|Russia||Russian Revolution||Soviet Union 1920-45|
Russian Revolution, October, 1917
On 8th July, 1917, Alexander Kerensky became the new leader of the Provisional Government. Kerensky was still the most popular man in the government because of his political past. In the Duma he had been leader of the moderate socialists and had been seen as the champion of the working-class. However, Kerensky, like George Lvov, was unwilling to end the war. In fact, soon after taking office, he announced a new summer offensive.
Soldiers on the Eastern Front were dismayed at the news and regiments began to refuse to move to the front line. There was a rapid increase in the number of men deserting and by the autumn of 1917 an estimated 2 million men had unofficially left the army.
Some of these soldiers returned to their homes and used their weapons to seize land from the nobility. Manor houses were burnt down and in some cases wealthy landowners were murdered. Kerensky and the Provisional Government issued warnings but were powerless to stop the redistribution of land in the countryside.
On 19th July, Kerensky gave orders for the arrest of leading Bolsheviks who were campaigning against the war. This included Vladimir Lenin, Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, and Alexandra Kollontai. The Bolshevik headquarters at the Kshesinsky Palace, was also occupied by government troops.
After the failure of the July Offensive on the Eastern Front, Kerensky replaced General Alexei Brusilov with General Lavr Kornilov, as Supreme Commander of the Russian Army. The two men soon clashed about military policy. Kornilov wanted Kerensky to restore the death-penalty for soldiers and to militarize the factories. Kerensky refused and sacked Kornilov.
Kornilov responded by sending troops under the leadership of General Krymov to take control of Petrograd. Kerensky was now in danger and was forced to ask the Soviets and the Red Guards to protect Petrograd. The Bolsheviks, who controlled these organizations, agreed to this request, but in a speech made by their leader, Vladimir Lenin, he made clear they would be fighting against Kornilov rather than for Kerensky.
Within a few days Bolsheviks had enlisted 25,000 armed recruits to defend Petrograd. While they dug trenches and fortified the city, delegations of soldiers were sent out to talk to the advancing troops. Meetings were held and Kornilov's troops decided not to attack Petrograd. General Krymov committed suicide and Kornilov was arrested and taken into custody.
Lenin now returned to Petrograd but remained in hiding. On 25th September, Kerensky attempted to recover his left-wing support by forming a new coalition that included more Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. However, with the Bolsheviks controlling the Soviets and now able to call on 25,000 armed militia, Kerensky's authority had been undermined.
The Bolsheviks set up their headquarters in the Smolny Institute. The former girls' convent school also housed the Petrograd Soviet. Under pressure from the nobility and industrialists, Alexander Kerensky was persuaded to take decisive action. On 22nd October he ordered the arrest of the Military Revolutionary Committee. The next day he closed down the Bolshevik newspapers and cut off the telephones to the Smolny Institute.
Leon Trotsky now urged the overthrow of the Provisional Government. Lenin agreed and on the evening of 24th October, 1917, orders were given for the Bolsheviks began to occupy the railway stations, the telephone exchange and the State Bank. The following day the Red Guards surrounded the Winter Palace. Inside was most of the country's Cabinet, although Kerensky had managed to escape from the city.
The Winter Palace was defended by Cossacks, some junior army officers and the Woman's Battalion. At 9 p.m. the Aurora and the Peter and Paul Fortress began to open fire on the palace. Little damage was done but the action persuaded most of those defending the building to surrender. The Red Guards, led by Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, now entered the Winter Palace and arrested the Cabinet ministers.
On 26th October, 1917, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets met and handed over power to the Soviet Council of People's Commissars. Vladimir Lenin was elected chairman and other appointments included Leon Trotsky (Foreign Affairs) Alexei Rykov (Internal Affairs), Anatoli Lunacharsky (Education), Alexandra Kollontai (Social Welfare), Felix Dzerzhinsky (Internal Affairs), Joseph Stalin (Nationalities), Peter Stuchka (Justice) and Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko (War).
(1) Alexander Kerensky, speech made at the Council of the Republic ( 24th October, 1917)
I will cite here the most characteristic passage from a whole series of articles published in Rabochi Put by Lenin, a state criminal who is in hiding and whom we are trying to find. This state criminal has invited the proletariat and the Petrograd garrison to repeat the experience of 16-18 July, and insists upon the immediate necessity for an armed rising. Moreover, other Bolshevik leaders have taken the floor in a series of meetings, and also made an appeal to immediate insurrection. Particularly should be noticed the activity of the present president of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky.
The policy of the Bolsheviki is demagogic and criminal, in their exploitation of the popular discontent. But there is a whole series of popular demands which have received no satisfaction up to now. The question of peace, land, and the democratization of the army ought to be stated in such a fashion that no soldier, peasant, or worker would have the least doubt that our Government is attempting, firmly and infallibly, to solve them.
The Provisional Government has never violated the liberty of all citizens of the State to use their political rights. But now the Provisional Government declares, in this moment those elements of the Russian nation, those groups and parties who have dared to lift their hands against the free will of the Russian people, at the same time threatening to open the front to Germany, must be liquidated.
(2) Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930)
In the last days of September the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Sverdlov, Yakovleva, Oppokov, Zinoviev, Kamenev) met in Petrograd, in the apartment of Sukhanov. Even the principle of the insurrection was in dispute. Kamenev and Zinoviev (Nogin and Rykov, who were of the same opinion, being absent from this meeting) stated their view that the insurrection might perhaps itself be successful, but that it would be almost impossible to maintain power afterwards owing to the economic pressures and crisis in the food supply. The majority voted for the insurrection, and actually fixed the date for 15 October.
(3) Albert Rhys Williams, Through the Russian Revolution (1923)
Attempt is made to suppress the Revolution by force of arms. Kerensky begins calling "dependable" troops into the city; that is, troops that may be depended upon to shoot down the rising workers. Among these are the Zenith Battery and the Cyclists' Battalion. Along the highroads on which these units are advancing into the city the Revolution posts its forces. They subject these troops to a withering fire of arguments and pleas. Result: these troops that are being rushed to the city to crush the Revolution enter instead to aid and abet it.
(4) Vladimir Lenin, instructions issued to the Bolsheviks on 24th October, 1917.
I am writing these lines on the evening of November 6th. The situation is critical in the extreme. It is absolutely clear that to delay the insurrection now will be inevitably fatal. I exhort my comrades with all my heart and strength to realize that everything now hangs by a thread, that we are being confronted by problems that cannot be solved by conferences and congresses (even Congresses of Soviets) but exclusively by the people, the masses, by the struggle of the armed masses.
We must at all costs, this very evening, this very night, arrest the Government, first disarming the Junkers and so forth. We must not wait! We will lose everything! History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating when they can be victorious today, while they risk losing much, in fact, everything, tomorrow.
(5) Leon Trotsky, statement made to the Petrograd Soviet (24th October, 1917)
On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the provisional government is no longer existent. Some ministers have been arrested. Others will be arrested in the course of a few days or hours. The revolutionary garrison, at the disposal of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, has dissolved the session of the Pre-Parliament. We have been on the watch here throughout the night and have followed the detachments of revolutionary soldiers and the workers' guards by telephone as they silently carried out their tasks. The citizen slept in peace, ignorant of the change from one power to another. Railway stations, the post-office, the telegraph, the Petrograd Telegraph Agency, the State Bank, have been occupied. The Winter Palace has not yet been taken, but its fate will be decided during the next few minutes.
(6) Alfred Knox was one of those who observed the Bolsheviks taking the Winter Palace on 25th October, 1917.
The garrison of the Winter Palace originally consisted of about 2,000 all told, including detachments from yunker and ensign schools, three squadrons of Cossacks, a company of volunteers and a company from the Women's Battalion.
The garrison had dwindled owing to desertions, for their were no provisions and it had been practically starved for two days. There was no strong man to take command and to enforce discipline. No one any stomach for fighting; and some of the ensigns even borrowed great coats of soldier pattern from the women to enable them to escape unobserved.
The greater part of the yunkers of the Mikhail Artillery School returned to their school, taking with them four out of their six guns. Then the Cossacks left, declaring themselves opposed to bloodshed! At 10 p.m. a large part of the ensigns left, leaving few defenders except the ensigns of the Engineering School and the company of women.
(7) Nikolai Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution of 1917 (1922)
Antonov-Ovseenko's plan was accepted. It consisted in occupying first of all those parts of the city adjoining the Finland Station: the Vyborg Side, the outskirts of the Petersburg Side, etc. Together with the units arriving from Finland it would then be possible to launch an offensive against the centre of the capital.
Beginning at 2 in the morning the stations, bridges, lighting installations, telegraphs, and telegraphic agency were gradually occupied by small forces brought from the barracks. The little groups of cadets could not resist and didn't think of it. In general the military operations in the politically important centres of the city rather resembled a changing of the guard. The weaker defence force, of cadets retired; and a strengthened defence force, of Red Guards, took its place.
(8) Pavel Manlyantovich was Minister of Justice in the Provisional Government. He was arrested by Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko and the Red Guards on 25th October, 1917. He later wrote about the incident in his book, In the Winter Palace (1918)
There was a noise behind the door and it burst open like a splinter of wood thrown out by a wave, a little man flew into the room, pushed in by the onrushing crowd which poured in after him, like water, at once spilled into every corner and filled the room.
"Where are the members of the Provisional Government?"
"The Provisional Government is here," said Kornovalov, remaining seated.
"What do you want?"
"I inform you, all of you, members of the Provisional Government, that you are under arrest. I am Antonov-Ovseenko, chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee."
"Run them through, the sons of bitches! Why waste time with them? They've drunk enough of our blood!" yelled a short sailor, stamping the floor with his rifle."
There were sympathetic replies: "What the devil, comrades! Stick them all on bayonets, make short work of them!"
Antonov-Ovseenko raised his head and shouted sharply: "Comrades, keep calm!" All members of the Provisional Government are arrested. They will be imprisoned in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul. I'll permit no violence. Conduct yourself calmly. Maintain order! Power is now in your hands. You must maintain order!"
(9) Bessie Beatty wrote about how the Bolsheviks took over the Winter Palace on 25th October, 1917, in her book, The Red Heart of Russia (1919).
At the head of the winding staircase groups of frightened women were gathered, searching the marble lobby below with troubled eyes. Nobody seemed to know what had happened. The Battalion of Death had walked out in the night, without firing so much as a single shot. Each floor was crowded with soldiers and Red Guards, who went from room to room, searching for arms, and arresting officers suspected of anti-Bolshevik sympathies. The landings were guarded by sentries, and the lobby was swarming with men in faded uniforms. Two husky, bearded peasant soldiers were stationed behind the counter, and one in the cashier's office kept watch over the safe. Two machine-guns poked their ominous muzzles through the entryway.
(10) Albert Rhys Williams was with Louise Bryant, Bessie Beatty and John Reed when the Winter Palace was taken on 25th October, 1917.
We had been sitting in Smolny, gripped by the pleas of the speakers, when out of the night that other voice crashed into the lighted hall - the cannon of the cruiser Aurora, firing at the Winter Palace. Steady, insistent, came the ominous beat of the cannon, breaking the spell of the speakers upon us. We could not resist its call and hurried away.
Outside, a big motor-truck with engines throbbing was starting for the city. We climbed aboard and tore through the night, a plunging comet, flying a tail of white posters in our wake. As we come into the Palace Square the booming of the guns die away. The rifles no longer crackle through the dark. The Red Guards are crawling out to carry off the dead and dying.
Forming a column, they pour through the Red Arch and creep forward, silent. Near the barricade they emerge into the light blazing from within the palace. They scale the rampart of logs, and storm through the iron gateway into the open doors of the east wing - the mob swarming in behind them.
A terrible lust lays hold of the mob - the lust that ravishing beauty incites in the long starved and long denied - the lust of loot. Even we, as spectators, are not immune to it. It burns up the last vestige of restraint and leaves one passion flaming in the veins - the passion to sack and pillage. Their eyes fall upon this treasure-trove, and their hands follow.
Along the walls of the vaulted chamber we enter there runs a row of huge packing-cases. With the butts of their rifles, the soldiers batter open the boxes, spilling out streams of curtains, linen, clocks, vases and plates.
Pandemonium breaks loose in the Palace. It rolls and echoes with myriad sounds. Tearing of cloth and wood, clatter of glass from splintered windows, clumping of heavy boots upon the parquet floor, the crashing of a thousand voices against the ceiling. Voices jubilant, then jangling over division of the spoils. Voices hoarse, high-pitched, muttering, cursing.
Then another voice breaks into this babel - the clear, compelling voice of the Revolution. It speaks through the tongues of its ardent votaries, the Petrograd workingmen. There is just a handful of them, weazened and undersized, but into the ranks of these big peasant soldiers they plunge, crying out - "Take nothing. The Revolution forbids it. No looting. This is the property of the people."
(11) John Reed, was in Petrograd when the Women's Battalion attempted to defend the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks.
Immediately following the taking of the Winter Palace all sorts of sensational stories were published in the anti-Bolshevik press, and told in the City Duma, about the fate of the Women's Battalion defending the Palace. It was said that some of the girl-soldiers had been thrown from the windows into the street, most of the rest had been violated, and many had committed suicide as a result of the horrors they had gone through.
The City Duma appointed a commission to investigate the matter. On 16th November the commission returned from Levashovo, headquarters of the Women's Battalion. Madame Tyrkova reported that the girls had been taken to the barracks of the Pavlovsky Regiment, and that there some of them had been badly treated; but that at present most of them were at Levashovo, and the rest scattered about the city in private houses. Dr. Mandelbaum, another of the commission, testified dryly that none of the women had been thrown out of the windows of the Winter Palace, that none were wounded, that three had been violated, and that one had committed suicide, leaving a note which said that she had been "disappointed in her ideals."
On 21 November the Military Revolutionary Committee officially dissolved the Women's Battalion, at the request of the girls themselves, who returned to civilian clothes.
(12) George Plekhanov, Open Letter to the Petrograd Workers (28th October, 1917)
The reason the events of the last few days pain me so much is not because I do not wish to see the cause of the working class triumph, but, on the contrary, because with all the fibres of my being I wish for the triumph of the workers. The class-conscious elements of our proletariat must ask themselves the question: Is our proletariat ready to proclaim a dictatorship? Everyone who has even a partial understanding as to what economic conditions are necessary for the dictatorship of the proletariat will unhesitatingly answer no to this question.
No, our working class is far from ready to grasp political power with any advantage to itself and the country at large. To foist such a power upon it means to push it towards a great historical calamity which will prove the greatest tragedy for all Russia.
It is said that what the Russian worker will begin the German worker will finish. But it is a great mistake to think so. There is no doubt that in an economic sense Germany is much further developed than Russia. The social revolution is nearer in Germany than it is in Russia. But even among the Germans it is not yet a question of the day.
That means that the Germans will not finish what the Russians have started, nor can it be done by the French, the British, or the Americans. By seizing power at this moment, the Russian proletariat will not achieve a social revolution. It will only bring on civil war, which will in the end force a retreat from the positions won in February and March of this year.