The Russian revolution: the story of 1917

Submitted by martin on 25 August, 2018 - 7:48 Author: Paul Vernadsky
Russian revolution

From The Russian Revolution: when workers took power

In October 1917 the Russian working class, led by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP, Bolshevik party), took power through their mass, democratic soviets (councils). The workers constituted their own state based on the collective and democratically-organised armed force of labour, allied with rank-and-file soldiers, mostly peasants in uniform.

The Bolshevik party established a workers’ government that carried out exactly what the workers and peasants demanded: an end to the war, land to those who worked it, a shorter working day, and workers’ control over production. They brought liberation to the oppressed, separating the church from the state, relaxing marriage and divorce laws, granting self-determination to nations previously imprisoned by the Russian empire.

They succeeded in shattering the old bourgeois state, most notably its army, gendarmerie and old state bureaucracy. They deconstructed capitalist relations of production and put in place an economic system where the imperative was social need, not private profit. The story of 12 months that shook the world, the first time that workers have taken power and held onto it for a period of years, deserves to be discussed and assimilated to every modern revolutionist’s theoretical arsenal.

Russia in 1917

Few predicted at the start of 1917 that Russian workers would finish the year ruling their own state, and spark a worldwide surge for socialism. Yet Russia on the cusp of 1917 was a society rife with contradictions, a tinderbox ready to blow. In the words of a contemporary “everyone knew then that the country was living on a volcano”.2

By 1917 the conditions for revolution were present. An incompetent government, a discredited monarch, divisions within the ruling elite, alienation of wide sections of society from the regime, deteriorating economic conditions, industrial strikes, extreme war-weariness, resentful armed forces, a revival of activity by revolutionary parties, widespread anxieties and a sense that something had to break soon.3

Russia was a backward country, but part of the capitalist world economy. There were an estimated 160 million people living within the Russian empire, 80% of them peasants. Around a fifth lived in urban spaces, with 30 cities reaching the threshold of 100,000 inhabitants. St Petersburg and Moscow both had around two million people, while Riga, Kiev and Odessa had half a million each.4 Russians toiled under the yoke of the tsarist absolute monarchy, which forbade even the limited liberal freedoms found elsewhere in Europe and whose secret police (the Okhrana) and its Siberian prisons repressed those who raised their hands against the regime.

Russian economy and society were subject to the most extreme pressures from what Trotsky called the laws of uneven and combined development. Economically, politically and socially Russia consisted of “the most primitive beginnings and the latest European endings”. In the three decades before the revolution, imperial Russia underwent an industrial revolution. Spurred by pressure from global capitalism and sponsored by the tsarist state, foreign and domestic capital jump-started a modern mode of production. At the centre of these contradictory processes were the workers, “thrown into the factory cauldron snatched directly from the plough”.5

The working class consisted of about 3.5 million factory and mine workers (with 400,000 in St Petersburg and Moscow), together with construction workers, railway workers, dockers and various kinds of wage labourers. In all, there were about 18.5 million workers, or 10% of the population. It was a diverse working class, with more than 100 different ethnicities (including about 20 major nationalities) of widely differing size, culture, language, beliefs and economic development.

Working-class struggles erupted in these industrialised areas from the 1870s onwards. In June 1896 there was a mass strike movement in St Petersburg. Then, in 1905 workers rose in revolution as part of a wider social protest including liberal bourgeois forces criticising the tsar. Workers drove the movement, three million taking part in strikes and organising soviets — democratic workers’ councils — based on workplaces in towns and cities, with directly elected, recallable representatives and loquacious assemblies. The uprising forced the autocracy to concede a toothless parliament (the Duma) and make some limited reforms. But it soon resorted to repression, beating down the peasants and workers, driving their organisations underground, without ever extinguishing the fire. In the first six months of 1914, some 1.3 million factory workers alone took strike action. Repressed and atomised by wartime conditions, they rose again with almost a million striking in 1916.6

Nationalist fever swept Russia on the outbreak of the First World War, throwing back the working class movement. The capital St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd to make it sound less “German”, although anti-war socialists kept using the old name. The fighting took a terrible toll on the Russian population, after 15 million people were drafted into the army. By the end of 1916, Russia had lost about 5.7 million soldiers, 3.6 million of them dead or seriously wounded, with the rest prisoners of war. There was seething discontent at the front, with the death penalty used for deserters. In the rear, the Petrograd garrison had about 180,000 troops, with another 150,000 in the surrounding suburbs, and some two million in total.7 Soldiers, conscripted peasants and workers in uniform, yearned for peace.

In the first two months of 1917, more than half a million workers took strike action, the lion’s share of them in the capital. In spite of police raids, on 9 January 150,000 workers went on strike in the capital, led by metal-workers. On 14 February, the day the Duma opened, about 90,000 were on strike in Petrograd, and several plants stopped work in Moscow. Hundreds of university students, ignoring threats by the police, marched down the Nevsky Prospekt in the capital singing revolutionary songs. Bread rationing was introduced, sparking queues and the sacking of some bakeries. These were “the heat lightnings of the revolution, coming in a few days”.8 On 22 February, bosses locked out workers at the Putilov plant, throwing 30,000 onto the streets. The prologue to revolution was over.

Political forces

At the start of 1917 an autocracy ruled, although when the tsar took control of the army during the war, the government was left to tsarina Alexandra and her mystical adviser Grigori Rasputin. The largest forces in the Duma were the constitutional monarchist Octobrist party of Alexander Guchkov and Mikhail Rodzianko, the liberal bourgeois Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) led by Pavel Miliukov, and the bourgeois-liberal Progressist Party led by Ivan Efremov, Alexander Konovalov and Pavel Riabushinskii. During the war, even these forces of order become a focal point of opposition to the imperial regime.

The forces of the left were savagely repressed and existed legally only through a small number of representatives in the Duma and in some semi-legal trade unions. The largest left party was the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a populist party with roots in the earlier Narodnik (people’s) revolutionary movement, who considered themselves the union of the intelligentsia, the workers and the peasants. The Labour Group (Trudoviks), a peasant party, had 10 deputies in the Duma, including Aleksandr Kerensky. The other main forces were organised within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).

In the underground, SRs played a significant role in building trade unions, cooperatives, cultural-educational societies and other workers’ organisations. The memoirist Nikolai Sukhanov, who shifted from the SRs to social democracy, estimated that the SRs had the allegiance of one-third of the working class before the First World War.9

The SRs were divided into factions and suffered splits, such as the SR-Maximalists. The right supported the tsar’s government in the world war, while the left, led by Maria Spiridonova and Mark Natanson, opposed the conflict. Victor Chernov was the leading theorist of the party, but represented the party centre and was politically weak. The SR leaders were mostly in exile at the outbreak of revolution and much of its loose organisation was in disarray. Nevertheless, it represented a significant force in the Russian revolution.10

The RSDLP was formed in 1898 on the model of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Social democracy at that time meant a socialism strongly influenced by Marxist ideas. However, at the second congress in 1903, held in exile, the party split into two factions: the Bolsheviks (derived from the Russian for “majority”) led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (“minority”), headed by Iulii Martov. These factions reunited within the RSDLP in 1906-07, but diverged after the tsarist regime re-established itself, and they subsequently divided for good. Within the factions there were disputes about the character of the next revolution, about whether to “liquidate” the party into a broad labour congress, and over “otzovism” (recall-ism), withdrawing from work in the Duma and other legal organisations and concentrating exclusively on underground work (see chapter 3).11

These splits deepened from 1912 as working class militancy revived, and were further extended at the outbreak of war, despite attempts by conciliators to unify the factions. Some Menshevik liquidationists supported the war, whilst other Menshevik internationalists opposed it. Lenin favoured defeatism for Russia (in a reactionary imperialist war, revolutionaries should consider the defeat of their “own” government the lesser evil), while Trotsky took a more straightforward internationalist position, promoting slogans for peace. Within Russia the pro-war factions worked in the workers’ group of the war industries committee, while Bolsheviks, the interdistrict committee (Mezhraionka), and other social democrats managed to carry on the class struggle from their strongholds in the Vyborg district of Petrograd and the giant Putilov factory.12

There were also a small number of Russian anarchists, either in exile or active within the country. The anarchist-communists took their inspiration from Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, advocating a free federation of communes, while the anarcho-syndicalists looked to workplace organisation (and some individualist-anarchists rejected all forms of organisation). Anarchists took part with social democrats and SRs in fomenting strikes, distributing leaflets and agitating for the downfall of the regime.13

The February revolution

Thursday 23 February was international women’s day in the Russian calendar (some 13 days behind the system used in the rest of Europe, where it was 8 March). Revolutionaries had planned demonstrations and strikes for this socialist festival, but the day was transformed by protests by working-class women, angry that after working for 12 hours they had to wait in food lines with no guarantee of getting any bread or provisions. Throngs of militant women workers marched on the large factories across Petrograd and brought out 90,000 workers to join the demonstrations on that day.

Factory activists organised strike committees and called for the continuation of strikes on Friday 24 February. Some 200,000 workers came out on strike in Petrograd, about half the industrial workforce. Besides calling for “Bread!”, workers raised slogans such as “Down with autocracy!” and “Down with the war!” It was a popular revolt.

On Saturday 25 February, a general strike kicked off in Petrograd. The police shot at protesters, and revolutionists were arrested. The strikes spread wider, with a quarter of a million workers involved. Large numbers of students and middle-class elements swelled the demonstrations. Students from Petrograd university and the various technical institutes abandoned their studies for the streets. Women faced down soldiers with bayonets, urging them to join the protests. Clashes with the police escalated, and the demand went up to “Disarm the pharaohs!”14

On Sunday 26 February tsar Nicholas dissolved the state Duma and ordered soldiers to suppress the protests. But Cossack soldiers, long feared by the revolutionaries, winked to indicate their sympathy with the demonstrators — the forces of coercion were no longer willing to repress. Tens of thousands of workers were on the streets. Captain Lashkevich ordered the Petrograd-based Volynskii regiment to use sabres and whips to disperse the crowd and then, after the warning bugle, ordered soldiers to fire into the crowds. Chastened soldiers debated the killings in their barracks overnight and the following day they rebelled. They shot their commanding officer — the same Lashkevich who had ordered firing on the crowds the day before. On the same day in the Baltic fleet about 75 officers were killed, including 40 or more at fleet headquarters in Helsingfors (Helsinki) and 24 at Kronstadt.

On Monday 27 February the revolution reached its zenith. The temporary committee of the state Duma, headed by Rodzianko, was formed with a specific goal “to restore order”. But the workers had not finished their work. Apparently at the suggestion of the Menshevik liquidator Fedor Cherevanin, prominent representatives of the trade union and co-operative movements, together with leftist Duma deputies, met to call for a soviet of workers’ deputies to be formed. The Petrograd soviet was reconstituted that evening. The Duma committee and the Petrograd soviet met in opposite wings of the Tauride Palace, the meeting place of the state Duma, which became the physical focal point of the revolution.15

Tsarism had effectively been ousted (the tsar resigned on 2 March) and dual power (dvoevlastie) was being created, whereby a Provisional Government replaced the fallen autocracy but was “weak to the point of impotence”. Effective power lay in the hands of the soviets. Petrograd bore the brunt of the fighting in the February revolution. The Petrograd city council estimated the numbers killed, wounded and injured at 1,315, of whom 53 were officers, 602 soldiers, 73 policemen and 587 citizens of both sexes.16

Who led the February revolution? The sympathetic American historian William Chamberlin described the collapse of the Romanov autocracy as “one of the most leaderless, spontaneous, anonymous revolutions of all times”, while Stalin’s Short Course claimed the credit entirely for the Bolsheviks.17 Neither view stands up to scrutiny. Historian Michael Melancon provides copious evidence for socialist agency and leadership of the February revolution, but from a diverse and multifaceted range of organisations.

Despite constant repression, by autumn 1916 revolutionary leaders of various socialist groups had begun to coordinate their activities, because they considered the situation to be revolutionary. During February 1917 an all-socialist leadership group met regularly and continued to do so throughout the protests. Because of differences in outlook, “the left socialists also maintained a separate informational group and the socialist Duma faction performed the same role for the moderates”. They encouraged demonstrations for bread, and attempted to transform these into revolutionary uprisings. All agreed on the overall immediate goal of overthrowing tsarism, although differences in goals and tactics remained.

As international women’s day approached, the all-socialist group met but could not agree on slogans. The left socialists, especially the SRs, Left Mensheviks, Mezhraionka, and Bolshevik groups, pushed for the demonstrations on 23 February, a socialist holiday. The right socialists, “still smarting at the defeat of their plans as regards the opening of the state Duma on 14 February, were hesitant”. Socialists intervened on 23 February to prolong and deepen the protests. They “issued leaflets, led factory strikes and demonstrations in the streets, held meetings at all levels, including of the joint socialist groups, and agreed on slogans to be used each day”. By 25 February, the right socialists joined the movement and began to urge the election of soviets.

On 27 February a group of right socialists, including the SR Kerensky and the Mensheviks Matvei Skobelev and Nikolai Chkheidze with others, formed the provisional executive committee of the soviet and issued calls for factories and soldiers to send elected deputies to the Tauride Palace. Meanwhile, left socialists issued leaflets urging the movement forward to full revolution and for workers and soldiers to send delegates to meet at the city’s railway station, Finland station, out of the aegis of the Duma. But the rightists prevailed, and by evening the soviet executive committee was elected, replicating the composition of the joint socialist group and transforming itself into a proto-government.

Socialists had no specific plans in advance to launch revolutionary disturbances on 23 February and bring them to fruition on 27 February. What they did have, was “an orientation to promote strikes and demonstrations and, if they showed promise, to prolong them and push them toward revolution. Direct and organised socialist involvement and intervention occurred at every single stage”.18

The Provisional Government

On 2 March the tsar abdicated, as did his nominated successor Grand Duke Mikhail a day later. The first Provisional Government was formed by the provisional committee of the Duma, with Prince Georgi Lvov as minister-president and a cabinet including Miliukov (Kadet) as minister of foreign affairs, Guchkov (Octobrist) as minister of war and Konovalov (Progressist) as minister of trade. It was supported by the Petrograd soviet leaders, and Kerensky was made minister of justice. On 3 March the Provisional Government announced the revolution to the world by radio, and installed itself in the Marinskii Palace.

During 1917 the term “Provisional Government” covers several successive governments, all of which were mired in governmental crisis. The Provisional Government was never a democratically-elected government, but made up of remnants of the old state machine who attempted to restore order. It took until September 1917 for the government to declare a republic and dissolve the old tsarist Duma. The government was “provisional” because it was meant to exist only to summon a Constituent Assembly. By the time elections had been organised, the Provisional Government had lurched from one disaster to the next and was overthrown by democratic soviets.

The forces unleashed by the revolution drove the Provisional Government to implement some reforms, which Lenin described as making Russia the “freest of all the belligerent countries in the world”.19 These included an amnesty for political prisoners, freedom of press and assembly, legal trade unions and strikes. As well as the call for a Constituent Assembly, it sanctioned elections for local self-government, the replacement of the police by local militias and civil rights for soldiers. On 12 March the Provisional Government abolished the death penalty. On 27 March it issued a declaration of war aims, repudiating the occupation of territories.

However, the Provisional Government was unable to meet the basic needs of the population. It continued with the war, could not revive the economy, did not tackle matters such as the oppression of national minorities, and most of all, it failed to enact the kind of land reform that would satisfy the peasantry.

The soviets

On 27 February Chkheidze was chosen as chair of the Petrograd soviet, a post he held until September. Two other Duma deputies, Skobelev and Kerensky, were elected as vice-chairs. The executive committee was composed mostly of anti-war socialist intellectuals, with formal party representatives from the Bolsheviks, the Bundists (secular Jewish socialists), the Mensheviks, the Trudoviks (right socialists), the Populist-Socialists, the Mezhraionka and the Latvian Social Democrats. The executive composition was diluted by nine representatives of the newly formed soldiers’ section of the soviet.

The Petrograd soviet, as it was first constituted, was more like a mass meeting than a deliberative assembly. Chamberlin describes the sessions of the executive committee as “held under exhausting and chaotic circumstances. They began about one in the afternoon and lasted until late at night; and it was seldom that the questions on the order of the day were satisfactorily solved”.20 Sukhanov, who was a member of the executive throughout 1917, describes how during an early meeting two soldiers used their bayonets to tug down the portrait of the tsar that hung behind the chair’s seat in the meeting room. For many months an empty frame “continued to yawn in this revolutionary hall”.21

The Petrograd soviet executive committee supported the Provisional Government from the outset. At the first sitting of the executive on 1 March the central question was merely the conditions for handing over of power. No voices were raised against the formation of a bourgeois government, despite the presence of 11 Bolsheviks, including their three leaders on the spot. In the soviet the following day, out of 400 deputies present, only 19 voted against the transfer of power to the bourgeoisie — although there were already 40 in the Bolshevik faction. As Trotsky argues in his History of the Russian Revolution, “the voting itself passed off in a purely formal parliamentary manner, without any clear counter-proposition from the Bolsheviks, without conflict, and without any agitation whatever in the Bolshevik press”.

The executive committee of the soviet of workers’ deputies created on 27 February had little in common with its name. The original soviet of 1905 arose out of a general strike. It directly represented the workers in struggle. The leaders of the strike became the deputies of the soviet. Its executive committee was elected by the soviet for the further prosecution of the struggle. It was this executive committee that discussed armed insurrection. By contrast, in February 1917 the revolution was victorious before the workers had created a soviet. The executive committee of 27 February was self-constituted, independently of the factories and regiments, after the victory of the revolution.22

The Petrograd soviet nevertheless began to assert itself. On Tuesday 28 February it published the first issue of Izvestia (The News). Political strikes and demonstrations spread to other cities. Socialists formed local soviets of workers’ (and sometimes soldiers’) deputies — but these bodies supported and usually participated in the work of public committees.23 On Wednesday 1 March the Petrograd soviet issued Order No.1, drafted by Nikolai Sokolov, mandating the establishment of soldiers’ committees in the armed forces. (Ironically Sokolov was later severely thrashed by the rebellious soldiers of a regiment on the front which he was endeavouring to recall to discipline.)24 At its session of 6 March, the executive committee agreed a proposal by an old Menshevik, Mikhail Braunstein, to install its own commissars in all regiments and in all military institutions. These measures bonded the soldier and the soviet: the regiments sent their representatives to the soviet, the executive committee sent its commissars to the regiments and each regiment had an elective committee.25

Sukhanov reports that on 6 March, the executive committee proposed “the immediate liquidation of the strikes and the transition to the new pacific status”, and “an enormous majority spoke up for a resumption of work”. The executive resolution was passed in the soviet by 1,170 votes to 30. The drive came from the soldiers, who demanded “the curbing of the workers”, and threatened to use force. Armed soldiers “begin visiting factories, carrying out inspections and using force”. On 14 March the Petrograd soviet issued its “Appeal to the people of the world”, declaring for “peace without annexations or indemnities”.26

Towards the end of March the Petrograd soviet lurched further to the right. The Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli reached the capital from exile in Siberia on 20 March and constituted a “revolutionary defencist” majority in the soviet. He argued that the overthrow of the tsar meant that the character of the war had changed. Now “the revolution”, including the soviet were threatened by imperial Germany. He concluded that the soviets, should support the war and cease domestic activities for peace. Tsereteli had staunchly opposed the war and taken part in the Zimmerwald international anti-war conference. However, by the end of March, he and his SR allies had carried this line at the executive committee and at the all-Russian conference of soviets, where there were about 400 provincial delegates, representing 82 cities and the executives of military units.28

Dual power

On 23 March, the “funeral of the victims of the revolution” took place in Petrograd. It was a one million-strong demonstration that the revolution had triumphed but was still ongoing. Chamberlin describes the outstanding features of the first period of the deepening of the revolution: “Loosening of discipline in the army, increasingly radical demands of the industrial workers, first for higher wages, then for control over production and distribution, arbitrary confiscations of houses in the towns and, to a greater degree, of land in the country districts, insistence in such non-Russian parts of the country as Finland and Ukraine on the grant of far-reaching autonomy.”29

The critical tensions of the situation were captured by the idea of dual power. Trotsky defined this as “a distinct condition of social crisis, by no means peculiar to the Russian revolution of 1917, although there most clearly marked out… The two-power régime arises only out of irreconcilable class conflicts — is possible, therefore, only in a revolutionary epoch, and constitutes one of its fundamental elements”. The question of power stood thus: “Either the bourgeoisie will actually dominate the old state apparatus, altering it a little for its purposes, in which case the soviets will come to nothing; or the soviets will form the foundation of a new state, liquidating not only the old governmental apparatus but also the dominion of those classes which it served.”29

Lenin rearms the Bolshevik party

The Bolshevik party was slow to assess the new context and was internally divided in its strategy and tactics immediately after the February revolution. Of course, Bolshevik militants had played their part in the February strikes and demonstrations, but probably no more than other socialist organisations. However, they were recognised as a significant minority party in the soviets and began to operate openly in the new political conditions. They established a headquarters in the mansion belonging to the famous ballet dancer Mathilda Kshesinskaia. On 5 March the Bolsheviks in Petrograd published the first issue of Pravda (Truth), as a central organ of the party. Similarly, the Petrograd party agreed to revive the Bolshevik women’s paper Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) as part of a drive to organise working class women. On 31 March the Bolshevik military organisation was founded. It organised “Club Pravda”, a non-party soldiers’ club, opened in the basement of the Kshesinskaia mansion, and published a special newspaper, Soldatskaia Pravda.30

On 3 April Lenin arrived in Petrograd from exile, speaking to both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the soviet conference. The next day he presented the party with a short written exposition of his views, The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution, later known as the April Theses. Trotsky summarised Lenin’s argument in his History:

The republic which has issued from the February revolution is not our republic, and the war which it is now waging is not our war. The task of the Bolsheviks is to overthrow the imperialist government. But this government rests upon the support of the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, who in turn are supported by the trustfulness of the masses of the people. We are in the minority. In these circumstances there can be no talk of violence from our side. We must teach the masses not to trust the compromisers and defencists. “We must patiently explain”. The success of this policy, dictated by the whole existing situation, is assured, and it will bring us to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and so beyond the boundaries of the bourgeois régime. We will break absolutely with capital, publish its secret treaties, and summon the workers of the whole world to cast loose from the bourgeoisie and put an end to the war. We are beginning the international revolution. Only its success will confirm our success, and guarantee a transition to the socialist régime.31

Lenin fought at every level of the party to rearm its political perspectives. This would be achieved at the party conference, which met in Petrograd on 24-29 April (see Chapter five for further discussion).

The Provisional Government in crisis

The first Provisional Government came to an end quickly. On 18 April foreign minister Miliukov sent a note to the Allied governments promising to continue the war until victory on the old terms. On 20 and 21 April thousands of armed soldiers, bearing slogans such as “Down with Miliukov” and “Down with annexationist policies”, demonstrated outside the government’s headquarters in the Marinskii Palace.32

As Sukhanov observes, the April days “marked a boundary and a turning point: they infinitely deepened the crack in the soviet; having broken the petty-bourgeois away from the proletarian groups, they — on the other hand — almost closed the gap between the petty and the big bourgeoisie”. The all-Russian conference of Mensheviks, which opened in Petersburg on 9 May, approved their members’ entry into the coalition and promised the new cabinet “complete confidence and support”. The presidium of the Petrograd soviet was “concentrated into a continuously operative, quasi-official though still backstage institution, that had been given the name of the ‘star chamber’. It consisted not only of the members of the presidium but also of a kind of camarilla, loyal intimates of Chkheidze and Tsereteli”.33

On 1 May the Petrograd soviet voted for a coalition government, after two days earlier rejecting coalition with the bourgeoisie. On 5 May just such a government was announced. Five additional socialists, including Tsereteli, Skobelev and Chernov, joined Kerensky in the government. Ten non-socialists, including four Kadets, completed the government. A wealthy young Ukrainian sugar manufacturer, Mikhail Tereshchenko, replaced Miliukov as minister for foreign affairs.34

The workers organise

The working class was the chief motive force of the February revolution. Despite the efforts of the Provisional Government and its friends in the soviets, workers deepened the militancy of their representative bodies. They were strengthened by the return of more revolutionary leaders from exile. For example, Trotsky was freed from a British prison camp in Canada, and returned to Russia on 4 May.

One innovation was the Red Guards, involving both men and women. During March, Pravda articles by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich and Vladimir Nevskii called for a permanent, autonomous, revolutionary, class-orientated armed force, harking back to the experience of 1905. The article by Bonch-Bruevich, on 18 March, contained the first printed use of the term Red Guard in 1917. On 29 April the Bolshevik-led industrial district Vyborg soviet approved regulations for a district-wide workers’ guard organisation. In May a meeting in the Peterhof district formed a district Red Guard and similar initiatives were taken elsewhere. A conference of the Petrograd people’s militia was held on 27 May and a council of the Petrograd people’s militia established on 3 June.35

On 30 May a conference of the factory committees of the capital and its suburbs opened in the White Hall of the Tauride Palace. The conference grew from the bottom up: it was planned in the factories without the participation either of the official organs of labour or of the soviet institutions. It was initiated and organised by the Bolshevik party, which made a direct appeal to the workers. According to Sukhanov, the conference really represented “workers from the bench”. For two days this workers’ parliament debated the economic crisis and social ruin throughout the country. The Bolsheviks developed their slogan of “workers’ control”. When the vote was taken, 335 of the 421 workers voted for the Bolsheviks. The conference of the factory committees resolved to “organise in Petersburg an all-city centre of the representatives of all factory committees and trade unions”.36

During May and June more and more factories went over to the Bolsheviks, passing similar resolutions on workers’ control and sending Bolsheviks as their representatives in the soviet. A significant though little noted date in the history of the revolution is 13 June, when the workers’ section of the Petrograd soviet passed, by 173 votes to 144, a resolution with the Bolshevik formula that power should be in the hands of the soviets.37 Only weak, mostly illegal trade unions had existed before the revolution. After February they developed somewhat slower than the factory committees, but more than 2,000 were created in the course of the year.38

On 3 June, the first all-Russian congress of workers’ and soldiers’ soviets began a three-week-long session. It elected a central executive committee, which was dominated by Mensheviks and SRs. Of the 777 delegates definitely committed to a party, 105 were Bolsheviks. Sukhanov recalled that the Menshevik internationalists didn’t even number 35; all the rest were supporters of Tsereteli and Tereshchenko. Also represented were the United Internationalists, “which [Iuri] Steklov was trying to turn into a party and which the Interdistrictites led by Lunacharskii and Trotsky had joined. But this fraction didn’t have more than from 35 to 40 people either”.39 A lively clash took place after Tsereteli claimed there was no party that would say “Give us the power”. Lenin leapt to his feet to argue that “the Bolshevik party is ready at any moment to assume full power… They say we cannot get on without the financial support of England and France. But this ‘supports’ us just as a noose supports the man who is being hanged”.40

The June demonstration

The Provisional Government went through further crises in June. They faced a serious challenge to their authority from militant workers and soldiers, who were taking matters into their own hands with some audacious expressions of direct action.

On 5 June, a group of anarchists seized a printing press, prompting the legal authorities to act. On 7 June the minister of justice gave notice to evict the anarchist-communists from their headquarters in the Durnovo villa. The anarchists refused to comply and appealed to the Vyborg factory workers and soldiers to support them. The next day thousands of workers went on strike: 28 factories came out. Representatives of 150 factories and military units attended an anarchist meeting on 12 June. Stalin, in a Pravda article (14 June), condemned the activities of the anarchist-communists as “ruinous to the workers’ revolution”. He argued that “we must suppress all anarchist demonstrations in order to prepare that much more vigorously for the 18 June demonstration”.41

The Bolshevik military organisation took the initiative for a demonstration on 10 June, as an expression of mass opposition to the Provisional Government’s preparations for an early military offensive. The party took steps to organise the demonstration and won the support of the Mezhraionka. Stalin wrote a leaflet and Bolshevik agitators toured workplaces. However, the day before it was due to take place, the all-Russian congress of soviets opposed the demonstration and the Bolsheviks reluctantly cancelled it. Some rank-and-file Bolsheviks tore up their party membership cards in disgust.

On 12 June, during the same session at which the Bolsheviks were censured for their part in the abortive 10 June demonstration, the congress of soviets voted to stage its own march on Sunday 18 June. The Bolsheviks recycled their literature from the aborted demonstration and mobilised their forces. The huge demonstration, more than 400,000 strong, marched under the slogans, “All power to the soviets!”, “Down with the 10 capitalist ministers!” and “Peace for the hovels, war for the palaces!”

Historian Alexander Rabinowitch states that it was “turned into a clear indication of the attractiveness of the Bolshevik programme and the effectiveness of Bolshevik techniques”.42

The anarchists intervened in the demonstration. They decided to lead a crowd of 1,500-2,000 armed men to the Crosses [Kresty], the Vyborg prison in which the Bolshevik military organisation leader Flavian Khaustov was held, securing his release at gunpoint. The following day, the Provisional Government sent troops to the Durnovo villa, arresting all 60 of the workers, soldiers and sailors present and taking them to prison.43

Meanwhile, the all-Russian conference of Bolshevik military organisations opened on 16 June and closed on 23 June. Some 107 delegates, mostly rank and file soldiers and representing 26,000 party members from 43 front and 17 rear units, deliberated just as the government launched its ill-fated military offensive. Lenin spoke at the conference on 20 June, warning the Bolshevik militants to avoid provocations. He argued that the Bolsheviks were “an insignificant minority” and therefore it was naïve to think they could immediately take power and hold it at that moment.44 This was wise counsel but it went unheeded. Militants pressed on, precipitating the July days and giving the Provisional Government the opportunity to stabilise itself.

The July Days

The “July Days” — a half-cocked uprising — was a pivotal moment in the history of the Russian revolution. For the Provisional Government it was the chance to repress the Bolshevik party, with the intention of destroying it as a force.

On 2 July the Kadets resigned from the government over the question of Ukrainian autonomy and general unhappiness with the administration. Over the next two days, hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers demanded that the Petrograd soviet take governmental power. Then on 7 July Prince Lvov resigned as minister-president when the government, now overwhelmingly socialist, adopted a programme statement promising more sweeping social and economic reforms than he felt was within the rights of the Provisional Government to do.45

The July uprising was initiated in the First Machine Gun Regiment, which feared the Provisional Government was preparing to send them to join the disastrous military offensive at a newly launched front in the war. They argued that because of the large quantity of machine guns at their disposal, the regiment could easily overthrow the Provisional Government by itself. On 2 July the Bolshevik military organisation appealed to the party central committee for directives and was instructed not to participate and to take all possible steps to prevent an uprising. The following day the committee voted again against participating in a demonstration, with Trotsky and the Mezhraionka supporting this position.46 On 3 July, in Anchor Square, Kronstadt’s revolutionary forum, two prominent anarchists addressed a crowd of workers, sailors and soldiers who had gathered there in anticipation of radical action against the government. Efim Yarchuk and Iosif Bleikhman exhorted the First Machine Gun Regiment to overthrow the bungling Provisional Government.47

On the evening of 3 July, soldiers from the First Machine Gun Regiment began demonstrating in Petrograd. They were joined by other soldiers from Petrograd’s garrison, by workers from the striking Putilov works, and, the next morning, by 20,000 sailors from the Kronstadt naval base. The demonstrators numbered probably 60-70,000. Opposing them, the force defending the Tauride Palace was negligible. The soldiers shouted the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the soviets”. They were well armed and ignored the Bolsheviks’ appeal to call off their action. The Bolshevik central committee reversed its position opposing street demonstrations in the early morning hours of 4 July, with the Petersburg committee and the all-Russian bureau of the military organisation already involved in the protests. Contemporaries estimated the number of demonstrators on 4 July were as high as half a million, while some 400 were killed or wounded over the two days.48

One celebrated incident summed up the mood of the July actions. Demonstrators arrived at the Tauride Palace and began to agitate about Anatoli Zhelezniakov, a truculent anarchist and Kronstadt sailor, who had been arrested at the Durnovo villa. Unable to find the justice minister Pavel Pereverzev, they instead collared the SR minister of agriculture, Victor Chernov. In the course of the altercation, a fist-shaking protester exclaimed: “Take power, you son-of-a-bitch, when it’s given to you!”49 Chernov was then “arrested” by the sailors with a view to taking him away.

Trotsky, accompanied by the Kronstadt sailors’ leader Fedor Raskolnikov, reached the car in which Chernov was being held. Raskolnikov describes what happened next:

It is difficult to say how long the turbulent excitement of the masses would have gone on… comrade Trotsky then jumped on the bonnet of the car and with a wave of his arm signalled to the crowd to be quiet.

In the twinkling of an eye everything became silent and a deathly hush reigned. In a loud, distinct, metallic voice, rapping out every word and carefully articulating every syllable, comrade Trotsky made a short speech… ‘I am sure that not one of you is in favour of this arrest… Whoever is for violence, let him raise his hand’. Comrade Trotsky stopped speaking and cast his eye over the whole crowd, as though throwing down a challenge to his opponents…

‘Citizen Chernov, you are free’, said comrade Trotsky, turning round towards the minister of agriculture with a motion of his hand inviting him to get out of the car. Chernov was half-dead. I helped him get out of the car: with a sluggish, exhausted look and unsteady, irresolute gait he walked up the steps and disappeared into the entrance-hall of the palace.50

There were echoes of the July days in a handful of other places across Russia — in Ivanovo-Voznesensk (the “Russian Manchester”), Nizhni Novgorod, Kiev, Astrakhan and other towns. Only in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, an overwhelmingly working class textile town with a long record of revolutionary activity, was there a conscious assumption of authority by the local soviet.51 The isolation of the movement in Petrograd afforded the Provisional Government the prospect of rolling back the whole movement, and it took to its task with alacrity.

The Minister of Justice Pereverzev circulated claims that the Bolsheviks had deliberately provoked the July uprising on instructions from the German general staff, while the ex-Bolshevik Grigori Alexinskii accused Lenin of being in the pay of the enemy. The accusation that the Germans had facilitated Lenin’s return in order to weaken the war effort was amplified. That some Mensheviks and SRs were present on the same train bringing Lenin back to Russia, and that others, such as Martov and Pavel Axelrod, followed via the same route after Lenin, counted for nothing. The government’s offensive against the Bolsheviks was launched at dawn on 5 July, when a detachment of soldiers arrived at Pravda’s publishing plant, only a little too late to catch Lenin. However, approximately 200 individuals were arrested and indicted by the Provisional Government for complicity in the July uprising, including most members of the Bolshevik military organisation.52

On Thursday 6 July, leading SRs led a scratch detachment to the Kshesinskaia mansion and the Peter-Paul fortress. They were about to lay siege and ready to open fire when it turned out that the Bolsheviks had already abandoned the house. At the Peter-Paul fortress, the Kronstadters had left, and the fortress was “taken” without a shot. The Durnovo villa was taken in the same fashion during the afternoon. The anarchists had left. A few weapons and a great deal of literature were found there.53

Yet the impact of the reaction should not be underestimated. Official Stalinist histories suggest that the July attacks — the combination of repression and slander — barely left a trace. But Bolshevik leaders such as Lenin and Grigori Zinoviev were forced into hiding, while others such as Trotsky and Lev Kamenev were arrested. Varvara Iakovleva wrote that “all the reports from the localities described with one voice not only a sharp decline in the mood of the masses, but even a definite hostility to our party”. In some cases, Bolshevik speakers were beaten up. She recalled that “the membership fell off rapidly, and several organisations, especially in the southern provinces, even ceased to exist entirely”.54

On 7 July a second Provisional Government, a so-called socialist “government of salvation of the revolution” was formed with Kerensky as minister-president. Sukhanov writes that this coalition “didn’t last long — a fortnight in all”. The entire period “was spent in an uninterrupted, frenzied, self-forgetting hunt by Kerensky and Tsereteli for new bourgeois ministers”.55

On 12 July the government authorised the closure of newspapers advocating disobedience of military orders, and provided for administrative arrest of “persons whose activity constitutes a particular threat to the defence and internal security of the state”. On the same day the government restored the death penalty in the army. Kerensky ordered a special military expedition to the Volga river city of Tsaritsyn to suppress the Bolshevik-led radical soviet there and the exceptionally mutinous local army garrison. The military cadets even executed a raid on the government Mensheviks themselves, whose party was headed by the minister of the interior.56

Kerensky managed to form a new, third coalition government on 23 July, which included both Kadets and Chernov. Trotsky commented in his History that “in the first coalition, formed on 6 May, the socialists had been in the minority, but they were in fact masters of the situation”. However, in the ministry that met on 24 July, “the socialists were in a majority, but they were mere shadows of the liberals”. For good reason, Trotsky defined Kerensky as “the mathematical centre of Russian Bonapartism” — meaning an authoritarian leader seeking to balance between conflicting forces.57

The counter-revolution

Russian capitalists took the opportunity presented by the July days to press forward with their own counter-revolution. Although they were hopelessly weak and divided under the tsar, they were united in their exploitation of the working class. Foreign investment in Petrograd and southern Russia, mainly in heavy industries, coal mining and the extraction of oil, tied these sections of capital to international finance and made them heavily dependent on the autocracy for government contracts. However, in Moscow and elsewhere, capital in industries such as textiles was a product of native, Russian accumulation, and some were more liberal in their politics.58

In Petrograd the leading bourgeois organisations were the Society for the Economic Rehabilitation of Russia and the Republican Centre. Both had ties to the armed forces. In Moscow the all-Russian union of trade and industry functioned in close cooperation with the Kadets. The Russian landowning class was also represented through its chief organisation, the Landowners’ Union. The Kadets pushed for a government with “unlimited power”, and even “dictatorship” was not baulked at. On 15 July Kerensky met with leading Kadets and industrialists. The coordination of all the various groups took place chiefly at the Moscow conference and at separate meetings shortly before, such as the “conference of public men” on 8 August.59

The Moscow state conference took place on 12-13 August. Kerensky called the gathering in an effort to strengthen his government and the state, but instead it displayed deep divisions. The bourgeoisie were corralling their forces, but the workers emphatically demonstrated a continued willingness to fight. The conference opened in a mostly shut-down city when the Bolshevik Moscow regional bureau took the lead in organising a wildcat protest strike for the opening day. The strike was subsequently endorsed by trade union leaders, by the Bolshevik Moscow committee, representatives of Moscow district soviets and district Bolshevik committees. By a vote of 312 to 284, however, a joint meeting of the Moscow workers’ and soldiers’ soviets opposed such action.60 Osip Piatnitskii, a member of the Bolsheviks Moscow committee, subsequently wrote: “The strike came off magnificently. There were no lights, no tramcars, the factories and shops were closed and the railroad yards and stations, even the waiters in the restaurants had gone on strike.” Miliukov added “the delegates coming to the conference could not ride on the tramways, nor lunch in the restaurants”.61

Behind these conflicts was the social polarisation of Russian society, still at war, racked with economic crisis and lacking in political legitimacy. It was symbolised by Kerensky’s decision on 18 July to move the Provisional Government and his own residence to the tsar’s Winter Palace, while the Tauride Palace could be refurbished. In a concomitant move on 4 August, the Petersburg soviet and central executive committee moved to the Smolny Institute, previously a school for daughters of the nobility.62

But Kerensky was unable to resolve even the basic problems of democracy. The demand for a Constituent Assembly had hung over the Provisional Government since its inception. On 22 July Kerensky announced that the elections would be held on 30 September and the convocation of the assembly on 12 December. However, on 22 August, citing problems with compiling the electoral lists, Kerensky ordered the postponement of the elections until 25 November, with the assembly scheduled to open on 12 December. The absence of legitimacy dogged Kerensky’s administration, fuelling the suspicion of his own Bonapartist intentions while providing ample ammunition for the Bolsheviks to promote a more thoroughgoing democracy based on the soviets.

Kornilov or Lenin?

In his retrospective history of the Russian revolution, the Kadet Miliukov subtitled his second volume: Kornilov or Lenin? The insight accurately reflected the realities of power in August 1917. Who was the Kornilov of Miliukov’s title?

General Lavi Kornilov was not a newcomer to the events of 1917. When the tsar abdicated in March, Kornilov was commanding the 48th artillery division in Galicia. One of Rodzianko’s last acts was to appoint Kornilov commander of the Petrograd garrison. When demonstrations took place in the capital on 20-21 April in connection with the Miliukov note to the Allies, Kornilov ordered troops under his command to open fire on the demonstrators. When the order was not carried out because the Petrograd soviet had not given its consent Kornilov resigned his post in disgust.63

On 18 July Kerensky appointed Kornilov to the post of commander-in-chief, also appointing the SR Boris Savinkov as assistant minister of war. After Kerensky’s offensive against the Bolsheviks, there was a resurgence of the right — groups of army officers, industrialists, conservative politicians and others wanted to reverse the “rot”. They sought out a strong man to take control and rescue Russia. The idea of a military dictator to accomplish these goals gained ground. The conservative press began to build Kornilov as a national hero and saviour of the country. At his arrival in Moscow for the state conference in August, Fedor Rodichev, a prominent Kadet, declared “Save Russia, and a grateful people will revere you”.64

Kornilov wanted a strong government, purged of socialists, and either led or dominated by himself. He wanted to dispense with democracy in the army and to reorganise and strengthen Russia’s war offensive. On 11 August, Kornilov argued that it was “high time to hang the German agents and spies headed by Lenin”, and to “disperse the soviet of workers and soldiers in such a way that it would not reassemble anywhere”. He toyed with idea of outright military seizure of power, while looking to act on behalf of the existing government against a Bolshevik provocation.65

On 27 August false rumours circulated of a Bolshevik uprising to coincide with the upcoming six-month anniversary of the February revolution. Kerensky sought Kornilov’s support to enforce martial law in Petrograd, only to backtrack and announce Kornilov’s removal as commander-in-chief. Kornilov then issued a statement denouncing Kerensky, the soviet and the Bolsheviks and ordered General Krymov, with the so-called “savage division”, made up of mainly Muslim fighters from the Caucasus, to take Petrograd.66

Kornilov’s rebellion posed an existential threat to the revolution and required a reaction commensurate with the danger of the situation. The right-Menshevik Simon Weinstein proposed that the executive committee of the soviets create an extraordinary military defence organ, the “committee for struggle against the counterrevolution”, which began to function on the afternoon of 28 August. It was composed of three representatives from the SRs, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. It set in motion masses of armed workers and soldiers as the only organised force that could repulse the reactionaries.67

The role played by the Bolsheviks was crucial at this juncture, as even their opponents testified. Sukhanov argues that the Bolsheviks were “the only organisation that was large, welded together by elementary discipline, and united with the democratic rank-and-file of the capital”. Without them the committee was “impotent”, and “it could only have passed the time with makeshift proclamations and flabby speeches by orators who had long since lost all authority”. The Bolsheviks sent their representatives into the committee for struggle, although they were a minority there. They voted against a resolution to give Kerensky a free hand, but declared that if the government were really going to fight against the counter-revolution, they were ready to co-ordinate their entire activity with the Provisional Government, and conclude a military alliance with it. The Bolsheviks showed “extraordinary tact and political wisdom, to say nothing of devotion to the revolution”.68

A Bolshevik central committee cable of 29 August stated: “In the interests of repulsing the counterrevolution, we are working in collaboration with the soviet on a technical and informational basis, while fully retaining our independent political position.” As Lenin put it: “We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov… but we do not support Kerensky.”69 Some 240 revolutionary committees sprang up between 27 and 30 August in various parts of Russia, often on the initiative of local soviets. Within hours, alarm whistles were sounded in factories throughout Petrograd. Acting on their own, without instructions from higher authorities, workers reinforced security around plant buildings and began to form fighting detachments. During the Kornilov days, many of the newly recruited Red Guards received military training from the Bolshevik military organisation.70

Rabinowitch describes how swift action by rail and telegraph workers prevented reactionary leaders in the capital from establishing communications with advancing counterrevolutionary forces. The “savage division” were encircled by local workers and peasants, who berated them for betraying the revolution. The troops had not been told the real reason for their movement northward. Most had little sympathy for Kornilov and no desire to oppose the Provisional Government and the soviet. On 30 August the troops hoisted a red flag inscribed “Land and Freedom” over the headquarters. Rail workers held back rolling stock, wrecked bridges and track, and effectively blocked communications between Krymov’s forces.71

By 31 August Kornilov’s revolt had collapsed. He was placed under house arrest, although guarded by his own loyal bodyguards. Sukhanov described the extraordinary spectacle of representatives of the “savage division” addressing the Petrograd soviet to condemn Kornilov and explain their own role:

The “bureau” was packed tight with Caucasian greatcoats, fur caps, felt cloaks, galoons, daggers, glossy black moustaches, astounded prawn-like eyes, and the smell of horses. This was the elite, the cream, headed by “native” officers, in all perhaps 500 men. The crowd kept the deepest silence while the delegates of the individual units, with their caps in their hands, made broken speeches in the names of those who had sent them. On the whole they all said one and the same thing. In naively grandiloquent language they extolled the revolution and talked about their devotion to it to the tomb, to the last drop of their blood. Not one man in their units, not one of their people had gone or would go against the revolution and the revolutionary government. A misunderstanding had taken place, dissipated by the simple establishment of the truth. The “savages” were the bearers of solemn vows.72

Historian Rex Wade argues that the radical left gained new popularity from the Kornilov affair and this was “quickly translated into an elected majority for a Bolshevik-led radical left coalition in the Petrograd soviet and in many other city soviets and army committees”. That in turn set the stage for the October revolution. The Bolsheviks “became the political alternative for the disappointed and disenchanted, for those looking for new leadership”. But their appeal was not merely negative. They also drew support for the policies they advocated.73

The Bolshevik resurgence

The Bolshevik resurgence made visible by the response to Kornilov’s rebellion had begun a month earlier. On 26 July to 3 August, 150 delegates met for the sixth congress of the RSDLP, under illegal conditions, and saw the fusion of the Bolsheviks with the Mezhraionka. The party’s chief organiser Iakov Sverdlov reported that the party had grown from 80,000 members in 78 local organisations in April to 200,000 members in 162 local organisations. The congress discarded the slogan “all power to the soviets” in favour of a policy of “dictatorship of the proletariat and the poorest peasantry”.74

The measure of the Bolshevik resurgence was registered across the labour movement and in bourgeois elections. At the end of July the Moscow conference of factory and shop committees adopted a Bolshevik resolution. A Moscow delegate, Podbelskii, reported to a party conference: “Six district soviets out of ten are in our hands... Under the present organised slanderous attacks only the worker mass which firmly supports Bolshevism is saving us”. At the beginning of August, in elections at the Moscow factories, Bolsheviks were elected in place of Mensheviks and SRs.75 On 7 August the second Petrograd conference of factory committees opened in Smolny and again the leadership was completely in the hands of Bolsheviks.76

Trotsky reported on a regional conference of trade unions in the Urals in the middle of August, uniting 150,000 workers, and where Bolshevik resolutions were carried. On 20 August at a conference of the factory and shop committees in Kiev, a Bolshevik-backed resolution was carried by a majority of 161 votes against 35, with 13 abstaining. At the democratic elections for the city Duma of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, which coincided exactly with the Kornilov revolt, the Bolsheviks won 58 seats out of 102, the Socialist Revolutionaries 24, the Mensheviks 4. In Kronstadt a Bolshevik, Lazar Bregman, was elected president of the soviet.77

On 31 August a Bolshevik-sponsored resolution passed in the Petrograd soviet for the first time. A heated debate through the night on the merits of creating an exclusively socialist government ended at about 5am on 1 September, when the delegates rejected the SRs’ resolution and adopted Kamenev’s statement. The vote was 279 deputies in favour, 115 opposed, with 51 abstentions. Rabinowitch argues that the number of deputies present and voting on this occasion constituted a relatively small fraction of the Petrograd soviet’s total membership. This was “at least partly because many military representatives were still on duty with their regiments, defending the capital against Kornilov”. However, “many rank and file left Mensheviks and SRs with no organisational loyalty to the Bolsheviks sided with the Bolsheviks on this issue”. Nonetheless “the vote of the Petrograd soviet on 31 August reflected a gradual, although by no means negligible, leftward shift in the deputies’ orientation”.

The old soviet SR-Menshevik pro-war politicians put their leadership to a vote of confidence on 9 September and lost. They had not reckoned with the changes in workplaces or within the Petrograd garrison, where control of many regimental committees passed into the hands of the Bolsheviks. The moderate socialists who comprised the old presidium walked out in a huff, and on 25 September the leadership of the Petrograd soviet was completely reorganised. Making up the new presidium were two SRs, one Menshevik, and four Bolsheviks (Trotsky, Kamenev, Alexei Rykov and G F Fedorov); Trotsky replaced Chkheidze as chair.78

Sukhanov described the new relation of forces in the Petrograd soviet. In his first speech as chair Trotsky said that actually he had not taken Chkheidze’s place, but, on the contrary, Chkheidze had been occupying his place: Trotsky had last chaired the Petersburg soviet during the 1905 revolution. For the workers, the Bolsheviks “had become their own people, because they were always there, taking the lead in details as well as in the most important affairs of the factory or barracks”. They had become “the sole hope”. On the new executive committee of 44 members, two-thirds were Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks numbered five in all, while the Menshevik-Internationalists did not get a single seat. However, at its first session the Bolshevik-led executive co-opted the latter group with a consulting voice, including Sokolov, Martov, Sukhanov himself and others.79

Soviet power had spread rapidly. In Trotsky’s words, the soviet system “had been raised up over a human ocean which was billowing powerfully and driving its waves leftward”. At the end of August, the secretariat of the executive committee counted as many as 600 soviets.80 As early as 1 September the Bolshevik newspaper Rabochii announced that 126 soviets had requested the soviet central executive committee to take over power. On 5 September a Bolshevik resolution carried in the Moscow soviet, and two weeks later it elected a new executive committee with a Bolshevik majority and Viktor Nogin as chair. On 5 September a congress of soviets in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia revealed a Bolshevik majority. The following day a message from Ekaterinburg, the main city of the Urals and an important mining and industrial region, announced that power had passed into the hands of the soviets. On 10 September a regional congress of soviets in Finland adopted Bolshevik resolutions by big majorities.81

The mass support enjoyed by the Bolsheviks was also evident in the elections to city and district government councils during 1917, where the Bolsheviks received a third of the votes for the Petrograd city council on 20 August, despite the absence of top party leaders. This was second only to the SRs, who got 37%. In Moscow, Bolsheviks gained an absolute majority (51%) in voting for city district councils on 24 September, a dramatic rise from June when they had obtained only 12% of the vote for the city council. The SRs won 58% in June but only 14% in September. Polarisation was also evident: for example, the Kadets increased their vote in Moscow (though not in Petrograd).82

The September crisis

Although September opened with the defeat of Kornilov, there was no respite for Kerensky. On 1 September the Provisional Government ministers turned the running of the government over to a council of five, which was immediately dubbed “the directory” (alluding to the five-member executive set up during the French revolution). But the government no longer had an operable peace policy and had failed to meet the aspirations of the peoples of Russia. A sense of general crisis pervaded life, a feeling that things could not go on as they were. On 14-22 September Kerensky attempted to shore up his increasingly Bonapartist rule by holding a ‘”democratic conference”, which elected a “council of the republic”, or pre-parliament. A fourth Provisional Government was formed on 25 September. It was headed by Kerensky and included Kadets, Mensheviks, SRs and other moderate socialists and liberals.83

With growing Bolshevik support and the crisis of the Provisional Government, Lenin — who was still in hiding — decided in September that the time was right to agitate for an insurrection. On 15 September, the top Bolshevik leadership received two letters, ‘The Bolsheviks must assume power’ and ‘Marxism and insurrection’, in which Lenin summoned the party to make preparations for an immediate armed uprising. The central committee felt the letters so incendiary that they considered destroying them, although one copy was preserved. On 22 September, Lenin wrote ‘Heroes of Fraud and the Mistakes of the Bolsheviks’, in which he argued that the Bolsheviks should have walked out of the democratic state conference in protest. The following day, in ‘From a publicist’s diary: the mistakes of our party’, he commented: “Trotsky was for the boycott [of the pre-parliament]. Bravo, Comrade Trotsky!” A steady stream of communications from hiding came to a head on 29 September, when Lenin tendered his resignation from the central committee in order to campaign among the rank and file of the party and at the party congress on the matter of insurrection. In ‘The crisis has matured’ he wrote, “for it is my profound conviction that if we ‘wait’ for the congress of soviets and let the present moment pass, we shall ruin the revolution”.84

The conditions for insurrection

The most significant essential element of the situation by September 1917 was the revolt of labour. Workers already had “the mood of bitterness” generated by memories of class oppression. There were queues and shortages, all the elements of irritation that came with the collapse of national economic life. After July employers’ attitudes had hardened. This was summed up in the speech given by the industrialist Riabushinskii. Addressing a congress of business people in Moscow on 16 August, he warned of “the bony hand of hunger”, which “would grasp by the throat the members of the different committees and soviets” and bring them to their senses. The phrase obtained wide circulation and served to spur on the workers’ revolt.

The conditions for an insurrection were also evident in the ongoing mutiny of the Russian army. While the fighting continued at the front, as historian Christopher Read put it, “the plight of troops went from the unbearable to the unimaginable”.85 Chamberlin argues that between spring and autumn this army, the largest ever put into the field by any country, was transformed into “an enormous, exhausted, badly clothed, badly fed, embittered mob of people, united by thirst for peace and general disillusionment”. The mutiny of the Russian armed forces was protracted and varied. Sometimes it assumed relatively mild forms: “refusal to obey orders or to go into the trenches, desertion”. Sometimes it found expression in the lynching and beating of officers and commissars.

The outstanding feature of the post-revolutionary Russian army was its far-flung network of committees. Although few had a Bolshevik majority (most who professed any political allegiance were SRs), the Bolsheviks were able to influence it through their military organisation, clubs and newspapers such as Okopnaya Pravda (Trench Truth). The troops understood that the fault for continuing the war lay with the Provisional Government, which by refusing to give up the utopian formula “war to the victorious end” assured themselves revolution to the bitter end. A congress of the Baltic fleet wrote to the premier: “To you, betrayer of the revolution, Bonaparte Kerensky, we send our curses”.86

The third great element of the social revolutionary movement were the seizures of landed estates by the peasantry. These events took place across Russia, had much in common, and proceeded with a similar rhythm after they began at the end of March. A striking feature was the speed with which the peasants created new forms of organisation, particularly the local volost or township committees. A congress of peasant deputies met in Petrograd from 17 May to 10 June. Of the 1,115 delegates, 537 were SRs, while there were only 14 Bolshevik delegates. On every question except land the executive committee elected by the congress of peasant soviets was rather moderate. It “severely condemned the Bolshevik demonstration in the July Days, adopted a definitely defencist attitude in regard to the war, supported the idea of a coalition government to the end and was violently hostile to the Bolshevik overturn in November”. But in the autumn a distinct change came over the peasant movement: it became at once less organised and more violent. The single month of October witnessed 42% of all cases of sacking and destruction of country homes reported for the whole eight months after the overthrow of the tsar.87

Sukhanov describes the peasant upsurge:

“Disorders” were taking on absolutely unendurable, really menacing proportions in Russia. Anarchy was really getting under way. The city and the countryside were both in revolt. The first was demanding bread, the second land. The new coalition was met with hunger riots and savage pogroms throughout Russia. I happen to have in front of me reports of such riots in Zhitomir, Kharkov, Tambov, Orel, Odessa, etc., etc. Troops were sent everywhere, Cossacks whenever possible. There were repressions, shootings, martial law. But nothing helped. Petersburg was quiet; it simply hungered and waited.

But the peasants, finally losing patience, began settling the agrarian question at first hand by their own methods. It was impossible not to give them land: it was impossible to torture them any longer by uncertainty. It was impossible to make speeches to them about the “regulation of rural relations without the destruction of the existing forms of land-holding”.

But this was the essence of the coalition. And the peasants began acting on their own. Estates were divided up and tilled, herds were slaughtered and driven off, country-houses were destroyed and set on fire, arms were seized, stores were plundered and destroyed, trees and orchards were chopped down, there was murder and violence. These were no longer “excesses”, as they had been in May and June. It was a mass phenomenon of tidal waves heaving and billowing throughout the country.88

On 6 September the Bolshevik military organisation issued detailed instructions for organising and training “workers’ druzhiny” (voluntary guards or militia) in its newspaper. After the Bolsheviks won the leadership of the Petrograd soviet in late September they created a department for the workers’ guard, chaired by Konstantin Iurenev. On the eve of the October revolution they worked out an elaborate city-wide structure for this Red Guard, headed by a general staff. The Red Guards — some 200,000 by October — were active together with soldiers in guarding factories and policing the streets. Red Guards were therefore vital for winning soviet power.89

Workers undertook militant forms of direct action. Among the major strikes were that of the Moscow leather workers, which began at the end of August and was not fully settled at the time of the October revolution, and that of the textile workers of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk and Kineshma, which was also in progress at the time of the insurrection.90 Workers’ control took on more expansive forms as employees sought to shut down production. The factory committees took on a wide range of functions, including guarding factory property, overseeing hiring and firing, labour discipline, and organising food supplies. By October, two-thirds of enterprises with 200 or more workers had such committees. Similarly, the soviets were the principal organs of political expression for the workers and soldiers. By October there were 1,429 soviets, of which 455 were soviets of peasants’ deputies.91

The October government crisis

The government crisis deepened as October began, while the labour movement coalesced around the need for soviet power. On 6 October the government announced plans to send around half of the Petrograd garrison to defend the approaches to the city from opposing armies. Bread had been rationed since spring, but in mid-October incoming bread supplies fell dramatically below daily demands. By mid-October Petrograd had only three or four days of food reserves and little prospect of improvement. Long queues snaked out from food shops. The spectre of starvation was real for the city’s workers.

But Russia’s labour movement was in no mood to acquiesce. In Baku, a six day general strike against 610 firms in September-October radicalised workers. Successive workers’ organisations became thoroughly Bolshevik. The issue before the workers by mid-October was not whether to have a socialist government, but when and how. The call for soviet power meant a government that would use state power in the workers’ interests. Workers’ support for a socialist government — soviet power — and Lenin’s insistence on an armed seizure of power by the Bolsheviks were not the same thing, but they would converge in response to Kerensky’s actions in late October.92

The pompously entitled “provisional council of the Russian republic”, better known as the pre-parliament, opened on 7 October in the luxurious surroundings of the Marinskii Palace. The “democratic” majority consisted of 308 people, of whom 66 were Bolsheviks, about 60 official Mensheviks and 120 SRs, about 20 of whom were Left SRs. Then there were some co-operators, who included extreme right Mensheviks and SRs, about 30 Menshevik-Internationalists and 75 Cadets. Sukhanov reflected that this pre-parliament was “officially powerless, a concoction unworthy of the revolution and pathetic as an institution”. Trotsky convinced the Bolshevik faction that the boats should be conclusively and publicly burnt and won a majority of two or three votes for the Bolsheviks to leave the pre-parliament immediately. When the chair called the pre-parliament meeting to order, Trotsky read out the party’s declaration, and the Bolsheviks walked out.93

The Bolshevik debate on soviet power

From 27 September onwards the main Bolshevik newspaper carried across the front page the headline: “Prepare for the congress of soviets on 20 October!” Unlike earlier in the year, there was now widespread support for an all-socialist government taking power through the soviets. In Kazan on the Volga river, soldiers of the garrison had voted almost unanimously for a soviet regime. In Baku, the large oil centre of the Caucasus, a meeting of the soviet and of labour and army organisations voted, 238 to 55, for non-confidence in the Provisional Government and for the transfer of power to the soviets. In Nikolaev, a town in South Ukraine, the Bolsheviks obtained 13 seats out of 15 in the re-elected soviet executive committee.94

On 10 October the Bolshevik central committee met and for the first time since July, Lenin was able to leave hiding and attend. The meeting took place in the apartment of Galina Flakserman, a Bolshevik activist since 1905, a member of staff at Izvestia in 1917 and an aide to the central committee secretariat. Flakserman was also married to Sukhanov, who recounted the special steps taken to have him spend the night away from home so the Bolsheviks could deliberate without interruption. The resolution to make armed insurrection the order of the day was carried by ten votes to two, with Zinoviev and Kamenev opposed. This represented a shift in policy towards Lenin’s view that any delay in insurrection would mean a disastrous acceleration of military and economic collapse and that the working-class would lose any chance to seize power. However, the resolution did not commit the party to a seizure of power before the congress of soviets or at any other specific time.95

Trotsky recalled in his short book On Lenin (1924) that there were three groups formed in the central committee: the opponents of the seizure of power by the party; Lenin, who demanded the immediate organisation of the rising, independent of the soviets; and the last group who considered it necessary to bind the rising closely with the second congress of soviets and in consequence wished to postpone it until the latter took place. Although no date appeared in the resolution, Trotsky revealed in 1924 that the committee decided that the rising should take place not later than 15 October, at least before the soviet congress, which was still expected to convene on 20 October. (Stalin disputed the claim about 15 October because it implied the Bolsheviks had let their own resolution slip.)96

Lenin thought that the congress of soviets of the northern region (CSNR) meeting on 11-13 October could be used to launch the armed insurrection against the Provisional Government. According to Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, the idea was that the proposed congress would “throw around revolutionary Petrograd an iron ring, which would defend the centre of the revolution, the capital, if the need arose”. The first session of the CSNR opened in the Smolny Institute in the afternoon on 11 October. It brought together representatives of 23 soviets, including Petrograd, Moscow, Kronstadt, Revel, Helsingfors, the northern, Western and South-Western fronts and the Baltic Fleet.

Trotsky’s speech was the highlight of the congress. He began by referring to the recent elections in which the Bolsheviks had gained majorities in the soviets. He attributed this to public disillusionment with previous soviet positions, such as support for the continuation of the war. Trotsky argued that the Petrograd soviet was now in conflict with the Provisional Government over the question of withdrawing some of the garrison from Petrograd, which he argued would leave the revolutionary capital undefended. He contrasted the actions of the Provisional Government, who were ready to abandon Petrograd to the Germans, with those of the Baltic sailors, who had resisted a German attack.

Historian James White argues that the logic of the proceedings at the congress was that “some new body would be created, attached to the Petrograd soviet, which would exercise control over the military authorities in the capital, just as similar organisations monitored the military authorities in towns in the Baltic area”. Until 9 October the organisers of the CSNR had intended to propose the establishment of a body of this kind. On that day, however, the Mensheviks on the executive committee of the Petrograd soviet had suggested setting up of a “committee of revolutionary defence”, which would concern itself with the question of the defence of Petrograd. This body became the military revolutionary committee (MRC). White points out that the CSNR voted to set up a northern executive committee, many of whom became members of the Petrograd MRC. These included the Bolsheviks Antonov-Ovseenko, Raskolnikov, Pavel Dybenko, Nikolai Krylenko and others.

The CSNR’s decision was significant as part of a coherent sequence of events running from September 1917 right to the October revolution. It was a major landmark in a process that brought the Bolsheviks to power through the soviets. This in fact was Trotsky’s strategy (as opposed to Lenin’s more direct approach). It was also the approach that ensured the success of the revolution with minimal bloodshed over the following weeks.97

Preparation to seize power continued, with the Kiev, southwest regional soviet congress at Minsk and Ural regional soviet congress declaring for soviet power. When the Bolshevik central committee meeting reconvened on 16 October Lenin delivered a strong defence of the committee’s decision to organise an immediate insurrection. He was opposed again by Zinoviev, who insisted that “there are fundamental doubts about whether the success of an uprising is assured”, and by Kamenev, who declared that the experience of trying to organise an uprising confirmed that the conditions for one did not exist. Nineteen participants in the meeting supported Lenin’s resolution, with two opposed and four abstentions. So preparations continued at pace.98

Wade argues that two decisions by their opponents played into the Bolsheviks’ hands. First, on 18 October the moderate socialist leaders decided to postpone the opening of the congress of soviets from the 20 to the 25 October. This in fact helped because the Bolsheviks were not ready to seize power before 20 October. Second, Kerensky made a fateful decision to strike at the left again; this was implemented on 24 October and allowed the Bolsheviks to present the insurrection in explicitly defensive terms. Without those events the October revolution as we know it could not have occurred.99

The military revolutionary committee

The military revolutionary committee (MRC) was conceived on 9 October, arising from the soviet power, contrary to Stalinist histories, which imply it was the result of the 10 October Bolshevik central committee’s decision to prepare for an uprising. Western historians have tended to view the MRC as merely a Bolshevik front organisation. This assessment is also inaccurate. The MRC held its first meeting on 20 October and its headquarters was in the offices of the Petrograd council of trade unions (the parallel committee in Moscow had its base in the Moscow union of metal workers’ building). Of its 66 original members, 48 were Bolsheviks, 14 Left SRs and four anarchists. Its principal figures were Trotsky, Mikhail Lashevich, the leaders of the Bolshevik military organisation (Nevskii, Iurenev, Nikolai Podvoiskii, Konstantin Mekhonoshin) and the Left SR Pavel Lazimir.100

Sukhanov provides a vivid picture of the constant round of meetings Trotsky and other MRC leaders engaged in to convince key sections of the working class and the army in Petrograd to support soviet power against the reactionaries and the Provisional Government. Trotsky, “tearing himself away from work on the revolutionary staff, personally rushed from the Obukhovsky plant to the Trubochny, from the Putilov to the Baltic works, from the riding-school to the barracks; he seemed to be speaking at all points simultaneously”.

On 21 October the Petersburg garrison acknowledged the soviet as the sole power and the MRC as the immediate organ of authority. This was reinforced the following day when, in the name of the soviet, the MRC messaged: “No orders to the garrison, not signed by the military revolutionary committee, are valid... Vigilance, firmness, and unwavering discipline is the duty of every soldier of the garrison. The revolution is in danger!” On the same day Trotsky spoke at the People’s House. He formulated a brief resolution, “we will defend the worker-peasant cause to the last drop of our blood”, and asked for a vote. The crowd of thousands raised their hands, the “burning eyes of men, women, youths, soldiers, peasants, and typically lower middle-class faces”. They vowed to defend the revolution — and countless other meetings throughout the city made similar pledges.101

On 23 October the MRC turned its attention to winning the Peter and Paul fortress. Trotsky described his activity in a little book, History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk, published just three months after the events:

In the courtyard a meeting was being held. The speakers of the right wing were most cautious and evasive, carefully avoiding any question about Kerensky, whose name, even in soldiers’ circles, always gave rise to cries of protest and indignation. They, however, listened to us and adhered to us. At four o’clock the cyclists held a battalion meeting in a neighbouring place, in the Modern Circus. Amongst the speakers was the quartermaster-general Paradeloff. He, too, spoke very, very cautiously. Far gone were the days when the official and semi-official orators never spoke of the workers’ party otherwise than as a band of traitors and hirelings of the German Kaiser. The assistant-chief of the staff came up to me and said: “Let us, for goodness’ sake, come to some understanding.” But it was now too late. Against only thirty votes, the battalion declared itself, after a debate, in favour of the assumption of authority by the soviets.102

The MRC’s activities were prescient because the Provisional Government was preparing to move against the soviets and their leaders. On 17 October the minister of the interior, Nikolai Kishkin, reported that the government had sufficient reliable forces to put down disturbances once they broke out, but lacked the forces necessary to start an action against the left. However during the night of 23-24 October, the government decided to act. Kerensky proposed arresting the MRC. The government instead agreed to initiate legal proceedings against some MRC members and Bolsheviks, including Trotsky, and to close two Bolshevik newspapers, Rabochii put’ and Soldat. As Wade puts it, “Kerensky unexpectedly handed Lenin his seizure of power before the congress of soviets”.103

The seizure of power

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 MRC; 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.104

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”.105

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.106

The second congress of soviets

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.”107

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.108

Sukhanov reported on the debate among the Menshevik-Internationalists on whether to walk out. His own view was that boycott was a mistake. First “no one contested the legality of the congress. Second, it represented the most authentic worker-peasant democracy”. He added that the congress still retained some of those who participated in the first congress in June, including some Kadets. Sukhanov believed that a Bolshevik regime would be ephemeral and the Mensheviks should propose a “united democratic front”. But this “could be achieved only in the arena of soviet struggle”.

The [Menshevik] fraction divided and by 14 votes to 12 Martov’s motion to leave the congress was carried. Martov denounced the overthrow of the Provisional Government as a “coup d’état” and his fraction walked out. Trotsky famously replied with venom:

A rising of the masses of the people… needs no justification. What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. We hardened the revolutionary energy of the Petersburg workers and soldiers. We openly forged the will of the masses for an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. The masses of the people followed our banner and our insurrection was victorious. And now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise? With those wretched groups who have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we’ve had a full view of them. No one in Russia is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by the millions of workers and peasants represented in this congress, whom they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to be: into the dustbin of history!109

Trotsky stated in his History that the minutes of the congress were not preserved. The stenographers abandoned Smolny along with the Mensheviks and SRs, and the secretarial notes “were lost without a trace in the abyss of events”. There remain “only the hasty and tendentious newspaper reports, written to the tune of the artillery or the grinding of teeth in the political struggle”. Lenin’s speeches have suffered especially. The initial statement which John Reed puts in the mouth of Lenin, “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order”, does not appear in any of the newspaper accounts, but it was in Trotsky’s view “wholly in the spirit of the orator”. Reed “could not have made it up”.110

By pulling out of the congress, the moderate socialists paved the way for a government which had never been publicly broached before — an exclusively Bolshevik regime. A 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.

First acts of workers’ self-rule

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.111

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.112

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.113

The spread of workers’ power was highly uneven. In some places the soviets assumed power relatively simply, while in others there was a serious fight. Moscow was the sole place in central and northern Russia where the Bolshevik seizure of power encountered serious, sustained and bloody resistance. In factory towns such as Ivanovo-Voznesensk and Vladimir, taking power was bloodless and straightforward. In Kazan and Saratov there were short fights with the junkers and adherents of the Provisional Government, which ended in victories of the local Bolsheviks. In provincial centres such as Penza and Simbirsk, a Bolshevik-led administration was only established in December. The Ural and Siberian towns accepted the soviet regime in the main without serious opposition, although remote Blagoveschensk was an exception. In Tashkent, the main city of Russian central Asia, the first Siberian regiment and armed workers from the local railroad workshops overcame the resistance of the junkers and Cossacks to set up a soviet government.114

The soviet government consolidates

On 9 December the Left SRs finally joined the council of people’s commissars, establishing a coalition government with the Bolsheviks that lasted until April 1918. The Bolsheviks and the Left SRs held an “extraordinary congress” on 13 November, where they agreed to create a restructured and much enlarged all-Russia central executive committee of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets. This new expanded CEC included 108 representatives from the old executive elected in October at the congress of soviets of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies (101 original and seven co-opted members), and an equal 108 from the left-dominated congress of peasants’ deputies, 100 from army and navy units and 50 from the trade unions.

The new government was established in the aftermath of the Constituent Assembly elections, which began on 12 November, lasting a fortnight. After the seizure of power in October some Bolsheviks including Lenin wanted to cancel the Constituent Assembly elections, but other leaders disagreed and the elections were allowed to proceed. The elections probably bought valuable time for the new Bolshevik regime. Overall the Bolsheviks obtained only about a quarter of the total votes, although they received the majority of workers’ votes and 42% of the soldiers’ votes. For the assembly itself, the breakdown by membership shows that, of about 700 or so members, the SRs had 370-380 (including about 81 Ukrainian SRs), the Left SR party 39-40, the Bolsheviks 168-175, the Kadets and the Mensheviks each about 17, nationality candidates about 77-86, with the rest scattered among other parties.

There were many problems with the elections. The lists of candidates had been drawn up months before and did not reflect the split in the SRs and the breakaway of the Left SRs. The elections had been delayed by the Provisional Government and finally took place only after the soviet seizure of power. Lenin argued in Pravda on 13 December that a republic of soviets were a “higher form of democracy” compared with a bourgeois parliament. Both the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs began to talk of dispersing the assembly.

The Constituent Assembly finally opened on the afternoon of 5 January 1918 in the Tauride Palace. Victor Chernov, leader of the SRs and former minister in the Provisional Government, was elected president, standing against Maria Spiridonova of the Left SRs. The assembly refused to support the programme of the new soviet government. Raskolnikov read a statement and the Bolsheviks and Left SRs walked out in protest. Around 4am the commander of the guard at the palace, the anarchist Zhelezniakov (previously prominent in the Durnovo villa and July days), approached Chernov and asked that the deputies disperse, “since the guard is tired”. The delegates duly vacated the building. When they returned the next day they found it locked and the assembly was dissolved by the soviet government. Then the third congress of soviets was called, which ratified the dissolution and ended the Constituent Assembly.115

Conclusion

The Russian revolution remains the high point of working class history. In October 1917, the Russian working class, led by the Bolshevik party, made a revolution, took power, smashed the old state and proceeded to build a new state based on workers’ democracy. This socialist political and social revolution not only showed that working class power was possible, but unleashed an enormous democratic festival of the oppressed — poor peasants, minority nationalities and women.

The precious months of 1917 still have much to teach the current generation of activists. The debates about power and resistance, strategy and tactics, about the ebb and flow of struggle, all resonate beyond the immediate context. To examine 1917 in Russia is to glimpse the immense potential of working class revolution. To understand why it was possible for the Russian workers to win remains a vital part of learning the lessons of the past, so as to change the world in the present.

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