The second Russian Revolution of 1917 would come to pass in October, and behind it would be a group called the Bolsheviks.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 127. We come now, finally, to the most famous event in 1917, at least as far as Russia is concerned, the October Revolution. Even though the February Revolution had ended hundreds of years of Tsarist rule, and brought something approaching democracy to Russia, it is often overshadowed by the revolution that would bring the Bolsheviks into power. The move toward a second revolution would begin as early as April, while the new Provisional Government was finding its footing, and the trigger for the first steps on the road to revolution was put in place by one man when it returned to Russia from exile, Vladimir Lenin. He would spend the next several months pushing the Bolsheviks toward their own revolution, instead of taking the path that the other socialist groups of the Petrograd Soviet had taken, which was one of working with the Provisional Government. By May he would be joined by two other soon to be famous leaders of the future Russian government, Trotsky and Stalin. Even with the Bolshevik cause slowly coalescing around their future leaders they were still very much a small minority for most of the spring and summer months of 1917. The Soviet was instead controlled by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries who between them had a huge majority of the seats. However, as the situation within the country continued to deteriorate over the summer the Bolsheviks, who were far more radical than the other parties, began to gain momentum. In his work Revolutionary Russia: 1891-1991 Orlando Figes would speak to a common misconception about the October Revolution “One of the most basic misconceptions about the October Revolution is that the Bolsheviks were swept to power on a tide of mass support for the Party. They were not. The October insurrection was a Coup d’etat, actively supported by a small minority of the population, but it took place in the midst of a social revolution, which was focused on the popular ideal of Soviet power.” Today we will discuss how this revolution, insurrection, Coup d’etat, whatever you wish to call it happened. We will discuss the rise of the Bolsheviks over the summer and how they then launched their Revolution. This will be our second to last episode on Russia in 1917, with our next episode discussing how they exited the war in the late 1917 and early 1918.
How Lenin got back into Russia, from exile in Switzerland, in April 1917 is a somewhat famous story. The German government, with the knowledge and permission of Ludendorff, decided to try and destabilize the Russian Government, which was already looking very unsteady after the events of February. The theory that they would work under was that if they took an important leader of a group that was likely to push for peace, which the Bolsheviks were, and then supported that leader then that might just knock Russia out of the war. To do this they transported Lenin from Switzerland to Russia, in a sealed train, at night. It is tempting in hindsight to say that this was a catastrophically bad move, after all it would begin a series of events that would lead to the Soviet Union, the brutal Eastern Front of the Second World War, then 50 years of Soviet and Western European antagonism, however, as always we need to make sure we are not using hindsight as a way to unfairly judge decisions. All the Germans were doing was taking one radical revolutionary and adding him into a pot of many more radical revolutionaries. There was not guarantee that he was going to be able to control the government at any point in the future, in fact the odds were against the Bolsheviks being in control at all, ever. But even if they failed in that goal their agitation would still bring about what Germany wanted, Russia out of the war, and in that regard it worked perfectly. So short term their plan worked out great, long term, maybe not so much. Regardless of if this decision was smart or monumentally stupid, it happened and just a bit before midnight on April 3 Lenin arrived in Petrograd after being in exile for 17 years. On the very next day he gave his April Thesis to the Social Democrats and the Bolsheviks, two groups that were very much on the far left side of the spectrum. In it he pushed for these groups to remove their support for the government and to begin pushing for a proletariat revolution as soon as possible. This went against the thinking of the more moderate socialists at the time, who were still riding out the bourgeois revolution which was in Marxist theory the correct step to be on. Lenin’s push for an immediate revolution was, at least at the moment more extreme than even the more extreme sides of the Bolsheviks. However Lenin found support among some members, and also from the uneducated members of the Socialist Groups as a whole. These members had already been pushing for the next stage of the revolution, disregarding the theorizing of that Marx guy, and they now had somebody speaking what they were thinking. As part of the next socialist revolution Lenin planned to nationalize the banks and property, abolish the army to be replaced by a militia, and he would, of course, end the war. He was also pushing for a policy of moving all power away from the Provisional Government and putting it all in the hands of the Soviet. Of course, he planned on getting control of the Soviet before this happened.
When Lenin delivered his Thesis others in the Soviet were not as receptive as the Bolsheviks and Social Democrats. The Mensheviks booed and whistled at him. He was accused of ignoring the lessons of Marx and Engels, who had warned against the premature movements to secure power by the proletariat. While at the moment the Mensheviks enjoyed a large group of supporters, they were at a disadvantage when going against Lenin and his more radical ideas. Lenin absolutely believed in his own historical destiny which would give him a leading role in the socialist revolution which was to come. Everything he would do in 1917 was driven towards this goal, and he had no doubt that he would meet it. However, before he could do that, Lenin would have to get all of his own party onto his side. The Bolsheviks would never be a monolithic bloc that was easily controlled, during the summer and autumn of 1917, then during the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, and even when they were finally in power, they would always be split into several groups. The problem that the Bolsheviks had, is that they all agreed on the problems, and they all agreed on some basic solutions, but the details were all over the place. The big overriding concern for most of 1917 though was that if they tried to seize power too soon then they were at risk of being defeated. Those who were most concerned about this pointed to the fate of the Paris Commune of 1871 as an example of how much this could set back a revolution. The Bolsheviks also had to balance their support with the most radical of groups. The Bolsheviks had grown their support, at least partially, through the courting and accepting of the most radical elements of Russian socialism and they found these groups were ready and willing to join other radical groups to make the revolution happen soon. They were also quite impatient, and this forced to Bolsheviks to always, or at least appear to, be driving for the next step to make it happen. If they did not continue this then they risked losing the more radical groups within their coalition. It did not help that the most radical members were the most willing to actively participate in any action, so if the Bolsheviks lost them then it would just be more difficult to put any of their plans into action. In June the Bolsheviks were able to score a big propaganda victory during a Demonstration which was held by the Soviet to try and promote unity. Instead of promoting Unity the Bolsheviks arrived on the scene and with their All Power to the Soviets message were able to gain a lot of support from members and supporters of the Soviet.
In July there would be an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to move forward with their revolutionary plans. The flashpoint for this moment involved the First Machine Gun Regiment. This unit was based in Petrograd, and had been for some time. It was made up of 10,000 men, many of which had been expelled from their frontline units due to insubordination. Many of them had also bought into the more radical revolutionary causes, with some gravitating towards the Bolsheviks and others towards the even more radical anarchists. Needless to say, they were no fans of the Provisional Government. Late in June they were ordered to send 500 machine guns and enough men to crew them to the front. If you remember, last episode when we discussed the agreement between the Soviet and the new Government a key piece of that agreement was that none of the Petrograd garrison would ever have to be transferred to the front. This was the first time that the government was testing the agreement, and it backfired. Instead of obeying the order the Regiment took to the streets in protest. They were then joined by many Bolsheviks and this in turn forced the Bolshevik leadership to make a decision, to either join them or risk losing their support. On the next day the protests continued, only now they were joined by 20,000 other soldiers and sailors. All of these men were armed and ready to fight the government but they were in search of guidance, leadership, and unifying purpose and to find it they arrived at the Bolshevik headquarters. This was enough protests to easily march on the Tauride palace, where the government was located, and to round them all up and take control of Russia, all that was needed was the call to go out from leaders that now was the time for action. However, instead of delivering a decisive and inspiring speech calling for the proletariat to rise to take control Lenin…didn’t. He did not deliver any kind of decisive directions and instructions for what should be done. So the protesters just sort of wandered around, mainly toward the Tauride palace, without any real push for action. There were still a lot of them though, and that counted for something. There were 50,000 armed protesters, and they were moving off towards the palace, so the situation was nothing to scoff at. All that were available to try and stop them were a few dozen Cossacks who were still willing to defend the government. However, more loyal troops were already on their way into the city, and since the mod lacked direction and purpose these troops had time to arrive. By the next day the protests had lost all momentum and were broken up by rain. This single moment, when the revolutionaries called out to the Bolsheviks to lead them and they didn’t, almost destroyed the party. They had lost some of their appeal from the radicals, and the government would label them traitors. Lenin would spend the next several months on the run from government officials, with Stalin leading the efforts to keep him one step ahead of the government. The saving grace of the Bolsheviks, would surprisingly, be the other parties in the Soviet. The socialist parties within Russia had a long standing tradition of sticking together and defending each other, even if they disagreed on some of the finer details of socialism. This had been very important before the war when they were all in the minority and it was still something that done in the Soviet of 1917. In this case though, again with hindsight, it was not the correct move.
After the events of July the government of Russia experienced a shift. On July 8th Kerensky became Prime Minister and he was able to consolidate power around him. He also used the opportunity provided to him by the protests to break all ties with the Soviet. This resulted in the Soviet losing almost all of its real power. The government was also moved out of the Tauride Palace and into the Winter Palace. This put both physical and psychological distance between the government and the heart of the revolution in central Petrograd. There were also laws that were passed to begin the process of limiting the ability of people to assemble in public. This was obviously a move to counter the power of the workers, soldiers, and Soviet to launch public protests. On July 18th changes were also made at the front with Brusilov dismissed from his command. He would go to Moscow where he would spend time with his family until later in the year when he would return to the army. He replacement was General Kornilov who was described by former Chief of Staff Alexeyev as having “the heart of a lion, the brains of a sheep.” Kerensky hoped that Kornilov would be a good supporter in the military, somebody who he could count on and possible control. He also hoped that Kornilov’s background, from a family of Cossacks and somewhat lower in class, would endear him to the people and soldiers. Kornilov was also extremely conservative. When he took command of the army he began reversing many of the progressive changes and policies advocated for by Brusilov. He moved to disband the soldier committees and he reinstated the death penaly. To gain support for these moves Kornilov went to Petrograd to get Kerensky to sign off on what were sure to be unpopular measures. Instead of showing up alone to the meeting he instead brought his own body guard and two machine guns. He then tried to persuade Kerensky to officially adopt and publically support his proposals. This put Kerensky in a tough spot. If he went with Kornilov any support from the left would be gone, and if he went against him any support from the right would be gone. He instead tried to frame Kornilov’s move as a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. This was the one path that Kerensky could take that would allow him to at least, maybe, keep most of his supporters. The one thing more important that political views, opinions, or disagreements was the protection of the revolution, and Kerensky tapped into that sentiment. Through this maneuvering he was able to get support from the cabinet to dismiss Kornilov. This would come at a price though, although not immediately, because it solved the problem of the moment, in the end it would be the beginning of his downfall. Through his political maneuvering during the Kornilov crisis Kerensky had simply burned too many bridges. On the right those who supported the army saw Kerensky’s move as a betrayal. On the left, the soldiers, workers, and socialists, who had rallied to help Kerensky against Kornilov, would never shake the feeling that maybe it had been Kerensky’s fault in the first place. At the front he normal soldiers also believed that their officers had supported Kornilov and his regressive and oppressive views, eroding much of whatever discipline was still left in the army. This created a situation that Kerensky, even though he had by this point had at completely control of the government on paper, was beginning to be ignored. The downfall of Kerensky is a textbook definition of how not to run a country which is coming out of a revolution. He had at the end made the same mistakes as the Tsar that he had replaced. He refused to recognize the real threat that he faced from the people and instead believed that he had far more authority than he actually did, and then he tried to use that non-existent authority to assert his role as ruler, and it failed completely. With the reduction in support for Kerensky and the Provisional Government there was once again a power vacuum in Russia. In February there had been something similar, and the socialists had been hesitant to full it, and instead the Provisional Government was created, but now everything had changed.
The months of August and September were months of massive growth for the Bolsheviks. As the Kerensky government collapsed, as Lenin said that it would, and the situation deteriorated further the Bolshevik message became more and more appealing. During these two months the group would almost double in size and in the Petrograd Duma they would go from having 20 percent to 33 percent of the seats. They would have an even larger increase in support in Moscow, where they went from 11 to 51 percent. A similar movement was occurring in the Soviets as the Mensheviks and SRs, who had supported the government that was now collapsing, saw a huge migration of members to the Bolsheviks. There were also many members who moved away from the moderate groups and instead of going with the Bolsheviks created their own smaller groups. For the Bolsheviks and Lenin this was just fine as well, since they were far larger than these new splinter groups and it got them closer to the numbers of the Mensheviks and SRs. The Bolsheviks were also quite successful in finding ways to gain influence and control over these new smaller parties, a practice that they would become quite skilled at. Just before the launching of the October Revolution the party would be joined by one of its most famous members, Leon Trotsky. Before he moved over to the Bolsheviks he had been a member of a group called the Menshevik Internationalists. And when he came over he brought with him a group called , and I hope I have this close to right, the Mezhraionka which was a group of about 4,000 members. The leaders of this group would become a key part of the revolutionary cause and would play some of the leading roles in the coming revolution and Civil War. Trotsky himself was a gifted public speaker and he would take the leading role in the formation of the new government after the revolution. As the summer turned into Autumn and the Bolsheviks grew in power there was also a noticeable increase in tension. In the factories the same sorts of struggles continued that had been happening for months and in the countryside September would see a marked increase in violence. With the autumn ploughing season approaching the peasants were just straight up tired of the delays from the Provisional Government when it came to solving the land ownership problem. Therefore they increased their violence against the land owners and the number of village Soviets all over Russia increased. This gave the peasants their long sought after self-rule. In Petrograd Lenin was waffling on whether he thought that an overthrow of the government should be attempted sooner or later. On one hand, as the power of Kerensky and the Provisional Government waned, the Soviet was gaining power by the day. On the other hand Lenin was not sure that he wanted to launch a revolution while the probably outcome was one of a shared coalition between all of the socialist parties, he wanted the power all to himself. The questions of when and h ow the Soviet should proceed came to a head at the September Democratic Conference. The Bolshevik leaders brought a deal to the other groups, they would give up their campaign for an armed uprising if the Soviet leaders agreed to assume power in the country. They would then compete for power within the Soviet movement, instead of trying to circumvent it with an armed revolution. An agreement on this proposal was never reached, and that caused Lenin to revert back to his hard line strategy of an armed uprising, and one that would happen soon. There was some urgency in his plans as well mostly stemming from the fact that Lenin seemed to believe that Kerensky could do something to stop what was going to happen by either putting down the movement or by moving the government away from the revolutionaries. Neither of these things were remotely possible by this stage, but Lenin did not know that, and it is better to assume your enemy is too strong than that they are too weak. With his new determination to launch an armed uprising he also had a date by which he wanted it to be completed. This date was set by the next Petrograd Congress, which would take place in October. He believed that if the Bolsheviks could begin their movement before that congress began then it would put the other parties in an impossible situation. They could either join the Bolsheviks, but cede to Lenin the leading role, or they could go into opposition, which would leave the Bolsheviks to gain power by themselves. Both of these were acceptable in the eyes of Lenin and the others in the Bolshevik Central committee. A good pretext for this move was given to Lenin by the Germans when they increased their holdings around Riga with another attack, which increased the possibility of a German march on Petrograd itself.
The Bolshevik plan was pretty simple in execution. They would gather up their groups of supporters from the garrison units, Red Guards, and the sailors all of which they could count on for support. They would then march these troops to the Marinsky Palace to disperse parliament and demand the surrender of the Provisional Government. If that was refused then they would march to seize control of the Winter Palace where the government was based. The plan was for all of this to happen on the first day of the Soviet Congress of October, hopefully before noon when the congress started. Unfortunately there were a series of delays that changed when precisely it did occur, however other than that the plan mostly went off without a hitch. During the night the Red Guards seized control of places like post offices, telephone exchanges, railway stations, and bridges which allowed them to assert almost completely control over the city before the next day, when the real work would begin. One of the more impressive things about this action would be how small the number of actual participants was, with numbers only being between 10 and 15 thousand. This was far fewer than the protests in February, and even just a small fraction of what had taken place in July. It was also so small that many residents of Petrograd did not even know that it had happened. About 3 hours after the Provisional Government rejected the demand for surrender the shooting would begin. The first guns to fire were aboard the Russian cruiser Aurora, which was controlled by revolutionary sailors out of Kronstadt. They began to fire on the Winter Palace, and they were soon joined by guns from the Peter and Paul fortress. The troops around the palace could have launched their assault at any time, but they believed that it was far better defended than it actually was. Over the course of the next 24 hours what defenders had been there when the revolution began had melted away as it became clear that the situation was not going to improve. By the next day it was all over. In the Soviet Congress the biggest mistake of the entire revolution was made, a mistake that would haunt those involved for years. The Bolsheviks did not have a majority in the Congress, a combination of the Mensheviks and SRs did. However, when the assault on the government was announced the Mensheviks and SRs walked out of the Congress in protest. They did not want any part in what they believed was a criminal venture, and one destined to fail. However, what the Bolsheviks were doing was not going to fail, and instead they had just handed the keys of the entire Soviet, the only political body in Russia that had any power, to the Bolsheviks. In 1921 one of the delegates who had wanted out would say that with this move “We completely untied the Bolshevik’s hands, making them masters of the whole situation and yielding to them the whole arena of the Revolution By our own irrational decision, we ensured the victory of Lenin’s whole line.” The Bolsheviks were able to claim that everybody who had left the congress were anti-revolutionary, the worst possible crime that a Soviet could commit. Trotsky called for a motion to condemn the attempts of the Mensheviks and SRs to undermine the power of the Soviet. With these moves the Bolsheviks were in power, very few believed that they were to stay there, but after years of civil war, they would be the only group left standing. On October 26th, Lenin announced the formation of the new government the Council of People’s Commissars and their first act was to call for peace, to begin with a 3 month armistice.