In the early hours of 24 October the soviet seizure of power began. This was not a response to the government’s ill-conceived decision to launch punitive action against the Bolsheviks. The blueprint had already been drawn up by the Military Revolutionary Committee; insurrectionary forces were to seize the Marinskii Palace and disperse the pre-parliament. Then the Winter Palace was to be surrounded, ministers arrested and the Provisional Government overthrown.
Red Guards and pro-soviet soldiers were mobilised to control the bridges over the river and key buildings such as railway stations were occupied. Trotsky’s plan focused on defensive measures designed to guarantee that the congress of soviets opened as scheduled on the following day. Around midnight the insurrection shifted from defensive to offensive action.
This was connected to two events: 1. a growing realisation that the government was much weaker than had previously been thought and that the city was coming under the physical control of soldiers and Red Guards rallying to the defence of the soviet, and 2. the arrival of Lenin at soviet headquarters.
Lenin’s arrival dramatically changed the situation. The Bolshevik soviet leaders shifted from a defensive posture about 2am on the morning of 25 October. In response, the government managed to assemble only a small force of military cadets, officers, Cossacks, and a detachment of the women’s battalions to protect the Winter Palace and key buildings. Kerensky’s exit was pathetic.
On the morning of 25 October he paced the rooms of the Winter Palace in an overcoat, issuing ministers with instructions. He wanted to leave the city to meet the troops coming from the front for the defence of the Provisional Government. One of his adjutants requisitioned a car belonging to the American embassy. Kerensky “made off in this car, which carried the American flag and aided by this disguise, slipped through the numerous Bolshevik patrols which were already active in the city”.
On the afternoon of 25 October the Winter Palace was besieged. However, the socialist journalist John Reed and three other Americans bluffed their way in and wandered around the palace talking to various people, before walking back out past Red Guards and soldiers. The battleship Aurora, then anchored in the Neva river, responded by firing a blank round from its bow gun. Most of the shells fired exploded spectacularly but harmlessly, but one shattered a cornice on the palace and another smashed a third-floor corner window, exploding just above the room in which the government was meeting.
Finally, during the late evening, the insurgents filtered into the palace in small numbers, rather than actually “storming” it (as depicted in subsequent fictional romanticised paintings and films). The losses in the taking of the Winter Palace were negligible: five sailors and one soldier killed and a number slightly wounded among the assailants.
While the Provisional Government was under siege the second congress of soviets began to assemble. In his recollections of Lenin published in 1924, Trotsky wrote: “The first session of the second congress of soviets was sitting in Smolny. Lenin did not appear here. He remained in one of the rooms of Smolny in which… there was for some reason no furniture, or almost none. Later somebody spread blankets on the floor and put two cushions on them, Vladimir Ilych and I took a rest there lying side-by-side.”
According to a preliminary report to the credentials committee, 300 of the 670 delegates were Bolsheviks, 193 were SRs (of whom more than half were Left SRs), 68 were Mensheviks and 14 were Menshevik-Internationalists. More than 500 came to Petrograd committed in principle to supporting the transfer of “all power to the soviets”.
The wait for the Winter Palace to be taken meant the opening of the congress was delayed. The congress endorsed Martov’s motion, calling for the creation of a democratic coalition government by negotiation. However, a succession of speakers, representatives of the formerly dominant moderate socialist bloc, rose up to denounce the Bolsheviks. These speakers declared their intention to immediately walk out of the congress as a means of opposing the Bolshevik action.
The new soviet central executive committee was elected, with the Bolsheviks initially taking 62 seats, the Left SRs 29 and 10 were divided among the Menshevik-Internationalists and other left groups. The soviet cabinet was dubbed the “council of people’s commissars” (Sovnarkom) by Trotsky and began to outline a programme of government. The old regime did not go quietly and some sections took up arms to fight the new workers’ government.
The Petrograd city council formed a “committee for salvation of the fatherland and revolution”. On the morning of 29 October Petrograd awoke to sporadic bursts of rifle fire and the fighting was considerably bloodier than on the day of the revolution. About 200 were killed and wounded on both sides in the storming of the Vladimir junker school (a military academy), which put up especially stubborn resistance. Some of the junkers were thrown from the roofs and killed by enraged red forces, although Antonov-Ovseenko kept his word to ensure the safety of the junkers who had arrested him in the telephone station when they were obliged to surrender.
Meanwhile Kerensky managed to obtain the support of a small Cossack force under General Pyotr Krasnov’s command and persuade them to march on Petrograd. Ironically, these were units of the same cavalry corps that Kornilov had relied on against Kerensky in August. The key battle between Krasnov’s thousand-strong Cossack force and the revolutionary forces army ten times larger, made up of workers’ detachments, soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, and Baltic sailors, took place on 30 October on the Polkovo Heights, 12 miles from Petrograd.
The leader of the Baltic sailors, Pavel Dybenko, offered the demoralised Cossacks a deal: swap Kerensky for safe passage to their homes in the south. Learning of this, Kerensky fled once more, disguised in a sailor’s uniform wearing driving goggles. He was utterly discredited.
Other opposition came from within the labour movement. On 29 October Vikzhel, the all-Russian executive committee of the union of railway workers, issued an ultimatum, calling for negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the parties that had voluntarily withdrawn from the soviet. The Bolsheviks for their part felt that they needed to accept the proposal and entered into talks. However, the Mensheviks and SRs took a hard position, demanding repudiation of the seizure of power on 25 October and insisting that the new all-socialist government formed must not include Lenin or Trotsky. #
In Moscow, the Bolsheviks were less prepared for a revolutionary seizure of power. They had a majority in the workers’ soviet, but not the separate soldiers’ soviet, and so support from the garrison was uncertain. However the Moscow workers’ soviet voted to support the Petrograd MRC’s seizure of power and to create its own version. The fighting in Moscow was bitter, symbolised by the shooting of several dozen pro-soviet fighters after they surrendered in the Kremlin on 28 October. Red Guards fought with tenacity. The total number of deaths in Moscow was never established, but probably ran to several hundred dead and others wounded.
By 2 November, when victory was assured in Moscow, the Bolsheviks had gained tentative control over a belt of territory across north-central European Russia. The new workers’ government was extremely productive in the first two months of its existence. It issued no fewer than 116 different decrees by the turn of the year.
On the first day after the seizure of power decrees on land and peace were passed and the death penalty abolished. On 27 October a temporary decree establishing press control was passed and two days later the new government decreed an eight-hour work day. On 2 November it issued the “declaration of the rights of the peoples of Russia”, for the right of self-determination for Russia’s various nationalities. A decree on 10 November abolished the many social, legal and civil distinctions, ranks and titles that were part of old Russia, while church schools were transferred to the people’s commissariat of education by decree on 11 November. Full separation of church and state followed in January.
The decree on workers’ control was passed on 14 November. On 22 November the old judicial system was abolished and replaced by new “people’s courts”. On 16 December a decree abolished all ranks and titles in the army and provided for the election of commanders. The marriage decree on 18 December introduced civil marriages and non-religious weddings, and made it easier to get divorced.
* An extract from The Russian Revolution, When Workers Took Power, by Paul Vernadsky. Available for £14.80 including postage here