A summary of the October Revolution of 1917.
The Russian tsar, Nicholas II, had been disposed following the February Revolution of 1917 to be replaced by a provisional government, headed by Alexander Kerensky, and aided and hampered in equal measure by the various councils of workers, or ‘soviets’. These soviets comprised of representatives of various socialist parties, including the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. The relatively obscure Bolshevik party, headed by the charismatic Vladimir Lenin, may have preached ‘All power to the Soviets’, but their real aim was for one-party rule.
‘History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating’
‘The situation is critical in the extreme. It is absolutely clear that to delay the insurrection now will be inevitably fatal. I exhort my comrades with all my heart and strength to realize that everything now hangs by a thread, that we are being confronted by problems that cannot be solved by conferences and congresses but exclusively by the people, the masses, by the struggle of the armed masses. We must at all costs, this very evening, this very night, arrest the Government… We must not wait! We will lose everything! History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating when they can be victorious today, while they risk losing much, in fact, everything, tomorrow.’
The October Revolution in Petrograd (modern day St Petersburg) on 7 November 1917 (25 October, Old Style) was not, in fact, the first socialist uprising within the Russian empire. Two days before, Jaan Anvelt, an Estonian Bolshevik, led a successful uprising in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
‘The Dustbin of History’
In Petrograd, when, finally it happened, it did so quickly. The Bolsheviks, with Leon Trotsky’s militia at the fore, seized control of various government facilities and points of communication. It left only the Winter Palace, the seat of government, to overcome. Soviet tradition had it that a single blank shot fired from the ship Aurora, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, signalled the storming of the Winter Palace. Subduing Cossack guards and women from the Women’s Battalion, the revolutionaries found Kerensky’s cabinet and arrested them on the spot. The illiterate revolutionaries forced them to write their own arrest warrants. Meanwhile, Lenin, never one to expose himself to danger, donned a disguise, hid and waited for news. In the end, the toppling of Kerensky’s Provisional Government had been bloodless and easy. There were no demonstrations, no violence. Not a shot was fired. All told, it was a very different revolution to February.
Later that evening on the momentous day of 7 November, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets met in the Smolny Institute. The meeting was not without disagreement. Moderate socialists argued that the Bolsheviks’ overthrow of the Provisional Government, of which many had been members, was illegal and walked out in protest. As they left, Trotsky, who’s 38th birthday it was, sneered at them, ‘You’re finished; you pitiful bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you now belong – into the dustbin of history’.
The New Socialist Order
The next day, Congress met again. Power, it assumed, would pass to an all-party Soviet government. But Lenin had no intention of sharing power with other parties, even socialist ones; despite his famous slogan, this was to be no coalition. Opening the meeting, Lenin declared, ‘We shall now proceed to construct the Socialist order!’ He then announced his Decree on Peace, a proposal for the immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war; and the Decree on Land, the abolition, without compensation, of private property, and the redistribution of the land amongst the peasantry, including lands belonging to churches and monasteries. Land belonged to all – it could no longer be sold or rented. Over the next few weeks, other reforms were announced: banks were to be nationalized, private accounts confiscated; foreign debts cancelled; control of the factories passed to the soviets. Wages were increased, and a shorter, eight-hour working day introduced. The Decree on the Press effectively brought to an end freedom of the press. Titles and ranks were abolished, free love and abortion permitted, religion cast aside.
Lenin then instituted the new government, the Council of People’s Commissars, abbreviated as Sovnarkom. The only offer to outside parties was to a number of more radical or Left Socialist Revolutionaries, those who had split from the main SR party; otherwise it was made up entirely of Bolsheviks. The more moderate Bolsheviks, still believing that a coalition of socialists was the way forward, resigned. Lenin offered the post of chairman, in effect, head of government, to Trotsky (pictured) but the latter, declining the offer, became the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs instead and so Lenin became its Chair. Joseph Stalin was given the post People’s Commissariat of Nationalities, established specifically to deal with the non-Russian elements of the empire, to ensure their inclusion within the socialist orbit.
Of the original 17 triumphant members of this Council, only six were to die of natural causes, among them Lenin and Stalin. All the others would die victims of Stalin’s purges.
‘You can’t make a revolution wearing white gloves’
With his Bolshevik government now in place, on 20 December Lenin established his secret police – something Kerensky had never done. The ‘All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage’, known by the name Cheka, was headed by the ruthless Felix ‘Iron’ Dzerzhinsky. It soon became an instrument of repression that equalled then surpassed the work of the tsar’s own secret police, the Okhrana, arresting and torturing members of other parties and anyone it deemed anti-Bolshevik. ‘You can’t make a revolution wearing white gloves,’ said Lenin. But it was only meant to be a short-term measure – the ultimate goal of socialism was communism and with communism, the ‘state would wither away’, to use Karl Marx’s phrase. There would be no need for the mechanics of state control and repression would become a thing of the past: ‘Entire society will be one office and one factory with equality of labour and equality of pay,’ Lenin predicted.
Of course, things didn’t quite work out that way.