Statue of Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, in St Petersburg. Russia's former capital bore the name Leningrad from 1924 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (Photo: Centenary News)

100 Years Ago: Bolsheviks seize power in the Russian Revolution

Posted on centenarynews.com on 07 November 2017
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On the Centenary of the Bolshevik coup, Patrick Gregory looks back at the turmoil which propelled Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's revolutionaries to power in Russia during the First World War.

By the late autumn of 1917 what remained of Russia’s faltering war effort had all but ground to a halt. The last-ditch offensive led by General Lavr Kornilov against the Austrians in eastern Galicia in July had turned into a rout. By October the advancing Germans had won control of Riga and the majority of Courland or Latvia and further advances would soon see them occupying territories up to the Gulf of Finland. 

The instability which had marked the country’s domestic and political scene since Tsar Nicholas’ abdication in March had become increasingly chaotic and confusing. The Provisional Government, in nominal charge of the country in the intervening period, had itself been reorganised four times. Now headed by Socialist Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky it had had to see off an attempted uprising by its leftist rivals, the Bolsheviks, in July 1917: an insurrection which lost momentum when evidence emerged of the financial help afforded the Bolshevik leader Lenin by sources in Germany; and Kerensky was again to the fore when General Kornilov was accused in September of plotting against the government and subsequently banished, a move calculated by Kerensky to remove someone he thought might later seek to replace him.

Alexander Kerensky (right), War Minister, then Prime Minister in Russia's short-lived Provisional Government, saluting troops from his staff car (Photo © IWM HU 110905)

In the major towns and cities, workers’ revolutionary councils or soviets sprang up, with the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies key among them. The populace of the capital was increasingly restive, Petrograd a political tinderbox. The failed war effort and collapsing economy had led to chronic food and fuel shortages, with elements of the army increasingly politicised. As political and economic turmoil began to grip the city, winter set in. The mélange of leftist factions within the Soviet jostled for supremacy: Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Bolsheviks all vying for control. 

Breakaway

An off-shoot of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, the Bolsheviks had broken away from their erstwhile colleagues at the party’s second congress in 1903, intent on pursuing their own brand of highly centralised and disciplined revolutionary socialism.

They had enjoyed mixed fortunes in the intervening years and for the greater part of 1917 – certainly the first part of that year – only held minority status in the political firmament. But by October 1917 they were finally beginning to make headway. They started to win majorities in the soviets, with Leon Trotsky an important new organising figure among their ranks. New converts were made, the masses wooed by the movement’s seductive message of ‘peace, bread and land’. 

It was at this point that Lenin, a partially absent figure, in and out of self-imposed political exile in Helsinki, made his move. The time was right, he believed, for the party to make a bid for power. He returned for two crucial meetings of the Bolshevik Central Committee held inside a week of each other. 

Lenin remembered on a memorial in Volgograd (Photo: Centenary News)

At the first meeting, the idea of armed insurrection was officially put on the agenda. Yet when it became clear, a week on, that there was still resistance within the party leadership as to how and when such a coup might be achieved, a compromise plan was hatched. Trotsky was among those who wished to convene a national Congress of Soviets, dominated by Bolsheviks, and have it formally declare the overthrow of the Provisional Government. The compromise now agreed with Lenin and his backers was that the coup would be launched pre-emptively and later ratified by such a meeting.

Coup

The Bolsheviks’ plan now swung into action. Bypassing the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet, still dominated as it was by Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, they invited those local soviets in which they held majorities to a national Congress of Soviets to be held on 25 October (7 November, new style). At the same time as this was being done, military planning was stepped up for the coup. A Military Revolutionary Committee was formed by the Soviet, ostensibly to protect the capital from a supposed German attack. As the only independent organisation outside the army to have a force of its own in the form of its Red Guards, the Bolsheviks took over the MRC. The Committee would become the actual vehicle for the overthrow of the government.

A soldier searching a civilian for firearms, shortly after the Bolshevik seizure of power  (Photo © IWM Q 69409)

Overnight on the 24/25 October (6/7 November) the Red Guards occupied strategic points including railway stations, post offices, telephone exchanges and the National Bank. That morning, once the targets were secured, Lenin emerged from hiding to declare that in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee the government had been overthrown in favour of the soviets. The Bolsheviks themselves were carefully not mentioned by name.

When Kerensky did try to react, it was too little, too late. The armed forces were unresponsive to his entreaties, alienated as they had been by his treatment of Kornilov two months previously. Kerensky fled the capital, and what was left of his government lay under siege in the Winter Palace. Some resistance to the Bolsheviks was offered in Moscow by cadets and students, but they were quickly quelled. 

Decrees

In what was a relatively bloodless coup, the following morning the rump of the Congress of Soviets confirmed the transfer of power. Decrees were passed including the nationalisation of non-peasant private land. A new provisional government was ushered in headed by Lenin, set to administer the country until a new Constituent Assembly could be mustered.

Yet already around them, the people of Petrograd were reading posters proclaiming the beginning of what was to be a very different era: 

'Democratic peace, the abolition of the landlords’ property of the land, workers’ control over production and the formation of a Soviet Government – this cause is now secure. Long live the revolution of soldiers, workers and peasants!'

Patrick Gregory is co-author with Elizabeth Nurser of 'An American on the Western Front: The First World War Letters of Arthur Clifford Kimber 1917-18' (The History Press 2016 - published in the US for the April 2017 Centennial): American on the Western Front @AmericanOnTheWF.

Images courtesy of Imperial War Museums, © IWM HU 110905,  IWM Q 69409 (archive); Centenary News (Lenin)

Posted by: CN Editorial Team

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