The vast cemetery at Putney Vale in south-west London seems an unlikely last resting place for one of the men involved in Russia’s revolutions of 1917, but close to the back wall of the cemetery, shaded by the trees of Wimbledon Common, two bright white Orthodox crosses mark the graves of Russia’s first post-tsarist leader, Alexander Kerensky, and members of his family. Kerensky’s burial at Putney Vale would be understandable enough if he had spent his last years in London, but he spent the majority of his long exile in the United States. A strange drama played out after his death that saw his body rejected by several churches before a burial place was finally found for him in London.
Alexander Kerensky was born in the Russian town of Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk) in 1881, the son of a schoolteacher. His father’s most famous pupil was the younger Kerensky’s future political rival, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who later changed his name to Lenin. Kerensky and Lenin came from similar family backgrounds – middle-class, well-educated, politically moderate. The Kerensky family moved to the city of Tashkent (now a part of Uzbekistan) when Alexander was a boy, and he later moved to St Petersburg to attend law school, graduating in 1904. In the early years of the 20th Century, resentment was growing among Russians towards Tsar Nicholas II, who was the absolute ruler of the Russian Empire. A disastrous military defeat against Japan in 1904, coupled with severe economic problems, helped to spark the 1905 revolution, which culminated in the tsar agreeing to the formation of a democractically-elected assembly called the State Duma, which had to assent to any new law being passed. Kerensky, meanwhile, soon gained notoriety as a lawyer defending those who were on trial for their roles in the 1905 revolution, and in 1912 he was elected to the Duma as a member of the Trudovik party, a social-democratic party. He was part of a left wing bloc that opposed the rule of the tsar, and quickly became known as a gifted orator.
The First World War brought further suffering for the people of Russia, with millions of Russian soldiers dying on the Eastern Front. Economic depression and food shortages fuelled growing anger towards the already unpopular tsar and his wife Alexandra (whose reputation had been enormously damaged by her association with the monk Rasputin) and in February 1917 strikes, mass protests and riots began in Petrograd (St Petersburg). Within weeks the tsar had abdicated, and a new provisional government was formed. Alexander Kerensky became a popular and leading figure within the provisional government, occupying several important rules and becoming Minister-President of the Russian Republic in September 1917. However, his handling of the Kornilov Affair – an attempted military coup – and the growing popularity of Lenin’s Bolsheviks meant that his time as Minister-President was short. Frustrated and exhausted by Russia’s continued involvement in the First World War, millions of soldiers left their posts and Kerensky lost the support of the military, as well as the support of the workers of Petrograd. The Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution, and within weeks Kerensky had been forced to escape from Russia using a false identity.
Following his escape from Russia, Kerensky lived in Paris until 1940. As civil war raged between the Bolsheviks and their opponents in the former Russian Empire into the early 1920s, Kerensky held on to a hope that the Bolshevik regime would fall and that he would be able to return to his homeland, but this was not to be. Once in exile, Kerensky spent his time working on a number of memoirs and academic works about the Russian Revolutions. The Nazi invasion of France in 1940 prompted a move to the United States, and Kerensky spent most of the last 30 years of his life there, setting up home in New York. His academic research took him to Stanford University in California in the 1950s, and he retained links with that university for many years, teaching graduate classes on Russian history and translating many documents archived at Stanford’s Hoover Instituion.
By the time of his death in June 1970, aged 89, Kerensky was an obscure and marginalised figure, blamed by many for his role in the overthrow of the tsarist regime and the eventual rise of the Soviet Union – and with it, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war between the United States and the USSR. An obituary published in the New York Times commented that “Kerensky’s final years were passed in the backwater reserved for men shunted aside by historical change.” In an interview given in 2017, one of Kerensky’s grandsons claimed that the Russian nurses at the hospital where Keresnsky was treated during his final illness refused to touch him because they believed he was responsible for starting the Russian Revolution.
After his death in New York, Kerensky’s family sought a burial through a local branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, but the Church refused to take him. Their reasoning was that they saw Kerensky as being responsible for the Bolshevik takeover in Russia in late 1917, which toppled the Orthodox Church’s powerful position in Russian society and ushered in the atheistic communist regime of the Soviet Union. The murder of the tsar and his family – now considered martyred saints by the Russian Orthodox Church – was also a factor in the church’s refusal (even though Kerensky himself was not directly responsible for the killings). His links to freemasonry were also cited as a factor in refusing him a burial. A Serbian Orthodox Church refused Kerensky’s body for the same reasons. Cremation was not an option as it is forbidden in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
Eventually, a place of burial outside of America was considered. Kerensky’s first wife Olga (from whom he had separated before the revolution) and their sons Oleg and Gleb had escaped from Russia in 1920 and went on to build a new life in England. Their connection to Kerensky meant that they had been viewed with suspicion by the Bolshevik regime and they even spent the winter of 1918-9 in prison, eventually escaping from Russia to Estonia in 1920. They then came to live in England, first in London, and later in the seaside town of Southport, and it was this link to England that opened up the possibility of Alexander Kerensky being buried there. A plot was found at Putney Vale, Kerensky’s body was flown to London, and he was finally able to be laid to rest in a plot close to the cemetery’s perimiter, overlooked by the trees of Wimbledon Common.
The grave next to Alexander Kerensky’s is the burial place of his first wife Olga, one of his sons Gleb, and Gleb’s wife Mary, the latter of whom was buried there in 2012. After their arrival in England, Olga and her sons initially lived in London, and Olga worked as a secretary to Frank Soskice, a lawyer and Labour politician who served as Attorney General in 1951 for Clement Attlee’s government. Both Kerensky sons studied engineering in England – Oleg Kerensky became a noted bridge engineer and was involved in work on the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia.
Putney Vale, which opened to burials in 1891, is non-denominational in nature and people of many faiths and none are buried there. The Orthodox triple crosses that mark the Kerensky graves are not the only ones in the cemetery. The cemetery and its crematorium, operated by a private company of behalf of the local council, are still in use today.
Kerensky’s grave is just one of many interesting and well-known figures that have been laid to rest at Putney Vale – this vast cemetery is full of stories. Vesta Tilley, who enjoyed a long and successful music hall career, rests at Putney Vale with her husband Walter. Born Matilda Alice Powles, Vesta Tilley became the highest-paid woman in England in the 1890s thanks to her wildly successful work as a male impersonator. Her roles – one of the most famous of which was Burlington Bertie – satirised the upper class men of the day and her family-friendly acts won her a wide audience. During the First World War she performed at military recruitment drives and was nicknamed ‘England’s greatest recruiting sergeant.’ After retiring from performing, she spent the remainder of her life in Monte Carlo.
Howard Carter, the archaeologist who led the dig that discovered the tomb of ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun, is also buried at Putney Vale. His simple headstone bears an inscription found on a chalice in Tutankhamun’s tomb: “May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness.”
Putney Vale Cemetery is open to the public during daylight hours (check its website for exact opening times). Please be aware that this is still a working cemetery and crematorium with funerals regularly taking place, and visitors should take care not to disturb mourners.
References and further reading
Why the man who overthrew Russia’s last Tsar has a Wimbledon grave, Wimbledon Guardian, 8th June 2012
Alexander Kerensky Dies Here at 89, New York Times, 12th June 1970
Alexander Kerensky – “Soviet’s chances,” LIFE, 14th July 1941
Graham Darby -“Kerensky in Hindsight,” History Today, July 2017, pp48-53
Bernard Butcher – “A Doomed Democracy“, Stanford Magazine, January/February 2001
Michael James Fontenot – Alexander F Kerensky; The Political Career of a Russian Nationalist, PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, 1976 (PDF, large file)
Michael Hughes – Interview: grandson of Alexander Kerensky, Russia’s last leader before the Bolsheviks, The Conversation, 25th October 2017 (link also includes access to audio file of interview),
Jan Doets and André Birukoff – It was a farewell to Russia, a goodbye to everything: The emigration of the Baranovsky family after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Editions QazaQ, 2017 (PDF, large file, a very interesting family account of Olga Kerensky and her relatives’ fate after the Russian Revolution)
Alexander Kerensky, British Library profile