The October Revolution, also known as the Bolshevik Revolution, Red October and as the Great October Socialist Revolution according to both the official historiography of the former Soviet Union and according to some communist groups (particularly the anti-revisionists), was the second phase of the Revolution of Russia in 1917, after the February Revolution. The date October 25, 1917, corresponds to the Julian calendar in force in Tsarist Russia, later abolished by the new Bolshevik government. In the rest of the Western world, under the Gregorian calendar, the events began on November 7, 1917.
|Date||November 7-8, 1917.|
|Place||Petrograd, Russian Republic|
The provisional government’s insistence on continuing the war —very unpopular— prevented the application of the profound reforms that the population demanded. The absence of these meant that the Bolshevik program, reflected in its slogans of “Peace, Bread and Land” and “All Power to the Soviets” (councils), quickly gained supporters in the autumn of 1917. The economic crisis, which The threat from the front to soldiers in the capital had worsened since the summer, disillusionment with the lack of government reforms, and support for the caretaker government by most parties favored the Bolsheviks, who unleashed an intense propaganda campaign in the capital, then Petrograd. Among the most disadvantaged classes in the city, the rejection of sacrifices to continue the war and to continue in coalition governments with the Cadets after the Kornilov coup was general.
Despite the apparent weakness of the Provisional Government, a few days before the revolution it became clear that an armed insurrection against the Provisional Government by exclusively Bolsheviks — as advocated by Vladimir Lenin — would be rejected by the masses. The seizure of power was then approved, but following a defensive strategy, led mainly by Leon Trotsky, which consisted of ensuring the transfer of power during the Second Congress of Soviets about to take place. It would be the Petrograd Soviet and not the party that would take power, and any attempt by the government to resist would be presented as a counter-revolutionary attack. The government order to send part of the garrison to the nearby front sparked the revolution.
Defending its actions as a defense against the counterrevolution, the new Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee (CMR) — controlled in practice by the Bolsheviks — quickly took control of the garrison units. A series of bloodless clashes took place between the Government and the CMR for control of strategic points in the capital that ended with the victory of the latter and the isolation of the former, which barely managed to obtain military aid. Then the assault against the Government that Vladimir Lenin had been demanding for weeks finally took place, which ended with the capture of almost the entire Provisional Government1 on the night of October 25 (Julian) / November 7, 1917 (Gregorian), with the Second Congress of Soviets already in session.
The abandonment of said congress by the moderate socialists in protest against the Bolshevik actions facilitated the formation of a government (the Sovnarkom) exclusively of this party. The subsequent negotiations to form a coalition government between the different socialist parties failed due to the intransigence of the parties. Attempts by the opposition to carry out a counter-coup by means of an insurrection in the capital and the march of troops from the front on the city also failed.
The power of the new government spread throughout the country in various phases, with serious clashes in some areas, such as Moscow. The military weakness of the opposition and the popularity of the first measures, however, favored Vladimir Lenin and his followers. The rejection of the most radical opposition to the seizure of power carried out by the Bolsheviks and the inability of the moderate to seize it through the institutions — due to the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly by the Bolsheviks in January 1918 and the expulsion of the socialist parties of the soviets in the following spring — led to civil war.
Antecedents of the Revolution
In the early autumn of 1917, after the failure of the Kornilov coup, the Russian economic crisis worsened. In the capital, unemployment, fuel and food shortages, and inflation worsened. For the majority of the population, living conditions deteriorated, while the provisional government seemed to limit itself to mere administrative measures. In the midst of this crisis, the reputation of the president of the provisional government, Aleksandr Kerensky, sank: the right maintained that he had betrayed Kornilov, and the left and the masses of the capital detected him as an accomplice in the counterrevolutionary attempt. The defeat of Kornilov mainly benefited the Bolsheviks, but the mood of the masses was actually favorable to the establishment of a new Soviet government that would bring together the various socialist currents, not an exclusively Bolshevik one, an inclination that was reflected in countless resolutions passed after the defeat of Kornilov.
The radicalization of the masses was reflected in the loss of control of the country’s main Soviets by the moderates: the Moscow Soviet came under Bolshevik control on September 5 (Julian) / September 18 (Gregorian), while the Petrograd Soviet finally did so on September 25 (Julian) / October 8 (Gregorian), after successive defeats of the moderates in various votes. Trotsky, recently released from prison, was elected president of Soviet of the Capital.
More than a hundred soviets from all over the country demanded the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK)—still under the control of the moderate socialists—to seize power, while in other important towns, the Bolsheviks also won a majority in their local soviets. The Baltic fleet, very close to the capital, showed its rejection of Kerensky. The peasants of the Petrograd region elected a Bolshevik as their representative for the upcoming Democratic Conference. In the big cities, support for the Bolsheviks grew remarkably.
At the Democratic Conference that met soon after to discuss the question of which government should replace the emergency directorate created by Kerensky during the coup, the Bolsheviks continued to advocate the end of coalitions with bourgeois elements and the formation of a new completely socialist cabinet, a position advocated by Kamenev and Trotsky. Despite the differences between them —Trotsky saw the new government as the first step towards a transfer of power to the Soviets, while Kamenev saw it as a way of ensuring the meeting of the Constituent Assembly—, both still trusted in the possibility of deepening the revolution by peaceful methods.
This attitude, up to then supported by Lenin, was seriously threatened by his sudden change of attitude in two letters addressed to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party on September 15 (Julian) / September 28 (Gregorian), in which he rejected the moderate attitude and demanded an immediate uprising. The Central Committee, astonished by the new position, ignored the demands of Vladimir Lenin and prevented it from being known so as not to undermine the conciliatory attitude that arose from the cooperation between socialists during the confrontation with Kornilov.
Faced with the opposition of the majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee to accept their demands to carry out a military insurrection and seize power, Lenin submitted his resignation from the Committee, which had no effect. In mid-October, he intensified his campaign in favor of the immediate seizure of power, both within the party and among the masses, through various writings in which he justified his attitude by the national and international situation (increased support for the Bolsheviks, revolutionary boiling in the countryside, mutinies in the German army, etc).
The final decision of the Conference to allow Kerensky to form a new government with Cadet ministers and other liberal formations did not make the Central Committee heed Lenin’s calls to immediately rise up against him, but it did force him to reconsider his position. The attempt to form a Socialist Government at the Conference having failed, the majority of the Committee began to base their hopes of achieving this on the next Congress of Soviets. For the most radical, the Congress could transfer power to a government of the extreme left that quickly applied radical measures. For the more moderate Bolsheviks, this new provisional government would guarantee the election and meeting of the Constituent Assembly.
The Petrograd Soviet branded the new Council of Ministers a “Government for a civil war,” refused to give it any support, and announced that the next Congress of Soviets would form a “truly revolutionary” new cabinet. The Bolshevik delegation left the Preparliament, beginning the agitation in favor of the formation of a new government and the denunciation of Kerensky and his supporters.
Central Committee decision and lack of organization
Despite Vladimir Lenin’s wishes for an immediate Bolshevik party seizure of power, reports of the attitude of workers and soldiers—willing to back a transfer of power to the Soviets, but not to stand up solely for the party —, made the Bolshevik leadership focus its efforts on getting the Second Congress of Soviets to hand over governmental power to them. The majority of the leadership preferred to carry out a transfer of power during the Congress of Soviets (the main representative of this opinion was Leon Trotsky) and even in the Central Committee a notable part, headed by Kamenev and Zinoviev, viewed with apprehension the calls for Vladimir Lenin to the insurrection.
This current considered that the situation was not propitious for an armed uprising and preferred to rely on the Soviets and the future Constituent Assembly to advance the revolution. He also maintained that a coup would unite the entire bourgeoisie against the new government, would be incapable of confronting Germany militarily and would not be able to count on the determined support of the world proletariat. Although he ended up imposing his opinion on the need for an uprising, no date was set and the Central Committee was very divided.
Vladimir Lenin was convinced of the need not to wait and to seize power immediately. To justify such action, he put forward various justifications: the imminent signing of a peace between the contenders in the Great War —an agreement between imperialist powers according to his vision—, that Kérensky was preparing to hand over the capital to the Germans, that another new coup was being prepared of the right-wing as the failed Kornilov or that the triumph of the Russian and world revolution would be achieved with little struggle.
The situation of the Provisional Government was, in effect, very serious and it was rapidly losing authority; the military situation on the northern front, close to the capital, was catastrophic and Kerensky was not assured of the loyalty of the city garrison. The shortage of fuel and food made inflation grow. The apparent apathy of the population could easily turn into rebellion and the government could not count on the effective support of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK), isolated from the masses. The Petrograd Soviet was already in the hands of the Bolsheviks, chaired by Leon Trotsky.
On September 24 (Julian) /October 7 (Gregorian), he decided to concentrate on replacing the leadership of as many Soviets as possible, controlled since the spring by the moderate socialists, through elections that would allow them to gain control. The Left Social Revolutionaries also adopted this strategy. In part, the mobilization of forces by the radical left parties on the eve of the Congress was due to persistent rumors of a possible counter-revolution or cancellation of the Congress, which the moderate socialists had only reluctantly agreed to convene.
On October 7 (Julian) / October 20 (Gregorian), Vladimir Lenin returned to the capital and the Bolsheviks left the Pre-Parliament. Leon Trotsky made a crucial decision when he decided to use the rumors of the abandonment of the capital by the provisional government to present the takeover of the garrison of the capital and the delivery of arms to the workers as defense measures against the enemies of the revolution. , external (the Germans) and internal (the counterrevolutionaries).
Four days later, Leon Trotsky proclaimed his suspicions at the Congress of Soviets in the northern region, with the intention of winning the will of the troops near the capital. At this Congress, the overwhelming support for the Bolsheviks in the region near the capital and for the troops stationed in the vicinity of Petrograd was evident. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks opposed to the insurrection undertook a campaign to explain their theses against an uprising.
Vladimir Lenin returned to the capital from Finland, met with the Bolshevik Central Committee on October 10 (Julian) / October 23 (Gregorian) and succeeded in getting it to approve an armed uprising against the government, but not to set a date or to take place before the Congress. The ambiguous approved decision accentuated the internal divisions in the party between those in favor of Vladimir Lenin’s position of an immediate uprising, those who preferred to carry out a seizure of power taking advantage of the Congress of Soviets or in response to a government attack, and the most moderate faction opposed to the seizure of power headed by Kamenev.
No preparations for an immediate uprising were made in the days following the Central Committee meeting and the Bolshevik cadres were not prepared to carry it out due to lack of organization and leadership. There was no plan to seize control of communications and transportation networks, and the increasingly pro-Bolshevik Red Guards did not even have a unified command in the capital.
On October 12 (Julian) / October 25 (Gregorian), the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet approved the formation of a body to coordinate the defense of the next Congress of Soviets, the Military Revolutionary Committee, which was to be made up of representatives of the Soviet, from the soldiers’ section of the Soviet, representatives of the fleet, the trade unions, the factory committees, the military organizations of the different Soviet parties, the workers’ militias and other organizations. A meeting of the garrison units was also called for the following days. The Committee was not a circle of conspirators, but an official body of the Petrograd Soviet. The moderate socialists soon left the CMR, which facilitated its control by the extremists and, especially, by the Bolsheviks.
Four days before the scheduled celebration of the Congress, on October 16 (Julian) / October 29 (Gregorian), a new meeting of the Committee confirmed the decision to take power despite the strong opposition of the moderates; Kamenev threatened to resign and Kamenev along with Zinoviev began to publicly express his opposition, much to the chagrin of Vladimir Lenin. The necessary preparation to carry out the coup against the provisional government, however, remained nil.
Most of the party leadership and the workers’ and soldiers’ resolutions that kept passing still preferred to seize power through the imminent Congress of Soviets. For their part, the Left Social Revolutionaries were also preparing to create a new socialist government formed by the various parties of this current during the Congress, but they were opposed to a previous seizure of power, a position similar to that of the internationalist Mensheviks. That same day Trotsky confirmed the news that the previous day had appeared in some newspapers:
“We are told that we are preparing an organization to take power. It’s no secret.”
The ultimate goal of the Petrograd Soviet’s maneuvers was stated by Trotsky himself: the Congress of Soviets was to arrogate governmental power, declare an immediate armistice, and hand over the land to the peasants. For Vladimir Lenin, however, the seizure of power had to take place before the Congress and the role of the latter had to be limited to accepting it.
The decision by the moderate socialists to postpone the congress for five days, due to a lack of delegates in the capital, proved crucial: it allowed the Bolsheviks to organize to seize power and made Kerensky’s attempt to disarm the radicals happen before your celebration. In part, the delay of the Congress was also due to the evidence of internal dissensions in the Bolshevik party, which made moderate socialists hope that the Congress would end up with a majority opposed to the position of Vladimir Lenin.
Preparations for the Interim Government
In a private cabinet session on the night of October 4 (Julian) / October 17 (Gregorian), the German military threat to the capital following the occupation of the Baltic islands near Estonia by the enemy was discussed. The Welfare Minister, the Cadet Nikolai Kishkin, proposed the transfer of the capital to Moscow and the inclusion of Petrograd in the front area, a suggestion that the socialist ministers criticized on the grounds that it would reduce the influence of the Petrograd Soviet and the VTsIK in the Government and in the future Constituent Assembly.
Faced with criticism, the Council of Ministers decided not to accept the proposal until it was approved by the Pre-Parliament. Leaked to the public, the discussion appeared to be an attempt by the Government to use the Germans to crush the revolution, which the Bolsheviks used to their advantage. The Government never really intended to cede the city to the enemy, but rather to use its proximity to get rid of the most unruly elements of the garrison, despite the fact that the military commanders did not believe that the Germans really threatened the city at that time. moments.
On October 9 (Julian) / October 22 (Gregorian), the military command of the capital ordered the march of a third of the garrison regiments to the front (actually, for political reasons, since the front commander north preferred not to receive reinforcements from the capital). The garrison units then repudiated the Provisional Government and proclaimed their allegiance to the Petrograd Soviet. The troops that had been most loyal during the suppression of the July uprising, among them the Cossacks, either declared their neutrality or sided with the Soviets. Faced with persistent rumors of a new right-wing coup, which encouraged Mikhail Rodzianko’s statements in favor of abandoning the capital to the Germans and the memory of a similar order from Kornilov during his failed uprising, the high command’s order alarmed the Soviets, which began to consider measures to oppose it.
On October 13 (Julian) / October 26 (Gregorian), Kerensky appeared before the Preparliament to deny the rumors that he was preparing the transfer of the capital. Later the cabinet met and decided to appeal to the population to support the actions of the Bolsheviks and leave their dealings to the government, which was confident of having the necessary force, according to reports from Colonel Polkovnikov, recently appointed district commander. military of the capital
Meanwhile, the government — with Kerensky absent at the front between October 14 (Julian) / October 27 (Gregorian) and October 17 (Julian) / October 30 (Gregorian) — grew increasingly uneasy about the possibility of a Bolshevik uprising, although the military commanders in the capital continued to ensure that the necessary measures to crush it had been taken. Kishkin was convinced that the government was strong enough to crush a possible Bolshevik uprising, but not to take preemptive action against them.
The Vice President of the Government, Aleksandr Konoválov decided to request reinforcements from the Oranienbaum and Peterhof military schools, artillery from the artillery schools of the capital and the sending of a battalion of cyclists to the Winter Palace to reinforce its defense. On Kerensky’s return, Konoválov had to convince him to stay in the capital and attend a cabinet meeting where the defense and interior ministers expressed confidence that they could crush any riots and Kerensky himself expressed his wish that the Bolsheviks rise up to be able to crush them.
The following night, a new cabinet meeting approved the application of new measures to quell a possible uprising, which Kérensky arranged with the military commanders in the capital. Cossack patrols roamed the city on the night before the alleged uprising — the original opening date of the Congress of Soviets —and the defense of the Winter Palace was strengthened. The Council of Ministers also made various proclamations asking the population to maintain order. Kerensky informed both the British ambassador and the Preparliament that he was prepared to face the Bolsheviks. In Kaluga, near Moscow, the Cossacks were ordered to dissolve the local Soviet and the arrest warrant for Vladimir Lenin was renewed; All these measures had the strong support of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK).
The VTsIK attempt to win the support of the garrison military units for the Government failed: the units sent delegates to the conference with Colonel Polkovnikov, but the VTsIK representatives failed to convince the delegates to support the Government against the Soviets. In the days before the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Kerensky government failed to stop its weakening.
Government preparations ended on October 20 (Julian) / November 2 (Gregorian) with the dispatch of a company of forty cyclists to the Winter Palace and the request to the high command of Cossack units from the front to replace those considered closer to the Bolsheviks. The Government’s plan included control of the main buildings of the capital, the center of the city and the bridges that gave access to it from the periphery.
Eve of the Second Congress of Soviets
On October 21 (Julian) / November 3 (Gregorian), a conference of units of the Petrograd garrison, organized by the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee (CMR), confirmed the loyalty of the units to the Petrograd Soviet against the Government. The revolution that was finally approved encouraged the Military Revolutionary Committee and the Petrograd Soviet to seize power, sign peace, ensure the supply of food to the population, and approve the agrarian reform.
That same night, CMR envoys went to inform the head of the capital’s military district, Colonel Polkovnikov, that from then on all orders had to be endorsed by the CMR, a claim that the general rejected. This attitude led the CMR to inform the garrison units that it considered counterrevolutionary in command of the military district the following day, that it thought the revolution was in danger, and that any order must be approved by the CMR. He then began to send his own commissars to the main military units in the capital and thus ensure control of the garrison, which he deprived the Government of. The units generally welcomed the new CMR commissars, often Bolsheviks recently released from prison. The CMR also ordered the arsenals not to supply weapons or ammunition without its permission.
On October 22 (Julian) / November 4 (Gregorian), demonstrations took place in the capital; “Day of the Petrograd Soviet” had been proclaimed, and both the Bolsheviks and the Left Social Revolutionaries tried to mobilize the population in favor of the transfer of power to the Soviets, with great success. Orators sent by the CMR to the regiments stoked discontent with the Government. The city was in tension due to possible clashes between the demonstrators and the Cossacks, who had called a patriotic march that day to commemorate the liberation of Moscow from Napoleon.
Some units mobilized and decided to remain on alert until the beginning of the Congress of Soviets. Some groups of Red Guards were also on alert. In the middle of the afternoon, the chief of the General Staff of the military region of the capital, General Yakov Bagratuni, asked the northern front to prepare various military units for immediate dispatch to Petrograd, but the front commissar, Voitinsky, stated that such a measure it was impossible without explaining to the troops what they were being prepared for. Kerensky repeated the request to no avail soon after.
The following day, the CMR announced to the population the measures it had taken to control the garrison and the strategic points of the capital, alleging that it was defending the revolution. After a whole day of debates, the Fortress of San Pedro and San Pablo finally decided to submit to the orders of the CMR. The fortress arsenal allowed the CMR to arm numerous Red Guards. The authority of the commanders of the capital’s military district was less and less.
Meanwhile, the government hoped to have enough loyal troops to crush a possible uprising, although days before the Interior Minister had admitted that he did not have enough strength to directly attack the leftist radicals. Kerensky, however, was sure that he could put an end to any disorder and told the British ambassador that he hoped the Bolsheviks would rise up so that he could put an end to them. However, the maneuvers of the CMR, the preparations of the Red Guards and the demonstrations of support for the seizure of power by the Soviets ended up worrying the Government, which tried in vain to receive military reinforcements from the northern front.
Faced with the imminence of the opening of the Second Congress of Soviets, which would probably approve his dismissal and the transfer of power, the Government decided to try to apply preventive measures. On the night of October 23 (Julian) / November 5 (Gregorian), Kerensky proposed to stop the CMR, but the cabinet only approved the prosecution of some members, the closure of two Bolshevik newspapers and the strengthening of the defense of the Winter Palace, minor and insufficient measures that, however, unleashed the confrontation by providing the “counterrevolutionary” action that their adversaries were waiting for.
Kerensky further ordered Bagratuni to present an ultimatum to the CMR: he must rescind his order to control the garrison or face whatever measures the government deemed appropriate to restore order. That same night, the CMR, influenced by the moderates of the Petrograd Soviet, decided to accept Kerensky’s ultimatum, a concession that turned out to be useless.
The distribution of forces and situation of the garrison
While the government relied primarily on the cadets and the three Cossack cavalry regiments stationed in the capital, the Bolsheviks relied on the Red Guards—numerous and determined but inexperienced—the sailors—ardent supporters but few in number—and the soldiers — experts and very numerous, but generally passive in the confrontation —. The Bolsheviks were to try to curry favor with the 150,000 men in the garrison; their reluctance to be sent to the front as the Government and the commander of the northern front intended was in their favor.
On October 17 Julian) / October 30 (Gregorian), Vladimir Cheremisov and his commissar, the ex-Bolshevik Voitinsky, held a conference with the garrison units to explain the need for them to join the front units to defend the capital. The garrison delegation, mostly Bolshevik, was suspicious of the real motives for the maneuver and insisted that the Petrograd Soviet have the last word on the transfer of units. With the parties disagreeing, the conference was a failure; five days later, Cheremisov’s 5th Army elected a new committee with a Bolshevik majority.
On the same day of the meeting, the Soviets created the organization that was to coordinate military affairs: the Military Revolutionary Committee, actually controlled by the equivalent organization of the Bolshevik party. The day after the meeting with Cheremisov, the garrison units met for their part at Smolny and expressed their lack of confidence in the government and their support for the Petrograd Soviet. The VTsIK members who had authorized the meeting ended up leaving without being allowed to speak.
Events in Petrograd
Closing of printing presses and first shocks
Around 3 a.m. On October 24 (Julian) / November 6 (Gregorian), Kérensky was in the Winter Palace accompanied by the military commanders to devise the measures that were to defeat the Bolsheviks; the ultimatum to the CMR had received no response and the cabinet had shortly before approved the arrest of its leaders. Then a messenger arrived indicating that the CMR had finally accepted the demands of the military commanders, but Kerensky refused to abandon his plan: General Bagratuni continued to request reinforcements from the front (junkers from Oranienbaum, assault troops from Tsarskoye Selo and artillery from Pavlovsk ) while Colonel Polkovnikov ordered the arrest and trial of the commissars sent by the CMR to the garrison units.
The CMR would be brought to trial and those released after having participated in the July Days would be arrested again. Two Bolshevik newspapers, Rabochi Put and Soldat, would be shut down for inciting insurrection, two other conservative ones would also be shut down to maintain the appearance of impartiality. The guard at the Winter Palace was also reinforced. Convinced that these measures could be unwelcome by political formations, he accepted the suggestion of some ministers to go to explain them before the Preparliament that same day.
In the early hours of the morning, at 5:30 a.m., a small detachment of cadets and militiamen sent by the government stormed the printing works of the two Bolshevik newspapers, destroyed the daily issue, damaged the facilities, and closed the printing works. The employees went to the nearby Smolny Institute, the headquarters of the Petrograd Soviet, the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee and the Bolshevik party to report what had happened.
An emergency meeting was called that included representatives of the Soviet, the CMR, and the Bolshevik and Left Social Revolutionary parties; the government action was branded as counterrevolutionary and reports of suspicious troop movements were soon received. The CMR immediately considered the measures a betrayal of the revolution and an attack on Congress and sent its “directive number 1” to the units ordering their mobilization. Despite the wishes of a minority of both the CMR and the Bolshevik leadership, the idea of an immediate uprising against the Government was discarded and the measures adopted were limited to guaranteeing the holding of the Congress of Soviets.
At 10 a.m., the cabinet met again so that Kérenski informed the ministers of the measures adopted during the early morning; he was still confident that he had the situation under control, despite the doubts of other ministers. The city militia, however, disobeyed government orders to arrest CMR members or disband forces loyal to the Bolsheviks, as it reported to the city council and not the Council of Ministers. During the following days, the militia continued its police activities and did not participate in the defense of the Provisional Government. Most of the measures ordered by Kerensky were actually defensive: cadet detachments were sent to guard the railway stations and the guard at the Winter Palace was reinforced.
On the same day, Prime Minister Kerensky tried to speed up the arrival of troops loyal to the government in the capital, to quarter the garrison, and to withdraw the political commissars of the Military Revolutionary Committee stationed there, without success. During the morning and early afternoon, it became clear that the majority of the troops in the capital were following the directives of the Petrograd Soviet and disregarding the orders of the Government. The two sides accused each other of betraying the revolution and assumed the role of its defenders.
In the afternoon, it was learned that the troops that were to go to the capital to help the Government had gone over to the ranks of the Committee or were being held far from the city by its supporters. The sailors of the cruiser Aurora, which was in the Franco-Russian shipyards for repairs, mutinied against their officers when they ordered the ship to leave the capital, an order that had been rescinded by the fleet soviet. The Government had barely a few thousand soldiers in the city — mainly officers, Cossacks, cadets, and a battalion of women — and was at a clear numerical disadvantage compared to its adversaries.
About two hundred of them had reported to the Palace around noon, and sixty-eight cadets from the Mikhailovsky Artillery Academy had joined them two hours later. His attempts to maintain control of the capital’s garrison were unsuccessful. Although most of the soldiers were reluctant to participate in the fighting, those who did were inclined to obey the Soviets. Despite the fact that a large part of the units remained in their barracks, some of the most radicalized went to the Soviet’s call, as did almost all the Red Guards, enough to ensure the numerical advantage of the Petrograd Soviet over the Government.
At noon, the Pre-Parliament began a new session chaired by Nikolai Avksentyev. Kerensky came shortly afterward and requested a special communication to the assembly. In an hour-long speech in his characteristic style, he asked for their unconditional support after describing the events of the last few days, which was denied, even in the absence of the radical left and despite the ovation he received before retiring.
The moderate left — meeting urgently in the VTsIK from midnight until 4 a.m. the next day — limited itself to issuing a new and futile appeal for calm and warning of a possible counterrevolution in response to the uprising. The moderate Socialists managed to pass by a slim majority and after four hours of debates a motion of support for the Government conditional on the adoption by it of immediate radical reforms, in order to attract the supporters of the Bolsheviks and calm those who demanded such measures since March. Kerensky rejected the proposal and claimed to be able to resolve the situation on his own.
After leaving the Pre-Parliament, Kerensky went to the headquarters of the military district, annexed to the Winter Palace, to direct the actions against the Bolsheviks, again of a defensive nature: maintaining control of official buildings and strategic communication points against possible attacks and isolation of the suburbs by raising the bridges over the Neva. Detachments of cadets were sent to secure the buildings and patrol the streets, some official institutions began to close, and at 15:00 the telephones of the Smolny Institute at the telephone exchange were disconnected.
Between 14:00 and 15:00, the cadets took control of the Nikolaevsky Bridge and the palace, raising the former; another detachment tried to do the same with Liteiny’s, but the crowd prevented them and a group of Red Guards took it. At around 6:30 p.m., the Pavlovsky Regiment, loyal to the CMR, occupied the Troitsky Bridge, ahead of another patrol of cadets heading there with the same objective. The commissar of the Grenadier Regiment stationed in the Petrograd district sent his forces to occupy the bridges (the Grenadier and Samsonevsky) as soon as he received news of what was happening in other areas, even before receiving the order of the CMR. By mid-afternoon, the main bridges of the capital were in the hands of the insurgents, the government’s attempts to build them failed.
The CMR formed a committee to lead the confrontation with the Government; their orders, in reality, consisted of little more than sending more commissioners, this time to strategic points, to demand their submission to the CMR. Gradually throughout the day, the main centers of the capital passed into the hands of forces loyal to the Petrograd Soviet in a series of bloodless clashes with forces loyal to the government.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, the cyclists protecting the Winter Palace decided to retreat; one of its commissars occupied the telegraph center an hour later by order of the Military Committee, with the support of the soldiers who guarded it, of the Kexholm Regiment, a supporter of the CMR. Three hours later a detachment of cadets arrived to control the building, but the soldiers would not allow it and the cadets withdrew. Around that time, the CMR requested the dispatch of Baltic Fleet sailors from Helsinfors, who departed for the capital on four minesweepers and later, at 3 a.m. the next day, by rail. The latter did not arrive in time to participate in the events of the capital, since their journey was hindered by the railway authorities.
Meanwhile, large numbers of Red Guards had been mobilized and flocked to Smolny. Concerned about the possible reaction of the Government, the CMR ordered to take new key installations of the city: after nine o’clock at night, insurrectionary troops – the Izmaylovsky Guards Regiment, the first of the garrison to support the Government during the July Days – occupied the Baltic Station, cutting off possible reinforcements to the Government from the west; Around 21:00, they moved from the telegraph office to the neighboring news agency; Commissars were also sent to take possession of the telephone exchange, the power station and the rest of the railway stations.
An hour later, cadets from the Mikhailovsky Artillery School tried to arrest Vladimir Lenin at the nearby Bolshevik printing press in the Vyborg district; Not only was Vladimir Lenin not there, but by the time they found the Bolshevik offices, a unit of Red Guards had arrived and arrested them.
By nightfall, the forces of the Petrograd Soviet controlled most of the city. The measures of the Soviets, however, remained defensive, to avoid a possible governmental coup d’état and to ensure the holding of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets which was to carry out the transfer of power.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Lenin, still hiding in the capital, watched with trepidation the latest developments; without understanding why his co-religionists did not definitively put an end to Kerensky’s government without waiting for the opening of the congress, he unsuccessfully asked the party for permission to go to Smolny. Despairing of the passivity of the central committee, in the afternoon he tried to obtain the support of the city and district committees. Unable to contain himself and despite the order of the central committee to remain in hiding, he disguised himself and set off by tram and then on foot to Smolny accompanied only by a bodyguard.
Lenin’s arrival and seizure of power
Around midnight on October 25 (Julian) / November 7 (Gregorian), Vladimir Lenin arrived at the headquarters of the Petrograd Soviet, and since then the Committee’s actions against the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky intensified: all reference to the pure defense of the revolution was abandoned and measures were taken to create a new revolutionary government before the opening on the same day of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The obvious weakness of Kerensky’s government and control of the capital also contributed to the Soviet’s change of attitude. Lenin, disguised and accompanied only by a bodyguard, had managed to reach the Smolny Institute after avoiding being stopped by a patrol of cadets who did not recognize him and took him for a drunkard.
The Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee began planning the dissolution of the Pre-Parliament, the arrest of the Provisional Government and the seizure of the last strategic points of the city that had hitherto escaped its control. At 1:30 a.m., sailors, soldiers of the Kexholm Regiment, and Red Guards took over the central post office. At two o’clock in the morning, Committee troops occupied Nikolaevsky Station and the city’s power station. The Nikolaevsky Bridge was captured shortly thereafter, at 3:30 a.m., after anchoring near the Aurora.
The attempt by a small group of shock troops loyal to the Government to retake it shortly afterward was unsuccessful. Soldiers of the Kexholm Regiment received orders to occupy the telephone exchange, the State Bank and the Treasury. At 6 a.m., the State Bank was occupied and, at 7 a.m., the telephone exchange fell, after a moment of tension with the cadets who guarded it, but without firing a single shot. Smolny’s phones were reconnected and those of the Winter Palace were disconnected. Later the Treasury, which was guarded by troops of the Pavlosky Regiment, one of the most loyal to the CMR, was captured without problems.
At 8 a.m., the CMR captured the last major railway station, Warsaw, which connected to the northern front. At dawn, almost the entire city except the Winter Palace was under the control of the Petrograd Soviet. Neither the defenders of the Palace nor the besiegers wished, however, to confront and risk casualties. The city woke up with remarkable normality: official buildings, schools and public transport functioned regularly. The government by then, however, lacked electricity and telephone in the buildings it still controlled.
By dawn, the military commanders had tried to enlist the help of the city’s three Cossack regiments, which refused to grant it once it became clear that the Government could not count on clear support from the infantry units. Early in the morning, the military commanders informed the Government of the lack of troops and the seriousness of the situation; at 10 a.m. the Government transmitted it to the high command through the hotline that had not been cut by the rebels.
At half-past eleven in the morning, faced with the desperate situation in the capital, Kerensky left the city on his way to the front with the aim of gathering loyal troops to crush the revolt, already victorious in Petrograd. The cadets defending the Palace had demanded guarantees of the arrival of reinforcements to continue in their posts. At the same time, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the transfer of power to the Soviets.
While Kerensky was trying to find a car to take him out of the city—the stations were already in the hands of the Petrograd Soviet—and the Palace cars had been sabotaged—Lenin drafted the proclamation deposing his government, which was immediately spread throughout the city:
“To the Citizens of Russia!
The Provisional Government has been deposed. State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers, the Military Revolutionary Committee, which leads the proletariat and the garrison of Petrogrado.La cause for which the people have fought — the immediate offer of a democratic peace, the abolition of land ownership by the landlords. workers’ control of industry and the creation of a government of the Soviets — has been assured.
Long live the revolution of the workers, soldiers and peasants!”
Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers October 25, 1917, 10:00 a.m.
Appeals by a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party to supposedly like-minded units to defend Kerensky’s government failed. The party’s influence among the troops was fading and was no longer sufficient to guarantee the support of the capital’s units for the government. The rank and file of the party in the capital, mainly workers and soldiers, were not prepared to rise up in defense of the coalition government with the bourgeois parties.
Throughout the day, the forces of the CMR took the last relevant buildings still controlled by the Government: the Krestý prison had to release the six prisoners it had for agitation and the Mariinsky Palace, the seat of the Pre-Parliament, was surrounded and shortly after dissolved after formal protest – none of its members were arrested; Official offices closed as well as schools.
In the afternoon, at a meeting of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky announced the fall of the government and the measures taken to secure power in the capital. Shortly afterward and for the first time since the July Days, Lenin appeared before the Petrograd Soviet and received a standing ovation; the Soviet approved the transfer of power, even though the Winter Palace had not yet fallen. That same morning a three-member committee had been formed to deal with the siege, which Vladimir Lenin still hoped would end before the opening of the Congress of Soviets.
The taking of the Winter Palace
The plan of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee in charge of the capture of the Winter Palace consisted of the formation of two concentric rings around the building, an inner one to maintain pressure on the besieged – formed mainly by soldiers of the Pavlovsky (to the north) and Kexholm (to the south) regiments – and another exterior to avoid possible attempts of help by the Cossack troops or the cadets; the siege included the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Aurora cruiser.
Such a complicated command structure — criticized by Trotsky himself — was defined that it delayed operations. Antonov-Ovseyenko, a Bolshevik member of the CMR, communicated the plan to the regimental commissars: an ultimatum would be presented to the Palace and, if it was not accepted in time, the Fortress would make a signal with a red lantern to begin the bombardment. The first salvos had to come from the Aurora and had to be blanks; in case of continuing resistance, both the cruiser and the fortress would begin the bombardment with live fire.
At around 13:00, a group of sailors occupied the Admiralty and arrested the Navy’s high command.
The first delay in the plan occurred when the sailors of Helsingfors did not appear who were expected at 14:00 to reinforce the soldiers. Those from Kronstadt had just arrived in the capital in an improvised fleet of diverse ships. The obsolete Amur anchored next to the Aurora while the rest of the ships did so near the Admiralty; in total, three thousand sailors from Kronstadt landed to join the siege.
Meanwhile, in the Palace, after Kerensky’s mid-morning march in search of reinforcements, the cabinet met chaired by the deputy prime minister, Konovalov, to relieve Polkovnikov, whose command seemed unsatisfactory, and appoint the conservative Minister of Welfare, Kishkin, governor general in charge of defense with dictatorial powers. It was also decided to keep the session until they were rescued by the troops expected from the front or arrested by the insurgents. The effective command of the Palace troops was left in the hands of Deputy Minister P. I. Palchinski, who found himself in a serious situation: lack of food, no defense plan, with confused officers and demoralized troops. Kishkin left for the nearby headquarters of the General Staff to relieve Polkovnikov and appoint in his place the chief of staff of the capital military region, General Bagratuni, an action that only increased the confusion reigning there.
Outside, there was only a feeble attempt by government forces to retake an important building under CMR control: the army’s chief commissar, Stankevich, tried to retake the telephone exchange with a group of cadets but was repulsed after a brief fight. Back at the headquarters of the General Staff, in the Palace Square, he informed the high command of the need for reinforcements – which he was assured were on the way – and of the impossibility of resisting for more than two days with the few forces still loyal to the Government.
During the afternoon, reinforcements arrived at the besiegers of the Palace, while part of the forces defending it withdrew, undisturbed by those surrounding the building. A couple of squadrons of Cossacks and some cadets managed to reach the Palace without being hindered by the besiegers, which rebalanced the defense.
Meanwhile, Lenin urged those responsible for the siege to conclude it as soon as possible to avoid further delays in the opening of the Congress and the nervousness of the delegates. Faced with this situation, the commander of the Fortress finally decided to send the ultimatum at 6:30 p.m. with two cyclists who moved to the headquarters of the General Staff; the ultimatum expired at 19:10 and demanded the surrender of the government and its troops.
The ministers met again hastily, abandoning their dinner to reject the demand for surrender and decide not to respond to the ultimatum. After this expired, soldiers of the Pavlosky Regiment took the headquarters of the General Staff, despite the attempts of the cadets of the Palace to help their defenders. At that time, the commander of the northern front, General Cheremisov, was in communication with the staff of the building to inform himself of the situation in the capital when communications were cut off by the conquest. Bagratuni, in the Palace in talks with the ministers, then decided to resign and the insurgents arrested him shortly after.
Between 20:00 and 21:00, part of the forces defending the Palace negotiated with the besiegers their departure, with the approval of the officers, who did not wish to sink morale further by retaining them in the building: a battalion of assault forces and some Cossacks left the Palace. Abroad, the encirclement had tightened with the arrival of new units, including sailors from Finland and Kronstadt. After two attempts at negotiation between those responsible for the siege and the troops defending the Palace, more than half of the cadets who still remained in the building withdrew around 22:00.
After some confusion when the false news of the fall of the Palace spread, the siege was resumed from the Fortress; at last, the necessary lantern was found to warn as agreed to the Aurora at 21:35 and five minutes later it made a blank shot with its six-inch cannons. The salvo terrified the defenders of the Palace and secured the revolutionary legend of the ship, which was kept as a museum on the docks of the Neva. Then, after giving time for part of the defenders to withdraw from the Palace, the fortress joined the bombardment around 23:30, this time with live ammunition, and fired about thirty shells at the Palace, of which only two or three hit it that caused little damage.
Although Antonov-Ovseyenko rejected an agreement reached by Chudnovsky for some of the defenders to evacuate the Palace with their weapons, some groups surrendered unconditionally. The women of the battalion, fearing rape, refused instead to lay down their arms. Meanwhile, the municipal delegation that had tried to stop the bombing at the request of the Palace, which had managed to contact the city council, had to abandon its mission because of the refusal of the besiegers to allow it to board the Aurora and not be able to enter the Palace. Once the city council was informed, it decided in full – with the opposition of the Bolshevik councilors – to march towards the Palace to physically protect the government, a motion that was approved and supported by the Central Executive Committee of the Peasants’ Soviets.
At nightfall, small groups of besiegers began to penetrate it and by midnight their numbers increased markedly; if at first the defenders disarmed the few who entered the Palace, as their numbers grew it was the besiegers who began to disarm the besieged. The march of the defenders facilitated the infiltration of the besiegers into the building. After an hour-long interruption to await the surrender of more defenders, the assault on the Palace resumed around 23:00. The bombing was resumed, even at the risk of wounding the assailants themselves, who were already in the Palace.
Around midnight, a group of more than three hundred people including councilors, deputies of the Congress of Soviets and members of the executive committee of the peasant Soviets, among others, gathered in the town hall and began to march singing La Marseillaise towards the Palace, led by the Socialist-Revolutionary mayor Shreider and the only minister who was not under siege. Prokopovich. In Kazan Square, near the Admiralty, a detachment of sailors blocked their way and after agitated discussion, the group returned orderly to the town hall without having achieved their objective.
Around 2 a.m., the attackers finally found the room where the cabinet was meeting, which ordered the cadets defending it not to offer resistance to avoid bloodshed. Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko led the tide of troops that quickly occupied the room and declared the arrest of the ministers. On behalf of the Government, Konovalov declared his submission by force at 2:10 a.m. on October 26 ( Julian) / November 8, 1917 (Gregorian).
All the ministers were arrested except Kerensky and Prokopovich, who were not present at the Palace. By then the city was completely under the control of the Petrograd Soviet and the Congress of Soviets had already begun. The ministers were led on foot to the Peter and Paul Fortress and the commissars of the CMR had to form a special guard of sailors and soldiers to protect them from the crowd that gathered at the gates of the Palace and threatened to lynch them, especially when it became known that Kerensky had not been captured.
The films and pictures that reflected the assault showed a major attack on the Winter Palace and fierce fighting when, in reality, the Bolshevik insurgents encountered little resistance and were able to penetrate the building without much difficulty and take it. For the most part, the uprising in Petrograd took place without bloodshed and in an atmosphere of general normality in the capital. It is estimated that only five sailors and one soldier were killed in the assault among the attackers and that the defenders suffered no fatalities.
The Second Congress of Soviets and the Bolshevik Coup
The first session: withdrawal of moderates and socialist dissent
Meanwhile, on the same day October 25 (Julian) / November 7 (Gregorian), at 10:40 p.m., the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies opened almost nine hours late. The Bolsheviks had tried to take the seat of the Provisional Government before the opening of the congress, but the delegates, unable to wait any longer, forced its start.
The Second Congress of Soviets was attended by about 670 elected delegates, of whom 300 were Bolsheviks and about a hundred were Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, who also supported the overthrow of Kerensky’s government. Support for the Bolsheviks had grown dramatically in the last months before the congress, although they did not have an absolute majority among the delegates. The first task of the congress was the election of a new presidency; the Bolsheviks proposed proportional representation to the delegations, with fourteen Bolsheviks, seven Social Revolutionaries, three Mensheviks and one Menshevik Internationalist (Martov), which was approved in a boisterous vote. Kamenev was appointed president of the congress. After presenting the agenda that the Bolsheviks wished to deal with—the formation of a new government, actions to end the war and the convening of the Constituent Assembly—Kamenev gave the floor to Martov.
Shortly after the session began, delegates heard shots fired from the capital’s fortress against the Winter Palace. Initially, the congress unanimously approved the proposal of the internationalist Menshevik leader Yuli Martov to proclaim a joint democratic government of all the parties that were part of the Petrograd Soviet, in order to avoid further bloodshed. The proposal was supported by Anatoly Lunacharsky on behalf of the Bolsheviks and Sergei Mstislavsky by the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries.
However, when it became known that the Provisional Government had been overthrown and that its members, among whom were the Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik Ministers, were under siege, some congressmen of these parties represented in the Petrograd Soviet denounced these facts and left the hall in protest. The main fractions of the SRs and Mensheviks opposed the actions of the Bolsheviks and decided to join the march called by the city council of the capital to the Winter Palace to show their support for the government. The withdrawal of the moderates undermined the efforts of the Left Social Revolutionaries, Internationalist Mensheviks and moderate Bolsheviks in favor of the agreement between Socialists and facilitated Vladimir Lenin’s goal of forming a new exclusively Bolshevik government.
Martov tried to maintain the consensus and proposed the formation of a new Council of Ministers acceptable to moderates and radicals and that the Congress be suspended until then. Leon Trotsky then took the opportunity to address the fractions that had just left the congress and the supporters of the agreement with them, such as Martov, saying:
“What has happened has been an insurrection, not a conspiracy. We strengthen the revolutionary energy of the workers and soldiers of Petrograd; We forged the will of the masses for insurrection, not for conspiracy. The popular masses followed our banner and our insurrection has triumphed. And now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, yield. With whom, I ask. To whom should we yield? With those finished groups that have abandoned us or with those who make this proposal? But we already know them, nobody in Russia supports them anymore… No, there is no agreement on this. To those who have left and to those who tell us this we answer: you are poor finishes, your role is over, go where it belongs, to the dump of history.”
The majority of Martov’s internationalist Mensheviks also left the Congress when their proposals for concord between the socialist parties were rejected by Trotsky’s radical wing of the Bolsheviks. Trotsky won the immediate condemnation of the moderates who had just left the Congress and dismissed their attitude as counter-revolutionary. The Left Social Revolutionaries, unlike other fractions, remained at the congress with the aim of trying to moderate the position of the Bolsheviks and achieve an agreement between the various socialists.
The news of the fall of the Winter Palace and the reports that came from the various military units unleashed euphoria among the delegates. Among them, the 3rd battalion of cyclists, called from the southwestern front by Kerensky, had gone over to the Petrograd Soviet and the nearby garrison of Tsarskoye Selo had promised to protect the capital from possible attacks. Krylenko reported that a Military Revolutionary Committee had been formed on the northern front which had rescinded the marching orders against the capital and that the commanding general of that front, Cheremisov, had accepted the authority of the committee. One after another, the units sent from the front to crush the uprising were communicating their support for the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee.
The reading of the proclamation announcing the seizure of power drafted by Lenin, who had not yet attended the congress, corresponded to Lunacharsky. It not only announced the seizure of power by the Congress but also the fundamental program of the new government:
“The Soviet Government will immediately propose a democratic peace to all nations and the establishment of an immediate armistice on all fronts. It will ensure the transfer of land from landlords, the Crown and monasteries to peasant committees without compensation; protect the rights of soldiers by introducing full democracy in the army; establish workers’ control of production; ensure the convening of the Constituent Assembly on the date fixed; it will be responsible for supplying the cities with bread and basic products for the villages; it will guarantee all nations that populate Russia a genuine right of self-determination. The Congress decrees that all power in the towns will pass to the Soviets of the Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies.”
The decree was approved with only two negative votes and twelve abstentions. At dawn the delegates, exhausted, adjourned the session so that they could sleep briefly. Meanwhile, the socialists who had withdrawn from Congress and opposed the seizure of power formed a Committee for the Salvation of the Fatherland and the Revolution, the first center of opposition to the new government. The Committee denounced the actions of the Bolsheviks, solicited the support of the population and announced its intention to form a new government. The Cadets, despite their opposition to the Bolsheviks, did not join the new organization and continued to defend the legitimacy of the defunct Provisional Government.
The second session: formation of the Sovnarkom and revolutionary decrees
The next day, sleepy delegates from all the socialist parties met again to discuss the composition of the new Council of Ministers; the Bolshevik Central Committee decided on the composition of the new government called the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom, Soviet Naródnyj Komissárov)—commissar was the name Trotsky proposed for the new ministers—and offered three seats to the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, who preferred not to participate if they could not get the other parties to do so.
In the second session held on the evening of October 26 (Julian) / November 8 (Gregorian), Lenin presented a series of motions to consolidate his position: the Decree on Peace, the Decree on Land and the formation of the new Government. The first, similar to the original proposals of the Russian defencists, called for the beginning of immediate peace negotiations between the belligerent nations in order to achieve an end to hostilities that would not entail reparations or annexations.
It was to serve both to win the sympathies of the soldiers and to try to advance toward the end of the war. The Land Decree ratified the actions of the peasants who had appropriated throughout Russia the lands of the aristocracy and kulaks, which they had distributed. Land ownership was abolished and the land passed into the hands of the Soviets to be distributed among the peasants according to their needs. The decree was based primarily on the political program of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries. The decree guaranteed the Bolsheviks their support and also facilitated the legitimization of the new government in the eyes of the peasantry.
Before closing, the Congress elected a new government and a new All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK). The new VTsIK was headed by the moderate Bolshevik Kamenev and composed of 62 Bolsheviks, 29 Left Social Revolutionaries, six Internationalist Mensheviks and four members of other minor parties. The attempt of the Bolshevik leaders with an intermediate position, such as Trotsky—between the Leninists, supporters of an immediate Bolshevik uprising, and the moderates, supporters of the formation of a new exclusively socialist government without the participation of the liberals—who decided to use the prestige and organizations subordinate to the Soviets to overthrow the Provisional Government and seize power, He had triumphed. At 5 a.m. the next day, the Congress legitimized the Council of People’s Commissars as the basis of a new government, until the convocation of the Constituent Assembly.
All the government commissars were members of the Bolshevik Party since the Left Social Revolutionaries finally refused to be part of a government that was not in coalition with the rest of the socialist forces and these had withdrawn from the Congress. Lenin presided over the new Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) in which Trotsky occupied the Foreign Commissariat, Lunacharsky, the Education Commissariat; Rykov, that of Interior; Noguin, Commerce and Industry; Shlyapnikov, that of Labour; Miliutin, that of Agriculture; Skvortsov, Finance; Lomov, that of Justice; Theodorovich, that of Supply; Avilov, that of Posts and Telegraphs; Stalin, that of Nationalities. Finally, the armed forces were under the leadership of a triumvirate consisting of Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, Pavel Dybenko and Nikolai Krylenko. Then, once the new VTsIK was elected, the Second Congress of Soviets was closed.
Opposition to the coup, talks between socialists and Bolshevik entrenchment in Petrograd
Despite the takeover of the capital, the main armed clashes between supporters and opponents of the revolution took place over the next five days. The military revolt against the new government of those who opposed it in the capital on the morning of October 29 (Julian) / November 11, 1917 (Gregorian), was discovered before it could be coordinated with an attack from the surroundings of the capital by troops loyal to the defeated provisional government, failed.
On the same day that the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was closing, October 27 (Julian) / November 9 (Gregorian), Lenin left at 2 a.m. to meet with the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee in order to direct the defense of the city from the few Cossack troops that Kerensky had managed to gather to march on Petrograd and that, despite their numbers, they advanced without meeting resistance and were already in Gatchina, on the outskirts of the capital. Despite his efforts, the Russian high command was unable to reinforce the seven hundred Cossacks marching with Kerensky.
In the midst of the struggle for control of the capital and Moscow, the national railway workers’ union, Vikzhel, forced the various socialist parties to negotiate the formation of a coalition government, an objective also shared by many deputies of the VTsIK, including the moderate Bolshevik current led by Kamenev, the Left Social Revolutionaries or the Internationalist Mensheviks of Martov. The parties submitted to the threat of paralysis of their forces by the railwaymen, but they failed to impose a ceasefire between the warring sides; The Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries demanded a government without Lenin and Trotsky.
Absent from the central committee for military needs, the moderates approved in principle the conditions of the opposition parties and sent delegates of the moderate current to the negotiations, in which about thirty socialists participated. They were at first inflexible, as they hoped for a rapid overthrow of the Bolsheviks, but the failure of military action forced them to moderate their position. The Bolshevik delegates were ready to accept the new demands of the opposition: expansion of the VTsIK and an end to the fighting, but Lenin made Sovnarkom arrogate to itself the right to rule by decree. At a new meeting of the Central Committee on November 1 (Julian) / November 14 (Gregorian) with Vladimir Lenin and Trotsky again present, the committee rejected Lenin’s motion to immediately break off the talks but approved Trotsky’s motion to hold only a new session to show its futility.
Lenin attacked the moderate current and threatened to split the party; three days later, five moderate members of the Central Committee resigned because of Lenin’s attitude against the coalition of both the committee and its ministries, along with other supporters of the agreement with the other socialist parties. Fearful that the only way to hold on to power without a pact would be terror, they resigned, as did the left Social Revolutionaries of the CMR. On November 7 (Julian) / November 20 (Gregorian), the last round of talks was held, from which the Bolsheviks were absent; meanwhile, they managed by 29 votes to 23 that the VTsIK approved the government by decree of the Sovnarkom. Once the military threat against the capital had passed and Lenin and Trotsky back in the Central Committee, the Bolshevik position had hardened and the negotiations failed.
Once with control of the Sovnarkom government in his hands, Lenin agreed to make concessions to regain the alliance with other parties: after two weeks of talks, the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries entered the government (December 9 (Julian) / December 22 (Gregorian)) and obtained three commissariats (Agriculture, Post and Telegraph and Justice). This agreement caused the Bolsheviks who had resigned because of the failure of the coalition talks to rejoin the party. The coalition remained until the acceptance of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the Social Revolutionaries rejected, although the final confrontation took place in the summer of 1918.
On November 14 (Julian) / November 27 (Gregorian), the remnants of the All-Russian Congress of Peasant Soviets, from which the moderate socialists had withdrawn, approved the union with the VTsIK of the Soviets of soldiers and workers.
The Extension of the Revolution
In the most industrialized cities and localities where radical left parties controlled the local Soviets, the transfer of power took place rapidly. Often the force needed to secure it was provided by local units of Red Guards or garrison soldiers. This pattern was mainly followed by the country’s industrialized cities north and east of Moscow and the Urals. In other cities where there was considerable opposition, such as those in the central Volga, Moscow itself or some nearby cities, the implementation of the new government was slower and sometimes took almost a week after the events in Petrograd.
A few days after the seizure of power in the capital, the adjacent region recognized the new government: both the 1st Army and the Baltic sailors, the rear of the northern front, the northern part of the western and part of Estonia and Latvia did so, gaining in security and military support. By mid-November, with final control of Moscow, the Sovnarkom controlled approximately a swath of territory from Petrograd and the front to the Volga and Urals—albeit with areas still uncontrolled—and some isolated localities in other areas. Around this time, the first phase of the extension of the Bolshevik government ended, which only resumed two weeks later.
Once power was seized in those localities where the local Soviet was in the hands of Bolsheviks or Left Social Revolutionaries, the second phase of the extension of the new government lasted about two months marked by political disputes and military expeditions sent by rail from Moscow or Petrograd to subdue new territories. The struggles of this period centered on populations south of Moscow, eastern Ukraine (see Ukrainian War of Independence), on the southwestern front, and in large regions of Siberia and Central Asia.
At the beginning of 1918, the new government had the backing or acquiescence of the army and control of most of the major cities and provincial capitals in the center of the country and theoretical authority over most of the territory of the old empire. This authority was, however, weak in the provinces.
Events in Moscow during the Red Revolution
As in the capital, in Moscow, the political opposition to the coup was led by the Socialist-Revolutionary Party (SRP), but the struggle for power in the city was much fiercer than in Petrograd. The fighting was prolonged and, according to Bukharin, cost about five thousand victims.
The Moscow PSR, more cohesive and conservative, although smaller than that of the capital, tenaciously opposed the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, led by the mayor of the city V. V. Rudnev, who had achieved a great electoral victory in June. Closer to the liberals than to his Social Revolutionary past, Rudnev was one of the conservative figures in the city’s party, all in favor of a coalition with the Cadets and the Allies. For their part, the local Bolsheviks were not prepared to take power: they controlled the workers but not the soldiers’ Soviet, the Red Guards were not ready, and there was no Military Revolutionary Commission as in the capital. In addition, the main Bolshevik leaders in Moscow, Alexei Rykov and Viktor Nogin, belonged to the moderate current that had opposed the seizure of power.
On the eve of the Revolution, power in Moscow was divided between the city council, controlled by the Social Revolutionaries, the Workers’ Soviet, already with a Bolshevik majority, the Soviet of Soldiers, still in the hands of the PSR, but with an increasing influence of the Bolsheviks, and the district boards, most of them also dominated by the Bolsheviks. When news broke from the capital about the Bolshevik seizure of power, the parties did not wish to continue the confrontation in Moscow, but both the city council and the local Soviet created military bodies (the Committee of Public Safety and the Military Revolutionary Committee, respectively).
The Committee of Security was formed in the city council and included entities under Socialist-Revolutionary or Menshevik control, such as the executive committee of the Soviet of soldiers or that of peasants of the province. The committee rejected the proposal of the only minister of the provisional government still at large, S. N. Prokopovich, to include him in the government in place of the ministers imprisoned in Petrograd and left the command of military operations in the hands of the military governor of the city, Colonel K. I. Ryabtsev.
The local PSR’s attempts to militarily mobilize its supporters failed; The Party had lost the support of the majority of the soldiers and workers of the city and could not create a reliable military force under its command. The bulk of the forces opposed to the Bolsheviks were the military academies, more important and cohesive than in Petrograd. Many of the officers, however, refrained from participating in the confrontation.
The majority of the population showed passivity in the face of the clash between the two sides. The police also did not support the municipal authorities. The Bolsheviks, for their part, won the support of a few thousand volunteer Red Guards—mainly young workers—and that of the majority of the garrison, albeit with remarkable lukewarmness. Not a single one of the city’s regiments supported the Provisional Government. The Bolshevik advantages lay in numerical superiority and artillery. They could also rely on reinforcements from the industrial centers surrounding Moscow. In total, the forces of the municipal committee, between five and ten thousand men with abundant machine guns, had to face between forty and fifty thousand men of the revolutionary committee and its artillery.
On October 8 and 27 (Julian) / November 9 (Gregorian), negotiations took place between Colonel Ryabtsev and the Bolsheviks; they first demanded the evacuation of the Moscow Kremlin and the dissolution of the Military Revolutionary Committee. On October 25 (Julian) / November 7 (Gregorian), a unit loyal to the CMR had taken control of the central telegraph, the post office and the Kremlin, with its arsenal, was also controlled by supporters of the CMR. The two days of fierce fighting began after the Bolsheviks rejected the demands of their adversaries. Ryabtsev began by attacking the Moscow Kremlin on the night of October 27 (Julian) / November 9 (Gregorian) after its defenders refused to admit a cadet guard to the fortress. In general, the center of the city was in the hands of the Public Safety Committee, while the industrial suburbs were controlled by its rival.
On October 28 (Julian) / November 10 (Gregorian), the forces of the municipal committee captured the Kremlin. Some of the defenders were machine-gunned in one of the first massacres of the revolutionary period. Attempts to break the blockade of the city center failed because of proletarian support for the Bolsheviks. On the night of the 11th, a truce was proclaimed thanks in part to Vikzhel, the national executive committee of railways. The two sides agreed to the ceasefire in the hope of receiving reinforcements that would grant them victory. While the revolutionary committee did get the expected reinforcements, the same did not happen with its rival.
The Socialist-Revolutionaries did not, in general, succeed in stopping the sending of Bolshevik reinforcements to Moscow: two thousand volunteers under Mikhail Frunze arrived from Vladimir province, five hundred sailors from Petrograd, and the next day twelve hundred sailors and Red Guards also arrived in Moscow. The promises of support to the Security Committee of the command of the Western Front hardly translated into the arrival of one hundred and seventy-six members of a shock battalion: Kerensky tried to divert part of the reinforcements to Petrograd, other forces refused to participate and the cities under Bolshevik control hindered the advance of others. Eventually, the truce benefited the Bolsheviks, while Mensheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries tried to form a force independent of the two opposing sides.
Despite the concessions of the Committee of Security, forced by Vikzhel, the Military Revolutionary Committee denounced the truce when it felt strong enough to finish off its rival thanks to the reinforcements received and the fate of the fighting in Petrograd. The clashes resumed on the night of November 12 and continued for the next three days, with the anti-Bolshevik forces already on the defensive.
The resistance of these was tenacious until they were reduced to the city council, the Alexandrov Military Academy and the Kremlin. A detachment of Red Guards stormed the Moscow Kremlin on the morning of November 2 (Julian) / November 15 (Gregorian) and lynched some of the defenders as revenge for the earlier massacre. The mayor finally requested an end to the fighting that same day and the defeated were disarmed, although they were released; the Committee of Public Safety was dissolved and all the socialist parties negotiated the final terms of surrender which were, by and large, magnanimous.
The Revolution in Siberia
With few exceptions, the reception of the news of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd was not well received in Siberia. In some cities (Omsk, Irkutsk…) there were protests in the streets, although in general indifference reigned in the region. Gradually, however, the Soviet elections gave majorities in favor of the Bolsheviks who slowly gained control in the area. The Bolsheviks did not take over some localities until February 1918. Although public bodies prior to the Soviets were generally very critical of the Bolsheviks’ assumption of governmental authority, they offered no effective resistance.
National Minorities and the Revolution
The Revolution accelerated the demands for independence of the nationalities: in November and December, most declared their autonomy or even their independence from Russia, which pitted them not only against those favorable to the new Soviet government but often also against the Russian population opposed to it. On November 2 (Julian) / November 15, 1917 (Gregorian), the Bolshevik government had promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia which was signed by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.
In the northwest, the Parliament of Finland declared independence on December 6 (Julian) / December 19, 1917 (Gregorian) which Lenin’s government recognized after one year on January 4 (Julian) / January 17, 1918 (Gregorian). In Latvia, where the pro-Bolshevik Social Democrats were the main party, the future of the region was raised within a Russian federation; the Latvian Rifle units were one of the main formations supporting the Leninist government. In Estonia, nationalists and pro-Soviets clashed until the occupation of the territory by German troops in February 1918.
In the southwest, the situation in Ukraine was extraordinarily complex, with various sides vying for control of the region. At first, the pro-Soviet and the Ukrainian Central Rada maintained an unstable alliance against their adversaries and this promulgated its Third “universal” (November 20 (Julian) / December 3, 1917 (Gregorian)), in which it proclaimed its authority in the region, although not yet independence, but only autonomy, within a federal Russia. In the course of the Ukrainian War of Independence, the sending of government troops to the area to take the Ukrainian People’s Republic as well as the Petrograd government’s fear of a Ukrainian-Cossack alliance worsened relations between Petrograd and Kiev. The Rada finally declared independence on January 9 (Julian) / January 22, 1918 (Gregorian), but the Soviets soon after took Kiev, although they did not gain control of the region that was embroiled in a war with numerous belligerents.
In Transcaucasia, most Armenian, Georgian and Azeri leaders did not accept the new Government. On November 25 (Julian) / December 8, 1917 (Gregorian), the Transcaucasian Commissariat was created as a provisional government until the convocation of the Russian Constituent Assembly. After the dissolution of the Transcaucasian Federal Democratic Republic was formed on April 22, 1918. The dissolution of the latter was followed by the formation of the Democratic Republic of Georgia, the Democratic Republic of Armenia and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
In the regions with a Cossack population, a significant part of the opposition to Lenin’s government was concentrated; the Cossack authorities at Ekaterinodar in the Kuban and at Orenburg in Central Asia managed to avoid Bolshevik control, despite not having much support. The lower Don region became a refuge for military and political hostile to the Bolsheviks and the birthplace of their most formidable adversary during the civil war, the Volunteer Army.
In Central Asia, local leaders, often religious and conservative, opposed the new Government; in Tashkent, the Russian radicals (without the support of the native population) proclaimed Soviet power, but were isolated. Conservative leaders installed a rival government in Kokand. Further north, in other regions with Muslim populations, nationalist movements gained power and declared their autonomy pending the decisions of the Constituent Assembly.
In general, the Lenin government’s control over minority territories was little or non-existent, often concentrated in a handful of isolated towns. Nationalist organizations took control in the majority and opted above all for autonomy in a new federal state.
The Army and the Revolution
Although generally favorable to a Soviet government, the troops tended to prefer a socialist coalition and not exclusively a Bolshevik one. Even so, they approved of the first measures adopted by the government of Vladimir Lenin; Thanks to numerous congresses in the various units, Bolsheviks and Left Socialist-Revolutionaries finally managed to gain majority support from the troops between November and December. Although support was more determined on the fronts near the capital than on those further afield, by the end of the year the army as a whole had accepted the new government and its adversaries could not count on military units to oppose it.
The Bolshevik leaders were aware that it was crucial to end the war in order to stay in power. When the other countries disdained the decree of peace, the Sovnarkom ordered on November 7 (Julian) / November 20 (Gregorian) the beginning of negotiations for an armistice with Germany; the acting commander-in-chief, General Nikolai Dukhonin, refused and was relieved. The regiments were instructed to elect delegates to begin negotiations with the opposing units of the Central Empires.
By the time the official armistice was signed on 2 December (Julian) / 15 December 1917 (Gregorian), most units had long since reached local agreements with enemy units; the official armistice effectively ended the war on the Eastern Front. This legitimized the new Government in the eyes of the soldiers, who thus saw their desire to end the fighting and return home fulfilled; Demobilization began before the end of the year. The day before, the Government had declared officer posts elective, abolished officers’ titles and epaulets and transferred military authority to elected committees.
Social revolution as well as political, the new commissars rushed to pass a remarkable number of laws that affected Russian society and economy.
The Decree on the Land approved on October 26 (Julian) / November 8, 1917 (Gregorian), was followed by the approval of the eight-hour day on October 29 (Julian) / November 11 (Gregorian), one of the greatest workers’ aspirations; on November 2 (Julian) / November 15 (Gregorian), the “Declaration on the Rights of the Peoples of Russia” which abrogated discrimination based on nationality and religion and confirmed the right to self-determination;
on November 10 (Julian) / November 23 (Gregorian), social titles and ranks were abolished; the transfer of religious schools to the People’s Commissariat of Education was approved on November 11 (Julian) / November 24 (Gregorian), the replacement of the old courts of justice by others elected or appointed by the Soviets on November 22 (Julian) / December 5 (Gregorian) and the decrees of December 16 ( Julian ) / December 29 (Gregorian) and December 18 (Julian) / December 31 (Gregorian) declared marriage, divorce, and registration of births and deaths civil proceedings.
The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children was abolished so that all children would be equal before the law. Legal equality of the sexes and the right to seek divorce by either party without explaining their reasons were enacted. At the beginning of 1918, the separation of Church and State was proclaimed and the Gregorian calendar was adopted (February 1 (Julian) / February 14 (Gregorian)). Religious associations and churches were prohibited from owning property.
The reformist spirit was declared from the first days: the new Commissioner of Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, expressed his intention to make the population literate in a short time. At the end of November, the Government’s intention to introduce social security covering unemployment, sickness, retirement or disability was announced.
City and the countryside
While in the cities the need to maintain workers’ support forced the Bolshevik leaders to accelerate the handover of management of industry to the Bolsheviks (workers’ control of the factories was legalized on November 14 (Julian) / November 27 (Gregorian)—the majority, including Lenin himself, preferred a slower pace and initial supervision of the former managers rather than their replacement. In the countryside, the Land Decree legitimized and accelerated agrarian reform, which remained in the hands of the municipalities.
Apart from this, the Revolution had little immediate effect on Russian agriculture. The distribution of land, however, exacerbated the shortages, since large farms were the main marketers of agricultural products; attempts to improve the supply of the cities by bartering manufactured goods did not solve the problem and the Government had to send armed detachments into the countryside to increase the flow of food to the cities while reducing rations, as the Provisional Government had done earlier. The worsening of the economic situation despite political improvements (workers’ supervision of industry by law), led to an early disillusionment of the urban proletariat. The economic crisis and its own ideological preferences favored the adoption of centralizing and authoritarian measures by the Government.
In December a national strike of civil servants failed and at the beginning of 1918, the Bolsheviks already controlled the public administration, which favored the consolidation of their government. Immediately after the seizure of power, several deputy ministers began to meet clandestinely in the apartment of Sofia Panina, former deputy minister of education, as an alternative government that tried to hinder the measures of the Sovnarkom and prevent public funds from falling into their hands and encourage resistance by officials. At the end of November, however, most of the members of the old government still at large left Petrograd and shortly afterward the Sovnarkom dissolved the Committee for the Salvation of the Fatherland and the Revolution.
On December 2 (Julian) / December 15 (Gregorian), the Supreme Economic Council was created to coordinate national economic activity, with the ability to nationalize industries. On December 14 (Julian) / December 27 (Gregorian), the banks were nationalized and, the next day, all gold in private hands was confiscated and on December 23, 1917 (Julian) / January 5, 1918 (Gregorian), the trading of shares and the payment of dividends was prohibited. A month later, on January 28 (Julian) / February 10 (Gregorian), the government refused to pay the state debt.
Towards Civil War
The government of Vladimir Lenin quickly applied after the seizure of power the first repressive measures that would profoundly mark the new period. On October 27 (Julian) / November 9, 1917 (Gregorian), the Sovnarkom passed its first law: censorship of the press, justifying itself by alluding to the struggle against the enemies of the counterrevolution. Both the Government and the Military Revolutionary Commission used force against opponents and suspected opponents. Attempts by the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries and some Bolsheviks to eliminate repression were repulsed, leading to the temporary removal of the former from the government and the resignation of four Bolshevik People’s Commissars.
Shortly after the Constituent Assembly elections in which the Constitutional Democratic Party had performed very well in Petrograd and Moscow, the Bolsheviks tried to arrest some of their most prominent leaders and destroyed their offices in the capital. On November 28 (Julian) / December 11 (Gregorian), the government ordered the arrest of some prominent Cadets, branded as “enemies of the people”, and the party was banned. The increase in repression, unsuccessfully criticized by some members of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK), led to the need to create a specialized body for this purpose: on December 6 (Julian) / December 19 (Gregorian), the government and Lenin himself commissioned Feliks Dzerzhinsky to draft proposals to fight against the “saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries”.
The following day, the Government approved his proposals and created the Special Commission for the Fight against Sabotage and Counter-Revolution (Cheka), the main instrument of political terror and the seed of the future political police. Revolutionary tribunals, consisting of a judge and six jurors chosen by the Soviets, were set up to deal with crimes considered counter-revolutionary.
Relations with the Allied powers were bad from the start; the Allies did not recognize the new government and were outraged by Lenin’s refusal to pay the Russian debt. In late 1917 and early 1918, small diplomatic incidents followed.
The initial opposition to the new government, however, was disorganized and did not have the support of the masses, who at first supported Lenin’s government. With the various bodies created to oppose the Bolshevik government crushed and the attempts at counter-revolution defeated, their adversaries placed their hopes in the Russian Constituent Assembly, which was to enable them to oust the Bolsheviks from power. These, who had repeatedly defended their meeting and denounced the successive delays approved by the previous provisional Government, refused to cede power. After a single session, the Assembly was forcibly dissolved by the Government. This governmental action led the opposition to consider abandoning legal methods of resistance to the Bolshevik government and precipitated the first clashes of the civil war.