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In September, 1915, Tsar Nicholas II decided to replace Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich Romanov as supreme commander of the Russian Army fighting on the Eastern Front. He was disturbed when he received the following information from General Alexei Brusilov: "In recent battles a third of the men had no rifles. These poor devils had to wait patiently until their comrades fell before their eyes and they could pick up weapons. The army is drowning in its own blood." (1)
As the Tsar spent most of his time at GHQ, Alexandra Fedorovna now took responsibility for domestic policy. Rasputin served as her adviser and over the next few months she dismissed ministers and their deputies in rapid succession. In letters to her husband she called his ministers as "fools and idiots". According to David Shub "the real ruler of Russia was the Empress Alexandra". (2)
As Nicholas II was supreme command of the Russian Army he was linked to the country's military failures and there was a strong decline in his support in Russia. George Buchanan, the British Ambassador in Russia, went to see the Tsar: "I went on to say that there was now a barrier between him and his people, and that if Russia was still united as a nation it was in opposing his present policy. The people, who have rallied so splendidly round their Sovereign on the outbreak of war, had seen how hundreds of thousands of lives had been sacrificed on account of the lack of rifles and munitions; how, owing to the incompetence of the administration there had been a severe food crisis."
Buchanan then went on to talk about Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna: "I next called His Majesty's attention to the attempts being made by the Germans, not only to create dissension between the Allies, but to estrange him from his people. Their agents were everywhere at work. They were pulling the strings, and were using as their unconscious tools those who were in the habit of advising His Majesty as to the choice of his Ministers. They indirectly influenced the Empress through those in her entourage, with the result that, instead of being loved, as she ought to be, Her Majesty was discredited and accused of working in German interests." (3)
In January 1917, General Aleksandr Krymov returned from the Eastern Front and sought a meeting with Michael Rodzianko, the President of the Duma. Krymov told Rodzianko that the officers and men no longer had faith in Nicholas II and the army was willing to support the Duma if it took control of the government of Russia. "A revolution is imminent and we at the front feel it to be so. If you decide on such an extreme step (the overthrow of the Tsar), we will support you. Clearly there is no other way." Rodzianko was unwilling to take action but he did telegraph the Tsar warning that Russia was approaching breaking point. He also criticised the impact that his wife was having on the situation and told him that "you must find a way to remove the Empress from politics". (4)
The Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich shared the views of Rodzianko and sent a letter to the Tsar: "The unrest grows; even the monarchist principle is beginning to totter; and those who defend the idea that Russia cannot exist without a Tsar lose the ground under their feet, since the facts of disorganization and lawlessness are manifest. A situation like this cannot last long. I repeat once more - it is impossible to rule the country without paying attention to the voice of the people, without meeting their needs, without a willingness to admit that the people themselves understand their own needs." (5)
The First World War was having a disastrous impact on the Russian economy. Food was in short supply and this led to rising prices. By January 1917 the price of commodities in Petrograd had increased six-fold. In an attempt to increase their wages, industrial workers went on strike and in Petrograd people took to the street demanding food. On 11th February, 1917, a large crowd marched through the streets of Petrograd breaking shop windows and shouting anti-war slogans.
Petrograd was a city of 2,700,000 swollen with an influx of of over 393,000 wartime workers. According to Harrison E. Salisbury, in the last ten days of January, the city had received 21 carloads of grain and flour per day instead of the 120 wagons needed to feed the city. Okhrana, the secret police, warned that "with every day the food question becomes more acute and it brings down cursing of the most unbridled kind against anyone who has any connection with food supplies." (6)
Harold Williams, a journalist working for the Daily Chronicle reported details of serious food shortages: "All attention here is concentrated on the food question, which for the moment has become unintelligible. Long queues before the bakers' shops have long been a normal feature of life in the city. Grey bread is now sold instead of white, and cakes are not baked. Crowds wander about the streets, mostly women and boys, with a sprinkling of workmen. Here and there windows are broken and a few bakers' shops looted." (7)
It was reported that in one demonstration in the streets by the Nevsky Prospect, the women called out to the soldiers, "Comrades, take away your bayonets, join us!". The soldiers hesitated: "They threw swift glances at their own comrades. The next moment one bayonet is slowly raised, is slowly lifted above the shoulders of the approaching demonstrators. There is thunderous applause. The triumphant crowd greeted their brothers clothed in the grey cloaks of the soldiery. The soldiers mixed freely with the demonstrators." On 27th February, 1917, the Volynsky Regiment mutinied and after killing their commanding officer "made common cause with the demonstrators". (8)
The President of the Duma, Michael Rodzianko, became very concerned about the situation in the city and sent a telegram to the Tsar: "The situation is serious. There is anarchy in the capital. The Government is paralysed. Transport, food, and fuel supply are completely disorganised. Universal discontent is increasing. Disorderly firing is going on in the streets. Some troops are firing at each other. It is urgently necessary to entrust a man enjoying the confidence of the country with the formation of a new Government. Delay is impossible. Any tardiness is fatal. I pray God that at this hour the responsibility may not fall upon the Sovereign." (9)
On Friday 8th March, 1917, there was a massive demonstration against the Tsar. It was estimated that over 200,000 took part in the march. Arthur Ransome walked along with the crowd that were hemmed in by mounted Cossacks armed with whips and sabres. But no violent suppression was attempted. Ransome was struck, chiefly, by the good humour of these rioters, made up not simply of workers, but of men and women from every class. Ransome wrote: "Women and girls, mostly well-dressed, were enjoying the excitement. It was like a bank holiday, with thunder in the air." There were further demonstrations on Saturday and on Sunday soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators. According to Ransome: "Police agents opened fire on the soldiers, and shooting became general, though I believe the soldiers mostly used blank cartridges." (10)
Morgan Philips Price, a journalist working in Petrograd, with strong left-wing opinions, wrote to his aunt, Anna Maria Philips, claiming that the country was on the verge of revolution: "Most exciting times. I knew this was coming sooner or later but did not think it would come so quickly... Whole country is wild with joy, waving red flags and singing Marseillaise. It has surpassed my wildest dreams and I can hardly believe it is true. After two-and-half years of mental suffering and darkness I at last begin to see light. Long live Great Russia who has shown the world the road to freedom. May Germany and England follow in her steps." (11)
On 10th March, 1917, the Tsar had decreed the dissolution of the Duma. The High Command of the Russian Army now feared a violent revolution and on 12th March suggested that Nicholas II should abdicate in favour of a more popular member of the royal family. Attempts were now made to persuade Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich to accept the throne. He refused and the Tsar recorded in his diary that the situation in "Petrograd is such that now the Ministers of the Duma would be helpless to do anything against the struggles the Social Democratic Party and members of the Workers Committee. My abdication is necessary... The judgement is that in the name of saving Russia and supporting the Army at the front in calmness it is necessary to decide on this step. I agreed." (12)
Prince George Lvov, was appointed the new head of the Provisional Government. Members of the Cabinet included Pavel Milyukov (leader of the Cadet Party), was Foreign Minister, Alexander Guchkov, Minister of War, Alexander Kerensky, Minister of Justice, Mikhail Tereshchenko, a beet-sugar magnate from the Ukraine, became Finance Minister, Alexander Konovalov, a munitions maker, Minister of Trade and Industry, and Peter Struve, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ariadna Tyrkova commented: "Prince Lvov had always held aloof from a purely political life. He belonged to no party, and as head of the Government could rise above party issues. Not till later did the four months of his premiership demonstrate the consequences of such aloofness even from that very narrow sphere of political life which in Tsarist Russia was limited to work in the Duma and party activity. Neither a clear, definite, manly programme, nor the ability for firmly and persistently realising certain political problems were to be found in Prince G. Lvov. But these weak points of his character were generally unknown." (13)
Prince George Lvov allowed all political prisoners to return to their homes. Joseph Stalin arrived at Nicholas Station in St. Petersburg with Lev Kamenev and Yakov Sverdlov on 25th March, 1917. The three men had been in exile in Siberia. Stalin's biographer, Robert Service, has commented: "He was pinched-looking after the long train trip and had visibly aged over the four years in exile. Having gone away a young revolutionary, he was coming back a middle-aged political veteran." (14)
The exiles discussed what to do next. The Bolshevik organizations in Petrograd were controlled by a group of young men including Vyacheslav Molotov and Alexander Shlyapnikov who had recently made arrangements for the publication of Pravda, the official Bolshevik newspaper. The young comrades were less than delighted to see these influential new arrivals. Molotov later recalled: "In 1917 Stalin and Kamenev cleverly shoved me off the Pravda editorial team. Without unnecessary fuss, quite delicately." (15)
The Petrograd Soviet recognized the authority of the Provisional Government in return for its willingness to carry out eight measures. This included the full and immediate amnesty for all political prisoners and exiles; freedom of speech, press, assembly, and strikes; the abolition of all class, group and religious restrictions; the election of a Constituent Assembly by universal secret ballot; the substitution of the police by a national militia; democratic elections of officials for municipalities and townships and the retention of the military units that had taken place in the revolution that had overthrown Nicholas II. Soldiers dominated the Soviet. The workers had only one delegate for every thousand, whereas every company of soldiers might have one or even two delegates. Voting during this period showed that only about forty out of a total of 1,500, were Bolsheviks. Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries were in the majority in the Soviet.
The Provisional Government accepted most of these demands and introduced the eight-hour day, announced a political amnesty, abolished capital punishment and the exile of political prisoners, instituted trial by jury for all offences, put an end to discrimination based on religious, class or national criteria, created an independent judiciary, separated church and state, and committed itself to full liberty of conscience, the press, worship and association. It also drew up plans for the election of a Constituent Assembly based on adult universal suffrage and announced this would take place in the autumn of 1917. It appeared to be the most progressive government in history. (16)
I went on to say that there was now a barrier between him and his people, and that if Russia was still united as a nation it was in opposing his present policy. The people, who have rallied so splendidly round their Sovereign on the outbreak of war, had seen how hundreds of thousands of lives had been sacrificed on account of the lack of rifles and munitions; how, owing to the incompetence of the administration, there had been a severe food crisis, and - much to my surprise, the Emperor himself added, "a breakdown of the railways". All that they wanted was a Government that would carry on the war to a victorious finish. The Duma, I had reason to know, would be satisfied if His Majesty would but appoint as President of the Council a man whom both he and the nation could have confidence, and would allow him to choose his own colleagues.
I next called His Majesty's attention to the attempts being made by the Germans, not only to create dissension between the Allies, but to estrange him from his people. They indirectly influenced the Empress through those in her entourage, with the result that, instead of being loved, as she ought to be, Her Majesty was discredited and accused of working in German interests. The Emperor once more drew himself up and said: "I choose my Ministers myself, and do not allow anyone to influence my choice."
The unrest grows; even the monarchist principle is beginning to totter; and those who defend the idea that Russia cannot exist without a Tsar lose the ground under their feet, since the facts of disorganization and lawlessness are manifest. I repeat once more - it is impossible to rule the country without paying attention to the voice of the people, without meeting their needs, without a willingness to admit that the people themselves understand their own needs.
There are people who assert that the Ministers are at fault. Not so. The country now realizes that the Ministers are but fleeting shadows. The country can clearly see who sends them here. To prevent a catastrophe the Tsar himself must be removed, by force if there is no other way.
The strikers and rioters in the city are now in a more defiant mood than ever. The disturbances are created by hoodlums. Youngsters and girls are running around shouting they have no bread; they do this just to create some excitement. If the weather were cold they would all probably be staying at home. But the thing will pass and quiet down, providing the Duma behaves. The worst of the speeches are not reported in the papers, but I think that for speaking against the dynasty there should be immediate and severe punishment.
The whole trouble comes from these idlers, well-dressed people, wounded soldiers, high-school girls, etc. who are inciting others. Lily spoke to some cab-drivers to find out things. They told her that the students came to them and told them if they appeared in the streets in the morning, they should be shot to death. What corrupt minds! Of course the cabdrivers and the motormen are now on strike. But they say that it is all different from 1905, because they all worship you and only want bread.
The situation is serious. The capital is in a state of anarchy. The government is paralyzed; the transport service has broken down; the food and fuel supplies are completely disorganized. Discontent is general and on the increase. There is wild shooting in the streets; troops are firing at each other. It is urgent that someone enjoying the confidence of the country be entrusted with the formation of a new government. There must be no delay. Hesitation is fatal.
The situation is growing worse. Measures should be taken immediately as tomorrow will be too late. The last hour has struck, when the fate of the country and dynasty is being decided.
The government is powerless to stop the disorders. The troops of the garrison cannot be relied upon. The reserve battalions of the Guard regiments are in the grips of rebellion, their officers are being killed. Having joined the mobs and the revolt of the people, they are marching on the offices of the Ministry of the Interior and the Imperial Duma.
Your Majesty, do not delay. Should the agitation reach the Army, Germany will triumph and the destruction of Russian along with the dynasty is inevitable.
All attention here is concentrated on the food question, which for the moment has become unintelligible. Here and there windows are broken and a few bakers' shops looted. But, on the whole, the crowds are remarkably good-tempered and presently cheer the troops, who are patrolling the streets.
Revolution in Moscow. Great scenes in front of Duma. Workmen and Socialists take the upper hand and encamp in Duma. Troops all come over. No bloodshed and the crowd on the whole very orderly. No news from Petrograd.
The fine weather brought everybody out of doors, and as the bridges and approaches to the great thoroughfare were for some unaccountable reason left open, crowds of all ages and conditions made their way to the Nevsky, till the miles separating the Admiralty from the Moscow Station were black with people. Warnings not to assemble were disregarded. No Cossacks were visible. Platoons of Guardsmen were drawn up here and there in courtyards and side streets. The crowd was fairly good-humoured, cheering the soldiers, and showing themselves ugly only towards the few visible police. Shortly after 3 p.m. orders were given to the infantry to clear the street. A company of Guards took up their station near the Sadovaya and fired several volleys in the direction of the Anichkov Palace. Something like 100 people were killed or wounded. On the scene of the shooting hundreds of empty cartridge cases were littered in the snow, which was plentifully sprinkled with blood.After the volleys the thoroughfare was cleared, but the crowd remained on the sidewalks. No animosity was shown towards the soldiers. The people shouted "We are sorry for you, Pavlovsky (the Pavlovsky Guards Regiment). You had to do your duty.
I was talking to friends there in the corridor on the first floor, outside the office of General Manikovsky, the Chief of the Department, when General Hypatiev, the chemical expert, and M. Tereshchenko arrived with the news that the depot troops of the garrison had mutinied and were coming down the street. I heard for the first time that a company of the Pavlovsky Regiment had fired on the police on the previous evening and had been disarmed and confined in the Preobrazhensky barracks. The Preobrazhensky and Volynsky Regiments had now mutinied.
We went to the window and waited. Outside there was evident excitement, but no sound came to us through the thick double windows. Groups were standing at the corners gesticulating and pointing down the street. Officers were hurrying away, and motorcars, my own amongst the number, were taking refuse in the courtyards of neighbouring houses.
It seemed that we waited at least ten minutes before the mutineers arrived. Craning our necks, we first saw two soldiers - a sort of advanced guard - who strode along the middle of the street, pointing their rifles at loiterers to clear the road. One of them fired two shots at an unfortunate chauffeur. Then came a great disorderly mass of soldiery, stretching right across the wide street and both pavements. They were led by a diminutive but immensely dignified student. There were no officers. All were armed, and many had red flags fastened to their bayonets. They came slowly and finally gathered up in a compact mass in front of the Department.
Soon we heard the windows and doors on the ground floor being broken in, and the sound of shots reached us. The telephone rang and Manikovsky took up the receiver. "They are shooting at the Sestroresk Works, are they?" he roared in his great voice. "Well, God be with them! They are shooting at the Chief Artillery Department too!"
An excited orderly rushed in: "Your High Excellency! They are forcing their way into the building. Shall we barricade your door?" But Manikovsky had kept his nerve, and said: "No. Open all doors. Why should we hinder them?"As the orderly turned away, astonished at this new complaisance, Manikovsky sighed, and said to me with the characteristic Russian click of worried anger: "Look what our Ministry has brought us to!"
In a short time the whole of the city was aglow with the glare from the burning buildings which, in addition to the heavy firing, made the situation appear far worse than it actually was, and had the effect of clearing the streets of the more serious-minded and nervous citizens. The mobs presented a strange, almost grotesque appearance. Soldiers, workmen, students, hooligans and freed criminals wandered aimlessly about in detached companies, all armed, but with a strange variety of weapons. A student with two rifles and a belt of machine-gun bullets round his waist was walking with another with a bayonet tied to the end of a stick. A drunken soldier had only the barrel of a rifle remaining, the stock having been broken off in forcing an entry into some shop. A steady, quiet-looking business man grasped a large rifle and a formidable belt of cartridges.
The crowds commenced to commandeer every automobile in the city, no matter to whom it might belong. These automobiles they filled with armed men, with at least two soldiers lying on the mudguards with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets. These formidable units then rushed all over the city shooting wildly, but with the chief object of hunting down the police, especially those in the outlying districts who had not yet become aware of the true state of affairs in the city.
When all the speakers were hoarse and weary, it was certain that the whole Petrograd garrison of 140,000 men had gone over to the revolution. But the officers were not with them. Uncertain of their duty, unwilling to break their oath of allegiance, they held back - all but a very few - and passed the day in deep depression while Petrograd was rejoicing.
There is no sacrifice that I would not be willing to make for the welfare and salvation of Mother Russia. Therefore I am ready to abdicate in favour of my son, under the regency of my brother Mikhail Alexandrovich, with the understanding that my son is to remain with me until he becomes of age.
The Tsar entered the hall. After bowing to everybody, he made a short speech. He said that the welfare of his country, the necessity for putting an end to the Revolution and preventing the horrors of civil war, and of directing all the efforts of the State to the continuation of the struggle with the foe at the front, had determined him to abdicate in favour of his brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich.
The astounding, and to the stranger unacquainted with the Russian character almost uncanny, orderliness and good nature of the crowds of soldiers and civilians throughout the city are perhaps the most striking features of the great Russian Revolution. At the Taurida Palace yesterday it was wonderful to see the way in which the huge gathering of soldiers and civilians managed to avoid collision. Inside the building the work of the various Parliamentary Committees went on day and night with unflagging intensity.
Probably the predominant impression that an American received from the events of the day was the self-restraint and order of the soldiers, as well as the workingmen. There were cases of killing and bloodshed, and during the day many were taken to the hospitals; but considering the size of the revolution and the number of men and soldiers engaged in the struggle, the amount of bloodshed was small. Outside of the destruction of property of the police districts, the officer's quarters, and the homes of the suspected aristocracy, there was little looting.
The composition of the new government is extraordinarily moderate in the circumstances. There has been, and still is, danger from extremists, who want at once to turn Russia into a Socialist republic and have been agitating amongst soldiers, but reason has been reinforced by a sense of danger from the Germans and the lingering forces of reaction gaining the upper hand.
In numberless talks I have had with soldiers I have been struck by their fundamental reasonableness, their sense of order and discipline. They wish to be free men, but very strongly realize their duty as soldiers. The more moderate Socialists, the so-called Plekhanov party, who stand for war, are very useful as mediators, and as soon as the new Government secures its ground the influence of the extremists will be diminished.
It is impossible for people who have not lived here to know with what joy we now write of the new Russian Government. Only those who knew how things were only a week ago can understand the enthusiasm of us who have seen a miracle take place before our eyes. We knew how Russia worked for the war in spite of her Government. We could not tell the truth. It is as if honesty had returned. Russia had broken her chains and stands as the greatest free nation in Europe with republican France and liberal England. Nowhere outside Germany had Prussianism gone so far as here. Nowhere has it been so absolutely defeated.
It is a wonderful thing to see the birth of freedom. With freedom comes brotherhood, and in Petrograd today there is a flow of brotherly feeling. Everywhere you see it in the streets. The trams are not yet running, and people are tired of endless walking. But the habit now is to share your cab with perfect strangers.
The police have gone, but the discipline is marvelous. Everyone shares the task of maintaining discipline and order. A volunteer militia has been formed and 7,000 men enrolled as special constables, mostly students, professors, and men of the professional classes generally. These, with the help of occasional small patrols of soldiers, control the traffic, guard the banks, factories, and Government buildings, and ensure security.
Soldiers, with all their freedom, are displaying a sense of order and discipline that would be hardly conceivable in any other nation. Throughout the revolution, when the city was actually under the control of thousands of soldiers, they behaved with few exceptions like thorough gentleman. We heard of no cases of cold-blooded murder. Only those officers or police were killed who opened fire on the soldiers. Private property nearly everywhere was scrupulously respected, and in most cases robbery was due to criminals disguised as soldiers.
Good news comes this evening that the moderate group in the Soviet is gaining the upper hand, and the prospects are brighter than ever. Prince Kropotkin (now living in Brighton) and Plekhanov, veteran Socialist exiles, who the champion war as a war of defence and liberation, have been urgently invited to return to help in the work of reconstruction.
Today, I am addressing you for the last time, my dearly loved armies. I have abdicated for myself and for my son, and I am leaving the throne of the Emperors of Russia. Much blood has been shed, many efforts have been made, and the hour of victory is approaching when Russia and her Allies will crush, in the common effort, the last attempts of the enemy. The unprecedented war must be conducted to the final victory. Those who think of peace and wish it now are twice traitors to their country. Every honest soldier must think that way. I urge you to fulfill your duty and to valiantly defend your Russia. Obey the Provisional Government!
I quite understand your action, my hero. I know that you could not have signed anything that was contrary to your oath given at the coronation. We understand each other perfectly without words, and I swear, upon my life, that we shall see you again on the throne, raised there once more by your people, and your army, for the glory of your reign. You saved the empire for your son and the country, as well as your sacred purity, and you shall be crowned by God himself on earth in your own hand.
Bloody Sunday (Answer Commentary)
1905 Russian Revolution (Answer Commentary)
Russia and the First World War (Answer Commentary)
The Life and Death of Rasputin (Answer Commentary)
The Coal Industry: 1600-1925 (Answer Commentary)
Women in the Coalmines (Answer Commentary)
Child Labour in the Collieries (Answer Commentary)
Child Labour Simulation (Teacher Notes)
The Chartists (Answer Commentary)
Women and the Chartist Movement (Answer Commentary)
Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Answer Commentary)
Canal Mania (Answer Commentary)
Early Development of the Railways (Answer Commentary)
Health Problems in Industrial Towns (Answer Commentary)
Public Health Reform in the 19th century (Answer Commentary)
Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)
Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)
James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)
The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)
The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Answer Commentary)
The Plight of the Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)
1832 Reform Act and the House of Lords (Answer Commentary)
Benjamin Disraeli and the 1867 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)
William Gladstone and the 1884 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)
(1) Marie Brown, Russia and Revolution (1979) page 41
(2) David Shub, Lenin (1948) page 184
(1) George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories (1922) page 45
(2) Frank Alfred Golder, The Russian Revolution (1918) page 251
(3) Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, letter to Nicholas II (January, 1917)
(4) Harrison E. Salisbury, Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917 (1977) page 321
(5) Harold Williams, Daily Chronicle (28th February, 1917)
(6) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) page 192
(7) Michael Rodzianko, President of the Duma, telegram to Nicholas II (26th February, 1917)
(8) Roland Chambers, The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome (2009) page 129
(9) Morgan Philips Price, letter to Anna Maria Philips (13th March 1917)
(10) Nicholas II, diary entry (15th March, 1917)
(11) Ariadna Tyrkova, From Liberty to Brest-Litovsk (1918) page 30
(12) Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography (2004) page 118
(13) Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin (1996) page 89
(14) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) pages 200-207
In February 1917, the Czarist government's poor management of World War I had helped to inspire a popular uprising, known as the February Revolution. This first component of the Russian Revolution forced the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. It placed in power a Provisional Government of liberal and socialist factions, ultimately under the leadership of Socialist Revolutionary party member Alexander Kerensky. This brief experiment with pluralist democracy was a chaotic one, and in the summer months, the continual deterioration of the war effort and an increasingly dire economic situation caused Russian workers, soldiers, and sailors to riot ("The July Days").
On October 24–25, 1917, Bolshevik (left-wing socialist) forces under Vladimir Lenin seized key government buildings and stormed the Winter Palace, then the seat of the new government in Russia's capital, Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). The Bolshevik Revolution, also referred to as the "Great October Socialist Revolution," was the first successful Marxist coup in history. During this chapter of the Russian Revolution, the ineffectual Provisional Government was dislodged and ultimately replaced with a Soviet Socialist Republic under Lenin's leadership.
From the Russian revolution of 1917 to Stalinist totalitarianism - Agustín Guillamón
A historical essay on the transition from Russian Revolution of the Soviets to bureaucratic dictatorship under Stalin, with special emphasis on the period extending from the February Revolution to the period of War Communism.
From the Russian Revolution of 1917 to Stalinist Totalitarianism – Agustín Guillamón
The Russian Revolution is the most important historical event of the 20th century, and for some historians it is even accounted as one of the great events of human history. Its influence on international relations, political ideologies and word history from 1917 to 1991 is indisputable.
Trotsky, in the preface of his History of the Russian Revolution , claimed that “[t]he most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events” and the acceleration, over brief periods of time, of the pace of economic, social and political change, in addition to the emergence of radically opposed political poles, and the shift of the social support of the masses towards parties of an increasingly extremist type.
The Russian Revolution must not be understood as a mere coup d’état, reduced to the storming of the Winter Palace, but as a historical process that began with Bloody Sunday and the revolutionary events of 1905, and underwent an uninterrupted period of development until the mid-1920s.
The Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution before 1917
The Russian Social Democracy, split since 1903 between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks over organizational issues, displayed three distinct analyses of the nature of the revolutionary process that began in 1905: Plekhanov’s analysis (Menshevik), Lenin’s (Bolshevik) and Trotsky’s.
For Plekhanov, the revolution could only be bourgeois. The state would cease to be led by the feudal nobility and would pass into the hands of the bourgeoisie. Once the bourgeoisie was securely in power, the workers will follow the democratic and parliamentarian road, in order to gradually obtain a larger and larger share of power, until they finally establish socialism in a uncertain and distant future.
Lenin admitted the bourgeois character of the revolution, but denied that it would have to be led by the bourgeoisie, which in Russia was too weak to confront the nobility. He proposed the workers and peasants alliance as the only means that could possibly create a revolutionary power, one that would carry out a profound agrarian reform without, however, abolishing the capitalist structures. With the development and consolidation of capitalism in backward Russia, the proletariat would increase in numbers and would become so strong that the time would come when it would take power and begin to build socialism.
Trotsky’s position, which is distinct from both the Bolshevik and Menshevik positions, asserted that the workers were already capable of taking power, and diverged from Lenin’s position in that he thought that the absence of the objective conditions for first stages of the construction of socialism would be compensated for by the permanent character of the revolution, which would make it possible to skip the intermediate stages, which the Marxist theoreticians considered to be necessary, in order to pass directly from the bourgeois revolution to the socialist revolution.
Lenin advocated Trotsky’s position in the so-called April Theses (1917), in opposition to the immense majority of the Bolsheviks, who argued for the exclusively bourgeois character of the February Revolution.
From 1905 to the First World War
The Russo-Japanese War was a military and economic disaster of enormous proportions, and unleashed a wave of popular protest that became the first stage of the Russian revolutionary process. On January 3, 1905, the strike at the Putilov works in Saint Petersburg began. On Sunday, January 9 (“Bloody Sunday”), Czarist troops fired into a peaceful and defenseless crowd, led by Father Gapon, that was attempting to deliver a petition to the Czar, leaving hundreds dead and thousands wounded. The strike spread throughout the entire country over a period of two months. In June, the sailors of the battleship Potemkin mutinied in Odessa in October the naval crews at Kronstadt revolted and in November the uprising on eleven ships at the naval base of Sebastopol. In Saint Petersburg the first Soviets emerged, for a very brief period. The Czarist government responded with brutal repression and, when it was confronted by the threat of a general strike, the promise made by Nicholas II to convoke the Duma.
In June 1906 the first Duma (Russian parliament) met, with a Kadet majority (KD, the Constitutional Democratic Party), with the intention of establishing an authentic parliamentary regime, which they sought to bring about by means of an indispensable agrarian reform, which would lead to the emergence of a peasant middle class (the kulaks). The new prime minister Pyotr Stolypin spearheaded a whole battery of reforms whose purpose was to create greater concentration in landownership at the peasant level, favoring the rise and expansion of an agricultural proletariat, which would in turn increase the influence of the socialist parties in the second Duma (February to June, 1907).
The revolutionary movement, which had begun in 1905, shifted from the cities to the peasant villages, a shift characterized by constant social agitation, which led the regime to implement regressive reforms of the electoral system, so that the third Duma (1907-1912), of an autocratic composition and disposition, was known as the Duma of “nobles, priests and lackeys”. During this period the Czar’s Court was suffering from the presence of the so-called “messenger of God”, the Siberian peasant Rasputin, who exercised a disastrous influence on the Czarina and discredited Czarism, even among its most loyal supporters.
Stolypin was assassinated in 1911, and he was succeeded by a series of ineffective Prime Ministers, who faced a docile assembly in the fourth Duma, hardly inclined to support reforms and incapable of making any concessions to the agitations among the workers in 1912. The Balkan Wars seemed to offer an opportunity to distract the attention of the masses, but the results could not have been worse, as the Russians lost all their influence in the region. Czarist reformism, utterly spineless, had met with an overwhelming failure.
Russia was not prepared for the war of attrition it faced after the first few months of the war (1914). The Czarist army lacked modern weapons, adequate means of transport, efficient commanding officers, appropriate tactics, a logistical network, etc. it could only count on an immense mass of soldiers, who were treated as cheap cannon fodder by an incompetent officer corps staffed by the corrupt nobility.
“The one thing the Russian generals did with a flourish was to drag human meat out of the country. Beef and pork are handled with incomparably more economy. Grey staff non-entities … would stop up all cracks with new mobilisations, and comfort themselves and the Allies with columns of figures when columns of fighters were wanted. About fifteen million men were mobilised, and they brimmed the depots, barracks, points of transit, crowded, stamped, stepped on each other’s feet, getting harsh and cursing. If these human masses were an imaginary magnitude for the front, for the rear they were a very real factor of destruction. About five and a half million were counted as killed, wounded and captured. The number of deserters kept growing” (Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution , Volume One, Sphere Books Ltd, London, 1967, pp. 35-36).
After the initial success of the Russian offensive in Galicia (1914) that forced the Austrians to retreat to the Carpathians, the technical deficiencies of the Russian army, the mediocrity of its officers, the discontent and mistrust of the peasant-soldiers and bureaucratic chaos provoked the collapse of the front, which allowed the Germans to occupy the provinces of Poland and Lithuania (1915).
The Brusilov offensive in Bukovina and Galicia came to an end amidst terrible losses in dead and wounded, and led to the appearance of the first symptoms of generalized discontent in the Czarist army (1916). The Russian soldiers lacked not only weapons, but boots as well, which were indispensable in the harsh Russian climate. Supplies became scarce and some troops were starving. In this context, military discipline had to collapse. There were thousands of deserters. Divisions only existed on paper in reality there was nothing but an amorphous, disorganized, underfed and poorly equipped, sick, undisciplined and badly led crowd. The despotism of the officer corps made life for the troops intolerable as a result of its cruelty and corruption. Some officers even sold the wood and barbed wire necessary for constructing trenches.
In October 1916, the war’s cost for Russia was one million eight hundred thousand dead, two million prisoners of war and one million missing. The war caused the outbreak of economic chaos and enormous popular discontent, provoked by the war’s excessive duration and the scarcity of food and basic consumer goods. Famine devastated the population and strikes became generalized. The government’s response to these problems, sending the strikers to the front, only spread the popular discontent among the troops, bringing the revolutionary workers of the cities to the military to spread their protest among the soldiers, who in their vast majority had been recruited from the loyal and submissive peasants. The revolutionary ideas of the workers rapidly took root among these peasant-soldiers. Soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants were being formed, and in the army nobody talked about anything else besides peace and the division of the landed estates. Mutinies became increasingly more frequent.
The shortage of bread and of all kinds of supplies, the long lines and cold weather, triggered the first protests in Petrograd. The shortage of raw materials for industry led to the dismissal of many thousands of workers. Since most of the young men had been mobilized for the war, women now comprised 40% of the industrial workers. On International Women’s Day, February 23 (March 8, in the Western Calendar), the protests began. Women from the Vyborg district, having met in an assembly, voted to go on strike. The playful demonstrations of the morning became massive and uproarious by the afternoon, having been joined by metal workers. The slogans, “Peace, Bread and Freedom!” and “Down with the Czar” were shouted. In confrontations with the police the Cossacks displayed a certain amount of indecision, not being accustomed to engaging in the repression of urban crowds.
The left, including the Bolsheviks (who enjoyed the support of the majority of the workers in Vyborg), had advised against going on strike and instead recommended the workers should wait. They were caught by surprise by the power of the movement. On the next day, one hundred fifty thousand workers demonstrated in the streets, and the Cossacks, the most loyal troops of the Czarist regime, began to be overwhelmed by the masses of the crowds and in some places refused to shoot, or only fired above the heads of the crowds. The city was paralyzed. On Znamenskaya Square there was a confrontation between the Cossacks, defending the threatened crowds, and the mounted police, which ended with the flight of the police. This meant that the Czarist state not only lacked the troops to repress the insurrection, but that its troops were even against it . The Baltic Squadron rebelled and the sailors of Kronstadt shot hundreds of their officers.
The strike, begun by the workers on February 23, had by the 24th become a general strike and then gave way to the insurrection of the 25th. The Czar only responded with more repression. The city was an armed camp. On Sunday the 26th, in the early afternoon, a massacre took place at the Znamenskaya Square, where more than 50 people were killed by a detachment of fresh recruits of the Volynsky Regiment. After this massacre furious crowds stormed courts, police stations and prisons, freeing the prisoners. The masses obtained the support of the troops from several army barracks, who then confronted the police. The leftist parties, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and Bolsheviks, especially, assumed leading roles in the movement and, together with the rebel regiments, took control of the entire city. The generalized mutiny of the military garrison of the 27th transformed the riots and the insurrection of the previous days into a revolution. On the 28th the red flag was waving over the prison-fortress of Saints Peter and Paul, the “Russian Bastille”. The police were hunted down and lynched in the streets. On this same day (the 28th), in the left wing of the Tauride Palace the Petrograd Soviet was created, while in the right wing the Duma met, and the two rival power centers were already apparent, located in the same building.
The Czar, meeting with his advisors, attempted to introduce government reforms to nip the revolution in the bud. But the Czar acted very slowly, and inopportunely, while the revolution acted with great speed. The bourgeoisie, the generals and a large part of the nobility advised the Czar to abdicate in favor of his son or his brother. But when the Czar agreed to do so, it was already too late. The masses demanded a republic. In February 1917 a situation arose that became known as “ dual power ”. Together with the bourgeois state, and opposed to it, the workers councils, or Soviets, arose as a potential alternative government of the working class. On March 1 Order Number of the Petrograd Soviet was published, which guaranteed immunity for rebel soldiers, on condition that the latter recognize only the authority of the Soviet. Nicholas II abdicated on the following day. Negotiations between the Soviet and the Duma led to the formation of a Provisional Government, in which Prince Lvov held the position of Prime Minister. When the name of Lvov was announced to the crowds, one soldier expressed his surprise: “All we have done is exchange a Czar for a Prince?” (Figes, p. 385).
The Provisional Government
The power in the streets, the real power, was held by the Soviets, but they had no intention at all of doing away with the government and assuming all power. Thus arose what Trotsky called “the paradox of February”, that is, that a revolution which had won in the streets gave way to a government formed in the salons. The Pact between the Petrograd Soviet and the Duma led to a republican Provisional Government, with a Kadet majority and some representatives of the Right Social Revolutionaries, such as Kerenski. The social composition of the new government had been changed from the nobility to the liberal bourgeoisie.
The Soviets freed the political prisoners and organized supply. The Czarist police force was dissolved, trade unions were legalized, regiments that supported the Soviets were formed, etc., without waiting for any decrees to do so. The Government was limited to ratifying the decisions made by the Soviets, which were not decreed directly by the Government power because the latter was dominated by a Menshevik and Right Social Revolutionary majority that “completely ruled out the possibility of demanding a power that the working class was not yet capable of exercising” (Broué, p. 114), in accordance with the previously-established analyses of these parties with regard to the Russian revolutionary process.
The Bolsheviks, led at the time by Kamenev and Stalin, supported these dogmas. In Pravda a radical shift took place when, in mid-March, Stalin took control of the editorial committee of the newspaper, and the latter began to publish numerous articles in favor of the idea of continuing the war: “The Bolsheviks henceforth adopted the theory of the Mensheviks according to which it was necessary for the Russian revolutionaries to continue the war in order to defend their recent democratic conquests against German imperialism” (Broué, p. 115). At the Party Conference of April 1, the Bolsheviks approved Stalin’s proposal to “support the Provisional Government”, as well as the possibility of a merger of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (Carr, Vol. 1, pp. 92-93).
These political positions were in opposition to the popular will, which demanded the immediate end of the war and its hardships. The declarations of the Foreign Minister Milyukov with respect to the military commitments to the allies and the continuation of the war until final victory, provoked angry demonstrations, which led to a government crisis that ended with Milyukov’s resignation and the formation of a coalition government made up of Kadets, Right SRs and Mensheviks, with the latter two parties forming an overwhelming majority. Kerensky was named as Minister of War.
The new government was viewed with approval by the allies, who understood the relation of forces in Russia and wanted a strong government, one that could keep Russia in the war.
Lenin, enraged by what he considered to be the suicidal and catastrophic policy of the Bolshevik Party, wrote the so-called “Letters from Afar” while he was in Zurich in March, in which he elaborated the Bolshevik program for the next stage of the revolution: transform the imperialist war into a civil war no support for the Provisional Government clear differentiation from the Mensheviks expropriation of the landed estates arming the workers to form a workers militia and immediate preparations for the proletarian revolution all state power must pass to the Soviets .
The Bolsheviks in Russia, who did not accept the novel positions of the exile Lenin, only published the first of the four letters. Lenin and the other exiled Russian revolutionaries in Switzerland sought by every possible means to return to Russia immediately. Since the Allies denied them visas, they consented to return to Russia via Germany and German-held territory. The German authorities thought that the Russian revolutionaries would help create a chaotic situation that would hasten the defeat of Russia. Lenin and his comrades travelled across Germany in a “sealed” train car. Later, the enemies of Lenin and the Bolsheviks used this episode to accuse them of being Germany spies.
Lenin arrived in Russia on April 3, 1917, at the Finland Station in Petrograd. His positions, which became known as The April Theses , were misunderstood and rejected by the majority of the Bolshevik leadership. On April 7 they were published in a brief historical article (“The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”) in which he tacitly embraced Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. He claimed that it was impossible to end the war without first defeating capitalism, which is why it was necessary to advance “… from the first stage of the revolution—which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie—to its second stage , which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants”.
He also claimed that the Bolsheviks would win over the masses by way of “a patient … explanation of” their policies: “As long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience.” The Bolsheviks’ mission, he pointed out, was to stimulate the initiative of the masses. From this initiative the experiences would have to arise that would give the Bolsheviks the majority in the Soviets: then the moment would come when the Soviets can seize power and begin the construction of socialism.
Lenin’s theses unexpectedly led to a violent upheaval within the Bolshevik Party. Pravda was obliged to publish a note in which Kamenev warned that, “these theses only represent the individual opinion of Lenin”. Lenin won the support of the working class cadres in his confrontation with the party leadership. He gradually won over some supporters, such as Zinoviev and Bukharin, and triggered the direct opposition of others, such as Kamenev.
On April 24 an Extraordinary Conference of the Bolshevik Party was convened, presided over by Kamenev. The latter, together with Rikov and other leaders, defended the positions that Lenin had himself advocated in 1906. Kamenev asserted that “it is premature to state that bourgeois democracy has exhausted all its possibilities”. Lenin responded by saying that such ideas were old formulas that the old Bolsheviks “senselessly learned by rote instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality”, and concluded by reminding Kamenev of Goethe’s famous saying: “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life” [The last two quotations are excerpts from Lenin’s “Letters on Tactics”, published as a pamphlet in April 1917. See: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/x01.htm#bkV24E020. Translator’s Note]. Although he emerged as the victor with regard to the basic political theses, his victory was not total, because, of the nine members of the Bolshevik executive committee, four opposed his theses.
Trotsky had returned to Russia on May 5, and was immediately invited to join the party leadership. The 6th Congress of the Bolshevik Party began on July 26, without Lenin, who had gone into hiding, and also without Trotsky, who had been arrested during the “July events”. The Congress witnessed the merger of various small organizations with the Bolshevik Party, which now counted one hundred seventy thousand militants, forty thousand of whom were in Petrograd. The leadership that was elected at the Congress proved to be a faithful reflection of the relation of forces: of the twenty-one members of the executive committee, sixteen belonged to the old guard Bolshevik fraction. Lenin, Zinoviev and Trotsky won the most votes. The victory of The April Theses was now total. The road to insurrection was now cleared of all internal obstacles in the party (Broué, pp. 116-126) [This and all subsequent citations from Broué appear to relate to the French edition of his book, Le Parti Bolchévique: Histoire du P.C. de l’U.R.S.S. , Editions de Minuit, 1971—Translator’s Note].
Dual power rapidly unraveled towards social confrontation, characterized by the choice between continuing the war, as the bourgeoisie and the nobility advocated, or immediate peace, demanded by the popular classes. Lenin had pointed out in May that “the country was a thousand times more leftist than the Mensheviks and a hundred times more leftist than the Bolsheviks”. Soldiers, workers and peasants were increasingly more radicalized against the war, because they suffered its direct consequences. The Provisional Government, however, decided to continue the war regardless of the cost.
Pressure from the allies and the “civic patriotism” of the Provisional Government caused the latter to launch an offensive, under the command of Brusilov, which ended in a military catastrophe and mass desertions. The order to transfer the Petrograd garrison to the front led to an uprising of the soldiers that was joined by the workers. The popular demonstrations of July 3 and 4 culminated in the occupation of Petrograd by the masses, who demanded the resignation of the Provisional Government. The demonstrators took to the streets calling for the overthrow of the Government, all power to the Soviets, the nationalization of the land and industry, workers control, and bread and peace. The Kadets availed themselves of the opportunity presented by the crisis to resign from the Government, and Kerensky assumed the presidency of a Government that was now composed solely of Mensheviks and Right SRs.
The Bolsheviks, after a propaganda campaign against the Government, in which they called for all power to the Soviets, thought that an insurrection would be premature, although the main cities were already wracked by uprisings, especially the capital, Petrograd. The Bolsheviks were not only incapable of stopping the insurrectional movement but were, at first, shouted down by the masses, until they finally joined them. After ten days of demonstrations the insurrection came to an end without a clear victor. The Bolshevik appeal to return to work was now heeded.
The Provisional Government accused the Bolsheviks of being responsible for the July incidents, and accused Lenin of being a German spy, revealing the history of the sealed train car. Some neutral regiments passed into the Government camp and many workers, Mensheviks and SRs, were confused by these calumnies. At this point, which was so favorable to the Government, the repression against the Bolsheviks was initiated. Their press was banned, their local offices were attacked, Trotsky and Kamenev were arrested, Lenin went into exile in Finland and the most high profile Bolshevik cadres went into hiding.
The most important phenomenon, however, took place in the rural areas. The peasants had not only ceased to believe in the promises of reform of the socialists in the successive Provisional Governments, but, also influenced by the appeal of the Bolsheviks to direct action and the occupation of the land, engaged in a generalized occupation of landed estates throughout the entire country . The Kadets reassumed their posts in the Government and demanded, in a kind of ultimatum, harsh measures against the spread of disorder. Kerensky, however, proved to be incapable of establishing social order and military discipline. The repression carried out by the Cossacks against the peasants caused the latter to irremediably move closer to the Bolsheviks, who proclaimed the slogan, “Peace, Bread and Land”.
In August, Kerensky convoked a National Conference, attended by political, social, economic and cultural forces from the whole country, for the purpose of achieving “an armistice between capital and labor” (Broué, p. 128). The Bolsheviks boycotted the Conference, which was a complete failure: all that was left was the military coup d’état.
The bourgeoisie, the nobility, the allies and the General Staff promoted a coup d’etat, which was to be led by General Kornilov, who had until then enjoyed the full confidence of Kerensky. Kornilov, at the command of Cossack troops, moved towards Petrograd on August 25. Kerensky stripped Kornilov of his command, although he continued to hold confused negotiations with him, while Kadets and Mensheviks abandoned the Government. Kerensky, a caricature of a new Czar, went to the front in order to try to avoid facing the real problems.
Meanwhile, in a Petrograd abandoned by the Provisional Government, the Soviets organized the defense against Kornilov. The sailors of Kronstadt freed the Bolshevik prisoners, Trotsky among others, and the party emerged from clandestinity. Its cadres and militants immediately won an overwhelming majority in the military garrison and in the factories. Trotsky was once again elected to the presidency of the Petrograd Soviet and formed the Revolutionary Military Committee, an organ of the Soviet that merged its troops with the recently created Red Guard, composed of groups of armed workers.
Kornilov and his Cossacks could not even get near Petrograd. The railroad workers refused to allow the trains carrying Kornilov’s troops to proceed, or else they diverted them to other destinations. The soldiers themselves mutinied as soon as they became aware of the nature of their mission. On September 3, Kornilov called off his coup d’état and surrendered to the Government. The coup attempt had turned the situation to the advantage of the Bolsheviks . The soldiers assemblies arrested and sometimes executed officers suspected of sympathizing with Kornilov’s coup attempt, and approved of resolutions in favor of Soviet power and peace. On August 31 the Petrograd Soviet demanded that all power should pass to the Soviets, and on September 9 it condemned the idea of a coalition with the bourgeoisie.
On September 13 Lenin sent two letters to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party in which he maintained that the preconditions for the seizure of power had sufficiently matured. But the majority of the Central Committee, led by Zinoviev and Kamenev, was still opposed to staging the final proletarian insurrection. They thought that conditions were still as immature as they were in July. Trotsky supported the insurrection if it was carried out to coincide with the Soviet Congress, which was scheduled to meet at the end of October. Lenin only obtained the support of the young Smilga, president of the Finland Soviet. On October 10 Lenin, wearing a disguise composed of a wig and a hat, and having shaved his goatee, returned to Petrograd from exile in Finland, in order to drag the Central Committee , by ten votes against two (Zinoviev and Kamenev), to a resolution in favor of insurrection, so that preparations were immediately undertaken (Broué, pp. 126-134 Figes, pp. 456-507).
The February Revolution had overthrown the Czar and established democratic freedoms and a bourgeois republic. But the Russian revolutionary process did not stop halfway and drove towards its conclusion , in order to overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie and to establish the workers power of the Soviets.
The preparations for the insurrection were never a secret to anybody. Kamenev and Zinoviev openly denounced them in the press. The Revolutionary Military Committee, responsible for the insurrection in Petrograd, organized the entire operation.
Furthermore, the October insurrection was not actually carried out in obedience to a decision made by the Bolshevik Party Central Committee, but as a refusal of the Soviet to comply with the order issued by the Kerensky Government to send two-thirds of the Petrograd garrison to the front. The bourgeois Government attempted, once again, to disperse the revolutionary troops of Petrograd and replace them with counterrevolutionary battalions. The October events took place only a few weeks after Kornilov’s coup attempt, in opposition to the new attempt to crush the revolution, forcing the proletariat to take insurrectional measures to defend it. The forces of the Revolutionary Military Committee were not numerous, but they were absolutely decisive: the Red Guard, the sailors of the Baltic Fleet, the city’s garrison and the workers militias. Some thirty thousand men actively participated in the insurrection. The revolt of the working class neighborhoods, which remained peaceful, was not necessary nor was it necessary to assault the military barracks, because they had already been won over to the revolution before the insurrection.
The date of the insurrection was fixed for the night of the 24th, because on October 25 the Soviet Congress was scheduled to meet . On the evening of the 24th all the members of the officer corps who did not recognize the authority of the Revolutionary Military Committee were arrested, and the police stations, printing plants, bridges, and public buildings were occupied, patrols and checkpoints were set up on the most important streets, and the state bank, the railroad stations, the telegraph offices, and the telephone exchange and electric power plants were seized. In just thirteen hours Petrograd was in the hands of the revolutionary soldiers and workers under the orders of the Soviet. At ten in the morning on the 25th the Government only held power in its own headquarters, the Winter Palace, which had been under siege for several days. Just after sunset on the 25th, the cruiser Aurora fired a salvo that marked the beginning of the assault on the Winter Palace. Lenin wanted to announce the fall of Kerensky’s Government to the assembly of the Soviet Congress. The troops defending the Palace resisted until they were given the chance to escape. Finally, the Winter Palace surrendered during the early morning hours of the 26th of October , after a joint assault staged by sailors, soldiers and workers. The Provisional Government, which had met in a session to organize resistance in the capital, was arrested Kerensky, however, escaped in a requisitioned car to the American Embassy.
Between October 28 and November 2 the workers insurrection was also victorious in Moscow, and after two or three weeks it had spread to practically all of Russia. On that same morning of October 26, the Second Soviet Congress, with a large Bolshevik majority, elected a revolutionary government, composed in its majority by Bolsheviks and Left SRs, and approved the first decrees of the new government. Lenin was elected president of the Council of Peoples Commissars.
Peace was declared , and an immediate ceasefire was promulgated on all fronts. Trotsky, who had been named Commissar of Foreign Affairs, assumed responsibility for beginning peace negotiations with Germany. On December 2 an armistice was signed and on March 4, 1918, a peace treaty, called the Brest-Litovsk Treaty after the town where the negotiations were held, was signed, triggering a bitter polemic between those who wanted to sign the peace treaty at any price, as a means of defending the new Soviet state, and those who advocated spreading the revolutionary war to Europe this conflict threatened to split the Bolshevik Party.
A decree was passed legalizing the confiscation of the landed estates and the transfer of the land to the peasant Soviets, workers control in industry and the nationalization of the banks. The rights of national minorities were recognized, including the right to self-determination and the freedom to secede from Russia.
The new Soviet government, which was not recognized by the Allies, still faced the radical opposition of all of the rest of the political spectrum, from the extreme Czarist right to the Mensheviks. The outbreak of civil war only a few months later, with the intervention of foreign powers, was inevitable.
The Bolsheviks were politically isolated and faced serious problems. The Mensheviks still thought that the seizure of power by a workers party was madness, since the famous “objective conditions” prevented the process from going beyond the tasks of a bourgeois revolution: according to them, what was needed now was to develop democratic liberties. The Right Social Revolutionaries oscillated between demanding that the Bolsheviks commit political suicide, that is, that Lenin and Trotsky be expelled from Russia, and calling for armed confrontation. The Left SRs confronted the Bolsheviks over the question of whether or not to dissolve the Constituent Assembly.
In the Constituent Assembly, elected by universal suffrage, the Bolsheviks were a minority. The Left SRs were underrepresented, because the Social Revolutionary Party had named its candidates before the announcement of the split by the left, which had majority support in the military bases and the countryside.
Faced with the refusal of the Constituent Assembly to approve the “Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People” (approved by the Third Soviet Congress), the Bolsheviks abandoned the Assembly, and then a detachment of Red Guards entered the meeting hall and pronounced the Assembly closed. That was the end of parliamentary democracy in Russia. A dangerous situation ensued, characterized by the mixture and confusion of the state bureaucratic apparatus and the cadres of the Bolshevik Party.
The Civil War and War Communism (1918-1921)
The civil war began with the revolt, in May 1918, of the Czechoslovakian Legion, composed of some fifty thousand soldiers under French commanders. These units proceeded westward, and soon reached the Volga. The success of this operation led the Allies to intervene, for the purpose of crushing the revolution and restoring the Czarist regime.
In June, Anglo-French troops landed at Murmansk and Archangel. In August, the Allies landed one hundred thousand men in Vladivostok, on the pretext of helping the Czechoslovakian Legion. In the South, the Czarist general Denikin formed an army of volunteers with British supplies and materiel: this was the origin of the White Guard. In September, Trotsky, the creator of the Red Army, obtained the first Soviet success with the defeat of the Czechs and the reconquest of Kazan. In 1919 the French seized Odessa, the Ukraine and Crimea the English took over the oil wells of the Caucasus and the Don Basin. Russian soil was also occupied by American, Polish, German and Serbian troops. The situation was desperate. Clemenceau’s plan to encircle the Bolsheviks was fulfilled. But dissensions among the Allies and the political incapacity of the generals of the White Guard, who were incapable of making any concessions of autonomy to the national minorities (a question that was of interest to the Cossacks) or of land to the peasants, in order to obtain their support, allowed the Red Army to resist for the thirty months the civil war lasted. Finally, the revolutionary wave that shook Europe and the military successes of the Reds led to the signing of another armistice. The civil war had left the country in ruins. Private trade had disappeared (Broué, pp. 163-170).
The measures known by the name of “war communism” were therefore the results of the necessities imposed by the war. In order to feed the besieged cities and the army, harvests were requisitioned. The poor peasants were organized against the Kulaks. There was no government revenue, since the administrative apparatus had disappeared. The uncontrolled printing of paper money triggered inflation. Famine and epidemics devastated the cities, which were the heart of the revolution. Wages were paid in kind. The industrial workers were sent to the battlefronts. The terror of the political police (the Cheka) made its inevitable appearance: nothing would ever be the same.
Industrial production plunged. The production of iron and steel was minimal. Almost three-quarters of the railroad lines were unusable. Land under cultivation was reduced by one-fourth. The Kulaks killed their livestock and concealed their harvests in order to prevent their requisition.
It was in this context that the Kronstadt revolt took place, at a naval base close to Petrograd with a proud Soviet and Bolshevik tradition. In March 1921, Trotsky assumed command over the suppression of the uprising of the sailors of Kronstadt, who, during the revolution of 1917, had been “the pride and glory of the revolution”, in Trotsky’s own words. It was also during that month that the 10th Congress of the Bolshevik Party banned fractions and tendencies in the Bolshevik Party, and when Lenin proposed the “New Economic Policy” (NEP). During that same period, no less than fifty separate peasant revolts were underway. The most important revolt was that of the Ukrainian anarchist Makhno, who controlled the entire Ukraine . The Party decided to change its economic policy, but the armed repression of broad, undoubtedly revolutionary sectors of the population constituted a counterrevolutionary turning point for the Soviet revolution. It was hardly surprising that Kronstadt had been crushed for defending the slogan, “Soviets without Bolsheviks” (Brinton, pp. 137-144 Mett, pp. 39-116).
The so-called NEP entailed the implementation of a series of extraordinary economic measures, motivated by the catastrophic consequences of the war, and laid the foundations for Russian State Capitalism . In order to increase productivity it was decided to stimulate private entrepreneurial initiative, prohibited in 1917, and to permit profit making in small-scale agricultural and commercial enterprises. The forced requisitions were eliminated, and much of the land was handed over to the Kulaks, thus creating a domestic free market. At the same time, the state created large state farms, the Sovkhoz, and agricultural cooperatives, the Kolkhoz. Enterprises employing fewer than twenty workers were privatized, and the liberalization of wage policies and production quotas were authorized for private enterprises. The presence of foreign technicians was authorized. A tax “in kind” was established and foreign investments, under state control, were authorized. The state system was directed by the Supreme Soviet of the Economy. The NEP created a certain degree of stability and allowed production to rise to pre-war levels. But in the process, the Soviets were eviscerated and the revolution died . The NEP came to an end in 1927, with the announcement of the first five year plan, which placed economic priority on heavy industry to the detriment of consumption goods.
The Triumph of the Stalinist Bureaucracy
As a result of the disasters, impoverishment and devastation caused by the civil war, the isolation of the Russian Revolution following the failure of the international revolution, the deaths of numerous Bolshevik militants, economic chaos, a famine that caused millions of deaths, and generalized misery, but above all thanks to the identification of the Party with the State, a bureaucracy arose which secured its position with the victory of the political counterrevolution and the costly and poorly managed industrialization imposed by the victorious State Capitalism.
In 1922 Lenin had warned of the dangers of this statist trend. The bureaucracy had rendered the Soviets, the trade unions, and the party cells and committees meaningless, and subjected them to the state apparatus and its counterrevolutionary directives.
As of 1923, Stalin embodied this new bureaucracy of the Party-State that led a brutal political counterrevolution. The basic prediction of the Bolsheviks in 1917 was that, in view of Russia’s economic backwardness, a victorious workers revolution could only survive with the international extension of a revolution that would have to be worldwide, and that the first concrete step towards this revolution would take place in Germany. Otherwise, the Russian Revolution would be defeated.
In 1924 the bureaucracy adopted the theory of “socialism in one country” and the cult of personality devoted to the mummified Lenin, as the two foundations on which the new Stalinist ideology would be erected. The Russian bureaucracy, now having cast off its disguise, appeared to be ready to definitively crush all opposition.
Stalinism grotesquely deformed the concept of the meaning of socialism, deprived the Soviets of all content, abolished the least trace of workers democracy, and imposed a personal dictatorship over the party, and that of the party over the country, thus constructing a totalitarian regime. The bureaucracy needed to annihilate all the cadres of the Bolshevik leadership who had carried out the October Revolution, since the concealment of its own counterrevolutionary nature was one of the characteristics of Stalinism.
Thus, there were numerous purges throughout the 1930s, which condemned hundreds of thousands of dissidents, real or imagined, regardless of their ideologies, to death and disgrace, among whom figured the Bolsheviks themselves, and especially their most important leaders. Trotsky was assassinated in August 1940 in Mexico, where he lived in exile, by Ramón Mercader, a Spanish Stalinist agent who carried out Stalin’s orders. In the Spanish civil war the Stalinists led the counterrevolution in the republican camp, physically and politically eliminating anarchists, POUMists and dissidents. In August 1939 the Hitler-Stalin Pact was signed preparatory to the invasion of Poland. At the end of the Second World War, the Red Army occupied half of Europe, establishing totalitarian regimes, satellites of the Soviet Union, which rapidly collapsed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989. These Stalinist regimes experienced various workers and popular insurrections, such as the revolts in Berlin in 1947, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The fall of the Berlin Wall, in October 1989, was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and of all the Stalinist states.
The International Characteristics of Stalinism
The characteristics of the Stalinist counterrevolution were:
• Constant, ubiquitous and almost omnipotent police terror
• Indispensable falsification of its own nature, and of the nature of its enemies, especially of the revolutionaries
• Exploitation of the workers by means of State Capitalism, led by the Party-State, which militarized labor.
The Stalinists were never a reformist sector of the workers movement, but were always the party of counterrevolution and of the ferocious repression of the revolutionary movement. No collaboration was every possible with Stalinism, only a relentless struggle. Stalinism, always and everywhere, has led and directed the counterrevolutionary forces, deriving its power from the idea of national unity, the practice of a policy of law and order, its struggle to establish a strong government, an economic policy based on nationalization , the infiltration of the militants of the Stalinist party into the state apparatus, and especially disguising its reactionary nature in the midst of the workers movement (Munis, pp. 158-290).
The greatness of Red October resides in the fact that it was the first proletarian revolution in history, the first time that the proletariat seized power, overthrowing the government of the bourgeoisie. The communist revolution can only be a world revolution, and it failed in Russia when the revolutionary proletariat was defeated in Germany and the Soviet revolution remained isolated.
This isolation, combined with the catastrophes of the civil war, economic chaos, poverty and famine, magnified the terrible mistakes of the Bolsheviks, among which the identification of the Party with the State stands out, which led to the inevitable triumph of the Stalinist counterrevolution, carried out from the very ranks of the Bolshevik Party that had inspired the Soviet Revolution of October 1917. The Stalinist counterrevolution was therefore of a political character, it destroyed all political and ideological opposition, it harshly repressed proletarian groups and movements that were undoubtedly revolutionary, and persecuted to the extent of physical extermination those who expressed the least dissidence, whether within or outside of the Bolshevik Party . In Russia, the revolutionary process that had begun in 1905, obtained its first success with the democratic revolution of February 1917, which overthrew the Czar and established a democratic republic, but did not stop halfway and continued to the end with the insurrection of October 1917 in Petrograd, in which the Soviets seized power, replacing the bourgeoisie of the state apparatus.
The Stalinist counterrevolution was therefore of a political character, and was embodied in the monopoly of power held by the Bolshevik Party, in the form of nationalization and state economic concentration ( State Capitalism ) and in the transformation of the Bolshevik Party into a Party-State.
Far from being a mere coup d’état, as the ruling class would have us believe, the October revolution is the highest point yet reached by humanity in its entire history. For the first time the working class had the courage and the ability to seize power, wrenching it from the grip of the exploiters and beginning the world proletarian revolution .
Even though the revolution would soon be defeated in Berlin, Munich, Budapest and Turin, even though the Russian and the world proletariat had to pay a terrible price for its defeat —the horror of the counterrevolution, another world war, and all the barbarism suffered under the Stalinist states —the bourgeoisie is still unable to erase the memory and the lessons of this formidable event.
Epilogue: The Communist Left Against Stalinism and Leninist Ideology
The worst legacy of Stalinism has been its perverse utilization of the Marxist-Leninist ideology as the orthodox continuation of “Marxism”, which is thus undermined and discredited as a theory of the proletarian revolution. Leninism used a Marxist language to justify totalitarian regimes, which had nothing to do with Marx’s analyses, which he produced between 1844 and 1883, concerning capitalism and the exploitation of the proletariat. Lenin himself, in his ideas and analyses on the party, nationalism, the Russian Revolution, etc., clashed head-on other Marxist theoreticians, such as Luxemburg, Bordiga, Gorter and Pannekoek, who were among the first to denounce the worst aberrations of Leninism.
The Leninist concept of the party considers that the working class is incapable of attaining a degree of consciousness that goes beyond shortsighted trade unionist and reformist ideas. The party must inoculate the working class, from the outside, with socialist and revolutionary consciousness. This idea, as Pannekoek demonstrates in his book, Lenin as Philosopher , is foreign to Marx, who clearly proclaimed that, “the emancipation of the workers will be the task of the workers themselves”.
The (bourgeois) right of national self-determination, proclaimed by Lenin, introduces nationalist ideology as a fundamental goal of the proletariat in the struggle for its emancipation. As Rosa Luxemburg stated in her debate with Lenin, the ideology of national liberation of the oppressed peoples is a bourgeois ideology, absolutely foreign to the class struggle and the emancipation of the proletariat…. The tactics employed by the Bolsheviks in Russia could not be applied to the situation in Western Europe of the time, where the communist parties advocated antiparliamentary and anti-trade union tactics, and were dogmatically condemned by Lenin. See the “Open Letter to Comrade Lenin”, written by Gorter in response to Lenin’s pamphlet, Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder .
There is, then, an entire Marxist corpus, which denounces not only the totalitarian barbarism of the Stalinist and Fascist regimes, but also some of the worst theoretical aberrations of Leninism: this corpus is the inalienable inheritance that has been bequeathed to us by the various fractions of the communist left.
Neither Leninist ideology nor Stalinist totalitarianism are Marxist. By Marxism we mean the critique of the political economy of capital, carried out by Marx in the mid-19th century, his method of research, and the theoretical elaboration of the historical experiences of the proletariat ( The Communist Manifesto, Capital, The 18th Brumaire , etc.), continued by Engels, Luxemburg and the communist left (Russian, Italian and German-Dutch). This communist left was composed of tiny fractions that, in harsh conditions of isolation and physical and political persecution, criticized, utilizing the Marxist method, and in the practice of the class struggle, the distortions of the Third International, and Stalinist and Fascist totalitarianism.
The Marxist critique of the Stalinist regimes, the result of the theoretical analysis and the struggle of these left communist fractions within the Communist International itself, which defined with greater or lesser clarity these regimes as State Capitalist , can be found in the bibliography listed below.
[Bibliography, which consists of Spanish language books, is omitted from this translation—Translator’s Note]
[Text is not dated the most recent publication date in the Spanish-language bibliography at the end of the text is 2006]
Chapter 6 The Death Agony of the Monarchy
T he dynasty fell by shaking, like rotten fruit, before the revolution even had time to approach its first problems. Our portrayal of the old ruling class would remain incomplete if we did not try to show how the monarchy met the hour of its fall.
The czar was at headquarters at Moghilev, having gone there not because he was needed, but in flight from the Petrograd disorders. The court chronicler, General Dubensky, with the czar at headquarters, noted in his diary: “A quiet life begins here. Everything will remain as before. Nothing will come of his (the czar’s) presence. Only accidental external causes will change anything …” On February 24, the czarina wrote Nicholas at headquarters, in English as always: “I hope that Duma man Kedrinsky (she means Kerensky) will be hung for his horrible speeches-it is necessary (war-time law) and it will be an example. All are thirsting and beseeching that you show your firmness.” On February 25, a telegram came from the Minister of War that strikes were occurring in the capital, disorders beginning among the workers, but measures had been taken and there was nothing serious. In a word: “It isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last!”
The czarina, who had always taught the czar not to yield, here too tried to remain firm. On the 26th, with an obvious desire to hold up the shaky courage of Nicholas, she telegraphs him: “It is calm in the city.” But in her evening telegram she has to confess: “Things are not going at all well in the city.” In a letter she says: “You must say to the workers that they must not declare strikes, if they do, they will be sent to the front as a punishment. There is no need at all of shooting. Only order is needed, and not to let them cross the bridges.” Yes, only a little thing is needed, only order! But the chief thing is not to admit the workers into the city-let them choke in the raging impotence of their suburbs.
On the morning of the 27th, General Ivanov moves from the front with the Battalion of St. George, entrusted with dictatorial powers – which he is to make public, however, only upon occupying Tsarskoe Selo. “It would be hard to imagine a more unsuitable person.” General Denikin will recall later, himself having taken a turn at military dictatorship, “a flabby old man, meagrely grasping the political situation, possessing neither strength, nor energy, nor will, nor austerity.” The choice fell upon Ivanov through memories of the first revolution. Eleven years before that he had subdued Kronstadt. But those years had left their traces the subduers had grown flabby, the subdued, strong. The northern and western fronts were ordered to get ready troops for the march on Petrograd evidently everybody thought there was plenty of time ahead. Ivanov himself assumed that the affair would be ended soon and successfully he even remembered to send out an adjutant to buy provisions in Moghilev for his friends in Petrograd.
On the morning of February 27, Rodzianko sent the czar a new telegram, which ended with the words: “The last hour has come when the fate of the fatherland and the dynasty is being decided.” The czar said to his Minister of the Court, Frederiks: “Again that fat-bellied Rodzianko has written me a lot of nonsense, which I won’t even bother to answer.” But no. It was not nonsense. He will have to answer.
About noon of the 27th, headquarters received a report from Khabalov of the mutiny of the Pavlovsky, Volynsky, Litovsky and Preobrazhensky regiments, and the necessity of sending reliable troops from the front. An hour later from the War Ministry came a most reassuring telegram: “The disorders which began this morning in certain military units are being firmly and energetically put down by companies and battalions loyal to their duty … I am firmly convinced of an early restoration of tranquility.” However, a little after seven in the evening, the same minister, Belyaev, is reporting that “We are not succeeding in putting down the military rebellion with the few detachments that remain loyal to their duty,” and requesting a speedy dispatch of really reliable troops-and that too in sufficient numbers “for simultaneous activity in different parts of the city.”
The Council of Ministers deemed this a suitable day to remove from their midst the presumed cause of all misfortunes – the half-crazy Minister of the Interior Protopopov. At the same time General Khabalov issued an edict – prepared in secrecy from the government – declaring Petrograd, on His Majesty’s orders, under martial law. So here too was an attempt to mix hot with cold – hardly intentional, however, and anyway of no use. They did not even succeed in pasting up the declaration of martial law through the city: the burgomaster, Balka, could find neither paste nor brushes. Nothing would stick together for those functionaries any longer they already belonged to the kingdom of shades.
The principal shade of the last czarist ministry was the seventy-year old Prince Golytsin, who had formerly conducted some sort of eleemosynary institutions of the czarina, and had been advanced by her to the post of head of the government in a period of war and revolution. When friends asked this “good-natured Russian squire, this old weakling” – as the liberal Baron Nolde described him – why he accepted such a troublesome position, Golytsin answered: “So as to have one more pleasant recollection.” This aim, at any rate, he did not achieve. How the last czarist government felt in those hours is attested by Rodzianko in the following tale: With the first news of the movement of a crowd toward the Mariinsky Palace, where the Ministry was in session, all the lights in the building were immediately put out. (The government wanted only one thing – that the revolution should not notice it.) The rumour, however, proved false the attack did not take place and when the lights were turned on, one of the members of the czarist government was found “to his own surprise” under the table. What kind of recollections he was accumulating there has not been established.
But Rodzianko’s own feelings apparently were not at their highest point. After a long but vain hunt for the government by telephone, the President of the Duma tries again to ring up Prince Golytsin. The latter answers him: “I beg you not to come to me with anything further, I have resigned.” Hearing this news, Rodzianko, according to his loyal secretary, sank heavily in an armchair and covered his face with both hands.
My “God, how horrible! … Without a government … Anarchy … Blood …” and softly wept. At the expiring of the senile ghost of the czarist power Rodzianko felt unhappy, desolate, orphaned. How far he was at that moment from the thought that tomorrow he would have to “ head” a revolution!
The telephone answer of Golytsin is explained by the fact that on the evening of the 27th the Council of Ministers had definitely acknowledged itself incapable of handling the situation, and proposed to the czar to place at the head of the government a man enjoying general confidence. The czar answered Golytsin: “In regard to changes in the personal staff in the present circumstances, I consider that inadmissible. Nicholas.” Just what circumstances was he waiting for? At the same time the czar demanded that they adopt “the most decisive measures” for putting down the rebellion. That was easier said than done.
On the next day, the 28th, even the untamable czarina at last loses heart. “Concessions are necessary,” she telegraphs Nicholas. “The strikes continue many troops have gone over to the side of the revolution. Alex.”
It required an insurrection of the whole guard, the entire garrison, to compel this Hessian zealot of autocracy to agree that “concessions are necessary.” Now the czar also begins to suspect that the “fat-bellied Rodzianko” had not telegraphed nonsense. Nicholas decides to join his family. It is possible that he is a little gently pushed from behind by the generals of the staff, too, who are not feeling quite comfortable.
The czar’s train travelled at first without mishap. Local chiefs and governors came out as usual to meet him. Far from the revolutionary whirlpool, in his accustomed royal car, surrounded by the usual suite, the czar apparently again lost a sense of the close coming crisis. At three o’clock on the 28th, when the events had already settled his fate, he sent a telegram to the czarina from Vyazma: “Wonderful weather. Hope you are well and calm. Many troops sent from the front. With tender love. Niki.” Instead of the concessions, upon which even the czarina is insisting, the tenderly loving czar is sending troops from the front. But in spite of that “wonderful weather,” in just a few hours the czar will stand face to face with the revolutionary storm. His train went as far as the Visher station. The railroad workers would not let it go farther: “The bridge is damaged.” Most likely this pretext was invented by the courtiers themselves in order to soften the situation. Nicholas tried to make his way, or they tried to get him through, by way of Bologoe on the Nikolaevsk railroad but here, too, the workers would not let the train pass. This was far more palpable than all the Petrograd telegrams. The Czar had broken away from headquarters, and could not make his way to the capital. With its simple railroad “pawns” the revolution had cried “check” to the king!
The court historian Dubensky, who accompanied the Czar in his train, writes in his diary: “ Everybody realises that this midnight turn at Visher is a historical night … To me it is perfectly clear that the question of a constitution is settled it will surely be introduced … Everybody is saying that it is only necessary to strike a bargain with them, with the members of the Provisional Government.” Facing a lowered semaphore, behind which mortal danger is thickening, Count Frederiks, Prince Dolgoruky, Count Leuchtenberg, all of them, all those high lords, are now for a constitution. They no longer think of struggling. It is only necessary to strike a bargain, that is, try to fool them again as in 1905.
While the train was wandering and finding no road, the Czarina was sending the Czar telegram after telegram, appealing to him to return as soon as possible. But her telegrams came back to her from the office with the inscription in blue pencil: “Whereabouts of the addressee unknown.” The telegraph clerks were unable to locate the Russian czar.
The regiments marched with music and banners to the Tauride Palace. A company of the Guards marched under the command of Cyril Vladimirovich, who had quite suddenly, according to Countess Kleinmichel, developed a revolutionary streak. The sentries disappeared. The intimates were abandoning the palace. “Everybody was saving himself who could,” relates Vyrubova. Bands of revolutionary soldiers wandered about the palace and with eager curiosity looked over everything. Before they had decided up above what should be done, the lower ranks were converting the palace of the Czar into a museum.
The Czar – his location unknown – turns back to Pskov, to the headquarters of the northern front, commanded by the old General Ruszky. In the czar’s suite one suggestion follows another. The Czar procrastinates. He is still reckoning in days and weeks, while the revolution is keeping its count in minutes.
The poet Blok characterised the Czar during the last months of the monarchy as follows: “Stubborn, but without will nervous, but insensitive to everything distrustful of people, taut and cautious in speech, he was no longer master of himself. He had ceased to understand the situation, and did not take one clearly conscious step, but gave himself over completely into the hands of those whom he himself had placed in power.” And how much these traits of tautness and lack of will, cautiousness and distrust, were to increase during the last days of February and first days of March!
Nicholas finally decided to send – and nevertheless evidently did not send – a telegram to the hated Rodzianko stating that for the salvation of the fatherland he appointed him to form a new ministry, reserving, however, the ministries of foreign affairs, war and marine for himself. The Czar still hoped to bargain with “them”: the “many troops,” after all, were on their way to Petrograd.
General Ivanov actually arrived without hindrance at Tsarskoe Selo: evidently the railroad workers did not care to come in conflict with the Battalion of St. George. The general confessed later that he had three or four times found it necessary on the march to use fatherly influence with the lower ranks, who were impudent to him: he made them get down on their knees. Immediately upon the arrival of the “dictator” in Tsarskoe Selo, the local authorities informed him that an encounter between the Battalion of St. George and the troops would mean danger to the czar’s family. They were simply afraid for themselves, and advised the dictator to go back without detraining.
General Ivanov telegraphed to the other “dictator,” Khabalov, in Petrograd ten questions, to which he received succinct answers: We will quote them in full, for they deserve it:
|Ivanov’s questions:||Khabalov’s replies:|
|1. How many troops are in order and how many are misbehaving?||1. I have at my disposal in the Admiralty building four companies of the Guard, five squadrons of cavalry and Cossacks, and two batteries the rest of the troops have gone over to the revolutionists, or by agreement with them are remaining neutral. Soldiers are wandering through the towns singly or in bands disarming officers.|
|2. Which railroad stations are guarded?||2. All the stations are in the hands of the revolutionists and strictly guarded by them.|
|3. In what parts of the city is order preserved?||3. The whole city is in the hands of the revolutionists. The telephone is not working, there is no communication between different parts of the city.|
|4. What authorities are governing the different parts of the city?||4. I cannot answer this question.|
|5. Are all the ministries functioning properly?||5. The ministers have been arrested by the revolutionists.|
|6. What police forces are at your disposal at the present moment?||6. None whatever .|
|7. What technical and supply institutions of the War Department are now in your control?||7. I have none.|
|8. What quantity of provisions at is at your disposal?||8. There are no provisions my disposal. In the city on February 5 there were 5,600,000 pounds of flour in store.|
|9. Have many weapons, artillery and military stores fallen into the hands of the mutineers?||9. All the artillery establishments are in the hands of the revolutionists.|
|10. What military forces and the staffs are in your control?||10. The chief of the Staff of District is in my personal control. With the other district administrations I have no connections.|
Having received this unequivocal illumination as to the situation, General Ivanov “agreed” to turn back his echelon without detraining to the station “Dno.”  “Thus,” concludes one of the chief personages of the staff, General Lukomsky, “nothing came of the expedition of General Ivanov with dictatorial powers but a public disgrace.”
That disgrace, incidentally, was a very quiet one, sinking unnoticed in the billowing events. The dictator, we may suppose, delivered the provisions to his friends in Petrograd, and had a long chat with the Czarina. She referred to her self-sacrificing work in the hospitals, and complained of the ingratitude of the army and the people.
During this time news was arriving at Pskov by way of Moghilev, blacker and blacker. His Majesty’s own bodyguard, in which every soldier was known by name and coddled by the royal family, turned up at the State Duma asking permission to arrest those officers who had refused to take part in the insurrection. Vice-Admiral Kurovsky reported that he found it impossible to take any measures to put down the insurrection at Kronstadt, since he could not vouch for the loyalty of a single detachment. Admiral Nepenin telegraphed that the Baltic Fleet had recognised the Provisional Committee of the State Duma. The Moscow commander-in-chief, Mrozovsky, telegraphed: “A majority of the troops have gone over with artillery to the revolutionists. The whole town is therefore in their hands. The burgomaster and his aide have left the city hall.” Have left means that they fled.
All this was communicated to the Czar on the evening of March 1. Deep into the night they coaxed and argued about a responsible ministry. Finally, at two o’clock in the morning the Czar gave his consent, and those around him drew a sigh of relief. Since they took it for granted that this would settle the problem of the revolution, an order was issued at the same time that the troops which had been sent to Petrograd to put down the insurrection should return to the front. Ruszky hurried at dawn to convey the good news to Rodzianko. But the czar’s clock was way behind. Rodzianko in the Tauride Palace, already buried under a pile of democrats, socialists, soldiers, workers’ deputies, replied to Ruszky: “Your proposal is not enough it is now a question of the dynasty itself. . . . Everywhere the troops are taking the side of the Duma, and the people are demanding an abdication in favour of the Heir with Mikhail Alexandrovich as regent.” Of course. the troops never thought of demanding either the Heir or Mikhail Alexandrovich. Rodzianko merely attributed to the troops and the people that slogan upon which the Duma was still hoping to stop the revolution. But in either case the Czar’s concession had come too late: “The anarchy has reached such proportions that I (Rodzianko) was this night compelled to appoint a Provisional Government. Unfortunately, the edict has come too late …” These majestic words bear witness that the President of the Duma had succeeded in drying the tears shed over Golytsin. The czar read the conversation between Rodzianko and Ruszky, and hesitated, read it over again, and decided to wait. But now the military chiefs had begun to sound the alarm: the matter concerned them too a little!
General Alexeiev carried out during the hours of that night a sort of plebiscite among the commanders-in-chief at the fronts. It is a good thing present-day revolutions are accomplished with the help of the telegraph, so that the very first impulses and reactions of those in power are preserved to history on the tape. The conversations of the czarist field-marshals on the night of March 1-2 are an incomparable human document. Should the czar abdicate or not? The commander-in-chief of the western front, General Evert, consented to give his opinion only after Generals Ruszky and Brussilov had expressed themselves. The commander-in-chief of the Roumanian front, General Sakharov, demanded that before he express himself the conclusions of all the other commanders-in-chief should be communicated to him. After long delays this valiant chieftain announced that his warm love for the monarch would not permit his soul to reconcile itself with an acceptance of the “base suggestion” nevertheless, “with sobs” he advised the Czar to abdicate in order to avoid “still viler pretensions.” Adjutant-General Evert quite reasonably explained the necessity for capitulation: “I am taking all measures to prevent information as to the present situation in the capital from penetrating the army, in order to protect it against indubitable disturbances. No means exist for putting down the revolution in the capitals.” Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolajevich on the Caucasian front beseeched the Czar on bended knee to adopt the “supermeasure” and renounce the throne. A similar prayer came from Generals Alexeiev and Brussilov and Admiral Nepenin. Ruszky spoke orally to the same effect. The generals respectfully presented seven revolver barrels to the temple of the adored monarch. Fearing to let slip the moment for reconciliation with the new power, and no less fearing their own troops, these military chieftains, accustomed as they were to surrendering positions, gave the czar and the High Commander-in-Chief a quite unanimous counsel: retire without fighting. This was no longer distant Petrograd against which, as it seemed, one might send troops this was the front from which the troops had to be borrowed.
Having listened to this suggestively circumstanced report, the Czar decided to abdicate the throne which he no longer possessed. A telegram to Rodzianko suitable to the occasion was drawn up: “There is no sacrifice that I would not make in the name of the real welfare and salvation of my native mother Russia. Thus I am ready to abdicate the throne in favor of my son, and in order that he may remain with me until he is of age, under the regency of my brother, Mikhail Alexandrovich. Nicholas.” This telegram too, however, was not dispatched, for news came from the capital of the departure for Pskov of the deputies Guchkov and Shulgin. This offered a new pretext to postpone the decision. The Czar ordered the telegram returned to him. He obviously dreaded to sell too cheap, and still hoped for comforting news – or more accurately, hoped for a miracle. Nicholas received the two deputies at twelve o’clock midnight March 2-8. The miracle did not come, and it was impossible to evade longer. The czar unexpectedly announced that he could not part with his son – what vague hopes were then wandering in his head? – and signed an abdication in favor of his brother. At the same time edicts to the Senate were signed, naming Prince Lvov President of the Council of Ministers, and Nikolai Nikolaievich Supreme Commander-in-Chief. The family suspicions of the czarina seemed to have been justified: the hated “Nikolasha” came back to power along with the conspirators. Guchkov apparently seriously believed that the revolution would accept the Most August War Chief. The latter also accepted his appointment in good faith. He even tried for a few days to give some kind of orders and make appeals for the fulfillment of patriotic duty. However the revolution painlessly removed him.
In order to preserve the appearance of a free act, the abdication was dated three o’clock in the afternoon, on the pretense that the original decision of the Czar to abdicate had taken place at that hour. But as a matter of fact that afternoon’s “decision,” which gave the sceptre to his son and not to his brother, had been taken back in anticipation of a more favorable turn of the wheel. Of that, however, nobody spoke out loud. The Czar made a last effort to save his face before the hated deputies, who upon their part permitted this falsification of a historic act – this deceiving of the people. The monarchy retired from the scene preserving its usual style and its successors also remained true to themselves. They probably even regarded their connivance as the magnanimity of a conqueror to the conquered.
Departing a little from the phlegmatic style of his diary, Nicholas writes on March 2: “This morning Ruszky came and read me a long conversation over the wire with Rodzianko. According to his words the situation in Petrograd is such that a ministry of the members of the State Duma will be powerless to do anything, for it is being opposed by the social-democratic party in the person of a workers’ committee. My abdication is necessary. Ruszky transmitted this conversation to Alexeiev at headquarters and to all the commanders-in-chief. Answers arrived at 12.30. To save Russia and keep the army at the front, I decided upon this step. I agreed, and they sent from headquarters the text of an abdication. In the evening came Guchkov and Shulgin from Petrograd, with whom I talked it over and gave them the document amended and signed. At 1 o’clock in the morning I left Pskov with heavy feelings around me treason, cowardice, deceit.”
The bitterness of Nicholas was, we must confess, not without foundation. It was only as short a time ago as February 28, that General Alexeiev had telegraphed to all the commanders-in-chief at the front: “ Upon us all lies a sacred duty before the sovereign and the fatherland to preserve loyalty to oath and duty in the troops of the active army.” Two days later Alexeiev appealed to these same commanders-in-chief to violate their “loyalty to oath and duty.” In all the commanding staff there was not found one man to take action in behalf of his Czar. They all hastened to transfer to the ship of the revolution, firmly expecting to find comfortable cabins there. Generals and admirals one and all removed the czarist braid and put on the red ribbon. There was news subsequently of one single righteous soul, some commander of a corps, who died of heart failure taking the new oath. But it is not established that his heart failed through injured monarchist feelings, and not through other causes. The civil officials naturally were not obliged to show more courage than the military – each one was saving himself as he could.
But the clock of the monarchy decidedly did not coincide with the revolutionary clocks. At dawn of March 8, Ruszky was again summoned to the direct wire from the capital: Rodzianko and Prince Lvov were demanding that he hold up the czar’s abdication, which had again proved too late. The installation of Alexei – said the new authorities evasively – might perhaps be accepted – by whom? – but the installation of Mikhail was absolutely unacceptable. Ruszky with some venom expressed his regret that the deputies of the Duma who had arrived the night before had not been sufficiently informed as to the aims and purposes of their journey. But here too the deputies had their justification. “Unexpectedly to us all there broke out such a soldiers’ rebellion as I never saw the like of,” explained the Lord Chamberlain to Ruszky, as though he had done nothing all his life but watch soldiers’ rebellions. “To proclaim Mikhail emperor would pour oil on the fire and there would begin a ruthless extermination of everything that can be exterminated.” How it whirls and shakes and bends and contorts them all!
The generals silently swallowed this new “vile pretension” of the revolution. Alexeiev alone slightly relieved his spirit in a telegraphic bulletin to the commanders-in-chief: “The left parties and the workers’ deputies are exercising a powerful pressure upon the President of the Duma, and there is no frankness or sincerity in the communications of Rodzianko.” The only thing lacking to the generals in those hours was sincerity.
But at this point the Czar again changed his mind. Arriving in Moghilev from Pskov, he handed to his former chief-of-staff, Alexeiev, for transmission to Petrograd, a sheet of paper with his consent to the handing over of the sceptre to his son. Evidently he found this combination in the long run more promising. Alexeiev, according to Denikin’s story, went away with the telegram and … did not send it. He thought that those two manifestos which had already been published to the army and the country were enough. The discord arose from the fact that not only the Czar and his counsellors, but also the Duma liberals, were thinking more slowly than the revolution.
Before his final departure from Moghilev on March 8, the Czar, already under formal arrest, wrote an appeal to the troops ending with these words: “Whoever thinks now of peace, whoever desires it, that man is a traitor to the fatherland, its betrayer.” This was in the nature of a prompted attempt to snatch out of the hands of liberalism the accusation of Germanophilism. The attempt had no result: they did not even dare publish the appeal.
Thus ended a reign which had been a continuous chain of ill luck, failure, misfortune, and evil-doing, from the Khodynka catastrophe during the coronation, through the shooting of strikers and revolting peasants, the Russo-Japanese war, the frightful putting-down of the revolution of 1905, the innumerable executions, punitive expeditions and national pogroms and ending with the insane and contemptible participation of Russia in the insane and contemptible world war.
Upon arriving at Tsarskoe Selo, where he and his family were confined in the palace, the czar, according to Vyrubova, softly said: “There is no justice among men.” But those very words irrefutably testify that historic justice, though it comes late, does exist.
The similarity of the Romanov couple to the French royal pair of the epoch of the Great Revolution is very obvious. It has already been remarked in literature, but only in passing and without drawing inferences. Nevertheless it is not at all accidental, as appears at the first glance, but offers valuable material for an inference.
Although separated from each other by five quarter centuries, the Czar and the King were at certain moments like two actors playing the same rôle. A passive, patient, but vindictive treachery was the distinctive trait of both – with this difference, that in Louis it was disguised with a dubious kindliness, in Nicholas with affability. They both make the impression of people who are overburdened by their job, but at the same time unwilling to give up even a part of those rights of which they are unable to make any use. The diaries of both, similar in style or lack of style, reveal the same depressing spiritual emptiness.
The Austrian woman and the Hessian German form also a striking symmetry. Both Queens stand above their Kings, not only in physical but also in moral growth. Marie Antoinette was less pious than Alexandra Feodorovna, and unlike the latter was passionately fond of pleasures. But both alike scorned the people, could not endure the thought of concessions, alike mistrusted the courage of their husbands, looking down upon them – Antoinette with a shade of contempt, Alexandra with pity.
When the authors of memoirs, approaching the Petersburg court of their day, assure us that Nicholas II, had he been a private individual, would have left a good memory behind him, they merely reproduce the long-ago stereotyped remarks about Louis XVI, not enriching in the least our knowledge either of history or of human nature.
We have already seen how Prince Lvov became indignant when, at the height of the tragic events of the first revolution, instead of a depressed Czar, he found before him a “jolly, sprightly little man in a raspberry-coloured shirt.” Without knowing it, the prince merely repeated the comment of Gouvernor Morris writing in Washington in 1790 about Louis: “What will you have from a creature who, situated as he is, eats and drinks and sleeps well, and laughs and is as merry a grig as lives?”
When Alexandra Feodorovna, three months before the fall of the monarchy, prophesies: “All is coming out for the best, the dreams of our Friend mean so much!” she merely repeats Marie Antoinette, who one month before the overthrow of the royal power wrote: “ I feel a liveliness of spirit, and something tells me that we shall soon be happy and safe.” They both see rainbow dreams as they drown.
Certain elements of similarity of course are accidental, and have the interest only of historic anecdotes. Infinitely more important are those traits of character which have been grafted, or more directly imposed, on a person by the mighty force of conditions, and which throw a sharp light on the interrelation of personality and the objective factors of history.
“He did not know how to wish: that was his chief trait of character,” says a reactionary French historian of Louis. Those words might have been written of Nicholas: neither of them knew how to wish, but both knew how to not wish. But what really could be “wished” by the last representatives of a hopelessly lost historic cause? “Usually he listened, smiled, and rarely decided upon anything. His first word was usually No.” Of whom is that written? Again of Capet. But if this is so, the manners of Nicholas were an absolute plagiarism. They both go toward the abyss “with the crown pushed down over their eyes.” But would it after all be easier to go to an abyss, which you cannot escape anyway, with your eyes open? What difference would it have made, as a matter of fact, if they had pushed the crown way back on their heads?
Some professional psychologist ought to draw up an anthology of the parallel expressions of Nicholas and Louis, Alexandra and Antoinette, and their courtiers. There would be no lack of material, and the result would be a highly instructive historic testimony in favor of the materialist psychology. Similar (of course, far from identical) irritations in similar conditions call out similar reflexes the more powerful the irritation, the sooner it overcomes personal peculiarities. To a tickle, people react differently, but to a red-hot iron, alike. As a steam-hammer converts a sphere and a cube alike into sheet metal, so under the blow of too great and inexorable events resistances are smashed and the boundaries of “individuality” lost.
Louis and Nicholas were the last-born of a dynasty that had lived tumultuously. The well-known equability of them both, their tranquillity and “gaiety ” in difficult moments, were the well-bred expression of a meagreness of inner powers, a weakness of the nervous discharge, poverty of spiritual resources. Moral castrates, they were absolutely deprived of imagination and creative force. They had just enough brains to feel their own triviality, and they cherished an envious hostility toward everything gifted and significant. It fell to them both to rule a country in conditions of deep inner crisis and popular revolutionary awakening. Both of them fought off the intrusion of new ideas, and the tide of hostile forces. Indecisiveness, hypocrisy, and lying were in both cases the expression, not so much of personal weakness, as of the complete impossibility of holding fast to their hereditary positions.
And how was it with their wives? Alexandra, even more than Antoinette, was lifted to the very heights of the dreams of a princess, especially such a rural one as this Hessian, by her marriage with the unlimited despot of a powerful country. Both of them were filled to the brim with the consciousness of their high mission: Antoinette more frivolously, Alexandra in a spirit of Protestant bigotry translated into the Slavonic language of the Russian Church. An unlucky reign and a growing discontent of the people ruthlessly destroyed the fantastic world which these two enterprising but nevertheless chicken-like heads had built for themselves. Hence the growing bitterness, the gnawing hostility to an alien people that would not bow before them the hatred toward ministers who wanted to give even a little consideration to that hostile world, to the country hence their alienation even from their own court, and their continued irritation against a husband who had not fulfilled the expectations aroused by him as a bridegroom.
Historians and biographers of the psychological tendency not infrequently seek and find something purely personal and accidental where great historical forces are refracted through a personality. This is the same fault of vision as that of the courtiers who considered the last Russian Czar born “unlucky.” He himself believed that he was born under an unlucky star. In reality his ill-luck flowed from the contradictions between those old aims which he inherited from his ancestors and the new historic conditions in which he was placed. When the ancients said that Jupiter first makes mad those who whom he wishes to destroy, they summed up in superstitious form a profound historic observation. In the saying of Goethe about reason becoming nonsense – “Vernunft wird Unsinn” – this same thought is expressed about the impersonal Jupiter of the historical dialectic, which withdraws “reason” from historic institutions that have outlived themselves and condemns their defenders to failure. The scripts for the rôles of Romanov and Capet were prescribed by the general development of the historic drama only the nuances of interpretation fell to the lot of the actors. The ill-luck of Nicholas, as of Louis, had its roots not in his personal horoscope, but in the historical horoscope of the bureaucratic-caste monarchy. They were both, chiefly and above all, the last-born offspring of absolutism. Their moral insignificance, deriving from their dynastic epigonism, gave the latter an especially malignant character.
You might object: if Alexander III had drunk less he might have lived a good deal longer, the revolution would have run into a very different make of czar, and no parallel with Louis XVI would have been possible. Such an objection, however, does not refute in the least what has been said above. We do not at all pretend to deny the significance of the personal in the mechanics of the historic process, nor the significance in the personal of the accidental. We only demand that a historic personality, with all its peculiarities, should not be taken as a bare list of psychological traits, but as a living reality grown out of definite social conditions and reacting upon them. As a rose does not lose its fragrance because the natural scientist points out upon what ingredients of soil and atmosphere it is nourished, so an exposure of the social roots of a personality does not remove from it either its aroma or its foul smell.
The consideration advanced above about a possible long life of Alexander III is capable of illuming this very problem from another side. Let us assume that this Alexander III had not become mixed up in 1904 in a war with Japan. This would have delayed the first revolution. For how long? It is possible that the “revolution of 1905” – that is, the first test of strength the first breach in the system of absolutism – would have been a mere introduction to the second, republican, and the third, proletarian revolution. Upon this question more or less interesting guesses are possible, but it is indubitable in any case that the revolution did not result from the character of Nicholas II, and that Alexander III would not have solved its problem. It is enough to remember that nowhere and never was the transition from the feudal to the bourgeois régime made without violent disturbances. We saw this only yesterday in China today we observe it again in India. The most we can say is that this or that policy of the monarchy, this or that personality of the monarch, might have hastened or postponed the revolution and placed a certain imprint on its external course.
With what angry and impotent stubbornness charisma tried to defend itself in those last months, weeks and days, when its game was hopelessly lost! If Nicholas himself lacked the will the lack was made up by the Czarina. Rasputin was an instrument of the action of a clique which rabidly fought for self-preservation. Even on this narrow scale the personality of the Czar merges in a group which represents the coagulum of the past and its last convulsion. The “policy” of the upper circles a Tsarskoe Selo, face to face with the revolution, were but the reflexes of a poisoned and weak beast of prey. If you chase a wolf over the steppe in an automobile, the beast gives out at last and lies down impotent. But attempt to put a collar on him and he will try to tear you to pieces, or at least wound you. And indeed what else can he do in the circumstances?
The liberals imagined there was something else he might do. Instead of coming to an agreement with the enfranchised bourgeoisie in good season and thus preventing the revolution — such is liberalism’s act of accusation against the last czar – Nicholas stubbornly shrank from concessions, and even in the last days when already under the knife of destiny, when every minute was to be counted, still kept on procrastinating, bargaining with fate, and letting slip the last possibilities. This all sounds convincing. But how unfortunate that liberalism, knowing so accurately how to save the monarchy, did not know how to save itself!
It would be absurd to maintain that czarism never and in no circumstances made concessions. It made them when they were demanded by the necessity of self-preservation. After the Crimean defeat, Alexander II carried out the semi-liberation of the peasants and a series of liberal reforms in the sphere of land administration, courts, press, educational institutions, etc. The czar himself expressed the guiding thought of this reformation: to free the peasants from above lest they free themselves from below. Under the drive of the first revolution Nicholas II granted a semi-constitution. Stolypin scrapped the peasant communes in order to broaden the arena of the capitalist forces. For czarism, however, all these reforms had a meaning only in so far as the partial concession preserved the whole – that is, the foundations of a caste society and the monarchy itself. When the consequences of the reform began to splash over those boundaries the monarchy inevitably beat a retreat. Alexander II in the second half of his reign stole back the reforms of the first half. Alexander III went still farther on the road of counter-reform. Nicholas II in October 1905 retreated before the revolution, and then afterward dissolved the Dumas created by it, and as soon as the revolution grew weak, made his coup d’état. Throughout three-quarters of a century – if we begin with the reform of Alexander II – there developed a struggle of historic forces, now underground, now in the open, far transcending the personal qualities of the separate Czars, and accomplishing the overthrow of the monarchy. Only within the historic framework of this process can you find a place for individual Czars, their characters, their “biographies.”
Even the most despotic of autocrats is but little similar to a “free” individuality laying its arbitrary imprint upon events. He is always the crowned agent of the privileged classes which are forming society in their own image. When these classes have not yet fulfilled their mission, then the monarchy is strong and self-confident. Then it has in its hands a reliable apparatus power and an unlimited choice of executives –because the more gifted people have not yet gone over into the hostile camp. Then the monarch, either personally, or through the mediation of a powerful favorite, may become the agent of a great and progressive historic task. It is quite otherwise when the sun of the old society is finally declining to the west. The privileged classes are now changed from organisers of the national life into a parasitic growth having lost their guiding function, they lose the consciousness of their mission and all confidence in their powers. Their dissatisfaction with themselves becomes a dissatisfaction with the monarchy the dynasty becomes isolated the circle of people loyal to the death narrows down their level sinks lower meanwhile the dangers grow new force are pushing up the monarchy loses its capacity for any kin of creative initiative it defends itself, it strikes back, it retreats its activities acquire the automatism of mere reflexes. The semi Asiatic despotism of the Romanovs did not escape this fate.
If you take the czarism in its agony, in a vertical section, so to speak, Nicholas is the axis of a clique which has its roots the hopelessly condemned past. In a horizontal section of the historic monarchy, Nicholas is the last link in a dynastic chain. His nearest ancestors, who also in their day were merged in family, caste and bureaucratic collectivity – only a broader one – tried out various measures and methods of government order to protect the old social régime against the fate advancing upon it. But nevertheless they passed it on to Nicholas a chaotic empire already carrying the matured revolution in its womb. If he had any choice left, it was only between different roads to ruin.
Liberalism was dreaming of a monarchy on the British plan. But was parliamentarism born on the Thames by a peaceful evolution? Was it the fruit of the “free” foresight of a single monarch? No, it was deposited as the result of a struggle that lasted for ages, and in which one of the kings left his head at the crossroads.
The historic-psychological contrast mentioned above between the Romanovs and the Capets can, by the way, be aptly extended to the British royal pair of the epoch of the first revolution. Charles I revealed fundamentally the same combination of traits with which memoirists and historians have endowed Louis XVI and Nicholas II. “Charles, therefore, remained passive,” writes Montague, “yielded where he could not resist, betrayed how unwillingly he did so, and reaped no popularity, no confidence.” “He was not a stupid man,” says another historian of Charles Stuart, “but he lacked firmness of character … His evil fate was his wife, Henrietta, a Frenchwoman, sister of Louis XIII, saturated even more than Charles with the idea of absolutism.” We will not detail the characteristics of this third – chronologically first – royal pair to be crushed by a national revolution. We will merely observe that in England the hatred was concentrated above all on the queen, as a Frenchwoman and a papist, whom they accused of plotting with Rome, secret connections with the Irish rebels, and intrigues at the French court.
But England had, at any rate, ages at her disposal. She was the pioneer of bourgeois civilisation she was not under the yoke of other nations, but on the contrary held them more and more under her yoke. She exploited the whole world. This softened the inner contradictions, accumulated conservatism, promoted an abundance and stability of fatty deposits in the form of a parasitic caste, in the form of a squirearchy, a monarchy, House of Lords, and the state church. Thanks to this exclusive historic privilege of development possessed by bourgeois England, conservatism combined with elasticity passed over from her institutions into her moral fibre. Various continental Philistines, like the Russian professor Miliukov, or the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, have not to this day ceased going into ecstasies over this fact. But exactly at the present moment, when England, hard pressed throughout the world, is squandering the last resources of her former privileged position, her conservatism is losing its elasticity, and even in the person of the Labourites is turning into stark reactionism. In the face of the Indian revolution the “socialist” MacDonald will find no other methods but those with which Nicholas II opposed the Russian revolution. Only a blind man could fail to see that Great Britain is headed for gigantic revolutionary earthquake shocks, in which the last fragments of her conservatism, her world domination, her present state machine, will go down without a trace. MacDonald is preparing these shocks no less successfully than did Nicholas II in time, and no less blindly. So here too, as we see, is no poor illustration of the problem of the rôle of the “free” personality in history.
But how could Russia with her belated development, coming along at the tail end of the European nations, with her meagre economic foundation underfoot, how could she develop an “elastic conservatism” of social forms-and develop it for the special benefit of professorial liberalism and its leftward shadow, reformist socialism? Russia was too far behind. And when world imperialism once took her in its grip, she had to pass through her political history in too brief a course. If Nicholas had gone to meet liberalism and replaced one with Miliukov, the development of events would have differed a little in form, not in substance. Indeed it was just in this way that Louis behaved in the second stage of the revolution, summoning the Gironde to power: this did not save Louis himself from guillotine, nor after him the Gironde. The accumulating social contradictions were bound to break through to the surface, breaking through to carry out their work of purgation. Before the pressure of the popular masses, who had at last brought into the open arena their misfortunes, their pains, intentions, passions, hopes, illusions and aims, the high-up combination of the monarchy with liberalism had only an episodic significance. They could exert, to be sure, an influence on the order of events maybe upon the number of actions, but not at all upon development of the drama nor its momentous climax.
1. The name of this station is also the Russian word meaning “bottom.” [Trans.]
Russian Revolution: February 1917 - History
Russia’s performance in World War One caused mass suffering for both civilians and soldiers across the country and greatly affected the public view of the monarchy. In battles in 1914, 1915, and 1916, Germany repeatedly beat Russian forces and gained territory. Not only did this diminish morale completely, the war
The cost of the war was just as crippling at home, and again the monarchy seemed accountable. Russia faced economic collapse. Vital materials from overseas couldn’t reach the country, and shortages of goods increased. Since millions of farmers had been drafted, there was a serious drop in manpower in the countryside. By 1916, the prices of basic foods were steadily rising. The underdeveloped railway systems had to ship large quantities of men and supplies to the warfront, and with this added pressure, it became even more difficult to provide for cities. The value of the ruble had fallen as well, contributing to the high prices, which was particularly challenging for the hundreds of thousands Russian peasants. The deterioration of Russian economics only furthered public unrest and disgust with the Tsar.
The government itself at the time was in serious disarray under the control of Tsarina Alexandra . When Nicholas II departed for the warfront, she took power, and especially influenced the appointment of ministers. Her husband, while
Answer: The Tsarist autocracy collapsed in 1917 due to the following reasons— (a) Miserable Condition of the Workers (i) The industrial workers in Russia got very low wages. (ii) They had very long working hours, sometimes upto 15 hours.
Tsar Nicolas II poor assertiveness and bad advisers, especially Rasputin, led to the decline of autocracy in Russia. Explanation: Tsar Nicolas II lacked the confidence and assertiveness of a ruler. As an autocratic ruler, Nicholas II was not able to rule Russia accurately, which led to his abdication and execution.
The July Days
As the war continued the anti-war Bolsheviks found their support growing. On July 3 -5th a confused armed uprising by soldiers and workers in the name of the Soviet failed. This was the ‘July Days’. Historians are divided over who was actually behind the revolt. Pipes has argued it was an attempted coup directed by Bolshevik high command, but Figes has presented a convincing account in his ‘A People’s Tragedy’ which argues that the uprising started when the Provisional Government tried to move a pro-Bolshevik unit of soldiers to the front. They rose up, people followed them, and low-level Bolsheviks and anarchists pushed the rebellion along. The top-level Bolsheviks like Lenin refused to either order the seizure of power, or even give the rebellion any direction or blessing, and the crowds milled aimlessly about when they could easily have taken power had someone pointed them in the right direction. Afterward, the government arrested major Bolsheviks, and Lenin fled the country, his reputation as a revolutionary weakened by his lack of readiness.
Shortly after Kerensky became Prime Minister of a new coalition that pulled both left and right as he tried to forge a middle path. Kerensky was notionally a socialist but was in practice closer to the middle class and his presentation and style initially appealed to liberals and socialists alike. Kerensky attacked the Bolsheviks and called Lenin a German agent - Lenin was still in the pay of German forces - and the Bolsheviks were in serious disarray. They could have been destroyed, and hundreds were arrested for treason, but other socialist factions defended them the Bolsheviks would not be so kind when it was the other way round.
February 1917: The Fall of the Tsar
Revolution broke out first in Russia because the war placed the greatest burdens on what was industrially the most backward nation in Europe. In Lenin’s words, “capitalism broke at its weakest link.”
The outbreak of the war had initially cut across a revolutionary movement which was developing in Russia in July/August 1914. From having the support of 80 percent of the active workers, the Bolsheviks, who opposed the imperialist war, were driven underground, as backward layers of the working class, mobilized by the war, embraced the ideas of patriotism.
The “unity of the nation” produced at the beginning of an imperialist war is really only a mask. As war drags on, it exposes all that is rotten in society, sharpening all the social contradictions. So it was in Tsarist Russia. The war only postponed the struggle, deepening the eventual revolutionary upheavals.
Fifteen million, overwhelmingly peasants, were drafted into the army, where they faced a uniformity of misery which made them open to the ideas of the working class. By 1917 over 800,000 workers were concentrated in defense industries in Moscow, and 300,000 in Petrograd, mainly in huge factories employing thousands. In contrast with previous struggles in Russia, the cities and countryside were brought together in their determination to be done with Tsarist autocracy.
Every revolution begins at the top as the ruling class, with no clear way forward, split over what course of action to take. In January 1916 a strike wave developed against food shortages and speculators. Feeling the movement building up from below, a section of the ruling class favored making limited concessions.
During late 1916, the mystic monk Rasputin was murdered and plots were laid for a ‘palace coup’ to remove the Tsar and the Tsarina. The signs of splits in the ruling class opened the floodgates of revolution. The tensions brought about by the war, of five million dead or wounded, of the army’s bread ration being cut by a third between December 1916 and February 1917, of the shortages of food in the towns, burst to the surface.
The February Revolution began on the 23rd (dates are on the old Russian calendar add 13 days for the modern calendar) with a strike by women textile workers in Petrograd. On International Women’s Day, 90,000 were on strike, including many soldiers’ wives. They marched to the Duma (a truncated parliament) demanding bread, which as Trotsky commented was like demanding milk from a he-goat. On the following day half of the industrial workers of Petrograd joined the strike.
As the strikes grew, the slogans rapidly changed to directly political challenges to the regime: “Down with the aristocracy! Down with the war!”
Yet none of the workers’ organizations initially called for the strikes. Indeed, the most brilliant Bolshevik organization, the committee in the industrial Vyborg area, feeling the tension, but not believing the time was right for an insurrection which they saw could develop from the strikes, initially opposed the call for strikes on February 23. Thus one of the most oppressed and least organized layers, perhaps not as burdened by consideration of where their strike could lead, but burning with desire to take action, opened the floodgates of revolution.
The police tried to break up the crowds, aided by Cossacks (cavalry), some mounted police, and occasionally by infantry. The crowds fought the police, but tried to neutralize the Cossacks and win over the soldiers in action.
On the 25th, cadet officers fired on demonstrating workers, killing 16. On the 27th there were further demonstrations and troops were called out to suppress them.
After clashed with the workers, the troops began to mutiny. In some places the workers had succeeded in uniting with the soldiers, penetrating the barracks and receiving rifles.
Already Too Late
The 1,000-year-old monarchy fell under these hammer blows. As in the Spanish revolution of 1936, when unarmed workers stormed the barracks in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia, and were joined by some soldiers, the real power, “armed bodies of men”, was in the hands of the workers.
The response of the ruling clique, revolution staring them in the face, was akin to Nero ‘fiddling while Rome burned’. Rodzianko, conservative president of the Duma, telegram to the Tsar on the 27th: “The situation is becoming worse measures must be taken immediately, for tomorrow will be too late”. In reality it was already too late. But when the Tsar received the telegram he commented: “Once again the fat-bellied Rodzianko has written me a lot of nonsense, which I won’t even bother to answer”.
The next day the Tsar telegraphed his wife before leaving for the capital by train: “In my thoughts I am always with you. Magnificent weather. I hope you are well and calm”. But the rail workers rerouted and blocked the Tsar’s train, while in Tauride Palace (the former house of the Duma) the soviet of workers’ deputies was already in session.
Starting where the experience of the defeated revolution of 1905 left off, the workers and soldiers had immediately organized Soviets – committees of workers, soldiers and sailors democratically elected directly from the workplace, barracks, or ships, with no privileges and subject to recall by their electors. From the outset the soviets had a wider scope than in 1905, above all incorporating delegates from the soldiers’ and sailors’ organizations.
Reflecting the intense pressure of the movement of the masses, at one of its first sittings, on March 1, the Soviet issued the famous ‘Order No. 1’ which included the following:
- Committees to be elected immediately in all companies, battalions … from the elected representatives of the rank and file of the above mentioned units.
- In all political actions, troop units are subordinate to the Soviet … and to the committees thereof.
- The orders of the military commission of the state Duma are to be obeyed, with the exception of those instances in which they contradict the orders and decrees of the Soviet [Editor’s emphasis]
- All types of arms … must be placed at the disposal of company and battalion committees, and under their control, and are not, in any case, to be issued to officers, even upon demand…”
The Soviets had the overwhelming support of the workers, soldiers and sailors. All that was required was to link up the Soviets on an all-Russia basis, a declaration by the workers’ leadership that all power would henceforth be vested in the Soviets, the arrest of the old ministers, and workers’ power could have been established peacefully without further struggle.
But as the Communist and Socialist parties, aided by the anarchists, were to do in Spain in 1936, the leaders of the Soviet, at the outset of the reformist Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, handed power back to the capitalists. Without Marxist leadership, this led to bloody defeat in Spain.
In Russia, the Menshevik and SR leaders handed power to an unelected “Provisional government” dominated by the liberal capitalist Constitutional Democrats (Kadets). They rationalized their cowardice with high-sounding phrases. They argued the workers cannot take power but must support the party of the liberal bourgeoisie. Pointing to Russia’s backwardness they argued that, as in France 1789, the immediate revolution was a bourgeois democratic one, with the tasks of overcoming feudalism, distributing land to the peasants, establishing a democratic regime, and clearing the way for modern development.
No Marxist in Russia disagreed that these were the tasks. But Lenin constantly warned against any illusions in ‘liberal’ capitalists and for the independence of the working class, seeing the working class in alliance with the peasants as the force that would overthrow the remnants of feudalism. Trotsky in his brilliant theory of permanent revolution which was borne out in the course of 1917, went further, explaining that in the epoch of imperialism, the bourgeois-democratic tasks could only be resolved under the leadership of the working class moving in the direction of socialism.
The Mensheviks claimed to be for socialism, but only in the distant future. The Russian capitalists were linked through the banks by a thousand links to the class of feudal landowners. This ruled out any thoroughgoing land reform which was the fundamental task of the bourgeois democratic or capitalist revolution in Russia. On the other hand the Russian capitalists were tied hand and foot to foreign, mainly Anglo-French, capital from which they drew the lion’s share of their investment.
This in turn made a just and democratic peace in the war impossible as long as power remained in the hands of the landlords and the capitalists.
While the Kadets had been opposed to the Tsarist regime, which placed obstacles in the way of the free development of capitalism, they were a million times more afraid of the revolutionary movement of the workers and peasants. When finally confronted with the fact of a victorious revolution, they first tried to negotiate with the Tsar to set up a constitutional monarchy, and resisted at every stage attempts to actually tackle the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution.
This paradox of February 1917, of the masses moving towards seizing power, not being fully conscious of the situation and the tasks, and the movement being sidetracked by the reformist leaders, is not unique. It is present in every great revolutionary upheaval, as in Spain in 1936 and in Portugal in 1974.
So how did the Mensheviks and the SRs become the leadership of the Soviets? By its very nature revolution draws into activity not only the advanced layer, but also stirs up the mass. They learn very rapidly in the course of the revolution. But in the first instance the majority will seek the line of least resistance. In Russia they tended to support the Menshevik and SR leaders who said: “the revolution has overthrown the autocracy now all that is needed is to wait for the Constituent Assembly (democratic government) to be convened to resolve the issues of the war, land, etc.”.
Their patriotic position in the war, combined with mild opposition to the Tsarist intelligentsia, lower ranking officers etc., as well as politically less active layers of the working class, initially supporting the Mensheviks and the SRs. Also during the war they had not faced the same hounding which the Bolsheviks suffered. They had the best known faces in the eyes of the masses. At the outbreak of the revolution they had the speakers to address meetings, journalists to write papers etc., while the main Bolshevik leaders were in emigration, exile or in prison.
In his classic History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky asked the question:
“Who led the February Revolution? The revolution fell like thunder from the sky, says the president of the Social Revolutionary Party, Zenzinov.” Trotsky then records an account of the Menshevik leader, Skobelev, who was to become a minister in the Provisional government within a month, declaring on the 25th of February that the “disorders had the character of plundering which it was necessary to put down.”
“How was it with the Bolsheviks?… Kayurov, one of the leaders of the Vyborg section, asserts categorically: ‘absolutely no guiding initiative from the party centers was felt.’
At this stage all the principal Bolshevik leaders were in exile or abroad. Trotsky concludes that while there were no clear leaders, the revolution was not “spontaneous”, but was a product of specific conditions that had developed, of the conditions in Russia, the experience of the 1905 revolution, and the presence in the factories and among the soldiers of a scattering of “conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin … This leadership proved sufficient to guarantee the victory of the insurrection, but it was not adequate to transfer immediately into the hands of the proletarian vanguard the leadership of the revolution.”
This was added to by the confusion which existed amongst the Bolshevik leaders who were in Petrograd. The resumption of the Bolshevik paper Pravda was warmly welcomed by the workers, its second issue selling 100,000 copies. But its attitude to the Provisional government was unclear. While some articles correctly attacked it as a regime of capitalists and landlords, others were ambivalent.
The position of the Bolsheviks was further confused with the return from exile of Kamenev, Stalin and Muranov on March 13, who immediately took over the editing of Pravda and turned its line sharply to the right. On the 14th of march Stalin made the cautious appeal to “maintain the rights that have been won in order to finally beat down the old powers and move the Russian revolution forward”, a position which echoed that of the reformist leaders of the Soviet, to “support the Provisional government insofar as it struggles against reaction, defends democracy etc.” This position earned Lenin’s sharp rebuke that “it was like asking brothel keepers to give up sin”!
The next day Kamenev wrote an article which advocated national defense of the regime of the Provisional government: “we shall stoutly defend out own liberty.” These policies amounted to seeing the Bolsheviks as the loyal ‘left opposition’ in a capitalist government, in a similar manner to the idea of ‘Popular Front’ blocks between the workers’ and ‘radical’ capitalist parties put forward by ‘Communist’ parties today.
When these issues of Pravda reached the factories they aroused a storm of indignation among the workers which forced Stalin and Kamenev to be more cautious, but they still refrained from any fundamental attack on the Provisional government or its war policy.
In reality there were only two people who understood the situation, Lenin in Switzerland and Trotsky in New York. Writing on March 4, with only scanty information, Lenin grasped the character of the Provisional government: “the new government that had seized power in Petrograd, or, more correctly wrested it from the proletariat, which has wages a victorious, heroic fierce struggle, consists of liberal bourgeois and landlords. Only a workers’ government … can give the people peace, bread and full freedom”.
Two days later he sent a telegram: “Our tactics no trust in and no support of the new government Kenersky [the one SR in the government, Editor] is especially suspect arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee, immediate elections to the Petrograd City Council no rapprochement with other parties”.
As early as February 28, receiving only confused reports of ‘disturbances’ and ‘bread riots’, Trotsky wrote: “We are witnessing the beginning of the second Russian revolution.” When the composition of the Provisional government and its appeals for ‘order’ became known he wrote: “The powerful avalanche of the revolution is in full swing, and no human force will stem it.”
The Mensheviks and SR leaders denounced Lenin’s thesis as “sectarian, ultra-left and adventurist.” Characterizing the revolution as “democratic and not socialist” they effectively postponed the struggle for socialism to a distant future. The policy of ‘popular frontism’ today is merely a resurrection under a different guise of the Menshevik idea of class collaboration and the theory of ‘stages’.
The fatal flaw of Menshevism (and of the Stalinists and their co-thinkers today) is that the only way of carrying through the bourgeois-democratic revolution today is by transfer of power to the working class. That was precisely the position put forward by Lenin in the spring of 1917, summed up in the slogan “All power to the Soviets” and that Trotsky had worked out in his theory of permanent revolution based on the experience of the 1905 revolution.
The magnificent movement of workers, soldiers and sailors in the February revolution had smashed the old Tsarist regime, and placed power in the hands of the reformist leaders. Petrified they sought compromise with the bourgeoisie. This opened a period of dual power, that is of two opposing forces, the provisional government of representatives of the capitalists attempting to restore “order”, and the soviets, which despite their leaders, represented the desire of the workers to overthrow capitalism.
This was to last until the “July Days”, when, given time by the reformist leaders of the Soviets, the capitalists inflicted a defeat on the workers. But it was only a temporary setback. An attempted coup by General Kornilov in August was defeated by the arming of the workers by the Bolsheviks. Very rapidly the Menshevik-SR leadership of the soviets was discredited, the Bolsheviks gained a majority in the Soviets, and in October, only nine months after the fall of Tsarism, power was firmly in the hands of the working class.
Russian Revolution: February 1917 - History
No single event played a bigger part in shaping the course of the 20 th century than the Russian Revolution of 1917. As the hundred year anniversary of this epoch-making rising of workers and peasants approaches, so too has a deluge of listicles, hot takes by noted scholars like Condoleezza Rice, and even the odd revolution themed rap battle. While the sheer volume of content marking the centenary does convey its continued importance, more often than not these commentaries seem more interested in stringing together jokes about Stalin&rsquos mustache with clichéd lines about human nature undermining Marxism than they do in helping capture the promise, potential, and, ultimately, tragedy of the revolution.
As the most successful and inspiring example of regular people challenging the Capitalist system and setting out to build a better, more just world, we here at Haymarket have made a priority of publishing books on the Russian Revolution for as long as we&rsquove existed.
Below is a listing of what we think are some of most important books&mdashsome that we&rsquove published, others that we wish we published&mdashfor today&rsquos activists looking to learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution.
General Histories of the Revolution:
History of the Russian Revolution &mdash Leon Trotsky&rsquos towering retelling of the year&rsquos events remains among the most gripping works of history ever written by anyone about any subject. The benchmark for all later histories of the revolution.
October Song&mdash A panoramic account of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath animated by the lives, ideas, and experiences of workers, peasants, intellectuals, artists, and revolutionaries of diverse persuasions.
Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution&mdash This important new reader selects gripping accounts from participants and firsthand observers of the revolution who tell the inspiring, heroic, and sometimes tragic story of what happened over the course of 1917.
Year One of the Russian Revolution &mdash Of all the chroniclers of the Russian Revolution, few besides the anarchist-turned-Bolshevik Victor Serge combine an unswerving commitment to the truth with an unwavering belief in the justness of the revolution&rsquos cause. Year One is his account of the revolution&rsquos turbulent first year.
The Bolsheviks Come to Power &mdash Alexander Rabinowitch&rsquos now classic account is the definitive scholarly rebuke to those who continue to see the revolution as a coup carried out by an elitist Bolshevik Party against the wishes of the Russian masses.
Leaflets of the Russian Revolution &mdash New translations of the most important documents from socialist parties, soviets, and worker militias in Petrograd during 1917.
October &mdash Arguably the best place for those newly acquainted with the revolution to begin, this gripping narrative history by acclaimed weird-fiction author China Miéville is replete with madcap flotillas, monarchs in thrall to mystic wanderers, and numerous other happenings that would seem at home in a work of fiction, but are drawn from the actual historic record of the revolution.
The February Revolution, Petrograd, 1917 &mdash A timely reassessment and detailed history of the epic uprising that toppled the tsarist monarchy and ushered in the next stage of the Russian Revolution.
Lenin and the Bolshevik Party
Leninism Under Lenin &mdash Marcel Liebman captures Lenin&rsquos thought in all its complexity, fallibility, and strategic genius. Focusing in particular on the democratic dimension to Lenin&rsquos socialism, this award-winning account is a great way to get acquainted with the twentieth-century&rsquos best-known revolutionary.
Lenin and the Revolutionary Party &mdash Paul Le Blanc&rsquos treatment of Lenin is notable for its attention to how his understanding of the theory and practice of revolutionary politics existed in a dynamic relationship with the movement around him. What emerges is not only an insightful portrait of Lenin himself, but a vibrant engagement with the mass struggle for socialist democracy.
On Lenin &mdash Trotsky and Lenin shared a complex, often fraught relationship. Nonetheless, these two biographies of Lenin, published together for the first time, show Trotsky&rsquos respect for a fellow revolutionary whom he admired, but certainly never worshipped.
The State and Revolution &mdash This is an indisputable classic, despite being written beside a Finnish swamp while Lenin was on the run between the February and October revolutions. The State and Revolution lays out the fundamentals of Lenin&rsquos strategy for seizing power and building socialism.
War on War &mdash World War One divided the socialist movement internationally: collaboration or resistance? Here is the story of the resisters: Lenin and the &ldquoZimmerwald Left.&rdquo
The Ballot, the Streets&mdashor Both? &mdash August Nimtz explores Lenin's approach to electoral politics and what he and other Marxists termed the institutions of bourgeois democracy, drawing on Bolshevik debates and Marx and Engels' own writings to show this to be a central feature of their revolutionary strategy.
Women in the Revolution
Alexandra Kollontai &mdash A key figure in the 1917 revolution and the last surviving member of the Central Committee of that year, Kollontai&rsquos contribution to the socialist movement was unparalleled. Cathy Porter&rsquos biography is not only an unparalleled biography of a dynamic revolutionary, but an engaging retelling of the course of the revolution and counterrevolution in Russia.
The Women's Revolution &mdash An accessible and captivating account of the central role women played in the Russian Revolution.
Midwives of Revolution &mdash Women&rsquos role in the Russian Revolution was not limited to leading a mass strike on International Women&rsquos Day. On the contrary, they were constant agents in struggle, often on the front ranks.
The Revolution in the Factories
Revolution and Counterrevolution in a Moscow Metal Factory &mdash Kevin Murphy&rsquos shop-floor level portrait of vibrant working-class democracy provides a much-needed antidote to revisionist accounts of the revolution as inevitably leading to Stalinist dictatorship.
Alexander Shlyapnikov 1885&ndash1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik &mdash From his involvement in the 1905 revolution to his execution under Stalin, Alexander Shlyapnikov was an irrepressible force for workers&rsquo power, whether under tsarism or a degenerating Soviet bureaucracy.
Red Petrograd &mdash A deeply engaging study, unmatched in its depth, of factory life in Petrograd over the course of Russia&rsquos revolutionary year.
The Petrograd Workers in the Russian Revolution &mdash Two definitive works on the early days of the Russian Revolution, now collected in one captivating volume.
Memoir / Firsthand Accounts
Ten Days that Shook the World &mdash A masterpiece of political reportage, Ten Days has become the essential firsthand account of the revolution in action.
Reminiscences of Lenin &mdash As both Lenin&rsquos closest political collaborator and personal confidant, Nadezhda Krupskaya offers invaluable insights into the life and thought of the most important leader of the Russian Revolution.
Lenin&rsquos Moscow &mdash Alfred Rosmer&rsquos memoir of early revolutionary Russia is both highly readable and historically indispensable. From its opening chapters recounting the author&rsquos journey across war-torn Europe&rsquos hostile borders, to the death of Lenin on its closing pages, this is a gripping and unique eyewitness account.
Soviet Union after Lenin
The Comintern &mdashThis history of the Communist (Third) International, from its beginnings in 1919 as the center of world revolution through its degeneration at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy, draws out lessons valid today.
Leon Trotsky: An Illustrated Introduction &mdashAmusing, well-researched, and accessible, this is the perfect primer on the life and thought of the great leader and chronicler of the Russian Revolution.
The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky &mdash Written by celebrated author Victor Serge and Trotsky&rsquos wife Natalia Sedova, this is a unique presentation of Leon Trotsky. Covering Trotsky&rsquos early activism until his assassination by one of Stalin&rsquos agents, this book provides an invaluable picture of a great revolutionary and the world-historic events in which he was a leading actor.
The Stalinist Legacy &mdash Featuring contributions from Tariq Ali, Isaac Deutscher, and Ernest Mandel, this volume deepens our understanding of the origins, impacts, and enduring prominence of Stalinism, so as to help exorcise these ghosts of the past.
From Lenin to Stalin &mdash Another entry by Victor Serge, From Lenin to Stalin is a brief yet sharp analysis of the revolution&rsquos degeneration.
Russia: From Workers State to State Capitalism &mdash To millions throughout the world, the Russian workers&rsquo state offered new hope. This book charts the demise of that liberatory project, while hailing the inspiration it continues to provide.
For a full list of Haymarket titles on the Russian Revolution, click here. Research by David Lovett • Map by Guilbert Gates St. Petersburg has not changed much from when it was revolutionary Petrograd. The Bolsheviks’ move of the government to Moscow in 1918 exempted the former capital from a lot of tearing-down and rebuilding becoming a backwater had its advantages. In places where Reed stood you can still picture how it looked to him. He wrote: What a marvelous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod [the Putilov Factory] pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! Today that factory is called Kirovsky Zavod and it has its own metro station of that name, on the red line, southeast of the city center. Photographs from 1917 show the factory with a high wall along it and big crowds of people on the street in front. Now the wall and the factory’s main gate are almost the same as then. Next to the gate a big display highlights some of what is built here—earthmovers, military vehicles, atomic reactor parts. The factory wall, perhaps 15 feet high, runs for half a mile or more next to the avenue that adjoins it. Traffic speeds close by no large crowds of workers could listen to speakers here. Like many of the public spaces important in the revolution this one now belongs to vehicles. At a key moment in the Bolsheviks’ takeover, Reed watched the army’s armored-car drivers vote on whether to support them. The meeting took place in the Mikhailovsky Riding School, also called the Manège, a huge indoor space where “some two thousand dun-colored soldiers” listened as speakers took turns arguing from atop an armored car and the soldiers’ sympathies swung back and forth. Reed observes the listeners: Never have I seen men trying so hard to understand, to decide. They never moved, stood staring with a sort of terrible intentness at the speaker, their brows wrinkled with the effort of thought, sweat standing out on their foreheads great giants of men with the innocent clear eyes of children and the faces of epic warriors. Finally the Bolshevik military leader, N.V. Krylenko, his voice cracking with fatigue, gives a speech of such passion that he collapses into waiting arms at the end. A vote is called: those in favor to one side those opposed, to the other. In a rush almost all the soldiers surge to the Bolshevik side. The building where this happened is on Manège Square Luda’s apartment is just around the corner. Today the former riding academy has become the Zimnoi Stadion, the Winter Stadium, home to hockey matches, skating competitions and non-ice events like track meets. The last time I saw it the nearby streets were filled with parents and little kids carrying balloon animals and other circus souvenirs. I think of the scene from Reed’s book whenever I pass by. He caught the details, large and small—the dreary, rainy November weather, with darkness coming at 3 in the afternoon the posters and notices and manifestoes covering the city’s walls the soldier who was putting up some of the notices and the little boy who followed behind him, with a bucket of paste. And the mud. Reed observed it on greatcoats, boots, floors, stairways. I have often marveled at the big patches of mud that suddenly appear in the middle of completely paved St. Petersburg avenues. Then I remember the swamp the city was built on. The February Revolution happened in the snow, but in swampy Russia, the glorious October Revolution happened in the mud. Ten Days that Shook the World is a rare example of a book that is better for being more complicated. Reed could have spared his readers the effort of figuring out who was who among (as he put it) “the multiplicity of Russian organizations—political groups, Committees and Central Committees, Soviets, Dumas, and Unions.” Instead he begins the book with a detailed list, including the sub-distinctions among them. It’s like a speed bump to slow the reader down, but it’s also respectful. The care he took kept his book alive even after Soviet censors banned it during the Stalin era. (Stalin has basically no role in Ten Days and his name appears only twice.) The book returned to publication during the Khrushchev period, after Stalin’s death, though even then it was not much read. Boris Kolonitsky, a leading historian of the revolution, found his vocation when he happened on a copy of the book at the age of 14. Today Kolonitsky is first vice-rector and professor of history at the European University at St. Petersburg, and has been a visiting professor at Yale, Princeton and the University of Illinois. I met him at his university office in a building near the Kutuzov Embankment of the Neva. Kolonitsky looks like a professor, with a beard and round glasses and quick, dark-blue eyes, and his jacket and tie reinforce a courteous, formal manner. I asked how he had first discovered Reed’s book. “I was born in Leningrad, my early schooling was here, and I graduated from the history department of the Hertzen State Pedagogical University in Leningrad,” he said. “So I am a Leningrad animal from a long way back, you might say. The fact that Reed’s book takes place mostly in this city made a connection for me. I first read it when I was in middle school, and of course at that time it was impossible not to know the Soviet story of the glorious October—the volley from the cruiser Aurora, the storming of the Winter Palace and so forth. For me reading Reed was very much a cultural shock. Suddenly here before me was a complicated and contradictory story. Reed was greatly in sympathy with the Bol sheviks but also a very good journalist, and his picture is multidimensional, not just black and white—or Red and White. Trotsky, for example, who had become a nonperson, is vivid in the book. Also the opponents of the Bolsheviks were much more complicated than in Soviet iconography. Later, when I became a teacher (still in Soviet times), I assigned this book to my students and they came back to me with their eyes wide and said, ‘Boris Ivanovich, this is an anti-Soviet book!’” I mentioned Reed’s courage. “Yes, at one point in the book they are going to shoot him on the spot!” Kolonitsky said. “He is near the front at Tsarskoe Selo”—a village about 15 miles south of Petrograd—“where the Whites are making an attack, and he becomes separated from the soldiers who brought him and then other Red Guards, who are illiterate, cannot read the journalist’s pass he has from the Bolshevik leadership, and they tell him to stand by a wall, and suddenly he realizes they are about to shoot him. He persuades them to find someone who can read.” “And afterward he does not make any big production about it,” I said. “He just goes on reporting.” “It was not a rational time, not a conscious time,” Kolonitsky said. “Reed did not speak much Russian and what surrounded him often was simply chaos.” The small museum at Ganyna Yama includes a re-creation of the basement room inside the Ipatiev Mansion where the Romanov family was killed in July 1918. (Olga Ingurazova) I had noticed, at the Museum of Russian Political History, that Kolonitsky was scheduled to lecture on “Rumor in Revolutionary Petrograd in October of 1917.” I asked about his work on rumor and the popular culture of the revolution. “Well, this subject had not been too much written on before. Rumor and street culture—jokes, postcards, sayings, bawdy plays performed in saloons—changed the image of the czar and the czarina, desacralized them, before and during the war. Empress Alexandra’s dependence on Rasputin, the so-called crazed monk, had cata strophic consequences. Tales of the czarina’s debauchery with Rasputin (completely untrue), and rumors of the czar’s impotence, and her supposed sabotage of the war effort because she was born in Germany, all undermined the Romanovs, until finally nobody could be too sad when the monarchy went away. People sent each other erotic postcards of the czarina with Rasputin, audiences howled laughing at plays about his supposed sexual power. It resembled modern defamation by social media, and it did great damage. I call it the ‘tragic erotics’ of Nicholas’ reign. If you loved Russia you were obliged to love your czar. People were saying, ‘I know I must love my czar, but I cannot.’” He went on, “Rumor also had a very big role in October of 1917, of course. Kerensky, whom many people almost worshiped, was damaged by rumors about his affair with his wife’s cousin, or about his fantasies of his own greatness, or his supposed plan to abandon Petrograd to the Germans. Many such rumors spread through the crowds on the streets. It caused a highly unstable atmosphere.” Everybody knew that the Bolsheviks were planning an overthrow. In the Duma, Kerensky reassured its members that the state had sufficient force to counter any Bolshevik action. Reed obtained an interview with Trotsky, who told him that the government had become helpless. “Only by the concerted action of the popular mass,” Trotsky said, “only by the victory of proletarian dictatorship, can the Revolution be achieved and the people saved”—that is, a putsch would come soon. The Bolshevik-run Military Revolutionary Committee began making demands for greater control of the army, and the Petrograd garrison promised to support the MRC. In response, Kerensky ordered loyal army units to occupy key points in the city. Lenin, who had not appeared in public since July, narrowly escaped arrest as he made his way in disguise to Bolshevik headquarters, now at the Smolny Institute, a vast building that had formerly housed a school for noble-born girls. In meetings of the Petrograd Soviet and of the long-awaited Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets (both also housed in Smolny), and in the State Duma, thunderous arguments raged about the course the Bolsheviks were taking. Defending his party before the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky stepped forward, “[h]is thin, pointed face,” Reed wrote, “positively Mephistophelian in its expression of malicious irony.” On a stairway at Smolny in the early morn-ing of October 24, Reed ran into Bill Shatov, an American acquaintance and fellow Communist, who slapped him on the shoulder exultantly and said, “Well, we’re off!” Kerensky had ordered the suppression of the Bolsheviks’ newspapers and the MRC was moving “to defend the revolution.” On that day and the next, Reed ranged widely. He had tickets to the ballet at the Mariinsky Theater—regular life went on in Petrograd, revolution or no—but he decided against using them because “it was too exciting out of doors.” On the night of the 25th he made his way to Smolny and found the building humming, with bonfires burning at the gates out front, vehicles coming and going, and machine guns on either side of the main entryway, their ammunition belts hanging “snake-like from their breeches.” Feet were pounding up and down Smolny’s hallways. In the crowded, stuffy, smoke-filled assemblies, as the arguments raged on and on, a deeper sound interrupted—the “dull shock” of cannon fire. Civil war had begun. With a reporter’s instinct Reed ventured out again into the city. One morning I decided to trace part of the route he took that night. Leaving Luda’s apartment I walked the couple of miles to Smolny, a multi-block-long building that now houses St. Petersburg’s city government. The front of the pale yellow imperial structure looms high, and its tall, narrow windows give passersby a view of the interior ceilings and chandeliers. “The massive facade of Smolny blazed with light,” Reed wrote and indeed from every window the chandeliers were shining down on the gloomy sidewalk I stood on. Arriving office workers passed by. Black limousines pulled up at the inner gate, drivers opened the back doors, and dark-suited men with briefcases strode through the security station, past the Lenin statue and into the building. The immense park in front of Smolny is a quiet place, with asphalt pathways and drastically pruned trees whose stubby branches jut like coral. People walk their dogs. I saw a bulldog wearing a jumpsuit that had a buttoned pocket on one side, and a white Labrador in four-legged pants with the cuffs rolled up. When Reed came out of Smolny the night was chilly. “A great motor truck stood there, shaking to the roar of its engine. Men were tossing bundles into it, and others receiving them, with guns beside them.” Reed asked where they were going. A little workman answered, “Down-town—all over—everywhere!” Reed, with his wife, Bryant, and several fellow correspondents, jumped in. “The clutch slid home with a raking jar, the great car jerked forward.” They sped down Suvorovsky Prospekt tearing open the bundles and flinging printed announcements that read: “TO THE CITIZENS OF RUSSIA! The State Power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, the Military Revolutionary Committee, which stands at the head of the Petrograd proletariat and garrison,” and so on. The vehicle soon had “a tail of white papers floating and eddying out behind.” Today Suvorovsky Prospekt presents the usual upscale urban Russian avenue. Reed saw bonfires, and patrols gathered on the corners. Bus shelters featuring ads for concerts, cruises, taxi companies and Burger King have taken their place. His fellow passengers looked out for snipers men at checkpoints stepped toward them from the darkness with upraised weapons. Now a Ralph Lauren Home store with window mannequins in pastels came as no surprise on one of the tonier blocks. Suvorovsky runs into Nevskii Prospekt near a hub with six major streets radiating from it. Reed wrote, “We turned into Znamensky Square, dark and almost deserted, careened around Trubetskoy’s brutal statue and swung down the wide Nevsky.” Today this hub is called Ploshchad Vosstaniya, Uprising Square. The “brutal statue” was of Alexander III on horseback. Horse and rider together evoked a hippo, with their breadth and squatness. Revolutionaries often used the statue’s plinth for an orator’s platform, and crowds gathered here photographs of that time show the square teeming with people. The statue has been moved to a museum courtyard and an obelisk stands at the center of the square now. I wanted to see the obelisk close up but walking into the square is almost impossible. Endless cars and buses swirl around its rotary, and waist-high metal barriers keep pedestrians out. A loudspeaker somewhere on the square was playing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” Russian public spaces sometimes emit American Christmas music at odd times of year, such as early March. This was my first St. Petersburg neighborhood, back when I used to stay at the nearby Oktyabrskaya Hotel. There’s a florist across the street from it, and I stopped to buy Luda some flowers, considering some roses for 2,500 rubles but settling instead on a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums for 2,000 rubles (about $30). Reed’s conveyance swayed and bounced along Nevskii Prospekt toward the city center, then slowed at a crowded bottleneck before the bridge over the Ekaterina Canal (now the Gribodeyeva Canal). He and his companions climbed out. A barrier of armed sailors was blocking the passage of a group of 300 or 400 well-dressed people lined up in columns of four, among whom Reed recognized Duma members, prominent non-Bolshevik Socialists, the mayor of Petrograd and a Russian reporter of Reed’s acquaintance. “Going to die in the Winter Palace!” the reporter shouted to him. The ministers of the Provisional Government were meeting in emergency session in the Winter Palace, and these unarmed citizens intended to defend the building with their bodies. The mayor and other eminences demanded that the sailors let them through. The sailors refused. After some further arguing the eminences about-faced and, still in columns of four, marched off in the opposite direction. Meanwhile Reed and his companions slipped by.
The Sites of St. Petersburg
Watch the video: Οκτωβριανή Επανάσταση 1917
Research by David Lovett • Map by Guilbert Gates
St. Petersburg has not changed much from when it was revolutionary Petrograd. The Bolsheviks’ move of the government to Moscow in 1918 exempted the former capital from a lot of tearing-down and rebuilding becoming a backwater had its advantages. In places where Reed stood you can still picture how it looked to him. He wrote:
What a marvelous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod [the Putilov Factory] pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk!
Today that factory is called Kirovsky Zavod and it has its own metro station of that name, on the red line, southeast of the city center. Photographs from 1917 show the factory with a high wall along it and big crowds of people on the street in front. Now the wall and the factory’s main gate are almost the same as then. Next to the gate a big display highlights some of what is built here—earthmovers, military vehicles, atomic reactor parts. The factory wall, perhaps 15 feet high, runs for half a mile or more next to the avenue that adjoins it. Traffic speeds close by no large crowds of workers could listen to speakers here. Like many of the public spaces important in the revolution this one now belongs to vehicles.
At a key moment in the Bolsheviks’ takeover, Reed watched the army’s armored-car drivers vote on whether to support them. The meeting took place in the Mikhailovsky Riding School, also called the Manège, a huge indoor space where “some two thousand dun-colored soldiers” listened as speakers took turns arguing from atop an armored car and the soldiers’ sympathies swung back and forth. Reed observes the listeners:
Never have I seen men trying so hard to understand, to decide. They never moved, stood staring with a sort of terrible intentness at the speaker, their brows wrinkled with the effort of thought, sweat standing out on their foreheads great giants of men with the innocent clear eyes of children and the faces of epic warriors.
Finally the Bolshevik military leader, N.V. Krylenko, his voice cracking with fatigue, gives a speech of such passion that he collapses into waiting arms at the end. A vote is called: those in favor to one side those opposed, to the other. In a rush almost all the soldiers surge to the Bolshevik side.
The building where this happened is on Manège Square Luda’s apartment is just around the corner. Today the former riding academy has become the Zimnoi Stadion, the Winter Stadium, home to hockey matches, skating competitions and non-ice events like track meets. The last time I saw it the nearby streets were filled with parents and little kids carrying balloon animals and other circus souvenirs.
I think of the scene from Reed’s book whenever I pass by. He caught the details, large and small—the dreary, rainy November weather, with darkness coming at 3 in the afternoon the posters and notices and manifestoes covering the city’s walls the soldier who was putting up some of the notices and the little boy who followed behind him, with a bucket of paste. And the mud. Reed observed it on greatcoats, boots, floors, stairways. I have often marveled at the big patches of mud that suddenly appear in the middle of completely paved St. Petersburg avenues. Then I remember the swamp the city was built on. The February Revolution happened in the snow, but in swampy Russia, the glorious October Revolution happened in the mud.
Ten Days that Shook the World is a rare example of a book that is better for being more complicated. Reed could have spared his readers the effort of figuring out who was who among (as he put it) “the multiplicity of Russian organizations—political groups, Committees and Central Committees, Soviets, Dumas, and Unions.” Instead he begins the book with a detailed list, including the sub-distinctions among them. It’s like a speed bump to slow the reader down, but it’s also respectful. The care he took kept his book alive even after Soviet censors banned it during the Stalin era. (Stalin has basically no role in Ten Days and his name appears only twice.)
The book returned to publication during the Khrushchev period, after Stalin’s death, though even then it was not much read. Boris Kolonitsky, a leading historian of the revolution, found his vocation when he happened on a copy of the book at the age of 14. Today Kolonitsky is first vice-rector and professor of history at the European University at St. Petersburg, and has been a visiting professor at Yale, Princeton and the University of Illinois. I met him at his university office in a building near the Kutuzov Embankment of the Neva.
Kolonitsky looks like a professor, with a beard and round glasses and quick, dark-blue eyes, and his jacket and tie reinforce a courteous, formal manner. I asked how he had first discovered Reed’s book.
“I was born in Leningrad, my early schooling was here, and I graduated from the history department of the Hertzen State Pedagogical University in Leningrad,” he said. “So I am a Leningrad animal from a long way back, you might say. The fact that Reed’s book takes place mostly in this city made a connection for me. I first read it when I was in middle school, and of course at that time it was impossible not to know the Soviet story of the glorious October—the volley from the cruiser Aurora, the storming of the Winter Palace and so forth. For me reading Reed was very much a cultural shock. Suddenly here before me was a complicated and contradictory story. Reed was greatly in sympathy with the Bol sheviks but also a very good journalist, and his picture is multidimensional, not just black and white—or Red and White. Trotsky, for example, who had become a nonperson, is vivid in the book. Also the opponents of the Bolsheviks were much more complicated than in Soviet iconography. Later, when I became a teacher (still in Soviet times), I assigned this book to my students and they came back to me with their eyes wide and said, ‘Boris Ivanovich, this is an anti-Soviet book!’”
I mentioned Reed’s courage. “Yes, at one point in the book they are going to shoot him on the spot!” Kolonitsky said. “He is near the front at Tsarskoe Selo”—a village about 15 miles south of Petrograd—“where the Whites are making an attack, and he becomes separated from the soldiers who brought him and then other Red Guards, who are illiterate, cannot read the journalist’s pass he has from the Bolshevik leadership, and they tell him to stand by a wall, and suddenly he realizes they are about to shoot him. He persuades them to find someone who can read.”
“And afterward he does not make any big production about it,” I said. “He just goes on reporting.”
“It was not a rational time, not a conscious time,” Kolonitsky said. “Reed did not speak much Russian and what surrounded him often was simply chaos.”
The small museum at Ganyna Yama includes a re-creation of the basement room inside the Ipatiev Mansion where the Romanov family was killed in July 1918. (Olga Ingurazova)
I had noticed, at the Museum of Russian Political History, that Kolonitsky was scheduled to lecture on “Rumor in Revolutionary Petrograd in October of 1917.” I asked about his work on rumor and the popular culture of the revolution.
“Well, this subject had not been too much written on before. Rumor and street culture—jokes, postcards, sayings, bawdy plays performed in saloons—changed the image of the czar and the czarina, desacralized them, before and during the war. Empress Alexandra’s dependence on Rasputin, the so-called crazed monk, had cata strophic consequences. Tales of the czarina’s debauchery with Rasputin (completely untrue), and rumors of the czar’s impotence, and her supposed sabotage of the war effort because she was born in Germany, all undermined the Romanovs, until finally nobody could be too sad when the monarchy went away. People sent each other erotic postcards of the czarina with Rasputin, audiences howled laughing at plays about his supposed sexual power. It resembled modern defamation by social media, and it did great damage. I call it the ‘tragic erotics’ of Nicholas’ reign. If you loved Russia you were obliged to love your czar. People were saying, ‘I know I must love my czar, but I cannot.’”
He went on, “Rumor also had a very big role in October of 1917, of course. Kerensky, whom many people almost worshiped, was damaged by rumors about his affair with his wife’s cousin, or about his fantasies of his own greatness, or his supposed plan to abandon Petrograd to the Germans. Many such rumors spread through the crowds on the streets. It caused a highly unstable atmosphere.”
Everybody knew that the Bolsheviks were planning an overthrow. In the Duma, Kerensky reassured its members that the state had sufficient force to counter any Bolshevik action. Reed obtained an interview with Trotsky, who told him that the government had become helpless. “Only by the concerted action of the popular mass,” Trotsky said, “only by the victory of proletarian dictatorship, can the Revolution be achieved and the people saved”—that is, a putsch would come soon. The Bolshevik-run Military Revolutionary Committee began making demands for greater control of the army, and the Petrograd garrison promised to support the MRC. In response, Kerensky ordered loyal army units to occupy key points in the city.
Lenin, who had not appeared in public since July, narrowly escaped arrest as he made his way in disguise to Bolshevik headquarters, now at the Smolny Institute, a vast building that had formerly housed a school for noble-born girls. In meetings of the Petrograd Soviet and of the long-awaited Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets (both also housed in Smolny), and in the State Duma, thunderous arguments raged about the course the Bolsheviks were taking. Defending his party before the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky stepped forward, “[h]is thin, pointed face,” Reed wrote, “positively Mephistophelian in its expression of malicious irony.” On a stairway at Smolny in the early morn-ing of October 24, Reed ran into Bill Shatov, an American acquaintance and fellow Communist, who slapped him on the shoulder exultantly and said, “Well, we’re off!” Kerensky had ordered the suppression of the Bolsheviks’ newspapers and the MRC was moving “to defend the revolution.”
On that day and the next, Reed ranged widely. He had tickets to the ballet at the Mariinsky Theater—regular life went on in Petrograd, revolution or no—but he decided against using them because “it was too exciting out of doors.” On the night of the 25th he made his way to Smolny and found the building humming, with bonfires burning at the gates out front, vehicles coming and going, and machine guns on either side of the main entryway, their ammunition belts hanging “snake-like from their breeches.” Feet were pounding up and down Smolny’s hallways. In the crowded, stuffy, smoke-filled assemblies, as the arguments raged on and on, a deeper sound interrupted—the “dull shock” of cannon fire. Civil war had begun. With a reporter’s instinct Reed ventured out again into the city.
One morning I decided to trace part of the route he took that night. Leaving Luda’s apartment I walked the couple of miles to Smolny, a multi-block-long building that now houses St. Petersburg’s city government. The front of the pale yellow imperial structure looms high, and its tall, narrow windows give passersby a view of the interior ceilings and chandeliers. “The massive facade of Smolny blazed with light,” Reed wrote and indeed from every window the chandeliers were shining down on the gloomy sidewalk I stood on. Arriving office workers passed by. Black limousines pulled up at the inner gate, drivers opened the back doors, and dark-suited men with briefcases strode through the security station, past the Lenin statue and into the building.
The immense park in front of Smolny is a quiet place, with asphalt pathways and drastically pruned trees whose stubby branches jut like coral. People walk their dogs. I saw a bulldog wearing a jumpsuit that had a buttoned pocket on one side, and a white Labrador in four-legged pants with the cuffs rolled up.
When Reed came out of Smolny the night was chilly. “A great motor truck stood there, shaking to the roar of its engine. Men were tossing bundles into it, and others receiving them, with guns beside them.” Reed asked where they were going. A little workman answered, “Down-town—all over—everywhere!” Reed, with his wife, Bryant, and several fellow correspondents, jumped in. “The clutch slid home with a raking jar, the great car jerked forward.” They sped down Suvorovsky Prospekt tearing open the bundles and flinging printed announcements that read: “TO THE CITIZENS OF RUSSIA! The State Power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, the Military Revolutionary Committee, which stands at the head of the Petrograd proletariat and garrison,” and so on. The vehicle soon had “a tail of white papers floating and eddying out behind.”
Today Suvorovsky Prospekt presents the usual upscale urban Russian avenue. Reed saw bonfires, and patrols gathered on the corners. Bus shelters featuring ads for concerts, cruises, taxi companies and Burger King have taken their place. His fellow passengers looked out for snipers men at checkpoints stepped toward them from the darkness with upraised weapons. Now a Ralph Lauren Home store with window mannequins in pastels came as no surprise on one of the tonier blocks.
Suvorovsky runs into Nevskii Prospekt near a hub with six major streets radiating from it. Reed wrote, “We turned into Znamensky Square, dark and almost deserted, careened around Trubetskoy’s brutal statue and swung down the wide Nevsky.” Today this hub is called Ploshchad Vosstaniya, Uprising Square. The “brutal statue” was of Alexander III on horseback. Horse and rider together evoked a hippo, with their breadth and squatness. Revolutionaries often used the statue’s plinth for an orator’s platform, and crowds gathered here photographs of that time show the square teeming with people. The statue has been moved to a museum courtyard and an obelisk stands at the center of the square now. I wanted to see the obelisk close up but walking into the square is almost impossible. Endless cars and buses swirl around its rotary, and waist-high metal barriers keep pedestrians out.
A loudspeaker somewhere on the square was playing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” Russian public spaces sometimes emit American Christmas music at odd times of year, such as early March. This was my first St. Petersburg neighborhood, back when I used to stay at the nearby Oktyabrskaya Hotel. There’s a florist across the street from it, and I stopped to buy Luda some flowers, considering some roses for 2,500 rubles but settling instead on a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums for 2,000 rubles (about $30).
Reed’s conveyance swayed and bounced along Nevskii Prospekt toward the city center, then slowed at a crowded bottleneck before the bridge over the Ekaterina Canal (now the Gribodeyeva Canal). He and his companions climbed out. A barrier of armed sailors was blocking the passage of a group of 300 or 400 well-dressed people lined up in columns of four, among whom Reed recognized Duma members, prominent non-Bolshevik Socialists, the mayor of Petrograd and a Russian reporter of Reed’s acquaintance. “Going to die in the Winter Palace!” the reporter shouted to him. The ministers of the Provisional Government were meeting in emergency session in the Winter Palace, and these unarmed citizens intended to defend the building with their bodies. The mayor and other eminences demanded that the sailors let them through. The sailors refused. After some further arguing the eminences about-faced and, still in columns of four, marched off in the opposite direction. Meanwhile Reed and his companions slipped by.