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A Russian democratic leader’s visit to Maine and the bicycling state legislator from Farmington

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Minister-Chairman of the Russian Provisional Government Alexander Kerensky.

By Paul H. Mills

The Russian Revolution observes its 100th anniversary at the end of this month. Though it has now been more than a quarter century since the Soviet system was officially eclipsed by the democratic government led by Boris Yeltsin, the legacy of the Revolution certainly endures.

Indeed, given the authoritarian and expansionist characteristics of Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, his regime is seen by some as something of a throwback to the behavior of the Soviets.

Yeltsin was not, however, the first democratic leader of the country.

Leadership of the Russian Government that Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks overthrew was in fact under a democratic ruler. His name: Alexander Kerensky. (The Tsarist regime was displaced earlier in the year by the original democratic government).

Kerensky was a familiar presence in the Pine Tree State, however, after fleeing Russia. He made a number of appearances here including speaking engagements at the University of Maine at Orono as well as University of Maine at Farmington (then known as Farmington State Teachers’ College) just 70 years ago this month, also at the end of October.

Kerensky’s 1947 visit to Maine was at the outset of the Cold War, the same year in which Winston Churchill during a visit to the United States had coined the expression “Iron Curtain.”

Kerensky in Maine in that time still sounded a note of optimism that the Russian people were not supportive of the Stalinist Communist Regime. He held out hope that a democratic system would one day be restored.

He was heavily critical of recent American foreign policy which he blamed for allowing Stalin to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Soviets imprisoned in Germany to the Soviet Union where many of them were then sent to Soviet concentration camps or executed.

Kerensky himself of course had been declared an outlaw by the Bolsheviks with a price on his head for most of his life. That is why he packed a pistol, for example, during his visit to Maine.

Despite the Damocles sword hanging over his head, Kerensky nevertheless lived to the age of 89, not dying until June of 1970. He still did not live long enough, however, to see the dawn of another democratic era in Russian affairs, something that did not occur until the early 1990s under Yeltsin.

More on Bowdoin degree holders

My last column discussed whether Bowdoin should revoke the honorary LL.D degree awarded to future Confederate Leader Jefferson Davis in 1858, this while Davis was still a US Senator from Mississippi. The attention given to Bowdoin is also a reminder, however, that obviously one of Maine’s premier institutions of higher learning has had many alumni whose both earned, as well as honorary, degrees have not been so clouded by subsequent events.

Among them are famed authors Hawthorne and Longfellow, President Franklin Pierce, not to mention such 20th Century luminaries as Senator George Mitchell, Defense Secretary William Cohen, Governors Owen Brewster, Horace Hildreth, and James Longley, Sr.

Probably the most celebrated group of alumni to be grouped within a single class were federal Atomic Energy and Securities Exchange Commissioner Sumner Pike and long-time Illinois US Senator Paul Douglas (originally from Newport, Maine), Douglas being known as the father of Truth In Lending Legislation during his 18 year tenure in Congress. They all graduated in 1913. The class alumni secretary was the more obscure but still memorable Luther Whittier.

Whittier regularly “filled out the ticket” as the Democratic nominee for State Representative in the Farmington area of Franklin County. “Luther” as he was typically known was not a mere place holder, campaigning on his bicycle from one election to the next. Republican stronghold that this was, however, he routinely lost, thus constrained to devote the time in between his perennial campaigns to a small family farm that raised sweet corn and a small herd of cattle during his lengthy adult working years. Politically, however, lightning finally struck when he was 76. This was on his seventh and only successful bid for election. This occurred in 1964 during the Johnson landslide that also swept into office the first Democratically controlled Legislature in 50 years.

Whittier cut an unusual profile. He was no doubt the last member of the Maine legislature who combined in one persona the following three somewhat unconventional characteristics: he had never driven an automobile, he was never married and had no telephone. (He was not the last, however, by any means to have campaigned by means of a bicycle).

He was the oldest member of the House that year. (John Martin was the youngest.)

As House chair of the Welfare Committee Luther he was, despite being a Democrat, known for somewhat strict and conservative views on issues that came before his Committee.

Nevertheless, he was so popular among his fellow legislators that the House passed a resolution giving Whittier legislative license plates even though he had never either driven or owned a registered motor vehicle.

In rising to accept the plates, Whittier announced that he would place them on his bicycle. That seemingly benign gesture, however, was greeted by an admonition from the Secretary of State’s Office that attaching a license plate to a bicycle is illegal under Maine law!

Though Whittier was a non-conformist he was not a law breaker. He thus acquiesced in the Secretary of State’s pronouncement.

When he died in 1988, he had outlived both his more prominent 1913 Bowdoin classmates, Sumner Pike (who had actually returned to Maine after his service in Washington and was a legislative colleague of Whittier’s in the 1965-66 sessions) and Senator Douglas, Luther living to the age of 99.

Despite the community’s GOP proclivities, Farmington named the road on which he once lived after him in 2000, the Back Falls Road being re-named in his honor as Whittier Road at that time.

It’s the public way over which nearly all persons traveling to and from a regional high school and vocational center must take. It’s not, however, despite a number of improvements, much more hospitable to bicycles than when Whittier rode his even though Luther today might find it a bit friendlier to Democrats.

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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