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The October Revolution of 1917 was a major turning point in Russian, and indeed world history, when in 1917 the Bolshevik Party of Russia overthrew the Russian Provisional Government over one night and established the first Marxist-Socialist state in the world.
The October Revolution is less frequently called the November Revolution, as it was dated 25th October on the Julian Calendar and 7th November on the Gregorian Calendar.
During the February Revolution, a broad coalition including social democrats (Mensheviks), agricultural socialists (Socialist-Revolutionaries), constitutional democrats (KaDets), and communist-socialists (Bolsheviks) forced forced the Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. From March 1917 a dual-power system had governed in Russia: the Soviets (workers' councils) and the Provisional Government each exercised and shared power. While the Provisional Government was liberal, it steadfastly supported Russia's war effort, despite the mass unpopularity for continuing fighting.
The weak Provisional Government[note 1], which suffered from factionalism and generally failed in its scant attempts to address the problems of the Russian people, leading to "July Days" protests in the summer. The protests were crushed, and temporarily weakened the Soviets, while severely weakening the Bolsheviks (who were blamed for leading the protests, expelled from the ruling coalition, and arrested or driven underground). Another result of the July Days was the reorganization of the government- most of the centrist Kadet ministers resigned, leaving the government largely in the hands of non-Bolshevik socialists... which would not end well for said socialists.
The precise details of what happened next are still sketchy, but the story generally goes: in mid-August Alexander Kerensky, the newly appointed Minister-Chairman (Prime Minister) of the Government, sought the help of commander-in-chief of the military Lavr Kornilov in suppressing the Soviet that largely controlled the city of Petrograd, capital of Russia at the time[note 2]. Once Kornilov ordered an army to march on Petrograd, Kerensky accused him of attempting a coup d'etat and fired him, which of course led Kornilov to actually attempt a coup d'etat. This became known as the Kornilov Affair. Kerensky cut a deal with the Bolsheviks, freeing their jailed leaders and providing arms to the Workers' Brigades under the direction of the Petrograd Soviet to combat the coup's forces- but Kornilov's army crumbled before any fighting could happen and Kornilov was arrested, ending the affair bloodlessly. In defeating the coup, Kerensky had successfully alienated his own military while strengthening his most potent opposition.
In early September (mid-September to the rest of the world), Kerensky officially declared Russia to be a republic (also officially ending the Romanov dynasty, the fate of which had been undecided since February's revolution), and reorganized the government into a five-man "Directorate" in an effort to strengthen it ahead of elections to form a new Constituent Assembly (parliament). However, it was too little, too late. The Provisional Government had shown itself to be shockingly fragile and indecisive in the face of a crisis, and suddenly, completely lacked the support of the military; Kerensky had also alienated leftists by not implementing socialist reforms that had been promised. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, had come out of the Kornilov Affair with new popularity, as they were seen as having saved Russia from a reactionary military dictator, when the Government was unable to do so. This surge in popularity led the Bolsheviks to quickly gain a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, setting the stage for a final showdown between the Government and the Soviets.
Vladimir Lenin had been exiled since 1907 (and had spent 1900 to 1905 in western Europe) only returning in April 1917, to assume a leading position among the Bolsheviks. Leon Trotsky also returned from exile that same month. Trotsky, who had been non-aligned between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, was jailed along with Bolshevik leaders following the July Days and emerged from incarceration as a Bolshevik. Trotsky was elected chair of the Petrograd Soviet, under whose direction the armed Workers' Brigades operated. The Workers' Brigades grew in strength under Lenin and Trotsky's agitation, feeding off defections from the imperial army, until they became the dominant armed force in Petrograd, and aligned themselves with the Bolsheviks under the slogan, "All Power to the Soviets." Among the armed Bolsheviks were the crew of the cruiser Aurora, who gave the signal for the Petrograd Workers' Brigades to begin an assault on the Winter Palace. On the night of October 25th, the Workers' Brigades marched through Petrograd to the Winter Palace and Kerensky's Provisional Government fled virtually without a fight.
Glorification in the Soviet Union
While the events of October were largely a bloodless revolution, latter-day education and propaganda in the Soviet Union was exacerbated to make the events of October seem more violent, heroic and generally revolutionary than they actually were. Movies later made romanticized the Revolution, such as The Storming of the Winter Palace in 1920 and October in 1928.
During the ensuing Civil War the western powers (and Japan) wanted to make sure that the Reds didn't get their hands on weapons and supplies that they hoped would go to the White (non-Communist) forces. As a result several nations, including the United States, deployed troops to Russia in an attempt to intervene, and some saw military action. While this expedition largely became a footnote in American military history, during the Cold War the Soviets liked to use it to try and make the Americans look like bad imperialists (forgetting the far more recent Soviet ventures into Budapest or Prague). The number of troops sent was actually negligible, most only keeping open the supply lines to the Whites rather than actually fighting alongside them—something the Whites repeatedly complained of.
Rise of the Soviet Union
The October Revolution marked the beginning of a bloody civil war that lasted until 1921. Many factions were involved, including anarchists and nationalist groups among the old empire's national minorities, in addition to the Tsarist Whites and the Bolshevik Reds. The Bolsheviks prevailed through a combination of superior organization as a unified force against a divided, disorganized opposition, and shrewd political deals with national minorities that resulted in the system of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Revolution was the beginning of the first socialist state in the world. Lenin was head of the Party until his death in 1924, two years after the Soviet Union was officially created. After a power struggle between Trotsky and Stalin, Stalin became became undisputed leader from 1924 to his death in 1953. By the end of WWII, the once agriculturally-based backwards Russia had become a superpower capable of rivaling the United States herself. Ultimately, however, she was incapable of rivaling the domestic economic growth of the United States and the rest of the Western world throughout the Cold War and the system of purchased loyalty upon which the Soviet bloc was maintained proved a breeding ground for corruption and an unsustainable economic drain.
Decline of the Soviet Union
The corruption and stagnation of the Brezhnev era led the KGB to recognize it as a threat to national security and mount an anti-corruption campaign that weakened the CPSU "Brezhnocrat" old guard and cleared the way for the reformist leaders Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev. However, fractious interest-group politics that followed Gorbachev's Perestroika (restructuring) led the reform efforts into chaos that resulted in the breakup of the Soviet bloc, the Soviet Union itself, and a coup d'etat led by Boris Yeltsin against the Russian parliament and the remaining power of the Communist Party, in 1993. After all those changes the old corruption of the Soviet bureaucrats was replaced by the new corruption of the oligarchs, and hope that the post-Soviet era would lead to better economic and social conditions faded.
- "Zhurnal [No. 1] Soveta Ministrov Vremennogo Pravitel'stva," 2 March 1917, GARF (State Archive of the Russian Federation), f. 601, op. 1, d. 2103, l. 1
- Lenin, Vladimir (27 September 1964) . Apresyan, Stephen, ed. One of the Fundamental Questions of the Revolution (in Russian). 25. Jim Riordan (4th ed.). Moscow: Progress Publishers. pp. 370–77.
- The Kornilov Affair
- Aleksandr Kerensky on Britannica
- Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections
- The Provisional Government, by definition, was meant to be a temporary government to rule until elections and a new, more permanent government could be set up. As such, the initial leaders were unelected, and were mostly politicians and bureaucrats left over from the waning days of the Tsar's regime- giving the government an unwelcome "bourgeois" appearance, which the Bolsheviks were more than happy to exploit.
- This is the main sticking point. It's unclear if Kerensky actually asked for (or ordered) the assistance or not. Kornilov was known to be deeply conservative and loyal to the Tsar, and had been agitating for a more authoritarian central government. Meanwhile, Kerensky was a moderate socialist, and did not agree with Kornilov's ideas for strengthening the regime. As there are conflicting accounts and everyone involved is long dead, we may never know for sure exactly why Kornilov launched his attack, or precisely what Kerensky did to cause it, if anything.