Glorious October 1917: The Bungled Uprising - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs

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Glorious October 1917:
The Bungled Uprising

Ihave gone where you didn’t want me to go,” Lenin scribbled to Fofanova. “Illich asked for Stalin to be fetched,” recorded Lenin’s bodyguard, Rakhia. “Then he realized this would waste time.” He glued on his curly wig, set a worker’s cap on his head, wrapped a bandage around his face and put on some giant spectacles. Then he and Rakhia set off into the night.

Lenin boarded a tram. He was so tense that he breathlessly cross - examined the bemused ticket - collector before giving her a lecture on revolutionary strategy. It is unclear if she ever discovered the identity of this bewigged, bandaged, bespectacled loon, but there were probably many madmen loose in the city that night. Near the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny, a mounted government patrol actually stopped him, but released him as a harmless drunk. He was sober—but far from harmless.

At around midnight, Lenin reached “great Smolny”—“bright with lights,” says Reed, it “hummed like a gigantic hive.” Red Guards, “a huddled group of boys in workmen’s clothes, carrying guns with bayonets, talking nervously together,” warmed their hands round giant bonfires; the motors of armoured cars whirred, motorcycles revved, but no one recognized Lenin. He had no papers, so the Red Guards at the gates refused to allow him access.

“What a mess!” shouted Rakhia. “I’m a delegate [for the Congress] and they won’t let me through.” The crowd supported him and pushed the two of them inside: “Lenin came in last, laughing!” But when he doffed his cap, his glue - stiffened wig came off too.*

The Smolny was a campsite. While the Soviet met in the splendid ballroom, newspapers, fag - ends and bedding covered the floors. Soldiers snored in the corridors. The reek of smoke, sweat and urine blended with the aroma of boiled cabbage from the refectory downstairs. Lenin hastened through the corridors, holding on to his wig, trying to hide his identity. But the Menshevik, Dan, spotted him.

“The rotters have recognized me,” muttered Lenin.

In the early hours of Wednesday, 25 October, Stalin, donning his leather jacket and cap, joined Lenin in Room 36 at the Smolny for an emergency CC meeting. Even Zinoviev and Kamenev were invited. Lenin insisted on accelerating the revolt. The Congress delegates were gathering in the very same building.

Lenin began to draft the key decrees on land and peace—still in disguise, “rather a strange sight,” mused Trotsky. The coup was in motion. The Central Committee remained in constant session for two days in a “tiny room round a badly lit table with overcoats thrown on the floor,” remembers a Bolshevik assistant, Sara Ravich. “People were continually knocking at the door, bringing news of the uprising’s latest successes. Among those present were Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin.” Messengers arrived; orders were sent from the MRC in Room 10 and Lenin and the Central Committee in Room 36; both “worked at furious speed, engulfing and spitting out panting couriers, despatching commissars with power of life and death, amidst the buzz of telegraphs.”

Stalin “hurried from one room to another,” observed Sagirashvili, who was in the Smolny. “I’d never seen him in such a state before. Such haste and feverish work were very unusual for him.” Gunfire crackled over the capital, but there was no fighting. The electric power station, the main post office and the Nicholas Station were won. They secured all the bridges except the Nicholas Bridge beside the Winter Palace. At 6 a.m. the State Bank fell, at 7 a.m. the Central Telephone Exchange, at 8 a.m. the Warsaw Station.*But the vital Baltic sailors were late. The government continued to function—or at least survive—throughout the day.

Kerensky was at General Staff HQ absorbing the bad news. At 9 a.m., he finally realized that only the troops at the front could save Petrograd, and that only he could rally them. But he could not find a car until his men requisitioned a Renault from the American Embassy and a bulky Pierce Arrow touring limousine. Leaving his government in emergency session in the Winter Palace, Kerensky raced out of the city.

At the Smolny, the Congress prepared to open—but the Winter Palace had not yet fallen or even been surrounded. The palace remained the seat of government, guarded by 400 adolescent military cadets, a Women’s Shock Battalion and some squadrons of Cossacks. A photographer persuaded some of these women to pose on their barricade. “It all had an operatic air and a comic one at that,” said the American Louise Bryant, one of many journalists who were spectating that day. Outside, with surprising slowness, the Bolsheviks gathered their forces. Inside, the ministers were, sensed Justice Minister Maliantovich, “doomed men abandoned by everyone, roaming around inside a giant mousetrap.”

Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Yenukidze and young Molotov, among others, began to discuss the new government after the formal CC meeting: first they had to decide what to call it. Lenin wanted to avoid the taint of capitalistic “ministries”—“a foul, worn - out term.” He suggested “commissars.”

“We’ve too many commissars already,” said Trotsky. “How about ‘People’s Commissars’? A ‘Council of People’s Commissars’ with a Chairman instead of a Premier.”

“That’s wonderful!” exclaimed Lenin. “It has the awesome smell of revolution.”

Even at this moment, there were games of tactical modesty, ascetic denial being part of the Bolshevik culture. Lenin proposed Trotsky as Premier. But a Jew could not be Premier of Russia. Trotsky refused, insisting it be Lenin. It was probably Lenin who proposed Stalin as People’s Commissar of Nationalities. He, too, modestly refused, insisting he had no experience and was too busy at the Central Committee, happy just to be a Party worker, Yenukidze later told Sagirashvili. Perhaps it was to Stalin that Lenin replied with peals of laughter: “Do you think any of us has experience in this?” Lenin persisted, whereupon Stalin accepted his first real job since his days as a weatherman at the Tiflis Observatory seventeen years before. It did not seem real: some of the CC members treated this Cabinet making as a bit of a joke.

When the doors of the Bolshevik headquarters opened, “a blast of stale air and cigarette smoke rushed out” and John Reed “caught a glimpse of dishevelled men bending over a map in the glare of a shaded electric - light. . .” But the palace was still not taken.1

Lenin was beside himself. Trotsky and the MRC ordered the Peter and Paul Fortress to prepare to bombard the Winter Palace, just across the Neva, but found there were only six guns available. Five had not been cleaned for months; only one was operative. The officers told the Bolsheviks that the guns were broken. The commissars, not realizing that the guns just needed a clean, ordered the sailors to drag some small 3 - inch training guns into position, but then discovered that there were no 3 - inch shells, and that the guns lacked sights. It was late afternoon before they worked out that the original guns merely needed cleaning.

Back at the Smolny, Lenin, as usual, was raging. The building’s “massive façade [was] blazing with lights . . . An enormous elephant - coloured armoured automobile, with two red flags flying from the turret, lumbered out with a screaming siren . . . The long barely illuminated corridors roared with the thunder of feet, calling, shouting,” soldiers “in rough dirt - coloured coats,” armed workmen “in black blouses.” Occasionally, a leader such as Kamenev was spotted bustling down the staircases.

Kerensky’s Cabinet still reigned at the Winter Palace, but Lenin could no longer delay his first appearance at the Soviet. At 3 p.m. Trotsky introduced him. Lenin claimed power. When he returned to Room 36, the palace still had not fallen.

Lenin paced his small office “like a lion in a cage. V. I. [Lenin] scolded, he screamed. He needed the Winter Palace at any cost,” recalls Nikolai Podvoisky of the MRC; “he was ready to shoot us!” When some military officers were captured, “certain comrades in the Smolny,” almost certainly Lenin, wanted to shoot them in order to discourage the others. He was always eager to start the bloodletting.

By 6 p.m. that evening, inside the palace, the military cadets, who had not eaten all day, decided to abandon ship to find some dinner. The Cossacks left too, disgusted by the “Jews and wenches” inside. Some of the Women’s Shock Battalion floated away.

The comedy of Bolshevik errors had not run its course: the signal for the storming of the palace was a red lantern hoisted to the top of the flagpole of the Peter and Paul Fortress, but now that the big moment had come, no one could raise such a lantern because no one could find one. A Bolshevik commissar had to go out in search of this rare item. He eventually discovered a lamp, but it was the wrong colour. Worse, he then became disorientated in the darkness and fell into a bog. When he emerged, he could not raise the lantern, red or otherwise. The signal was never given.

Finally at 6:30 p.m. on the twenty - fifth, the Bolsheviks ordered the cruisers Aurora and Amur to steam upriver. They sent in an ultimatum: “Government and troops to capitulate. This ultimatum expires at 7:10 after which we will immediately open fire.” The ultimatum duly ran out.

Nothing happened. The storming was delayed by a quixotic bid to stop the Bolshevik Revolution, despite the frenzied orders of Lenin and Trotsky.

The mayor of Petrograd, the white - bearded Grigory Shreider, who had been debating at the City Council how to prevent the bombardment of the palace, suddenly pledged to defend the government himself. The city councillors backed him. Thus it was that the venerable mayor, the councillors and the minister of food, Prokopovich, well - dressed bourgeoisie wearing velvet - collared cloaks, frock coats and fob - watches, marched out, four abreast like penguins on parade. Each was unarmed except for an umbrella, a lantern and a salami—dinner for the defenders of the palace. First they proceeded to the Smolny, where they were received by Kamenev, who seconded Molotov to accompany them to the Winter Palace. This parade of salamis and umbrellas, accompanied by the ponderous Molotov, headed down Nevsky Prospect singing “The Marseillaise,” until they were stopped by a Red checkpoint outside Kazan Station.

The mayor demanded that the Red Guards make way, or shoot unarmed citizens, according to John Reed, who recorded the dialogue.

“No, we won’t shoot unarmed Russian people,” said the commander of the checkpoint.

“We will go forward! What can you do!” Prokopovich and Shreider insisted. “What can you do?”

“We can’t let you pass,” mused the soldier. “We will do something.”

Then a laughing sailor thought of something. “We will spank you!” he roared, destroying the dignified aura with which the marchers had surrounded themselves. “We will spank you.”

The rescue attempt ended in guffaws, but still the palace held out, even though its defenders were becoming increasingly drunk on the contents of the Tsar’s superb wine - cellar. Meanwhile cars were crossing the bridges, trams rumbling along the streets, and that night Chaliapin was singing in Don Carlos at the Narodny Dom. “Up the Nevsky the entire world seemed to be promenading.” The hookers, who, like rats on a ship or canaries in a coal mine, were the test of imminent danger, still silkily patrolled the Prospect. “The streets,” says Sagirashvili, “were overflowing with all sorts of riffraff.”

Finally at 9:40 p.m., the Aurora fired a blank shell: signal for the assault. Inside the palace, the Women’s Shock Battalion were so alarmed by the boom that many of them went into the wrong sort of shock and had to be calmed down in a backroom. Outside the palace, the Bolshevik commanders, Podvoisky and Vladimir Antonov - Ovseenko, whom Lenin had wanted to shoot for their ineptitude, had amassed overwhelming force.

The gunners at the Peter and Paul Fortress managed a barrage of three dozen 6 - inch shells. Only two hit the palace, but they succeeded in terrifying the defenders. Armoured cars raked the walls with machine - gun fire and small groups of sailors and Red Guards discovered that the palace was not only undefended but that the doors were not even locked. “The attack,” admits Antonov - Ovseenko, “had a completely disorganized character.” At about 2 a.m., they entered and started to work their way through the rooms.

In the Smolny’s chandeliered hall, pervaded by a “foul blue cloud of smoke” and the “stifling heat of unwashed human bodies,” the opening of the Congress, comprised (in Sukhanov’s words) of “primitive . . . dark provincial” Bolsheviks, could not be delayed any longer. But the Kerensky ministry still reigned in the palace, so Lenin could not yet appear. Instead Trotsky took the stage for the Bolsheviks. When Martov and the Mensheviks attacked Lenin’s “insane and criminal action,” Trotsky, “his thin pointed face positively mephistophelean in its malicious irony,” replied with one of history’s most crushing dismissals: “You are pathetic bankrupts! Go where you belong. Into the dustbin of history!”

“Then we’ll leave,” retorted Martov. The Mensheviks foolishly walked out of the hall—and into history: they never returned to the portals of power. Sagirashvili, a Menshevik who “didn’t agree with the boycott,” despondently roamed the Smolny corridors until “Stalin put his hand over my shoulder in the most friendly manner and started to talk to me in Georgian,” trying to recruit him to the Bolsheviks. Sagirashvili refused, but various ex - Mensheviks like Vyshinsky were to become some of Stalin’s most loyal retainers.*

On the boulevards and bridges near the palace, the thunder of the big guns finally dispersed the promenading thrill - seekers. “Even the prostitutes,” Sagirashvili noted, “disappeared from Nevsky Prospect where they once flocked like birds.”

Kerensky’s ministers, at their baize table in the gold and malachite room with crimson brocade hangings where Nicholas II and his family had dined before 1905, still debated whom to appoint as “Dictator.” Suddenly they gave up the charade and decided to surrender.

Just then the door opened.

* Earlier John Reed witnessed Trotsky himself being refused entry.

“You know me. My name is Trotsky.”

“You can’t go in. Names mean nothing to me!”

“But I’m the Chairman of the Soviet!”

“If you’re as important a fellow as that, you must have at least one bit of paper!” retorted the guard, who summoned an equally bemused officer:

“Trotsky! I’ve heard the name somewhere. I guess it’s alright . . .”

* The junior leaders such as Molotov and Dzerzhinsky were sent out on missions: Molotov, accompanied by a detachment of Red Guards, was ordered to arrest the editors of the SR newspaper and then a counter - revolutionary group of Mensheviks meeting at the Holy Synod.

The Soviet Union became an empire of acronyms: the People’s Commissars became “Narkoms;” the Council of People’s Commissars was known as Sovnarkom; and its President (the effective Premier, successively Lenin, Rykov, Molotov, then Stalin) was Predsovnarkom. These lasted until Stalin reintroduced ministers at the end of the Second World War.

* Sagirashvili was not the only Menshevik whom Stalin was courting. A Bolshevik - turned - Menshevik, Alexander Troyanovsky, the noble officer with whom Stalin had stayed in Vienna, was walking in the streets when a pair of hands covered his eyes. “Are you with us or against us?” asked Stalin.

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