November 7 and 8 represent one of the most important events of the 20th Century and arguably a fulcrum point history—before this, things were this way, after quite another. That presents a significant challenge for a blogger who trades in history. On one hand the October or Bolshevik Revolution on November 7, 1917—October 25 under the old Orthodox calendar—is too big to ignore. On the other the tale is so epic and complex that a wordy son-of-a-bitch like me with a tendency to digress and go off on tangents to explain every detail couldn’t confine myself to a manageable post.
That's a problem because Americans in general know damned little about what happened 105 years ago beyond that some bald guy with a pointy beard and cloth cap named Lenin was the boss of the whole thing, grainy workers and soldiers in baggy clothes swarmed the streets in 15 second newsreel clips, there were Commies involved, and the old Tsar got the heave-ho and was eventually shot with his whole family except for somehow Anastasia who grew up to be Ingrid Bergman, or something. Oh, and Dr. Zhivago was there. Even that is not quite right—Vladimir Lenin could only wish he was in charge, events he helped spark soon a carried him along a wild ride that he spent years trying to gain control over. And the Tsar had already been deposed months earlier during the February Revolution which resulted in the formation of a socialist Provisional Government eventually led by Alexander Kerensky while restive workers and soldier organized themselves into councils called Soviets.
And all this transpired while there was an ongoing bloody stalemate on the Eastern Front of the Great War between Imperial German and Austro-Hungarian forces and exhausted, demoralized Russians levies. See? Complicated stuff.Soviet Realist art tried hard to cast Lenin as the single hero of a glorious revolution. Although Americans have been taught to think of him as an evil Commie, they have largely accepted the myth that it was all about the bald man.
Beyond the misinformed or mal-informed majority, the Russian Revolution in particular the Bolshevik uprising are matters of intense interest on the Left and are often studied in excruciating detail and argued over by adherents of various ideologies or Marxist sects. The pour over thick tomes of historical documentation and polemical analysis. For all but hard core unreformed old Stalinists—more on them in a moment—these folks argue passionately over exactly when the Revolution that seemed the fruition of so many hopes and dreams went South. Anarchists argue very early as Lenin and his chief lieutenant Leon Trotsky, soon the head of the Red Army and chief enforcer of ideological purity, grappled to tame the tiger they had unleashed. They will pick, generally, the suppression of the Mahknovists in the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War that followed the Revolution, or the crushing of the Kronstadt Sailors’ Uprising in 1921. Council Communists and followers of German Marxist heroine Rosa Luxemburg will peg the date a little later. Trotskyites will blame Stalin.
Of course, Joseph Stalin, who ruthlessly took control of the Soviet Communist Party and the state, had his own trouble with the 1917 Revolution. In the 1930’s he completely wiped out the remaining Old Bolsheviks who had participated in and witnessed what happened in 1917 and the immediate aftermath. Dead men tell no tales.
So, any account I might offer up of those tumultuous days would cause my bones to be picked clean by those left sectarians for perceived deviations from their holy writ.Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian with no fondness for revolutions, puts the kibosh on big official celebrations of the October Revolution, observances are left to relatively small gatherings of mostly elderly on Communists.
Despite all of this a lot of ink and electrons are spilled in commemoration of Red October. Curiously one place largely devoid of hoopla and celebration is Russia. Vladimir Putin may be a former Soviet KGB agent who has often publicly bemoaned the end of the Soviet Union and the downfall of its vassal states and subsequent decline of Russian prestige as a superpower. But it turns out that regret is only because the Soviet Union had recapitulated old Imperial Russia and extended its grip even further. The former Communist embraced the restoration and elevation of the Orthodox Church which venerates Tsar Nicholas II and his family as martyrs and saints. He has also celebrated the restoration Capitalism and it peculiarly Russian oligarchy of moguls and gangsters.
A Banksi wall stencil aptly describes Putin's view of revolution now that he is the guy in power.
The last thing a natural autocrat like Putin who has dedicated himself to centralizing all levers of power into his hands as effectively as Lenin or Stalin wants to celebrate is revolution. In a speech in 2017 on the eve of the Revolution’s centennial Putin asked:
Let us ask ourselves: Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at a cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives?
In neither the current capital of Moscow, nor in the former Tsarist seat of St. Petersburg where most of the initial action took place are there any of the parades, fireworks, or mass celebrations one might expect scheduled. In each city and in provincial centers a few hundred bedraggled old Communists, Great Patriotic War (World War II) veterans, and young Marxists will gather under the watchful eyes of the state security apparatus. If the rallies get a little frisky don’t be surprised if they are roughly broken up and leaders arrested—or if the State forces pull back and allow Nationalist gangs—virtual neo-Nazis—to do the work for them.
So, what happened? The thumbnail is that after years of mounting tensions since a failed 1905 Revolution, things came to a head due to war weariness and domestic food shortages. The popular old Social Democratic Party had split between the Bolsheviks, whose name meant majority although they were in fact a small faction of the original party and the Mensheviks who were further split over ending the war by a separate peace. The Bolsheviks exerted growing control over the council and Soviets being built around the capital and had wide influence in the Army and especially among the sailors of the Baltic Fleet station at the navy yard Kronstadt.Women march in the February 1917 uprising the outed the Tsar.
In February 1917 strikes and street fighting forced the Tsar to abdicate. The State Duma took over control of the country, establishing a Provisional Government and proclaiming a new Russian Republic.
Lenin and other senior Bolsheviks were then in exile in Switzerland but the German government, hoping to stir up anti-war sentiment in Russia, let him and 32 others cross their territory in a sealed train to reach the re-named capital of Petrograd. Lenin arrived at Finland Station late in February where he gave a fiery speech denouncing the Mensheviks who still had majorities in most Soviets, for cooperating with the Provisional Government and advocating an immediate truce with the Central Powers. Documentaries that the Putin government allows to be broadcast on Russian television paint the once revered Lenin as a corrupt tool of the Kaiser for this arrangement—the same charge made against him in 1917 by moderate democrats and the Mensheviks. Parallels are drawn between that and “Western interference” today in “Russian internal affairs” and identifying all dissidents as traitors.
Over the next month Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders busied themselves with rounds of speeches and a blizzard of party newspapers and pamphlets attacking the Provisional Government and ramping up demands for an end to the war with escalating rhetoric. They also worked more quietly to build support in the main Soviets around Petrograd.Provisional Government head Alexander Kerenski--a moderate socialist determined to "win the war." not end it.
Meanwhile the Mensheviks and elements of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR)—ousted the original leadership of the Provisional Government which had been dominated by liberal aristocrats and moderate democrat intellectuals and formed a coalition government under Kerensky who was tied to a SR dissident faction. Kerensky came to power in July and maintained a policy opposed to a separate peace because it would mean massive territorial losses to the Central Powers.
After a Provisional Government ballyhooed offensive at the front on July 1 quickly collapsed Lenin and Bolshevik leaders called for mass demonstrations of soldiers, sailors, and workers demanding immediate peace and the resignation of “Capitalist Ministers.” It was intended to be a massive show of popular power that might topple or shake the Government. The first demonstrations broke out on July 3 led by the soldiers of a machine gun regiment and Bolshevik activists from the Soviets. It was quickly repressed. The Prime Minister resigned on July 7 leaving Kerensky in Charge.
Kerensky ordered the arrest of Lenin, Trotsky and other major Bolshevik leaders and the suppression of the party. Lenin went underground. Trotsky escaped immediate arrest. Plans were laid for an even bigger demonstration on July 15 in which as many as 500,000 were said to have taken to the streets. Kerensky and his allies saw it as an attempted insurrection and ordered loyal troops and the Gendarme to attack the marchers. Hundreds were killed and Trotsky and many other leaders were arrested.
Lenin was in Finland but rushed to Petrograd. He narrowly escaped capture and eluded authorities. After a period in safe houses, he again slipped into neighboring Finland. Bolshevik power was effectively checked by the harsh repression following the July Days and many historians blame the disaster on the weak leadership and discipline the Bolsheviks actually had over the angry rebels who parroted their slogans.
Lenin spent much of this period in an exercise fit for his intellectual temperament—writing a book, The State and Revolution, an exposition on how he believed the socialist state would develop after the proletariat revolution, and how from then on the state would gradually wither away, leaving a pure communist society. Although the manifesto, which was not published until after the October Revolution would become the ideological bedrock of later Marxist-Leninism and something of a fetish, it distracted Lenin from organizing the details of a resurgent movement in Russia.Under Stalin the Soviets were so diligent about erasing Trotsky from history and destroying or altering pictures of him during the Revolution that authentic contemporary photos of him are hard to find. This photo probably dates from the early Civil War when he was in charge of defending the Revolution.
Much of that work was left to Trotsky and his lieutenants who eluded capture. Their work concentrated among the troops and sailors and in the Soviets but was scattershot and not the well oiled machine the Party was often portrayed.
The efforts were assisted by the continuing deterioration of conditions in the country. Not only were war losses staggering, but across the country’s industrial production collapsed amid the growing chaos throwing millions to unemployment and near starvation. Agricultural production was devastated by the levies for the mammoth, but ill equipped Army that stripped peasants from the fields and the near collapse of the railway system.
In August a threatened Rightist Army coupe forced Kerensky to appeal to the Petrograd Soviet, including its Bolshevik members for support resulting in the formation of an armed Red Guards of the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) to confront the threat. The coup fizzled and its troops never threatened the capital. But Kerensky opened the door to renewed Bolshevik influence in the Soviets. Trotsky was elected President of the Petrograd Soviet, and the Moscow Soviet was also soon in Party hands.
In late October Bolsheviks began to plan an uprising built around the Red Guards and dissident Army units at meeting held at the Smolny Institute. On November 6 (Oct. 23 Old Style) the Bolshevik Central Committee voted 10–2 for a resolution announcing “an armed uprising is inevitable, and that the time for it is fully ripe.”
The next day with Lenin as an enthusiastic cheerleader if not the actual organizer, the MRC struck occupying key points around the Capitol and securing rail connections to prevent loyalist troops from being able to rally to the Provisional Government. Kerensky could not rally significant forces to oppose the moves and seeing the writing on the wall managed to barely escape the city in a Renault car obtained from the American Embassy. He hoped to meet loyalist troops and return re-take power.
3,000 demoralized military cadets, officers, Cossacks and a contingent of female soldiers defended the Winter Palace where the rest of the Provisional Government was hold up. By evening the cadets and the Cossack abandoned the defense taking artillery with them as huge mobs of Red Guards, fleet sailors, soldiers, and workers thronged menacingly around the building.One of the most iconic and often reproduced images of the October Revolution--Red Guards on an automobile patrol the streets of Petrograd.
At 2:30 am November 8 (Oct. 24 Old Style) the Navy cruiser Aurora fired symbolic blank shots at the Palace. The insurgents rushed forward virtually unopposed. Red Guards gained entrance to the Palace via a back door left carelessly unlocked and after wandering around the cavernous splendor of the former home of the Tsars a small detachment finally stumbled on the terrified ministers and arrested them.
The Ministers and other officials were taken to the notorious prison at Fort Peter and Paul where they dutifully wrote out their resignations. The Provisional Government ceased to exist. Lenin, for his part, issued a stirring proclamation.The "Glorious and Heroic" storming of the Winter Palace was more of an unopposed cake walk. The Soviets need a myth of popular insurrection like the storming of the Bastille in the French Revolution which was likewise exaggerated.
Soviet propaganda would subsequently depict the October Revolution and especially the Storming of the Winter Palace as epic struggles of heroic proportion. In 1920 Lenin himself and thousands of Red Guards would stage a glorious “reenactment” of the attack before an audience of 100,000 including members of the international press who were convinced it was an accurate description. In 1926 Sergei Eisenstein’s film October: Ten Days That Shook the World based his thrilling scenes of mass struggle more on the re-enactment than the actual event. Likewise it was commemorated in Socialist Realist art, music, poetry, and novels.
In reality in less than a day and a half of action just two people were killed and 18 arrested—the Provisional Government Ministers and senior officials. Essentially it was a bloodless revolution. The aftermath would be far from bloodless.
Power was handed over to the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets which by happy circumstance happened to meet on November 7. With Trotsky in the Chair the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionary delegates walked out before they could be expelled. As they filed out of the hall Trotsky taunted them:
You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history.
The Congress elected a Council of Peoples Commissars with Lenin at the head as the basis of a new Soviet Government, pending the meeting of a Constituent Assembly, and passed the sweeping but immediately unenforceable Decree on Peace and the Decree on Land.
But outside of Petrograd, Moscow and a few other major cities, support for the new government was thin. Pushback began immediately. Mensheviks staged their own coup in Georgia and declared an independent Republic. The Don Cossacks also declared independence. At the Front loyalist divisions and regiments began to organize against Red units. Kerensky tried to return to Petrograd at the head of a large Cossack force but was quickly turned back in sharp fighting. There was also street fighting in Moscow where it took a week for Leninists to put down.
A long, bloody counter-revolution and Civil War was at hand. All too complex to revisit here.
Lenin kept his promise and on December 19, 1917 Trotsky signed an armistice with the Central Powers on the new government’s behalf pending negotiation of a peace treaty. As Kerensky had feared, Germany and Austria-Hungary extracted a heavy price to end the war after they launched a new Eastern offensive despite the armistice in March of 1918. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ceded Latvia, all Russian Polish territory including Warsaw, and a portion of Ukraine. In addition, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and most of the rest of Ukraine were promised “self-determination” with the expectation that they would declare independence.
The Allies, still waiting on an infusion of fresh American troops on the Western Front regarded the separate peace as a stab in the back. With fears that the Bolshevik regime would encourage or abet mutiny and rebellion among their own troops and among their already restive working class they intervened militarily in the Soviet far east with the hope of re-enforcing and linking up with White Armies in the Civil War.
Although Trotsky was a key figure in the October Revolution—much more the nuts-and-bolts-architect than the philosopher Lenin—and defended it through Red Terror response to the Civil War and as the ruthless commander of the Red Army, after he lost out to Joseph Stalin as Lenin’s heir. He was stripped of Party and Government Posts, exiled, and then virtually erased from revolutionary history. In exile he tried to rally foreign Communist Parties into opposition to Stalin and in defense of the True Revolution as he saw it. For his pains he was assassinated with an ice climbing pick in Mexico in 1940 by a Stalinist agent.
As noted much has been written about the October Revolution—much of which must be taken with a grain of salt and a jaundiced eye. But a good and entertaining start would be with American Journalist Jack Reed’s account published in 1919 based on his dispatches from Petrograd, Ten Days That Shook the World. As journalism was a first draft of history.An early American edition of John Reed's journalism-as-history Ten Days That Shook the World.
Reed, best known previously for his creation of the Patterson Pageant which brought a whole Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) silk mill strike to the stage of New York City’s Madison Square Garden, was not a neutral observer. He was a committed socialist and an admitted cheerleader for the Revolution. He completed the book back in the United States where he was also active in founding the Communist Labor Party of America. Threatened with arrest during the post-war American Red Scare, he fled back to the Soviet Union where he quickly became disillusioned by the repressive authoritarian tact the Revolution had taken. In 1920 he died in Moscow of typhus where he was hailed a hero for his now world famous book despite his recent apostasy.
Despite all of this Reed was a keen observer of what he witnessed unfolding. He may not have been privy to the plans and plots of the Revolutionaries or the Provisional Government or had the benefit of examining key documents, but he could clearly report the evident events. Moreover, he completed the book before Soviet authorities began to re-rewrite history. As he wrote in his introduction:
This book is a slice of intensified history—history as I saw it. It does not pretend to be anything but a detailed account of the November Revolution, when the Bolsheviki, at the head of the workers and soldiers, seized the state power of Russia and placed it in the hands of the Soviets.
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