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11th - 15th century
16th - 17th century
18th century
19th century
     The February revolution
     End of a dynasty
     The Provisional Government
     The Bolsheviks
     The October Revolution
     Bolshevik political strategy
     Constituent Assembly

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The February revolution

The winter of 1915-16 is exceptionally cold, even by Russian standards. The railway network almost ceases to function. Factories close down. And there is a severe shortage of bread, although the shops in the richer parts of Petrograd are still full. Rumours spread that the shortage is a capitalist plot to force up prices.

Then, on 23 February 1917 (NS/New Style Mar. 8), there is a sudden thaw. People emerge on to the streets, most notably a large crowd of women of all classes converging on the city centre to demand equal rights - for this is International Women's Day. They are soon joined by women textile workers, on strike in protest against the lack of bread. Other factory workers, men as well as women, decide to participate.


The police hold the crowds back at a bridge leading to the city centre, but many of the protesters cross on the ice of the Neva river. They head for Petrograd's main street, the Nevsky Prospekt. Here they are confronted by mounted Cossacks. But the soldiers, many of them young recruits, seem reluctant to attack the crowd - a development which does not pass unnoticed. The day ends relatively peacefully in spite of shouts of 'Down with the Tsar!' mingling with yells of 'Bread!'.

Over the next two days the crowds increase, at first almost in a holiday mood of carnival. But many are now armed with domestic weapons, such as knives and hammers, to confront the swelling numbers of police and soldiers.


The crowd makes a subtle and accurate distinction between these two groups. The police are enemies, to be attacked wherever possible. But the young recruits in the army, exhorted by the crowd not to fire on their mothers and sisters, are seen as potential allies, to be wheedled and won over.

A powerful and symbolic incident occurs on the Nevsky Prospekt in the afternoon of February 25 (NS/New Style Mar. 10), a Saturday. It takes place near the spot where the crowd was fired on twelve years earlier, on Bloody Sunday. Now, once again, the crowd is confronted by a mounted squadron. In the deadlock a young girl walks towards the ranks of Cossacks. She approaches the mounted officer and takes from beneath her cloak a bouquet of flowers.


Her bouquet of red roses can be seen as symbolizing either peace or revolution. The officer pauses, then smiles, leans down and takes the flowers. The crowd erupts in cheers. And a new term, 'comrade Cossacks', becomes part of contemporary jargon.

The next day, Sunday the 26th (NS/New Style Mar. 11), sees a dramatic escalation and a highly significant turning point. The emperor, hearing of the disturbances in his distant command post, has sent orders that the unrest is to be put down immediately by force. So police and soldiers are now out in far greater numbers. For the first time the crowds are fired upon and people die - a second Bloody Sunday. In response to this violence an entire company of soldiers changes sides and attacks the police.


Mutiny spreads rapidly through the barracks of the capital, and once the crowd and the soldiers are in alliance there can be holding them. On Monday the 27th (NS/New Style Mar. 12) the Arsenal and the weapons factories fall to the rebels, bringing them more than 150,000 rifles and revolvers. By the end of the next day the hated Peter and Paul fortress, the notorious imperial prison, is in their hands.

Like the Bastille on an equivalent occasion, the fortress turns out to contain hardly any prisoners. But the red flag flying above its ramparts is symbol enough, demonstrating conclusively that a turning point in Russian history has been reached - a mere five days after a peaceful demonstration for the rights of women.


End of a dynasty

Nicholas II at first expects to fight back. He orders senior generals to march on Petrograd and restore order. But they are well aware that the spirit of mutiny may spread, like a contagion, to their troops. This would have disastrous results in another context, more serious even than the emperor's predicament - the war against Germany. By March 2 (NS/New Style Mar. 15) the generals convince him that the only hope for his dynasty is that he should abdicate. He does so, declaring his successor to be his brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail.

This proves a forlorn hope.


By the time news of the abdication and the proposed new tsar reaches Petrograd, the crowds have for several days been indulging in an orgy of anti-imperial destruction and class warfare. The dynasty's two-headed eagle is torn down and destroyed wherever it can be found. Imperial statues are demolished. Rich families, associated with the old order, go in danger of their lives as their homes and properties are looted. In Petrograd alone it is calculated that somewhere between 1500 and 7500 people are killed or injured in these few days of violence.

The Grand Duke Mikhail witnesses these scenes at first hand. Not surprisingly, it proves easy for members of the new provisional government to persuade him that he should decline the crown.


Both Nicholas II and his brother Mikhail are subsequently murdered by the Bolsheviks (the tsar dies with his wife and children at Ekaterinburg in July 1918). But for the moment the emperor achieves what has been his main concern during this crisis, reunion with Alexandra and his family.

As Russia's political turmoil develops during 1917, in the struggle for power between rival factions, the last of the Romanovs spend the summer together in their palace of Tsarskoe Selo to the south of Petrograd.


The Provisional Government

The sudden collapse of the imperial dynasty leaves a hiatus in Russian political life. Two groups are eager to fill it. The liberal and reformist members of the elected Duma see themselves, with some constitutional justification, as the only legitimate government in the circumstances. But a much more meaningful power is possessed by the Petrograd Soviet, speaking for the aspirations of tens of thousands of factory workers and soldiers. In the event a compromise is reached. The Soviet agrees to support a Provisional Government composed of members of the Duma in return for certain immediate reforms.


The reforms demanded by the Soviet are extremely radical in the context of the autocracy prevailing in Russia until this moment. There is to be freedom of speech, press and assembly; abolition of all restrictions based on class or religion; universal suffrage; abolition of the police, to be replaced by a people's militia; and, of specifically local interest in Petrograd, a guarantee that the army units involved in the February revolution shall be neither disbanded nor sent to the front.

Prince Georgi Lvov, a much respected liberal, is accepted as the first prime minister. The Provisional Government is given a sort of legitimacy when the emperor, in his formal act of abdication on 15 March 1917 (NS/New Style Mar. 28), approves the appointment of Lvov.


The Provisional Government promises the rapid convening of an assembly to recommend a constitution, followed by early elections. But in a nation at war, with no electoral register in existence, this is an empty commitment. In the event not even the assembly is convened, and the unelected government - headed by a prince, to the considerable displeasure of the radicals - is from the start a lame duck confronted by impossible dilemmas.

The government's strong instinct, both from national pride and a sense of obligation to the Allies, is that the war against Germany must be continued and won. But the uncomfortable reality is that the sudden success of the February revolution has left the vast mass of the Russian people with just two prevailing hopes.


The first of these is that the war should be brought to a speedy end. The second, shared passionately by the peasants who form the vast majority of the population, is for the immediate distribution of the land to the people living and working on it.

In an attempt to change the prevailing mood with regard to the war, the Provisional Government takes a bold gamble. Arguing that a military success will boost morale, plans are laid for a major offensive in June. The result is disastrous. Russian units (already thrown into disarray by an order from the Petrograd Soviet virtually subordinating officers to their men) are in no state to carry out such a campaign against the invading Germans.


In the summer campaign of 1917 hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers lose their lives and millions of square miles of territory end up in German hands. After this fiasco the Provisional Government never recovers any real authority. In the very next month it is nearly toppled during a fortnight which has the makings of a new revolution in Petrograd.

The capital is uneasy from June 20 (NS/New Style July 3) when the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison take to the streets and threaten to overthrow the government if an order sending them to the front is not rescinded (an order which breaks, it must be admitted, the pact agreed with the Soviet).


Over the next two weeks more and more soldiers, sailors and factory workers gradually appear on the streets of the capital. Eventually, on July 4 (NS July 17), as many as 50,000 armed men surround the Tauride Palace in which the terrified members of the Provisional Government are meeting. But the crowd are uncertain what to do, and for a very good reason. The leaders from whom they expect guidance deliberately fail to encourage them. Lenin appears briefly but says nothing inflammatory. Trotsky, with great personal courage, persuades an angry and bewildered mob to release rather than lynch Viktor Chernov, a government minister whom they have captured.

The arrival of Lenin and Trotsky on the scene is a new element since the February revolution, and one of great significance.


The Bolsheviks

When the Russian imperial regime is suddenly toppled, in March 1917, none of Russia's leading Marxists are in the country - and all are taken completely by surprise by this turn of events. Lenin and his entourage are in Zurich, Trotsky is in New York.

Both realize that this is the moment to hurry home. Trotsky crosses the Atlantic to London, where he is briefly detained by the authorities before continuing his journey. Lenin faces an apparently greater problem. The German and Austrian empires, at war with his country, lie between him and Russia. But this proves to be a help rather than a hindrance. The German authorities, well aware of the damage that Lenin's presence will do to the Russian war effort, are keen to facilitate his journey.


A German engine, pulling a single carriage, is made available to him at the Swiss border. He and his colleagues travel via Frankfurt and Berlin to the Baltic coast (all customs formalities are waived). From the coast they cross to Stockholm and then on to Petrograd. When Lenin arrives at the capital city's Finland Station on 3 April 1917 (NS Apr. 16), it is the first time he has set foot in his native country since 1906.

He thus knows nothing from personal experience of conditions in Russia, where the recent uprising has confounded the Marxist theory that a bourgeois revolution must precede the inevitable next stage of proletarian rule. But on the train Lenin has been busily revising theory, writing his so-called April Theses.


Lenin receives a hero's welcome at the Finland Station. He immediately sets about trying to convince his colleagues of his new programme. In accordance with Marxist theory, the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet have been prepared to cooperate with the Provisional Government precisely because they see February 1917 as the bourgeois revolution which must succeed before they can have their turn.

Lenin, expounding his April Theses to stunned and at first hostile audiences, argues that the chance now exists for the proletariat and peasantry to seize power directly. He advocates three main policies. The first two are precisely what the people in Russia most want to hear - an immediate end to the war and redistribution of land to the peasants. Any party advocating these policies will win support.


Lenin's third main point is a practical one. The party should strengthen the soviets throughout the country, building an organization of soldiers, workers and peasants which will be ready to challenge the Provisional Government and seize power when the moment comes.

In the eyes of many enthusiasts the moment seems to come, almost accidentally, before the summer is out. The events of July 1917 bring so many armed rebels on to the streets of Petrograd that it would be easy to overwhelm the Provisional Government. But Lenin and Trotsky, taken again by surprise, make the snap decision that the moment is not yet. Victory in Petrograd would not be followed by similar success elsewhere. Like Marx in 1871, they find themselves in the surprising position of discouraging a revolution.



After the narrowly averted crisis of July 4 (NS/New Style July 17), the government's first reaction is to arrest the Bolshevik leaders and charge them with high treason. Trotsky and others are imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress. Lenin flees in disguise to Finland.

With this done, the gentle and ineffectual Prince Lvov steps down, with some relief, as head of the Provisional Government. He nominates Alexander Kerensky as prime minister in his place. It is a popular choice. Kerensky, serving as minister of war, has been the only politician in the government with a foot in both camps. He is an elected member of the Duma but serves also on the committee of the Petrograd Soviet.


An excellent orator, and an assiduous promoter of the cult of his own personality, Kerensky seems the man to hold together the two extremes of Russian politics. But he contrives to enrage both factions.

To persuade the right-wing party, the Kadets, to enter his new coalition, he limits the influence of the Petrograd Soviet in the Provisional Government - and thus alienates his socialist colleagues. But he then causes outrage in right-wing circles by dismissing the commander-in-chief of the army, Lavr Georgyevich Kornilov, whom he suspects of planning a coup d'état against the Provisional Government. Kornilov's response is to send troops to Petrograd with the stated intention of curtailing the power of the Soviet.


But the troops have no desire to fight their countrymen. Reaching the suburbs of the capital at the end of August, they are met by Soviet leaders urging them to lay down their arms. They do so without a shot being fired.

This damp squib of a confrontation benefits neither of the main contenders. The right wing loses (Kornilov is arrested and imprisoned) but so does Kerenksy's bloc of moderate Socialists, whose Provisional Government is clearly not in effective control. The winners are the outsiders, the Petrograd Soviet and more particularly the Bolsheviks - the only group which can rally the brute force to back up the people's demands. The Bolsheviks have lost popularity since the disappointment of July 4. With the Kornilov revolt their fortunes take an upward turn.


The polarization of Russian politics in these months is reflected in elections to the Duma. In June the Bolsheviks polled just 11% of the votes in Moscow; in September the figure rises to a majority of the votes cast, with 51% of the poll. Simultaneously the vote for the right-wing Kadets almost doubles, from 17% to 31%. The previous majority vote, for the moderate socialist parties, crumbles from 68% to 18%.

Meanwhile, as Kerensky indulges his folie de grandeur (he moves into the imperial suite in the Winter Palace, sleeps in the tsar's vast bed, has the red flag run up and down as he comes and goes, and is even fond of assuming Napoleonic poses), the situation in the country has been going from bad to worse.


In August the Germans have taken Riga, the capital of Latvia on the Baltic coast, from which it seems a distinct possibility that they will be able to strike at Petrograd itself. In the capital the Soviet, far from being diminished, is becoming more confident and aggressive.

Until now the Petrograd Soviet has been controlled by moderate socialists, including the Mensheviks - the party of which Trotsky was a member until persuaded by Lenin's April Theses to throw in his hand with the Bolsheviks. Now, released from prison in September, Trotsky stages a coup in the Soviet which results in a Bolshevik majority on the executive with himself as chairman. In the preceding weeks the Soviets in many Russian cities, including Moscow, have similarly fallen into Bolshevik hands.


The Bolsheviks have made little secret of their plans for seizing power, but Kerensky - with sublime but misplaced confidence - considers that any attempt is likely to be as feeble as the failed uprising of July. He even claims to look forward to such an event, as giving him a chance to crush the Bolsheviks once and for all. Indeed he appears deliberately to provoke this outcome when, in October, he announces plans to transfer the Petrograd garrison to the front - to forestall the danger of a German advance along the coast to Petrograd.

A similar order provoked the July uprising. It now, once again, has the same result.


The October Revolution

The Bolshevik leader most wanted by the police has been Lenin. He has escaped arrest in July by fleeing to Finland. But with the upturn of the fortunes of the Bolsheviks he decides that he must return to Petrograd. In early October he slips into the city, wearing a wig to cover his distinctive bald pate. He hides in the flat of a party worker, Margarita Fofanova.

On October 10 (NS/New Style October 23) he presides over a secret meeting of the central committee of the Bolshevik party. Here a fateful decision is taken. Lenin persuades a majority of those comrades who are present to vote for his own policy. They decide in favour of an armed insurrection - though without specifying as yet any intended date.


Lenin has a personal reason for urgency. The second All-Russian Soviet Congress is due to meet in Petrograd on October 20 (NS/New Style Nov. 2). If the uprising takes place after that date, with the backing of the Congress, any future government will have to include all the Socialist parties. But if the Bolsheviks can achieve it in advance of the Congress, on their own, Lenin may have a chance of achieving the one-party government necessary for his revolution.

Trotsky, as chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, contrives to set up a Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC). Ostensibly representing the entire Soviet, and supposedly a defensive organization against both the Germans and the counter-revolution, it is packed with Bolshevik members. It now prepares actively for the uprising.


The Soviet leaders, well aware of the Bolsheviks' barely kept secret, postpone the Congress by five days to give themselves time to rally their opposing forces. But the delay also gives the Bolsheviks valuable extra time to prepare their coup.

The Bolsheviks win the race by a matter of hours, greatly helped by Kerensky's decision to send the Petrograd garrison to the front. This order provokes a mutiny. The soldiers transfer their allegiance to the MRC, which by October 21 (NS/New Style Nov. 3) has control of the garrison. Two days later the Peter and Paul fortress, with its ramparts and cannon overlooking the Winter Palace, is in MRC hands.


Petrograd is now under the military control of the Bolsheviks, but Lenin (still in hiding) is in a minority in arguing for immediate action. Meanwhile, as in early July, the streets are filling with angry soldiers and workers. Desperate not to miss the opportunity, at 10 pm on October 24 (NS/New Style Nov. 6), Lenin hurries through the streets, in disguise, to party headquarters. Here he persuades the central committee to order an immediate insurrection.

Thanks to Soviet propaganda, and Eisenstein's film Ten Days That Shook the World), the events of the next 24 hours have become enshrined in popular myth as a glamorous popular uprising. In fact the storming of the Winter Palace is a chaotically executed coup against a regime with no strength to resist.


The cannon in the Peter and Paul fortress turn out to be rusty museum pieces, incapable of firing. When replacements are found, their shells are of the wrong size. In the event the most impressive explosion is the blast from a blank shell fired from the cruiser Aurora on the Neva river.

Nevertheless during October 25 (NS/New Style Nov.7) there is a large build-up of Bolshevik soldiers and sailors on the square in front of the Winter Palace, inside which the ministers of the Provisional Government are trapped. Spraying the building with machine gun and rifle bullets, the Bolsheviks greatly outnumber the small detachment within. At about 2 am in the morning of October 26 they are able to rush into the building unopposed.


The rebels are furious to discover that Kerensky has made his escape (he lives abroad until his death in 1970), but the rest of the ministers are bundled off to the Peter and Paul fortress.

While these events are taking place, the delegates to the Soviet Congress are assembling to begin their first session at 10 pm. Although this is four hours before the Winter Palace falls, the Bolsheviks successfully contrive to present the uprising as a fait accompli. Lenin's first purpose has been achieved. His next and more difficult task is to outmanoeuvre his Socialist colleagues in seizing the power which has this night been forcibly relinquished by the Provisional Government.


Bolshevik political strategy

In the Soviet Congress which assembles during the night of October 25 (NS Nov. 7) the Bolsheviks have the largest number of delegates (300 out of 670) but they are not a majority. They will find it hard to overturn the first resolution of the assembly, passed unanimously, which proposes a united democratic government including all the Socialist parties. But in this crucial meeting, shaping the future of Russia, they are helped by a short-sighted act of petulance by two of their rival parties.

A large number of Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary delegates storm out of the hall, protesting that they will have nothing to do with the day's criminal acts of violence which, they rightly argue, are well calculated to provoke a civil war.


With the opposition thus diminished, and with a golden chance to smear the two rival parties as counter-revolutionary, Lenin and Trotsky are able to achieve their purpose of forming a revolutionary government which purports to represent the Soviet but has only Bolshevik members. It is to be called the Soviet of People's Commissars.

The new government wastes no time. On October 26 (NS/New Style Nov. 8) Lenin presents to the Congress two bills fulfilling the main planks of the Bolshevik platform. The first, his Decree of Peace, invites Russia's enemies to enter into immediate peace negotiations (thus beginning a process in which the weakness of Russia's position leads to the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918).


Many in Russia have longed for peace at almost any price but Lenin's second bill, his Decree on Land, is even more what the vast majority of the nation have been waiting to hear. All the vast estates of the imperial family, the church, the monasteries and the large landowners are to be expropriated without compensation, and the land is to be distributed to the peasants.

The Bolsheviks encourage village communes all over the nation to get on with this enticing programme, thus unleashing an ongoing revolution which it will be their political task to control. And they do the same in other contexts, giving local power to factory workers and soldiers' committees. The resulting chaos can be expected to hamper any coherent reistance by landowners, capitalists or generals.


The seizing of secure political power at the centre is certain to be a hard task (the rival socialist parties assume it to be impossible, confidently expecting the imminent collapse of the Bolshevik regime) and it is made more difficult by the non-cooperation of the civil service. The Russian state bank, for example, refuses to provide cash for what it considers an illegal regime - a situation only resolved when the Bolsheviks raid the bank like armed robbers, using guns to force the employees to unlock the vaults. Five million roubles are carted off to Lenin's office.

The political infighting to secure the Bolshevik position is carried out with equal ruthlessness. It is a process for which Lenin has an exceptional talent.


Constituent Assembly

The main political threat to the Bolsheviks lies in the proposed Constituent Assembly, seen by all the moderate socialists as Russia's democratic baptism. The Bolsheviks have criticized the Provisional Government for not delivering this first freely elected assembly. Much as Lenin would now like to suppress the proposal for an assembly, it is impolitic to do so.

In the run up to polling, due to begin on 12 November 1917 (NS Nov. 25), outrage is caused when the opposition press is banned, editors are arrested and printing machinery is smashed by Bolshevik gangs. Even so the Socialist Revolutionary party win 419 seats to only 168 for the Bolsheviks (with a mere 18 seats for the Mensheviks).


Lenin has the gall to declare that the results are invalid on two counts - because he finds evidence of electoral malpractice in certain rural areas, and because the election has been held before the peasantry has had time to realize the significance of the October revolution. But in practical terms the immediate task is to deny any power to the forthcoming assembly.

Lenin's first step, on November 20 (NS/New Style Dec.3), is to postpone indefinitely the first meeting of the elected delegates, which had been due in eight days' time. The resulting march of protest is followed by the arrest of many of the leaders of the other three main parties, and the banning of the only non-socialist party, the Kadets.


By the end of December criminals are being released from prison to make way for the increasing number of political detainees. And a sinister new body has been formed to deal with such matters. Known at this time as the Cheka (its full title is translated as the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage), it later acquires a more familiar name as the KGB. A tsarist police state is being very rapidly transformed into a communist one.

By now Lenin is arguing, in a new set of Theses, that any 'bourgeois-democratic' assembly has become irrelevant, because power has passed to the Soviets, the representatives of the people. Yet the assembly now has a date for its first sitting - 5 January 1918 (NS Jan. 18).


To coincide with this important event a demonstration is organized by the Union for the Defence of the Constituent Assembly. About 30,000 people march peacefully towards the assembly building, the Tauride Palace. Unlike earlier gatherings of this kind in St Petersburg, they do not find themselves confronted by ranks of troops. Instead they are suddenly fired upon by hidden Bolshevik machine-gunners, concealed among the rooftops. At least ten people are killed.

The assembly opens at 4 pm, with delegates angry and distressed at the day's events. Bolshevik soldiers are in the hall, drinking vodka, yelling abuse, drowning out the words of opposition speakers.


A Bolshevik speaker puts before the assembly a Declaration of Rights of the Working People. When a majority of the deputies reject the document, the Bolshevik contingent marches out of the hall. Lenin then declares that the assembly will be dismissed because it has fallen into the hands of counter-revolutionaries. The debate is allowed to continue until 4.40 am the next morning, when the troops guarding the building bring it to a close on the grounds that they are tired. Deputies returning the next day are refused admission. They are given the text of a decree declaring the assembly dissolved.

Russia's first brief experience of democracy has come to an abrupt end. But Lenin's revolution still has plenty of trouble on its hands outside the hothouse of Petrograd.


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