Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky was a Russian lawyer and key political figure in the Russian Revolution of 1917. After the February Revolution of 1917 he joined the newly formed Russian Provisional Government, first as Minister of Justice, then as Minister of War, and after July 1917 as the government's second Minister-Chairman. A leader of the moderate-socialist Trudoviks faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, he was also vice-chairman of
Alexander Kerensky was born in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk) on the Volga River on 4 May 1881. His father, Fyodor Kerensky, was a teacher and director of the local gymnasium and was later promoted to Inspector of public schools. His mother Nadezhda's father was head of the Topographical Bureau of the Kazan Military District, and her mother, also first-named Nadezhda (meaning "Hope"; her patronymic last or "maiden" name was Kalmykova), was the daughter of a former serf who had had to purchase his freedom before serfdom was abolished in 1861. He subsequently embarked upon a mercantile career, in which he prospered, allowing him to move his business to Moscow, where he continued his success, becoming a wealthy Moscow merchant.
In 1889, when Kerensky was eight, the family moved to Tashkent, where his father had been appointed the main inspector of public schools (superintendent). Alexander graduated with honours in 1899. The same year he entered St. Petersburg University, where he studied history and philology. The next year he switched to law. He earned his law degree in 1904 and married Olga Lvovna Baranovskaya, the daughter of a Russian general, the same year. Kerensky joined the Narodnik movement and worked as a legal counsel to victims of the Revolution of 1905. At the end of 1904, he was jailed on suspicion of belonging to a militant group. Afterwards he gained a reputation for his work as a defence lawyer in a number of political trials of revolutionaries.
Rather than taking the conventional step of entering the government bureaucracy, the young attorney began a private practice in which he specialized in defending the accused in political trials. He flirted with a violent brand of political activity himself, and, in early 1906, he was jailed briefly for joining a Socialist Revolutionary party plot to assassinate Tsar Nicholas II. His family connections his wife was the daughter of a colonel on the General Staff and the comparatively lenient political atmosphere of the time helped get his sentence annulled; in return, Kerensky departed for temporary residence in Central Asia. In 1912 the Trudoviks, a small peasant party that abjured political violence, asked him to run as a candidate for the Fourth Duma. The charismatic young defense lawyer used his seat in Russia's legislative body to act as the tribune of the people. Brilliant rhetorical talent plus his scorn for the moderate conservatives who dominated the last Duma made him the outstanding radical figure in the public eye.
World War I saw Kerensky shift his position only slightly. He had contempt for the moderates like Duma President Rodzianko who rallied without condition to the side of the monarchy. He refused to vote for the war credits, claiming they set the conflict's burdens on the working class, and he condemned the government's action in arresting the Duma's Bolshevik delegation in early November 1914. In the fall of 1915 Kerensky refused to support the "Progressive Bloc," the multiparty coalition formed as a result of the gradual, cautious leftward drift of the Duma's majority. He demanded, in September 1915, that attempts to prorogue the Duma be ignored. With an apparent eye to 1789, Kerensky proclaimed that the Russian legislative body should declare itself to be a constituent assembly. Withal, Kerensky defended the war effort against Germany, not as a coalition with the tsar, but, as he put it with a typical lack of clarity in a speech on August 7, 1914, as the work of the "great elemental force of Russian democracy."
From late 1915 until mid-1916 Kerensky was removed from the political scene by serious illness. When his recuperation in Finland ended, he returned to a sour atmosphere in which even Duma moderates like Paul Miliukov spoke bitterly about the abuses of the imperial family. Kerensky added fuel to the flames. In December 1916, he again cited the French Revolution to stress how events could push the Duma reluctantly toward a political explosion. On February 28, 1917, on the eve of the upheaval, Kerensky called for an end to Russia's "medieval regime"; it had been futile, he remarked, to assassinate Rasputin, the imperial family's confidant, but hinted that assassinating the tsar would be more productive. Such rhetoric seemed designed to land him, at best, in a jail cell. But instead it set the stage for the fiery young politician to play a starring role in the revolution that was about to unfold.
Kerensky quickly saw the opportunities the expanding bread riots and military mutinies offered. He advised his fellow Duma deputies not to accept the prorogation decree of March 12, but rather to place the Duma on the side of the revolution. Anticipating his subsequent appointment as the provisional government's minister of justice, he hunted down and arrested members of the tsar's last cabinet. As both a member of the provisional government and a leading figure in the more radical Petrograd Soviet, Kerensky alone bridged the gap between the two rival authorities that had sprung up after the demise of the monarchy.
Kerensky's last months in power saw him strike ineffectually at enemies on the Right and Left. He repressed with loyal military forces the widespread unrest following the July offensive. Bolshevik leaders like V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky were driven underground or jailed, but an effort to use the army for full-scale repression of the Left failed in September. Kerensky had encouraged Russia's commander in chief, General Lavr Kornilov, to move on Petrograd. But fearing the general's own ambitions, Kerensky reversed himself, then called on the Bolsheviks to help defeat Kornilov's troops.
Bolshevik influence swelled. In large measure, this was due to Lenin's clear promise of an early peace. By the start of November, Kerensky could make only ineffectual moves to close down Bolshevik printing shops and to arrest Bolshevik leaders. These may have served to rally the Bolshevik party's rank and file on November 6/7 behind Lenin's controversial call for an armed uprising in the name of the Soviets, the councils of soldiers', workers', and peasants' representatives. Kerensky gathered a scratch military force and tried to retake Petrograd; his defeat at Pulkovo on November 12 left the capital, and eventually control of the nation, in Bolshevik hands.
Kerensky's talents as a speaker and inspirational war leader had briefly reinvigorated Russia's military effort in the spring of 1917. By insisting that the country could indeed, must fight on, however, he widened the cracks in Russian society. The political revolution of March was perhaps destined to become a social whirlwind; Kerensky's misreading of the national temper and his insistence on forcing the military pace of the war opened the way for Lenin's complete break with the war effort.
All this was the work of a young man. Kerensky left power when he was barely thirty-six years of age. The failed political leader spent over five decades sifting through his memories to justify his conduct in 1917. He lived in Europe as a political exile until the start of World War II, then left for the United States. He died in New York City, June 11, 1970.
Kerensky's role soon went beyond the bounds of his portfolio as minister of justice. Having forced Miliukov's departure from the post of foreign minister in mid-May, Kerensky stood as the strongman of the provisional government until its fall in November. He likewise became the most audible spokesman for early revolutionary Russia on the question of the war. He took on the role of minister of war in May, then formally undertook the responsibilities of premier in July. Kerensky rejected the Miliukov view of fighting the war to victory for the sake of territorial gains pledged to the prerevolutionary regime. But the young firebrand found compelling reasons for continuing the war effort; more strongly still, he called for a new Russian offensive. To stop fighting meant to let Germany defeat the western Allies, then inevitably turn against revolutionary Russia.
To stop fighting meant to forfeit Russia's role as a great power, and thus to nullify its ability to influence its allies to make a democratic peace without annexations. Such views were at least arguable; indeed, Russian military leaders like General M. Alekseev agreed on the strategic necessity to prevent the Germans from picking off Britain and France first, then crushing the Russians. But Kerensky went further: the March Revolution had been, in part, a protest against tsarism's flirtation with a separate peace. The revolution must therefore produce victory, he proclaimed. Russia's peasant soldiery saw matters differently. Kerensky's July offensive collapsed; the disintegration of the army, well under way by early summer, speeded up.
Kerensky was married to Olga Lvovna Baranovskaya and they had two sons, Oleg and Gleb, who both went on to become engineers. Kerensky and Olga were divorced in 1939 and soon after he married Lydia Ellen (Nell) Tritton (1899–1946). His grandson Oleg, Jr. played him in the 1981 film Reds.