brother of Lavr, in 1903, mentioned the "Kyrgyz" ancestry of their mother - this name was usually used in reference to Kazakhs in 1903. Kornilov's Siberian Cossack father was a friend of Potanin (1835-1920), a prominent figure in the Siberian autonomy movement.
Kornilov entered military school in Omsk in 1885 and went on to study at the Mikhailovsky Artillery School in St. Petersburg in 1889. In August 1892 he was assigned as a lieutenant to the Turkestan Military District, where he led several exploration missions in Eastern Turkestan, Afghanistan and Persia, learned several Central Asian languages, and wrote detailed reports about his observations.
He graduated from the Mikhailovsky Artillery College in 1892 and completed the General Staff Academy in 1898.
Following his staff training, Kornilov participated in mapping expeditions to Chinese Turkestan and eastern Persia. He served as an intelligence officer in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War, remaining in Asia as a military attaché in Peking, 1907-11.
At the beginning of World War I, Kornilov was a brigade commander in the Eighth Army under General Brusilov. He soon acquired a reputation for toughness and personal bravery, but his superior officers also noted Kornilov's clumsiness and frequent insubordination in responding to orders from above. During the Austro-German offensive at Gorlice (May 1915), Kornilov, as commander of the Forty-eighth Infantry Division, failed to withdraw from his position east of the enemy breakthrough and was trapped in the Carpathians. The rash young general spent over a year as a prisoner of war. He escaped from his confinement in Hungary in the summer of 1916, made his way back to Russia, and found himself welcomed as a hero by the public and the imperial court. In a country starved for military victories, the first Russian general to escape from enemy hands qualified as an instant celebrity. He was rewarded with command of an army corps.
While in his prisoner-of-war camp, Kornilov had railed against liberal parliamentary leaders like Miliukov and Guchkov, who he thought were undercutting the nation's war effort. Nonetheless, he initially accepted the March 1917 Revolution, along with many other army leaders, hoping the ouster of the monarchy would energize both the army and the home front. Kornilov was chosen by leaders of the provisional government to command the Petrograd Military District. It was an unhappy appointment. They wanted an authoritative figure to calm the city's radicalized garrison; Kornilov wanted to use methods a liberal regime could not tolerate. He soon resigned in disgust when he was not allowed to use heavy weapons to end popular demonstrations against Miliukov. Embittered with weak parliamentarians who could not contain the revolution, he departed to resume active duty on the southwestern front.
Kornilov's Eighth Army performed creditably in the unsuccessful July offensive, and he was rewarded with meteoric advancement. Now promoted a general of infantry, he barely had time to settle in as the new front commander when Premier Kerensky elevated him in early August to supreme commander. Kornilov's advancement was due less to his abilities as a strategist and director of military operations than to his vocal insistence that discipline in the crumbling armies be rebuilt at any cost. He called for the restoration of the death penalty in the army, and, meanwhile, ordered machine guns and artillery fire turned on troops who retreated without orders. Kornilov was soon calling for martial law on Russia's railroads as part of a sweeping program to restore national order for the sake of the war effort.
Kornilov's political naivete soon led him into a complex confrontation with Kerensky, whose own authority was crumbling. By late August both hoped to reconstitute the Russian government on authoritarian lines; each expected to be the strongman of the new regime. Kornilov massed troops near Petrograd with Kerensky's consent; but, against the prime minister's wishes, the general marched on the capital in early September. Kerensky turned to the political Left, notably the antiwar Bolsheviks, for aid, a move that seriously undermined his own government. Kornilov found his forces collapsing as they tried to advance; railroad workers held up their trains; Bolshevik agitators surrounded the troops and dissolved the discipline that held Kornilov's own forces together. The renegade general was arrested in mid-September, and the decline of the provisional government continued.
Sympathetic military leaders released Kornilov from confinement at Bykhov near Supreme Headquarters at Mogilev, fearing that the rebel general would fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, who held control of the government after the November Revolution. Kornilov fled to the Don in early December. There he intended to raise a new army; with it, he hoped to throw the Bolsheviks from power and to lead Russia anew into battle against the Germans. He helped create the nucleus of a potent White movement, but the young general did not live to see it develop. Kornilov was killed at Ekaterinodar, to the northeast of the Black Sea, April 13, 1918, during an early skirmish between his White force and pro-Bolshevik Red Guards.