Background to war

he October Revolution

'It was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus into Russia.'

- Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, Volume Five

The 304-year reign of the Romanov dynasty came to an end on 15 March 1917 (Gregorian calendar, new-style date). The Russian 'February Revolution' had begun in earnest on 8 March, much as the French Revolution of 1789 had, as a direct result of women marching in search of bread. For the first time in imperial history, military forces sent to quell the ever-widening circle of discontented citizens of Petrograd refused to fire and actually joined the demonstrators. The hard winter of 1917 had exacerbated the food and fuel shortages and had compounded the widespread discontent that had reached endemic proportions over Russia's iil-fated participation in World War One.

In the words of Vassily Shulgin, a conservative politician in the Duma, 'Only hot lead could drive this terrible beast, that somehow had burst free, back into its den.' But no hot lead was forthcoming. Out of an available garrison of 180,200 troops in the environs of Petrograd, 170,000 had taken to the streets. The order of Tsar Nicholas II to put an end 'to all disturbances in the capital' fell on deaf ears.

Crowds began tearing down images of the double-headed eagle, ancient symbol of the Romanovs. In vain, Nicholas sought to rally a favourable political consensus and bodies of still-loyal troops. However, one by one, his great captains and politicians recommended abdication, an action he undertook aboard his imperial train on 15 March.

This 'February Revolution' caught Russia's political exiles, including Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir llyich Ulyanov (alias Lenin), by surprise. Horn in 1870, Lenin had by his teenage years become a devotee of Karl Marx, the German ideologue who had written the Communist Manifesto in 1848. His politically subversive writings led to his exile to Siberia from 1895 to 1900, after which he left Russia for Europe to travel, engage in political polemics and to study and lecture at the University of Zurich, Active in politics, Lenin led the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party from 1903, a faction fully committed to revolution.

Calculating that a dangerous revolutionary could help further undermine Russia's fragile commitment to continuing the war, the Germans assisted Lenin's travel from Switzerland across their territory to Finland. After crossing the Russo-Finnish border, Lenin arrived at Finland Station, Petrograd, on Easter Sunday 1917. There, in the darkened evening illuminated by spotlights, he delivered the first of his speeches on top of an armoured car, the famous 'April Theses' extolling continued revolution and hard action against the Provisional Government. Political factions that had been united in the fall of the tsar now emerged to each push their particular agenda to the fore. Leon Trotsky, the future architect of the Red Army, and Josef Stalin, the future dictator of the Soviet Union, had arrived earlier, Stalin from Siberia to take up his new post as Bolshevik Central Committee boss in Petrograd, ami Trotsky from a recent trip to the United States.

Meanwhile, the new Provisional Government had formed in mid-March, a coalition of predominately middle-class, liberal-socialists. This government would be 'provisional' until full, representative elections could be held to determine the political composition of a Constituent

The origins of communism in Russia

The Russian Social Democratic I-abour Party (RSDLP), which was committed to Marxist principles, formed in Minsk, Russia in March 1898. The party split in 1903-04, during the Second Party Congress in l.ondon, the faction led by I .en in insisting on a platform of 'democratic centralism', or a group of elite revolutionaries ieading a limited party membership. The other side, led by Julius Martov, argued for a much larger party with significantly greater participation and wider democratic powers. This issue was critical because a larger membership would ensure a greater democratic process, but naturally be more divisive on the path to reform or revolution. A central party elite, on the other hand, could be more decisive, but practically lead to the concentration of power into too few hands.

Although neither faction normally had a majority in the proceedings, Lenin's supporters, by winning a narrow one-time vote, became known as Bolsheviks or 'majority' (socialists), while Martov's adherents received the less attractive accolade of Mensheviks or 'minority' (socialists). Attempts at collusion and compromise failed and in 1912, the Bolsheviks expelled the Mensheviks from the RSDLP and formed their own separate faction within the Duma in 1913, a faction that would accelerate the road to revolution.

In 1918, the party became known as the Ail-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), Under Lenin and the early years of Stalin, 'Bolshevik' and 'Communist' were often used interchangeably, although the foreign press, the Whites and the Nationalists tended to use 'Bolshevik'. During the period of Allied Intervention, British soldiers referred to them as 'liolshies', the Americans calling them 'Bolos'. In 1952, at Stalin's behest it became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the word Bolshevik became passe, relegated to the early period of development and the civil war.

The Gates of the Winter Palace, stormed by the Red Guards during the October Revolution.These gates were immortalized in the Sergei Eisenstein film October in Wie 1920s. (Bullock collection)

The Gates of the Winter Palace, stormed by the Red Guards during the October Revolution.These gates were immortalized in the Sergei Eisenstein film October in Wie 1920s. (Bullock collection)

Red Guard Firing Winter Palace

Assembly, which would itself decide the future government of Russia, Prince Georgi Lvov, a liberal member of the Duma, proved acceptable as the first prime minister, while Alexander Kerensky, a Socialist Revolutionary, became first minister of justice.

In the turbulent months ahead, Kerensky's career enjoyed a meteoric rise: he became minister for war on 18 May and prime minister on 21 July. These roles brought him into direct confrontation with Lenin. Lenin's message of 'Peace, Land and Bread' was particularly challenging to Kerensky's coalition. 'Peace' meant surrendering to the aspirations of the Central Powers and an abrogation of pledges Russia had given to the Allies. 'Land', the Socialist Revolutionaries were prepared to give, and the Liberals willing to discuss, but only after the future Constituent Assembly had elected a new Duma and had hammered out the details constitutionally. 'Bread' would be a problem that not even the Bolshevik Revolution could solve.

Ironically, both Kerensky and Lenin had several personal circumstances in common: Kerensky hailed from the same town as Lenin - Simbirsk on the Volga - both had Jewish blood and both had studied law at university. Kerensky's father, in fact, had briefly taught the young Lenin.

Nevertheless, increasingly two governments existed side-by-side in the capital; the ever-shifting coalitions of the Provisional Government and the more

Alexander Kerensky (right). (Museum of Contemporary Events in Russia, 1926)

shadowy but vociferous government of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' Deputies, composed of Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks who leaned towards Lenin rather than Kerensky.

Remaining committed to the war, the Provisional Government undertook the 'July Offensive' in support of the Allies who were deadlocked with the Central Powers on the Western Front. After initial successes, the offensive became costly and in several sectors the ensuing retreat assumed the proportions of a rout. Seizing on the resulting demonstrations against the war and agitation for land reform, the Bolsheviks attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government from 16 to 18 July, an abortive coup known as the 'July Days'. Lenin, whom Kerensky had ordered to be shot on sight, went into hiding while Trotsky was arrested.

On 1 August, Kerensky appointed General Lavr Komilov commander-in chief, an appointment he would soon regret. Driven by the need to restore order at the front, Komilov moved against the Provisional Government from 6 to 14 September, ordering General Krymov's 3rd Cavalry Corps to capture Petrograd, Kornilov's stated purpose was to purge the city and government of disloyal elements and save Russia.

In response, Kerensky opened the arsenals to arm the Petrograd Soviet who promptly called on all loyal adherents to erect field emplacements at key points controlling the city. Deputations of agitators met Krymov's troops en route, and through fraternization so demoralized them that the advance melted away. Thoroughly shaken, Krymov committed suicide. Komilov was arrested along with the generals that had supported him, including Denikin, Lukomsky, Romanovsky and Markov.

While Lenin hid out in a small peasant's hut in the woods north of the capital, Kerensky took up quarters in the former tsar's imperial suite at the Winter Palace, each waiting for the final struggle. Meanwhile, soviets, or 'councils', sprang to power in Russia's towns and cities. Nationalists, inspired by the devolution of authority away from the geographical centre, began preparations to declare autonomy or independence from the former Russian Empire.

By early October, the Bolsheviks had managed to win a majority in the Petrograd Soviet and Trotsky was elected chairman on the 6th. I.enin arrived surreptitiously in Petrograd the following day, and on the 13th began demanding an immediate uprising against the government, an exhortation that was agreed to during a meeting of the Congress of Soviets of the Northern Region three days later. Forty thousand men of the Latvian Rifles, former tsarist soldiers who had been converted to Bolshevism, were promised to counter any move by Kerensky. The Military Revolutionary Committee was formed on 25 October, and the Bolsheviks established their main position at the Smolny Institute in Petrograd where they could easily attack government facilities.

All eyewitnesses attest to the eerie, inexplicable calm that enveloped the city in the final days before the coup. Kerensky had surrounded his quarters at the Winter Palace with 800 troops, six armoured cars, six pieces of artillery and 19 machine guns. Both he and the commandant of the Petrograd garrison, Colonel Polkovnikov, expressed confidence that they were more than a match for the Bolsheviks. Not content to wait, on 5 November Kerensky ordered the arrest of the Military Revolutionary Committee, closed Bolshevik newspapers and cut the telephone lines to Smolny. Additional troops thought loyal were brought in, including the 1st Petrograd Women's Battalion. Visible tension had now come to the city.

On Tuesday, 6 November, the Bolsheviks strengthened Smolny with barricades and artillery. Both sides began taking control of key points in the city, including the bridges. Kerensky called a session of his ministers, but nothing except scuffles in the street had taken place by evening. Lenin, waiting at a colleague's apartment, now penned a furious letter to the regional party committees, going directly to the membership, demanding immediate action. The letter ended with The Government is tottering. We must deal it the death blow at any cost.' He then moved directly to Smolny.

Kerensky meanwhile had been up all night. He positioned himself in the early hours of 7 November at the General Staff Building across the square from the Winter Palace where he issued orders to troops, who did not respond. Returning to the palace he took a moment's respite on the bed of Nicholas II before rising at 9 am to discover his phone connections dead and the closest bridge over the Neva River in Bolshevik hands.

The revolution that day assumed more of the proportions of a tragi-comedy than the blazing epic portrayed in later years by Soviet movie propagandist Sergei Ei sen stein." That morning, Kerensky decided to leave the city in order to raise loyal troops in person. This was not easy because Bolshevik sympathizers had disabled all Russian automobiles in the vicinity. Eventually, he convinced the American embassy to loan him a Renault car, which he said he would return in a few days. In the meantime, his staff also had commandeered a Pierce-Arrow car. Sitting in the Pierce-Arrow with the Renault in front, still flying the American flag from the hood, Kerensky raced off for the tow:n of Gatchina and lunch.

Lenin also had been up most of the night. Wednesday, 7 November found him at Smolny with the Military Revolutionary Committee, demanding the coup go forward. At 10 am, he declared the deposition of the Provisional Government and Bolsheviks began plastering the announcement across the city. The government, however, still existed.

Throughout the day, Red Guards and sailors from Kronstadt gradually infiltrated the city and captured most strategic points in the central area. Entering the Mariinsky Palace that afternoon, they simply told the

The revolutionary Soviet i'aiwi.ii: film director whose four main films were October, Battleship Fotemkin, Alexander Nei'sky and Ivon the Terrible,

Soviet Palace
The Fortress of Peter and Paul. (© Corbis)

government officials to leave, and they did. By late afternoon all communications centres, railway terminals and major public buildings were in their hands. The garrison of Petrograd had stood idly by, refusing to take sides.

Meanwhile, the last of Kerensky's ministers had retreated to the Malachite Chamber of the Winter Palace to await events. Their defenders were a handful of cadets and the 1st Petrograd Women's Battalion, much of the other garrison having trickled away in sections. Upon this tiny group the Bolsheviks now focused their attention. According to convention, the defenders would be asked to surrender, and if they did not, a red lantern would be hoisted and the cruiser Aurora, anchored nearby, would commence firing on the Winter Palace.

In the end, the ultimatum was refused and the Bolsheviks, failing to find a red lantern, eventually shot off a purple flare. This was thought good enough and the Aurora started firing at 6:30 pm, but only with blank shells. Orders to have the guns at the Fortress of Peter and Paul start firing were to no avail bccause those guns had not been properly serviced. Eventually, at 11 pm, these were brought into line but 33 of the shells fell wide, only two hitting and damaging the plaster of inside rooms. In response, the cadets fired their machine guns into the dark and the Women's Battalion got up and left.

The last moments came at 2 am on 8 November when the Bolsheviks, who had already infiltrated the palace in force, prepared to enter the room where the remnants of Kerensky's ministers resided. One faithful cadet prepared to make the last stand, but the minister of justice declined to countenance violence. Military Revolutionary Committee member Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko walked through the door at the head of his Bolshevik troops and announced the arrest of the Provisional Government.

Such was the vaunted October Revolution, Only six casualties resulted and these among the attackers. In Lenin's own words, the Party had 'found power lying in the streets and simply pickcd it up'.

As news of the revolution's success in Petrograd spread, similar uprisings occurred in most of Russia's cities. At noon on 7 November, the Bolsheviks in Moscow began forming a Military Revolutionary Committee while the mayor of the city, a Socialist Revolu I ionary, began organizing a Committee of Public Safety, both sides girding for conflict.

Fifty thousand Red Guards, most hailing from the city's many factories, invaded the city centre and captured the ancient medieval fortress, the Kremlin. In response, on 9 November, the Committee of Public Safety directed its 10,000 men, consisting of officers, cadets and the still-dependable troops at its disposal to counter-attack. They recaptured the city centre, with the Kremlin falling the following day.

Over the next few days, Moscow's defenders held the city centre in street-to-street fighting while Lenin ordered reinforcements and arms into the city from outlying areas in support of the lieds. On 15 November the Kremlin was breached by

Lenin (centre) and Stalin (centre right) hear the opening guns of the cruiser Aurora. (Painting, by S. I. Dudnik. c. 1930s)

Lenin (centre) and Stalin (centre right) hear the opening guns of the cruiser Aurora. (Painting, by S. I. Dudnik. c. 1930s)

Stalin Painting

artillery and the final lied Guard assault went in. The Bolsheviks suffered 228 killed, while the number of dead among the defenders went unrecorded.

As the new Bolshevik-dominated regime came to power, the struggle to retain that power began in earnest. On 13 November, the Petrograd Red Guards had successfully turned back General Krasnov's Cossacks at Pulkovo Heights, just outside the city. This ended the threat of Kerensky's counter-revolution. However, Russia was still technically at war with the Central Powers. Moreover, new nationalist states based on the peripheries of the now-broken empire began to declare independence: the Ukraine on 20 November, Finland on 6 December, and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in the early weeks of 1918.

liussia was in chaos. Industrial production had come to a standstill. Winter was coming and the scarcity of food in the hungry cities promised famine. Ominously, those discontented with the path of revolution began to gather. And liussia would soon be plunged into the bloodiest civil war of the 20th century.

Eisenstein Storming The Winter Palace
'Storming the Winter Palace' by R P Sokolov-Skalia. (Iskusstvo, 1940)

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  • emmi
    What happened to the winter palace after the russian revolution'?
    8 years ago

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