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The Russian Revolution (1917–1918)

History SparkNotes

The October Revolution

The Summer of 1917

The Aftermath

August 31, 1917 Bolsheviks achieve majority in the Petrograd Soviet
September 5 Bolsheviks achieve majority in the Moscow Soviet
October 10 Lenin and the Bolshevik Central Committee decide to proceed with revolution
October 23 Provisional government acts to shut down all Bolshevik newspapers
October 24 Provisional government deploys junkers Bolshevik troops begin to take over government buildings in the city
October 25 Kerensky escapes Petrograd Bolsheviks struggle all day long to capture Winter Palace Second Congress of Soviets convenes
October 26 Provisional government is arrested early in the morning Lenin issues Decree on Peace and Decree on Land Congress approves Soviet of the People’s Commissars, with all-Bolshevik membership, as new provisional government
Key People
Vladimir Lenin -  Bolshevik leader; became leader of Russia after October Revolution; issued Decree on Peace and Decree on Land
Lev Kamenev -  Bolshevik leader who resisted Lenin’s plans for a prompt revolution
Grigory Zinoviev -  Bolshevik leader who sided with Kamenev, voting against revolution
Alexander Kerensky -  Prime minister of provisional government; fled Russia during revolution to live in Europe and then the United States

The Red Resurgence

During late August and September, the Bolsheviks enjoyed a sudden growth in strength, following their failures during the summer. On August 31, they finally achieved a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, and on September 5, they won a similar victory in the Moscow Soviet. Lenin, fearing arrest after the events of July, continued to hide in rural areas near the Finnish border. As time went on, he become more and more impatient and began calling urgently for the ouster of the provisional government.

Although Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky’s authority was faltering, the provisional government was coming closer to organizing the Constituent Assembly, which would formally establish a republican government in Russia. Elections for the assembly were scheduled for November 12. Lenin knew that once this process started, it would be far more difficult to seize power while still preserving the appearance of legitimacy. If there were to be another revolution, it had to take place before then.

Internal Opposition

Before a revolution could happen, Lenin faced considerable opposition from within his own party. Many still felt that the timing was wrong and that Lenin had made no serious plans for how the country would be administered after power was seized. On October 10, shortly following Lenin’s return to Petrograd, the Bolshevik Party leadership (the Central Committee) held a fateful meeting. Few details of this meeting have survived, but it is known that Lenin delivered an impassioned speech in which he restated his reasons for staging the uprising sooner rather than later. Most of those present—only twelve men in all—initially were reluctant. Nevertheless, by the end of the meeting, Lenin had talked all but two of them into approving an armed uprising to oust the provisional government. What had yet to be decided was precisely when the revolution would happen.

Final Plans

During the next two weeks, Lenin’s followers remained holed up in their headquarters at the Smolny Institute, a former school for girls in the center of Petrograd, where they made their final plans and assembled their forces. A Second Congress of Soviets was now in the works, scheduled for October 25, and the Bolsheviks were confident that they would have its overwhelming support, since they had taken pains to invite only those delegates likely to sympathize with their cause.

Just to be sure, however, the Bolsheviks decided to hold the revolution on the day before the meeting and then to ask the Congress to approve their action after the fact. The two Bolshevik leaders who had voted against the uprising after the October 10 meeting, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, continued to protest the plan and resist Lenin’s preparations. However, at the last moment, they suddenly reversed their position so as not to be left out.

By this point, the Bolsheviks had an army of sorts, under the auspices of the Military Revolutionary Committee, technically an organ of the Petrograd Soviet. Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders, however, knew that these troops were unreliable and had a tendency to flee as soon as anyone fired at them. However, they expected that at least the main Petrograd garrison would support them once they saw that the Bolsheviks had the upper hand.

The Provisional Government’s Response

Although the details may have been secret, by late October it was well known throughout Petrograd that the Bolsheviks were planning something major. Prime Minister Kerensky and other members of the provisional government discussed the matter endlessly; Kerensky pressed for greater security and for the arrest of every Bolshevik who could be found, especially those in the Military Revolutionary Committee. The other ministers resisted Kerensky’s suggestions and believed that everything could ultimately be solved by negotiation.

Nonetheless, the provisional government did make a few modest preparatory arrangements. First, it closed down all Bolshevik newspapers on October 23. Although this move did actually catch the Bolsheviks off guard, it had little practical effect. Then, on the morning of October 24, the day the uprising was to begin, the provisional government installed junkers—cadets from local military academies—to guard government buildings and strategic points around the city. One of these positions was the tsar’s old Winter Palace, which the provisional government now used for its headquarters. Places of business closed early that day, and most people scurried home and stayed off the streets.

October 24

In truth, little happened on October 24 , the first day of the Russian Revolution. The main event was that Lenin made his way across town to the Smolny Institute, disguised as a drunk with a toothache. Late that evening, Bolshevik troops made their way to preassigned positions and systematically occupied crucial points in the capital, including the main telephone and telegraph offices, banks, railroad stations, post offices, and most major bridges. Not a single shot was fired, as the junkers assigned to guard these sites either fled or were disarmed without incident. Even the headquarters of the General Staff—the army headquarters—was taken without resistance.

The Siege of the Winter Palace

By the morning of October 25, the Winter Palace was the only government building that had not yet been taken. At 9:00 a.m., Kerensky sped out of the city in a car commandeered from the U.S. embassy. The other ministers remained in the palace, hoping that Kerensky would return with loyal soldiers from the front. Meanwhile, Bolshevik forces brought a warship, the cruiser Aurora , up the Neva River and took up a position near the palace. Other Bolshevik forces occupied the Fortress of Peter and Paul on the opposite bank of the river from the palace. By that afternoon, the palace was completely surrounded and defended only by the junker guards inside. The provisional government ministers hid in a small dining room on the second floor, awaiting Kerensky’s return.

The Bolsheviks spent the entire afternoon and most of the evening attempting to take control of the Winter Palace and arrest the ministers within it. Although the palace was defended weakly by the junker cadets, most of the Bolshevik soldiers were unwilling to fire on fellow Russians or on the buildings of the Russian capital. Instead, small groups broke through the palace windows and negotiated with the junkers, eventually convincing many of them to give up. Although some accounts claim that a few shots were fired, little or no violence ensued. The ministers were finally arrested shortly after 2:00 a.m. on October 26 and escorted to prison cells in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Kerensky never returned and eventually escaped abroad, living out his life first in continental Europe and then as a history professor in the United States.

The Second Congress of Soviets

Although Lenin had hoped that the revolution would be over in time to make a spectacular announcement at the start of the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets in the late afternoon of October 25, events transpired differently. The Congress delegates were forced to wait for several hours as Bolshevik forces tried to remove the provisional government from the Winter Palace. Lenin became increasingly agitated and embarrassed by the delay. Late in the evening, the Congress was declared open, even though the Winter Palace had still not been taken. Furthermore, despite the Bolshevik leaders’ efforts, dedicated Bolsheviks constituted only about half of the 650 delegates at the Congress. Lively debate and disagreement took place both about the Bolshevik-led coup and also about who should now lead Russia. The meeting lasted the rest of the night, adjourning after 5:00 a.m. on October 26.

The Congress resumed once more late the next evening, and several important decisions were made during this session. The first motion approved was Lenin’s Decree on Peace, which declared Russia’s wish for World War I to end but did not go so far as to declare a cease-fire. The next matter to be passed was the Decree on Land, which officially socialized all land in the country for redistribution to peasant communes. Finally, a new provisional government was formed to replace the old one until the Constituent Assembly met in November as scheduled. The new government was called the Soviet of the People’s Commissars (SPC). Lenin was its chairman, and all of its members were Bolsheviks. As defined by the Congress, the SPC had to answer to a newly elected Executive Committee, chaired by Lev Kamenev, which in turn would answer to the Constituent Assembly.

Life After the Revolution

Life in Russia after October 25, 1917, changed very little at first. There was no widespread panic among the upper classes, and the people of Petrograd were generally indifferent. Few expected the new government to last for long, and few understood what it would mean if it did. In Moscow, there was a power struggle that lasted for nearly a week. In other regions, local politicians (of various party loyalties) simply took power for themselves. In the countryside, anarchy ruled for a time, and peasants boldly seized land as they pleased, with little interference from anyone. The new Bolshevik-led government, meanwhile, improvised policy quite literally on the fly, with no long-term plan or structure in place other than vague intentions.

Assessing the October Revolution

Although the Soviet government went to great lengths for decades to make the “Great October Socialist Revolution” appear colorful and heroic, it was in many ways a mundane and anticlimactic event. There was little if any bloodshed, the provisional government barely tried to resist, and afterward, few Russians seemed to care about or even notice the change in governments. However, this very indifference on the part of the Russian people enabled the new leadership to extend its power quite far, and the October Revolution would soon prove to be a cataclysmic event once its earthshaking effect on Russia and the rest of the world became clear. However bloodless the Russian Revolution initially may have been, it would ultimately cost tens of millions of Russian lives and shock the nation so deeply that it has not yet come to terms with what happened.

As far as historians have been able to determine, Lenin and most of the other major revolutionary figures at his side believed sincerely in their cause and were not motivated purely by a thirst for power. In all likelihood, they seized power believing that they were doing so for the greater good. Ironically, their faith in the socioeconomic models of Marx was on the level of an extreme religious devotion—the very same blind devotion that they often denounced in others. Unfortunately, this steadfast belief in Marxism would come to be implemented through brutal and repressive means.

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