“”A rising of the masses requires no justification... No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and those who tell us to do this we must say: You are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go back where you ought to go: into the dustbin of history!
|—Leon Trotsky after the Bolshevik coup.|
|Join the party!|
|Opiates for the masses|
The October Revolution, also known as the Great October Socialist Revolution or the Bolshevik Coup was an armed insurrection led by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik faction in the capital of Russia which took place on 7 November, 1917. The sudden and largely undemocratic transition to communist rule was opposed by many elements in Russian society, including monarchists, capitalists, social democrats and nationalists representing various minority populations in the Russian Empire. The various opponents of the Bolshevik movement fought against them in the Russian Civil War.
The October Revolution was a consequence of the February Revolution, a protest movement which led to the collapse of the Tsar's government in response to longtime societal deficiencies and the deteriorating conditions caused by World War I. The Russian Empire's State Duma, a "legislature" composed of wealthy elites, assembled a Provisional Government after the Tsar's abdication. The government's undemocratic nature and its insistence on continuing to fight the war against the Central Powers made it extremely unpopular. In opposition to the government emerged various "Soviet" councils organized to provide their own local governance. The Petrograd Soviet, led by Leon Trotsky, organized a coup against the government with their Red Guards and members of the Russian military participating.
The Bolsheviks successfully seized control of the capital and forced the government into exile. After a failed attempt by the government to retake Petrograd, Russia descended into civil war. Tsar Nicholas II and his family were moved by the Soviets to Yekaterinburg, where the Bolsheviks had them massacred and mutilated in July 1918.
Unpopular Provisional government
The general public optimism after the tumultuous victory of the February Revolution proved short-lived. Food and supplies shortages persisted throughout the summer and only got worse, and the Provisional Government continued fighting World War I, which was deeply unpopular since the populace viewed it as the Tsar's war that had nothing to do with the Russian people. Regular protest movements in Petrograd attracted hundreds of thousands of people, peaking at 500,000 in July, shouting slogans like "Down with the war!" and "All power to the soviets!"
Russian peasants and workers especially hated that the Provisional Government was controlled by former members of the State Duma, who were mostly nobles and rich landowners. Clearly, the government wasn't representative of the people who had put it in power in the first place.
Factory strikes resumed and got even worse, especially once the oil fields in Baku saw strikes of their own. Peasant uprisings were also common, as people took out centuries of rage against their landowners. Attempts by the Provisional Government to stop the violence only pissed people off even more.
Soviet councils had traditionally been formed by left-wing movements in Russia as early as 1905, and the practice was revived after the February Revolution in order to protect the interest of leftists and protect against a Tsarist counter-revolution. They were originally democratic bodies, although that was mainly to make them more popular in opposition to the undemocratic provisional government. They were originally local affairs organized at city and province levels and performed executive and legislative functions.
In June 1917, they organized into the All-Russian Congress of Soviets organized in Petrograd to serve as an opposition government. Soviets were popular during this time and spring up across Russia in increasing numbers. Much of that popularity came from their direct democracy, as delegates faced frequent elections and were thus very beholden to popular will. The largest was the Petrograd Soviet, which found great following amid the disaffected citizens of the Russian capital and grew at an alarming rate.
Lenin comes home
Meanwhile, Vladimir Lenin was living in exile in Switzerland after having been chased out of Russia by the Tsarist regime. Lenin and his fellow leftist exiles in Switzerland celebrated the February Revolution and hoped to return to their homeland, but they found that passage from Switzerland to Russia was nearly impossible due to the ongoing war.
This changed when Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German Empire became aware of Lenin's desire to return home and Bolshevik party's desire to end the war, and he decided that a successful Bolshevik takeover in Russia would thus be very beneficial for Germany. The Kaiser's government thus organized a deep secret train trip which took Lenin, his wife, and his comrades on a roundabout path through Scandinavia in order to get them into Petrograd.
Upon Lenin's return, he published the April Theses calling for opposition to liberals and social democrats from the soviet councils. Lenin continuously urged the Bolshevik faction to be more radical in its opposition to the Provisional Government, and he wrote prolifically for Bolshevik papers and frequently gave speeches across Petrograd to win people over to the Bolshevik cause. He also wrote The State and Revolution during this time to describe his ideas on the relationship between the state, communism, and the concept of "dictatorship of the proletariat."
Opposition to the Provisional Government turned violent as people turned out into the streets to support the Bolshevik demands for power to be transferred to the soviet councils. Events in the summer of 1917 caused radicalization to grow even faster than the Bolsheviks had counted on thanks to the deteriorating war and the horrific failure of the Kerensky Offensive. The military catastrophe was so severe that Provisional Government leader Georgy Lvov and much of cabinet resigned in disgrace, creating an inviting power vacuum.
Rioting exploded across Petrograd in response to the military defeat and the downfall of the government, and the rioters were joined by mutineers from the Petrograd and Kronstadt garrisons. The only thing preventing full descent into bedlam was the popular expectation that the Petrograd Soviet would announce its assumption of power. The problem was that the Bolsheviks weren't at all prepared to assume power, and they instead gave a bunch of excuses as to why the Provisional Government should get a second chance. The mob collectively rage-popped a blood vessel and rioted furiously before loyalist troops bloodily suppressed them. Vladimir Lenin fled Russia again and Leon Trotsky was arrested by the government.
The revitalized Provisional Government circulated rumors that Lenin was actually an agent of the German Empire and then used that as pretext to launch a purge of high-level Bolsheviks. On 8 July, Aleksandr Kerensky, the former Minister of War of the Provisional Government became the new leader of Russia. Under his rule, the government cracked down on civil liberties in Petrograd and across Russia by banning protests, shutting down publications calling for an end to the war, and reinstating the death penalty for draft dodging and desertion. These heavy-handed measures totally reversed the tide of politics, causing the Bolsheviks to regain strength due to people giving them support against the increasingly authoritarian rule of Kerensky.
The Kerensky government was a lot weaker than it seemed, though. In August 1917, a new political threat arose, this time from the right-wing. Lavr Kornilov, a Cossack officer and Tsarist loyalist had assumed leadership of the conservative opposition to the February Revolution. Kornilov was an old-school son of a bitch, and it was at his urging that Kerensky reinstated the right for Russian commanders to shoot their subordinates. He also hated socialism and anything left of it and openly held the Provisional Government in contempt. The only reason Kerensky or anyone else had put up with his insubordinate ass is because he was just that skilled a general that the government needed him to keep the war effort above water.
The final showdown between Kornilov and Kerensky came in August and is subject to much historical interpretation. Kornilov started organizing soldiers who were personally loyal to his crusty conservative ways in the apparent hope of storming Petrograd and eliminating the Soviet, and he ignored Kerensky's order to stand down. Under apparent threat of imminent reactionary coup, the Kerensky government went into Headless Chicken Mode. In the absence of actual leadership, the fucking Petrograd Soviet stepped in to organize defenses in Petrograd. Facing the prospect of civil war against a united Soviet and Kerensky coalition, Kornilov's army stood down.
While it was mainly a nothingburger, the Kornilov affair proved to be hugely impactful. It proved that Kerensky's government was unable to cope with crisis and that the Soviets could. It also forced Kerensky to negotiate with the Soviets to ensure their aid, including the notable concession that he had to let Leon Trotsky out of prison. Finally, it cost Kerensky the loyalty of Russia's conservatives, who viewed the Provisional Government as having betrayed them by negotiating with the Petrograd Soviet.
Vladimir Lenin, meanwhile, wrote a bunch of pamphlets and letters to his colleagues urging immediate revolution against the Provisional Government. He argued that Kerensky might surrender to the next Kornilov and impose military rule, or else the Bolsheviks might lose public support, or else Petrograd itself might fall to the oncoming Germans. More moderate Bolsheviks like Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev thought that Lenin was being a panicky bitch, and they preferred to wait for more public support. However, in late September, Leon Trotsky won the leadership of the Petrograd Soviet, and he was a lot more amenable to Lenin's ideas.
Trotsky assembled the Military Revolutionary Committee to begin arming and training Red Guards, ostensibly for the purpose of shoring up defenses against another Kornilov incident. The darkly humorous part is that Trotsky actually bragged about doing this and published his progress in party newspapers, yet the Provisional Government shockingly did nothing.
With Trotsky in charge of the Petrograd Soviet and the Kerensky government apparently tolerating the increased Bolshevik activity, Lenin returned from exile for the second time. Upon his return, he argued forcefully for imminent revolution against the Provisional Government, and his charisma helped sway most of the Bolshevik leadership to his idea.
Kerensky's preemptive strike
In the end, it was Aleksandr Kerensky who really got the ball rolling. On 6 November he sent troops to shut down some Bolshevik newspapers on the (basically true) basis that they were publishing treasonous content against the government. With relatively little problem, the soldiers arrested the publishers and writers and destroyed all the printing equipment. The Bolsheviks retaliated immediately and sent their own troops to retake the printing house as well as the Central Telegraph of Petrograd, giving the Bolsheviks control over the city's communications infrastructure.
When Kerensky mobilized his troops across the city later in the day, Soviet forces clashed with them to maintain or seize control over Petrograd's bridges. The Bolshies largely maintained control over the city, the first sign that things weren't gonna go well for ol' Kerensky.
Takeover of Petrograd
Full seizure of the capital began on 7 November, while Kerensky and the government desperately went around the city to recruit more soldiers to fight the Bolsheviks. In the end, the Kerensky government proved totally helpless to stop the Bolsheviks. Red Guards had total control over the city's railways and most of its roads, meaning that travel both to and from and within the city was denied to government loyalists.
Through the course of the day, Red Guards and troops loyal to the Soviet moved throughout the city to capture critical infrastructure like government buildings, telegraph centers, and especially armories. The revolutionaries were also strengthened by a naval detachment from Soviet-aligned sailors from the Kronstadt base, who arrived by sailing the Russian cruiser Aurora up the Neva river. By the end of the day, the Soviets had control over most of Petrograd save the true seat of the Provisional Government itself, the Winter Palace.
Storming the Winter Palace
The Winter Palace itself had to fall for the Soviets to win, as it was the seat of the Provisional Government and a residence for many of its ministers and functionaries. It was defended by some 3,000 people, mostly Cossacks, military officers, and female volunteers. The Red Guards delayed the assault on the palace, as they hoped to locate heavy artillery and threaten its defenders into surrender. Even this proved unnecessary, since the garrison was too drunk, hungry, and miserable to put up with being surrounded by a hostile army for long. They either surrendered or deserted, leaving the palace open to attack.
Late in the night on 7 November, the Krondstadt cruiser Aurora fired a blank shot from the Neva river at the Winter Palace, which served as the signal for the Red Guards to storm the palace. The palace was huge and full of riches, and despite the Bolshevik insistence that all in it belonged to the Russian people, looting and destruction was inevitable. The ministers of the Provisional Government were arrested some hours later, a delay mostly attributable to the fact that the palace was so big.
As the revolution took place, the Second Congress of Soviets assembled in the Smolny Institute. Of its 670 delegates, roughly half opposed the October Revolution due to the coup-like nature of it all as well as the very real risk that it would incite a military response. Trotsky, who presided over the meeting, responded with the quote at the very top of this page about how revolution was necessary and cooperation could not happen.
The assembly eventually assembled the Council of People's Commissars with Vladmir Lenin at its head; this body drafted a new national constitution in 1918 that transformed Russia into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The council formalized itself as being one of the chief organs of the new Russian state, and its chairman Vladimir Lenin effectively became the new leader of Russia. Other than that, its first act was the Decree on Peace, which declared Russia's intent to immediately withdraw from World War I. They followed that with the Decree on Land, which abolished private property and confiscated land from the nobility and the church.
The Constituent Assembly, Russia's first true elected legislature, almost immediately came into conflict with Bolshevik interests when elections failed to return a Bolshevik party majority. The voting results and the Assembly's criticism of Lenin resulted in the Bolsheviks having their Red Guards shut it down after just a single day.
Descent into civil war
The Bolsheviks only had a tenuous grasp on anything outside the capital of Petrograd, and their dissolution of the Provisional Government resulted in a total breakdown of central authority in Russia. On behalf of the country, they signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the German Empire, which cost them the support of other far-left parties due to the huge losses of land the treaty forced on Russia. The Russian Army almost immediately disintegrated, meaning that Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik forces needed to hastily assemble their own forces in order to protect their interests. Kerensky and the Provisional Government, though, destroyed their chances at a quick victory by launching an attack on Petrograd before their forces were ready mere weeks after the Bolshevik coup, leading to Kerensky's ultimate defeat.
Across Russia, the institution of one-party Bolshevik rule combined with the terrible terms of Brest-Litovsk proved to be the catalyst for various factions across Russia to either attempt secession or rise up against the Petrograd government. A loose coalition of anti-Bolshevik forces aligned against the Bolshevik government, including landowners, republicans, conservatives, middle-class citizens, reactionaries, pro-monarchists, liberals, army generals, non-Bolshevik socialists became known as the White Movement, and it would spend the following years in civil war against the Bolsheviks.
- 1905 Russian Revolution
- February Revolution
- Russian Civil War
- 2021 U.S. Capitol riot, similar in style but mercifully for America a failed attempt to establish an authoritarian regime
- "Peace, Land, and Bread!" Funny Animaniacs song about the October Revolution.
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