RUSSIAN REVOLUTION OF 1917

RUSSIAN REVOLUTION OF 1917

The terms October Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Revolution are all used to describe the downfall of the post-tsarist Russian government and the seizure of power by the Lenin-led Bolsheviks. The October Revolution—officially known as the Great October Socialist Revolution, and commonly referred to as Red October, the October Uprising or the Bolshevik Revolution—was a seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in the larger Russian Revolution of 1917. It took place with an armed insurrection in Petrograd traditionally dated to 25 October 1917 (by the Julian or Old Style calendar, which corresponds to 7 November 1917 in the Gregorian or New Style calendar).

The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a pair of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the eventual rise of the Soviet Union: 1) first revolution of February 1917 (March in the Gregorian calendar) when the Russian Empire collapsed with the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II, and the old regime was replaced by a provisional government; and 2) the second revolution in October (the October Revolution described above.

As a consequence of Russia's involvement in World War I, the tsarist government was reeling under food shortages, near-famine conditions, military mutinies, palace intrigues, popular discontent and a collapsed economy. The chain of events that led to the end of Nicholas II and creation of a Russian Communist government were: 1) Rasputin's murder in December 1916; 2) strikes by workers and soldiers in February 1917; 3) the abdication of Nicholas II in March 1917; 4) the overthrow of the provisional government made up of Duma members in a Bolshevik coup d'etát in November 1917.

The chaos and hardship that resulted from Russia's entry into World War I in 1914 were exacerbated in the years that followed. Russians saw the fall of the Romanov Dynasty, which had ruled for more than 300 years, followed by a long struggle for power between the Bolsheviks and a series of disparate armies, known collectively as the Whites, supported by Russia's erstwhile wartime allies. The combination of military occupation and economic disorder bled the country for three years until the Bolsheviks triumphed and began to establish a new order. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

By early 1917, the existing order in Russia was verging on collapse. The country's involvement in World War I had already cost millions of lives and severely disrupted Russia's already struggling economy. In an effort to reverse the worsening military situation, Nicholas II took personal command of Russian forces at the front, leaving the conduct of government in Petrograd (St. Petersburg before 1914; Leningrad after 1924; St. Petersburg after 1991) to his unpopular wife and a series of incompetent ministers. As a consequence of these conditions, the morale of the people rapidly deteriorated. *

Book: A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes (1997, Viking).

Early Events in the Russian Revolution of 1917

The 1917 Revolution began in February (March by Western calendars) with strikes by metal workers in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) which attracted tens of thousands of people who milled around the streets. The army refused to put down the strike and soldiers joined rebellious workers in taking control of the city. There were also food riots and mass army desertions. The Duma ignored demands to disband. Socialist members of the Duma formed a council called the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers that included of workers and soldiers. This council joined with Duma to create a revolutionary government and demand the abdication of Nicholas.

The spark to the events that ended tsarist rule was ignited on the streets of Petrograd in February 1917 (according to the Julian calendar then still in use in Russia; according to the modern Gregorian calendar, which was adopted in February 1918, these events occurred in March). Driven by shortages of food and fuel, crowds of hungry citizens and striking workers began spontaneous rioting and demonstrations. Local reserve troops, called in to suppress the riots, refused to fire on the crowds, and some soldiers joined the workers and other rioters. A few days later, with tsarist authority in Petrograd disintegrating, two distinct groups emerged, each claiming to represent the Russian people. One was the Executive Committee, which the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, had established in defiance of the tsar's orders. The other body was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

With the consent of the Petrograd Soviet, the Executive Committee of the Duma organized the Provisional Government on March 15. The government was a cabinet of ministers chaired by aristocrat and social reformer Georgiy L'vov. A legislature, the Constituent Assembly, also was to be created, but election of the first such body was postponed until the fall of 1917. Delegates of the new government met Nicholas that evening at Pskov, where rebellious railroad workers had stopped the imperial train as the tsar attempted to return to the capital. *

Abdication of Nicholas II

Weak and discouraged, Nicholas II was blocked from re-entering Petrograd by his own troops. He quietly abdicated on March 2, 1917. Power was handed over to a provisional government in the Duma that announced elections in November. Advised by his generals that he lacked the support of the country, Nicholas informed the delegates that he was abdicating in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael. When Michael in turn refused the throne, imperial rule in Russia came to an end.

Nicholas wrote in his diary, "My abdication is necessary...By about 2:30 answers had arrived from all. The crux of the matter us that it is necessary to take this step, for the sake of Russia's salvation and of maintaining calm in the army at the front. I agreed...The draft amnesty was sent out from headquarters...I handed over the signed and recopied manifesto. I left Pskov (where the abdication was signed) at one o'clock at night, with a heavy heart. All around is betrayal, cowardice and deceit."

Nicholas II's abdication was seen as paving the way for the Bolshevik Revolution. Most historians believe Nicholas II abdicated because of social tensions of worker unrest. Others argue that Nicholas II was pressured by conservatives, liberals and generals to abdicate because he was unwilling to share power and as a gesture to help win the war by prevented the spread of localized troop mutinies.

After the tsar abdicated the real power was in the hands of thousands of local councils (the Soviets) that had sprung up all over the country. The Bolsheviks used a propaganda campaign to gain control of many of them.

Kerensky Government and Its Struggle with the Bolsheviks

After a series of demonstrations in July 1917, known as the "July Days" the provisional government in Russia came under the leadership of Aleksandr Kerensky, the son of the principal at Lenin's high school. The Kerensky government took power with a minimum of bloodshed and initially was welcomed with high hopes by ordinary Russians. Kerensky tried to continue the war against Germany while he attempted to implement political reforms such as freeing political prisoners, ending discrimination, allowing free speech and a free press and democratizing the government. The Kerensky government lasted for only four months after Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication.

The collapse of the monarchy left two rival political institutions--the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet--to share administrative authority over the country. The Petrograd Soviet, drawing its membership from socialist deputies elected in factories and regiments, coordinated the activities of other soviets that sprang up across Russia at this time. The Petrograd Soviet was dominated by moderate socialists of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and by the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party provided the opposition. Although it represented the interests of Russia's working class, the Petrograd Soviet at first did not seek to undermine the Provisional Government's authority directly. Nevertheless, the Petrograd Soviet's first official order, which came to be known as Order Number One, instructed soldiers and sailors to obey their officers and the government only if their orders did not contradict the decrees of the Petrograd Soviet--a measure formulated to prevent continuation of Russia's war effort by crippling the Provisional Government's control of the military. *

The Provisional Government, in contrast to the socialist Petrograd Soviet, chiefly represented the propertied classes. Headed by ministers of a moderate or liberal bent, the new government pledged to convene a constituent assembly that would usher in a new era of bourgeois democracy modeled on European constitutionalism. In the meantime, the government granted unprecedented rights--full freedom of speech, press, and religion, as well as legal equality--to all citizens. The government did not take up the matter of land redistribution, however, leaving that issue for the Constituent Assembly. Even more damaging, the ministers favored keeping Russia's military commitments to its allies, a position that became increasingly unpopular as the war dragged on. The government suffered its first crisis in the "April Days," when demonstrations against the government's war aims forced two ministers to resign, an event that led to the appointment of Aleksandr Kerenskiy--the only socialist among the government's ministers--as war minister. Quickly assuming de facto leadership of the government, Kerenskiy ordered the army to launch a major offensive in June. After early successes, that offensive turned into a full-scale retreat in July. *

Lenin Before the October Revolution

On April 16, 1917, about a month after the abdication of Nicholas II, Lenin slipped back into Russia across the Swedish border (Finland was then part of Russia) in a sealed railcar from his wartime residence in Switzerland. He and Trotsky and 30 other revolutionaries were brought into the country with German help under the understanding that once Lenin took power he would pull Russia out of World War I.

Although he had been born into a noble family, from his youth Lenin espoused the cause of the common workers. A committed revolutionary and pragmatic Marxist thinker, he astounded the Bolsheviks in Petrograd with his April Theses , in which he boldly called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government, the transfer of "all power to the soviets," and the expropriation of factories by workers and of land belonging to the church, the nobility, and the gentry by peasants. Lenin's dynamic presence quickly won the other Bolshevik leaders to his position, and the radicalized orientation of the Bolshevik faction attracted new members. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The revolutionaries were greeted by huge crowds carrying red and gold banners and torches. Addressing a crowd in the streets from an armored car Lenin shouted, "Long live the worldwide Socialist revolution!" Some say that the turning point of the whole revolution occurred in April 1917 when a unit or armored-car troops, regarded as the most powerful in the city, met at the Mikhailovsky Riding School. Their support was key to power. The American journalist John Reed wrote: “Inside, only a single arc lamp burned dimly, high up near the roof of an enormous hall...Around dimly squatted the monstrous shapes of the armored cars. One stood alone in the center of the place under the light, and around it were gathered some two thousand dun-colored soldiers, almost lost in the immensity of the building. There the Bolshevik leader N.V. Krylenk stood on an armored car and persuaded the armored car troops to side with the Bolsheviks. “

Lenin and July Days, 1917

Inspired by Lenin's slogans, crowds of workers, soldiers, and sailors took to the streets of Petrograd in July to wrest power from the Provisional Government. But the spontaneity of the "July Days" caught the Bolshevik leaders by surprise, and the Petrograd Soviet, controlled by moderate Mensheviks, refused to take power or to enforce Bolshevik demands. After the uprising had died down, the Provisional Government outlawed the Bolsheviks and jailed Leon Trotsky, leader of a leftist Menshevik faction. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Lenin was branded as a radical and a German sympathizer by Kerensky's provincial government and was forced to go into hiding once again. Before escaping to Finland he hid in the loft of a barn in a hollowed-out haystack.

In the aftermath of the "July Days," conservatives sought to reassert order in society. The army's commander in chief, General Lavr Kornilov, who protested the influence of the soviets on both the army and the government, appeared as a counterrevolutionary threat to Kerenskiy, now prime minister. Kerenskiy dismissed Kornilov from his command, but Kornilov, disobeying the order, launched an extemporaneous revolt on September 10 (August 28). To defend the capital, Kerenskiy sought help from all quarters and relaxed his ban on Bolshevik activities. Railroad workers sympathetic to the Bolsheviks halted Kornilov's troop trains, and Kornilov soon surrendered, ending the only serious challenge to the Provisional Government from the right.

Rise of the Bolsheviks

In September 1917, the Russian military sent a cavalry to Petrograd in an effort to crush the Soviets. Kerensky turned to the extreme left for help and even courted the Bolsheviks. The counter-revolution was defeated and the influence of the Bolsheviks rose. While Russians appreciated Kerensky's reforms they were more concerned with extracting themselves from the war and getting enough to eat. For a quicker response to these concerns they turned to the Bolsheviks and Lenin.

The Bolsheviks took advantage of their sudden popularity and seized control of the Petrograd Soviet, chaired by Leon Trotsky, a Menshevik-turned- Bolshevik. The Petrograd Soviet was the most powerful council and it had a strong influence on the other Soviets scattered across Russia. Lenin decided the time had come to overthrow the government. The Mensheviks were a faction of the Russian revolutionary movement that emerged in 1904 after a dispute between Vladimir Lenin and revolutionary leader Julius Martov. While the Provisional Government grappled with foreign foes, the Bolsheviks, who were opposed to bourgeois democracy, gained new strength.

Although the Provisional Government survived the Kornilov revolt, popular support for the government faded rapidly as the national mood swung to the left in the fall of 1917. Workers took control of their factories through elected committees; peasants expropriated lands belonging to the state, church, nobility, and gentry; and armies melted away as peasant soldiers deserted to take part in the land seizures. The Bolsheviks, skillfully exploiting these popular trends in their propaganda, achieved domination of the Petrograd and Moscow soviets by September. Trotsky, freed from prison after the Kornilov revolt, was recruited as a Bolshevik and named chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996]

October Revolution

The October Revolution refers to the takeover of Russian government by the Lenin-led Bolsheviks in 1917. The event occurred in October on the Russian calendar, and occurred in November in the Western calendar. Russian often refer to the event as Red October. It the west is often called the Bolshevik Revolution.

The actual insurrection—the Bolshevik Revolution—began on November 6, when Kerenskiy ordered the Bolshevik press closed. Interpreting this action as a counterrevolutionary move, the Bolsheviks called on their supporters to defend the Petrograd Soviet. By evening, the Bolsheviks had taken control of utilities and most government buildings in Petrograd, thus enabling Lenin to proclaim the downfall of the Provisional Government on the morning of the next day, November 7. The Bolsheviks captured the Provisional Government's cabinet at its Winter Palace headquarters that night with hardly a shot fired in the government's defense. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Kerenskiy left Petrograd to organize resistance, but his countercoup failed and he fled Russia. Bolshevik uprisings soon took place elsewhere; Moscow was under Bolshevik control within three weeks. The Second Congress of Soviets met in Petrograd to ratify the Bolshevik takeover after moderate deputies (mainly Mensheviks and right-wing members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party) quit the session. The remaining Bolsheviks and left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries declared the soviets the governing bodies of Russia and named the Council of People's Commissars (Sovet narodnykh kommissarov--Sovnarkom) to serve as the cabinet. Lenin became chairman of this council. Trotsky took the post of commissar of foreign affairs; Stalin, a Georgian, became commissar of nationalities. Thus, by acting decisively while their opponents vacillated, the Bolsheviks succeeded in effecting their coup d'état.

Lenin and the October Revolution

Realizing that the time was ripe to seize power by force, Lenin secretly entered to Russia on October 22, 1917. Soon afterwards he entered the headquarters of the Bolsheviks in Petrograd for his first speech with his beard shaved off, wearing a wig and disguised as a man with a toothache. No one recognized him and he was reportedly even offered a sausage roll by the leader of the Mensheviks. In Petrograd he convinced a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee, which had hoped to take power legally, to accept armed uprising in principle. Trotsky won the Petrograd garrison over to the soviet, depriving the Provisional Government of its main military support in Petrograd. [Source: Dusko Doder, National Geographic, October 1992 ♦]

On November 6, Lenin took a firm grip of the revolution and ordered the Bolsheviks to seize the railway stations, state banks, power stations and telephone exchanges at daybreak on November 7th, the day when an the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was scheduled to be held. By the evening the Bolsheviks had seized power by taking key buildings in Petrograd, including the Winter Palace, where the provisional government was based. Kerensky escaped (he died n the U.S. in 1970) but his cabinet was arrested. When the congress met that night Lenin was declared premier.

Karl Rianni, an Estonian who was there, told National Geographic: "Lenin had a general plan. The Baltic Fleet sailors and the Petrograd workers were to play the key role in seizing control of the city. We had to take the key government buildings, all the bridges, the telegraph and telephone communications."♦

Storming of the Winter Palace

One of the key moments of the Bolshevik Revolution—or at least one of most dramatic moments—came when Lenin ordered the Bolsheviks to storm the Winter Palace where the Kerensky government was holed up on November 7 (October 25 on the old Russian calendar), a day that was marked with a holiday during the Soviet era known as Revolution Day. Rianni told National Geographic: "A tall iron fence surrounded the palace. One of the gates had not been locked. We saw this and opened the gate wide. Like a wave of black lava we moved into the palace, followed by workers and soldiers. There was no resistance, none at all. They surrendered their weapons. We arrested the members of the provisional government."[Source: Dusko Doder, National Geographic, October 1992 [♦]

John Reed, who was played by Warren Beatty in the film Reds wrote: "Like a black river, filling all the street, without song or cheer we poured through the Red Arch, where the man just ahead of me said in a low voice, 'Look out, comrades! Don't trust them; They will fire surely!" In the open were began to run, stooping low and bunching together, and jammed up suddenly behind the pedestal of Alexander Column.

"After a few minutes huddling together, some hundreds of men, the army seemed reassured and without any orders suddenly began again to flow forward. By this time, in the light that streamed out of all the Winter Palace windows, I could see that the first two or three hundred men were Red Guards, with only a few scattered soldiers. Over the barricades of firewood we clambered, and leaping down inside gave a triumphant shout as we stumbled on a heap of rifles thrown down by the yunkers [junior military officers] who stood there. On both sides of the main gateway the door stood wide open, light streamed out, and from the huge pile came not the slightest sound."

John Reed's Account of Looting Inside the Winter Palace

John Reed wrote: "Carried along by the eager wave of men we were swept into the right-hand entrance, opening into a rear bare vaulted room, the cellar of the east wing, from which issued a maze of corridors and staircases. A number of huge packing cases stood about, and upon these the Red Guards and soldiers fell furiously, battering them openly with the butts of the rifles, and pulling out carpets, curtains, linen, porcelain, plates, glassware.

"One man went strutting around with a bronze clock perched on his shoulder; another found a plume of ostrich feathers, which he stuck in his hat. The looting was just beginning when somebody cried, "Comrades! Don't take anything. This is the property of the people!' Immediately twenty voices were crying, 'Stop! Put everything back! Don't take anything! Property of the people!' Many hand dragged the spoilers down.

"In the west wing...order was also being established. 'Clear the palace!' bawled a red Guard, sticking his head out through inner door. 'Come, comrades, let show that we're not thieves and bandits. Everybody out of the Palace except the Commissars, until we get sentries posted'...Shout of 'All out! All out!' were heard from far and near."

"As each man appeared he was seized by the self-appointed committee, who went through his pockets and looked under his coat. Everything that was clearly not his property was taken....The most amazing assortment of objects were thus confiscated: statuettes, bottles of ink, bedspreads worked the Imperial monogram, candles, a small old painting, desk blotters gold-handled swords, cakes of soap, clothes of every description, blankets."

John Reed's Account of the Takeover of the Winter Palace

John Reed wrote: “ Yunkers came out in bunches of three or four. The committee seized upon them with an excess of zeal, accompanying the search with remarks like, 'Ah, Provocateurs! Kornilovists! Counter-revolutionaries! Murders of the People!' But there was no violence done, although the yunkers were terrified...they were allowed to go free.

"In the meanwhile unrebuked we walked int the Palace. There was still a great deal of coming and going...We penetrated at length to the gold and malachite chamber with crimson brocade hangings where the Ministers had been in session all that day and night, and where the shveitzari had betrayed them to Red Guards.

"The long table covered with green baize was just as they had left it, under arrest. Before each empty seat was a pen, ink and paper; the papers were scribbled over the beginnings of plans of action, rough drafts of proclamations and manifestos. Most of these were scratched out, as their futility became evident, and the rest of the sheet covered with absent-minded geometrical designs, as writer sat despondently listening while Minister after Minister proposed chimerical schemes. I took one f these scribbled pages, in the hand writing of Konovalo, which read, 'The Provisional Government appeals to all classes to support the Provisional Government."

Takeover of Russia by the Bolsheviks

At the All-Russian Congress meeting in Petrograd on November 7 Soviets from across the country were made the ruling councils of Russia and they in turn were controlled by a "parliament" called the Soviet Central Executive Committee.

Local soviets were able seize power from the government relatively easily. Some fighting occurred in Moscow and other cities but within a week the Bolsheviks were firmly in control. Scheduled elections were held in November. More than half the male population voted, with Kerensky's rural Socialist party taking 55 percent of vote and Bolsheviks taking 25 percent. When the Constituent Assembly, comprised of representatives elected in November, met in January 1918 it was disbanded on its first day by the Bolsheviks, ending Russia’s short-lived experiment in parliamentary democracy.

A Council of People's Commissars, headed by Lenin, became the government. The new Bolshevik government was not recognized by Russia's European Allies. In the first days of the regime, the Constituent Assembly was closed as the leaders of rival parties such as the Kadets and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries were murdered.

How was Lenin able to grab power from the Kerensky's provisional government with relative ease and little bloodshed even though the Bolsheviks had only 10,000 active members? Lenin was a brilliant tactician who was able blend Marxist ideology, insurrection tactics and propaganda. The Bolshevik plea for "Peace to the army, land to the peasants, ownership of the factories to the workers," was much better received than Kerensky's plan to keep Russia in World War I. The Russian army, shattered by defeats in East Prussia, Poland and the Ukraine, offered little resistance. It collapsed altogether in 1918. The Kerensky government and the elected government didn't have the military might necessary to back them up.

Russia Under Bolshevik Control

On coming to power, the Bolsheviks issued a series of revolutionary decrees ratifying peasants' seizures of land and workers' control of industries, abolished laws sanctioning class privileges, nationalized the banks, and set up revolutionary tribunals in place of the courts. At the same time, the revolutionaries now constituting the regime worked to secure power inside and outside the government. Deeming Western forms of parliamentary democracy irrelevant, Lenin argued for a "dictatorship of the proletariat" based on single-party Bolshevik rule, although for a time left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries also participated in the Sovnarkom. The new government created a secret police agency, the VChK (commonly known as the Cheka), to persecute enemies of the state (including bourgeois liberals and moderate socialists). [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The historian John Lukas wrote in the New York Times Magazine, "Had a Communist revolution succeeded in Germany, it would have spread over much of Europe and perhaps the world., because of German discipline, energy and reputations a European leader. The fact that Communism was incarnated in a country as backward as Russia was ultimately fatal for its reputation."

Bolsheviks and the End of World War I

In foreign affairs, the Soviet government, seeking to disengage Russia from World War I, called on the belligerent powers for an armistice and peace without annexations. The Allied Powers rejected this appeal, but Germany and its allies agreed to a cease-fire. Negotiations began in December 1917. After dictating harsh terms that the Soviet government would not accept, however, Germany resumed its offensive in February 1918, meeting scant resistance from disintegrating Russian armies.

Lenin, after bitter debate with leading Bolsheviks who favored prolonging the war in hopes of precipitating class warfare in Germany, persuaded a slim majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee that peace must be made at any cost. On March 3, Soviet government officials signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, relinquishing Poland, the Baltic lands, Finland, and Ukraine to German control and giving up a portion of the Caucasus region to Turkey. With the new border dangerously close to Petrograd, the government was soon transferred to Moscow. An enormous part of the population and resources of the Russian Empire was lost by this treaty, but Lenin understood that no other alternative could ensure the survival of the fledgling Soviet state.

The French and British had made a deal with Nicholas II that Russia would be granted a large portion of eastern Europe and Turkey if it joined the allies in the fight against Germany. The Bolshevik revolution made these agreements null and void. If Russia had only hung a little longer it might have taken much of the territory in 1918 that they would later claim after World War II.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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