When the authority of the Tsar's government began disintegrating after the February Revolution of 1917, two rival institutions, the Duma and the Petrograd Soviet, competed for power. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on March 2 (Julian calendar) and nominated his brother, Grand Duke Michael as the next tsar. Grand Duke Michael did not want to take the poisoned chalice and deferred acceptance of imperial power the next day. Legal authorization for the transfer of power was given by a proclamation signed by Grand Duke Michael. The Provisional Government was expected to rule until the Constituent Assembly later determined the form of government in Russia.
The Provisional Government was designed to set up elections to the Assembly while maintaining essential government services, but its power was effectively limited by the Petrograd Soviet's growing authority. The weakness of the Provisional Government is perhaps best reflected in the derisive nickname given to Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky, who became known as the "persuader-in-chief." Although at first the Soviet gave support to the Provisional Government, this gradually eroded. Since the Soviet controlled the army, factories, and railways and had the support of the workers, this became a period of dual authority.
The Provisional Government was led first by Prince Georgy L'vov and then by Alexander Kerensky. It postponed the expected elections. Instead of ending Russia's involvement in World War I, it launched a new offensive against the German and Austro-Hungarian army in July 1917, thereby weakening its popularity among Russia's war-weary people. This Kerensky Offensive, as it was called, was a failure which further eroded support for the government. The Provisional Government was unable to make decisive policy decisions due to political factionalism and a breakdown of state structures. This weakness led to a challenge from the right in the form of the Kornilov Affair, and then from the left, which organized the October Revolution, transferring power to the Soviets controlled by the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks then replaced the government with their own which, until the Russian Constituent Assembly was disbanded, was also called "provisional".
Public Announcement of the Formation of the First Provisional Government
The Temporary Committee of the members of the State Duma, with the help and the support of the army and the inhabitants of the capital, has now attained such a large measure of success over the dark forces of the old regime that it is possible for the Committee to undertake the organization of a more stable executive power.
With this end in mind, the Temporary Committee of the State Duma has appointed the following persons as ministers of the first cabinet representing the public; their past political and public activities assure them the confidence of the country:
- Minister-President and Minister of the Interior Prince G.E. Lvov (Non-Party)
- Minister of Foreign Affairs P.N. Miliukov (Kadet)
- Minister of War and Navy A.I. Guchkov (Octobrist)
- Minister of Transport N.V. Nekrasov (Kadet)
- Minister of Trade and Industry Alexander Konovalov (Kadet)
- Minister of Finance M.I. Tereshchenko (Non-Party)
- Minister of Education A.A. Manuilov (Kadet)
- Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod V.N. Lvov (Centrist)
- Minister of Agriculture A.I. Shingarev (Kadet)
- Minister of Justice A.F. Kerensky (SR)
The actual work of the cabinet will be guided by the following principles:
- An immediate and complete amnesty in all cases of a political and religious nature, including terrorist acts, military revolts and agrarian offences, etc.
- Freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and the right to form unions and to strike and the extension of political freedom to persons serving in the armed forces limited only by the demands of military and technical circumstances.
- The abolition of all restrictions based on class, religion, and nationality.
- The immediate arrangements for the calling on the Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage and secret ballot, which will determine the form of government and the constitution of the country.
- The substitution of a people's militia for the police, with elective officers responsible to the organs of local self-government.
- Elections to the organs of local self-government are to be held on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage and secret ballot.
- Those military units which took part in the revolutionary movement shall be neither disarmed nor withdrawn from Petrograd.
- While preserving strict military discipline on duty and during military service, the soldiers are to be freed from all restrictions in the exercise of those civil rights which all other citizens enjoy.
The Provisional Government wishes to add that it has no intention whatsoever of taking advantage of the military situation to delay in any way the carrying through of the reforms and the measures outlined above.
The Provisional Government was deposed as a result of the October Revolution. Kerensky escaped the Bolsheviks in their capture of the Winter Palace and fled to Pskov, where he rallied some loyal troops for an attempt to retake the capital. His troops managed to capture Tsarskoe Selo but were beaten the next day at Pulkovo. Kerensky spent the next few weeks in hiding before fleeing the country. He went into exile in France.
Some historians, such as Pavel Osinsky, argue that the October Revolution was as much a function of the failures of the Provisional Government as it was of the strength of the Bolsheviks. Osinsky described this as “socialism by default” as opposed to “socialism by design.”
Riasanovsky argued that the Provisional Government made perhaps its "worst mistake by not holding elections to the Constituent Assembly soon enough. They wasted time fine-tuning details of the election law, while Russia slipped further into anarchy and economic chaos. By the time the Assembly finally met, argued Riasanovsky, "the Bolsheviks had already gained control of Russia.