Summary of Events
The February Revolution
The Russian Revolution of 1917 centres around two primary events: the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The February Revolution, which removed Tsar Nicholas II from power, developed spontaneously out of a series of increasingly violent demonstrations and riots on the streets of Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg), during a time when the tsar was away from the capital visiting troops on the World War I front.
Though the February Revolution was a popular uprising, it did not necessarily express the wishes of the majority of the Russian population, as the event was primarily limited to the city of Petrograd. However, most of those who took power after the February Revolution, in the provisional government (the temporary government that replaced the tsar) and in the Petrograd Soviet (an influential local council representing workers and soldiers in Petrograd), generally favoured rule that was at least partially democratic.
The October Revolution
The October Revolution (also called the Bolshevik Revolution) overturned the interim provisional government and established the Soviet Union. The October Revolution was a much more deliberate event, orchestrated by a small group of people. The Bolsheviks, who led this coup, prepared their coup in only six months. They were generally viewed as an extremist group and had very little popular support when they began serious efforts in April 1917. By October, the Bolsheviks’ popular base was much larger; though still a minority within the country as a whole, they had built up a majority of support within Petrograd and other urban centers.
After October, the Bolsheviks realized that they could not maintain power in an election-based system without sharing power with other parties and compromising their principles. As a result, they formally abandoned the democratic process in January 1918 and declared themselves the representatives of a dictatorship of the proletariat. In response, the Russian Civil War broke out in the summer of that year and would last well into 1920.
A Note on the Russian Calendar
Until February 1918, Russia used the Julian calendar, while the Western world used the Gregorian calendar in use today. This convention was dictated by the Russian Orthodox Church, which continues to follow the Julian calendar to this day. During the twentieth century, the Julian calendar fell thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar. Generally, historians writing about pre-revolutionary Russia today cite dates according to the calendar of the time; this book follows the same method. Dates prior to February 1, 1918 use the Julian calendar; dates after that point follow the Gregorian calendar.
Key People and Terms
The Russian tsar, or emperor, whose death in 1825 prompted a mild secession crisis that created an appearance of weakness in the Russian monarchy. A group of 3,000 soldiers who termed themselves Decembrists took advantage of the chaos to demand reforms, such as a written constitution for Russia. Later revolutionaries such as Lenin saw the Decembrists as heroes.
The Tsar who formally abolished serfdom in 1861, freeing Russia’s serfs from indentured servitude to their landowners. Though reformers hailed the move, it engendered a severe economic crisis, angered landowners, and prompted a number of revolutionary groups to agitate for a constitution. In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by a member of one of these groups, prompting his successor, son Alexander III, to implement a harsh crackdown on public resistance.
The son of and successor to the assassinated Tsar Alexander II. Upon taking power in 1881, Alexander III cracked down severely on reform and revolutionary groups, prompting growing unrest. Alexander III’s son, Nicholas II, was the tsar in power during the Russian Revolution in 1917.
A Polish-born revolutionary who joined the Bolshevik Party after getting out of prison in 1917. Following the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin appointed Dzerzhinsky head of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police force and an early forerunner of the KGB.
Lev Kamenev (a.k.a. Lev Rosenfeld)
A prominent member of the Bolshevik Party who initially resisted Lenin’s call to hold a revolution sooner rather than later. After the revolution, Kamenev went on to serve in the Soviet government but was executed during Josef Stalin’s purges of the 1930s.
A member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and an active participant in both the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet. At first, Kerensky acted as a liaison between the two governing bodies. Within the provisional government, he served as minister of justice, minister of war, and later as prime minister. After the October Revolution, Kerensky fled the country and eventually immigrated to the United States, where he taught Russian history at Stanford University.
Vladimir Lenin (a.k.a. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov)
The founder of the Bolshevik Party, organizer of the October Revolution, and the first leader of the Soviet Union. Lenin spent most of the early twentieth century living in exile in Europe (primarily Britain and Switzerland). He was a devout follower of Marxism and believed that once a Communist revolution took place in Russia, Communism would spread rapidly around the world. Though not involved in the February Revolution, he returned to Russia in April 1917 and orchestrated the October Revolution that turned Russia into a Communist state.
The younger brother of and successor to Tsar Alexander I. This unorthodox succession from older to younger brother caused a small public scandal in 1825 and enabled the Decembrist Revolt to take place. Nicholas I was succeeded by his son, Alexander II.
The last Russian tsar, who ruled from 1894 until 1917. Nicholas II, who assumed the throne with trepidation upon his father Alexander III’s death, was a clumsy and ineffective leader whose avoidance of direct involvement in government caused resentment among the Russian people and resulted in violence in 1905. Nicholas II abdicated on March 2, 1917, as a result of the February Revolution. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks executed Nicholas along with his wife, Alexandra, and their children.
A Russian peasant and self-proclaimed mystic who gained significant influence over Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra, in the years immediately prior to the revolutions of 1917. Rasputin’s sexual escapades in the Russian capital of Petrograd caused scandal, and the Russian people began to believe that the tsar himself was under Rasputin’s influence. Aware that Rasputin’s presence was damaging Nicholas II’s credibility, supporters of the tsar had Rasputin killed in late 1916.
Joseph Stalin (a.k.a. Joseph Dzhugashvili)
A Bolshevik leader who became prominent only after Lenin’s return to Petrograd in April 1917. Although Stalin was very much a secondary figure during the October Revolution, he did gain Lenin’s attention as a useful ally, and following the October coup, Lenin gave him a position in the government as commissar of nationalities. As Stalin was a member of an ethnic minority—he was from the central Asian region of Georgia, not Russia proper—Lenin felt he would be an effective ambassador of sorts to the many ethnic minorities within the former Russian Empire. After the revolution, Stalin became increasingly powerful and eventually succeeded Lenin as leader of the Soviet Union upon Lenin’s death in 1924.
The prime minister under Nicholas II. Stolypin was renowned for his heavy crackdown on revolutionaries and dissidents, in which thousands of suspects were given quick martial trials and promptly executed. A hangman’s noose was often referred to at the time as a “Stolypin necktie.” Stolypin himself was assassinated in 1911 by a revolutionary activist.
Leon Trotsky (a.k.a. Leon Bronstein)
A Bolshevik leader and one of the most prominent figures of the October Revolution. Trotsky, who was in exile abroad during the February Revolution, returned to Russia in May 1917, closely aligned himself with Lenin, and joined the Bolshevik Party during the summer. Trotsky headed the Revolutionary Military Committee, which provided the military muscle for the October Revolution. After the revolution, he was appointed commissar of foreign affairs and led Russia’s negotiations with Germany and Austria for the armistice and subsequent peace treaty that made possible Russia’s exit from World War I.
Grigory Zinoviev (a.k.a. Osvel Radomyslsky)
A prominent member of the Bolshevik Party, closely associated with Lev Kamenev and a close friend of Lenin during Lenin’s years in exile. Initially resisting Lenin’s call to hold a revolution sooner rather than later, Zinoviev played virtually no role in the October Revolution and temporarily receded from party activities after the revolution. However, he became a member of the Politburo in 1919 and went on to serve in the Soviet government until he was arrested and executed during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s.
The ideas for Russia’s future that Vladimir Lenin expressed upon his return to Russia in April 1917. They were published in the newspaper Pravda on April 7. In short, Lenin called for the overthrow of the provisional government and its replacement with a communist form of government led by the working class. He believed that other countries would follow Russia’s example.
A radical political party, led by Vladimir Lenin, that split from the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903. The Bolshevik Party favored a closed party consisting of and run by professional revolutionaries and supported the idea of a dictatorship that would accelerate the transition to socialism. It placed an emphasis on the working class, from which it drew much of its support.
A political group (an acronym for Constitutional Democrats) that wanted to see Russia established as a democratic republic governed by a constitution and an elected parliament. This stance put the Cadets at sharp odds with the Bolsheviks, who favoured a dictatorship of the proletariat. The Cadets drew support primarily from professional workers and the bourgeois class.
An elected body of representatives from around Russia, created in November 1917, that was meant to decide on the country’s governmental structure. When Nicholas II abdicated in February 1917, the provisional government that took power made plans for the formation of this Constituent Assembly in order to choose a more permanent government for Russia. After Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power in the October Revolution, they initially allowed elections for the assembly to go forward as scheduled but changed their minds after receiving less than 25 percent of the vote in those elections.
A term referring to the two governments that Russia had following the February Revolution—the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet.
The Russian legislature from 1905–1917. The term, an ancient Russian word referring to small village councils that existed in early Russia, was resurrected when Tsar Nicholas II agreed to allow the formation of a legislature after the uprising of 1905. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the term has once more come into use, this time specifically referring to today’s lower house of the Russian parliament.
A political group that, like the Bolsheviks, split from the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The Mensheviks, less radical than the Bolsheviks, supported the idea of a socialistic party that was open to all who wished to join and that would be ruled and organized in a democratic manner.
A body that existed prior to the February Revolution as a sort of underground revolutionary labour union for workers and soldiers in the Petrograd area, containing members of a number of different political parties. During the February Revolution, members of the Petrograd Soviet saw an opportunity and declared themselves to be the government of Russia. However, they quickly found themselves competing with the provisional government.
A government that members of the Duma formed following the February Revolution. The provisional government was meant to be temporary and would rule Russia only until the Constituent Assembly decided on a permanent government later.
Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP)
A party that formed in 1898 and was among Russia’s earliest revolutionary movements, though by no means the first. In 1903, the RSDLP split into two factions, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.
Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs)
A Russian political party during the revolutionary years that was more moderate than the Bolsheviks but less so than the Mensheviks. The SRs drew their support primarily from the peasantry and thus had a much larger base than the other parties in Russia. Before and during the October Revolution, the SRs were probably the Bolsheviks’ closest allies among Russia’s many political movements. After the revolution, however, the Bolsheviks abandoned the SRs after the SRs enjoyed a major victory over the Bolsheviks in the elections for the Constituent Assembly.
A Russian word literally meaning “council.” In the early twentieth century, Soviets were governing bodies, similar to labor unions, that existed primarily on the local/municipal level and collectively made policy decisions for their respective regions. The idea of Soviets was popular among the various socialist parties of the time, including the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries. When Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in early 1917, the powerful Petrograd Soviet wielded significant political power in Russia.
A Century of Unrest
1825 Alexander I dies; succession crisis prompts Decembrist Revolt
1861 Alexander II abolishes serfdom
1881 Alexander II assassinated; Alexander III cracks down on dissenters
1894 Nicholas II becomes tsar
1905 Troops fire on Russian civilians during demonstration in St. Petersburg Russia loses Russo-Japanese War Nicholas II concedes to creation of Russian constitution and Duma
1914 Russia enters World War I
Alexander I - Tsar whose 1825 death prompted the Decembrist Revolt
Nicholas I - Brother of Alexander I; took power upon Alexander’s death
Alexander II - Son of Nicholas I; abolished feudalism in 1861; assassinated in 1881
Alexander III - Son of Alexander II; cracked down harshly on dissenters
Nicholas II - Son of Alexander III; was tsar in power during the 1917 revolutions
Petr Stolypin - Nicholas II’s prime minister; had many suspected terrorists tried and executed
Grigory Rasputin - Peasant and mystic who influenced Tsarina Alexandra; was killed by Nicholas II’s supporters in 1916
The Decembrist Revolt
The first signs of widespread political dissent in Russia surfaced nearly a century before the Russian Revolution, following the death of Tsar Alexander I in December 1825. Ever since the War of 1812 , many Russians, especially military personnel who had served abroad, were inspired by growing democratic movements in Europe. Some even began to call for a formal Russian constitution with guarantees of basic rights. Alexander actually considered the idea of a constitution, and indeed granted one to Poland, but never made up his mind about creating one for Russia.
The tsar’s death in 1825 created a fleeting appearance of weakness in the Russian leadership. Alexander had no legitimate children, and there was confusion over which of his two brothers would succeed him. The eldest brother, Constantine, was technically next in line but had earlier given up his right to be tsar when he married a woman outside of his class. Therefore, the crown passed to the youngest brother, Nicholas I, resulting in a small public scandal. Seeing opportunity in the momentary chaos, 3,000 Russian soldiers marched into the centre of St. Petersburg, demanding that Constantine take the throne and also calling for a constitution. The uprising was quickly suppressed, and the surviving demonstrators, who called themselves Decembrists, were arrested and exiled to Siberia. In the coming years, they came to be seen as heroes among Russian revolutionaries.
Early Revolutionary Movements in Russia
In 1861, Tsar Alexander II, Nicholas I’s eldest son and successor, formally abolished serfdom, freeing Russia’s serfs from indenture to landowners. Though a positive development in some ways, it also created a number of new problems, including a severe economic crisis and significant resentment from landowners. The event also inspired more open discussion of other political reforms, once more raising public awareness of the fact that Russia lacked a constitution.
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, a host of organizations formed to promote the introduction of a constitution, a parliamentary government, and socialistic values to Russia. Although most of these groups were peaceful, some began to toy with the use of violence in order to force change. A series of assassination attempts on Alexander II ensued, and in 1881, one of these attacks succeeded. Members of a group called The People’s Will killed Alexander II by throwing a bomb underneath his carriage as it rode through the streets of St. Petersburg. As a result, the new tsar, Alexander’s son Alexander III, cracked down severely on all forms of public resistance. Although the assassination failed to trigger a revolution as the plotters had hoped, the incident did serve as a source of inspiration to underground revolutionaries throughout the country, who increasingly saw the autocracy as vulnerable.
Russia at the Turn of the Century
By the turn of the twentieth century, Russian society had never been more divided, nor had a Russian tsar ever been so far estranged from his people. Tsar Nicholas II, who had come to power in 1894, had never shown leadership skills or a particular desire to rule, but with the death of his father, Alexander III, the Russian crown was thrust upon him. In person, Nicholas II was mild-mannered, even meek; lacking the personality of a leader, his rule was clumsy, and he appeared weak before the people. When it came to public opposition or resistance, he avoided direct involvement and simply ordered his security forces to get rid of any problem as they saw fit. This tactic inevitably resulted in heavy-handed measures by the police, which in turn caused greater resentment among the public.
Violence in 1905
The year 1905 brought the most extreme examples of Nicholas II’s perceived indifference, brutality, and weakness. On Sunday, January 9, a crowd of over 100,000 marched peacefully through the center of St. Petersburg. Eventually they assembled in Palace Square in front of the tsar’s Winter Palace and, unaware that the tsar was not in town that day, called for the tsar to appear so that they could present him with a petition.
The police, who had just finished putting down a series of strikes by industrial workers, followed their standing orders to get rid of any problems. Their solution was to open fire on the crowd, which included women and children as well as church leaders. As the crowd scattered, police pursued them on horseback, continuing to fire on them. Many in the crowd were trampled to death in the ensuing panic. Estimates of the total death toll range from a few hundred to several thousand.
News of the massacre spread quickly, and many saw it as a sign that the tsar no longer cared about his people. The incident earned Nicholas the title “Nicholas the Bloody” even though he did not in fact know about the violence until it was already over. An unorganized series of demonstrations, riots, strikes, and assorted episodes of violence erupted across Russia in the following months.
The Russian Constitution and Duma
Any chance for Nicholas II to regain his standing was soon lost, as Russia was rocked by a long series of disasters, scandals, and political failures. During the first half of 1905, Russia suffered a humiliating military defeat against Japan. Later in the year, the tsar reluctantly gave in to heavy political pressure and granted Russia its first constitution. Permission to form a parliament, called the Duma, was also soon granted.
The Duma became a constant thorn in Nicholas’s side, as increasingly radical political parties emerged into the open after years of existing underground. Nicholas dealt with the problem by repeatedly dissolving the Duma, forcing new elections. During the same period, a renewed outbreak of assassinations and terrorism prompted the tsar to empower his prime minister, Petr Stolypin, to eliminate the threat of terror once and for all. Stolypin established a system of quick military trials for suspected terrorists, promptly followed by public hangings. Thousands were executed over the next several years. In 1911, however, Stolypin himself was fatally shot by an assassin.
In the meantime, Nicholas’s own family became the subject of a different sort of crisis. His wife, Alexandra, had begun consulting with a mystic peasant named Grigory Rasputin in a desperate attempt to help her hemophilic son, Alexis. In time, the self-proclaimed monk Rasputin gained political influence over the tsar through his wife, while at the same time engaging in scandalous sexual escapades throughout the Russian capital. Rumors quickly spread that Rasputin had magical powers and that he had the entire royal family under some sort of spell.
World War I
It was in the midst of this scandal that Nicholas drew Russia into World War I in the summer of 1914. The war was a disaster for Russia: it caused inflation, plunged the country into a food shortage, and ultimately cost the lives of nearly 5 million Russian soldiers and civilians, as well as a series of humiliating military defeats.
The war was the final straw for the Russian people. Although Russian aristocrats had Rasputin killed in a last-ditch effort to preserve the tsar from ruin, it was too late, as popular discontentment was at an all-time high. Within three months, Russia would be without a monarch for the first time in its history.
A Country Ripe for Revolution
In hindsight, nearly a century of warning signs preceded the Russian Revolution, as the Russian aristocracy drifted further and further away from the people over which it ruled. Starting in the early 1700s with Tsar Peter the Great, the ruling Romanov family increasingly modeled itself on, and intermarried with, the great royal families of Europe. Over time, the Romanovs estranged themselves from the Russian people and progressively undermined the legitimacy of their own rule.
At the same time, Russians had more exposure to the culture and happenings of Europe than ever before, and many were inspired by the various democratic and socialist movements taking place there. As dissent grew among the Russian people, the monarchy responded with intolerance and by imposing heavy penalties upon all who openly criticized or resisted the government. A series of military failures, starting with the Crimean War in the mid-1800s, and continuing with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 and finally World War I, further damaged the image of Russia’s leaders.
By the early twentieth century, Russia was thus ripe for a revolution. Never in Russian history had so many political organizations existed at the same time. Moreover, many of these organizations were operating outside of Russia itself, where they could plan freely, raise money, and better educate themselves on contemporary political philosophy.
The February Revolution
February 22, 1917 Nicholas II leaves Petrograd to visit troops
February 23 International Women’s Day demonstration in Petrograd
February 24 Massive strikes and demonstrations occur throughout the capital
February 25 Unrest continues; Mensheviks meet and set up a “Workers’ Soviet” Nicholas II orders military to stop riots
February 26 Troops fire on demonstrating crowds Mass mutiny begins in local army regiments Firefights break out between troops and police
February 27 More than 80,000 troops mutiny and engage in widespread looting
February 28 Duma and Workers’ Soviet gather separately and begin making decisions about restoring order and establishing a new state
March 2 Nicholas II abdicates the throne; provisional government formed
Nicholas II - Last Russian tsar; abdicated as a result of the February Revolution
Alexander Kerensky - Member of the provisional government and Petrograd Soviet; wielded significant political power after Nicholas II’s abdication
International Women’s Day 1917
With Russia faring poorly in World War I and facing severe food shortages, strikes and public protests happened in the country with increasing frequency during 1916 and early 1917. Violent encounters between protesters and authorities also increased.
On February 23, 1917, a large gathering of working-class women convened in the center of Petrograd to mark International Women’s Day. The gathering took the form of a protest demonstration calling for “bread and peace.” While the demonstration began peacefully, the next morning it turned violent as the women were joined by hundreds of thousands of male workers who went on strike and flooded the streets, openly calling for an end to the war and even to the monarchy. Feeding on their outrage with each passing day, the demonstrations became larger and rowdier, and the outnumbered police were unable to control the crowds.
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, 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. However, on the next day Michael also abdicated, leaving Russia with no tsar at all. 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.
The Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet
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.
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.
Assessing the February Revolution
The February Revolution was largely a spontaneous event. It began in much the same way as had dozens of other mass demonstrations in Russia in previous years and might well have ended in the same manner, if the military had not gotten involved. There was no plan or oversight for the way it happened, and few, if any, dedicated Russian revolutionaries were involved—most, such as Vladimir Lenin, were out of the country. 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.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks
April 3, 1917 Lenin arrives in Petrograd
April 7 April Theses published in the newspaper Pravda
April 21 First Bolshevik demonstrations
Vladimir Lenin - Revolutionary and intellectual; founded Bolshevik Party; returned to Russia from exile in April 1917 and advocated armed rebellion to establish Communist state
Lenin’s Return to Russia
During the February Revolution, Vladimir Lenin had been living in exile in Switzerland. Though historians disagree about specifics, they concur that the government of Germany deliberately facilitated Lenin’s return to his homeland in the spring of 1917. Without question, the German leadership did so with the intent of destabilizing Russia. The Germans provided Lenin with a guarded train that took him as far as the Baltic coast, from which he traveled by boat to Sweden, then on to Russia by train. There is also evidence that Germany funded the Bolshevik Party, though historians disagree over how much money they actually contributed.
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. Although a limited sense of camaraderie had come about among the various competing parties ever since the February Revolution, Lenin would have nothing to do with this mentality. He considered any who stood outside his own narrow Bolshevik enclave to be his sworn enemies and obstacles to the “natural” flow of history.
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.
“All Power to the Soviets”
In the meantime, Lenin pulled his closest supporters together and moved on toward the next step of his plan. He 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.
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 period following Lenin’s return to Russia was a confusing time for Russian Socialists, who previously had held Lenin in high esteem and had believed he would unite them upon his return. Indeed, his radical positions caused greater division than ever among Russia’s various political groups. Lenin’s refusal to compromise backfired on him, however, and in the autumn he would need the support of these groups in order to secure power.
Eventually, Lenin did backtrack temporarily on his earlier extreme positions, with the aim of garnering more support. In particular, he temporarily embraced the Petrograd Soviet. Although this effort did have some limited success, it failed to produce the level of support that Lenin had hoped for. Therefore, he decided to concentrate instead on defaming the provisional government and also building up connections within the military so that after the revolution, he could deal with all his critics by force.
The Summer of 1917
June 3, 1917 First Congress of Soviets opens in Petrograd
June 9 Bolsheviks call for demonstrations by civilians and soldiers Congress of Soviets votes to ban all demonstrations; Bolsheviks desist
June 16 Final Russian offensive of World War I begins
June 30 Petrograd Machine Gun Regiment is ordered to the front
July 3 Bolsheviks plan massive demonstration against the Petrograd Soviet and the provisional government
July 4 Bolsheviks’ July Putsch fails; many Bolsheviks are arrested, but Lenin escapes and goes into hiding
August 27 Kerensky dismisses Kornilov and accuses him of treason Kornilov calls on his troops to mutiny
Vladimir Lenin - Bolshevik leader; made numerous attempts to start second revolution during the summer of 1917
Alexander Kerensky - Minister of war and later prime minister of the provisional government; lost credibility during Kornilov affair
Lavr Kornilov - Commander in chief of the Russian army; became embroiled in misunderstanding with Kerensky
Vladimir Lvov - Russian politician who favored military dictatorship; may have instigated Kornilov affair
The First Congress of Soviets
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. To Lenin, however, it was no joke.
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
On June 30, the Petrograd Machine Gun Regiment, one of the largest and most politically volatile military regiments in the city, was ordered to report for duty on the front. Members of the regiment immediately began to protest, and the ever-watchful Bolsheviks lost no time in directing the full strength of their propaganda machine at whipping the soldiers’ discontent into a frenzy.
On July 3, Bolshevik leaders decided to try to use the regiment, in combination with their own armed forces and 20,000 sailors from a nearby naval base, to take over the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks called for an extraordinary meeting of the workers’ section of the Soviet, and the next day, July 4, an armed mob began to assemble outside the Tauride Palace, where the Petrograd Soviet had its headquarters.
The mob had little organization, and as rumors circulated that seasoned troops from the front were on the way to Petrograd to put down the demonstrations, fear spread rapidly through the group, and many began to leave. At the same time, the provisional government released documents to the press purporting that the Bolsheviks were treasonously colluding with Germany, which sowed further doubt and confusion among those in the crowd.
By the end of the day, the mob had dissipated, and frontline troops did indeed come into the capital and restore order. Arrest warrants were issued for all of the Bolshevik leaders. Most were caught but were not prosecuted because of resistance by the Petrograd Soviet. Lenin managed to escape to Finland. Kerensky, for his effectiveness in neutralizing the Bolsheviks, was promoted from minister of war to prime minister.
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.
In July, Prime Minister Kerensky appointed General Lavr Kornilov commander in chief of the Russian army. Kornilov, a popular and highly respected figure in the army, reportedly had little interest in politics but had a strong sense of patriotism. However, Kerensky soon began to fear that Kornilov was plotting to set up a military dictatorship. Kornilov had his own doubts about Kerensky as well, and a mutual lack of trust grew quickly between them. Nevertheless, the two leaders managed to work together in a reasonably professional manner for a time.
The Kornilov Affair
This tenuous relationship quickly fell apart, although it is not clear what exactly transpired. According to one account, Vladimir Lvov, a former member of the Duma and a member of the provisional government, conceived a means to exploit the bad blood between Kerensky and Kornilov. Lvov believed that the only way to save Russia was to install a military dictator and felt that Kornilov fit the bill. Therefore, without telling Kerensky, Lvov paid a visit to Kornilov, presenting himself as Kerensky’s representative. In short, Lvov told Kornilov that Kerensky was offering him dictatorial powers in Russia if he would accept them. Next, Lvov visited Kerensky, presenting himself as Kornilov’s representative, and informed Kerensky that Kornilov demanded martial law be established in Petrograd and that all ministers, including Kerensky, give full authority to Kornilov.
Because neither Kerensky nor Kornilov knew each other’s intentions, 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, as he was under the impression that he had been invited to take power. In his panic, Kerensky appealed to the Bolsheviks for help against a military putsch, but in the end, no military coup materialized.
Other historians believe that the so-called Kornilov affair involved far less intrigue and merely arose from a series of misunderstandings. Some contend that Kornilov’s coup attempt was genuine, while others suspect that Kerensky led Kornilov into a trap. Moreover, although Lvov did indisputably act as a liaison between the two men, it is not entirely clear that he engineered the rift that developed.
Repercussions of the Kornilov Affair
In any case, the 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. First, it destroyed Kerensky’s credibility in the eyes of the military and made him look foolish and unstable to the rest of the country. Second, 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 Revolution
August 31, 1917 Bolsheviks achieve majority in the Petrograd Soviet
September 5 Bolsheviks achieve majority in the Moscow Soviet
October 10 Lenin and the Bolshevik Central Committee decide to proceed with revolution
October 23 Provisional government acts to shut down all Bolshevik newspapers
October 24 Provisional government deploys junkers Bolshevik troops begin to take over government buildings in the city
October 25 Kerensky escapes Petrograd Bolsheviks struggle all day long to capture Winter Palace Second Congress of Soviets convenes
October 26 Provisional government is arrested early in the morning Lenin issues Decree on Peace and Decree on Land Congress approves Soviet of the People’s Commissars, with all-Bolshevik membership, as new provisional government
Vladimir Lenin - Bolshevik leader; became leader of Russia after October Revolution; issued Decree on Peace and Decree on Land
Lev Kamenev - Bolshevik leader who resisted Lenin’s plans for a prompt revolution
Grigory Zinoviev - Bolshevik leader who sided with Kamenev, voting against revolution
Alexander Kerensky - Prime minister of provisional government; fled Russia during revolution to live in Europe and then the United States
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. If there were to be another revolution, it had to take place before then.
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. Few details of this meeting have survived, but it is known that Lenin delivered an impassioned speech in which he restated his reasons for staging the uprising sooner rather than later. Most of those present—only twelve men in all—initially were reluctant. Nevertheless, by the end of the meeting, Lenin had talked all but two of them into approving an armed uprising to oust the provisional government. What had yet to be decided was precisely when the revolution would happen.
During the next two weeks, Lenin’s followers remained holed up in their headquarters at the Smolny Institute, a former school for girls in the center of Petrograd, where they made their final plans and assembled their forces. 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 fact. The two Bolshevik leaders who had voted against the uprising after the October 10 meeting, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, continued to protest the plan and resist Lenin’s preparations. However, at the last moment, they suddenly reversed their position so as not to be left out.
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.
The Provisional Government’s Response
Although the details may have been secret, by late October it was well known throughout Petrograd that the Bolsheviks were planning something major. Prime Minister Kerensky and other members of the provisional government discussed the matter endlessly; Kerensky pressed for greater security and for the arrest of every Bolshevik who could be found, especially those in the Military Revolutionary Committee. The other ministers resisted Kerensky’s suggestions and believed that everything could ultimately be solved by negotiation.
Nonetheless, the provisional government did make a few modest preparatory arrangements. First, it closed down all Bolshevik newspapers on October 23. Although this move did actually catch the Bolsheviks off guard, it had little practical effect. Then, on the morning of October 24, the day the uprising was to begin, the provisional government installed junkers—cadets from local military academies—to guard government buildings and strategic points around the city. One of these positions was the tsar’s old Winter Palace, which the provisional government now used for its headquarters. Places of business closed early that day, and most people scurried home and stayed off the streets.
In truth, little happened on October 24 , the first day of the Russian Revolution. The main event was that Lenin made his way across town to the Smolny Institute, disguised as a drunk with a toothache. Late that evening, 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.
The Siege of the Winter Palace
By the morning of October 25, the Winter Palace was the only government building that had not yet been taken. At 9:00 a.m., Kerensky sped out of the city in a car commandeered from the U.S. embassy. The other ministers remained in the palace, hoping that Kerensky would return with loyal soldiers from the front. Meanwhile, Bolshevik forces brought a warship, the cruiser Aurora , up the Neva River and took up a position near the palace. Other Bolshevik forces occupied the Fortress of Peter and Paul on the opposite bank of the river from the palace. By that afternoon, the palace was completely surrounded and defended only by the junker guards inside. The provisional government ministers hid in a small dining room on the second floor, awaiting Kerensky’s return.
The Bolsheviks spent the entire afternoon and most of the evening attempting to take control of the Winter Palace and arrest the ministers within it. Although the palace was defended weakly by the junker cadets, most of the Bolshevik soldiers were unwilling to fire on fellow Russians or on the buildings of the Russian capital. Instead, small groups broke through the palace windows and negotiated with the junkers, eventually convincing many of them to give up. Although some accounts claim that a few shots were fired, little or no violence ensued. The ministers were finally arrested shortly after 2:00 a.m. on October 26 and escorted to prison cells in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Kerensky never returned and eventually escaped abroad, living out his life first in continental Europe and then as a history professor in the United States.
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. Lenin became increasingly agitated and embarrassed by the delay. 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. The meeting lasted the rest of the night, adjourning after 5:00 a.m. on October 26.
The Congress resumed once more late the next evening, and 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.
Life After the Revolution
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. In Moscow, there was a power struggle that lasted for nearly a week. In other regions, local politicians (of various party loyalties) simply took power for themselves. In the countryside, anarchy ruled for a time, and peasants boldly seized land as they pleased, with little interference from anyone. The new Bolshevik-led government, meanwhile, improvised policy quite literally on the fly, with no long-term plan or structure in place other than vague intentions.
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 afterward, 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.
As far as historians have been able to determine, Lenin and most of the other major revolutionary figures at his side believed sincerely in their cause and were not motivated purely by a thirst for power. In all likelihood, they seized power believing that they were doing so for the greater good. Ironically, their faith in the socioeconomic models of Marx was on the level of an extreme religious devotion—the very same blind devotion that they often denounced in others. Unfortunately, this steadfast belief in Marxism would come to be implemented through brutal and repressive means.
November 1917 Nationwide elections for the Constituent Assembly held throughout the month
December 15 Russia signs armistice with the Central Powers
December 20 Cheka established with Dzerzhinsky as its leader
January 5, 1918 Constituent Assembly meets for first and last time
March 3 Russia and Germany sign peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk
May Bolsheviks institute military conscription
June–July Russian Civil War begins
August 30 Lenin shot in assassination attempt but survives
September 5 Red Terror begins
Vladimir Lenin - Leader of Russia after the October Revolution; suppressed dissent by disbanding Constituent Assembly, declaring opposing political parties illegal
Felix Dzerzhinsky - Polish revolutionary whom Lenin appointed head of Cheka secret police
Joseph Stalin - Commissar of nationalities in Lenin’s government; succeeded Lenin as leader of Russia in 1924
An End to the War
After Lenin’s government secured power, one of its first major goals was to get Russia out of World War I. Following his Decree on Peace, Lenin sent out diplomatic notes to all participants in the war, calling for everyone to cease hostilities immediately if they did not want Russia to seek a separate peace. The effort was ignored. Therefore, in November 1917, the new government ordered Russian troops to cease all hostilities on the front. On December 15, Russia signed an armistice with Germany and Austria, pending a formal peace treaty (the treaty was not completed until March 1918).
Russia’s exit from the war was very costly, but Lenin was desperate to end the war at any cost, as the Germans were threatening to invade Petrograd. In the peace, Lenin consented to give up most of Russia’s territorial gains since the time of Peter the Great. The lost territories included Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bessarabia, and the Caucasus region, along with some of the coal-mining lands of southern Russia. The Soviets would not regain these territories until the end of World War II.
The SPC and the November Elections
Following the revolution and the Second Congress of Soviets, Lenin’s new government, the SPC, faced the overwhelming task of governing a country in chaos. Communication was poor, and large chunks of the country, including the Ukraine, were still occupied by foreign armies. Outside of Petrograd and Moscow, especially in more distant regions such as Siberia and Central Asia, it was hard even to define what was happening politically, much less to take control of it.
At least in theory, the SPC was a democratic institution. They had been voted into power (after they had taken it) and were supposed to answer to the Executive Committee and in turn to the future Constituent Assembly. Indeed, Lenin, expecting the Bolsheviks to do well, allowed elections for members of the Constituent Assembly to proceed as scheduled throughout the month of November. When the final tally was in, however, Bolshevik candidates received less than 25 percent of the vote. The highest percentage, 40 percent, went to the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party, which at the time was mildly sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. However, members of other more hostile parties, including the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats), had strong showings as well.
Because the Bolsheviks placed only modestly in the elections, the Constituent Assembly became a problem for them. Initially, it appeared that the Bolsheviks might have to make some severe compromises in order to stay in power. However, they dealt with this problem first by declaring the Cadet Party illegal and then by demanding that the Constituent Assembly voluntarily give up its legislative authority—a move that would have remade the body into essentially a rubber stamp for Bolshevik policy.
In the end, the Constituent Assembly met only once, on January 5, 1918. During the meeting, the assembly refused to give up its authority but did nothing to challenge the Bolsheviks, who watched over the meeting with loaded guns. When the assembly adjourned the next morning, the Bolsheviks declared the assembly permanently dissolved and accused its members of being “slaves to the American dollar.”
The Third Congress of Soviets
The assembly was replaced by the Third Congress of Soviets, 94 percent of whose members were required to be Bolshevik and SR delegates. The new group quickly ratified a motion that the term “provisional” be removed from the official description of the SPC, making Lenin and the Bolsheviks the permanent rulers of the country.
Until this point, the Bolsheviks had often used word democracy in a positive sense, but this changed almost instantly. The Bolsheviks began to categorize their critics as counterrevolutionaries and treated them as traitors. The terms revolutionary dictatorship and dictatorship of the proletariat began to pop up frequently in Lenin’s speeches, which began to characterize democracy as an illusionary concept propagated by Western capitalists.
The Bolsheviks’ Consolidation of Power
In March 1918, even as Lenin’s representatives were signing the final treaty taking Russia out of World War I, the Bolsheviks were in the process of moving their seat of power from Petrograd to Moscow. This largely symbolic step was a part of the Bolshevik effort to consolidate power.
Although symbolism of this sort was a major part of the Bolsheviks’ strategy, they knew they also needed military power to force the rest of the country to comply with their vision while discouraging potential foreign invaders from interfering. Therefore, they rebuilt their military force, which now largely consisted of 35,000 Latvian riflemen who had sided with the Bolsheviks when they vowed to remove Russia from World War I. The Latvian soldiers were better trained and more disciplined than the Russian forces upon which the Bolshevik forces had previously relied. These troops effectively suppressed insurrections throughout Russia during the course of 1918 and formed the early core of the newly established Red Army.
The other major instrument of Bolshevik power was the secret police, known by the Russian acronym Cheka (for Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage). Officially formed on December 20, 1917, the Cheka was charged with enforcing compliance with Bolshevik rule. At its command, Lenin placed a Polish revolutionary named Felix Dzerzhinsky, who would soon become notorious for the deadly work of his organization. Tens of thousands of people would be murdered at Dzerzhinsky’s behest during the coming years.
The Roots of Civil War
Although the Russian Civil War is a separate topic and not dealt with directly in this text, some introduction is appropriate because the war evolved directly from the circumstances of the Russian Revolution. No specific date can be set forth for the beginning of the war, but it generally began during the summer of 1918. As the Bolsheviks (often termed the Reds) were consolidating power, Lenin’s opponents were also organizing from multiple directions. Groups opposing the Bolsheviks ranged from monarchists to democrats to militant Cossacks to moderate socialists. These highly divergent groups gradually united and came to fight together as the Whites. A smaller group, known as the Greens, was made up of anarchists and opposed both the Whites and the Reds.
In the meantime, a contingent of about half a million Czech and Slovak soldiers, taken prisoner by the Russian army during World War I, began to rebel against the Bolsheviks, who were attempting to force them to serve in the Red Army. The soldiers seized a portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway and attempted to make their way across Siberia to Russia’s Pacific coast in order to escape Russia by boat. In the course of their rebellion, they temporarily joined with White forces in the central Volga region, presenting the fledgling Red Army with a major military challenge. In response to these growing threats, the Bolsheviks instituted military conscription in May 1918 in order to bolster their forces.
The Red Terror
At the end of the summer, on August 30, there was an assassination attempt on Lenin. He survived, but a brutal crackdown on all forms of opposition commenced shortly thereafter. The Bolsheviks called it the Red Terror, and it fully lived up to its name. This was the atmosphere under which the Russian Civil War began. It lasted well into 1920–1921, by which point the Bolsheviks had fully crushed the rebellion.
Assessing Bolshevik Russia
After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had very little planning in place, and their rule got off to a rough start when they came in behind the SRs in the elections of the Constituent Assembly. The working class was still a minority in Russia; the Bolsheviks would change that in time, but at the outset their rule could be maintained only by force.
The Bolsheviks faced major opposition from within Russia and for many different reasons. Among the most contentious issues was Russia’s costly exit from World War I. Though many had wanted out of the war, they did not approve of Lenin’s readiness to lose vast amounts of territory. In addition, the Bolsheviks’ sudden dismissal of the Constituent Assembly and their silencing of all other political voices was offensive to many as well. The result was the Russian civil war, which would be horrifically painful for the country and that, in the end, would cost even more lives than had World War I. The years following, with the violence of Joseph Stalin’s purges and forced collectivization of Russia’s lands, would not be much better.
The roots of the Russian Revolution go back into the 19th century and before as we noted in regards to Orlando Figes. By 1917, Russia, the most backward and repressive regime in Europe, generally lacking in heavy industry and modern transportation, terribly overmatched in the war, suffering from food shortages and mass desertions of its army, experienced the overthrow of, first, the czar, then of a republican provisional government in favour of a communist regime led by Vladimir Lenin. That regime sued for peace with Germany and established the world’s first communist government.
1. Russia, in 1917, was the largest state on Earth- a vast, multi-ethnic empire. Radiating from the heartland of Muscovy, inhabited by ethnic Russians, were a variety of peoples conquered from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. To the east lay Siberia, populated by Russians but also by Kazakhs, Buryats, Tuvinians, and Yakuts. To the south lived Ukrainians, Georgians, and Armenians. To the west were Poles. To the north were Finns, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians.
2. The Russian Empire was prone to the same ethnic and nationalistic tensions that we have seen in the rest of Europe so far in this course at SL, especially in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
3. It also faced the problem of maintaining authority over vast distances.
4. In the 19th century, it did so by harsh repression. That it was successful helps explain why the 1905 revolution failed. We compared Russia then with Syria now.
B. Political Context
1. In the eyes of contemporary observers, Russia was the most conservative and economically backward of the major European states. Its social structure was that of a traditional ancien régime. The czar ruled autocratically as second only to God. Great aristocrats owned most of the land. That land was worked for them by the peasants, who formed 80% of the Russian population. Those peasants had been serfs prior to the 1860s but remained miserably poor. There was a small urban elite of factory owners, professionals, and intellectuals. Subordinate to them were urban workers (10% of the population), who were poorly paid but mostly literate and increasingly politicised.
2. Russia’s economy was overwhelmingly agricultural; apart from the Ottoman Empire, it was the slowest major European power to industrialise.
C. Russia had been trying to Westernise and modernise since at least the time of Peter the Great, but its leaders rejected liberalism and nationalism.
1. Following the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, Czar Nicholas I created a state police with tight censorship and strict control of university life.
2. Mid-19th-century writers and students reacted by forming secret liberal groups urging reform of the czarist state.
a. The Populists wanted to free the serfs and improve the lot of peasants.
b. Anarchists opposed the idea of all government.
c. Socialists also wanted revolution, but they split into two groups:
i. The Socialist Revolutionary Party (founded in 1901), concentrated on improving the lot of the peasants.
ii. Marxists formed the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) in 1898 to politicise urban workers. By 1903, Socialists had split further into two factions:
i. Bolsheviks (from the Russian word for “majority”), led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, favoured a more centralised and disciplined party.
ii. Mensheviks (from the Russian word for “minority”) were more loosely organised and included intellectual moderates.
In 1905, the Constitutional Democrats, or Cadets, were formed as a moderate liberal party. All these parties are covered in the last set of notes I gave in class.
3. Alexander II (1855–1881) met these groups halfway, easing censorship, freeing the serfs, and creating local representative bodies called zemstvos; his reward was to be assassinated by anarchists in 1881.
4. His successors, Alexander III (1881–1894) and Nicholas II (1894–1917), turned their backs on reform and imposed a series of repressive measures:
a. Nationalist movements were crushed in Poland, the Ukraine, and Finland.
b. Religious minorities were repressed, including Roman Catholics in Poland, Protestants in the Baltic States, and Jews throughout the empire.
c. The power of the zemstvos was curtailed.
d. Popular education was discouraged.
e. The press was heavily censored.
f. A secret police informed on the population.
g. Political dissidents were imprisoned or driven into exile.
h. Industrialisation was encouraged, but working conditions were poor and trade unions were outlawed. The reign of Nicholas II saw increasing tension over these measures, as well as several crises of foreign policy. In 1904–1905, Russia lost an ill-advised war against Japan. Russia’s defeat led, indirectly, to the Revolution of 1905.
C. The 1905 Revolution
1. On Sunday, 22 January 1905, a peaceful crowd seeking to petition the czar for better conditions was fired on; about 100 demonstrators were killed at the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg.
2. This led to a general strike that forced the government to concede creation of a weak legislature, the Duma, and some civil liberties, including the right of assembly.
3. At this point, workers began to form elective councils, called soviets, in major cities. But during the period 1905–1914, the government reasserted itself and went back on some of its promises:
1. Workers’ organisations and ethnic groups were suppressed.
2. Thousands of revolutionaries were sent to prison or exiled, the latter including Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
In 1914, Nicholas II plunged Russia into World War I, which was popular at first, even among the radical groups. But by 1917, the nation had experienced 7.5 million casualties, and famine threatened the large cities.
October Revolution was precipitated by Russia’s misery in World War I. As we have seen, the war was disastrous for Russia.
In February (March) 1917, following the breakdown of order in Petrograd (the name of St. Petersburg during 1914–1924), Nicholas II abdicated.
D. The Provisional Government
1. The new provisional government was a liberal coalition, eventually dominated by Alexander Kerensky.
2. The end of czarist repression meant that all sorts of radical groups could come out of the woodwork.
3. The soviets of workers and soldiers also reactivated.
4. By the end of February, the Petrograd soviets had united into one, thus forming an alternative source of power to the government.
In the spring of 1917, the Germans, sensing an opportunity, rounded up Lenin and Trotsky and other exiled Russian dissidents and put them on a train for Russia. Lenin immediately began to give a series of fiery speeches for peace and against the provisional government. He was joined by Leon Trotsky, who brought over many Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks also attracted dispirited soldiers, alienated workers, and students.
4. In the countryside, peasants begin to form soviets of their own, in some cases, seizing land from their landlords.
5. Suppressed nationalities also grew restive.
E. Problems with the Kerensky government
1. Kerensky wanted to continue the war.
2. He refused land reform.- KNOW WHY.
3. He included industrialists in the cabinet.
4. He offered nothing to suppressed nationalities except to fight for Mother Russia.
As I keep reiterating in class, this was a catch-22 situation. The PR wanted to solve issues but couldn't as long as the war was going on. Even if it had the political will, it lacked the mandate as it was unelected.
Still, most people were not radicalised; they were attracted to a moderate socialist platform, not the international communism of the Bolsheviks.
By the summer of 1917, the government was already in crisis, facing coups on all sides.
1. In June, the first Congress of Soviets met and immediately backed massive antiwar demonstrations.
2. The Bolsheviks called for the overthrow of the government, which responded with repression. Trotsky was arrested, and Lenin went into hiding. 3. In August (September), the conservative General Kornilov turned against the government with an army. Kerensky reversed himself, appealing to radical leaders, such as Lenin, to defend the February Revolution against Kornilov.
a. To do so, he gave them arms.
b. The Bolsheviks and their allies did a good job, amassing 25,000 followers to defend the city and convincing Kornilov’s troops to join them.
c. The coup was suppressed, and the Kerensky government was saved.
d. But in arming the radicals, legitimizing the Bolsheviks, and turning law and order over to them, Kerensky had made a devil’s bargain, and the country was ripe for a real revolution.
F. The Bolshevik Revolution
On 10 October, Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to seize power. Trotsky formed a Military Revolutionary Committee to make plans.
On the morning of 25–26 October (5–6 November by the Western calendar) 1917, Bolshevik forces occupied strategic points in Petrograd.
1. At 9:00 PM, the cruiser Aurora fired on a meeting of the provisional government at the Winter Palace.
2. The palace was stormed, and the members of the provisional government were arrested.
3. On 26 October (6 November), the All-Russian Congress of Soviets handed over power to the Soviet Council of People’s Commissars, with Lenin as chairman. Russia was immediately declared a Soviet Republic.
At first, the new state was a true multiparty state, with representatives from the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks, and the Revolutionary Socialists. But by the end of the year, Lenin and the Bolsheviks—increasingly called Communists—used the excuse that the revolution was threatened by counter-revolutionaries to begin to seize control.
1. Freedom of the press was curtailed.
2. The Liberal Cadets were outlawed.
3. Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were purged from the government. 4. Lenin established the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution, Speculation, and Sabotage, or CHEKA: a secret police to root out enemies of the revolution. (CHEKA would be the parent of the later NKVD and the KGB.)
5. The Russian royal family was executed in Siberia in 1918.
F. Consolidation of Lenin’s Power
From early 1918, Lenin and his followers consolidated their power and pursued four main goals:
1. The seizure of land by the peasants.
2. The seizure of the factories by the workers.
3. An immediate peace.
4. The exportation of international communism.
The results of these policies, collectively known as Lenin’s war communism, were disastrous:
1. Land reform, or collectivisation, led to peasant revolts and starvation as the old food distribution system was disrupted.
2. Workers put in charge of the factories lacked appropriate experience.
3. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, finalised in March 1918, forced Russia to cede Poland and much of western Russia, containing one-fourth of its European territory, one-third of its heavy industry, and one-half of its coal and iron.
4. Russia’s former allies (Britain, France, and the United States), afraid of revolution, blockaded Russia, exacerbating the food crisis, and sent troops to support counterrevolution.
5. The communist regime responded by organising the Red Army and launching the Red Terror, by which thousands of opposition figures were executed.
Lenin’s early experiments with forced collectivisation at home and international revolution abroad were disastrous for the Soviet Union’s domestic and foreign policy and even worse for its people. After a brief period of retrenchment, Lenin died in 1924, leading to a vicious power struggle that resulted in the rise of Josef Stalin. On the surface, the Soviet constitution provided ample freedoms within a federal system, but in reality, Stalin ruled as autocratically and arbitrarily as any czar. Millions died because of his various purges, treason trials, and the sheer inefficiency of the Soviet system. Stalin’s ruthless methods did make Russia into an industrial power, but his attempts to get the West to pay attention to him were rebuffed.
Unlike the Western democracies, the major countries of Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe embraced totalitarian regimes before World War II.
i. A totalitarian regime is even more repressive of dissent than an absolute monarchy or an autocracy as it involves the use or threat of force to ensure total loyalty; monitoring of public and, where possible, private life; the use of modern technology and propaganda techniques; and socialism and nationalism as an integral part of the state’s ideology. Finally, a totalitarian state can be of the left or the right. The Soviet Union was the grand-daddy of all totalitarian states.
ii. Immediately after the Russian Revolution, there was an initial period of coalition. The disastrous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, though, broke the coalition. The Left Social Revolutionary Party denounced the treaty and departed the Council of People’s Commissars.
iii. Extreme members launched a series of assassination attempts in the hope of reigniting the war. The Bolsheviks responded with the Red Terror, eliminating political opponents. The new Russia was well on its way to becoming a one-party state.
iv. In July 1918, the Congress of Soviets approved the first constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Lenin and his Bolsheviks became the dominant force in the new government. His attempt to communise the country quickly with forced collectivisation—his war communism—was a disaster:
a. The Russian economy, already crippled by war, became totally disrupted.
b. The harvests of 1920–1921 were terrible.
c. The Soviet state was denied foreign loans.
d. Civil war broke out when the “White Russians,” (Ukrainians), supported by Germans, Poles, and Allied troops, marched on Moscow in 1919.
e. Foreign powers, including Britain, the United States, and Japan, invaded the Soviet Union.
f. In response, Leon Trotsky organised the Red Army.
g. The Treaty of Riga, ending the war, awarded the western Ukraine and Belorussia to Poland.
h. In 1920–1921, the Soviet Union also accepted the de facto independence of Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) was a slowing down of communisation, developed in response to the failures of war communism, beginning in March 1921.
It called for a partial return to pre-war capitalism and ended the goal of international revolution.
The NEP was, by and large, successful:
1. By 1928, production had recovered to pre-war levels.
2. Food became plentiful again.
3. Wages rose slightly.
4. The West began to restore diplomatic relations.
5. This situation led to a bitter internal debate about the pace of communisation.
In 1922, Lenin suffered a paralytic stroke, which incapacitated him; he died in 1924.
Lenin’s death led to a power struggle for control of the party and state. The frontrunner was Trotsky, an intellectual, a close associate of Lenin, and the organizer of the Red Army.
His challenger, Josef Stalin, was less important in Lenin’s universe but had the advantage of being a secretary—from 1922, General Secretary—of the Communist Party.
1. In 1925, Stalin forced Trotsky’s resignation as minister of war and banished him to Siberia.
2. In 1929, Stalin banished Trotsky abroad, where the latter continued to write against Stalin.
3. In 1940, Trotsky was murdered in Mexico, almost certainly by Stalin’s agents.
This initiated a series of purges of potential rivals and opposition figures known as the Sabotage Trials (1928–1933) and the Treason Trials (1934–1938).
1. Tens of thousands, including two-thirds of the party leadership, half of the army high command, and nearly every important communist left over from the 1917 revolution, were arrested, “tried,” and executed or sent into exile or the gulag.
2. The purges and gulag created a whole genre of literature, including Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales.
3. In 1937–1938, the NKVD, under Nikolay Yezhov, arrested several million people. Perhaps 1 million were shot. Possibly 2 million died in the camps.
Stalin also established a vast propaganda machine to produce and censor the arts and the press. On the surface, it was a loose federal system with important elements of democracy. The final Soviet constitution, sometimes called the Stalin Constitution, took until 1936 to work out.
1. The Soviet Union consisted of 16 republics in a federal union.
2. Its legislature was the Supreme Soviet, consisting of two chambers.
3. When not in session, the Soviet’s functions replaced by a Presidium of 27.
4. Above that, a Council of the People’s Commissars was appointed by the Supreme Soviet.
5. Below that, there were many regional and local soviets, giving the impression of devolved power.
6. All soviets were elected by universal suffrage.
7. A Bill of Rights and Freedoms seemed to guarantee the same.
But those rights and freedoms were always to be interpreted for the good of the workers, that is, the Worker’s State—the Soviet Union.
1. Suffrage was fairly pointless because there was only one legal party: the party of the workers—the Communist Party.
2. In effect, the whole superstructure of the Stalin Constitution was an empty shell, because choice was limited to the Party.
3. The muscles and sinews of the Soviet State were those of the Communist Party, whose general secretary was, of course, Stalin.
Even an absolutist state can allow for some dissent, but a party, by definition, is made up of individuals committed to a single point of view.
At bottom, the party consisted of small cells, whose job was to enforce conformity and party discipline in the localities.
At the bottom of the top sat the All Union Party Conference.
Members of the conference chose the Central Committee, the party’s chief policy-making organ.
The Central Committee, in turn, chose the Politburo, the party’s executive and highest constitutional authority.
In practice, the Politburo was dominated by the general secretary, that is, Stalin.
Stalin’s domestic policy concentrated on overall economic growth and the enforcement of loyalty.
A series of Five-Year Plans was designed to catapult Russian industry into modern times by pouring national resources into the development of steel, coal, heavy machinery, and railways—at the sacrifice of much else.
The forced collectivisation of agriculture was much less successful, breeding resentment and a famine in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan in 1932–1935 that killed 5–7 million.
The intended social welfare policies of the Soviet state were progressive.
1. They guaranteed full employment.
2. The state provided free medical care, housing, and education.
3. The state also encouraged gender equality by providing birth control and abortion. By 1937, 35 percent of the labour force was female.
Communists, liberals, and labour activists in the West looked upon all this with envy, but in fact, medical care and housing were provided at rudimentary levels.
1. Whole families were crowded into one room, and few houses had running water, electricity, or central heating.
2. In the mid-1930s, advances in gender equality were rolled back, and abortion and homosexuality were criminalised.
3. Education by the Soviet state was, for most, just as much indoctrination as education.
To unite the populace, religion, persecuted under Lenin, was now grudgingly tolerated, especially the Russian Orthodox Church.
The welfare policies of the Soviet state were bought at a terrific price: physical and mental dislocation; strict regimentation, unquestioning obedience, and constant fear; and famine, starvation, and death.
Most of the world viewed the Soviet Union as a rogue nation and a menace. But the Soviet Union was too big and too valuable as a potential market and ally to ignore forever.
1. In 1922, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Rapallo.
2. Gradually, other Western nations recognised the Soviet government, culminating in recognition by the United States in 1933.
3. In 1934, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations.
In fact, during the 1930s, from the Soviet point of view, it was the Soviet Union that was surrounded by enemies.
1. In 1931, Manchuria was invaded by Japan, creating border tensions that erupted into fighting in 1938.
2. Though initially supportive of Hitler as an ally against the liberal West, Stalin grew increasingly fearful of Der Führer’s anti-communist rhetoric and military buildup. 3. By the mid-1930s, Stalin urged a grand alliance against Mussolini, Hitler, and Japan and pestered the League of Nations to take action.
4. In 1938, he offered to defend Czechoslovakia when Hitler demanded the Sudetenland and asked the British and French to do the same.
But the Western democracies feared Stalin’s international revolutionary communism more than they feared Mussolini’s fascism or Hitler’s Nazism.
Chambers, chapter 29, section IV. R. Service, A History of Twentieth Century Russia. S. Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism. Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s.
Questions to Consider:
1. Would a quicker engagement by the West have tempered the excesses of Stalinist Russia?
2. Why were Western liberals and socialists blind to the atrocities of the Soviet system?