The revolutions are still known in Russia as the February and October Revolutions. This is because the Russians were still using the old Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used by the rest of Europe. Russia adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1918. The events which the Russians know as the February Revolution began on 23 February 1917 (Julian), which was 8 March outside Russia. When the Bolsheviks took power on 25 October (Julian), it was 7 November elsewhere.
The February 1917 Revolution
The February Revolution took place in the context of heavy military setbacks during the First World War (1914–18), which left much of the Russian army in a state of mutiny. The February Revolution (March 1917) was a revolution focused around Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg). Although many wanted Revolution, no one expected it to happen when it did and how it did. On Thursday, February 23, 1917, women workers (also other workers) in Petrograd left their factories and entered the streets to protest. It was International Women’s Day and the women of Russia were ready to be heard.
An estimated 90,000 women marched through the streets, shouting “Bread” and “Down With the Autocracy!” and “Stop the War!” These women were tired, hungry, and angry. They worked long hours in miserable conditions in order to feed their families because their husbands and fathers were at the front, fighting in World War I. They wanted change.
The following day, more than 150,000 men and women took to the streets to protest. Soon more people joined them and by Saturday, February 25, the city of Petrograd was basically shut down — no one was working.
Violence and Army Mutiny:
With news of the unrest, Tsar Nicholas II, who was away visiting his troops on the front, sent a telegram to Petrograd’s military commander on February 25, ordering him to bring an end to the riots by the next day. In their efforts to carry out the tsar’s order, several troops of a local guard regiment fired upon the crowds on February 26.
The regiment fell into chaos, as many soldiers felt more empathy for the crowds than for the tsar. The next day, more than 80,000 troops mutinied and joined with the crowds, in many cases directly fighting the police.
The Duma and the Petrograd Soviet:
During this period, two political groups in Russia quickly recognized the significance of what was developing and began to discuss actively how it should be handled. The Duma (the state legislature) was already in active session but was under orders from the tsar to disband. However, the Duma continued to meet in secret and soon came to the conclusion that the unrest in Russia was unlikely to be brought under control as long as Nicholas II remained in power.
During the same period, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (or Petrograd Soviet) was a city council of Petrograd (Saint Petersburg), the capital of the Russian Empire. and it was an organization of revolutionary-minded workers and soldiers dominated by the Menshevik Party, convened on February 27. They immediately began to call for full-scale revolution and an end to the monarchy altogether.
The Tsar’s Abdication:
Despite the mutinies in the army and government, there was still no consensus that the monarchy should be dismantled entirely; rather, many felt that Nicholas II should abdicate in favor of his thirteen-year-old son, Alexis. If this occurred, a regent would be appointed to rule in the boy’s place until he reached maturity. Therefore, both the Duma and military leaders placed heavy pressure on the tsar to resign.
Nicholas II finally gave in on March 2, but to everyone’s surprise he abdicated in favor of his brother Michael rather than his son, whom he believed was too sickly to bear the burden of being tsar, even with a regent in place. Unfortunately nobody had made sure that Michael would accept the throne, so when he refused, the Russian monarchy came to an end. Responding to this unexpected turn of events, leading Duma members assumed the role of being the country’s provisional government. The provisional government was to serve temporarily, until a Constituent Assembly could be elected later in the year to decide formally on the country’s future government.
Provisional Government and The Petrograd Soviet:
Two contending groups emerged out of the chaos to claim leadership of Russia. The first was made up of former Duma members and the second was the Petrograd Soviet (workers’ councils). The former Duma members represented the middle and upper classes while the Soviet represented workers and soldiers.
Most people expected the autocracy of the tsarist system to be replaced by a democratic republic with an elected parliament. The Duma, struggling to take control, set up a mainly liberal provisional government with Prince George Lvov as prime minister. In July he was replaced by Alexander Kerensky, a moderate socialist. But the new government was just as perplexed by the enormous problems facing it as the Tsar had been.
Although the provisional government was quickly recognized by countries around the world as the legitimate governing body of Russia, the Petrograd Soviet held at least as much power and had significantly greater connections with regional authorities in other parts of the country. The Petrograd Soviet was in essence a metropolitan labor union made up of soldiers and factory workers. By the time of Nicholas II’s abdication, it had some 3,000 members and had formed an executive committee to lead it. Dominated by Mensheviks, the group was chaotic in structure and favored far more radical changes than did the provisional government.
In the end, the former Duma members formed a Provisional Government which officially ran the country. The Petrograd Soviet allowed this because they felt that Russia was not economically advanced enough to undergo a true socialist revolution.
Though often at odds, the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet found themselves cooperating out of necessity. With every major decision, the two groups coordinated with each other. One man, an ambitious lawyer named Alexander Kerensky, ended up a member of both groups and acted as a liaison between them. In time he would become the Russian minister of justice, minister of war, and then prime minister of the provisional government.
A period of dual power ensued, during which the Provisional Government held state power while the national network of Soviets, led by socialists, had the allegiance of the lower classes and the political left. During this chaotic period there were frequent mutinies, protests and many strikes. The Bolsheviks turned workers militias under their control into the Red Guards (later the Red Army) over which they exerted substantial control.
Within the first few weeks after the February Revolution, the Provisional Government abolished the death penalty, granted amnesty for all political prisoners and those in exile, ended religious and ethnic discrimination, and granted civil liberties.
What they did not deal with was an end to the war, land reform, or better quality of life for the Russian people. The Provisional Government believed Russia should honor its commitments to its allies in World War I and continue fighting. V.I. Lenin did not agree.
Afterward, many political groups competed for power, but they did so relatively peacefully. The two main groups, the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet, disagreed completely about the direction that Russia should take, yet they did manage to work with each other. Meanwhile, the various rival political parties also developed cooperative attitudes and worked with one another. The arrival of Lenin in Russia in April 1917, however, immediately changed the situation.
Was February Revolution from above or below, organized or spontaneous?
This has been the subject of some controversy among historians. George Katkov thought that the conspiracy among the elite was the decisive factor – nobles, Duma members and generals forced Nicholas to abdicate in order to prevent a real mass revolution developing. W. H. Chamberlin, writing in 1935, came to the opposite conclusion: ‘it was one of the most leaderless, spontaneous, anonymous revolutions of all time’. The revolution from below by the masses was decisive, because it threw the elite into a panic; without the crowds on the streets, there would have been no need for the elite to act. None of the traditional liberal historians thought the revolutionary parties had played a significant role in organizing the events.
Soviet historians agreed with Chamberlin that it was a revolution from below, but they did not accept that it was spontaneous. On the contrary, they made out a strong case that the Bolsheviks had played a vital role in organizing strikes and demonstrations. Many recent Western historians have supported the theory of a mass uprising organized from below, but not necessarily one organized by the Bolsheviks. There were many activists among the workers who were not affiliated to any political group. Historians such as Christopher Read, Diane Koenker and Steve Smith have all shown that workers were motivated by economic considerations rather than politics. They wanted better conditions, higher wages and control over their own lives; in the words of Steve Smith, ‘it was an outburst of desperation to secure the basic material needs and a decent standard of living’.
- Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party was a Marxist revolutionary party ancestral to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Founded in 1898 in Minsk, the Social-Democratic Party held that Russia could achieve socialism only after developing a bourgeois society with an urban proletariat. It rejected the populist idea that the peasant commune could be the basis of a socialist society that could bypass the capitalist stage.
- The second congress, in Brussels and London in July–August 1903, was dominated by the argument between the Bolshevik wing of the party, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the Menshevik wing, led by L. Martov, over Lenin’s proposals for a party composed of disciplined professional revolutionaries. This argument dominated the internal life of the party. Party members played a major role in the unsuccessful Russian Revolution of 1905, in which one Social-Democratic leader, Leon Trotsky, was elected president of the St. Petersburg Soviet. In the turmoil of 1917 the Bolsheviks broke definitively with their Menshevik rivals and, after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, changed their name to the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). Their rivals, the Mensheviks, were finally suppressed after the end of the Russian Civil War.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks:
Lenin’s Return to Russia:
During the February Revolution, Vladimir Lenin had been living in exile in Switzerland. Once the Provisional Government allowed back political exiles, the government of Germany deliberately facilitated Lenin’s return to his homeland in the spring of 1917 from Zurich. The German leadership did so with the intent of destabilizing Russia.
Lenin arrived in Petrograd on the evening of April 3, 1917. His arrival was enthusiastically awaited, and a large crowd greeted him and cheered as he stepped off the train. To their surprise, however, Lenin expressed hostility toward most of them, denouncing both the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet that had helped to bring about the change of power. He reminded the people that the country was still at war and that the Provisional Government had done nothing to give the people bread and land.
The April Theses:
In the days following his arrival, Lenin gave several speeches calling for the overthrow of the provisional government. On April 7, the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda published the ideas contained in Lenin’s speeches, which collectively came to be known as the April Theses.
From the moment of his return through late October 1917, Lenin worked for a single goal: to place Russia under Bolshevik control as quickly as possible. The immediate effect of Lenin’s attitude, however, was to alienate most other prominent Socialists in the city. Members of the Petrograd Soviet, and even many members of Lenin’s own party, wrote Lenin off as an anarchist quack who was too radical to be taken seriously.
As we have seen earlier, during the February Revolution two disparate bodies had replaced the imperial government—the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. The Socialists who dominated the Soviet interpreted the February Revolution as a bourgeois revolution and considered it appropriate for the bourgeoisie to hold power. They therefore submitted to the rule of the Provisional Government, formed by liberals from the Duma. The Soviet agreed to cooperate with the government and to advise it in the interests of workers and soldiers.
Lenin, however, viewed the two bodies as institutions representing social classes locked in the class struggle. He felt that, as one class gained dominance over the other, its governing body would crush the rival institution; thus the two could not indefinitely coexist. On the basis of this interpretation he developed his April theses, in which he urged the Bolsheviks to withdraw their support from the Provisional Government and to call for immediate withdrawal from World War I and for the distribution of land among the peasantry. The Bolshevik Party was to organize workers, soldiers, and peasants and to strengthen the Soviets so that they could eventually seize power from the Provisional Government. The theses also called for the nationalization of banks and for Soviet control of the production and distribution of manufactured goods.
Lenin first presented his theses to a gathering of Social Democrats and later (April 17, 1917) to a Bolshevik committee, both of which immediately rejected them. The Bolshevik newspaper Pravda published them but carefully noted that they were Lenin’s personal ideas.
“All Power to the Soviets”:
Lenin pulled his closest supporters together defined his movement by the slogan “All power to the soviets” as he sought to agitate the masses against the provisional government. In formulating his strategy, Lenin believed that he could orchestrate a new revolution in much the same way that the previous one had happened, by instigating large street demonstrations.
Though the soviets were primarily a tool of the Mensheviks and were giving Lenin little support at the moment, he believed he could manipulate them for his own purposes.
Nevertheless, the Bolshevik’s seventh all-Russian conference (May 7–12) adopted the theses as its program, along with the slogan “All Power to the Soviets.” Although some Bolsheviks still had reservations about the program, the concepts contained in the theses became very popular among the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, who, using Bolshevik slogans, unsuccessfully tried to force the Soviet to take power in July. It was not until October, however, that Lenin’s party was able to begin implementation of its program and seize power from the Provisional Government in the name of the Soviets.
Failed Early Coup Attempts:
From the moment Lenin returned to Russia, he began to work toward seizing power for the Bolsheviks using every means available. The first attempt took place in late April, during a sharp disagreement between the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet over the best way to get Russia out of World War I. As frustrated military personnel began to demonstrate in the streets, the Bolsheviks attempted to agitate the troops by demanding the ouster of the provisional government. However, no coup grew out of these demonstrations, and they dissipated without incident.
During the spring and summer, the Bolsheviks would make several more attempts to bring about a second revolution by inciting the masses. Their repeated failures made it clear to Lenin that a repeat performance of the February Revolution was not to be and that a much more organized, top-down approach would be required.
The Bolsheviks and the Military:
Lenin recognized that the current Russian leaders’ hesitation to pull the country out of World War I was a weakness that could be exploited. He knew that after four years of massive losses and humiliating defeats, the army was ready to come home and was on the verge of revolting.
While other politicians bickered over negotiating smaller war reparations – and even over whether Russia might possibly make territorial gains by staying in the war longer – Lenin demanded that Russia exit the war immediately, even if it meant heavy reparations and a loss of territory. With this position, Lenin received growing support throughout the Russian armed forces, which would ultimately be key to his seizing power. Thus, he launched an aggressive propaganda campaign directed specifically at the Russian troops still serving on the front.
The Summer of 1917:
The First Congress of Soviets:
June 3, 1917 First Congress of Soviets opens in Petrograd. Throughout the month of June, the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets was held in Petrograd. Out of 784 delegates who had a full vote, the Bolsheviks numbered 105; though they were a minority, their voice was loud and clear.
As the Congress discussed the future of Russia, doubt was expressed as to whether any existing party was actually willing to accept the responsibility of leading the nation. As if on cue, Lenin promptly stood up and announced, “There is such a party!” Laughter was reportedly heard following Lenin’s pronouncement, and few took him seriously.
On June 9, the Bolsheviks made an open proclamation calling for civilians and soldiers alike to fill the streets of the capital and to condemn the provisional government and demand an immediate end to the war. Though the proclamation called on demonstrators to state their demands “calmly and convincingly, as behooves the strong,” the Bolsheviks’ true intention, as always, was to sponsor a violent uprising that would topple the government.
That evening, the Congress of Soviets, anticipating the potential for violence, prohibited demonstrations for a period of several days. The Bolsheviks gave in and called off the demonstration, realizing that they still lacked adequate support to carry off a revolution.
Russia’s Final War Offensive:
In June, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky ordered the Russian army to undertake a renewed offensive along the Austrian front in World War I. Prior to the offensive’s start, Kerensky personally toured the front and delivered rousing speeches to the troops. Once under way, the Russian troops made brief progress against the Austrians and even captured several thousand prisoners. Within a few days, however, German reinforcements appeared, and the Russian troops fled in a general panic.
The operation was a complete failure and weakened Kerensky politically. Recognizing another opportunity, Lenin immediately stepped up his efforts to agitate the Russian masses and eagerly waited for the right moment to stage an armed uprising.
The July Putsch (July Days):
On 3 July there was a huge demonstration of workers, soldiers and sailors, who marched on the Tauride Palace where both the provisional government and the Petrograd soviet were meeting. They demanded that the soviet should take power, but the members refused to take the responsibility. The government brought loyal troops from the front to restore order and accused the Bolsheviks of trying to launch an uprising; it was reported, falsely, that Lenin was a German spy. At this, the popularity of the Bolsheviks declined rapidly; Lenin fled to Finland and other leaders were arrested. But about 400 people had been killed during the violence, and Prince Lvov, who was deeply shocked by the July Days, resigned. Kerensky, for his effectiveness in neutralizing the Bolsheviks, was promoted from minister of war to prime minister.
It is still not absolutely clear who was responsible for the events of the July Days. American historian Richard Pipes is convinced that Lenin planned the whole affair from the beginning; Robert Service, on the other hand, argues that Lenin was improvising, ‘testing the waters’ to discover how determined the provisional government was. The demonstration was probably spontaneous in origin, and Lenin soon decided that it was too early to launch a full-scale uprising.
A Setback for the Bolsheviks:
The events of June and July proved conclusively to Lenin that he could not carry out a revolution simply by manipulating crowds of demonstrators.
The July Putsch, as it came to be called, was a disaster for the Bolsheviks on many levels. The failed coup made them appear reckless and incompetent. The accusations of their collusion with Germany further damaged their reputation, especially among the military, and Lenin was unusually ineffective in countering the charges.
At the same time, Kerensky and the provisional government received a brief boost in popularity. Worst of all for the Bolsheviks, most of their leadership, including the crucial figure Leon Trotsky, were now in jail, and Lenin was once more in hiding, which made communication and planning difficult.
The Kornilov Affair:
In July, Prime Minister Kerensky appointed General Lavr Kornilov commander in chief of the Russian army. Kerensky soon began to fear that Kornilov was plotting to set up a military dictatorship. A mutual lack of trust grew quickly between them.
The situation deteriorated rapidly. Kerensky, believing that Kornilov was leading a coup aimed at unseating him, panicked and publicly accused Kornilov of treason. Kornilov, in turn, was dumbfounded and infuriated at this accusation. In his panic, Kerensky appealed to the Bolsheviks for help against a military putsch, but in the end, no military coup materialized.
Repercussions of the Kornilov Affair:
Kornilov affair weakened Kerensky and provided Lenin with the opportunity he had been waiting for. The incident had two important effects that hastened the downfall of the provisional government:
- It destroyed Kerensky’s credibility in the eyes of the military and made him look foolish and unstable to the rest of the country.
- It strengthened the Bolsheviks, who used the incident very effectively to boost their own platform. It also gave the Bolsheviks an opportunity to greatly increase their store of weapons when the panicked Kerensky asked them to come to his aid.
Altogether, the affair finally set the stage for the Bolsheviks to make a real attempt at revolution that autumn.
The October 1917 Revolution (November in the Gregorian calendar):
The Red Resurgence:
During late August and September, the Bolsheviks enjoyed a sudden growth in strength, following their failures during the summer. On August 31, they finally achieved a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, and on September 5, they won a similar victory in the Moscow Soviet. Lenin, fearing arrest after the events of July, continued to hide in rural areas near the Finnish border. As time went on, he become more and more impatient and began calling urgently for the ouster of the provisional government.
Although Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky’s authority was faltering, the provisional government was coming closer to organizing the Constituent Assembly, which would formally establish a republican government in Russia. Elections for the assembly were scheduled for November 12. Lenin knew that once this process started, it would be far more difficult to seize power while still preserving the appearance of legitimacy.
Before a revolution could happen, Lenin faced considerable opposition from within his own party. Many still felt that the timing was wrong and that Lenin had made no serious plans for how the country would be administered after power was seized. On October 10, shortly following Lenin’s return to Petrograd, the Bolshevik Party leadership (the Central Committee) held a fateful meeting. Lenin delivered an impassioned speech in which he restated his reasons for staging the uprising sooner rather than later. By the end of the meeting, it was voted ten to two in favor of a revolution to oust the provisional government. What had yet to be decided was precisely when the revolution would happen.
A Second Congress of Soviets was now in the works, scheduled for October 25, and the Bolsheviks were confident that they would have its overwhelming support, since they had taken pains to invite only those delegates likely to sympathize with their cause.
Just to be sure, however, the Bolsheviks decided to hold the revolution on the day before the meeting and then to ask the Congress to approve their action after the act.
By this point, the Bolsheviks had an army of sorts, under the auspices of the Military Revolutionary Committee, technically an organ of the Petrograd Soviet. Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders, however, knew that these troops were unreliable and had a tendency to flee as soon as anyone fired at them. However, they expected that at least the main Petrograd garrison would support them once they saw that the Bolsheviks had the upper hand.
October 24 and 25: (by the Julian or Old Style calendar, which corresponds to 6 and 7 November 1917 in the New Style calendar)
- On October 24 , the first day of the Russian Revolution, Bolshevik troops made their way to preassigned positions and systematically occupied crucial points in the capital, including the main telephone and telegraph offices, banks, railroad stations, post offices, and most major bridges. Not a single shot was fired, as the junkers assigned to guard these sites either fled or were disarmed without incident. Even the headquarters of the General Staff—the army headquarters—was taken without resistance.
- By the morning of October 25, Petrograd was in the hands of the Bolsheviks — all except the Winter Palace where the leaders of the Provisional Government remained. Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky successfully fled but by the following day, troops loyal to the Bolsheviks infiltrated the Winter Palace.
The Second Congress of Soviets:
Although Lenin had hoped that the revolution would be over in time to make a spectacular announcement at the start of the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets in the late afternoon of October 25, events transpired differently. The Congress delegates were forced to wait for several hours as Bolshevik forces tried to remove the provisional government from the Winter Palace.
Late in the evening, the Congress was declared open, even though the Winter Palace had still not been taken. Furthermore, despite the Bolshevik leaders’ efforts, dedicated Bolsheviks constituted only about half of the 650 delegates at the Congress. Lively debate and disagreement took place both about the Bolshevik-led coup and also about who should now lead Russia.
Several important decisions were made during this session. The first motion approved was Lenin’s Decree on Peace, which declared Russia’s wish for World War I to end but did not go so far as to declare a cease-fire.
The next matter to be passed was the Decree on Land, which officially socialized all land in the country for redistribution to peasant communes.
Finally, a new provisional government was formed to replace the old one until the Constituent Assembly met in November as scheduled. The new government was called the Soviet of the People’s Commissars (SPC). Lenin was its chairman, and all of its members were Bolsheviks. As defined by the Congress, the SPC had to answer to a newly elected Executive Committee, chaired by Lev Kamenev, which in turn would answer to the Constituent Assembly. It was, however, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Bolsheviks’ party, in which true power came to reside.
Hence, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Russian SFSR or RSFSR) was established as a sovereign state.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks consolidate their control:
Life in Russia after October 25, 1917, changed very little at first. There was no widespread panic among the upper classes, and the people of Petrograd were generally indifferent. Few expected the new government to last for long, and few understood what it would mean if it did.
The Bolsheviks were in control in Petrograd as a result of their coup, but in some places the takeover was not so smooth. Fighting lasted a week in Moscow before the soviet won control and it was the end of November before other cities were brought to heel. Country areas were more difficult to deal with, and at first the peasants were only lukewarm towards the new government. They preferred the Social Revolutionaries, who also promised them land and who saw the peasants as the backbone of the nation, whereas the Bolsheviks seemed to favour industrial workers. Very few people expected the Bolshevik government to last long because of the complexity of the problems facing it. As soon as the other political groups recovered from the shock of the Bolshevik coup, there was bound to be some determined opposition. At the same time they had somehow to extricate Russia from the war and then set about repairing the shattered economy, while at the same time keeping their promises about land and food for the peasants and workers.
Coup or mass insurrection?
The official Soviet interpretation of these events was that the Bolshevik takeover was the result of a mass movement: workers, peasants and most of the soldiers and sailors were attracted by the revolutionary politics of the Bolsheviks, which included peace, land for the peasants, worker control, government by the soviets and self-determination for the different nationalities in the Russian Empire. Lenin was a charismatic leader who inspired his party and the people. Soviet historians have pointed out that in only 16 out of 97 major centres did the Bolsheviks have to use force in order to assert their authority. It was important for the Bolsheviks, or Communists, as they became known later, to emphasize the popular nature of the revolution because that gave the regime its legitimacy.
The traditional liberal interpretation put forward by Western historians rejected the Soviet view. They refused to accept that there was any significant popular support for the Bolsheviks, who were simply a minority group of professional revolutionaries who used the chaos in Russia to take power for themselves. They were successful because they were well organized and ruthless. According to Adam Ulam, ‘the Bolsheviks did not seize power in this year of revolutions. They picked it up …. Any group of determined men could have done what the Bolsheviks did in Petrograd in October 1917: seize the few key points of the city and proclaim themselves the government.’ Richard Pipes is the most recent historian to re-state the traditional interpretation. In his view, the October revolution was due almost entirely to Lenin’s overwhelming desire for power.
The libertarian interpretation takes a completely different line. Libertarians believe that the October revolution was the result of a popular uprising, which had very little to do with the Bolsheviks. The masses were not responding to Bolshevik pressure, but to their own aspirations and desires; they had no need of the Bolsheviks to tell them what they wanted. Alexander Berkman claimed that ‘the shop and factory committees were the pioneers in labour control of industry, with the prospect of themselves, in the near future, managing the industries’. For the libertarians the tragedy was that the Bolsheviks hijacked the popular revolution: they pretended that their aims were the same as those of the masses, but in reality they had no intention of allowing factory committees any power, and they did not believe in genuine democracy and freedom. Just as the masses were about to take power for themselves, it was wrenched from their hands by the Bolsheviks.
Revisionist interpretation have concentrated on what was happening among ordinary people; their conclusions were wide ranging. However. they all agree that there was great political awareness among ordinary people, many of whom were involved in trade unions and the soviets. In some places they seem to have been influenced by the Bolsheviks.
The revisionist interpretations are the ones most widely accepted nowadays, although Richard Pipes continues to cling to the traditional views. More evidence has become available since the end of communist rule in the USSR, when millions of files were thrown open in the previously closed archives. There seems no doubt that by October 1917 the masses were broadly in favour of a government by the soviets, of which there were some 900 by that time, throughout Russia. Christopher Read believes that ‘the revolution was constantly driven forward by the often spontaneous impulse given to it from the grass roots’. Robert Service (in Lenin: A Biography) stresses the role of Lenin: he thinks there can be no doubt that Lenin wanted power and used the potentially revolutionary situation brilliantly. His every pronouncement was directed towards encouraging the masses to exercise initiative. His wish was for the Bolsheviks to appear as a party that would facilitate the making of Revolution by and for the people. So in fact the Bolsheviks did have popular backing, even though it was fairly passive for their October coup, because the popular movement thought it was going to get government by the soviets.
Although the circumstances were right and there was hardly any resistance to the Bolsheviks, it still needed that small group of people with the nerve and the resolve to use the situation. This was the contribution that Lenin and Trotsky made – they judged to perfection the point of maximum unpopularity of the provisional government, and then they actually ‘made’ the revolution happen. It would not have been possible without the masses – it was the popular movement which determined that there would be so little resistance, but equally, it would not have been possible without Lenin and Trotsky.
Assessing the October Revolution:
Although the Soviet government went to great lengths for decades to make the “Great October Socialist Revolution” appear colorful and heroic, it was in many ways a mundane and anticlimactic event. There was little if any bloodshed, the provisional government barely tried to resist, and afterwards, few Russians seemed to care about or even notice the change in governments. However, this very indifference on the part of the Russian people enabled the new leadership to extend its power quite far, and the October Revolution would soon prove to be a cataclysmic event once its earthshaking effect on Russia and the rest of the world became clear. However bloodless the Russian Revolution initially may have been, it would ultimately cost tens of millions of Russian lives and shock the nation so deeply that it has not yet come to terms with what happened.
Q. Why did the provisional government fall from power so soon?
- It took the unpopular decision to continue the war, but the June offensive, Kerensky’s idea, was another disastrous failure. It caused the collapse of army morale and discipline, and sent hundreds of thousands of deserting troops streaming home.
- The government had to share power with the Petrograd soviet, an elected committee of soldiers’ and workers’ representatives, which tried to govern the city. It had been elected at the end of February, before the Tsar’s abdication. Other soviets appeared in Moscow and all the provincial cities. When the Petrograd soviet ordered all soldiers to obey only the soviet, it meant that in the last resort, the provisional government could not rely on the support of the army.
- The government lost support because it delayed elections, which it had promised, for a Constituent Assembly (parliament), arguing that these were not possible in the middle of a war when several million troops were away fighting. Another promise not kept was for land reform – the redistribution of land from large estates among peasants. Tired of waiting, some peasants started to seize land from landlords. The Bolsheviks were able to use peasant discontent to win support.
- Meanwhile, thanks to a new political amnesty, Lenin was able to return from exile in Switzerland (April). After a rapturous welcome, he urged (in his April Theses) that the Bolsheviks should cease to support the provisional government, that all power should be taken by the soviets, and that Russia should withdraw from the war.
- There was increasing economic chaos, with inflation, rising bread prices, lagging wages and shortages of raw materials and fuel. Industry was severely handicapped by a shortage of investment. In the midst of all this, Lenin and the Bolsheviks put forward what seemed to be a realistic and attractive policy: a separate peace with Germany to get Russia out of the war, all land to be given to the peasants, workers’ control in the factories and more food at cheaper prices.
- The government lost popularity because of the ‘July Putsch‘.
- The Kornilov affair embarrassed the government and increased the popularity of the Bolsheviks.
- The Bolsheviks knew exactly what they were aiming for, and were well disciplined and organized, whereas the other revolutionary groups were in disarray. The Mensheviks, for example, thought that the next revolution should not take place until the industrial workers were in a majority in the country. Lenin and Trotsky believed that both revolutions could be combined into one, and so, after years of disagreement, they were able to work well together. However, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries still believed that this revolution should have been delayed until the industrial workers were more numerous. They walked out of the Second Congress of Soviets, leaving Lenin and the Bolsheviks to set up a new Soviet government with himself in charge. It was to be called the Council of People’s Commissars, or Sovnarkom for short.