1917: The Workers Take Petrograd

Submitted by Anon on 30 November, 1997 - 11:34 Author: Alan McArthur

RED flags had appeared on many official buildings in February but little had changed: the socialist Ministers held office by permission of the classes they claimed to have overthrown — their social traditions, individual incapacity and meagre theoretical baggage all dictated they should share this power with the bourgeoisie.
Thus they took on the solution of insoluble tasks: the people’s interests were irreconcilable with those of the propertied. The inner logic of the revolution exposed all those who failed to grasp this.
The front was in ferment, discontent spreading rapidly among the peasants. The workers increasingly distrusted “their” representatives. The Ministers sheltered behind the General Staff. In the background, Generals Kornilov and Kaledin, the “mailed fists of the bourgeoisie,” awaited their turn.

As the months went by the impotence of the coalition and provisional governments, and the scarcely veiled designs of the counter-revolution, were revealed. But another power was arising, its roots in the factories, barracks, mud of the trenches and the landhungry countryside.

The demands for peace, land and bread echoed the deep needs of the people, voiced through the soviets, which soldiers, workers and peasants constantly sought to mould into organs of their own power.
The soviets’ influence spread far and wide. Within them, the influence of the Bolsheviks increased day by day, and within the Bolshevik Party, Lenin’s views, advocating the soviets take power — considered pure adventurism in April — were soon realised to be the only ones offering a solution to the crisis.

Events moved rapidly. The June offensive. The July demonstrations. Kornilov’s attempted coup…

Class consciousness surged forward. Successive leaderships were tested, found wanting and rejected. Alone the Bolsheviks knew what they wanted and were able to pass from words to action.
The second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was to be held in September, but the old executive, threatened by the growth of Bolshevik influence, decided to postpone it until after the Constituent Assembly was convened. Scheduled for December, this was postponed several times over the summer. The Bolsheviks, in the name of the soviets of northern Russia, decided to summon the Congress themselves.

The old executive at first strenuously opposed this call. But when confronted with the obvious, increasing response they attempted to lead the movement, the better to guide it into “harmless,” “constitutional” channels.

The Congress was to meet at Smolny, on November 2 — later postponed to November 7. The Bolsheviks were confident of a majority. After much discussion it was decided to seize power through the Petrograd soviet and place it in the Congress’ hands at the opening session, confronting them with a fait accompli and compelling a decision.
The government, having vacillated for weeks, decided on drastic measures. Petrograd, Kronstadt and Finland were declared in a state of siege. Cossack troops patrolled the streets for the first time since the July days.

On the night of November 5-6 the Ministers summoned their courage: they would move reliable troops into Petrograd, smash the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) set up a few days earlier by the soldiers of the Petrograd soviet, suppress the Bolshevik newspapers and arrest the soviet leaders.

In the morning the Winter Palace guards were reinforced, armoured cars lined up in front of Staff Headquarters, the officers in the military schools asked to prepare for all eventualities.

Instructions went out to open the bridges over the Neva; the cruiser Aurora — its crew won to the Bolsheviks — ordered to regain the high seas; all garrisons confined to barracks; public meetings forbidden. There was one minor drawback: no-one was capable of enforcing these decrees.

Cadets did succeed in closing the print-shop of one Bolshevik paper, but Smolny sent over a company of the Lithuanian Regiment. Printing was resumed.

The Aurora refused to sail, instead taking up position as instructed by Smolny.

Later that day the MRC put all regiments on a war footing. These acts of open defiance heralded the insurrection proper. The power of the government was exposed as illusory.

Smolny was fortified. Sections of the soviet were in permanent session within the Institute and the working-class areas of Petrograd.
The Central Committee took its final decisions, the practical details worked out by the MRC. Congress delegates were arriving. Power must be taken within 24 hours.

Kerensky meanwhile addressed the Pre-Parliament (that still-born substitute for an elected assembly), for the last time seeking endorsement for his emergency measures. The uproarious meeting failed to reach agreement, the whole afternoon spent in the vain search for magic formulas to solve the problems of class relations.

The pseudo-deputies denounced the reaction, Bolsheviks, government and one another. The Committee of Public Safety must lead the struggle it was decided, not the government, which had failed to solve any of the problems confronting it. Even the furious Kerensky’s own supporters no longer backed him.

In the afternoon a Municipal Duma deputation went to Smolny to inquire whether an insurrection was envisaged. The balance of forces was changing rapidly: the soviet’s leaders were formally under threat of arrest!

In extraordinary session the Duma appointed a Committee of Public Safety, to become the rallying point of the counter-revolution in the days ahead.

Smolny had last-minute doubts about the political reliability of the motor-cycle corps at the strategic Peter-Paul fortress on the Neva, of largely peasant stock, deliberately chosen by the government — and sent down its best agitators. Trotsky spoke.
There were immediate repercussions. Other sections of the motor-cycle corps, detailed to protect the Winter Palace, came over to the Revolution.

Hour by hour the government’s military support narrowed and its class character became more obvious.

Yet Kerensky’s military orders met with greater success than his appeals to the Pre-Parliament. Throughout the afternoon, cadets occupied the railway stations, guards were placed at the main cross-roads. Private vehicles were requisitioned.
The bridges over the Neva were occupied and raised, in the vain hope of severing all contact between official, bourgeois Petrograd and the proletarian districts.

The answer was immediate. Workers’ and soldiers’ detachments appeared. Arguments and threats sufficed; the bridges were lowered again.
The main insurrectionary offensive develops in the early hours of 7 November. The arsenals, railway stations, banks, post-office, food depots, power station and the Tauride Palace are occupied by workers and soldiers. Scarcely any opposition is encountered.
Soldiers enter the print-shop of some of the bourgeois papers, welcomed by the night workers. Hundreds of thousands of revolutionary proclamations are printed. Government troops ordered to recapture the premises refuse.

Armoured cars painted with Bolshevik slogans patrol the bridges and key road intersections. Ministers and isolated groups of cadets are arrested. Government troops sent to reoccupy the post office refuse to fight the soviet.

In the working-class districts the trade unions and factory committees spearhead local action. Class and party act as one.
Throughout the night, as power slips into the hands of the MRC a joint meeting of the Petrograd soviet and the old All-Russian Congress of Soviets is held at Smolny.

The compromisers are still at work. The professional politicians manoeuvre. By now, they represent little else than themselves. The people have moved far to the left. The Bolsheviks refuse to compromise with these political nonentities. The long, noisy meeting is inconclusive.

On the third floor, a different picture! Reports of success are pouring into the MRC.

Immediate decisions are taken. Weary, grimy, determined men act with enthusiasm and confidence. The insurrection moves methodically towards completion.

Kerensky spends the first part of the night in the Winter Palace, once again deciding the Bolsheviks must be resolutely tackled. Menshevik leader Dan presses him to take the wind out of their sails, however belatedly, by announcing that peace proposals have been put to the Allies.

The right insists on action of a different kind: no concessions to the soviets’ propaganda, annihilation of the Bolsheviks. Frantic orders are sent to Cossack regiments on the city’s outskirts, but still they fail to turn up.

The railways are instructed to suspend passenger services to allow passage of other reinforcements These do not materialize either.
Polkovnikov, the military commander of the Petrograd region, proposes a march on Smolny. Kerensky acquiesces. Alas, the reliable regiments are revealed to be totally inadequate for the task. Instead, Red Guards occupy the Palace Bridge under Kerensky’s very windows.
An urgent conference is held at Staff Headquarters where many officers are sheltering from their troops. Feelings run high. Groups of officers threaten to arrest Kerensky. Chaos prevails.

Kerensky returns to the Winter Palace. The Bolsheviks have cut all telephone communications, Kerensky throws in the towel and hurries out of Petrograd, in a car flying the American flag.

By 10 am on 7 November Smolny proclaims victory, though the formal authority of the provisional government still prevails — at least in the Pre-Parliament and in the corridors of the Winter Palace.
By noon the Marinsky is surrounded. In the afternoon the Lithuanian Regiment and groups of sailors enter the building.

The assembly is peacefully dispersed. Its leaders are not arrested. Many of them set out for the Winter Palace proclaiming they will die in defence of Constituted Authority. They are held up on the way and denied this dubious privilege.

At 2.30pm Trotsky, speaking on behalf of the MRC, announces that the provisional government no longer exists: “We were told that insurrection would drown the Revolution in a sea of blood — we have no knowledge of even a single victim!”

Throughout the day posters appear announcing victory. In the afternoon, groups of incredulous, agitated bourgeois appear on the streets of the better quarters.

The shops are open, the trains running and the restaurants serving meals. Soldiers and armed workers patrol their city.
Later, great excited crowds pack the streets to argue and watch what is going on. In the evening the theatres and cinemas are full. Chaliapine sings in Don Carlos.

At the Winter Palace a curious medley of Ministers without Ministries, generals without troops, monarchist or patriotic politicians, speculators, frightened minor officials and cadets — the political riff-raff of the February regime — await salvation at the hands of non-existent “loyal” battalions.

The high-ranking officers among them no doubt take a gloomy view of their prospects. The defence is entrusted to a civilian, Kishkin, Minister of Public Assistance!

The Bolshevik plan for capturing the Palace grossly over-estimated resistance, and is proving unnecessarily elaborate.
The arrival of the revolutionary detachments from Kronstadt is unavoidably delayed. Several crucial hours elapse.

Further small groups gain access to the Palace: armed cadets, groups from the Military Schools, and later a small detachment of Uralian Cossacks, some Knights of St. George (ex-servicemen) and a further company of the women’s battalion. At one time the Palace contained an estimated 1,500 people.

In the late afternoon the Kronstadt sailors appear at last in the Neva estuary. The ring now slowly tightens around the Winter Palace.
By 6pm the encirclement is completed. Armoured cars occupy the open ground in front of the palace. Attempts at parley fail. Shots are exchanged and the first casualties occur.

Demoralization spreads within the Palace. Agitators are discovered among the cadets. The officer-cadets organize a meeting, insisting on being told what is happening. Ministers attempting to appease them are given a rough passage. The idea of a glorious last stand loses much of its glamour.

An ultimatum arrives from the Peter-Paul fortress: surrender and disarm the garrison— or the guns of the fortress and the ships in the Neva will open fire.

Twenty minutes to decide. Squabbles among the besieged. The military are for surrender, the civil authorities will hear none of it. It is decided to ignore the ultimatum… and to appeal to the Duma.
The Staff Headquarters, immediately opposite the Winter Palace, are occupied by Red Guards and sailors, without resistance.

Another hour or two pass. The Ministers become increasingly gloomy. They start quarrelling in earnest. Polkovnikov, military commander of the Petrograd region, is deposed as insufficiently energetic and replaced by General Bagratuni, chief of General Staff.

But the General resigns his new appointment after a few brief hours, is publicly demoted and escorted out of the Palace where he is almost lynched by the sailors. Some officers have had too much to drink (the Palace is exceptionally well provided) and duel in the corridors. Others point out the futility of resistance… and are denounced as Bolsheviks.

Desultory firing continues. Further delays on the part of the besiegers, who still hope to avoid unnecessary casualties. Several groups of cadets decide they have had enough. Further arguments. Will they take their artillery out with them or not? They do.
The cannons are turned to face the Palace. Others also leave the Palace, including the Uralian Cossacks. Further parleys between besiegers and besieged, Chudnovsky actually entering the Palace to conduct negotiations.

The opening of the Congress of Soviets has to be postponed for a few hours. The Bolsheviks are determined to spare life if possible. But surrender proposals are rejected.

The Aurora fires her first warning rounds, blanks. Further small groups surrender. Infiltrators get into the palace, first singly, then in clusters. Some fight, others spread defeatist rumours. No-one knows who is on which side.

Indescribable chaos ensues. The Ministers seem paralysed.
The defenders attempt to plunge the Palace into darkness but the lights keep going on again.

The bombardment slowly increases. Heavy shells are not used and the crews are reluctant to inflict real damage. The object is still intimidation.

More and more infiltrators gain access to the corridors. Fighting breaks out within the Palace itself. Smolny now insists on a rapid completion of the affair. The ships prepare to open up a really heavy barrage when news reaches them that the Palace has been captured . . . from within and from without.

The people invade the building in their thousands. At 2.10 a.m., Antonov, in the name of the MRC, arrests the remaining members of the Provisional Government.

That night the All-Russian Congress of Soviets meets, elects a Bolshevik leadership and, in the early hours of November 8, issues the first of its momentous appeals to the workers of Russia and of the whole world. The foundation stone of proletarian power had been laid.

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