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The Russian Revolution (1917–1918)

History SparkNotes

Lenin and the Bolsheviks

The February Revolution

The Summer of 1917

April 3, 1917 Lenin arrives in Petrograd
April 7 April Theses published in the newspaper Pravda
April 21 First Bolshevik demonstrations
Key People
Vladimir Lenin -  Revolutionary and intellectual; founded Bolshevik Party; returned to Russia from exile in April 1917 and advocated armed rebellion to establish Communist state

Lenin’s Return to Russia

During the February Revolution, Vladimir Lenin had been living in exile in Switzerland. Though historians disagree about specifics, they concur that the government of Germany deliberately facilitated Lenin’s return to his homeland in the spring of 1917. Without question, the German leadership did so with the intent of destabilizing Russia. The Germans provided Lenin with a guarded train that took him as far as the Baltic coast, from which he traveled by boat to Sweden, then on to Russia by train. There is also evidence that Germany funded the Bolshevik Party, though historians disagree over how much money they actually contributed.

Lenin arrived in Petrograd on the evening of April 3, 1917. His arrival was enthusiastically awaited, and a large crowd greeted him and cheered as he stepped off the train. To their surprise, however, Lenin expressed hostility toward most of them, denouncing both the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet that had helped to bring about the change of power. Although a limited sense of camaraderie had come about among the various competing parties ever since the February Revolution, Lenin would have nothing to do with this mentality. He considered any who stood outside his own narrow Bolshevik enclave to be his sworn enemies and obstacles to the “natural” flow of history.

The April Theses

In the days following his arrival, Lenin gave several speeches calling for the overthrow of the provisional government. On April 7, the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda published the ideas contained in Lenin’s speeches, which collectively came to be known as the April Theses.

From the moment of his return through late October 1917, Lenin worked for a single goal: to place Russia under Bolshevik control as quickly as possible. The immediate effect of Lenin’s attitude, however, was to alienate most other prominent Socialists in the city. Members of the Petrograd Soviet, and even many members of Lenin’s own party, wrote Lenin off as an anarchist quack who was too radical to be taken seriously.

“All Power to the Soviets”

In the meantime, Lenin pulled his closest supporters together and moved on toward the next step of his plan. He defined his movement by the slogan “All power to the soviets” as he sought to agitate the masses against the provisional government. In formulating his strategy, Lenin believed that he could orchestrate a new revolution in much the same way that the previous one had happened, by instigating large street demonstrations. Though the soviets were primarily a tool of the Mensheviks and were giving Lenin little support at the moment, he believed he could manipulate them for his own purposes.

Failed Early Coup Attempts

From the moment Lenin returned to Russia, he began to work toward seizing power for the Bolsheviks using every means available. The first attempt took place in late April, during a sharp disagreement between the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet over the best way to get Russia out of World War I. As frustrated military personnel began to demonstrate in the streets, the Bolsheviks attempted to agitate the troops by demanding the ouster of the provisional government. However, no coup grew out of these demonstrations, and they dissipated without incident.

During the spring and summer, the Bolsheviks would make several more attempts to bring about a second revolution by inciting the masses. Their repeated failures made it clear to Lenin that a repeat performance of the February Revolution was not to be and that a much more organized, top-down approach would be required.

The Bolsheviks and the Military

Lenin recognized that the current Russian leaders’ hesitation to pull the country out of World War I was a weakness that could be exploited. He knew that after four years of massive losses and humiliating defeats, the army was ready to come home and was on the verge of revolting. While other politicians bickered over negotiating smaller war reparations—and even over whether Russia might possibly make territorial gains by staying in the war longer—Lenin demanded that Russia exit the war immediately, even if it meant heavy reparations and a loss of territory. With this position, Lenin received growing support throughout the Russian armed forces, which would ultimately be key to his seizing power. Thus, he launched an aggressive propaganda campaign directed specifically at the Russian troops still serving on the front.

Lenin’s Radicalism

The period following Lenin’s return to Russia was a confusing time for Russian Socialists, who previously had held Lenin in high esteem and had believed he would unite them upon his return. Indeed, his radical positions caused greater division than ever among Russia’s various political groups. Lenin’s refusal to compromise backfired on him, however, and in the autumn he would need the support of these groups in order to secure power.

Eventually, Lenin did backtrack temporarily on his earlier extreme positions, with the aim of garnering more support. In particular, he temporarily embraced the Petrograd Soviet. Although this effort did have some limited success, it failed to produce the level of support that Lenin had hoped for. Therefore, he decided to concentrate instead on defaming the provisional government and also building up connections within the military so that after the revolution, he could deal with all his critics by force.

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