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.
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.
By the morning of October 25, the Winter Palace was the only government building that had not yet been taken. At 9:00a.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 2:00a.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.
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 5:00a.m. on October 26.