November 8, 1917. “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” So said Vladimir Lenin, and today his prediction comes true. In the October Revolution, Lenin's Bolshevik Party overthrows the Russian government and inaugurates a new era - a government that will come to be called the Soviet Union. Welcome to the 20th Century’s SECOND worst hell-state.
So why is it called the October Revolution if it took place in November? Well, back in those days, the Russian Empire still operated on the ancient Julian Calendar, literally named so because Julius Caesar promulgated it. Most of the Western world (and basically the whole world today) abide by the Gregorian Calendar, which came out in 1582. Different countries adopted the Gregorian in their own time, so basically from about 1582 to 1918 you have two different dating systems competing across the European world. Is it confusing?
Yes, it’s confusing as hell. But it explains why, when the rest of the world was saying November 8, the Eastern Orthodox world (including Russia) was saying it was October 26. Hence the October Revolution, even though the Gregorian Calendar said it was November. Welcome to the hell that is primary source historical research.
Now for our story. Ever since the 19th Century, revolutionary activity had been commonplace in the Russian Empire. The Tsars ruled their realm with an iron fist, governing so brutally and autocratically that even the rest of Europe regarded Russia as an absolutist nightmare. If you wanted to describe someone as a dictator in, say, 1860, you couldn’t call him Hitler or Stalin since they hadn’t happened yet; you compared him to the Tsar of All Russias. Russia was universally known as a backwards, superstitious, gigantic realm full of ignorant peasants and callously ruled by the Tsars and their noble attendees.
It wasn’t like the people of Russia accepted this quietly. Throughout the rise of the modern age, multiple revolutionary movements ranging from anarchist to socialist to Bolshevik had tried to launch rebellions or overthrow the Tsar. These had all failed, with varying degrees of brutality and harshness. The anarchists had succeeded in assassinating Tsar Alexander II in 1881, which ended up backfiring since his son, Alexander III, was far more conservative and authoritarian than his mild liberal father. The socialist parties helped lead a great revolution in 1905, the famous revolution of the Battleship Potemkin where a whole crew of sailors mutinied against the Tsar’s autocratic rule. But Nicholas II crushed this uprising, killing 15,000 people when his troops stormed the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Nicholas II’s only concession was the creation of a state legislature known as the Duma, which would provide the façade of representative government but have no real power. It would take more than a few protests to unseat the great autocrats of Europe, the Tsars of all Russia.
The real downfall of the Tsars would not come from a Revolution – not really. It would come from World War I. (Remember how I keep talking about World War I being the linchpin of the entire modern world?)
Russia’s entry into World War I started with high hopes but quickly accelerated into disaster, with staggering casualties, a broken economy and millions of people displaced by hardship and war. The incompetence and corruption of the Tsarist Empire was fully revealed by its utter failure to prosecute a modern war. The illiterate peasants forced into the ranks of the Russian Army soon began to lose all heart and either deserted or turned to political radicalism.
The workers in the factories, men and women with no rights or protections, began to clamor for rights and agitate for relief even as Russia’s undeveloped economy struggled to produce enough weapons and equipment to wage the war. Agricultural revolts broke out as well, and soon Tsar Nicholas II was looking at a system that was unravelling from beneath him. Even the relative victory of the 1916 Brusilov Offensive produced so many casualties that it further shattered the system. The whole structure was creaking – it was going to come crashing down.
The Tsarist regime finally hit its breaking point in early 1917. A series of bread riots in the Russian capital of Petrograd (NOT Moscow, Petrograd was the capital back then) started on March 8, 1917 (February 23 in the old calendar). They quickly grew and intensified, with workers from the major armaments factories flooding into the streets alongside the protesting women. Unlike the October Revolution some months later, the “February Revolution” was a legitimately spontaneous and grassroots movement, arising from the collective action of the people of Petrograd.
Where is Petrograd? You won’t find it on Google Maps. Petrograd was briefly the name of St. Petersburg, the great capital founded by Peter the Great on the Baltic Sea. When World War I started, the Russian government thought the name sounded too “German” so they changed it to the more Russian-sounding Petrograd. After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet government would change the city’s name to that of their founder – Leningrad. Today, with the Soviets gone, it is St. Petersburg once more. So that’s cleared up.
The February Revolution resulted in the abdication and imprisonment of the Tsar as well as the inauguration of a Provisional Government – a nominally democratic body under the moderate liberal Prince Georgy Lvov. Its inauguration on March 2, 1917, heralded the final end of the Russian Empire – though a Republic would not be proclaimed until later. Either way, the February Revolution and the actions of the strikers and rioters in Petrograd had finally brought down the Tsar and ushered in rule by the people. Out with the old, in with the new – right?
Well. Turned out the February Revolution was only Stage 1.
The Provisional Government was created by the Duma, which the Tsars had originally intended to be just a puppet legislature. It replaced the Tsar with a Minister-Chairman, which at first was Prince Lvov but would finally be held by Alexander Kerensky. The Provisional Government looked like a new start for Russia. It was full of moderate, educated liberals with pragmatic and reasonable ideas about how the future government should be run. None of these men were revolutionaries, exactly, but they were the long-serving legitimate opposition to the Tsar’s rule. The most radical among them were the members of the SR (Socialist-Revolutionary) Party, which had boycotted every Duma since 1907 due to the lack of peasant representation. The SRs had been on the bleeding edge of the 1905 Revolution, but now they seized their chance to take part in the new government. Alexander Kerensky, the prodigal son of the SRs, quickly took a leading role in the Provisional Government.
But the naïve liberals who dominated the Provisional Government were headed for trouble. It was not their supporters who had overthrown the Tsar, but the people and workers of Petrograd. The Provisional Government had merely taken advantage of the chaos to assert themselves. Even if they were leagues more liberal and progressive than the old dethroned Tsar, they were not nearly left enough for the rank and file on the street. These rebels formed themselves into a Soviet – literally the Russian word for “council” – that represented the interests of the Petrograd proletariat. The 4,000 members of the Petrograd Soviet was the most important and powerful opposition group to the Provisional Government, even though its membership was mostly made up of SRs and Mensheviks.
Okay, you say, who were the Mensheviks? In the early 20th Century, the Russian Labor Party – which was much more radical than the SRs – had gone into exile in other European countries after the Tsar’s crackdown on socialist agitation. During that time, the Russian Labor Party underwent a factional split at its 2nd Congress. The supporters of Julius Martov became part of the “minority” group – aka the Mensheviks. But most of the Russian revolutionaries in exile had coalesced around their authoritarian leader Vladimir Lenin, and took the name “majoritarians” – which translates to Bolsheviks.
Granted, none of this would have meant anything before the February Revolution. It was just a bunch of political exiles squabbling over who controlled their little book club, none of whom had any real power or means of getting it. But the fall of the Tsar had broken everything open, and there were people willing to take advantage of the little cadre of revolutionaries still kicking around in Europe. Many of the Mensheviks had returned to Russia, and over Martov’s bitter opposition had cooperated with the liberal Provisional Government. Among them was German General Erich Ludendorff, who saw a way to fatally weaken Russia and gain an advantage in World War I. (Cause remember, THAT’s still going on.)
In April 1917, Ludendorff arranged for the famous “sealed train” to transport Lenin and 31 of his close confidantes from their exile in Switzerland to neutral Sweden, where they took a short boat over to Petrograd. It wasn’t as if the German generals loved the Bolsheviks, or supported Communism, or thought they would be good for Russia. Quite the contrary; Ludendorff sent Lenin to Petrograd in the explicit hope that the Bolshevik leader would destabilize Russia, enabling Germany to gain military ascendancy over an empire in turmoil. Ludendorff would get his wish…but the distant future consequences would cost Germany DEARLY.
Either way, Lenin arrived in Petrograd in April 1917 and immediately began agitating against the Provisional Government. He lambasted the SRs, Mensheviks, and any other group that had allied with the Provisional Government, denouncing them as traitors to socialism. To Lenin, the Provisionals were just a bunch of capitalist and bourgeois elite, little better than the Tsar they had replaced. Lenin demanded immediate exit from World War I, total rule by the soviet councils across Russia, the nationalization of all industry, and the redistribution of land and wealth.
This would be the new reality: the Provisional Government soon found itself under attack by both the left and the right. On the left, Lenin and his Bolsheviks used the Petrograd Soviet as their venue for attacking the Government and demanding its overthrow. On the right, the royalists and generals of the army regarded the Provisional Government with scorn and contempt, and there was very real fear that the Russian Army would just depose the Government and restore the Tsar. The problem was that no one really supported the Provisional Government except a narrow wedge of business owners, liberal intellectuals, and moderate politicians.
You think our political factions are too extreme in America? Meet 1917 Russia, where one side is LITERALLY Lenin and Stalin and the other side wants to restore a religious authoritarian medieval monarchy. “Left” and “right” barely begin to cover it.
The Provisional Government, though, wasn’t doomed. It could have survived, especially since it had the support of less radical left-wing groups like the Mensheviks and the SRs. The SRs in particular were much-loved among the Russian peasantry, and the Mensheviks had some clout with international socialist movements. By June 1917, when the SR wonder boy Alexander Kerensky was the new head of the Provisional Government, his charismatic leadership seemed to be a possible salvation. Maybe Russia could steer clear of the tides of populism, monarchism and communism, and chart a middle course into the future. They might have…if they had not continued the war.
With the Russian workers, peasants, and even the military calling for peace, the Provisional Government’s decision to continue fighting World War I gradually eroded any credibility they had with the people. NOBODY in Russia wanted to keep fighting. Everybody wanted to go home. The Army was disintegrating rapidly, with desertions spiking and morale nearing the gutter. Antiwar agitation was growing quickly. Yet the Provisional Government believed that any peace would be a disaster, and also felt committed to the Alliance with Britain and France. (Keep in mind that at THIS exact moment, Britain is going through the hell of the Battle of Passchendaele, largely to keep pressure off the fragile Russian military.) Both from fear of the harsh peace Germany would make them sign (valid) and from a sense of duty to their Allies (understandable) the Kerensky Government vowed to fight World War I to the end – and sealed their doom.
To demonstrate their support for the Allies, the Provisional Government determined to attack the German front lines. The Kerensky Offensive of July 1917, though it incorporated all the lessons Russia had learned from three years of war, ended in utter collapse as the army disintegrated and refused to fight. Soldiers had begun to form their own soviets at the front and disobeyed direct orders, often shooting their officers or fleeing en masse for the rear. The Russian Army had ceased to be a reliable fighting force, and soon this malaise spread to the broader society. The Russian peasantry began to revolt and seize land from their governors and landlords, and when the Provisional Government failed to back them up the peasants turned on the Government. Workers began mass demonstrations throughout the major Russian cities. All over Russia, the Provisional Government’s credibility began to break down. Things were rapidly nearing the point of collapse.
And Lenin was HERE for this next stage. After the failure of the Kerensky Offensive in July 1917, a new series of Bolshevik-supported riots in Petrograd – the “July Days” - had ended with Kerensky reluctantly using force on the strikers, resulting in many deaths and Lenin’s flight into hiding as the Government cracked down on the Bolsheviks. But with the failure of the Kerensky Offensive and new revolts breaking out across the Empire, Lenin’s time was coming and he knew it. The Provisional Government, which had taken the place of the Tsar only a few months ago, was already crumbling on its own. It just needed a push.
It’s important to take a step back here and realize how momentous this all was. The Tsars, or their direct line, had ruled Russia since the 1500s. It had been the most powerful and fearsome monarchy in Europe for some time, with a ruler that had largely medieval and autocratic powers over a massive population of peasants and urban workers. It was probably the most reactionary and conservative of all the Great Powers before World War I. In Russia, the political compass was ALL the way to the right. The Provisional Government had tried to bring it to the center, and indeed, the Provisional Government was among the most liberal and progressive governments in the world at the time. It gave universal suffrage and full citizenship to women a full three years before the United States would!
But after centuries of repressive, dictatorial power by a monarch who believed his right to rule came from God, Russia’s political spectrum had become too twisted and warped to accept a liberal, moderate government – especially in a time of world war and political crisis. The people would not accept moderate change to overcome a rabidly regressive monarchy. The political pendulum had been stuck so far right for so long that when it finally began to swing back its momentum could not be slowed by the Provisional Government’s approach to liberal democracy, even social democracy. The pendulum would crash right through Kerensky’s naïve government – and the result would be the October Revolution.
In a resolution on October 23, the Bolshevik Central Committee voted to prepare for an armed uprising. Lenin led this meeting, and expressed his opinion that it was now time for the Bolsheviks to overthrow the corrupt and decadent Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks had been laying the seeds for months now by getting their agents elected to different committees and councils across Russia, especially Petrograd itself. The Bolsheviks now had a majority on the Petrograd Soviet, and had been using it for months as their vehicle to attack the Provisional Government. The President of the Petrograd Soviet – Lenin’s long-serving comrade Leon Trotsky – had founded a revolutionary military committee to plan the armed insurrection that would bring Lenin and his Bolsheviks to power. They just waited for a spark.
On November 6, 1917, some of Kerensky’s soldiers seized the office of a pro-Bolshevik newspaper and destroyed its equipment. The arrest of the newspaper’s editors brought on a denunciation from the Petrograd Soviet, and soon the Bolsheviks were reacting in force. Across Petrograd, soldiers loyal to the Bolshevik cause began to seize bridges and printing presses, resulting in widespread violence across the city. The trouble for Kerensky was that he no longer had the loyalty of many soldiers from the Army, who often defected en masse to the armed workers and strikers of the Soviet. By 1700 on November 6, the Bolsheviks had seized the central telegraph office, which gave them control over Petrograd’s communications.
Very soon, Kerensky and the Provisional Government had completely lost control. Even though some military units remained loyal, the vast majority went over without resistance to the Bolsheviks and their urban militias, the “Red Guards.” The Soviet workers and soldiers soon seized the railroad stations, preventing the quick movement of friendly troops into the city. Even the giant naval base at Kronstadt, once the center of Tsarist military power in the Baltic Sea, went over totally to the Bolsheviks. Kronstadt would remain the most radical center of the Revolution for years to come until even Lenin found it necessary to crush the sailors there in 1921. With the Bolsheviks in almost complete control of Petrograd, the Red Guards and their mob of allies descended upon the Provisional Government’s headquarters in the Winter Palace late in the day on November 7.
Only 3,000 officer cadets, Cossacks, and women soldiers of the Battalion of Death defended the Winter Palace. (Those women soldiers? Yeah, that’s a story. I’ll post the link below.) Kerensky himself had left on November 6 in a car to try and gather loyal soldiers to come rescue the Provisional Government, but ultimately failed to gather sufficient resistance to the Bolsheviks. Dispirited and fearing for his life, Kerensky fled to France, then to the United States; he would live until 1970 (!!!) in opposition to the Bolshevik movement, and is buried in London. As the Bolsheviks approached the Winter Palace, then, the Provisional Government was leaderless, despondent, and feared the worst.
For all that, the actual Bolshevik assault on the seat of Bourgeois power was pretty pathetic. They delayed the assault on the evening of November 7, giving many of the Winter Palace’s defenders time to evacuate – especially the cadets and the Cossacks. The Provisional Government’s cabinet waffled about what to do, even as bands of insurgents walked into the outer halls with no opposition. The real assault on the Winter Palace began by accident, when the cruiser Aurora fired a blank shot from the Kronstadt naval yard. The defenders of the Palace assumed it was the beginning of a naval bombardment and panicked, while the Bolshevik revolutionaries decided it was the signal to attack.
Over weak opposition, Lenin’s Red Guards streamed into the Palace, 40,000 attackers overwhelming the remaining Cadets and Women’s Battalion soldiers. After a small spat of firing, the Provisional Government was arrested and its defenders were dead, captured, or fleeing. In the early morning hours of November 8, 1917, the October Revolution was successful. The Provisional Government was done. Long Live the Soviets…
Not so fast. Lenin had seized the capital, but he had not seized all of Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution had indeed gained the reins of authority over the former Russian Empire, but there were still big problems. First, a World War was going on; second, the Western Allies were adamantly opposed to Lenin’s new movement; third, the Bolsheviks now stood against every other political faction in Russia, from the socialists of the SR and Mensheviks to the radical right wing of the military and monarchists. Every single one of these factions would be dead-set on stopping the Communist revolution of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, and every one of these groups would do their best to stop them…
And in the end, they would all fail. Lenin was triumphant. From the most authoritarian, conservative state in the world, he and his Bolsheviks had brought about the most radical left-wing government in human history. The Bolsheviks expelled the SRs and Mensheviks, the less radical socialists, with Trotsky growling, “Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!" A new Council of People’s Commissars came together to rule the new socialist state, including the minor functionary Joseph Stalin. (If this was a TV show, I’d warn you not to get too attached to any of these Commissars. Stalin would have half of them executed after he came to power.)
But that was the ball game. Against the whole world – against the socialists, liberals, conservatives and reactionaries of Russia; against the Western Allies, including Britain, France and America; against the Germans and their proto-fascist militias, the Bolshevik Revolution would survive. From the October Revolution, and through the fire of the Russian Civil War, the Soviet Union would come into being, the most powerful socialist state ever founded on the face of the earth. Its violent emergence would foretell a violent existence, right down to its ignominious end. The October Revolution brought about a new era, for better or worse, in all the lands that once made up the Russian Empire.
Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.