In February 1917, at the height of the First World War, the Russian tsarist government was overthrown and the tsar, Nicholas II, was forced to abdicate. A provisional government took power, a coalition of ex-Duma members and moderate socialists – Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, but it could only exist with the powerful support of the workers, represented by councils or ‘soviets’. Between them, the provisional government and the soviets, they ran the country as a ‘dual power’.
Many Russian workers felt they’d been sold short – they’d expected that the February Revolution and the overthrow of the tsar would bring about the end of Russia’s participation in the war. But instead the government was intent on continuing the fight. The provisional government, it seemed, was no less bourgeois than the Romanovs.
‘All power to the Soviets!’
Workers and soldiers took to the streets brandishing the slogan, ‘All power to the Soviets!’ meaning an abolition of the dual power. From 16–20 July (by the Gregorian calendar), half a million workers and soldiers rebelled demanding an immediate end to the war. The demonstration became known as the ‘July Days’.
Initially, the Bolsheviks, whom had little truck with the moderate Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, gave the demonstrations their backing but soon became uneasy, fearing that the soviets were not quite ready for full power. Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, tried to put a halt to proceedings and distanced himself from the demonstrators. Too late. Troops loyal to the Provisional Government appeared to restore order by force and the government’s new War Minister, Alexander Kerensky, ordered the arrest of the Bolshevik leadership. (Pictured: troops of the Provisional Government open fire on demonstrators during the July Days riots, July 1917).
Lenin in disguise
Lenin went into hiding, residing in a straw hut in the forests next to Lake Razliv, north of Petrograd (as St Petersburg was known during the First World War). Here he stayed for a month, disguised as a haymaker, writing and contemplating. By the end of August, Lenin had left Razliv for the safety of Finland. Disguised by a clean-shave and a wig, he travelled under the name of K. Ivanov, a worker from an arms factory. It was during this time that Lenin wrote his State and Revolution, outlining the future of the revolution. He predicted that the State and democracy would whither away, to be replaced by Soviets. Meanwhile, Leon Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks, still caught in Petrograd, were being arrested and imprisoned.
The ‘July Days’ may have been easily quashed, but it caused serious ructions within the government. On 21 July, Prince Lvov resigned, handing power over to Kerensky (pictured). Members of the bourgeois parties, such as the Kadets, also left, resulting in a new coalition comprising mostly of Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, who still led the way within the Soviets. Kerensky had reason to be pleased – he had brought the moderate socialists into his government and, in suppressing the July demonstrations, had dealt the Bolsheviks such a blow from which, he hoped, they would never recover. To reinforce the message, he banned the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda.
‘Peace, bread and land’
But recover the Bolsheviks did, and unhindered by the responsibilities of power, they were able to throw insults at the coalition government and bandy about slogans that appealed to the disillusioned masses, such as ‘Peace, bread and land’. Workers formed bands of militia, named Red Guards, trained in part by the Bolsheviks, and by August 1917, over twenty cities could boast an armed wing to its Soviet council.
Their cause was made that much easier by the insurmountable problems of war faced by Kerensky and his new coalition government – defeat at the front, mass desertions, and the total loss of morale. On 1 September, German forces took the Latvian city of Riga – the enemy was now within 300 miles of Petrograd (still, at this point, the capital of Russia).
By early September, the Bolsheviks had become the majority party within both the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. Across the country, the Soviets were now predominantly Bolshevik. From Finland, at the end of the month, Lenin urged his party to stage an uprising but the Bolsheviks in Petrograd, despite their popularity, were not keen, fearing another failure as experienced with the July Days fiasco.
Another month on, they were ready.
Rupert Colley’s novel, The Black Maria, a story of fear set in Stalin’s Moscow, is now available.