JOHN ELLISON on what actually happened through the future-setting days of October 1917
IN TEN Days That Shook the World, US socialist journalist John Reed set down, in a classic narrative of startling vitality, his personal experience of the days straddling the seizure of political power in Petrograd on Wednesday, November 7, 1917 by the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin.
The “seizure of power” involved relatively little violence — much of it was a “taking” without opposition.
Petrograd, then the seat of Russia’s government and until the war with Germany called St Petersburg, was won easily.
Power in Moscow was to be won by the Bolsheviks by mid-November and was seized elsewhere too. Note that November 7 for Russians at the time was 13 days earlier, October 25 — the date under the Julian calendar.
In Petrograd before dawn on November 7, Reed was well placed in the outer hall of the Smolny Institute, the organising hub of the revolution, to observe the decisive initial Bolshevik moves.
Towards 4am he learned from the Bolshevik Zorin — a returnee from the US, a rifle slung from his soldier — that the insurrection had begun: “We’re moving … We pinched the Assistant Minister of Justice and the Minister of Religions. They’re down cellar now. One regiment is on the march to capture the Telephone Exchange, another the Telegraph Agency, another the State Bank. The Red Guard is out.”
Outside the Bolshevik HQ, Reed had his first sight of Red Guards: “a huddled group of boys in workers’ clothes, carrying guns with bayonets, talking nervously together ... behind us great Smolny, bright with lights, hummed like a gigantic hive…”
Some background. Since March 1917 (February, for Russians then) when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, Russia had been in political turmoil, and its miseries were enormous.
Progressives in the country had long decried its semi-medieval arrangements — mass illiteracy, poverty, superstition, degradation (especially of women), while dissent or defiance of extreme censorship provoked police repression.
In 1905, following a failed war with Japan, the first great uprising was brutally put down.
The last straw — the catalyst for immediate change — was the world war.
In Western Europe the British and French capitalist empires were pitted against the relatively empire-less Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary, all of these countries dedicated to enlarging their colonial holdings at their enemies’ expense.
The peoples had been paying the price through the battlefield slaughter and privation at home, with no end to the war in sight.
Tsarist Russia, allied to Britain and France, and much less fitted for war, had also been out for imperial prizes. Under a secret agreement with its allies of spring 1916, Russia was to receive for its war contribution parts of Armenia and Kurdistan, and a share in a protectorate of Palestine.
Even days before the Tsar’s abdication, the French had agreed, again secretly, to Russia’s having “complete liberty in establishing her western frontiers.”
Russia’s war dead total was at least 1,700,000. When a high-level delegation from Russia’s allies visited Petrograd early in 1917, it was noted that around a million Russian soldiers had quietly deserted the Eastern Front, that soldiers there were expected to tear down barbed wire by hand, and that inflation was wild. In Petrograd there were bread riots.
In March the dispatch of tsarism was spontaneous and unstoppable, and in a moment the old autocracy was succeeded by a Provisional Government crazily committed to continuing the war in an arm’s length “partnership” with the councils of workers and soldiers’ representatives bearing the Russian title of “soviets.”
Disaster at the front in July for the Galician offensive weakened the position of the government, soon after led by charismatic Prime Minister Kerensky, who tarnished his own credibility irremediably in September by seeking (before ceasing) alliance with would-be dictator General Kornilov. Food shortages and inflation escalated.
The political choices for the future became clear: socialism or counterrevolution.
By October, Bolshevik leaders such as Leon Trotsky, arrested following a spontaneous uprising against the Provisional Government in mid-July, were free, while Lenin returned, after finding safety in Finland. The “peace and land” programme of the Bolsheviks was now supported by a majority of soviets around the country.
Lenin had been calling for “all power to the Soviets” in the publication Workers’ Road since late September, and, less publicly, for the Bolsheviks to take power.
On October 20 he established himself as a secret guest in the apartment of fellow Bolshevik Marguerita Fofanova in Petrograd’s Serdobolskaya Street. Three days later he took part in a central committee meeting which voted to prepare for armed insurrection, leaving the timing for later.
On the 28th, the overwhelming majority of the Petrograd organisation voted for the rising, and the next day a central committee meeting (enhanced by factory and railway workers and military representatives) followed suit.
After that the Military Revolutionary Committee created by the Petrograd Soviet under Trotsky’s presidency took responsibility for the rising — which Lenin was pressing should be launched without more prevarication.
In the small hours of the 6th, Kerensky ordered government troops to move against the Bolsheviks, first suppressing Bolshevik newspapers including Workers’ Road, posting more defenders in the Winter Palace and other places, ordering the cruiser Aurora (with its pro-Bolshevik crew) to put out to sea, and later in the day attempting to bar passage across the main River Neva bridges, resisted strongly by large anti-government crowds.
In response the Military Revolutionary Committee restored the newspapers to life and countermanded the order to the Aurora.
Lenin, from Fofanova’s apartment, wrote a letter to the central committee, stating that “it is now absolutely clear that to delay the uprising would be fatal.”
Reinforcing the letter, he sent himself, stepping into danger. He left Fofanova a cryptic note: “I am going where you did not want me to go. Goodbye. Ilyich.”
China Mieville, in his celebratory recent book October, tells us that shortly before midnight on the 6th (October 24 in his account) a crudely disguised Lenin (wig plus face bandages) arrived at the Smolny Institute.
During the night shared by the 6th and the 7th, the Bolsheviks moved from defence to insurrection, occupying strategic points across the city. And as the armoured ship Aurora, through a command of the Military Revolutionary Committee, advanced close to the Nikolaevsky bridge, Bolshevik sailors and workers replaced fleeing government forces.
Rising late from bed on the 7th, and out on the Nevsky Prospect, John Reed bought a copy of Workers’ Road. Its huge headlines ran: “ALL POWER TO THE SOVIETS OF WORKERS, SOLDIERS AND PEASANTS. PEACE! BREAD! LAND!”
That evening the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets met, an hour after the Aurora fired a first blank shot in the direction of the Winter Palace, and hours after Lenin’s proclamation had been printed and circulated via walls and telegraph wires. It began: “To the citizens of Russia. The Provisional Government has been overthrown…”
In fact the palace was not taken until around 2 am next morning, on the 8th. The ministers arrested there excluded Kerensky, who had left to join a counter-revolutionary general commanding Cossack troops, intending to return with them. He never did, instead escaping the country in disguise, when these troops retreated after advancing towards Petrograd.
But there was no Bolshevik retreat on the evening of the 8th when Lenin addressed the Second Congress with: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order,” going on to propose, to enormous applause, the abolition of private property in land, and calling for immediate negotiations between the warring countries towards a democratic peace.
So it was that the Bolshevik revolution ended the world war in the east, and simultaneously a great socialist experiment began. November 7 marked a major turning point in history.