Alexander Konovalov was born in Moscow on 17th September, 1875. He became one of Russia's largest textile manufacturers.
In 1905 Tsar Nicholas II faced a series of domestic problems that became known as the 1905 Revolution. This included Bloody Sunday, the Potemkin Mutiny and a series of strikes that led to the establishment of the St. Petersburg Soviet. Over the next few weeks over 50 of these soviets were formed all over Russia.
Sergi Witte, the new Chief Minister, advised Nicholas II to make concessions. He eventually agreed and published the October Manifesto. This granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. He also promised that in future people would not be imprisoned without trial. Finally he announced that no law would become operative without the approval of a new organization called the Duma.
The historian, Pavel Milyukov, who had been living in exile, now returned to Russia and established the Constitutional Democratic Party (Cadets). He also drafted the Vyborg Manifesto that called for more political freedom. Konovalov was one of those who joined this new party. Other members included George Lvov, Ariadna Tyrkova, Peter Struve, Sofia Panina, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, Nikolai Nekrasov, Sergey Oldenburg, Alexander Kornilov, Nikolay Gredeskul, Vasily Maklakov and Vladimir Vernadsky. The Cadets demanded universal suffrage and a Constituent Assembly that would determine the country's form of government.
Sergi Witte was eventually replaced by Peter Stolypin, who made changes to the electoral law. This excluded national minorities and dramatically reduced the number of people who could vote in Poland, Siberia, the Caucasus and in Central Asia. The new electoral law also gave better representation to the nobility and gave greater power to the large landowners to the detriment of the peasants. Changes were also made to the voting in towns and now those owning their own homes elected over half the urban deputies.
In 1912 Konovalov was elected to he Fourth Duma. He was now the leader of the business-oriented Progressive Party. The reactionaries and the nationalists were still in the majority but there had been an increase in the number of radicals (Socialist-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks) elected.
The outbreak of the First World War caused great conflict in the Duma between those who opposed or supported the war effort. In 1914 the Russian Army was the largest army in the world. However, Russia's poor roads and railways made the effective deployment of these soldiers difficult. By December, 1914, the army had 6,553,000 men. However, they only had 4,652,000 rifles. Untrained troops were ordered into battle without adequate arms or ammunition. In 1915 Russia suffered over 2 million casualties and lost Kurland, Lithuania and much of Belorussia. Agricultural production slumped and civilians had to endure serious food shortages.
In September 1915, Tsar Nicholas II replaced Grand Duke Nikolai as supreme commander of the Russian Army fighting on the Eastern Front. This failed to change the fortunes of the armed forces and by the end of the year there were conscription riots in several cities. He ordered an offensive led by General Alexei Brusilov, commander of the Russian Army in the South West. When the offensive was called to a halt in the autumn of 1916, the Russian Army had lost almost a million men.
During the war Tereshchenko he helped organize the Red Cross hospitals. In 1915 he became the chairman of the Military Industry Committee of the Kiev district and deputy chairman of the All-Russian Military Industry Committee. Although he gave loyal support to the government during this period, other members of the Duma were highly critical of the government.
On 26th February Nicholas II ordered the Duma to close down. Members refused and they continued to meet and discuss what they should do. Michael Rodzianko, President of the Duma, sent a telegram to the Tsar suggesting that he appoint a new government led by someone who had the confidence of the people. When the Tsar did not reply, the Duma nominated a Provisional Government headed by Prince George Lvov. Alexander Konovalov was asked to become Minister of Trade and Industry. Other ministers included Pavel Milyukov (Foreign Minister), Alexander Guchkov (Minister of War), Alexander Kerensky (Minister of Justice), Mikhail Tereshchenko (Finance Minister) and Peter Struve (Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
Soon after taking power Pavel Milyukov wrote to all Allied ambassadors describing the situation since the change of government: "Free Russia does not aim at the domination of other nations, or at occupying by force foreign territories. Its aim is not to subjugate or humiliate anyone. In referring to the "penalties and guarantees" essential to a durable peace the Provisional Government had in view reduction of armaments, the establishment of international tribunals, etc." He attempted to maintain the Russian war effort but he was severely undermined by the formation of soldiers' committee that demanded "peace without annexations or indemnities".
As Robert V. Daniels, the author of Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (1967) pointed out: "On the 20th April, Milyukov's note was made public, to the accompaniment of intense popular indignation. One of the Petrograd regiments, stirred up by the speeches of a mathematician who happened to be serving in the ranks, marched to the Marinsky Palace (the seat of the government at the time) to demand Milyukov's resignation." With the encouragement of the Bolsheviks, the crowds marched under the banner, "Down with the Provisional Government".
On 5th May, Pavel Milyukov and Alexander Guchkov, the two most conservative members of the Provisional Government, were forced to resign. Milyukov was replaced by Mikhail Tereshchenko and Guchkov by Alexander Kerensky. He toured the Eastern Front where he made a series of emotional speeches where he appealed to the troops to continue fighting. On 18th June, Kerensky announced a new war offensive. Encouraged by the Bolsheviks, who favoured peace negotiations, there were demonstrations against Kerensky in Petrograd.
Tereshchenko continued Milyukov's foreign policy course, which led to his conflict with opponents of Russia's participation in the First World War. Kerensky was also unwilling to end the war. In fact, soon after taking office, he announced a new summer offensive. Soldiers on the Eastern Front were dismayed at the news and regiments began to refuse to move to the front line. There was a rapid increase in the number of men deserting and by the autumn of 1917 an estimated 2 million men had unofficially left the army. Some of these soldiers returned to their homes and used their weapons to seize land from the nobility. Manor houses were burnt down and in some cases wealthy landowners were murdered. Kerensky and the Provisional Government issued warnings but were powerless to stop the redistribution of land in the countryside.
After the failure of the July Offensive on the Eastern Front, Kerensky replaced General Alexei Brusilov with General Lavr Kornilov, as Supreme Commander of the Russian Army. The two men soon clashed about military policy. Kornilov wanted Kerensky to restore the death-penalty for soldiers and to militarize the factories. On 7th September, Kornilov demanded the resignation of the Cabinet and the surrender of all military and civil authority to the Commander in Chief. Kerensky responded by dismissing Kornilov from office and ordering him back to Petrograd.
Kornilov now sent troops under the leadership of General Krymov to take control of Petrograd. Kerensky was now in danger and so he called on the Soviets and the Red Guards to protect Petrograd. The Bolsheviks, who controlled these organizations, agreed to this request, but in a speech made by their leader, Lenin, he made clear they would be fighting against Kornilov rather than for Kerensky. Within a few days Bolsheviks had enlisted 25,000 armed recruits to defend Petrograd. While they dug trenches and fortified the city, delegations of soldiers were sent out to talk to the advancing troops. Meetings were held and Kornilov's troops decided to refuse to attack Petrograd. General Krymov committed suicide and Kornilov was arrested and taken into custody.
Alexander Kerensky now became the new Supreme Commander of the Russian Army. His continued support for the war effort made him unpopular in Russia and on 8th October, 1917, Kerensky attempted to recover his left-wing support by forming a new coalition that included more Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. However, with the Bolsheviks controlling the Soviets, and now able to call on 25,000 armed militia, Kerensky was unable to reassert his authority.
On 14th October, Kerensky went to tour the battlefield and asked Konovalov to be acting Prime Minister. On 22nd October, Konovalov went with Mikhail Tereshchenko to have lunch with British Ambassador George Buchanan. They both told Buchanan that Kerensky was too much of a socialist to deal effectively with "the forces of anarchy". Konovalov did what he could about organizing loyal troops but he was fighting a losing battle.
On 24th October 1917 Lenin wrote a letter to the members of the Central Committee: "The situation is utterly critical. It is clearer than clear that now, already, putting off the insurrection is equivalent to its death. With all my strength I wish to convince my comrades that now everything is hanging by a hair, that on the agenda now are questions that are decided not by conferences, not by congresses (not even congresses of soviets), but exclusively by populations, by the mass, by the struggle of armed masses… No matter what may happen, this very evening, this very night, the government must be arrested, the junior officers guarding them must be disarmed, and so on… History will not forgive revolutionaries for delay, when they can win today (and probably will win today), but risk losing a great deal tomorrow, risk losing everything."
On the evening of 24th October, orders were given for the Bolsheviks to occupy the railway stations, the telephone exchange and the State Bank. The following day the Red Guards surrounded the Winter Palace. Inside was most of the country's Cabinet, although Kerensky had managed to escape from the city. The Winter Palace was defended by Cossacks, some junior army officers and the Woman's Battalion. At 9 p.m. the Aurora and the Peter and Paul Fortress began to open fire on the palace. Little damage was done but the action persuaded most of those defending the building to surrender. The Red Guards, led by Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, now entered the Winter Palace and arrested the Cabinet ministers. On 26th October, 1917, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets met and handed over power to the Soviet Council of People's Commissars.
Palchinsky was waiting in the outer room to report the decision to the Bolsheviks. His notes read: "Breakthrough up the stairs. Decision not to fire. Refusal to negotiate. Go out to meet attackers. Antonov now in charge. I am arrested by Antonov and Chudnovsky." The two Bolshevik leaders entered the Malachite Hall alone and demanded that the cadet guards surrender. The cadets handed over their weapons. In the inner room, one of the ministers suggested that they all sit down at the table in a position of official dignity. There they waited helplessly to be arrested.
A moment later, the crowd of attackers with Antonov at its head burst through the door into the cabinet room. Antonov was not the type who would terrify an adversary, and justice Minister Maliantovich was able to form a careful impression of him: "The little man wore his coat hanging open, and a wide-brimmed hat shoved back onto the back of his neck; he had long reddish hair and glasses, a short trimmed moustache and a small beard. His short upper lip pulled up to his nose when he talked. He had colorless eyes and a tired face. For some reason his shirt-front and collar especially attracted my attention and stuck in my memory. A very high starched folded collar propped his chin up. On his soft shirt-front a long necktie crawled up from his vest to his collar. His collar and shirt and cuffs and hands were those of a very dirty man."
Acting Prime Minister Konovalov calmly addressed Antonov: "This is the Provisional Government. What would you like?"
To Antonov's nearsighted eyes the ministers "merged into one pale-grey trembling spot." He shouted, "In the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee I declare you under arrest."
"The members of the Provisional Government submit to violence and surrender to avoid bloodshed," Konovalov replied, amidst the hoots of the Bolshevik crowd. It was 2:10 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, October 26.
On Antonov's demand, the ministers turned over their pistols and papers. Chudnovsky took the roll of those arrested-the whole cabinet except for Kerensky and Prokopovich. This was the first knowledge the attackers had that the chief prize had eluded their grasp, and in their anger some of the soldiers shouted demands to shoot the rest of the ministers. Antonov appointed a guard of the more reliable sailors to march the prisoners down to the square, designated Chudnovsky as commissar of the Palace, and sent a message to Blagonravov at the Peter-Paul fortress to tell him that the government really had surrendered and to order that prison cells be made ready to receive the Provisional Government. "We were placed under arrest," wrote the Minister of Agriculture, Maslov, "and told that we would be taken to the Peter-Paul fortress. We picked up our coats, but Kishkin's was gone. Someone had stolen it. He was given a soldier's coat. A discussion started between Antonov, the soldiers, and the sailors as to whether the ministers should be taken to their destination in automobiles or on foot. It was decided to make them walk. Each of us was guarded by two men. As we walked through the Palace it seemed as if it were filled with the insurrectionists, some of whom were drunk. When we came out on the street we were surrounded by a mob, shouting, threatening ... and demanding Kerensky. The mob seemed determined to take the law into its own hands and one of the ministers was jostled a bit." Bolshevik participants admitted that the crowd was "drunk with victory" and threatened to lynch the terrified captives. A detail of fifty sailors and workers was formed to march them to the fortress.
Antonov started to move off with the group, when suddenly some shots rang out from the opposite side of the square. Everyone scattered, and when the group reassembled, five of the ministers were missing. There were more shouts to kill the rest, but Antonov got the detail moving again in an orderly fashion. Once again, near the Troitsky Bridge, they were fired on from an automobile. It was a car full of Bolsheviks who didn't know about the victory. Antonov jumped on the car and shouted his identity; the sailors swore, and the occupants of the car barely escaped a beating. Finally the group reached the gate of the Peter-Paul fortress, where the five missing ministers turned up with their guards in a car. The ministers were locked into the same damp cells that had once held the enemies of the Tsar.
Within the Palace there was near-chaos. Soldiers started looting the imperial furnishings, until a guard of sailors, workers, and "the most conscious soldiers" were posted to stop them. Other soldiers and sailors broke into the imperial wine cellars and began drinking themselves into a wild frenzy. Troops sent in to stop the orgy got drunk in turn. Finally a detachment of sailors fought their way in and dynamited the source of the trouble. Out on the Palace Square the tumult gradually subsided. Commissar Dzenis wrote, "Order was restored. Guards were posted. The Kexholm Regiment was placed on guard. Towards morning the units dispersed to their barracks, the detachments of Red Guards went back to their districts, and the spectators went home. Everyone had one thought: "The power has been seized, but what will happen next?"
There was a noise behind the door and it burst open like a splinter of wood thrown out by a wave, a little man flew into the room, pushed in by the onrushing crowd which poured in after him, like water, at once spilled into every corner and filled the room.
"Where are the members of the Provisional Government?"
"The Provisional Government is here," said Kornovalov, remaining seated.
"What do you want?"
"I inform you, all of you, members of the Provisional Government, that you are under arrest. I am Antonov-Ovseenko, chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee."
"Run them through, the sons of bitches! Why waste time with them? They've drunk enough of our blood!" yelled a short sailor, stamping the floor with his rifle."
There were sympathetic replies: "What the devil, comrades! Stick them all on bayonets, make short work of them!"
Antonov-Ovseenko raised his head and shouted sharply: "Comrades, keep calm!" All members of the Provisional Government are arrested. They will be imprisoned in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul. I'll permit no violence. Conduct yourself calmly. Maintain order! Power is now in your hands. You must maintain order!"