1917 Winter: The Countdown - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


1917 Winter: The Countdown

Petrograd in October 1917 seemed calm, but beneath the glossy surface the city danced in a trance of last pleasures. “Gambling clubs functioned hectically from dusk till dawn,” reported John Reed, “with champagne flowing and stakes of 20,000 roubles. In the centre of the city at night, prostitutes in jewels and expensive furs walked up and down and crowded the cafés . . . Hold - ups increased to such an extent that it was dangerous to walk the streets.” Russia, wrote Ilya Ehrenburg, later one of Stalin’s favoured writers, “lived as if on a railway platform, waiting for the guard’s whistle.” Aristocrats sold priceless treasures on the streets, the food shortages worsened, queues lengthened, while the rich still dined at Donon’s and Constant’s, the two smartest restaurants, and the bourgeois vied for tickets to hear Chaliapin sing.

“Mysterious individuals circulating around the shivering women in lines for bread and milk, whispering that the Jews had cornered the food supply . . . Monarchist plots, German spies, smugglers hatching schemes,” observed Reed. “And, in the rain, the bitter chill, the great throbbing city under grey skies rushing faster and faster toward . . . what?” Trotsky answered Reed’s question, responding to the baying crowd at the Cirque Moderne: “The time for words has passed. The hour has come for a duel to the death between revolution and counter - revolution.” In the lonely magnificence of the Winter Palace, Kerensky waited, wasting the embers of his power in tokes of morphia and cocaine.

At 10 p.m. on the dark, drizzly night of 10 October 1917, Lenin seized his chance to convince the Central Committee: the eleven high Bolsheviks slipped one by one out of the Smolny to rendezvous at 32 Karpovka Embankment, a street - level apartment in the Petrograd District. It belonged to Galina Flakserman, the Bolshevik wife of the Menshevik scribe Sukhanov. “Oh the novel jokes of the merry muse of History,” he reflected. “This supreme and decisive session took place in my home . . . but without my knowledge.”

Some of the eleven were in disguise: a clean - shaven Lenin, who, Krupskaya thought, “looked every bit like a Lutheran priest,” sported an ill - fitting curly wig that kept sliding off his bald pate. As Lenin started to address Stalin, Trotsky, Sverdlov, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Dzerzhinsky in a hot room with a blanket covering the window, Galina Flakserman provided salami, cheese and black bread, brewing up the samovar in the corridor. But no one ate yet.

“The political situation is fully ripe for the transfer of power,” declared Lenin, but even then the Bolsheviks argued against him. Minutes were not taken, but we know that Stalin and Trotsky backed Lenin from the start. Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had grown a beard and cropped his locks as his disguise, remained unconvinced. The argument was “intense and passionate,” but Trotsky wrote that no one could match Lenin’s “thought, will, confidence, courage.” Gradually Lenin overcame “the wavering and the doubtful,” who now felt a “surge of strength and resolve.” In the early hours, there was a loud banging on the door. Was it Kerensky’s police? It was Galina Flakserman’s brother Yury, come to help serve the sausages and man the samovar. The Central Committee voted on a vague resolution for an uprising. “No practical plan of insurrection, even tentative, was sketched out that night,” recalls Trotsky. Nine supported Lenin against Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were “deeply convinced that to proclaim an armed uprising now means to gamble, not only with the fate of our Party, but with that of the Russian and international revolution.”

Ravenous and punch - drunk, the winners fell upon the sausages, and teased Zinoviev and Kamenev.1

Five days later, on 16 October, at another secret meeting at the Lesnoi District Duma on the northern outskirts, Lenin, backed by Stalin and Sverdlov (Trotsky being absent at the Soviet), again berated the doubters. “History will never forgive us if we don’t take power now!” he cried, resetting his precarious wig.

“We don’t have the right to take the risk and gamble everything at once,” retorted Zinoviev.

Stalin stood with Lenin: “The date must be chosen expediently.” The Central Committee must, said the former seminarist who saw his Marxism as a quasi - religion, have “more faith . . . There are two lines here: one holds a course for victory of revolution . . . the other doesn’t believe in revolution and counts merely on staying as an opposition . . . Kamenev’s and Zinoviev’s proposals . . . give the counter - revolution the chance to get organized,” Stalin warned. “We’ll go on endless retreat and lose the entire revolution.”

Lenin won ten votes to two. The Central Committee elected Stalin, Sverdlov, Dzerzhinsky and two others to a Military - Revolutionary Centre “to become part” of Trotsky’s Military - Revolutionary Committee at the Soviet. The organ that would seize power had not yet been decided. The bewigged Lenin scuttled back into hiding as Kerensky sensed danger and raised the stakes: Petrograd was in danger from the advancing Germans. He announced the recall of loyal regiments from the front. There was no time to lose.

Then on 18 October Kamenev published an attack on the “ruinous step” of an uprising in Maxim Gorky’s journal, Novaya Zhizn. It is an irony of 1917 that, for all Lenin’s iron will, Kamenev, always “sodden with sentimentality,” in Trotsky’s words, was the only truly consistent Bolshevik. “Kamenev and Zinoviev have betrayed the CC!” Lenin exploded. “I demand the expulsion of both the strike - breakers.” But Zinoviev insisted, in a letter, on continuing the debate in secret. Stalin, as chief editor of Rabochii Put, published the letter.*

At a confrontational CC meeting on 20 October, Trotsky attacked Stalin for this. Stalin sulkily offered his resignation. It was refused, but this marked the first clash between the two Bolshevik titans. Trotsky called for the expulsion of the “strike - breakers;” Stalin countered by proposing that they “be required to submit but kept in the CC.” Kamenev tried to resign from the Central Committee, but was merely removed from the leadership. Stalin prepared the public for the rising in an article that declared: “The Bolsheviks have issued the call: be ready!”*

The Bolsheviks were getting ready themselves. In a third - floor office of the Smolny, Trotsky and Sverdlov held the first organizational meeting of the Military - Revolutionary Committee (MRC): it was secretly Bolshevik but had the advantage of operating under the aegis of the Soviet. This, not Stalin’s Centre, would be the uprising’s headquarters: he was not a member.

On the twenty - first, the MRC declared itself the legitimate authority over the Petrograd garrison. Stalin, at the political centre of the Party, drafted the agenda for the second Congress of Soviets, assigning himself to speak on “nationalities,” Lenin on “land war and power,” and Trotsky on “the current situation.”2 On the twenty - third, the MRC took command of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Everything was ready: even myopic Molotov practised pistol - shooting in his Smolny office. “The existing government of landlords and capitalists,” reported Stalin that day, “must be replaced by a new government of workers and peasants . . . If all of you act solidly and staunchly, nobody will dare to resist the will of the people.”

At dawn on Tuesday, 24 October, Kerensky raided Stalin’s newspapers at the Trud Press. As Stalin watched, the troops smashed the presses, seized machinery and set guards over the offices. He now had to prise the Bolshevik press machine back into operation: just as modern coups always seize the television station, in 1917 a revolution without newspapers was unthinkable. Stalin called Red units for reinforcements while he managed to circulate the already printed papers. The Volkynia Regiment sent a company. By midday, Stalin had regained control of his presses. Later that day, he said the newspapers were “being set up again.” But he had missed the CC meeting where the tasks were handed out for the coup. Trotsky accused him of “dropping out of the game” because he was not on one of the lists of assignments:

Bubnov: railways

Dzerzhinsky: post and telegraph

Milyutin: food supplies

Podvoisky [changed to Sverdlov]: surveillance of the Provisional Government

Kamenev and Vinter: negotiations with Left SRs [the radical wing of the Socialist - Revolutionaries]

Lomov and Nogin: information to Moscow

This list of second - raters proves nothing: Lenin, in hiding, and Trotsky, who also missed the meeting, were not even mentioned, while the “strike - breaker” Kamenev is included. Historians habitually follow Trotsky’s (totally prejudiced but superbly written) version of events in asserting that Stalin “missed the Revolution,” but this does not stand up to scrutiny. He was not the star of the day, but he missed a military assignment because he had his hands full at the raided newspapers, not because he was politically insignificant. Far from it: even Trotsky admits that “contact with Lenin was mainly through Stalin,” hardly an unimportant role (though he cannot resist adding, “because he was the person of least interest to the police”).

Stalin’s “missing the Revolution” was no more than a few daytime hours of the twenty - fourth, while the coup actually stretched over two days. He was at the newspapers all morning. Then he was summoned by Lenin: Margarita Fofanova reveals that Stalin intended to give a speech that day at the Polytechnical Institute but suddenly “we had to hand him a note from VI.” Lenin was twitching with fury at the Fofanova apartment. If Stalin had rushed to him, he would have found him ranting, “The Government is tottering! It must be given the deathblow at all costs . . . We mustn’t wait! We may lose everything!”

Stalin arrived at the Smolny Institute, where he, along with Trotsky, addressed the Bolshevik delegates, just arrived for the Congress of Soviets, presenting the coup as a reaction to the government suppression of the Bolsheviks, not as an uprising.* “At the front they’re coming over to us,” Stalin explained. “The Provisional Government’s wavering. The [cruiser] Aurora has been asked to fire on the bridges—in any case the bridges will be ours. There are mutinies among Junkers and troops. Rabochii Put is being set up again. The telephone system’s not ours yet. The Post Office is ours . . .” Red Guards and Bolshevik troops were on their way.

“I met Stalin on the eve of the Revolution at midnight in the Smolny,” reports Sagirashvili. Stalin was so excited that, “contrary to his usual solemnity and secrecy, he revealed the die had been cast.” That night, the eve of Glorious October, Stalin popped home to the Alliluyevs. “Yes, everything’s ready,” he told the girls. “We take action tomorrow. We’ve got all the city districts in our hands. We’ll seize power.”3

Stalin kept Lenin informed. The Old Man sent almost hourly notes to the MRC to energize them before the Congress opened. It was set for the next day but Lenin insisted it be brought forward. “What are they afraid of?” he wrote in one note. “Just ask if they have a hundred trustworthy soldiers or Red Guards with rifles. That’s all I need!”

It is no wonder that Lenin was frustrated. The October Revolution would become one of the iconic events of the twentieth century, mythologized by Soviet propaganda, romanticized in John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, immortalized by Eisenstein’s cinematic masterpiece October and made ridiculous by Stalin’s vainglorious exaggerations. But the reality of October was more farce than glory. Tragically, the real Revolution, pitiless and bloody, started the moment this comedy ended.

Still stuck at Fofanova’s apartment, Lenin could not understand the delay. “Everything now hangs by a thread,” he wrote that night. “The matter must be decided without fail this evening!” He paced the floor. Fofanova begged him not to emerge and risk arrest. Finally at 10:50 p.m., Lenin could stand it no longer.

* Another conciliatory gesture to Kamenev that shows Stalin’s instinct for maintaining some balance between Lenin and Trotsky, on the one hand, and the moderates on the other, in the Party. This was to pay rich dividends in the struggle to succeed Lenin.

* In this rarely quoted article of 20 October, biblically entitled “The Strong Bulls of Bashan Have Beset Me Round!,” Stalin warned how he and the Party would regard intellectuals and artistic celebrities in their new Russia. Maxim Gorky, despite being a longtime supporter and funder of the Bolsheviks, now had severe reservations, declaring, “I cannot keep silent.” Stalin mocked such “terrified neurasthenics . . . verily ‘strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round,’ threatening and imploring. Here’s our reply!” Stalin warned that “there is a general croaking in the marsh of our bewildered intellectuals. The Revolution has not cringed before celebrities but has taken them into our service or, if they refused to learn, has consigned them to oblivion.”

Trotsky preferred to use his own new recruits to the Bolshevik Party, such as Antonov - Ovseenko, as his top operatives on the MRC, which had existed since 9 October. Sverdlov, Molotov and Dzerzhinsky were members. Why not Stalin? It is possible Stalin’s confrontation with the Military Organization in August or just his general truculence inhibited Sverdlov from inviting him to join. But it is more likely Stalin was simply busy with his press responsibilities and communications with Lenin, both vital. As for the Centre, on which Stalin served, it never met, even though his propagandists claimed that it was the real centre of the Revolution.

* “Within the Military - Revolutionary Committee, there are two points of view,” said Stalin. “The first is that we organize an uprising at once and the second is that we consolidate our forces. The CC has sided with the second view.”

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